From Shawshank to the Overlook: 10 Best Stephen King Adaptations
Highbrow literary critics might look down their nose at him, but Stephen King has something most aspiring writers only wish they had: the ability to dash off a bestseller in what seems like a lunchtime, and a chatty writing style that appeals to the widest audience.
While he is primarily known as a horror writer, King has written in many genres through over sixty novels and hundreds of short stories. What he specialises in is putting ordinary folk in extraordinary situations; a little like the early career of Steven Spielberg, King writes stories that most people can see themselves in.
King’s work is so prolific and accessible that it makes for easy transition to the screen. Since the success of Brian De Palma’s Carrie back in 1976, Stephen King adaptations have become almost as ubiquitous as his books. There is a lot of dross out there (Thinner, The Mangler, etc.) but the best adaptations have also become classics of cinema. Here are a few of my picks…
The Mist (2007)
Let’s get this right out in the open from the start; I know a lot of people love the ending to The Mist, but I think it’s totally ridiculous. Without getting too spoilery, the speed with which our hero goes from determined survivor to suicidal despair is so instantaneous, and the final reveal that they were just moments from salvation is hilariously rushed to me.
Which is a shame, because the previous two hours of Frank Darabont’s third King adaptation is a great exercise in suspense and superbly measured shocks. An unexplained mist approaches a small Maine town, and artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) heads to the supermarket with his young son to stock up on supplies. While shopping, the mist envelopes the store bringing a menagerie of horrible creatures with it, trapping the Draytons and the other shoppers inside.
The Mist is a terrific mashup of siege movie and creature feature, with direct-to-DVD regular Jane giving his best lead performance as the desperate dad. Like John Carpenter’s The Fog, Darabont understands that his Lovecraftian horrors are scarier when shrouded half-seen by the titular weather phenomenon, so the dodgy CGI doesn’t do too much damage when it does appear. As for the ending… well. Perhaps Drayton’s final capitulation works better in King’s novella.
One thing King is very good at is trapping his protagonists in a confined or isolated location and wringing every drop of suspense from their attempts to escape it (see also: Gerald’s Game, The Shining). If they’ve got a kid with them, great! The more vulnerable peril the better, right?
Cujo often gets overlooked among King adaptations, which is a shame because it’s a real nail-biter with two very sympathetic protagonists. E.T’s mum Dee Wallace plays Donna Trenton, an unhappy housewife who gets trapped with her young son in her broken down car by a huge rabid dog.
King based the book on an incident when he was menaced by a St. Bernard while visiting a mechanic, and he wrote it at the height of his alcohol abuse. He later claimed that he barely remembered writing the thing at all.
The movie version is a no-frills exercise in panicky, sweaty terror. The lengthy preamble sets up Cujo’s descent from loveable pet to slavering monster after it is bitten by a bat, and his first victims. But the meat and potatoes of the film is the extended set piece of Donna trying to escape the situation, knowing the scorching heat in the car presents almost as much of a threat as the doomed animal outside.
The Running Man (1987)
King was so successful from the start that he needed to adopt a pseudonym. The publishers wanted to prevent an over-saturation in the market of King novels, and the author wanted the personal challenge of finding out if he could still be successful without his household name on the front cover. So Richard Bachman was born.
The Running Man was King’s fourth novel writing as Bachman, and the grim dystopian thriller was adapted into an overblown action movie which continued Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise to Hollywood superstar. Released the same year as Predator, he played Ben Richards, a contestant in a deadly game show in a futuristic totalitarian state.
His character went from a scrawny everyman trying to survive impoverished circumstances to a brawny helicopter pilot framed and thrown into the game, setting him against a series of sadistic mercenaries hired to hunt and kill the contestants in the show.
The Running Man hasn’t aged particularly well, but it was influential. It is hard to watch Battle Royale or The Hunger Games without detecting the garish fingerprints of this corny popcorn movie and it’s still a pleasure to watch Arnie in his prime, battling hulking freaks with names like Fireball and Buzzsaw and delivering his signature kiss-off lines with deadpan aplomb.
