The Essentials: 5 Great Films Based On Stephen King Novels

The Essentials: 5 Great Films Based On Stephen King Novels

Stephen King is, all of a sudden, a hot property again. One of the major forces in popular literature of the past forty-odd years, it’s been a few years since the last major King adaptation, but a wealth of projects from the director are on their way in the next few years.

Ron Howard finally has a backer for his epic adaptation of the author’s fantasy series “The Dark Tower” in the shape of Media Rights CapitalBen Affleck is attached to a two-movie adaptation of “The Stand“; Cary Fukunaga is planning the same approach for “It“; a “Carrie” remake is due next spring starring Chloe Moretz; a prequel to “The Shining” is in the early stages while King will release novel sequel “Doctor Sleep” next year; Brian K. Vaughan is adaptingUnder The Dome” for ShowtimeJustin Long is starring in Tom Holland‘s “The Ten O’Clock People“; Jonathan Demme is working on11/22/63“; and there’s many, many more in the works as well (and his son Joe Hill is following in his father’s footsteps too — the adaptation of his novel “Hornsstarts filming any day now).

What’s more is that today marks the still-prolific King’s 65th birthday, and so to celebrate the seminal genre master’s happy day, we thought we’d pick out five of our favorite big-screen adaptations of King’s work. You may not agree, and there are some omissions that may prove a little controversial, But feel free to argue your case in the comments section below.

“Carrie” (1976)
The horrors of going through puberty in a hormone-infested institution full of your peers can be related to by more than most, but it takes the special combination of Stephen King and Brian De Palma to come up with a horror film that’s both as terrifying and deeply felt as “Carrie.” Based on King’s debut novel, it opens with oddball Carrie White (an Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek) getting her first period (something her monstrous, fundamentalist Christian mother — Piper Laurie — never prepared her for) in the shower, and being tormented by her classmates as a result. As it turns out, Carrie has telekenetic powers so this, and their subsequent prom prank, turns out to be something of a mistake. De Palma brings all his Hitchcockian skills to racking up the tension, but crucially, it’s his empathy with his central character (De Palma’s abilities as a director of women are still underrated) that makes Carrie into a classic, pitiable yet terrifying movie monster that can hold court next to Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula and Lon Chaney‘s Wolf Man. One could argue that the film’s dated a little over the past twenty-five years, but even so, Kimberley Peirce has an awful lot to live up to with next year’s remake.

“The Shining” (1980)
These days, relatively few people would disagree with the proposition that Stanley Kubrick‘s “The Shining” is the finest ever adaptation of King’s work — it’s an endlessly rewatchable masterpiece, and regularly named as one of the best horror films in polls (number 2 in Time Out’s last year). One of those few who don’t like the film? King himself, who once wrote that it was one of the few adaptations of his work he could “remember hating,” finding it departing from the source material, thematically and supernaturally, writing “What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of ‘The Shining’ is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.” Well, due respect to the author, but anyone who’s seen the King-approved 1997 made-for-TV miniseries version starring Steven Weber knows exactly how wrong he is. Kubrick made something that doesn’t just elevate the source material, but also the horror genre in general, coming up with something richer, stranger and more profound. Indeed, this fall’s “Room 237,” an outstanding documentary looking at the various theories cooked up around the movie, only goes to highlight further the extent to which the film is a gloriously opaque, multi-faceted wonder, even aside from being visually stunning and brilliantly acted. Of course, much of this is down to Kubrick, but despite his feelings on the movie, much of King’s text remains in there, so he should perhaps learn to feel a little prouder about the thing.

