Hollywood sure loves master of horror Stephen King. Since the late seventies, there have been over a hundred films and television series based on his writings, making him one of the most adapted living authors ever. Of course, with that many there’s bound to be a few stinkers; arguably the worst is the sole directing effort of King himself, Maximum Overdrive, which even King admits was moronic (he claimed to have been “coked out of his mind” during production). But for the most part these range from good to great, to some of the most beloved gems in cinema history.
The latest is the new version of King’s behemoth novel It, already being hailed as one of the best King adaptations. But will it withstand the test of time against these classics? Here’s five of his greatest book-to-screen takes.
The very first King adaptation still stands strong as one of the best, and though it is a terrific horror film in the traditional sense, Brian De Palma wrings the real dread from putting us into the everyday nightmare of simply being a teenager. Sissy Spacek defines the titular Carrie White, a girl terrified by the physical and mental changes of her blooming womanhood, thanks to some particularly cruel classmates and her horrifically over-the-top religious mother (Piper Laurie, in a demonic performance). It’s almost a relief when, after having a bucket of pig blood dumped on her at her high school prom, she snaps and has her revenge by massacring her entire school with telekinetic powers she was unaware of – but it’s also pretty damn shocking. A disturbing horror classic, Carrie got a sequel and two remakes; none of which could match the sheer ferocity of this.
More than a few of King’s characters are, unsurprisingly, writers, but this occupation really comes into play in Misery, the second of Rob Reiner‘s films to use King’s novels as a source. The then-unknown Kathy Bates is a monstrous revelation in her Oscar-winning role as Annie Wilkes, the “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who, unsatisfied with the ending of his romance series, kidnaps him and forces him to write a sequel. It’s an escalating game of cat-and-mouse as Paul’s attempts to escape are met with horrifying consequences, and though a lot of the novel’s gory sequences are dropped, the claustrophobia and psychological horror are ramped up, making the infamously unbearable hobbling scene after Annie breaks Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer all the more effective.
Stand By Me (1986)
Interestingly, a number of the best King-based movies aren’t horror, but rather sensitive character dramas. For Stand By Me, Rob Reiner took on King’s novella The Body, about four small town boys who go on a hike to find the dead body of a missing child. A simple premise, but the film draws so much from it, taking us on an adventure where boys are forced to be men for the first time as they face challenges like bullies with switchblades, leeches and outrunning oncoming trains. Its nostalgic glow has turned it into one of the quintessential coming-of-age films. King apparently had to leave the cinema to compose himself after it was screened for him the first time, returning to thank Reiner for making the best film out of anything he’s ever written.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Famously the permanent fixture atop the IMDb Top 250 Movies, Frank Darabont’s prison drama lives up to its reputation as being one of the greatest films of all time. King expressed concern about the story being too talky to make a good movie, but it’s the iconic narration and mantras of Morgan Freeman’s Red that have allowed the film to become so memorable. He tells Tim Robbin’s Andy Dufresne to “get busy living, or get busy dying” – which he does, in one of the greatest twist endings and prison breaks ever. It’s a true tearjerker and a great metaphor for prison as a purgatory of rehabilitation. Darabont went on to successfully adapt King’s work twice more with The Green Mile and The Mist.
The Shining (1980)
Quite possibly the best horror movie ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s thrilling masterpiece is famously loathed by King for misinterpreting and distorting his novel into something else entirely. But this is part of its appeal, making it one of the few adaptations to surpass its source. Kubrick took a fairly straightforward tragedy of a decent man who loses his mind and transformed it into a smorgasbord of supernatural elements, claustrophobia, family fears and madness; so multilayered it spawned an entire documentary (Room 237) devoted to its possible interpretations and hidden meanings. Its notoriously troubled shoot and chilling ambiguity only add to its horrifying brilliance. King has made it clear that he much prefers the more faithful 1997 miniseries; it’s doubtful that anyone else does.
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