Tomorrow is the birthday of Mr. Stephen King, so break out a party hat, have a slice of cake, and douse yourself in pig’s blood. Mr. King’s gradual progression, over the last couple of decades, from genre populist to critical darling has been a joy to watch. But the conventional wisdom that his books make for lousy movies inexplicably still holds. Make no mistake, they’ve turned his works into some turkeys, as anyone who’s sat through Graveyard Shift, Dreamcatcher, or his first (and so far only) directorial effort Maximum Overdrive can tell you. But his novels and stories have also provided the groundwork for several genuinely great movies — many of them, surprisingly enough, not even set in the world of the supernatural. After the jump, our picks for the best Stephen King movies to date.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar — and a place in the hall of fame for great cinema villains — for her performance as Annie Wilkes, the “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who has earned her ire by killing off her favorite character. Ace screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) fluidly adapts one of King’s most personal works, and director Rob Reiner smoothly melds its humorous and dramatic elements with some very, very good scares. (Anyone care for a hobbling?)
Stand By Me
Misery marked Reiner’s second time bringing a King story to the screen; he had a giant success in 1986 with this atypically scare-free coming-of-age drama. It was based on King’s novella The Body, which first appeared in his 1982 collection Different Seasons, a volume which helped established King as more than a mere purveyor of horror. Three of those four stories have been turned into films; this was the first, an elegiac and evocative memory play (with projectile vomiting) that recalls that ethereal moment between childhood and adolescence with a clarity and vividness that remains astonishing.
Another Different Season adaptation, this one directed by Bryan Singer as his follow-up to the smash hit The Usual Suspects. The late Brad Renfro plays a high school student who discovers that his elderly neighbor (Ian McKellen, never better) is a former Nazi war criminal. Rather than turn him in, the fascinated teenager blackmails him for information about his crimes, and gets a glimpse into the true nature of evil — and finds out how much of it is hiding within himself. Singer’s snappy direction and expert hand with his actors creates an unnerving and truly horrifying cinematic experience. (Fun fact: an earlier adaptation, starring Nicol Williamson and Rick Schroeder, was well underway — with about 40 minutes of the film in the can — when it was abandoned due to a lack of funding.)
The Shawshank Redemption
Different Seasons yet again, and since there’s not much to say about this tender, moving, and powerful picture that hasn’t already been said (or hasn’t occurred to you during one of its roughly ten thousand TNT showings), it’s worth wondering why so many of the best King works have been adapted from that odd literary mash-up of short story and novel known as the novella. Our theory: King’s novels are so rich and lengthy that, in wrestling them down to a manageable feature film, much of the atmosphere and detail that makes them so memorable is lost in the translation. But the filmmakers — including King himself — who’ve tried to turn his short stories into feature films find themselves in the opposite predicament, stuck pulling out conflicts, adding in scares, and overdoing the themes to make a compact narrative into something bulkier. To borrow the Goldilocks language, if a novel is too hot and a short story is too cold, the novella seems (in King adaptations, anyway) to be “just right.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont has had a long and fruitful association, beginning with his short film adaptation of King’s The Woman in the Room, from the early short story collection Night Shift (this was one of King’s so-called “Dollar Babies,” the product of his long-standing policy of granting permission to student filmmakers to adapt his short stories, for the fee of one American dollar). Darabont was propelled to the ranks of the A-list with Shawshank, which nabbed him a Best Screenplay and Best Picture Academy Award; he followed that up with an adaptation of King’s serialized novel The Green Mile, a terrific film that we would have included on this list if it didn’t feel like repetition — we tend to think of it mostly as a continuation of Shawshank. But his most interesting film to date may well be his adaptation of King’s novella (see what we mean? About the novellas?) The Mist, a disturbing science fiction story in the mold of the best in ’50s sci-fi. See it, if you can, in Darabont’s preferred black and white, and marvel at an ending so ballsy and nihilistic, we still can’t believe he got away with it.
Hearts in Atlantis
King’s 1999 book Hearts in Atlantis is one of his most ambitious and challenging works, an unusual hybrid of novel, short story collection, and novella that tells five intermingling stories, of varying styles and lengths. Contrary to its title, this 2001 film helmed by Shine director Scott Hicks and adapted (once again) by William Goldman is not a full film version of the book; it is mostly based on one of the novellas within it, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” with its ending provided by the short story “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling.” An adaptation of the entire book would be next to impossible (unless it was made into a miniseries); Hicks and Goldman find a nice compromise with this melancholy and moving drama, which features a remarkable (and remarkably unsung) Anthony Hopkins performance.
King was famously less than ecstatic with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his early bestseller, and to be fair, it’s as much a Kubrick movie as it is a King one. That sense of uneasy collaboration is all over The Shining — not just between King and Kubrick, but between Kubrick and his cast — and however it happened, and however far it may have wandered from King’s book, Kubrick created one of the most unnerving, disturbing, and intricately fascinating films of the 1980s.
Like The Shining, the first film adaptation of a Stephen King book is as much about its director as it is about its source. Carrie, King’s first bestseller, was a fascinating narrative told in an epistolary style seemingly influenced by Stoker’s Dracula; director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen jettisoned those flourishes, focused on the central conflict between shy Carrie and her domineering mother, and squeezed it like a vice. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are flawless in those roles, and the picture’s blood-soaked, split-screened climax may well be DePalma’s single finest set piece (no minor accomplishment, that).
The Dead Zone
The virtues of this 1983 adaptation of King’s 1979 novel are too numerous to avoid merely rattling off in a semi-list form: the sleekness of David Cronenberg’s direction, the pleasure of Christopher Walken’s prickly performance, Michael Kamen’s eerie music, Jeffrey Boam’s tough (and often witty) screenplay, and, last but not least, the discombobulating experience of seeing Martin Sheen play a character who shouldn’t be President of the United States.
King penned this freaky, funny, and unapologetically entertaining 1985 anthology film, which puts together two of his short stories and an original tale of pet terror. “Quitters, Inc.” features James Woods at his sleazy, ticky best, playing a smoker who tries to kick the habit, with the help of a very persuasive program. Drew Barrymore (who fronted the previous year’s flawed but satisfying adaptation of Firestarter) plays a little girl who adopts “General,” the titular feline, who protects her from a killer troll. But the best of the trio is “The Ledge,” a relentless little suspenser in which in inveterate gambler (Kenneth McMillan) bets his wife’s lover (Robert Hays, of Airplane) that he can’t make a full circle around his penthouse’s skyscraper — on the tiny ledge. Cat’s Eye is goofy in spots (it feels very much of its 1985 origin), but it’s got some good jolts and energetic performances, as well as several giggly in-joke references to other King films.