“Stand By Me” (1986)
King’s first collaboration with Rob Reiner (who’d later name his production company, Castle Rock, set up the following year, for the fictional Maine town in which many of King’s novels are set) showed a new maturity for a director who’d previously worked mostly in the comedy arena. Not that “Stand By Me” — about four friends who set out in search of the body of a missing boy — isn’t funny. The script, from “Starman” writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, has that raw authenticity that reminds you of the friends you had as a child that made you laugh until it hurt. But there’s also a melancholy tone here too, with the pain for those friends, for the men they became and the boys they’ll never be again. But, it’s the way that it veers away from sentimentality, even as the material seems to demand it, that marks it as something special. Reiner’s ever-developing keen eye for casting ends up with four very special leads in Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix (whose sad passing only seven years later gives the film extra poignancy), and they don’t so much seem to be acting as just being captured as they come of age. King considers it his favorite of the adaptations of his work, and when you exclude the author’s views on “The Shining,” it’s hard to disagree.

“Dolores Claiborne” (1995)
We should start off at this point by saying that “Misery” is brilliant, and certainly in the upper reach of Stephen King‘s works on screens. But we’d already had one Rob Reiner film, and wanted to keep it to one director per movie. Besides, there’s another Kathy Bates-starring King adaptation of as much merit, but that’s somewhat undervalued: 1995’s “Dolores Claiborne.” Directed by Taylor Hackford and featuring the breakout script from future “Michael Clayton” and “Bourne Legacy” director Tony Gilroy (his second, after “The Cutting Edge,” of all things), the film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena, an alcoholic New York reporter who returns to her Maine birthplace when her mother Dolores (Bates), who was widely believed to be responsible for killing her husband (David Strathairn) 20 years earlier, is accused of murdering her elderly and disabled employer (Judy Parfitt). The story is one of the least genre-tinged things that King ever wrote, and as such, the film was perhaps a difficult beast for audiences to latch onto at the time. But seventeen years later, it’s aged beautifully. Hackford’s direction pulls the film back admirably from melodrama while layering on the atmosphere (it’s arguably his best film), Gilroy’s script is taut, neatly structured and psychologically complex, and the performances are terrific, not least from Bates, who’s probably even better here than in her Oscar-winning turn in “Misery.” It’s a smart and powerful film that undoubtedly deserves to sit aside the others on this list.

“The Mist” (2008)
Over the last twenty years, Frank Darabont has adapted King’s work more than anyone (bar B-movie/miniseries type Mick Garris), and his first crack, prison drama “The Shawshank Redemption,” sits atop the IMDb Top 250 films. But it’s not that, or his similar but more supernatural follow-up “The Green Mile” that we’ve picked out. Instead, we’ve chosen his 2007 horror “The Mist,” based on the short story by King, that involves a group of small town folk, including Thomas Jane, Toby Jones, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Andre Braugher and William Sadler, who are trapped in a convenience store by an impenetrable mist that seems to contain terrifying creatures. It would have felt odd to have a list of King films without a proper monster movie, and for the moment, “The Mist” is the best of them, with Darabont nicely melding his B-movie instincts and the psychological realism of his earlier films. And like all the best monster movies, the humans — namely Harden’s terrifying, Michelle Bachmann-ish religious nutcase — are just as terrifying as any of the giant bugs (indeed, a limited budget means that the effects are somewhat ropey and actually play better in the black-and-white version on Blu-ray). It’s strong and scary stuff, but nothing compared to the gut-punch of an ending (altered by Darabont from the original), one of the bravest, bleakest and most haunting given to a genre picture since “Night of the Living Dead.” Not the popular favorite that ‘Shawshank’ is, but we’d pick “The Mist” every time.  

Honorable Mentions: Aside from “Misery,” ‘Shawshank’ and “The Green Mile,” as mentioned above, David Cronenberg‘s ‘The Dead Zone” is probably the most notable omission. It’s a fairly gripping thriller, but a bit middling by Cronenberg’s high standards, if you ask us. We do like Bryan Singer‘s “Apt Pupil” a fair bit — it’s arguably the director’s best film bar “The Usual Suspects,” but didn’t quite make the cut. Anything else you reckon we’ve missed? Let us know below. And hey, at least we didn’t pick “Dreamcatcher.

