Ah, Stephen King, a writer so prolific it was once said that he could publish his shopping list and someone would turn it into a movie. The years and the adaptations haven’t been excessively kind to the Maine-born writer; even the movies he himself wrote the scripts for have (mostly) turned out to be bad beyond belief. But with (nearly) every novel and short story being transferred to either the big screen or the small screen, inevitably some must be successful. Here are ten movie adaptations of his work that have bucked the trend and proven to be masterful examples of movies where the phrase, Based on a novel by Stephen King, isn’t something to be afraid of.
10 – Christine (1983)
John Carpenter’s adaptation of King’s 1983 novel began shooting just a few days after the book was published, and could have featured Scott Baio and Brooke Shields instead of Keith Gordon and Alexandra Paul – what a version that might have been. Poorly received on release, Christine has gone on to become something of an Eighties cult classic, and is still one of Carpenter’s better constructed movies. With songs such as Bad to the Bone and a well placed Keep A-Knockin’ included in the soundtrack to highlight the horror of a ’58 Plymouth Fury gone very, very bad, King’s ode to Fifties teen culture (despite being updated) still resonates thanks to Gordon’s accomplished performance as Arnie, Christine’s owner, and Carpenter’s professional approach to a job he “needed to do” for his career.
9 – The Dead Zone (1983)
As if one King adaptation by a proven horror movie director in 1983 wasn’t enough, the year also saw David Cronenberg take up the reins of The Dead Zone, a project that had stalled on several occasions before he came on board (Stanley Donen as director? Bill Murray [King’s first choice for Johnny Smith] as the star?). Rejecting a script by King as being “too brutal”, Cronenberg shaped the novel’s parallel story structure into a three-act play, and gave Christopher Walken the chance to shine in one of his most underrated roles to date. The opening and closing acts have their moments, but it’s the middle act, where Smith helps Tom Skerritt’s small-town sheriff track down a serial killer that impresses the most (and which may have put some people off using scissors for some time afterwards).
8 – Pet Sematary (1989)
A novel that King felt was “too disturbing” and which nearly didn’t get published, Pet Sematary should have been directed by George A. Romero, but a scheduling clash with Monkey Shines meant he had to pass on the project. Enter Mary Lambert, and a movie that “defied the critics and opened at blockbuster levels” was created. Retaining much of the novel’s harsh, nihilistic tone, the movie works on a primitive level, and in its increasingly nightmarish way, makes for uncomfortable viewing once Louis Creed’s young son Gage returns from the dead. Another adaptation that has grown in stature since its original release, this is unnerving stuff indeed, and much better than most mainstream critics of the time were willing to accept.
7 – The Green Mile (1999)
The longest movie adaptation of a King novel – at three hours and nine minutes – The Green Mile was a return to the prison milieu (albeit set in the Thirties) that director Frank Darabont had already visited with delayed success in 1994. An absorbing, intelligent, and often gripping drama with standout performances from one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled for a King adaptation, Darabont’s assured direction from his own screenplay fleshes out the characters, and ensures that what happens to each and every one of them (even Percy) is affecting. It also features one of the most horrific deaths ever seen in cinema history, as Michael Jeter’s mouse-loving Eduard Delacroix meets a grisly end in the electric chair. Its length, and its subject matter, has been known to deter viewers over the years, but this is one occasion where the material warrants it, and thanks to Darabont, the movie is all the better for it.
6 – The Mist (2007)
The third – and to date, final – adaptation by Frank Darabont of a King tale, The Mist was originally meant to be Darabont’s first crack at the author’s work, but another project came first. Ostensibly a creature feature, the movie is much more than that, and shows just how quickly humans can become monsters themselves given the right circumstances. A bleak, unremitting experience for the viewer unfamiliar with the source material, The Mist closes with one of the most unexpected, most harrowing, and most emotionally devastating final scenes in horror history. It’s like a punch to the gut, and although different to the ending of King’s novella, fits in with the tone and feel of the movie perfectly. Darabont prefers the black and white version, and he’s right to: the absence of colour makes The Mist even more disturbing to watch – and that’s saying something.
