Adapting Stephen King's Survivor Type: 2020’s A Creepshow Animated Special Is A Landmark King Adaptation And A Grotesque Nightmare

Richard eating his own hand in A Creepshow Animated Special
(Image credit: Shudder)

As I recounted in my column from the last week of November, Stephen King was one of the first people who writer/director/producer/special effects legend Greg Nicotero contacted in 2018 when he began developing a Creepshow anthology series to stream on Shudder. Given the significance of the original Creepshow movie in King’s career (the first film made based on a screenplay he wrote), Nicotero felt it was necessary to use one of the author’s short stories as source material for an early episode.

King responded to the request with a couple of suggestions, and Nicotero ended up directing an adaptation of “Grey Matter” as the first half of the Creepshow series premiere. The other option that was offered was “Survivor Type,” and the showrunner didn’t think it was possible to properly bring it to life with the budget available.

“Survivor Type” – which was originally published in the 1982 horror multi-author anthology Terrors and later collected in the 1985 King omnibus Skeleton Crew – seems like it would be simple to adapt, as it’s about a single shipwrecked man on a small island. But Greg Nicotero found that perspective to be deceptive. Speaking to Den of Geek in 2020, the filmmaker explained,

I realized that as simple as it sounds to go to a little desert island and film, that was not within the means of our project. We didn’t have a ton of money, and I didn’t want to shoot the whole thing on a green-screen… So we put ‘Survivor Type’ aside and said, ‘Well, listen, maybe we’ll find a way to do it for Season 2.’

As things turned out, Greg Nicotero was able to adapt “Survivor Type” quicker than that. When the COVID-19 pandemic delayed plans to produce Creepshow Season 2, the filmmakers collaborated with animation studio Octopie to make A Creepshow Animated Special, which was developed in time for Shudder subscribers to view on Halloween. No longer needing to worry about the cost of a live-action production, the Stephen King short story was picked as source material to double feature with Joe Hill’s “Twittering From The Circus Of The Dead” (a fun extra Easter egg since Hill, credited as Joe King, played Billy in the wraparound narrative of George A. Romero’s Creepshow).

A Creepshow Animated Special, featuring the voice of Stand By Me’s Kiefer Sutherland, premiered on October 30, 2020, and in addition to being a landmark King adaptation in that it’s the first one to be produced in animation, it’s also a grotesque nightmare worthy of the story it’s based on. If you have a weak stomach, you may not be able to bear this week’s Adapting Stephen King.

Richard crazy in A Creepshow Animated Special

(Image credit: Shudder)

What “Survivor Type” Is About

Like serial killers, cannibalism is a terrible and shocking thing from real life that doesn’t really need any extra dressing up by horror writers. The idea of a human being eating the body of another human being is fundamentally obscene, and a guaranteed shock in any piece of literature – from the Bible, to Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal,” to Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter series.

But, naturally, Stephen King’s mind took the concept one step further: it’s abominable for a person to eat another person, but what if a person went about eating their own flesh? In the notes section of Skeleton Crew, the author reflects that he was randomly thinking about the idea of cannibalism one day, and “[his] muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on [his] head.” He explains,

I started to wonder if a person could eat himself, and if so, how much he could eat before the inevitable happened. This idea was so utterly and perfectly revolting that I was too overawed with delight to do more than think about it for days – I was reluctant to write it down because I thought I could only fuck it up. Finally, when my wife asked me what I was laughing at one day when we were eating hamburgers on the back deck, I decided I ought to at least take it for a test drive.

Shooting for realism, Stephen King discussed the idea for “Survivor Type” his next door neighbor, who was a retired doctor. The author asked if it was possible for a person to potentially subsist and sustain themselves by eating their own body, and when the doctor responded in the affirmative, he asked about the impact that the shock of the surgeries might have. King paraphrased his response as the first paragraph of the short story:

Sooner or later the question comes up in every medical student’s career. How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? Different instructors answer the question in different ways, but cut to its base level, the answer is always another question: How badly does the patient want to survive?

Richard Pine, born Richard Pinzetti, is a surgeon and criminal who finds himself in serious trouble after he boards a cruise ship from Vietnam to San Francisco transporting $350,000 worth of heroin. The boat ends up sinking after an on-deck explosion, and the protagonist is left stranded on an island “190 paces wide at its thickest point and 267 paces long from tip to tip.” He has the drugs and limited supplies, but no emergency rations, and while he records his daily experiences in a journal, he vows to destroy it when help arrives.

Waiting to be rescued, Richard at first is able to feed himself by attacking seagulls and eating them raw – but they are scarce. Things take a turn when he fractures his ankle trying to signal a plane, and he has to amputate his foot to prevent infection. His hunger intensifying, he decides to consume the severed appendage.

