The first Stephen King book I ever read wasn’t Carrie or Cujo or Salem’s Lot, like it was for most people. My first Stephen King book was The Eyes of the Dragon. Before that book I was too afraid to read Stephen King; his reputation for creepy, mind-numbing terror preceded him very effectively, and like a lot of fantasy readers, it was just too much for me to take.
But the possibility that someone with that kind of reputation could write a book I could read and enjoy was too much for me to resist, and I read The Eyes of the Dragon shortly after its release in 1987. I was hooked immediately. It wasn’t just the fairy-tale storyline, the story of two princes being manipulated by a bad-to-the-bone practitioner of dark magic. It wasn’t the elements of horror, the creepy transformation of that evil wizard into something even more monstrous. As always with Stephen King, I was hooked by the incredibly complex and believable characters.
Propelled by my love of the characters in my first taste of the Stephen King universe I went on to devour as many of his other works as I could get my hands on. While I’m not able to recall most of my high school teachers or even my high school friends, I vividly remember staying up all night in my junior year just to finish reading The Stand. His use of the catastrophic loss of life to strip away the artifice of civilized behavior and polarize what was left of humankind – good vs. evil – was nothing short of brilliant, and it did more than inspire my endless devotion. It made me a better writer.
No matter how devoted a fan I am of Mr. King and his universe of loathsome monsters, I am not a fan of Stephen King movies. I don’t know why this should be, but with only a handful of exceptions I regard any film based on one of his books to be an abysmal failure. I’m not ignorant to the fact that books, strictly translated, do not make very compelling movies, but the appalling lack of texture and depth in the majority of film adaptations makes me wonder if the screenwriters have any real reverence for the source material – or if they are, instead, resentful of the author’s commercial success.
At any rate, in honor of my favorite writer and in preparation for the upcoming mini-series Under the Dome, I’ve compiled this list of the three best and three worst Stephen King film adaptations.
The Shining, 1980
Adapted from The Shining, novel, published 1977
The slow crescendo of insanity in this movie is what makes it so delicious for me, and at the time there was no better way to get that point across than to put Jack Nicholson out in front of it and let that madman go. After he won the lottery in the casting of Jack Torrance, Stanley Kubrick upped the ante by preserving some of the spookiest elements of the book; for example, the number of ghosts that pop up throughout the narrative to toy with Torrance’s sanity and goad him into doing the unspeakable. I know that Stephen King had issues with the adaptation, but the building sense of creepy terror that was preserved was enough for this fan. And really, those ghost girls? Awesome.
The Green Mile, 1999
Adapted from The Green Mile, novel, published 1996
If Stanley Kubrick’s casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining was like winning the lottery, then Frank Darabont won back-to-back lotteries with the casting of Tom Hanks as corrections officer Paul Edgecomb, and again with the late Michael Clarke Duncan as inmate John Coffey (“Like the drink, only spelled different.”). Their interaction was authentic, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and the triumph – or defeat, depending on whether you feel John Coffey’s death was good or bad – of the human spirit, as well as the haunting question of just how long Edgecomb will be forced to live with the consequences of his actions, make this film one of my absolute favorites.
The Shawshank Redemption, 1994
Adapted from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal), novella/short story, published 1982
This is the way Stephen King stories should be adapted. I’m not just referring to the way the storyline was preserved and dramatized. I’m referring to casting Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. They should be in every. Single. Stephen King movie. Also, Frank Darabont should direct them all. This isn’t a story about the politics of the prison system in the United States, just as The Green Mile wasn’t a political parable about the death penalty. This is a story about unlikely friends, about coping, and about overcoming great odds through decency and courage. And that, my friends, is why this tops my list of Stephen King adaptations: It remains true to the written version, and with Stephen King it will always be about the characters, first and foremost.
The Langoliers, 1995 (mini-series, ABC)
Adapted from The Langoliers, novella/short story, published 1990
An homage to what could have been – that’s what I want to write in this space. Instead I’m stuck trying to explain what went wrong. So many things, from the really awful CGI monsters to the mangling and confusion of the plot, but in the end all I have are two words. Just two. Bronson Pinchot. Watching him try to be unspeakably, unfathomably evil was awkward and uncomfortable, like the onset of a toothache: You don’t like it, but there’s nothing you can do but ride it out and get to your dentist ASAP. Because even sitting in the dentist’s chair is preferable to watching him defile a brilliant setup with what’s supposed to be a sinister grin. I don’t want director Tom Holland anywhere near a script adaptation again.
Adapted from – well, it was a from-scratch screenplay written by Stephen King. Ugh.
I remember walking out of the theater following a screening of this travesty and wishing I had the time and resources to fly to Maine and swat Mr. King with a rolled-up newspaper. (“NO! Do not write any more screenplays! Bad author!”) This thing had so many fantasy memes in it: vampiric creatures, werecats, incestuous antagonists. It should have been good, right? If I’d simply told you that the story involved werecats, vampires, and incest, you might already be trying to figure out if it’s available through Netflix (it isn’t). The thing is, it’s about . . .incestuous vampiric werecats. Yes. All three at the same time. And they have to drain energy from human virgin females to survive. If that doesn’t scream TURDBURGER at you, then I don’t know how to help you. –And don’t be mad at me because I didn’t warn you about the spoilers here. You should thank me.
The Stand, 1993 (mini-series, ABC)
Adapted from The Stand, novel, originally published 1978 (a “Complete and Uncut” edition was published 1990)
I know I’m going to get flak for ranking this at the top. After all, anything starring Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, and Molly Ringwald can’t be that bad, right? It’s just that this book was so rich, like a raspberry chocolate torte. It had layers and texture and so much delicious wickedness it just had to be bad for me. And the mini-series, which could have done so much with all that time, tasted like a cardboard cutout of a raspberry chocolate torte. The characters I loved so well were rendered into caricatures, two-dimensional representations. The dialog was dumbed down. The situations were sterilized. And Molly Ringwald? She made Frannie nothing more than a screeching, hyperventilating, selfish little bitch. That right there crystallizes my anger with this crapfest: If you do not preserve the spirit of the original character, than you’ve ruined it, because Stephen King is all about his characters. Mick Garris, the director, should be forced to live out the fate of Larry Underwood, Glen Bateman, and Ralph Brentner: tie him to a nuclear warhead. Detonate the sumbitch. Then we can all caress our worn copies of the novel and whisper, “We’ve avenged you, sweetheart. He’ll never be able to hurt you again.”
What are your thoughts on this list? Do you agree? Do you have any substitutions?