The sometimes brilliant, but often terrible horror movie adaptions based on the work of Stephen King.
This article has been split into two parts, the first is a look at the various Stephen King adaptions spanning from 1976 to 2012. The second is a list of my top ten King recommendations and a list of ten to avoid for future reference. So, if your just looking for a film to watch, then jump ahead to my recommendations at the bottom.
Now, we could look at all of Kings adaptions, personal projects and the influence of each, but that feels far to long and impractical, and let’s be honest, a pretty heavy read. I want to keep this both informative and brief. Therefore, I’ve set out some basic ground rules to filter what films will be included in both the overview and the lists.
So, obviously due to the theme of this site we’re only interested in movie adaptions with a discernible horror or macabre flavour. Consequently, this excludes arguably two of the best King movie adaptions. First, The Shawshank Redemption, and although it was a big step away from Kings horror roots and had a slow start at the box office, in the years since it’s release in 1995 it has received consistently positive reviews and gradually found its way onto most top 100 lists. It is now regularly considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. The second is The Green Mile, which, to date, is the most successful movie adaption in terms of box office sales.
I’m not going to include sequels unless they’re directly an adaption of a novel or screenplay by King, or any films that are loosely based on King’s work where he may have been given some indirect writing credit or special thanks, such as The Lawnmower Man. We are not going to consider TV episodes or the Michael Jackson extended music video, Ghosts, and finally, short films such as The Cat From Hell, unless they are part of an all King anthology.
I am going to consider made for TV movies and some mini series such as The Stand, Bag of Bones, and Rose Madder, which could play as extended movies, but not longer series’ such as Kingdom Hospital or Haven.
This still leaves an impressive total of 60 direct adaptions or screenplays.
It all started in 1976 when Carrie was the first to be adapted into a feature film. Largely due to a brilliantly unsettling performance by Spacek, it received vastly positive reviews, and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1976.
Two years later Salem’s Lot got the adaption treatment with medium success, before The Shining opened to mixed reviews and a bumpy start at the box office in 1980. That said, reviews for The Shining have become increasingly positive ever since, and it is now widely considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Famously King didn’t like the movie, although I wonder if director Stanley Kubrick rejecting King’s screenplay for the film in favour of his own may have had any baring on this.
The early 80′s bought a mixed bag of adaptions, most wandering from mediocre to good, and nearly all seeing relatively good success at the box office. This included three anthologies; the most notable being Creepshow, which saw King write his first full screenplay and team up with zombie movie architect and legend George A. Romero.
The late eighties were not so kind to the King adaptions, starting off with two notable washouts in 1985. The first was Silver Bullet, based on the novella Cycle of the Werewolf, featuring a werewolf, (who looked more like a man in a bear costume) theatrically stalking a wheelchair bound Corey Haim. Silver Bullet was one of those concepts that worked great on paper but didn’t translate well into movie format, and is a little difficult to take seriously.
The second saw trucks coming to life and becoming homicidalin King’s directing debut,Maximum Overdrive. I can’t help but feel that this was a bad choice for King’s debut, the story itself is, well, frankly it’s kind of dumb, and would be a challenge for an experienced director to pull off. Now, it is not without it’s merit, it certainly has some entertainment value as an accidental comedy, and the soundtrack by AC/DC, coupled with a brief cameo from the band themselves really work in its favour.
King later stated that he was entrenched in own drug use while making Maximum Overdrive and as a result often had no idea what he was doing. In an interview, King was asked why he hasn’t directed a movie since Maximum Overdrive and he responded, “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.”
Nevertheless, Over-the-top cheesy action film The Running Man staring Arnold Schwarzeneggar, was a number one box office success in 1987 (Although it’s place as a King adaption could be contested as it is only very loosely based on the his novel.) and modern cult favourite, Pet Semetary saw the 80s out of on a more positive note in 1989. Gory, delightfully morbid and genuinely creepy, Pet Semetary performed well at the box office and remains one of Kings most memorable adoptions proving that sometimes dead is not always better.
The 90’s saw Kings adaptions trending as TV mini series and made-for-TV movies starting with IT being made into a two part TV movie. IT received positive reviews both from the public and critics, with some of the credit going to a strong cast and an impressive performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.
Kathy Bates gave a truly terrifying and award winning performance as Annie Wilkes in Misery, which received almost universally positive reviews. Years after Misery’s release, Stephen King publicly admitted that Kathy Bates’ character is a representation of his psychological dependency on drugs and alcohol.
These we’re followed by several unremarkable adaptions, until the epic novel The Stand was developed into a mini-series in 1994. King himself wrote the screenplay, and even at over 6 hours it was still considerably stripped down from it’s novel counterpart. The Stand holds up well, with good visuals, a capable cast and excellent character development, which make it easy to overlook a few obviously plot holes and some plastic looking sets.
1995 bought a very special King adaption, The Mangler. Dull, humourless and always confusing, The Mangler received overwhelmingly negative reviews and bombed at the box office on its release. Directed by Tope Hooper and starring Robert Englund, this is unquestionably the worse direct King adaption to date.
The popularity and success of King’s horror adaptions seemed to be long gone through the late 90s and early 00s as a string of easily forgotten shorts and TV movies were produced.
In 2003 Dreamcatcher hit theatres, the feature first movie adaption since Kings near fatal accident in 1999. Dreamcatcher looked promising in pre-production with a full star cast and healthy budget, just what King’s adaptions needed to rescue their floundering reputation. Dreamcatcher had some great cinematography and sound, but it lacked direction and emotion. It felt like there was too much going on without enough back story and awkward timing. It’s fair to say that if Morgan Freeman can’t save your movie, you’re in trouble.
So, it became that any movie or series with King’s name attached to it had no prestige or weight, and were often ridiculed even before they were released or aired. Some would say with good reason, King had not had a box office hit since Misery in 1990, and his TV mini-series were no longer being critically acclaimed or pulling in viewers. Even films that were good, such as 1408 and Secret Window, only had moderate success and went by relatively unnoticed and under-rated.
In 2008 The Mist had a limited release in theatres worldwide. The Mist was based on one of Kings most popular short stories of the same name and was greatly anticipated by King fans. These fans probably made up a good portion of those that went to see it in cinemas, as it came and went with little critical attention and only barely modest takings at the box office. It wasn’t until it was released on DVD in 2009 that The Mist started to be widely acknowledged as a tremendously dark and tense horror that showed that even a monster movie can have some depth. The Mist is the best King adaption in a long time and has the makings of a future cult classic. Interestingly it’s directed by Frank Darabont, the creative force behind previous King adaptions The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption.
There are at least a dozen adaptions that are in filming or preproduction at this time, and there are already rumours that studios are currently attempting to buy the movie rights to the upcoming shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, even before King has finished writing it. I suspect there will be plenty on the way as Kings adaptions will far out live the writer himself. It seems almost certain that he will fall into rank with pioneer horror writers such as Lovecraft, Poe, Mattheson, Blackwood and James, and will continue to inspire film makers (or whatever the future equivalent may be) to re-tell and drawn influence from his work.
Ten to Watch
1. The Shinning
4. The Mist
6. The Stand
7. The Dead Zone
9. Pet Sematary
Ten to Avoid
1. The Mangler
5. Riding the Bullet
7. Children of The Corn
8. Silver Bullet
9. Maximum Overdrive
10. The Dark Half