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Comments

Kilburn Hall Books

As an author and colleague of Stephen’s this article doesn’t do justice to the order of top films based on a Stephen King short story or novel. As an author, having your book turned into a blockbuster Hollywood movie can be the kiss of death. Just ask Stephen king whose early works adapted into film were disasters. The #1 King work adapted to film was not even a novel at all but a short story called The Shawshank Redemption. The casting with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman was perfect. Hard to believe this 7 page short story was turned into such a meaty full-length film. The #2 film adapt was also a short-story called The Green Mile. The casting wasn’t nearly as good as Shawshank but those who have read Green Mile as a short story are blown away by how the film filled out this short story, Among my other favorite adapts from a King novel were A Secret Garden with Johnny Depp. Sadly, with release of 50 Shades of Grey, one of my favorite King stories has not been adapted for the big screen: Gerald’s Game which more of a soliloquy would require the acting talents of a really great actress like Susan Sarandon.

Kilburn Hall Books

As an author and colleague of Stephen’s this article doesn’t do justice to the order of top films based on a Stephen King shortn story or novel. As an author, having your book turned into a blickbuster Hollywood movie can be the kiss of death. Just ask Stephen king whose early works adpated into film were disasters. The #1 King work adpated to film was not even a novel at all but a short story called The Shawshank Redemption. The casting with tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman was perfect. Hard to believe this 7 page short story was turned into such a meaty full-length film. The #2 film adapt was also a short-story called The Green Mile. The casting wasn’t nearly as good as Shawshank but those who have read Green Mile as a short story are blown away by how the film filled out this short story, Among my other favorite adpats from a King novel were A Secret Garden with Johnny Depp. Sadly, with release of 50 Shades of Grey, one of my favorite King stories has not been adpated for the big screen: Gerlad’s Game which more of a solloquy would reguire the acting talents of a really great actress like Susan Sarrandon.

Daisy

I am still waiting for a good adaptation of Duma Key. What a book it is

Daniel

"Not the popular favorite that 'Shawshank' is, but we'd pick "The Mist" every time."

Well, you & I are exact opposites, then.

Tina

God…Another "Carrie" remake? Give me a break! Enough with these remakes! Carrie has been done and re-done enough. It's bad enough that Seth Grahame Smith also has "It" under consideration. After what he did to "Dark Shadows", I hope Mr. King nixes that idea altogether. If that man has anything to do with that screenplay, a lot of people won't go to it being that DS 2012 or "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" bombed in the U.S. Doesn't anyone have any original ideas anymore? This marketing to the teens and 'tweens is going the limit and Chloe Moretz's name won't sell a picture.

Brickz

Cat's eye deserve to be on this list for that pigeon scene alone.

Brock

Interesting choice to include the Mist on the "Essential List of Great Stephen King Films" and to leave off The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. I don't agree at all, but I do love all three. All three certainly outshine Dolores Clairborne and Stand By Me. Leaving the long standing #1 rated movie on IMDB off a list of "essential" works is ballsy, to say the least – but certainly not accurate or wise.

Phillip

Kubrick's film is superior to the miniseries but it's not as half as powerful as the original novel.

ro828

I hated Kubrick's THE SHINING almost as much as King himself did. Nicholson is a great actor but for some reason nobody tried to put a saddle on his horse for this one. The film slid into the crapper during the scene in Denver where Torrance is interviewing for the job watching over the hotel during the winter months. Told what the former caretaker had done, he says that no, he could never do a thing like that. But while his mouth is delivering that line in a straightforward manner, his eyebrows are going up and down like garage doors. It's a "Look how crazy I am!" moment that in Act One that told us things we shouldn't have figured out until the middle of Act Three. The director's attitude was, hell, everybody's read the book and knows what's going to happen so I'll just throw in some blood and guts and four letter words and hope nobody figures out what a turd this movie is.

Stephen Kahn

PET SEMETARY!

John Constantine

At the time I saw it I liked Hearts in Atlantis. I don''t know how I'll feel now. Also I liked the miniseries The Stand when I saw it.

