ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 30 – THE BEST & WORST STEPHEN KING FILMS
NOTE: This article is a companion to the previously published BEST & WORST STEPHEN KING NOVELS piece, which can be read (and argued with) here.
I began the discussion of the author’s writing by stating that Stephen King is a notoriously inconsistent writer. His finest novels are unparalleled popcorn genius, and his worst stuff -- while still absorbing – can be utterly frustrating. This is, I think, an equally-fair into to an argument about the films made from his books, though these tend – as a whole – to be less inconsistent due to the overall badness across the board. There are certainly exceptions, of course, and these will be pointed out (at least insofar as my preference is concerned).
It’s also worth mentioning that my breakdown of King’s eras can also be applied to the Big (and Small) Screen adaptations. Of his literary output, I identified four key periods: The Early Years (pre-1974), when his output consisted of lean, nasty novels and EC Comics-inspired short stories for Men's magazines; the Cocaine Period (1974-early '90s) when his popularity soared and his output per year was nearly as excessive as his growing page count; Post-Intervention (early '90s - 1999), at which point his books became the forced, often pseudo-feminist dry-drunk works of a writer trying to relearn his craft but hindered by the handcuffs of sobriety; and Returned From The Dead (post-1999 near death experience - Present), at which point the Dark Tower-obsessed King became in many ways a caricature of himself. Regarding his filmed work, you have:
- The 80s Boom. Beginning with CARRIE in 1976, and going all the way through PET SEMATARY in 1989, this was Peak King. There was almost as much of the author to be found in theaters as in Waldenbooks, but the movies themselves were typically poor, and saddled King with a reputation for “trash fiction” that many (such as myself) would consider unfair.
- Earned Importance. Thanks in large part to the success of STAND BY ME – and more specifically, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – King was re-evaluated and considered an author of greater merit than the filmed works would suggest. This led to a greater emphasis on “prestige” productions, of which several high-rated TV miniseries were made with the writer’s direct input, if not project guidance.
- Third Wave. Glossy adaptations made for streaming services. Television series. Major motion pictures leaning into his Horror and Fantasy work without stigma. And most importantly: a focus on reinterpreting his novels over page-by-page fidelity.
Everyone will have a different list, but once again, the following is mine. Note that in many cases, what constitutes a “good” or “bad” adaptation takes into consideration whether or not the film was a strong or weak take on a strong or weak story. In other words: GRAVEYARD SHIFT might be a worse film than anything on my Naughty list, but it’s also a nothing story to begin with, so who cares?
BEST STEPHEN KING FILMS.
1. THE SHINING (1980). This is a difficult film to set atop the list, but it’s even more difficult to remove. King took serious umbrage with the fact that Stanley Kubrick more or less gutted the heart of his novel, which was the story of a man circling the bowl and taking his wife and child with him. It’s hard to disagree with him, but it’s likewise hard to ignore the air of dread that clings to Kubrick’s adaptation. Notorious for films that seem the cold and clinical work of a gifted computer, Kubrick’s lack of human warmth is a boon to THE SHINING, making it the only translation of a Stephen King novel that raises the hair on the back of the neck. For all its flaws (and there are many, including characterization), THE SHINING is a masterpiece of tone and atmosphere.
2. STAND BY ME. It’s almost unfair to rank King’s non-genre work against the content he’s best known for, but the man writes in so many genres that’s impossible not to. As a novella, The Body was the third-best story in Different Seasons, but director Rob Reiner elevated a coming-of-age story that felt in many ways as emotionally removed as its sister work, Apt Pupil, and injected it with warm, painful nostalgia. A perfect example of how to improve the source without changing the source.
3. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Yeah, I know – I’m sick of this fucking movie, too. And yet there it is.
4. CREEPSHOW. King’s homage to the ghoulish EC Comics he (and I) loved as a kid. The graphic novel is actually more successful than the film, by virtue of Bernie Wrightson’s self-conscious evocation of “Ghastly” Graham Ingles, and Romero’s tendency toward camp. CREEPSHOW is nonetheless good, gory fun for the entire family. Trust me, my kid loved it.
5. CARRIE. Endlessly parodied, De Palma’s inaugural King adaptation stands up in spite of its dated hokiness. The epistolary aspect of the novel is unfortunately lost, but strong performances from Spacek and Laurie elevate what might have been an otherwise self-effacing tale of the worst high school Prom ever.
