The ten greatest Stephen King adaptations

Last night A&E aired the first episode of the latest Stephen King film adaptation, Bag of Bones.  It is another example in a superb list of the writer’s works that have made the transition from book to screen.  Today, Jason Diamond, Tobias Carroll, Lincoln Michel, Jen Vafidis, Dustin Luke Nelson, Royal Young, and Dustin Luke Nelson discuss ten of those works, and why they’re so special. 

1.  It (1990) Television miniseries

Before I actually hit the age, I though that when you get to ten-years-old, you’re supposed to be a little tougher since you’ve finally hit the double-digit mark.  You aren’t supposed to be afraid of the bogey man or things that go bump in the night.  You aren’t supposed to cry, aren’t supposed to throw tantrums because you believe a monster is coming to get you, and you especially aren’t supposed to be afraid of movies anymore.

If my memory serves me well, I failed at being a tough ten-year-old, and it was thanks to Tim Curry dressed up as a clown, telling a little kid in a rain slicker named Georgie that right after he got done pulling him through storm drain bars, that’s his body would float.

I’ve watched hundreds of films that could be deemed “scary”:  psychological thrillers to C-grade gore.  I consider myself a “big fan” of Dario Argento’s films, and can watch and re-watch the original Dracula.  But nothing has ever fucked me up quite like the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s It.  And from what I’ve gathered, it’s the film that has left the deepest psychological scar on my generation after Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers jumped the slasher shark.

What’s so terrifying about Pennywise?  Well, for one, he’s a clown, and since Coulrophobia is an actual condition that people suffer from, you’ve got a chunk of the population already terrified.  Next, Pennywise doesn’t care where you are: at home, asleep, in school, alone, in a group, whatever.  When Pennywise wakes up from its sleep, hell will be raised, and children will be torn limb from limb.

But in my mind, what sets It apart from the rest of the Stephen King pack is how much it lends to the book.  Maybe it’s due to the restraints put on the film for airing on a major network, but as far as I can tell, watching It made me want to read It, and as a kid, that was the first time I recall that happening.  It kicked off my interest in King, and possibly set off my love of books.  As a film, it works on several different levels of scary: eerie, creepy, uncomfortable, and downright terrifying.  It is the quintessential Stephen King adaptation.

2. Stand By Me (1986) Directed by Rob Reiner

Stephen King is a horror writer by trade, but he’s also incredibly nostalgic.  And while Stand By Me, based on King’s novella The Body, doesn’t focus with the supernatural, ghosts, ghouls, aliens (but there is a dead body…), or the end of the world, it deals with one of the most frightening things of all: growing up.  Stand By Me is one of the greatest coming-of-age films ever made. (J.D)

3. Shawshank Redemption (1994) Directed by Frank Darabont

So: The Shawshank Redemption. The novella on which it’s based, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” was (if memory serves) the first work of Stephen King’s that I read that didn’t delve into overt horror. Yet looking back on it, it seems as though the terrors it described are even more unsettling than the more supernatural elements that recur throughout his work. Both the novella and film deal with notions that are fundamentally unnerving: that you could be imprisoned for life for a crime you didn’t commit; that the path to setting you free could be utterly lost; that freedom for someone so used to imprisonment could be its own sort of horror. In the end, it’s an uplifting story, but it never loses sight of the hardship it puts it characters through to get them there. (Tobias Carroll)

4. The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrick

The Shining is the best Stephen King adaptation that no one liked, at least at first. It was his only post-50s film that failed to garner any Oscar or Golden Globe nominations, and his only film to receive Razzie nominations. Reviews were, at best, mixed. Roger Ebert disliked it. Stephen King famously said it was the only adaptation he ever hated: “a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little.”

What can you say? It was 1980. America was gearing up for a confused decade of shoulder pads and neon snap bracelets.

