Stephen King’s writing career and his deep ties with cinema and television began at almost the same time. Carrie, his first novel, was released in April of 1974, and only two years later Brian De Palma kickstarted his own career with the adaptation. Ever since then, the work of Stephen King has defined the pop culture landscape of horror – and many times of popular cinema in general.
But this is Rocktober, Halloween time, so let’s look into the horror adaptations of Stephen King. The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me… all great in their own ways, but let’s leave them out this time around. Some of King’s horror stories have found their way into the canon of great films, and so many of them have landed on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Here, then, are 10 great adaptations, and 5 that we can all just collectively forget about. Forever.
10. The Dark Half (1993) – George A. Romero and Stephen King seem like a match made in heaven. And this tale, about a writer’s fictional character wanting to take over his creator’s life, while it has some misses, hits on some delightfully macabre horror notes. Timothy Hutton manages to carry the film through some of its campier moments to capture the essence of King’s words. And let’s not forget, not all of Stephen King’s work is Pulitzer level greatness – which is totally fine. The Dark Half is a minor entry into his infinite body of work, and it gets a respectable bump from Romero and Co. here.
9. Pet Semetary (1989) – Sometimes, Mary Lambert’s direction in this adaptation gets a little wonky, but the film itself works. It’s one of Stephen King’s darker stories, about death and Indian burial grounds and pets and dead children coming back to life. Not to mention the head-wound ghost permeating the entire film from the get go. The cast does competent work, and even the stilted nature of their delivery manages to sell given the bizarro nature of their surroundings. Miko Hughes, child actor du jour of the late 80s and early 90s, is extra creepy as “Zombie Gage” too.
8. Cujo (1983) – If anyone is going to flip the script on the lovable lunks of fur that are Saint Bernard’s, it’s Stephen King. This simple tale of a rabid dog wreaking havoc on a mom and her son in their car doesn’t have a Rottweiler or Pit Bull of some other dog with attached stigma to it as the title character. No, it’s some oafish old Saint Bernard, harmless as could be. Until the rabies kick in. Cujo wouldn’t have worked were it not for Dee Wallace giving it her all as the desperate, frightened mother trapped in the car with her young boy.
7. The Stand (1994) – The early 90s was a time for the network miniseries. And following the success of Stephen King’s It adaptation (not that great, and you know it), networks were antsy to get another one up and running. Enter The Stand, one of King’s longest novels, a story about the end of the world we see all the time these days. But in 1994, the freshness of the material, and the terrific cast, from Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwold, Jamey Sheridan, Ossie Davis, and on and on, really elevates what could have floundered under the censoring eye of 90s network TV.
6. The Mist (2007) – The best part about this King adaptation, from King fanboy filmmaker Frank Darabont, are the politics at play. Once the mist envelops the town, and the creatures begin killing, the dynamics between different people in the supermarket – and the delightfully insane performance from Marcia Gay Harden – are where the film shines. The worst part, oddly enough, might be the CGI for the creatures (I know, it looks better in Darabont’s original black and white cut). As for that ending, well, it doesn’t get much more disturbing.
5. The Dead Zone (1983) – Call me crazy, but something about the corrupt political setting of David Cronenberg’s Stephen King adaptation still feels relevant today. Cronenberg takes a tremendous horror set up – a man wakes up from a coma and discovers he has psychic abilities – and adds true depth of emotion and dramatic tension to beef up the context. Christopher Walken cornered the market on internal suffering around this time, and he’s pitch perfect here. It may not have the horror impact of some of King’s headier horror work, but as a cinematic experience, The Dead Zone is still pretty wonderful.
4. Christine (1983) – Pay no mind to what could be one of the hokier setups for a King story: the killer car. In the hands of John Carpenter, Christine absolutely sings. Carpenter plays the events of the story absolutely straight, with no wink or room for broadness or self satire, and it’s the best option. The performances from Keith Gordon, as the nerd-turned-greaser asshole Arnie, and John Stockwell as his best friend, are terrific. And the car itself, as banal and harmless as a big hunk of metal might seem, somehow manages to be terrifying at times. Especially when it’s on fire.
3. Misery (1990) – Rob Reiner’s perfect adaptation, yet another King story with an author in the middle, introduced the world to the greatness of Kathy Bates (who, deservedly, won Best Actress). Bates plays Annie Wilkes, the number one fan of Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and his book series. She also just so happens to save him from an accident, holds him hostage, forces him to write another book, and smashes his leg with a sledgehammer (they were chopped off in the book, but in the movie the brutality of the sledgehammer has more… shall we say… impact). In what has to be a meta-fictional take on King’s own fans, Misery is one of the greatest of his adaptations.
2. Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma’s career flourished after the successful adaptation of King’s first novel. It also kickstarted Sissy Spacek’s career, and earned her and Piper Laurie competing Oscar nominations in 1976. Carrie is a tremendous horror film, and a pretty scathing look at bullying and high school sexual discovery that pretty much sucks for everyone. It still feels relevant today, and the prom scene is one of the most iconic set pieces in all of cinema.
1. The Shining (1980) – Stephen King’s own displeasure with Stanley Kubrick’s more-than-liberal adaptation of his novel is well known. In fact, this is one of the most well-known, studied works of all time, and King can get mad all he wants; this is Kubrick’s vision of his story, and it’s great on just about every measurable level. What can be said about The Shining that hasn’t already been said? Very little. It’s the best of his adaptations, regardless of the loyalty to its source material.
THE NOT SO GREAT
5. Needful Things (1993) – All the potential was here for a great King adaptation. The story, about the devil selling very personal antiques for souls, could have been a terrific story had it been handled properly, and the cast (Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, J.T. Walsh, Bonnie Bedelia) is absolutely top notch. But for whatever reason, everyone here forgot how to act the way they have for so many years, and the end result is a hokey, cheesy bit of nonsense that never manages to come together.
4. Thinner (1996) – This one probably should have never happened because, honestly, the premise is laughable. A scummy lawyer is cursed to lose weight forever, basically, and this adaptation loses just as much steam from the very start. A cast of unknowns can’t manage to make this seem any less than unintentionally funny.
3. Maximum Overdrive (1986) – Based on King’s Trucks, and directed by Stephen King himself, Maximum Overdrive has to earn the award for most syndicated movie ever. I swear, this dumpster fire is probably on TV somewhere as we speak. AC/DC and their hard rock soundtrack couldn’t save this disaster.
2. Dreamcatcher (2003) – Yeah, the one about poop monsters that was, amazingly, directed by the more than competent Lawrence Kasdan. This one is just confusing from top to bottom.
1. Sleepwalkers (1992) – Another promising film, about mother and son supernatural vampire… cat.. things, was transformed into a complete disaster. The acting is awful, the filmmaking is embarrassingly inept, and the entire film just spins out of control from moment to moment. Easily the works Stephen King adaptations, and one of the worst movies probably ever made. Who knows…