This feature originally ran in October 2015 and is being republished ahead of The Dark Tower.
When Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, on April 5, 1974, the New England author unknowingly caused a rift in genre storytelling and filmmaking that has yet to zip back up. Since then, he’s published nearly 100 works and sold over 350 million copies, all of which have spawned countless films, mini-series, and television shows over the past four decades.
Some have been great, some have been awful, some shouldn’t even be allowed to use the original title. When you have an oeuvre with that much depth and licensing that ridiculously expansive, it’s understandable why quantity would triumph over quality. Still, when filmmakers do manage to connect with King’s work, it often conjures up something iconic and masterful.
“I love the movies, and when I go to see a movie that’s been made from one of my books, I know that it isn’t going to be exactly like my novel because a lot of other people have interpreted it,” King previously digressed on the subject. “But I also know it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year, or a year and a half of my life working on it.”
That’s the allure of his many adaptations. Even at their worst, they all work off ideas and concepts that were at one time unique and exciting enough to compel him to write 400 or 1,500 pages about them. Though, because we don’t want to subject you to garbage like The Lawnmower Man or The Mangler, we decided instead to offer up his 10 strongest — all features, mind you.
10. Cujo (1983)
There’s a lot that gets lost in translation from page to screen with Cujo. The somewhat rambling domestic dramas of the book’s various characters don’t condense into a 91-minute film particularly well, which makes all of the familial drama at play feel rushed and overwrought. Cujo himself fares even worse. In print, the good dog ravaged by rabies is probably one of King’s more realistic villains, but the limits of early ‘80s effects make him look as much like a vicious killer as Mr. Ed chewing peanut butter looks like an actual talking horse.
What saves the film, though, are the performances, particularly Dee Wallace’s turn as the terrified but protective mom Donna. Cujo’s potential victims are so realistically terrified and shocked by what’s happening to them that they encourage a similar level of psychological horror from its viewers. Or at least enough suspension of disbelief to imagine that the characters aren’t being menaced by a muddy and drooling ball of fluff.
King’s Consensus: “Cujo is a terrific picture. You know, that one often gets overlooked. If I have a resentment, it’s that Dee Wallace [Stone] never got nominated for an Academy Award. She did a terrific job as the woman who gets stuck out there with the rabid dog who’s menacing them.” —ABC’s Nightline, November 2007
09. Christine (1983)
Christine brings together two of modern horror’s biggest innovators – King, of course, but also Halloween director John Carpenter – and, like the novel, the film adaptation transcends the “killer car” gimmick that’s so easy to stamp on the story. What’s clear in this adaptation is that both Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips understand that this is a story about so much more: high school, popularity, and the distance that grows between old friends as time has its way.
Aside from a throwaway prologue, there’s very little “horror” in the first half. Instead of accelerating into the bloodshed, Christine cruises leisurely through scenes that set up the central relationship between Keith Gordon’s nerdy Arnie and John Stockwell’s hunky Dennis, as well as Arnie’s strained exchanges with both his parents and the school bullies. It’s here the film is strongest, if only because the acting is so pitch perfect. Gordon gracefully tracks Arnie’s evolution from bespectacled doofus to black-shirted dynamo, while Robert Prosky finds an astonishing amount of heart in the book’s fairly one-dimensional shop owner Darnell.
Ultimately, though, Christine is just too faithful to its source material. With so many story beats to hit, Arnie’s turn to the darkside feels shockingly abrupt. Alexandra Paul’s Leigh is never given space to breath (literally), and, as such, her third-act relationship with Dennis feels perfunctory. That, however, doesn’t detract from Carpenter’s chilling score or his astounding use of stop-motion effects whenever Christine begins rebuilding herself or squeezes into a thin alleyway. A wonderful example of ’80s ingenuity. Also, if Radiohead says they’re “Karma Police” video wasn’t at least partially inspired by the death of bully Buddy Repperton, they’re lying.
King’s Consensus: “They may have been leery of Carpenter because Carpenter’s last movie, The Thing, had cost a lot of money, and it was a box-office failure, but otherwise the industry in general has always seemed very high on Carpenter, and I’m surprised in a way that they didn’t go ahead with it. But Carpenter was tapped to direct Christine, and they’re in their second week of production now.” —Den of Geek, May 1983
08. The Green Mile (1999)
While Frank Darabont is rightly celebrated for his masterful work in The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile often gets short shrift for being, you know, not one of the greatest movies of all time.
Perhaps more so than Shawshank, The Green Mile is King and Darabont at their most sentimental: gentle giant John Coffey (a breakout role for the powerful Michael Clarke Duncan – RIP) provides an oasis of childlike wonder and hope in the midst of the profound cynicism surrounding Tom Hanks’ Paul Edgecomb.
Hanks and Duncan are backed by a tremendous supporting cast of character actors, including Sam Rockwell, Doug Hutchison, David Morse, and Patricia Clarkson, and the subtle mysticism of Coffey’s “gift” elevates The Green Mile to one of the best magical realist films of all time. While it might be a bit treaclier than a killer car, The Green Mile offers an old-fashioned, positive take on the supernatural.
