Stephen King has had good movies made from his books and some really bad ones. Someday I’d like to discuss why this is so, but I think the main reason is simply the vagaries of the movie business. When you have as long an IMDB list as King, you’re bound to have a few gems and a few duds. Just in time for Halloween, here is a quick rundown of some of King’s best and worst cinematic adaptations.
The Shining (1980) – Easily the best of all Stephen King’s movies. The fact that King has disowned this movie in favor of a far inferior version (see below) baffles me. Stanley Kubrick took one of King’s scariest books and made it into something weirder and more profound. Jack Nicholson’s signature role.
The Mist (2007) – Frank Darabont, who cut his teeth writing the screenplay for Nightmare on Elm Street 3, loves Stephen King like almost nobody else. And thank goodness King has a fan in Darabont. The Mist, based on King’s short story, is claustrophobic fun. People get terrorized by monsters from another dimension. Be sure to watch the black & white version, which completes the monster movie feel.
Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Another Darabont adaptation. Based on Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Darabont turned a somewhat hokey story about a jailbreak into a meditation on friendship and the nature of Truth. This movie coined the phrase “Shawshank Redemption good.”
Christine (1983) – Who’d’ve thought a car could be so scary? Christine, the titular car, takes hold of all-American nerd Arnie Cunningham and warps him into a sadistic greaser. Christine the movie is made great by a virtuoso performance of Keith Gordon (as Cunningham). This guy has been in only a few movies, but in Christine he showed us how it’s done.
Cujo (1983) – About halfway through this shaggy dog story I thought Cujo was one of those throwaway King adaptations. But when mother and child (played by Dee Wallace and Danny Pinaturo) become trapped in their car, look out. Cujo proves that horror doesn’t have to employ alternate dimensions, demon spirits, or massive CGI to work. Horror, like any good story, works best when it is told on a human level.
Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma directs and Sissy Spacek gets doused with pig blood. Besides that seminal scene and the final fright, there isn’t a whole lot going on here. Still, not bad.
Pet Sematary (1989) – Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall makes this movie worth watching. “Sometimes, Louis, dead is better.” I swear the TV version of the ending is scarier than the gross-out unedited version.
The Shining (TV miniseries) (1997) – 17 years after King tried to fire Jack Nicholson, he finally got The Shining he wanted. King wrote the screenplay for this craptastic farce. Watching the dude from Wings and the chick from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle bicker their way through a haunted house is about as scary as an episode of Divorce Court. Throw in another in a long line of terrible child actors, cheesy make-up, and the fact that they filmed the Boulder scenes in Denver, and you’ve got one of the worst movies I’ve ever had the pleasure to forget.
Thinner (1996) – I hardly remember this one. A fat guy hits a gypsy with his car because his wife is giving him a BJ. The gypsy curses him to become thin, which is awesome at first (free stomach stapling!), then gets scary because he keeps shrinking! The ending has completely eluded me, but I think he accidentally kills his wife. Whatever. This sucked.
Firestarter (1984) – Almost bad enough to be good. Drew Barrymore in the role that made her famous. She starts fires with her mind! They made a funny SNL skit about this: Firestarter Sausages.
It (1990) – Another TV miniseries best forgotten. Good job casting Tim Curry as Pennywise the evil clown/spider/demon/whatever. When a group of childhood friends begin dying as adults, they must return to the sleepy Maine town they all left as soon as they could. This is the Big Chill of horror movies, except the Big Chill was good. Maybe if they had used the cast from the Big Chill instead of Harry Anderson and John Ritter. Also: the only member of the group to stay in this tiny Maine town was the black guy? He was the only black guy in town! Of course the evil clown will find the only black guy in town!
The moral here is to not be so slavish to the source material. King has an amazing imagination. He has written some plots, the scope of which are unparalleled. In order to make these stories into movies, some things need to be left out. Some things need to be changed. You cannot make a cohesive movie if you’re following an 1100-page book to the letter. That said, I do find myself enjoying almost every King adaptation for one reason or another. They’re never boring (except Thinner).
Here’s to many more years of Stephen King movies. Happy Halloween, everybody!