Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Top Ten Things: Stephen King Film Adaptations

Welcome to another Top Ten Things, here at!  I was told recently that I seem to do a lot of top ten lists of things I hate.  I'm pretty sure I've posted way more lists about things I like, but here's another one.  So suck on it, Larry.

Stephen King.  Perhaps no two proper nouns better exemplify the horror genre.  The very name sounds somehow sinister, like you can't say it without the gritty "movie trailer" voice.  Go ahead, try it.  When I was first introduced to King's work as a child there was something intimidating about that name with the imposing logo his publisher used at the time.

This one.  Looks so badass and they never should've changed it.

Thirty-some years later and Stephen King has produced more timeless horror stories and iconography than any other author.  He is the Edgar Allen Poe of his generation, and continues to churn out novels at a superhuman pace.  To borrow a line from Hamilton, he writes like he's running out of time.

King found success as a muse for Hollywood films very early in his career, selling his first novel Carrie for film adaptation only about a year after it was published.  From then on, King's work became an inspirational gold mine for filmmakers, to the point that in 1977 he began granting film rights to aspiring auteurs and students for only one dollar, provided the films would never be shown commercially without explicit permission.  As for Hollywood, the films inspired by King's writings over the years have grossed over $2.3 billion domestically when adjusted for inflation, with the latest, It, smashing numerous box office records in its opening weekend.

Stephen King's stories and novels have always lent themselves well to cinematic interpretation, and while the results are sometimes mixed, his works have indeed inspired some bona fide film classics.  Below are ten such examples....

10. Christine

One master of horror adapting another, John Carpenter's 1983 film version of King's novel is one of the great "killer car" stories.  Nerdy high school kid Arnie Cunningham falls in love with and buys a dilapidated (and unbeknownst to him, possessed) 1958 Plymouth, restoring it to pristine condition and gradually becoming its servant, at the expense of his actual friendships.  "Christine" then begins attacking Arnie's enemies and even displays the ability to repair itself after being damaged (In a scene that totally blew my mind as a kid).  John Carpenter spectacularly brings to life the evil car, imbuing it with the villainous idiosyncrasies of a human character and giving us one of the screen's most frightening vehicles.

9. The Running Man

This one a) hardly even qualifies as a Stephen King movie and b) is the guiltiest of pleasures.  King's novel The Running Man (published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym) is rife with sociopolitical commentary in addition to being a taut-as-fuck suspense/action thriller.  The protagonist volunteers for a sadistic game/reality show where he'll be hunted down by the authorities for a full month.  If he wins he gets one billion dollars.  If he gets caught he dies.  This novel is harrowing and smartly written, with a sensational climax.  The film on the other hand is a dumb, goofy Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle with pro wrestling-style villains and cartoonish set pieces.  But goddamn is it a lotta fun.  In the film, The Running Man is simply an American Gladiators-esque game show where convicted criminals face off against suped-up military types, and if they survive they get a full pardon.  Arnold's character (wrongly convicted of mass murder) not only has to escape over-the-top villains like Buzzsaw and Dynamo, but is also tasked with finding his friends' hidden resistance base, in the hopes of hijacking the TV signal and clearing his name.  As I said, this has VERY little in common with its source material but it's still an exceedingly enjoyable cheesy action film from a bygone era.  That said, I'm dying for someone to do a faithful adaptation.  (Check out my in-depth analysis HERE)

8. Carrie

The one that started it all, Brian DePalma's adaptation of King's first novel blended supernatural horror elements with an intimate character study.  Sissy Spacek shines as the socially crippled, telekinetically gifted title character, who is bullied by both her schoolmates and her overbearing, religiously fanatical mother (a crazy-scary Piper Laurie).  The film has an almost dreamlike quality, with washed-out visuals and plenty of DePalma's signature slow-mo technique.  It all builds to the iconic, horrifying climax where Carrie, soaked in pig's blood as the result of a cruel prank, lashes out at the entire school and later has a final showdown with her psychotic mom.  Boasting two excellent lead performances and one of the all-time classic climaxes, Carrie helped launch the careers of both King and DePalma and proved a highly influential example of its genre.

7. Survivor Type

Billy Hanson's 2012 "Dollar Baby" adaptation of one of King's most disturbing short stories sadly can't reach the audience of a wide theatrical release (It's been shown on the festival circuit and briefly online), but it deserves inclusion on this list.  Hanson took the diary format of the story, the account of a disgraced surgeon trapped on a desert island who resorts to eating parts of himself to survive, and translated it as a video journal.  Actor Gideon Emery gives a staggering one-man performance as Dr. Richard Pine, conveying false bravado in the early passages and later a growing madness and despair as he removes and devours more and more of his own body.  The result is an incredibly effective, visceral piece of body horror sure to please any King aficionado.  If you have the opportunity to see this film, do it.  (Full review HERE)

6. Misery

One of two directors with two entries on this list, Rob Reiner put out a second excellent King adaptation in 1990 with Misery, the story of a famous author taken captive by a crazed fan.  James Caan delivers an understatedly honest performance as trashy romance novelist Paul Sheldon, while Kathy Bates became an Oscar-winning star with her terrifyingly believable turn as Annie Wilkes, a devout spinster with a checkered past and an unhealthy obsession with Paul's books.  Their co-dependent relationship takes frighteningly unexpected turns, and while not quite as graphic as the novel, is still a pretty grisly thriller with two excellent leads.  Reiner showed a real gift for adapting King's books and I'd love to see him return to this milieu in the future.