Since then, though, The Shining’s reputation has grown to the point that it is widely considered one of, if not the, best horror films of all time. The scenes and quotes dissolved into the pop culture consciousness. Ebert changed his mind. It inspired the best The Simpsons parody ever. The film positively overflows with iconic moments: an elevator filled with blood, the ghost twins, “Here’s Johnny!”, REDRUM scrawled in lipstick, “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” a frozen hedge maze, and so on.

However, the film’s power lies not in the flashy moments, but in the hypnotic, and terror-filled atmosphere it creates. It is a film of mazes and confusion, tension and uncertainty. In this way, perhaps it isn’t a surprise that critics and audiences were initially put off by the film. Much like Kubrick’s 2001 did to science fiction, The Shining takes a typically in-your-face film genre and subverts it, creating a meditative, mesmerizing, and ambiguous film.

What makes The Shining such a unique horror film is Kubrick’s mastery of two concepts: “the uncanny” and horror over terror.

“The uncanny” was laid out by Sigmund Freud in his essay of the same name. Simplified, the uncanny is that eerie feeling caused by that which is simultaneously familiar and strange, that which has been repressed and reemerges. Kubrick read Freud’s essay and was obsessed. He used it as a guiding principle of The Shining and populated the film with doppelgangers, repetitions, repressed feelings, ghosts, and other uncanny elements described by Freud.
The distinction between horror and terror was spelled out by Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe in the 19th century. Horror is overt and shocking while terror is obscure and filed with tension. Horror is the monster gnawing on a corpse, terror is the sounds of unthinkable creatures hiding in the dark. The former has momentary shock value, but the latter is what haunts you after the credits have rolled. Stephen King, in his great book on the horror genre Danse Macabre, explains:

Terror is the sound of the old man’s continuing pulsebeat in “The Tell-Tale Heart”—a quick sound, “like a watch wrapped in cotton.” Horror is the amorphous but very physical “thing” in Joseph Payne Brennan’s wonderful novella “Slime” as it enfolds itself over a screaming dog.

King adds a third concept: “revulsion” or the pure gross out factor. King’s example is the chest-bursting scene in Alien.

Horror films and novels will contain all three elements, but to different degrees. Your average modern gore fest horror film, like Saw, might be almost entirely revulsion and horror. The Shining, however, is a film that runs almost entirely on terror. The moments of horror or revulsion are few and, really, some of the least interesting parts of the film. Think Wendy running into a room filled with skeletons and cobwebs.

The creepiest and most haunting parts of The Shining are moments of pure Radcliffian “terror,” filled with ambiguity and tension. Danny flinching his finger and squeaking in the voice of Tony, “the little boy that lives inside my mouth.” Jack staring eerily into the model hedge maze and seeing, somehow, his wife and child. The ghost butler telling Jack in a slow and deliberate voice, “I corrected them, sir, and when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I corrected her.” And the final ambiguous shot of the film, a slow zoom into the image of Jack Torrance smiling in a photograph that was taken decades before he was born.

The Shining may not be a great adaptation of King’s book. Much of what upset King was that Kubrick drastically changed many of the themes and plot of the novel. But of all the adaptations, it is the best film. (Lincoln Michel)

5. Carrie (1976) directed by Brian De Palma. 

Let’s talk about the female characters in Carrie who aren’t Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, both of whom I love unconditionally.

All the girls who terrorize Carrie are horrible. Even Amy Irving, who looks awesome by the way, like a Sweet Valley High version of Gilda Radner. Amy’s character is supposed to be morally ambiguous, but the movie only shows that by having her look human in comparison to her friend Chris, the mastermind behind the pig-blood scheme. Chris is really annoying for no reason. I suppose a blow job scene with her boyfriend (John Travolta!) where she orgasmically wails her hatred for Carrie is meant as character development. Jesus Christ, Carrie does nothing to these girls. Her only crime is being hysterical about menstruation (we’ll get to that), and while that is one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever seen, it in no way warrants hatred so blinding you can’t last a date without talking about it. The logic in the mean girls’ retaliation, I suppose, is explained via a tone-deaf Meatballs-esque scene in the first act, where they’re all forced to run drills in short shorts because they pelted Carrie in the shower with pads and tampons (again, we’ll get to that). Chris inarticulately rebels against the goofy workout punishment (“You can’t do this!” or something), even though doing so means she won’t get to go to prom. Um, because she hates Carrie that much? Okay, sure. Just get to the part where she dies.

