As we saw yesterday, Stephen King has done fairly well by and large when it comes to adaptations. “By and large,” however, doesn’t include the ones below… which didn’t so much mishandle his work as crush it with a steamroller and dance merrily on the mangled remains. When they go bad, they go really bad: so bad in fact that they often eclipse the better King adaptations with their sheer unbridled suckitude. Whether or not Bag of Bones joins their ranks has yet to be seen (my money’s on “yes”), but it’s hard to imagine it doing much worse than some of the titles below.
Dishonorable mention goes to Rose Red, The Tommyknockers, The Graveyard Shift and the TV version of The Shining.
Needful Things is not quite a bad movie; just one that squanders the potential of one of King’s better books along with the talents of some truly brilliant actors. With Max Von Sydow playing the devil and Ed Harris the heroic cop trying to stop him from corrupting a small Maine town, this should have been a home run. Instead, it bungles the dark King ending in favor of some simple homilies about undue possessiveness and a wasted turn from legendary character actor J.T. Walsh. Stick to the source guys… in this case, you can’t go wrong.
On the other hand, this adaptation remains very close to the book – and a pretty good book at that, written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Unfortunately, the film version utterly screws up the tone of the piece, turning a dark parable about the weight-loss craze into an inadvertent comedy. Bad performances, mistimed plot developments and some embarrassingly crude make-up kill whatever potential the project may have had.
Look, I know Robert Englund has to eat, but he can do better than this piece of idiocy based loosely on King’s early experiences in an industrial laundry. The story’s dark simplicity gets buried beneath a slew of occult hokum, and while the ending remains more or less true to the source, it works much better in the mind’s eye than on celluloid. And is that Tobe Hooper in the director’s chair? Oh Tobe, how could you?
If you’re not skeptical of Bag of Bones yet, one look at this gobbling turkey will convince you otherwise. Helmed by King regular (and serial hack) Mick Garris, it focuses on the worst elements of the Richard Bachmann novel while ignoring the more workable material that might have saved it. Ron Perlman chews up the cheesy role of a possessed small-town sheriff, but the rest of the cast struggles with the contrived nature of the evil-hole-in-the-ground scenario, and poor Tom Skerritt delivers a career low in his misbegotten efforts to bring the production to a conclusion.
Dreamcatcher is something of a legend in Hollywood circles: a film so bad that it all but destroyed the directing career of the great Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan and William Goldman collaborated on the screenplay – about a group of hunting buddies who stumble across an alien invasion – and for the first half, it actually does all right for itself. Indeed, it goes off the rails so slowly and imperceptibly that you hardly realize you’re in freefall until the climax… when even the likes of Morgan Freeman and Timothy Olyphant can’t save us. Kasdan returned to the directing chair for the first time in nearly a decade last year; here’s hoping the results (due for release in 2012) do better than this one.
Some of the works on this list were ruined by filmmakers who didn’t know how to bring King’s words to life. But this one – appearing in TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes anthology – rests solely on Big Steve. The story just blows: a goofy misfire based on a ridiculous premise that tries to infuse real horror into a scenario that simply isn’t scary. No one could save it, but anyone who watches this turd will regret that they tried. A young couple finds their way into an isolated town populated by the souls of dead musicians – Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, and the like. The ghosts trap them there, then force them to stay for an endless concert… which is apparently supposed to scare the crap out of us for reasons I cannot possibly fathom. “You must spend all eternity listening to the greatest rock songs of the 20th Century performed by the original artists! WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW?!” Hell is not a K-tel commercial, Steve… and if it was, it would play much lamer music than this.
With the possible exception of Bonfire of the Vanities, no good novel has ever been as righteously undone as King’s prescient science fiction story The Running Man. It posited a grim future where lethal television game shows keep the populace distracted from the corporate oligarchy slowly suffocating them. Looking out the window today, it’s terrifying how close he got it. Then someone said, “let’s put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead!” and turned a chilling piece of dystopic anger into a crudely realized cartoon. In my dreams, I see Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale bringing the story to unforgettable life. Then I wake up to find Arnold in that yellow jumpsuit… and have to bleach my eyeballs just to purge.
King himself wrote the screenplay for Sleepwalkers, which again means that he really has no one to blame but himself. He borrowed heavily from Cat People in his tale of a mother-son pair of feline monsters, but delivered none of the transgressive sexual energy that came with that earlier effort. Instead, he and Garris (directing his first King piece, though sadly not his last) focus on a contrived high school romance, badly executed special effects, and endless shots of cats running hither and yon in an effort to “scare” us. Not even the great Alice Krige – who plays the maternal half of the supernatural duo and eats creepy characters like this for breakfast – can shut down the resulting Suck Factory.
One could argue that this doesn’t belong on the list simply because it has nothing whatsoever to do with King. But it was originally released as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man until Big Steve sued to have his name removed. New Line basically tacked one brief scene from the short story into an existing script called Cyber God in a brazen effort to milk the author’s brand name. (It took three court rulings in King’s favor before they finally complied.) Even without that behind-the-scenes drama, however, the film is an embarrassment to all concerned. Envisioned as a technophobic cautionary tale by way of Flowers for Algernon, its once cutting-edge visual effects have aged like week-old fish, added to a quasi-religious storyline that actually asks us to take chimps in silver jumpsuits seriously. *Shudder*
To paraphrase the ad, “If you want something fucked up right, you’d better fuck it up yourself.” King himself stepped into the director’s chair for the first and only time to adapt his own short story “Trucks.” He was apparently loopy on cocaine for the entire production, and to his credit, he has since disowned the whole thing. The short story posited a scenario where vehicles come to life and lay siege to an isolated truck stop; it worked in part because the humans inside were helpless, and because they had no idea what lay at the source of the threat. King – egged on by Lord of Schlock Dino De Laurentiis – cooks up a funny-for-all-the-wrong-reasons explanation involving aliens from outer space, then gives the truck stop a pile of rocket launchers in the basement to help the residents blow shit up real good. The logic holes pile up like a crash at the Indy 500, until you stop trying to keep ahead of them and just enjoy the mess. Normally talented performers like Pat Hingle and Yeardley “Lisa Simpson” Smith are lucky they didn’t lose their SAG cards for their efforts here, while then-hunky lead Emilio Estevez tries to smolder at us long enough to make a break for the exits. Only the AC/DC soundtrack escapes unscathed… and thanks to these newfangled “compact discs” the kids are so into, you don’t have to subject yourself a single moment of the movie to hear it.