With the author’s new novel ‘Doctor Sleep’ on bookstore shelves and a remake of ‘Carrie’ in movie theaters this weekend, this seems like a good time to do a Roundtable about the best and worst movies based on the writings of Stephen King.
Either movies adapted from Stephen King novels, or movies for which Stephen King wrote the screenplay himself, will qualify for this topic. We’ll also accept a TV miniseries under the category of “movie.”
Best: Along with ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Super 8’, I consider ‘Stand by Me‘ one of the best nostalgic adventure movies about kids. When I was a kid, everything seemed like an adventure. I especially connected with ‘Stand by Me’ because I grew up with train tracks in my backyard. With my brothers or friends, we’d walk those tracks nearly every day. We’d head to the Mojave River bridge crossing because rumors spread of wild things to behold there. Aside from the leech-filled marsh, my childhood wasn’t all that far off from the movie. Plus, ‘Stand by Me’ was my first Stephen King film.
Worst: ‘Christine‘ is an awful movie. Not only is it not scary, but it’s absolutely cheesy. Growing up in the ’80s, plenty of silly movies creeped me out, but ‘Christine’ was not one of them. It was downright bad. There’s nothing scary about the concept of a murderous car that needs no one to drive it. It’s so implausible that not even my childhood mind could find the scares in it. I cheered when Cartoon Network’s ‘Regular Show’ spoofed ‘Christine’ in an episode called ‘Ello Gov’nor’. That’s literally the only good thing to come from ‘Christine’.
Most Underrated: When it comes to horror movies, ‘The Mist‘ is one of my favorites. It’s a collection of horror elements that I love: the dad protecting his kid, monsters from the unknown, and a great conflict between what’s worse – the monsters outside or the people inside. Topping off ‘The Mist’ is the great punch-in-the-gut ending that no one saw coming, not even Stephen King himself. In the Blu-ray special features, King applauds writer/director Frant Darabont for the film’s ending, saying that it’s the ending that he wish he would have come up with.
Best: My favorite Stephen King adaptation is Rob Reiner’s ‘Misery‘, which I think is just a fantastic film. A lot of my love for the movie has to do with the fact that the lead character, Paul Sheldon, is a writer himself. But the real gem of the movie is the performance by Kathy Bates, who deservingly won an Oscar for the role. The film is tense and terrifying without being over-the-top bloody (though that hobbling scene still makes me wince every time I see it). Needless to say, if I ever do write a best-selling novel, I won’t be taking any drives through the snow!
Worst: There are a lot of bad Stephen King adaptations, but for my money, the worst has got to be ‘Cujo‘. I mean, the premise (a mother is trapped in a car with her young son while a rabid dog prevents them from leaving) is so thin that I cannot fathom how King managed to write a whole novel based around it. The film does the story no favors, as the audience is subjected to scene after mind-numbing scene of the characters trying to escape, and the dog stopping them. The whole thing is an excruciating exercise in tedium. At least some of the other King movies are so bad you can laugh at them. But ‘Cujo’? It’s not even worth the time it takes to read the synopsis.
Best: I’m sure that I’m not alone in saying that ‘The Shining‘ is way up there on the list of best Stephen King adaptations, even if Stanley Kubrick strayed pretty far away from King’s original vision. It’s just a beautifully shot masterpiece, and the core elements of the book are still there –so much so that I fall in love with the film even more every time I see it. In fact, I just finished King’s fantastic new follow-up to the story entitled ‘Doctor Sleep’, which follows an older Dan Torrance struggling with the demons of his past, and it makes me want to pop in the Blu-ray and see the beginning all over again.
However, my ultimate favorite King adaptation is easily ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘. It’s really quite possibly the perfect film. I can watch it over and over and over again and never grow tired of any of it. If I could only have one Blu-ray in my collection, this would be it.
Worst: At the other end of the spectrum, there’s actually more to choose from than I’d prefer. If I had to pick just one, the epitome of disappointment is definitely ‘The Langoliers‘. I remember looking forward to this TV miniseries so much when I first saw the advertisements, only to be let down big time. I still have no clue what I actually witnessed, and I have no doubt that’s the day the world stopped loving Bronson Pinchot.
Michael Spike Steinbacher
Best: To me, the choice for best King movie is ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘. The movie works on almost every level. Like almost everything King does, the story is too broad in its characterizations of good and evil. I’m a fan of King, but sometimes the oversimplification makes my eyes hurt from rolling them so hard. Still, the story is a great one and you can’t help but root for our hero, the wrongly imprisoned Andy, to escape from prison and the exploitation of its loathsome warden.
Worst: There are so many bad Stephen King movies it’s hard to pick the worst. I guess I’ll choose ‘The Mangler‘ for this honorific. If you’ve never heard of it, consider yourself lucky. A piece of laundry equipment is possessed by a demon and crushes people. You read that right. It’s an ironing machine. Possessed by a demon. Crushing people. Shit.
M. Enois Duarte
Best: To most, ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ is not only the best adaptation of a King story, but it’s also considered one of the best, well-made motion pictures ever. Indeed, there really is something special about this story of a lowly banker accused of murder, who suffers the daily abuse of a corrupt system. The experience opens his eyes to a deeper awareness of himself, builds unexpected friendships, and helps him find that there’s more to life if you’re willing to fight for it. Ironically, the character discovers genuine freedom from within a prison.
