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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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