5. It

One of the latest King adaptation(s) to hit theaters, the gleefully scary It and its B-side It: Chapter Two covers King's sprawling 1986 epic, as seven pre-teen friends join forces against a demonic, all-powerful entity in the shape of a homicidal clown and reconvene 27 years later as adults to finish the job.  Boasting excellently compelling acting, slick cinematography, and atmospheric special effects, both halves of It blend touching coming-of-age and midlife crisis elements with horrific themes of good vs. evil.  The filmmakers trimmed the novel down to its essentials in order to present the best parts and keep the story focused, and the result is an exceedingly adept two-part crowd-pleaser with multiple wonderful performances (Finn Wolfhard/Bill Hader as Richie, Sophie Lillis/Jessica Chastain as Beverly, Jaeden Lieberher/James McAvoy as Bill, and certainly not least, Bill Skarsgard as the terrifying Pennywise).  It is one of the most effective Hollywood horror thrillers in years.  (Full reviews HERE and HERE)

4. The Green Mile

I first saw this film in 2007 and it's one of the most emotional cinematic experiences I've ever had.  In the late 90s Frank Darabont (of Shawshank fame) returned to what he does best - adapting Stephen King material for the screen.  The Green Mile centers around a death row inmate in 1930s Louisiana named John Coffey, a childlike African-American wrongly convicted of murdering two white girls.  Coffey shows himself to be peaceful and gentle, and furthermore seems to possess supernatural healing powers.  Paul Edgecomb, the head prison guard, forms a strange friendship with John, who uses his abilities to heal Paul's bladder infection and cure the warden's wife of a brain tumor, among other miracles.  The Green Mile contains so many heartbreaking and poignant moments it's hard to list them all, but Frank Darabont has once again demonstrated great screenwriting and directorial abilities, particularly when it comes to translating King's stories on film. 

3. Stand By Me

Perhaps my all-time favorite "loss of childhood innocence" movie is Rob Reiner's 1986 adaptation of King's novella The Body (from a collection called Different Seasons).  Stand By Me is about a group of four 12-year-old boys who set out on a two-day hike through the woods in search of a missing boy from across town.  The film is both hilarious and touching.  Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell effortlessly convey the chemistry and deep-rooted friendship between the four boys, while Kiefer Sutherland bursts on the scene as the town's antagonistic hoodlum "Ace" Merrill, whose gang hopes to find the missing boy first.  From a script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Stand By Me contains some of the most hilariously vulgar dialogue in cinema history while also immersing the viewer in the late 1950s setting.  I can't watch this film without thinking of all the different groups of friends I've had over the years.

2. The Shawshank Redemption

I was about fifteen years late to this one.  Shawshank was released in 1994 to paltry box office results but glowing reviews by critics and audiences alike.  But I never got around to watching it until 2009, and I think my immediate reaction was "What the hell have I been doing with my life all this time??"  Based on King's 1982 novella (also from Different Seasons), Shawshank tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a man wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and sent to the brutally austere Shawshank prison.  While an inmate, Andy finds himself improving the lives of nearly everyone in the prison in one way or another; expanding the prison library, helping guards with their taxes, and making the corrupt warden a wealthy man.  But the experience begins crushing his soul and he spends 19 years planning his escape.  Frank Darabont essentially launched his directorial career with this adaptation (after impressing King with a Dollar Baby film based on The Woman in the Room), and it's one of the most note-perfect novel-to-film translations of all time.  Tim Robbins delivers probably the performance of his career as the soft-spoken, brilliantly resolute Dufresne, while Morgan Freeman creates one of the great cinematic characters in the fast-talking, industrious lifer Ellis "Red" Redding.  The story is both moving and fascinating at every turn, and I'd be perfectly happy if Darabont simply dedicated the rest of his career as the go-to Stephen King director (Three of his four features are based on King books).

1. The Shining

The top of the heap for me (I'm sure much to Mr. King's chagrin) is Stanley Kubrick's chilling opus about a family of three shut up in an empty hotel for the winter as bad things begin to happen.  King famously disliked Kubrick's cold interpretation; the novel explicitly plays out like a haunted house story, where Kubrick's take eschews many of the ghostly elements to make it more of a domestic tragedy.  If you're looking for a totally faithful film version of a King novel, this one's probably not for you.  But between the magnificent sets (the Overlook Hotel becomes an imposing character unto itself), the gorgeous, offputtingly geometric visuals (those long empty hallways and the river of blood pouring out of the elevator), the operatic performance by a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson (I'd be shocked if this wasn't the most fun the guy ever had in front of a camera), and the tension-ratcheting music choices (some by Kubrick collaborator Wendy Carlos, some already-existing pieces of music), The Shining is a gloriously disturbing horror masterwork and holds up as one of my all-time favorite films, topping both Kubrick's list and King's.

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