As days pass, the heroin that he takes can only dull his hunger for so long. Slowly but surely, all while going completely mad, he begins to eat as much of his body as he can to stay alive. He eats both of his legs up to the groin and then cuts off his own earlobes. Last to go are his precious hands – the hands that gave him his livelihood – and his diary concludes with his assessment that “they taste just like lady fingers.”

Richard with corpse in A Creepshow Animated Special

(Image credit: Shudder)

How A Creepshow Animated Special’s “Survivor Type” Differs From Stephen King’s Short Story

A short story being adapted as an episode of anthology television is a natural fit between source material and medium, but the Greg Nicotero-written and directed “Survivor Type” in A Creepshow Animated Special has extra latitude to be faithful because of key creative choices. Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t provide the voice for Richard Pine so much as he narrates the journal entries that he writes during his experience on the island. The adaptation is practically an audiobook blended with a motion comic, as sections of the voice over are King’s own words.

Ultimately, there are really only two significant differences between the special and the short story… and they really aren’t all that significant. The first is the fact that Richard technically isn’t alone on his island at the start of the story. Also washed up on the tiny sandbar is the corpse of a woman that he dubs “Gloria.” At one point he has a hallucination of her (Fayna Sanchez) urging him to eat her body, but a storm washes her away before he can follow his vision’s orders.

This obviously isn’t a revolutionary change, but I would argue that it’s a smart one. Ocean liners tend to have quite a lot of people on them, and while it’s true that the whole point of the story is that Richard has a much stronger survival instinct than most, it is logical that at least one other person/body would end up on the same island where he lands.

The other deviation from the source material that I’ll highlight is an admittedly macabre detail that concerns the parts of himself that Richard eats before starting to chew his own fingers off. In the short story, the protagonist mentions chowing down on his legs and earlobes, but one extra piece that the adaptation throws in is the surgeon’s nose. It certainly accentuates the sentiment he shares when he observes his own reflection in the water and describes himself as “a skin-covered skull.”

I’ll add that the adaptation doesn’t include Richard’s repeated note that he plans to destroy the journal he keeps before anybody will have the chance to read it, but 99 percent of what is in A Creepshow Animated Special comes directly from what Stephen King had published.

Stephen King character in A Creepshow Animated Special

(Image credit: Shudder)

Is It Worthy Of The King?

For what it is, A Creepshow Animated Special’s adaptation of “Survivor Type” is solid. It’s not exactly state-of-the-art animation, but the style effectively fits the story. It’s not as gory as it could be, as sequences of Richard eating himself are surprisingly kept to a minimum, but it will still make your stomach lurch just the same. The best thing about it is definitely Kiefer Sutherland’s performance, as he perfectly captures the character’s audacity and confidence at the outset and effectively sends him on a descent into madness.

The standout critique that I’ll levy against it is perhaps not a fair one: I wish that it wasn’t animated, and that instead the filmmakers found a way to budget for a live-action adaptation. As much as I like the style (being motion comic-esque is a nice extension of Creepshow’s whole vibe), it isn’t a particularly different way to present the story than the audiobook to which I already compared it.

Further in that respect, the most frustrating thing about the “Survivor Type” adaptation is the fact that it’s made by Greg Nicotero – a man who will go down in history as one of the greatest special effects artists to ever work in the film industry. I can only imagine the magic that he would work realistically transforming an actor over the course of this story… and I have to imagine it because it’s not something that is provided with A Creepshow Animated Special.

Because it’s doubtful that the Creepshow TV show will eventually do a live-action version of “Survivor Type” to pair with their animated one, the hope for seeing such an adaptation rests on another anthology series/movie getting produced and acquiring the rights/permission to use the Stephen King source material. For what it is, however, the Greg Nicotero creation has a special place in the author’s Hollywood legacy.

Richard reflection in A Creepshow Animated Special

(Image credit: Shudder)

How To Watch A Creepshow Animated Special

The most direct way to watch A Creepshow Animated Special is to get a Shudder subscription and stream it along with the rest of the Creepshow series, but that’s not the only option that is available to do. You can rent/purchase it digitally via online outlets including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and Vudu. There is even a physical media option for all of you Stephen King collectors out there, as the special is included on the Creepshow Season 2 Blu-ray.

Ringing in the new year next Wednesday will be a brand new edition of Adapting Stephen King, and I’ll be taking a look at the third and final title of 2020: the CBS All Access/Paramount+ limited series remake of The Stand. While you wait for my feature next week, you can explore my previous columns by clicking through the banners below.

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Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.