To celebrate that new IT mini-series trailer and the continual progress of The Dark Tower starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, let’s talk about Stephen King.
Stephen King has a love for film. But he hasn’t had a lot of love for film made out of his own work.
An article on Bloody Disgusting makes a good point that the audience tends to remember the classics while forgetting the rest. The truth is that a staggering amount of King works have been adapted, and that most of them are mediocre or just okay. We talk about things like Children of the Corn and Carrie as horror classics, but quickly forget about the plethora of others such as Cat’s Eye, Creepshow, The Stand, Needful Things, Dreamcatcher, etc. Even then, King himself doesn’t have the same perspective of those who view his stories on the big screen. For example, he famously dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining, which is oft mentioned as one of the best Horror films of all time, and is ambivalent about IT, which he saw as meandering despite Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise the clown.
In 2009’s “Stephen King Goes to the Movies”, which reprinted some of his most popular short stories that have been adapted of his films, he lists his favorite adaptations of his works. Spoilers! We run down the list here (with the exception of “Storm of the Century”, which King actually wrote as a screenplay and which was adapted into a TV miniseries).
Apt Pupil (1998)
A young boy discovers his harmless-looking old next door neighbor is actually a Nazi war criminal in hiding. He blackmails his knowledge of the old man’s past into making him tell stories about what it was like in minute detail, while the old man uses their newfound relationship to blackmail the boy into doing better in school and becoming a more upstanding citizen. The path the two walk together becomes darker and darker, as both the past and future threaten to derail the present.
King weaves his magic in the book, toeing psychological breakdowns without going full unintelligible, and teasing oral ambiguity without ever getting too preachy. As for the film which was directed by, of all people, Bryan Singer of X-Men fame, it is blessed to have two strong actors carrying the heavy character — Ian Mckellen and the late Brad Renfro. All in all a straightfoward adaptation, albeit the ending of the film is a touch lighter than it’s novel counterpart, as it is with several cases on this list (except — SPOILER — The Mist),
A cute St. Bernard contracts rabies, and rains violent, terrifying hell on a small American town — a simple idea in a very constrained setting, and not one with a lot of especial flavor as far as horror films go. Still, it was an idea King to be able to make such a thing very intense on text, and that a combination of breathless and fevered takes makes even more intense onscreen. Walking by barking dogs is sure to make you a little more nervous from now on.
The notable differences between screen and text here is that the film is more gratuitous, and has a much happier ending than the book. Still, King called this the best “of the smaller pictures”
After killing off Misery Chastain, the protagonist in his long-running novel series, author Paul Sheldon gets involved in a car accident. Coming to, he find that he has been rescued by Annie Wilkes, a self-proclaimed superfan. Annie takes care of the bedridden Paul, but Paul quickly realizes that he’s not so much hospitalized as he is trapped.
Misery is an amazing book. Point blank, it is personally my favorite work by King. Cujo plays off claustrophobia and desperation, but Misery does it better with the added flavor of a villainess who is just as predictable but much more diabolical than a rabid dog, and who is ultimately and terrifyingly concerned with keeping the protagonist alive.
Misery is an amazing film as well. It adds a few characters, perhaps to widen the world a bit more beyond the confines of Annie’s shack and make the storytelling less monotonous, but it just demonstrates even more just how helpless Paul’s situation is.
We can rail a bit on how the “axe scene” from the novel turned into the “sledgehammer scene” in the film, but otherwise it is a great adaptation. King is certainly in agreement, having whooped and hollered his way with enjoyment through the film’s first screening.
Stand By Me (1986)
Gordie’s older brother passed away recently, and he’s since been left mostly to his own devices while his parents mourn. After overhearing the story of another local boy who’d been struck and killed by a train, he and his friends decide to go find the body. Along the way, they aren’t terrified by ghosts or ghouls or psychological trappings, but they do learn a lot about themselves and growing up.
