Stephen King adaptations have a reputation for blowing dead bunnies, probably because a lot of them do. “A lot,” however, does not mean all or even most. When looking at a comprehensive list of all the adaptations of King’s works – both on television and at the movies – the majority are actually quite good. A few are even great, either because they understand the source material so well or can accentuate rather than detract from the central themes. With Bag of Bones hitting airwaves this Sunday, here’s a look at 13 of the most chilling takes on the master’s work.
Honorable mentions go to Delores Claiborne, Pet Sematary, Apt Pupil and the 2009 version of Children of the Corn.
The Night Flier is a fairly obscure entry in the King canon, thanks to a barely there theatrical release and subsequent consignment to the back shelf of the video store. That’s a pity because it fully embraces the grand guignol pulp of the original short story. Miguel Ferrer stars as a cynical tabloid reporter on the trail of a serial killer who travels by plane to isolated airports. Is said killer really a vampire or just a sick lunatic who thinks he is? One look at the video box gives you the answer, but that doesn’t make the journey any less of a hoot.
Of all the directors to tackle Stephen King, Rob Reiner is easily the most surprising. The once and former Spinal Tap groupie cut his teeth on comedy and is best known for classics like The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. But twice in his career, he delved into King’s work and both times he struck gold. Misery, about a romance novelist held hostage by his “number-one fan,” turned a typical two-hander into a brilliant exercise in tension and nerve. Casting James Caan as the novelist punched up the scenario a bit – making it more of a battle of wits than the victim/oppressor symbiosis of the novel – but the real revelation was Kathy Bates, whose turn as the batshit crazy Annie Wilkes netted her a well-deserved Oscar.
The movies tend to be kinder to King than television, especially TV miniseries which usually add tedious flab to already dubious material in an effort to fill out a four-to-six hour running time. It proved one of the bigger exceptions, despite stemming from one of King’s most verbose novels. The basic structure helped, detailing seven childhood friends who unite to destroy a monster living in the sewers of their hometown, only to return as adults to face the same horror. The novel cut back and forth between the children and grown-ups; the miniseries divided it neatly in two to cover the running time without a hitch. Oh, and then there was the monster, played by Tim Curry, who might be the scariest clown of all time. Considering the long history of scary clowns, that says a lot.
Storm of the Century suffered from an overly long running time: taking six hours to deliver material that could easily be wrapped up in four. But it also encapsulated many of King’s most potent themes – such as small town sins attracting big-time evil – in a surprisingly elegant way. Colm Feore (aka “that guy who always plays the cool villains”) brings an understated menace to the infernal stranger who visits an island village on the eve of a colossal blizzard. What he wants, and the means with which he extracts it from the townsfolk, proves as unsettling as anything King ever wrote. Even more importantly, it sticks the dismount… a feat that defies the author far more often than it should.
You can add Brian Henson’s name to Reiner’s in the “what the hell are these guys doing working on Stephen King” list. The son of the legendary Jim Henson grew up with Kermit the Frog as a playmate and has directed several of the Muppets’ big-screen adventures, as well as the cult sci-fi series Farscape. Tagging him to helm this story – in which a professional assassin is set upon by a platoon of plastic green army men brought to life – at first seems like utter folly. The results, however, are nearly perfect (appearing in the Nightmares and Dreamscapes series on TNT). Henson retains the dialogue-free nature of the story, counting on a wordless performance from William Hurt (as the unnamed hitman) to carry the day. The closed-box scenario is rife with suspense, and Henson strikes a gorgeous balance between absurdity and menace with the little toys hell-bent on victory at any cost.
Like The Night Flier, Gramma is quite obscure: appearing as an episode of The Twilight Zone revamp in the mid-1980s and then largely forgotten. The original short story concerns a young boy left alone with his infirm grandmother, who may or may not be a witch. Director Bradford May and his screenwriter (some cat named Ellison) add a thick helping of H.P. Lovecraft to the scenario, then use the time-honored tradition of letting the audience’s mind fill in the hideous blanks. We’ve included the whole episode above (in two parts) courtesy of YouTube. Don’t watch it with the lights off. Seriously.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending to Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of King’s very scary novella. However, no one can deny its sheer ballsy power, which comes on top of an already harrowing movie. King described the scenario as “The Alamo as envisioned by Burt I. Gordon,” with creatures in a mysterious white fog threatening a disparate band of people trapped in a local supermarket. Though deadly, they aren’t the real monsters; not compared to the frightened humans inside, most of whom would rather turn on each other than unite in the face of a common threat. Great performances from villains are almost par for the course on this list, but looking at Marcia Gay Harden’s religious lunatic here… yep, there’s another one.