But the most evil non-Carrie and non-Piper character has to be Sissy Spacek’s body double in the shower scene at the beginning of the movie. (Apologies, and congratulations, to Sissy Spacek if that’s actually her.) The sexy shower scene largely consists of long close-ups on someone’s freckled, soapy, hot body. So Carrie’s secretly…a really hot woman? That’s what we’re supposed to think at the beginning of a movie about a girl with telekinetic powers? If only she weren’t the spawn of a religious freak and these girls weren’t so messed up, then Carrie would blossom into a babe uninterrupted. This scene lasts what seems like an eternity, and it looks like something from Porky’s. All softcore dreams abruptly end as Carrie gets her first period and starts shrieking because she has no idea what’s happening. (This should be the public school system’s fault as much as it’s Piper Laurie’s fault, for what that’s worth. Just saying; it takes a village.) Then the horrible girls throw tampons and pads at Carrie, because they are monsters. Everyone is screaming and laughing, and I want to cry. The absurdity of the situation flattens everything about the high school that comes afterward. What is this universe where no one has interiority or feelings except Carrie White? What does that emptiness make Carrie?

While I feel for Carrie, Carrie doesn’t really do it for me. As intended, I actively dislike those girls — just not in a bloodthirsty way that feels righteous. More like an oh-shut-up way that feels petty and quick. College is your time, Carrie! Just wait it out. Those girls will get fat anyway. They always do. (Jen Vafidis)

6. Misery  (1990) Directed by Rob Reiner

Writers need more fans.  The masses remain unmoved by lofty literary voices and I confess, I prefer my messages simple.  Give me paperbacks
and potboilers, sex, drugs, fame and franchises.  These often have more tortured souls.  Stephen King is a brilliant example of bookish
talent gone global and in “Misery,” he imagines the dark turns this path can take for an author.

In the film adaptation, Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a bestseller with a killer fan in Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who holds the writer hostage after a crippling car accident. Her fiendish devotion is perhaps something aspiring scribes might wish for. I know I wouldn’t mind a matronly figure who praised my prose feeding me meals in bed, washing my wounds and housing me comfortably in her cozy cabin.  Certainly my agents don’t give me sponge baths. Yet, things soon take a creepy turn when Annie’s devotion turns deadly and she demands Paul rewrite his last novel, keeping his main character and her beloved fantasy alive in perpetuity. Perhaps not so idyllic, but also not unlike publisher’s firm editorial suggestions.

At least in Annie’s secluded home she and Paul can hash out their differences by his escape attempts and an infamous scene in which she bashes his feet to broken bloody bits with a sledgehammer. Much more physically invigorating than harsh critique from a writing group. With publishing houses depending more and more on authors who are also savvy social media strategists, the Annie Wilkes’ of the world are really keeping our craft alive. Why should Robert Pattinson hog all the acolytes?

King’s novel and the following film are a testament to the ways in which writers capture and inspire the disenfranchised and bizarre in people. Those who would tend to sequester themselves to fanatically read, rather than watch films with screaming mobs of fellow fans speak to the isolate in all of us. Writers are a notoriously solitary bunch and our followers tend to come with their own dark, lonely urges.  Why run from them like newly anointed tween stars from paparazzi? I for one might embrace the experience, as miserable as it might be. (Royal Young)

7. The Stand (1994) Television mini-series

Originally intended as a George Romero-directed feature film in the 80’s, King’s sprawling post-apocalyptic tale of good and evil languished in development purgatory before it was picked up as an ABC miniseries in 1994.  In a relatively faithful bringing to life of King’s 1978 novel — helped by a teleplay written by King himself — The Stand shows us the death of 99.4% of United States at the hands of the “Captain Trips” superflu, and the societies that subsequently form: That of the good and godly Mother Abagail, counterbalanced by King’s novel-hopping manifestation of evil, the “Walkin’ Dude” Randall Flagg, and his followers.