The film was adapted from the King’s 1982 novella “The Body”. King has expressed that this may well be the best film adaptation of any of his works, and that it is certainly his favorite. It’s to the point that the only reason “Misery” was made at all was because, while King was reluctant to give anybody the rights to the story, he trusted Reiner because of “Stand By Me”.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Although rather overlooked at the time of its’ release, the Shawshank Redemption is now widely considered by many to be one of the best films of all time.
Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover, for which he is actually innocent. Having to navigate between merciless co-inmates, sadistic guards, and a corrupt prison management system, life becomes unbearably difficult. With only his friend Red as his support system, Dufresne finds a way to live day-to-day without losing hope that he might just find a way to cheat the system and gain his freedom.
The novella was actually called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” — and if you’ve read it or seen it, you’ll know why “Rita Hayworth” was important enough to be in the title. There were also a lot of tiny differences between text and screen, with the most noteable being Morgan Freeman’s iconic Red was actually originally white and Irish. Furthermore, Stephen King says that he initially thought the screenplay was too wordy, and was doubtful it would ever get made.
By the time King saw it being played out onscreen for the first time, he changed his tune and acknowledged that he was watching something destined to be a classic.
Frank Darabont, who adapted this, would go on to adapt “The Green Mile” and “The Mist”. Clearly, he and King are a match made in heaven.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Darabont and Reiner aren’t the only ones who consistently weave movie magic out of King’s works — Kathy Bates hits it out of the park every time too.
Dolores Claiborne is about a woman who is accused of killing the old lady she nursed. What gives the accusation particular weight is Claiborne’s husband who had disappeared some years earlier and is believed to have been killed by her. As we explore whether or not she is guilty through the eyes of her middle-aged estranged daughter, the truth of her past and past relationships are slowly and painfully revealed. Int his case, Bates isn’t going full ham, but is on the other end of the spectrum — restrained, and struggling to express the inexpressible.
Part drama, part psychological thriller, this was a relatively simple short story that was cleanly translated onto film. The film plays the constant flashbacks clearer, although a bit more melodramatically, and is effective in unsettling the audience and asking how we deal with trauma as experienced or witnessed, and whether the ends ever justify the means.
The Green Mile (1999)
Paul Edgecomb and his fellow police guards oversee “The Green Mile” — the green tiled stretch of cells where they keep the men on death row. When a huge and intimidating but softspoken man named John Coffey, convicted of raping and killing two little girls, joins The Green Mile, their lives are changed forever. Did we mention John Coffey has magical healing powers?
Not outright horror, but certainly fantastic and very, very sad, the Green Mile was a series of novellas and made an awfully long film (3 hours running time). Nevertheless, it was lauded by critics and is the highest-earning King adaptation by a long shot. King was especially happy with the casting of Tom Hanks, who he had envisioned while writing the novel series, and of Michael Clarke Duncan, who he said looks exactly like John Coffey should. On a personal level, I thought Sam Rockwell was also immaculately cast.
The Mist (2007)
A mist descends over a small town. When it’s revealed that there are huge, killing things lurking within it, the town must band together to protect each other. But as time wears on and the horrifying circumstances continue to test the townspeople, it begins to seem like the real monsters are among them.
While the special effects are only debateably effective and the whole reasoning behind the mist itself is still kind of rough around the edges, the film and the actors capitalize quite grandly on the human element of King’s horror novella. The result is stunning: nobody walks out of “The Mist” film un-effed up, especially after that iconic and infamous ending, that King says he wishes he thought up himself.
Successful writer Michael Enslin wants to spend a night in Room 1408 in the Hotel Dolphin, as part of his next book about the supernatural. Enslin has made a career out of writing about this kind of thing, although he remain skeptical. Despite all warnings and a rundown of all the deaths and suicides that have occurred there, he gets his booking. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
The film expands on the short story, with a lot more happening in the room itself, and fleshing out Enslin’s past and motivations. It’s less “man finds his faith shaken” the way the short story is, and more “man battles his inner demons who may be, just may be, be actual demons”. Stephen King apparently really liked this film. It definitely expanded on the original short story a lot, but King felt it stayed true to the core of the story and specifically praised John Cusack’s performance.