Incidentally, the film paired him for the second time that year with WWF wrestler Jesse Ventura, who made an unforgettable impression as the tobacco-chewing, minigun-wielding “sexual Tyrannosaurus” Blaine in Predator.
The Devil In-Car-Nate? I’ve no idea who Nate is, but what I can tell you is that Christine is the absolute pinnacle of killer car movies. It’s a second-tier effort from John Carpenter, who took the job out of necessity rather than passion after the box office failure of his masterpiece, The Thing. It’s an underrated gem in the cult director’s filmography, as he took an inherently silly concept and turned it into a film of genuine moody menace. He also gives us a murderous auto that many of us might take our lives in our hands just for the chance to give her a spin.
Christine is a 1958 Plymouth Fury, bought from a junkyard for peanuts by creepy nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). He fixes the car up, turning her into a gleaming fire-apple red head-turner, without realising at first that she is possessed by a malevolent supernatural force. The car helps Arnie gain self-confidence, but Christine is very jealous and doesn’t take kindly to anyone messing with her new owner…
With a terrific supporting cast including Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, and Robert Blossom, Carpenter creates a cool sense of nite owl spookiness. He’s aided by the brilliant cinematography by Donald M. Morgan,who stepped in for regular Carpenter d.p. Dean Cundey.
Another great element is the terrific rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, with Christine’s personality and moods indicated by darkly appropriate ‘50s tunes played on the radio as she suffocates, crushes, burns, and mows down everyone she takes a dislike to. It’s a neat idea that received a homage in the best of the new Transformers movies to date, Bumblebee.
Stand By Me (1986)
More golden oldies on the soundtrack in Stand By Me, the first of two cracking King adaptations from Rob Reiner. Unlike the previous entries, we take a detour from horror for a compulsively watchable coming-of-age tale which, being King, is founded on a ghoulish element. It follows a group of best friends in the ‘50s who hear about the dead body of a missing boy and set out on an adventure to find it.
Warm, funny, and nostalgic, it’s a tale of friendship and self-discovery as the four boys (Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and the tragically short-lived River Phoenix) bond, argue, and overcome dangerous obstacles along the way. There is a dangerous passage across a railway bridge to negotiate, as well as a showdown with local hoodlum Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang.
The Dead Zone (1983)
1983 was a big year for Stephen King movies and The Dead Zone is the third and best. It was also the second David Cronenberg film from that year, and it is a little overshadowed by his sleazy body horror masterpiece, Videodrome. The Canadian auteur streamlines King’s sometimes sprawling source novel, focusing on the loneliness of its protagonist Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a mild-mannered school teacher turned psychic do-gooder after emerging from a coma with the powers of foresight.
It’s a chilly yet very human story, tapping into Johnny’s yearning for answers as he is compelled to explore his new powers for good, with tragic consequences. Cronenberg teases out the unsettling elements of the story without his usual predilection for gruesome imagery, opting for a quiet sense of impending doom as Johnny tracks a serial killer, then eventually lays down his life to stop a presidential candidate who will unleash armageddon in the future. Walken, without resorting to his now-famous eccentricities, is suitably haunted as protagonist in one of his finest roles.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption is just one of those films; if you’re flicking around the channels and see that it’s on, that’s your evening over. You are in until the end, no matter at which point you tune in.
Based on the King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s first and finest adaptation of the author’s stories is a deeply satisfying movie. It has become a perennial favourite over the years, routinely figuring high in popular lists of the best films ever made.
Key to this are the brilliant performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as Andy Dufresne, a buttoned-up banker wrongly committed for the murder of his wife, and Red Redding, the world-wise lifer who befriends him in the harsh environment of Shawshank prison.
Shawshank is a sometimes rambling and episodic tale of friendship, harsh circumstances, and hard-won redemption, with a final (flawed) twist and a perfect kiss-off for the villains of the piece. All its individual components are impressive enough, but when taken altogether, total movie magic. Despite its frequent dark material including police brutality, suicide, and gang rape, its message is one of hope, leaving us uplifted and feeling better about humanity than before we started. No wonder Shawshank means so much to people all over the world.