6. THE MIST. Little-seen and little-loved, THE MIST is a solid entry until you choose the black & white version, at which time it becomes the best TWILIGHT ZONE episode never made. The controversial ending is particularly nihilistic and almost offensive in its deliberate mean-spiritedness, which knocks the film up a whole letter grade on that merit alone.
1. SILVER BULLET. Yes, I’m being serious. King has a tendency toward stories about small towns populated by large ensembles of colorful characters, and it’s a quality that rarely translates well to the screen. SILVER BULLET is probably the best feature-length example of this particular quality making the leap from one medium to another, and also happens to be a fun movie that draws heavily from King’s other well-known flavor of syrup: nostalgia. The werewolf design is still total ass, though.
2. DOLORES CLAIBORNE. The novel’s first-person recitation of the events surrounding Mrs. Claiborne’s murder of her alcoholic, predatory husband requires some necessary expansion to fulfill the theatrical needs of 90s cinema; in this regard, DOLORES CLAIBORNE is largely successful. A dark, melancholy meditation on the lengths a person will go to protect (or avenge) their child against the sexual abuse.
3. CUJO. It’s one of King’s nastier premises, and the performances are harrowing. Now if only they’d stuck to the book’s ending and had the kid die…
BEST STEPHEN KING MINISERIES.
1. STORM OF THE CENTURY. The PEYTON PLACE aspect of King’s fictional Maine villages is never better-represented than it is here in this three-part reworking of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Unlike other ABC miniseries adaptations, STORM OF THE CENTURY is a wholly original work, and thus draws no unflattering comparison to source material elements prohibited by Network Standards & Practices. A slow-unfolding mystery centered around the Randall Flagg we should have gotten elsewhere, and the perfect binge on an evening when the snow is falling.
2. THE STAND. Wait, hold on. Before you start pointing out things I definitely agree with (e.g., Ultimate Evil boasts a mullet), I have to give THE STAND this much: it’s a sprawling epic on the page, and by 1994 standards, it’s a sprawling epic on the screen, as well. The story is reasonably translated, particularly given the television restrictions of the time, and you have to admire the scope of both the story, and the production itself.
WORST STEPHEN KING FILMS.
1. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. I know I said I wouldn’t waste time mentioning films like GRAVEYARD SHIFT, THE NIGHT FLYER, and LAWNMOWER MAN, as they’re shit productions derived from shit stories, but King himself directed this one, and made a point of warning us in trailers that he was going to scare the Hell out of us (his words, not mine). What he delivered was the king of shit movies derived from shit stories, pun definitely intended. Completely unwatchable. PLUS: Yeardley Smith.
2. THE RUNNING MAN. King/Bachman’s strikingly prescient tale of gonzo reality television and terroist plane attacks is stripped of its desperate dystopian nihilism and turned into a fucking Schwarzenegger vehicle. Richard Dawson’s casting is perfect; the rest is perfectly awful. THE RUNNING MAN is almost completely unrelated to the novella from which it derives its name (and almost nothing else).
3. THE DARK TOWER. The single best example of why fans lose their shit when they hear that “creative liberties” are being taken with their beloved properties. THE DARK TOWER gets exactly one thing right (McConaughey), and everything else wrong. I love Idris Elba as much as the next guy (I’m from Baltimore, you know), but get the fuck out of here with that nonsense. King’s enthusiastic endorsement seems downright disingenuous.
4. PET SEMATARY (1989). A gaudy, dumbed-down version of King’s nastiest (and strongest) work. Looking for a meditation on death? On the pain and guilt and self-loathing that follows that accidental death of one’s child? The shrieking, realistic steps a person would have to undertake to dig up and kidnap their dead three year-old? Fuck off, because it isn’t here. Campy and filled with terrible performances, to say nothing of the watered-down presentation of an almost unrecognizable child’s cadaver brought to life, here supplanted by a kid with a little white powder and circles under his eyes. At least this particular version had the balls to go there, though.
5. MISERY. How does one turn a book about writing into a film? They don’t, or better yet, they don’t try. If Misery is about the creative process during a life-threatening bout of writer’s block, MISERY is about finding the (admittedly wicked) humor in the situation. Kathy Bates is never as repulsive as the written Annie Wilkes; neither is she the same sort of crazy as she is on the page. The decision to downplay the violence (the amputation of a foot, followed by the cauterizing of the wound by way of a blowtorch, is replaced by hobbling), coupled with the Locked Room narrative being abandoned (we are constantly cutting away to invented situations taking place outside of Paul Sheldon’s bedroom), and you have a soft, toothless version of a story that ought to have a full set of teeth.