King’s Consensus: “I would have to say that I was delighted with The Green Mile. The film is a little “soft” in some ways. I like to joke with Frank that his movie was really the first R-rated Hallmark Hall of Fame production. For a story that is set on death row, it has a really feel-good, praise-the-human condition sentiment to it. I certainly don’t have a problem with that because I am a sentimentalist at heart.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003.
07. Misery (1990)
Folks were livid when Snape killed Dumbledore, and there was much gnashing of teeth after Ned Stark got in over his head at King’s Landing. But for the most part, people understood that J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin were normal people who happened to be brilliant storytellers. For some delusional crackpots, though, these fictional worlds became more than real, and the authors behind the tales were either exalted as gods or cast out as lepers. And that’s exactly the sort of tense relationship King had in mind when he paired super fan Annie Wilkes with best-selling author Paul Sheldon during his 1987 psychological masterpiece, Misery.
Rob Reiner had the challenging task of bringing to life this claustrophobic tale of bed-ridden captivity, drug-induced fever dreams, and swelling anguish. Kathy Bates snagged the Academy Award for her sadistic, albeit gruesomely meek, portrayal of homebody Wilkes, leading critics and Constant Readers alike to deem Misery one of the finest screen adaptations of a Stephen King book ever made. The films Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, and Reiner’s earlier project Stand By Me were also nominated in their respective years, but to date, Misery is the only one to take home the Oscar.
Interestingly, the most recognized and horrific scene in the movie finds Wilkes hobbling a helpless Sheldon (James Caan) with a piece of wood and a sledgehammer. This is a departure from the novel where Wilkes instead uses an axe to lop off Sheldon’s foot completely before cauterizing the wound with a blowtorch. It was Reiner’s idea to change the scene, and although it was met with some resistance, movie fans and horrors hounds agree it was the right decision. The cruelty and pain of the ankles breaking are the stuff of nightmares and continue to haunt as one of the scariest sequences ever recorded.
King’s Consensus: “Misery is a great film.” —Rolling Stone, October 2014
06. Pet Sematary (1989)
Could you imagine what George A. Romero might have done with Pet Sematary? The Night of the Living Dead filmmaker originally purchased the rights for $10,000, but had to drop out when he went on to shoot Monkey Shines. It’s a shame for him, but not exactly for us, as director Mary Lambert’s chilly vision proved remarkably terrifying.
Shot in Maine and working with a screenplay by King himself, Lambert’s adaptation retains the look and feel of the dreadful, hopeless novel. The way she and horror cinematographer Peter Stein juxtapose the crisp seasonal changes with the homestead’s muted colors makes for an atmosphere that’s always menacing.
And menacing is essential as Pet Sematary has always been King’s most unforgiving story. In fact, he initially refused to publish the damn thing for fear that he had gone too far. That trepidation seemingly fuels the proceedings in Lambert’s film, where the impossible is always around the corner, and the impossible always happens.
It also helps that Lambert cast relatively unknown performers, with the exception of the great (and late) Fred Gwyne, who shines as the instantly quotable Jud Crandall. The chemistry between Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, as Louis and Rachel Creed, respectively, feels fractured, but that’s how it’s supposed to be — there’s something wrong.
However, the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective without its two young performers: Blaze Berdhal as Ellie Creed and Miko Hughes as Gage Creed. Berdhal whines, cries, and prods with jarring naturalism, while Hughes goes from adorable to macabre in a deeply confounding way. And then, of course, there’s Zelda.
King’s Consensus: “I think Dale Midkiff is stiff in places. I think Denise Crosby comes across cold in places. I don’t feel that the couple that’s at the center of the story has the kind of warmth that would set them off perfectly against the supernatural element that surrounds them. I like that contrast better. I think it does what horror movies are supposed to do. It’s an outlaw genre. It’s an outlaw picture. A lot of the reviews have suggested very strongly that people are offended by the picture, and that’s exactly the effect that the horror movie seeks.” —Cinefantastique Magazine, February 1991
05. Carrie (1976)
Stephen King’s debut novel about a teenage girl with telekinetic powers almost didn’t make it to print; in an origin story that has since become lore, King threw out the first draft, declaring it shit, and came home the next night to find that his wife, Tabby, had fished the crumpled pages out of the waste basket. She encouraged King to keep writing, telling him that she wanted to know the rest of the story.
Thanks to Tabby, Carrie was published in 1974, sold 30,000 copies in its first print run, and piqued the interest of director Brian De Palma, one of the key players in the New Hollywood movement of boundary-pushing, youth-oriented, and anti-establishment cinema. In a 1977 interview with Cinefantastique magazine, De Palma said that he read the book (“I liked it a lot”) and called up his agent to find out who owned the rights, only to discover that “nobody had bought it yet.” In a 2010 radio interview, King said he was 26 at the time and got paid just $2,500 for the film rights, but added that he felt “fortunate to have that happen to my first book” and was pleased with how the picture turned out.