Stephen King’s first novel received primo adaptation treatment from Brian de Palma, the idiosyncratic director who was really refining his histrionic style after his psychedelic rock musical, Phantom of the Paradise.
All his signature tricks that started maturing in Paradise come to the fore in Carrie, King’s tale of a painfully shy telekinetic teen, played superbly by Sissy Spacek. Her scarily intimate Oscar-nominated performance and De Palma’s stylish flourishes stops the film being too depressing, as it catalogues Carrie’s bullying at school and the emotional abuse of her unhinged zealot of a mother.
Much of the horror is in knowing what is coming as Carrie takes the stage at the prom for what should be the crowning moment of her young life, only for her tormentors to dump a bucket of pig’s blood over her head. It’s cruel and very sad, and then things get crazy in a wild split-screen nightmare as she unleashes her powers in retaliation. The image of Carrie, streaked with gore and pop-eyed in furious retribution, is one of the most iconic in horror cinema.
A few years after the success of Stand by Me, Rob Reiner took on King again in this superb psycho-thriller that once again returned to that King staple, a protagonist trapped in a deadly confined situation. In this case, it’s a bed, as bestselling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) crashes his car on a snowy mountain pass and is rescued by his self-declared Number One fan, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).
The problem is, Sheldon has just killed off Misery, the heroine of the bodice-ripper novels that Annie loves so much, in the hope of embarking on projects he deems more artistically rewarding. Annie, living by herself out in the wilds, doesn’t care for any of his doody-talking realism, and demands that he brings Misery back to life. Dependent on Annie for his care, Sheldon must delve deep to resurrect his eponymous heroine and find a way to escape his saviour’s clutches.
Misery plays almost as much as a black comedy as a horror, with plenty of laughs derived from Sheldon's fraught relationship with the batshit crazy Annie. Caan and Bates have never been better, in superb form as the cantankerous writer and his maniacal fan. Bates won an Oscar for the role, and much of the terror comes from how quickly she flips from kind-hearted nurse, simpering fan, to raging hostage-taker… with bone-crunching results.
She never lets Annie become a one-dimensional monster, as she also expertly draws elements of pathos and loneliness from the performance.
Rob Reiner is such a mature, unobtrusive director, happy to service the film by just letting his actors do their formidable best with William Goldman’s excellent screenplay, resulting in some of the best peek-from-behind-the-sofa moments of suspense in horror cinema.
The Shining (1980)
Saving the best for last, The Shining is not only my favourite King adaptation, it is also one of my favourite films of all time. Stanley Kubrick does what he does best, adapting a source novel and turning it into something uniquely his own thing. As a result, we get a masterful slow-burn in creeping terror as the doomed Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) goes quickly insane under the influence of the malignly haunted Overlook hotel, and tries to murder his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd).
Famously, Stephen King hated Kubrick’s version, especially the sense that Nicholson’s Torrance appears half-nuts before he even gets to the hotel. King’s novel had a strong semi-autobiographical element, so it’s easy to see why he might object. However, Kubrick was ruthless and singular in his vision, taking the things he wanted and discarding the rest. Almost every decision was the right one, like switching the unscary murder weapon in the novel, a croquette mallet, into a far more terrifying one, an axe.
Switching out King’s living topiary animals for a hedge maze was another genius touch, reflecting the cavernous labyrinthine interior of the hotel and providing the location for one of horror cinema’s most thrilling chase sequences.
The Shining is a film so rich with detail and background lore that once you check in, it’s hard to leave. The more I find out about it, the more I become obsessed, and I’m not the only one; check out Room 237 if you haven’t already, the superb docu-essay that explores many of the strange fan theories that have sprung up around the film.
So there you have it, my picks of Stephen King adaptations. What are your favourites? Which ones would you switch out? Let us know!