Long before Tales from the Crypt graced HBO, King and his pal George A. Romero delivered their own homage to EC Comics in an effort that Tales could only emulate. A number of surprising faces show up in the five grisly stories that comprise the film – including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, and Leslie Nielsen playing it terrifyingly straight as a wife-killing beach lover – all of whom give themselves wholly to the premise. King possesses the right amount of sick irony to make each story work, and Romero gives his signature zombies the right amount of absurd whimsy to keep the gore from getting too heavy. It holds up very well, and with help from Tales has almost single-handedly kept the spirit of EC Comics alive.
The Shining remains a source of considerable controversy due to the creative clashes between King and the late Stanley Kubrick. I confess that I find Kubrick’s vision problematic in a number of areas. He diverges from the text significantly, and by switching the hotel’s focus from Danny Torrance to his father Jack, dilutes the impact of the boy’s psychic powers. But no one can deny the director’s sheer technical prowess… especially in the last thirty minutes, which rank among the most terrifying sequences ever put on film. King always disparaged the results, but while his own version is more accurate to the book, it can’t manage one-tenth of the horror on display here.
King departed from the horror genre in a big way with Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas that dealt with hope, damnation and nostalgia. Two of them produced adaptations that rank near the top of this list, starting with Rob Reiner’s 1986 version of The Body. Four boys travel along a stretch of railroad tracks in search of another boy’s corpse, but that ostensibly morbid task covers up for a fond farewell to their youth. Only the two brightest seem aware of it, and only one – narrator Gordie Lachance – puts the feelings into proper words. The book cemented King’s ability to defy stereotypes. The movie perfectly captured that strength while opening it up to a wider audience.
David Cronenberg’s movies are about as cuddly as proctology exams, which is ironic considering how deeply sympathetic many of his protagonists can be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Dead Zone which gives creepmeister Christopher Walken one of his best roles as tragic Everyman John Smith. Cronenberg stresses the agonizing nature of the man’s psychic gift – the fact that people regard him as either a freak or a fraud – while slowly revealing its greater purpose to him (and us) with measured grace. Martin Sheen chews the scenery as Smith’s crazed nemesis, but fans of his best-President-ever on The West Wing will delight in a polar opposite figure here. It’s not only one of the best King adaptations, but one of Cronenberg’s best as well: up there with the likes of Eastern Promises and The Fly.
Few figures are more pitiable than Carrie White: friendless, joyless, dominated by an insane mother, and the target of her classmates’ baseless yet neverending scorn. The tragedy is not that she possesses secret gifts, or that she uses them to settle the score in one of the greatest revenge scenes ever filmed. The tragedy is that a number of genuinely well-meaning people suffer as well: people who bent over backwards to reach her, only to see their efforts dashed in a single act of thoughtless cruelty. King understands the dynamic of bullying like few others; in Carrie, Brian De Palma found the perfect embodiment of its pain, its rage and its pointless, unwarranted waste.
Shawshank is a true case of redemption: the film initially bombed at the box office and was overlooked during awards season in favor of an extended pissing match between Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Gump proved the “winner” on Oscar night, but while its reputation has since plummeted (and Fiction’s remains largely unchanged), Shawshank rose meteorically, thanks to Turner Broadcasting’s commitment to showing it every hour on the hour for about a decade. Like Stand by Me, it stems from a section of Different Seasons, and like that earlier film, it finds a perfect visual interpretation of King’s words. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins turn in career-best performances, while Frank Darabont – who had already proved his affinity for King with the powerful short film The Woman in the Room – began his fruitful collaboration with the author in earnest. How good is it? Not only does it top our list, but it also ranks #1 on IMDB’s list of the greatest films ever… ahead of the likes of The Godfather, Schindler’s List and Seven Samurai. You might quibble on the ranking, but there’s no question that it belongs in such company.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum. Bring your HAZ-MAT suits.