De Palma’s Carrie, in the wake of William Friedkin’s landmark horror event The Exorcist three years prior, marked another watershed for the genre. Critics raved, careers rocketed (perhaps a young John Travolta’s most of all), and — in what is still a rarity for horror films — the Academy took notice. Sissy Spacek, in the gruesome title role that made her a star, and Piper Laurie, who hadn’t appeared onscreen since 1961’s The Hustler and shocked audiences as Carrie’s mentally unstable mother, received Academy Award nominations for their performances. Sure, Laurie may seem hammy by today’s standards, but she leaves her mark; after all, Moms from Hell don’t get much more terrifying than Margaret White.
Although dated and, yes, more than a little bit campy, Carrie is a classic for a reason. For proof, re-watch the opening scene — how King and De Palma were able to capture the symbolic horror of “becoming a woman” with comments on the religious, social, and societal is beyond me, but they pull it off – and also, that prom scene, which is frenetic, lyrical, blood-soaked Sodom and Gomorrah theatre at its best.
And that 2014 remake? Eh, don’t bother.
King’s Consensus: “I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake, as I have about The Stand and It. Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book.” —Entertainment Weekly, May 2011.
04. The Dead Zone (1983)
Perhaps it was years of offbeat acting, and odd Saturday Night Live characterizations, that hushed the powerful and chilling The Dead Zone. Ask about “that thing where Christopher Walken has the powers?” and odds are you’ll be chatting up “Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic” from SNL. But go back, forget the USA Network show with Anthony Michael Hall, and you have a classically moody David Cronenberg film about a man burdened with an inconvenient and, at times, frightening ability, trying his very best to do something benevolent with them.
Walken plays Johnny Smith, a man with his life ahead of him until a disastrous auto accident puts him in a coma. When Smith wakes up, he finds himself with the ability to learn people’s secrets from the past, the present, and the future. Johnny sees the brutal side of people, the terrible ambitions of man, and horrible things that might happen to people … that is, if Johnny can’t react. No, he doesn’t game the stock market, Johnny dreads his power, but tries his very best to do good with them. But at what cost?
Cronenberg brought his standard clinical intelligence to King’s concept, and pushed Walken to display the deep terror that’s happening to him in the wake of a tragedy. King had pitched this simply as the humanization of a sniper when originally writing, but Cronenberg, being a genre maestro, commits to Smith’s burden in fascinating ways. What are the physical traumas, the psychological anguish that comes with the ability to see the future? The answer is one of the most understated, chilly, and haunting King adaptations.
The Dead Zone is unshowy, deathly, and at times feels all too real. Walken’s supernatural problem is hardly a parlor trick.
King’s Consensus: “You know Frank Dodd, the renegade cop who’s actually done it goes into his bathroom, cuts his throat with a razor – but in the movie … I could barely watch this, I watched it sorta like this [through his fingers]. He gets into the tub, he’s wearing his raincoat, and he has a pair of these barber’s shears, very long, pointed ones, and he fixes them to one of the taps of the tub so that they’re pointing up at an angle, like this [demonstrates 45 degree angle], and he looks almost Japanese; he begins to nod his head, and suddenly he just drives his head down on the shears and one of them goes up his nose and the other one down his throat and he’s just fixed that way on the shears. Otherwise you’d never know it was a Cronenberg picture, because it looks like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings, very pastoral.” —Den of Geek, May 1983
03. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Director Frank Darabont’s breakthrough movie has been sitting pretty at the top spot on IMDb for years, and while in most cases the court of public opinion is suspect, we as a people didn’t do too bad a job on this one.
Adapted by Darabont from King for a cool grand, The Shawshank Redemption is quite faithful to its source material with one major exception: the character of Red (played by Morgan Freeman, who would be Oscar-nominated for his work here) was written as a white man in King’s novella. It’s hard to imagine a world where Red is played by anyone other than Freeman, and his friendship with Tim Robbins’ Andy is one of the greatest the big screen has ever produced.
Much like the novella on which it’s based, Shawshank is all about perseverance and hope, something best echoed in those final lines from both the King’s original tale and Darabont’s adaptation. The movie often veers into dark territory regarding the lives of its inmates, but the happy ending delivered to its leads is absolutely earned. I hope you’ve enjoyed this movie as much as we have over the years.
King’s Consensus: “But even after he received Darabont’s screenplay, King had doubts about the movie’s potential. I thought, ‘Oh man, no chance they’re going to make a movie out of this puppy. It’s too talky. It’s great, but it’s too much talking.’ King said of Darabont’s script. Now that thought just makes for a funny story. And King never had to cash that check. ‘Everybody made a lot of money, and I had Frank’s $1,000 check framed and sent it back to him.'” —The Huffington Post, September 2014