All those stupid comments complaining about this and that. Annoying. There's always at least one person who has to complain in articles like this. But I agree that the headline is not accurate. "Works" instead of "novels" and that "The Essentials", although I understand it's a category of articles, sounds more like a "that's the definitive list". But hey, anything to atract the readers :P

Edward Copeland

Not to be a stickler for semantics but "Stand By Me" wasn't based on a novel but the novella "The Body" from King's collection "Different Seasons," which also contained the novellas that were adapted into "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Apt Pupil." "The Mist" also was a novella that was included in the collection of stories "Skeleton Crew." This isn't an argument for or against the films' inclusions, just a plea for more accurate headlines. Change novels to works and you have no problem.

Heidi

"Dolores Claiborne" was sooooo much better than Misery. As to the Jack Nickelson in "The Shining…meh…even Stephen King was furious what they did with it. I can see why, they slaughtered the book, and it by NO means was better. At ALL. The better version is with the guy who used to be in the tv show "Wings" was SO much better! They did the book right. Jack Nicholson was a VERY poorly devoloped character, but the other guy, WOW…you really could get into his head. You saw where he was coming from, not just that he was going crazy. It was so much more like it was in the book.. And In the end with his boy and graduation…WOW…just WOW. I watch it every halloween…

JD

Dolores Claiborne is a good movie, but Misery is better. Any list of the best adaptations would have to include Misery, The Dead Zone, Creepshow, a little film a few people might have heard of called THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, ahem….and some of my personal faves would be Silver Bullet, Christine, and Cujo. There should be adaptations of The Long Walk and Eyes Of the Dragon, and a better and more faithful version of The Running Man….

Rick

The dead zone is probably my favorite of all King adaptations. I'll watch Christopher Walken make breakfast though

LiveFreeOrDieRob

Seriously, including The Mist is just wrong when there are other movies you opted out for weird reasons (one film per director?) Honestly, The Mist would have been tops for me as being classic King and well executed as a movie, to boot. Except for that "gut-punch" ending, which I would actually term "shock-value inspired garbage." That movie is ruined by the ending.

Huffy

The Mist being on here is complete bullshit, I'm sorry. That ending is all shock and no substance; it's just cheap emotional manipulation with no real purpose other than to shock the audience into thinking they just witnessed something emotionally profound, not to mention it makes no sense within the film's logic. What preceded it isn't bad but this idea people have that it transcends the horror genre is dumbfounding.

HorrorNazi

"Boris Karloff's Dracula" really?

efbrackett

Thanks for including The Mist. The B&W version on the blu-ray is glorious.

Archer Slyce

These internet lists are bound to start intense debates about what's missing and what shouldn't be here. I still have to say: kudos for picking Dolores and The Mist !! The only film I would really "miss" here (apart from Misery) is Christine … one of my fav King adaptation and one of my fav from Carpenter (which is a lot to say). Honorable mention on my behalf would go to Cujo.

Richard Schitz

The Mist was good up until the ending… Which was awful. The ending in the novella was much, much better.

Mark

I always thought that since Kathy Bates received an oscar for "Misery", than she should get at least two oscars for "Dolores Claiborne". That's how good she is in it. But… not even a nomination, as it it is usually with masterpiece roles.
And the ending of "The Mist" – didn't expect that at all. Wow!

Greg

I'm glad you guys included "The Mist." That's got a pulpy nastiness to it that absolutely needed to be included on here. I'm also bummed that "The Dead Zone" didn't make the cut, but glad to see it mentioned at least. I'll also put that one forward as a great horror-ish movie to watch with someone who can't really stomach horror movies.

Richard Schitz

Maximum Overdrive is a glaring omission.

rotch

I agree with the list and the logic behind it. Would like to see Tobe Hooper's phenomenal 'Salem's Lot in the honorable mentions, even if it wasn't a theatrical release.

Sam

You're not including "Misery" because you have a one director per film policy? Then, sorry, but that's not a list of "essentials." Another horrible omission: "The Dead Zone."

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