5 – Stand by Me (1986)
Based on the novella, The Body (1982), Stand by Me was a last-minute change of title for a movie adaptation that was originally meant to be directed by Adrian Lyne. Despite its good standing now, the movie wasn’t too well received on its release, but whatever your feelings about the story of four young friends who go off to see a dead body somewhere in the woods near their home, it’s their casting that makes it so special. Watching the movie and their performances, you can believe that Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman really are good friends, and that how they behave with each other really is as true to life as to make no odds. Eventual director Rob Reiner captures the novella’s poignancy and heartfelt sense of nostalgia with a great deal of sensitivity, and does full justice to one of King’s finer creations, Davie “Lard-Ass” Hogan.
4 – Carrie (1976)
King’s first novel was also the first of his ouevre to be turned into a movie, and as firsts go, Brian De Palma’s brash directorial style was a perfect fit for King’s tale of sexual repression, extreme religious fervour, and terrifying teen angst. Featuring Oscar-nominated performances (rare for a horror movie) from Sissy Spacek (as Carrie) and Piper Laurie (Carrie’s mother), the movie takes its time in setting up the prom sequence that is justifiably famous for its split-screen depiction, and also spends more time letting the audience get to know Carrie than would normally happen in a standard horror movie. A bravura turn from De Palma makes Carrie the kind of heightened horror that rarely succeeds on its own terms, and it features a last-minute jump scare that is the absolute gold standard of jump scares.
3 – Misery (1990)
Stephen King + Rob Reiner + William Goldman + Kathy Bates = the first (and so far only) Oscar-winning King adaptation. King’s claustrophobic novel about a writer trapped in a remote cabin by his “number one fan” (Bates, the Oscar winner), is dominated by the actress’s astute, mesmerising performance. Like all the best King adaptations there’s a standout moment – usually horrific – and this time it’s the infamous “hobbling” scene. Changed from the novel, where the writer has a foot amputated, and made even more uncomfortable for viewers by the knowledge of what’s going to happen, it’s this scene that sticks, rightly, in people’s minds. But Misery is more than just a thriller about obsession taken too far, it’s also about the will to survive, and the corrosive nature of fame and its attendant idolatry.
2 – The Shining (1980)
Back when it was announced that Stanley Kubrick would be directing a movie version of King’s hugely impressive third novel, it seemed like a match made in Heaven. And for many fans of the novel, it is, but King took umbrage with the movie, saying that Kubrick missed the point of what his novel was about. However you look at it, The Shining remains one of the most – if not the most – remarkable King adaptations ever produced. Kubrick’s studied, deliberately paced movie is packed full of memorable moments, from the lady in Room 237, the appearance of the Grady twins, the elevator gushing blood, the revelation of what Jack Torrance has been writing, that soundbite, the inventive use of Steadicam (then still in its relative infancy) as it follows Danny Torrance along seemingly endless hallways, and a final photographic image that challenges everything that’s gone before. King and Kubrick may have been at odds over the nature of evil, and its source, but Kubrick’s vision remains just as disturbing and palpably unnerving as it did when it was first released.
1 – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
If any moviemaker “gets” Stephen King then it’s Frank Darabont. The writer/director is on a winning streak of 3-0 in King adaptations – 4-0 if you count the short movie The Woman in the Room (1983) – and his finest moment (and King’s) is this redolent, beautifully realised ode to friendship and the will to survive (a common theme in King’s work). It seems impossible to believe that Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman weren’t the first choices for Andy and Red, but it’s true. What would The Shawshank Redemption have been like if Tom Cruise had played Andy, Harrison Ford had played Red – and Rob Reiner had directed? With all due respect to Messrs Cruise, Ford and Reiner, it probably wouldn’t be a version that sits at No. 1 on the IMDb Top 250 List (at time of writing). It’s yet another movie adaptation that plays to King’s strengths as a writer, with fully realised characters, an effective emotional undercurrent that makes Andy and Red’s friendship all the more credible, and a number of memorable moments that keep the narrative captivating from its opening story of murder all the way to Red’s arrival on a beautiful beach at the end. A movie that resonates more and more with each and every viewing, it’s the highpoint, the zenith, of King adaptations, and a tribute to Darabont, and Robbins, and Freeman, and everyone else involved in making what is easily the best prison movie ever.