Best: Without a doubt, ‘The Shining’ is one of King’s best works, but if we leave that off the table, I’m gonna say that ‘Children of The Corn‘ and ‘It‘ are probably his best movies. While ‘It’ might not hold up today (a lot of its story is kind of cheesy), Tim Curry as Pennywise is still one of the scariest images ever to be put on screen. Grown-ups have nightmares because of that clown. And with ‘Children of the Corn’, I’ve never been so afraid of kids and cornfields in my life. The haunting music and the notion that brainwashed kids could take over a town and brutally kill anyone is truly terrifying.
If we leave out his horror movies, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is probably the best story King has ever written and was the best adapted into a film.
Worst: King’s worst is obviously ‘The Langoliers‘.
Best: For me, ‘Dolores Claiborne‘ is my favorite King adaptation. It’s definitely a horror story, but the monsters are all worldly. Kathy Bates plays a Maine housekeeper caught up in two potential murders – one in the past, the other present. Through some skillful flashbacks, normally restrained director Taylor Hackford goes all-out in a character based dramatic mystery that keeps unraveling until the very end.
Worst: It’s not that David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone‘ a bad film. It’s that the book is just so damn better. I still have yet to read another piece of fiction that has me enraptured in such suspense. While I adore Christopher Walken, I always found him just too odd to pull off the seemingly all-American Johnny Smith. Martin Sheen delivers an insanely over-the-top depiction of Greg Stillson that borders on satire. It’s also incredibly frustrating that Cronenberg opted out of what should have been intense, and instead went with a more or less plain vanilla approach. I will always wonder what could have been if Stanley Kubrick adapted this one instead of ‘The Shining’.
Most Underrated: I don’t get why people don’t like ‘Needful Things‘ more. Max Von Sydow as the Devil himself versus small town sheriff Ed Harris! What’s not to enjoy?
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
Most Underrated: There are so many great Steven King works to choose from (‘The Shining’ and ‘Misery’ are two of my favorites), but I’ll pick a few of my guilty pleasures, which I guess would classify as underrated gems. As a fan of end-of-times stories, I found ‘The Stand‘ to be a highly entertaining miniseries. Yes, it could have been better (particularly on a pay channel, with the equivalent of an R rating), but the series had plenty of great scenes and stark, powerful imagery. The opening scene of the aftermath of a superbug in a government testing facility, and the escape from New York through the corpse-infested, pitch black Lincoln Tunnel stand out vividly in my mind, years after seeing the series on network television. The Lincoln Tunnel scene is probably one of the scariest ever written (and was, admittedly, better on paper than on the screen). I would love to see a modern adaptation without the restrictions of network censors.
‘The Running Man‘ (based on a short story that King wrote under the Richard Bachman pseudonym) was much better in print than on the screen, but the movie is still a fun action vehicle in which a wrongly convicted felon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes up against an evil game show host (Richard Dawson, perfectly cast) in a show where combatants fight to the death. I still wish the movie had kept true to the book’s ending where our hero flies a plane into the studio headquarters with a middle fingered salute aimed squarely at the show host. But in hindsight, a movie about a plane flying into a skyscraper would have been pretty unsettling when life modeled art (in a much darker way) some years later.
‘The Dead Zone‘, directed by David Cronenberg, is another classic King adaptation, with Christopher Walken as a regular guy turned psychic in the aftermath of a traumatic accident. While he was comatose for five years, Johnny Smith developed the ability to see a person’s present, future and past. His gift manages to save one boy and girl from death and to solve a murder, but not without personal consequences to Johnny. With his health declining, Johnny discovers that a political candidate (Martin Sheen) will one day cause nuclear Armageddon, so he sets himself to stop that at all costs. Although the movie diverges significantly from the book, it manages to stay true to the spirit of the novel and convey the story equally well. And Christopher Walken was born to play the role of a tormented, misunderstood oddball psychic.
Best: Without question, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining‘ is the best movie adapted from a Stephen King novel. The fact that Stephen King himself despises the film (and has been publicly badmouthing it again recently while plugging his sequel novel) really only supports that position. In case you hadn’t noticed, Stephen King has terrible taste in movies. Lest we forget, this is the guy who wrote and directed ‘Maximum Overdrive’ himself.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Carrie’ (1976, thank you), ‘Misery’, ‘Stand by Me’ and the first half of the ‘It’ miniseries.
Worst: Also without question, the TV miniseries remake of ‘The Shining‘ is the worst adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Scripted by King and directed by his buddy, the incompetent hack Mick Garris (see also ‘Sleepwalkers’), this three-part slog may be truer to the plotting of King’s book, but utterly bungles everything else that might make for a good movie. Things like atmosphere, tension or decent acting that Kubrick masterfully conveyed are all completely absent here. Even more importantly, many of the concepts King depicted that worked on the written page or in readers’ imaginations simply seem ridiculous when played out in live action. The two versions of this story are the perfect go-to example of why a “faithful” adaptation of a novel is not necessarily a good adaptation of a novel.
Dishonorable Mentions: ‘Sleepwalkers’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘The Lawnmower Man’ and the last half of the ‘It’ miniseries.
Most Overrated: I’ve never understood the love for ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Its appeal completely eludes me. The film is a competent but extremely formulaic and rather dull prison drama that plays like a TV movie-of-the-week. I don’t hate the movie, per se, but I really just don’t get what people see in it.
You know what’s next. Tell us your picks for best and worst Stephen King movies in the Comments below – or go ahead and rant at me for not liking ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.
I find it pretty interesting that we have some crossover where one person’s “best” ends up as another person’s “worst.”