In my mother’s old York County family, there is a joke that Stephen King has single- handedly made the state of Maine a creepy place.
King has given New England a reputation for insular communities that hide dark and twisted secrets, Victorian in their obsession with the macabre. However, while most of his stories involve elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, King has a diverse and devoted fan base, and his work negotiates the same human truths and ambivalence that occupy his more “literary” contemporaries. Here are the ten best adaptations of King’s work on the silver screen.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. His major grievance with the Kubrick film is his feeling that the director downplayed the supernatural element of the story as much as possible and emphasized the psychological origins of main character Jack Torrance’s madness. He also suggested, probably correctly, that casting Jack Nicholson in the role would diminish the effect of an otherwise normal man descending into derangement, as Nicholson had mostly played unstable characters up to that point. However, I think what is so powerful about The Shining is its open-endedness and the idea that we may never know exactly where our demons are coming from. It would be easy enough to blame Torrance’s meltdown on some external evil entity but the film is much more compelling because that is not made explicit. All of this aside, Kubrick is a visual master and a director whose vast attention to detail and style give this film its unique and stunning look. This is my number one Stephen King adaptation because it transcends King himself and is not only one of the best thrillers ever made, but one of the best films ever made.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Many of you will wonder why The Shawshank Redemption is not my number one. After all it is currently number one on IMDb’s top 250 films. As wonderful as the performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are, the actors are burdened by a tired and cliche framework. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins with an excellent pace that sets up the film's triumphant conclusion, The Shawshank Redemption is an uplifting story about friendship and the will to go on in the face of adversity. And for that reason alone it cannot be the number one film adaptation of Stephen King. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers remarks: It’s the no-bull performances that hold back the flood of banalities … Instead of selling bromides, as lesser actors would do, they show the wrenching struggle required by any human being in a trap simply to keep hope alive.” The Shawshank Redemption is indeed a wonderful film, not even relentless airtime on TNT could diminish that, but it does not probe the psychological and social depths that are the hallmarks of King’s work.
3. Misery (1990)
Misery is the only film on the list completely carried by one performer, in this case Kathy Bates as the demented nurse Annie Wilkes. Wilkes rescues the writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) from a snowdrift after his car careens off the road in a blizzard. From then on he is her captive. She calls herself his number one fan and strongly identifies with “Misery,” the female character of many of his novels. When she learns Sheldon plans to kill Misery off, she ratchets up her already extreme attempts to keep him captive, forcing him to write Misery back to life. While Caan plays Sheldon as a writerly individual, passively observing the treatment to which he is subjected, Bates is incredibly controlled in her ability to snap in an instant, keeping you on edge for the duration of her time on screen.
4. Stand by Me (1986)
I have a particular soft spot for this film, as it was a childhood favorite. The story follows four childhood friends as they set out to find the body of a missing boy from their small Oregon town. Along the way each boy (played by River Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell) emerges as a complex and compelling character. It is amazing that the story The Body, on which this film is based, appears in the same collection as The Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and illustrates the incredible range of emotion and perspective that King is capable of. However, this film is a wonderful coming of age story and is finely acted and finely directed, helping to launch Rob Reiner’s directorial career.
5. The Green Mile (1999)
If you are like me, you were devastated to learn of the passing of Michael Clarke Duncan this past September. Nominated for an Academy Award, Clarke Duncan’s portrayal of John Coffey is certainly the standout feature of the film. Another Frank Darabont adaptation, The Green Mile is the story of the relationship between a death row corrections officer (played by Tom Hanks) and a giant but gentle black inmate who was wrongfully accused of the rape and murder of two white girls. The inmate, John Coffey, has incredibly healing powers but his healing has complicated implications for those he saves. Some commenters, such as Spike Lee, have criticized the Coffey character as a “magical negro” archetype, a saintly but subservient stock character that exists solely to advance the happiness of white characters. Take from that what you will, but I don’t think anyone can argue that Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan are anything short of extraordinary in this film.
6. Carrie (1976)
This film was directed by Brian De Palma so you know there will be many fatalities, most of them women. Carrie is the story of a shy young woman who lives at home with her fundamentalist Christian mother and is the target of ridicule from her high school classmates. She also happens to harness telekinetic abilities, and she begins to inflict tremendous violence on her tormentors. While the Stephen King novel is more of a character study that focuses on the cruelty of Carrie’s classmates, De Palma’s film captures the intensity of her emotion and the violence that springs from it. Sissy Spacek was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Carrie and deservedly so. She brings an acting talent to her role that is rarely equaled in the horror genre.
7. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
The title is a little misleading in that the film is really based on a novella entitled “Low Men in Yellow Coats” that is part of the story collection “Hearts in Atlantis.” In contrast to The Apt Pupil, Hearts in Atlantis captures a childhood sense of wonder. Bobby Garfield, a young boy living with his self-centered mother, meets a mysterious man named Ted Brautigan (played by the inestimable Anthony Hopkins) who comes to board in their house. Brautigan enlists the young man to help keep on the look out for the “low men,” strange people who are after him. In the process Brautigan, a powerful psychic, mentors Bobby and introduces him to the second sight. This movie perfectly exemplifies the division between casual moviegoers and hardcore Stephen King fans. Those who follow King’s bibliography know the character Ted Brautigan from his role in the Dark Tower series, and while not apparent to the uninitiated who take the movie at face value, devoted King readers understand Hearts in Atlantis as an offshoot of the Dark Tower saga. It’s better not to know.
8. The Apt Pupil (1998)
Starring Ian Mckellen as Kurt Dussander, an elderly Nazi war criminal hiding in Southern California, this film is just as it’s director Brian Singer hoped it would be: “a study in cruelty.” A local teenager named Todd Bowden (played by the late child star Brad Renfro) becomes obsessed with the Holocaust and uncovers Dussander’s dark secret, blackmailing him into telling stories of the atrocities he committed. The two develop a turbulent and manipulative relationship that stirs the malice within each of them. While one might expect a cruel streak from a former S.S. officer, the most shocking aspect of this movie is the cold and calculated psychological warfare that Bowden wages on the old man. No chimerical monsters here, just the deep, seemingly endless capacity for malice that, according to Stephen King, lies within each of us.
9. Salem's Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot is about a small Maine town that is gradually taken over by vampires and it’s the kind of horror film I can get behind. Forget the 2004 remake, this 1979 two-part television mini-series beautifully reflects King’s ability to mix up the close-quarters politics of small New England towns with the fear and suspense of otherworldly danger. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Poltergeist fame, Salem’s Lot is the perfect combination of a haunted house and a vampire story. English film legend James Mason is the elegantly creepy Richard Straker, the human servant to a master vampire who arrives mysteriously in a crate. Younger viewers might resist a return to the 1970s for a made for TV mini-series, but there is just too much in the original book for one film.
10. The Mist (2007)
The most recent film by Frank Darabont, the celebrated director of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist is not really my kind of film. As Roger Ebert remarks: “It is a competently made Horrible Things Pouncing on People Movie.” I include it here because it is a brutal and relentlessly dark horror movie, and some people really like that. The Mist seems to divide the opinion of general moviegoers and critics, with many positive user reviews on IMDb celebrating the depths of the movie’s hopelessness and many professionals decrying its slow pace and pessimism. Perhaps most controversial is the ending of the film. Although the original novella concludes with cautious hope, Darabont’s interpretation is about as shocking a movie ending as I have seen. If that sounds like what you’re into, you will love The Mist.