6. IT (2017/2019). Less an adaptation than a remix, IT plays like bullet points given dramatic interpretation. Did Muschietti read the book, or did he skim it? Characters and their defining traits are needlessly switched, and Pennywise is, once again, miscategorized as an evil clown rather than the mask for an unknowable source of evil. Watching IT is like watching a cash-in on STRANGER THINGS, which was itself a cash-in on 80s King movies. Read my 2017 review here.
WORST STEPHEN KING MINISERIES.
1. IT (1990). A stunningly anemic, infantile misrepresentation of King’s final word on youth, aging, and the power of imagination. Tim Curry’s performance remains baffling in terms of its appeal; he isn’t trying to be scary, and so he isn’t. Populated by TV actors (fuck you, Harry Anderson) and kids who would grow up to either 1) do nothing else of note, 2) become quite famous, or 3) commit career suicide by starring in movies about idolizing Chuck Norris, and then commit real-life suicide afterward. Your hair is winter fire, my ass.
2. THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. Are they digging that ship out of the ground, or are the prop pieces just getting bigger? Is that Haldir from LORD OF THE RINGS as a bartender? Where’s the evil vending machine? Why is Traci Lords wearing clothes? THE TOMMYKNOCKERS would easily make the Number One slot if not for the fact that it’s a terrible adaptation of a terrible novel, whereas IT was a terrible adaptation of a (mostly) good book.
3. THE LANGOLIERS. If THE MIST is the best TWILIGHT ZONE never made, then THE LANGOLIERS is the worst TWILIGHT ZONE never made. Borrowing freely from Serling, the notion of an airplane lost in time, with only a few survivors who have to work together to get back, is a solid premise; the novella makes for a brisk, entertaining, and mostly-forgettable experience. The TV version has Evil Balki, shockingly primitive CGI, and the worst freeze-frame shot ever forced upon an unsuspecting audience.
4. THE SHINING (1997). King’s unhappiness with Kubrick’s perceived mismanagement of The Shining’s core storyline – further exacerbated by the film becoming an iconic albatross for the author, infecting even the upcoming adaptation of Doctor Sleep – is both well-documented, and perfectly understandable. The three-part rebuttal, however, is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, the casting is offbeat and effective (Steven Weber is criminally underrated as both a comedic and dramatic actor); on the other, the injection of warmth into a story Kubrick bled dry of humanity, is perhaps over-prescribed. Kissin’ kissin; that’s what I’ve been pissin’.
5. SALEM’S LOT. The best vampire novel of the 20th Century is turned into the slowest, most boring vampire movie of the 20th Century. Endless shots of James Mason driving, interspersed with LMD David Soul mugging for the camera and trying to convince us that his name isn’t incredibly ironic given a story where everyone around him is dead. If there’s one thing Tobe Hooper gets right, it’s the silver glow of vampiric eyes – it’s just too bad that everyone is acting as lifeless as the corpses.
So what does this tell us about King’s work, particularly when translated to screen? I think the easy answer is: It’s hard. The author populates his tales with large ensemble casts, made up of dynamic characters prone to inner monologuing and all in possession of intricate backstories. These are difficult things to convey, especially when screen time is precious. We often see characters streamlined to their defining, story-mandated elements, or else combined with other characters, or dropped altogether. This becomes most necessary any time the adapted source contains ties to The Dark Tower (HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, IT, et al.), in which case a new explanation has to be dreamt up for why characters are doing what they’re doing, if not simply there in the first place.
King is also notorious for weak endings; it’s a consequence of his admitted tendency to begin a story without a clear sense of how it will end. I don’t personally believe that he fails to deliver a satisfying climax more often than he succeeds, but it’s definitely arguable that the bigger the story and the greater the stakes (THE STAND, IT), the more under-baked the resolution will be. Filmmakers have endeavored to solve these narrative issues, and while they are sometimes successful (THE MIST), they are also prone to slipping in the same puddles of shit (DREAMCATCHER).
Does King deserve a bad rap (or, at least, an eye roll) because the filmic representations of his work are better-known to a great number of people than the books that sired them? No. Even a film written exclusively by King (SLEEPWALKERS) is simply the blueprint; the motion picture is the work of a separate artist with his or her own creative powers. It does, however, serve to underline an important point worthy of consideration: some things that work in one medium won’t work well in another. Sometimes it’s best to leave a thing alone so that it can exist and be appreciated as it was intended. Or, sometimes dead is better.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)