The Stand miniseries is, if nothing else, impressive for its sheer ambition of scope.  Imagine if Peter Jackson had filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy for network primetime, and you’ve got an idea of what this was supposed to be.  Unfortunately, the limitations of mid-90’s television tend to get in the way – “splashy” special effects feel flat, and an ensemble cast that would make Gary Marshal jealous detracts from, more than it aids, our suspension of disbelief (“Oh look, it’s Dauber, from ‘Coach’!  And, wasn’t she in ‘Just Shoot Me’?”).  While six hours of screen time should have allowed for the type of character development and plot pacing that a novel like The Stand demands, the net result runs the risk of feeling two-dimensional.

Which isn’t to say The Stand is a failure – far from it. King’s story is just too good to be knocked off-course by cheesy special effects, and a smirking Gary Sinise.  You can’t help but watch and feel as if you’re thisclose to watching something really great.  If anything, The Stand is a case of a movie ahead of its time – doomed to air more than a decade before the SciFi channel (No, I will not call it “SyFy”, thankyouverymuch) perfected the art with the Battlestar Galactica pilot, and the impressive “Tin Man” miniseries.  But, with rumors of a feature-film version of The Stand in the works, we may get our chance to see a fully formed Stand in the future.

Until then: M-O-O-N spells miniseries.  (Rafi Samuels-Schwartz)

8. Pet Semetary (1989) Directed by Mary Lambert

Beloved pets as zombies, The Ramones, King playing a priest, Maine, and one of the great horror movie scores ever.  What more could you really ask for?

9. The Running Man (1989) Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Possibly the greatest cast ever assembled for any film at any time in history: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Jim Brown, Dweezil Zppa, and Mick Fleetwood all star in the adaptation of King’s dystopian classic that takes place in 2019.  Yippee!

10. Salem’s Lot (1979) Directed by Tobe Hooper 

I’m willing to guess that the fact that some adaptations of King’s work utilize the biggest director names in the horror genre is probably at the behest of the author himself.  Romero with Creepshow, Carpenter with Christine, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper for the 1979 miniseries based on King’s novel by the same name.  While there is no arguing that the 1974 bloodfest starring Leatherface and his evil kin is Hooper’s masterwork, a lot can be said about his attempt at Hitchcockian atmosphere in this film that combines the best of both the ugly vampire and haunted house genres. (J.D.)

Honorable Mention:

Creepshow (1982) George A. Romero

Creepshow is beautiful anomaly in the pantheon of Stephen King films. Creepshow is what would happen if Evil Dead was written by a class of high school students, broken up into groups of four, and told to write horror stories. That sounds terrible, but it’s not. It’s the combination of schlocky writing and ridiculous cameos that makes this just perfect. Want to see Leslie Neilsen bury Ted Danson up to his neck on a beach so he drowns in the incoming tide? Check. How about Hal Holbrook feeding his wife to a 150 year old monster that lives under the stairs at a University? Done. What to see Ed Harris dance super hard in some bell bottoms? Check. Big check. Want to see Stephen King as a dopey hick who discovers a meteor that turns him into a tree? No? Well, you’ll see it anyway. And you should, because it’s a hidden gem among King’s filmography, brilliant in its absurdity. Unlike most of King’s horror, it’s not so serious that it’s unwilling to exchange thrills for laughs.  (Dustin Luke Nelson)

Christine (1983) Directed by John Carpenter

King teams up with director John Carpenter at the height of his powers for a story about addiction that deals heavy in the nostalgia department.  Also, any film with Harry Dean Stanton should be placed in its own special category.

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  1. I sorta remember that one also. I have to think that the late 80s-early 90s were the golden age of Stephen King adaptations.