The 10 best movie adaptations of Stephen King novels
With the popularity of the television shows Castle Rock and 1/22/63, and the release of the cinematic adaptation of his beloved novel, It, Stephen King has become one of the most influential authors on the big and small screens. What makes Stephen King such an exceptional writer is not his ability to write about monsters, but the skill and accuracy that he demonstrates writing about people. Often the monsters are metaphors for the very normal fears that we all walk around with every day. The following is an examination of the 10 best cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s literary works thus far.
Inspired by his experiences as a high school teacher, Carrie was the first book that Stephen King wrote. Fittingly, it was also the first of his novels to be adapted for the cinema. Directed by Brian DePalma and written by Lawrence D. Cohen, Carrie is the story of a painfully shy and awkward high school student Carrie (Sissy Spacek) who is ruthlessly tormented by her classmates. Much of Carrie’s awkwardness results from her extremely strict religious upbringing by her abusive mother (Piper Laurie) and her burgeoning telekinetic abilities. Carrie also stars William Katt and Amy Irving with an early-career performance by John Travolta.
The Shining (1980)
Adapted by director Stanley Kubrick, The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer with a young family. Jack takes a job as caretaker at the notoriously haunted Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado. The Overlook is completely snowed in all winter, every winter, and the caretaker and his family will be completely isolated for the entire season. Jack decides that this will be a perfect chance to write a novel and escape the family’s financial problems. He moves his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who displays psychic abilities at the deserted Overlook. Unfortunately, there are forces at the Overlook that want to use Danny’s talents for their own evil ends.
Cinematically, The Shining may be the best adaptation of one of King’s works, featuring sprawling, empty hallways lined with hotel room doors, each containing unseen horrors and visual images that take permanent hold in the viewer’s mind. Nicholson gives his most iconic performance, but instead of a family man’s slow descent into madness, he seems totally capable of murder from the first scene. King, who tends to be effusively complimentary of adaptations of his work, felt that while The Shining was visually stunning, it only scraped the surface of the novel and he described the movie as “a fancy car without an engine.”
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Inspired by the E.C. horror comics from the ’40s and ’50s, Creepshow is a series of five vignettes based on King’s work. King wrote the screenplay himself and acts in one of the scenes. Directed by longtime friend and horror master George Romero, Creepshow contains multiple Easter eggs for the King fan, such as a street sign pointing the way to Castle Rock (a fictional town and the setting of many of King’s novels and stories); a character named Tabitha (the name of King’s wife); and the performance of King’s then 10-year-old son, Joe Hill (who is now himself the successful novelist of Horns, Heart Shaped Box, and Locke and Key). Creepshow features performances by Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ted Danson.
Stand by Me (1986)
Based on novella, The Body from Different Seasons, Stand by Me is a coming of age story about a group of preteen boys as they embark on a journey to find a corpse rumored to be in the woods. The boys find the body and come face to face with mortality and the death of childhood. They also gain an increased understanding of each other and themselves along the way. When the movie was screened for King by director Rob Reiner, King stated that Stand by Me was the best adaptation of any of his novels. Rob Reiner considered Stand by Me his best movie and named his production company Castle Rock after the fictional town in which Stand by Me and many other of King’s stories are set. King and Reiner developed such a positive working relationship that King agreed to allow Misery to be adapted only if Reiner directed the film. The screenwriter of Stand by Me was Raynold Gideon and the film stars Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland in remarkably mature performances.
Directed by Rob Reiner with a screenplay by William Goldman, Misery is the unsettling story of successful novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who is badly injured in a car accident and tended to by an obsessive fan, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Misery is a slow burn that builds to one of the most suspenseful climaxes to ever grace the big screen. Misery is a fascinating, deep dive into the sometimes-uncomfortable relationships between fiction and reality and fan and artist. Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her disturbingly sympathetic portrayal of Annie Wilkes. King was so impressed by Bates’s performance in Misery that he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Bates in mind.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption is the first of three Stephen King novels adapted by Frank Darabont. Darabont and King’s friendship began when, as a young film student, Darabont wrote to King to request permission to film one of King’s short stories, The Woman in the Room. King had a policy at the time that any film student could adapt any of his short stories for one dollar. King was impressed with Darabont’s work and the two maintained a correspondence. The Shawhank Redemption is based on based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption from Different Seasons. Set in the fictional Shawshank prison, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of an innocent man, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and the friendship he strikes up with fellow inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). The Shawshank Redemption is a touching story of hope and friendship.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is the caretaker of an elderly woman who is found brandishing a rolling pin over the crumpled body of her employer. Dolores is promptly arrested and her estranged journalist daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returns to town. The investigation of the contemporary crime dredges up an old crime, and family secrets are revealed in a devastating series of flashbacks set against the background of a solar eclipse. At times, the performances get a little over the top, particularly in an improbable courtroom climax, but Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Dolores displays a very authentic, quiet anguish thinly veiled by strength. Dolores Claiborne asks important questions about the perception of women, the concept of what constitutes a “bitch,” and the secrets that we keep from each other and ourselves. Directed by Taylor Hackford, with a screenplay by Tony Gilroy, Dolores Claiborne features Christopher Plummer and an early-career performance by John C. Reilly.
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The Green Mile (1999)
Set in 1935, The Green Mile focuses on Joe Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a man convicted of murdering two little girls, mostly due to the color of his skin and his imposing physique. Coffey is sentenced to death row, where he meets prison guard, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks). Edgecomb soon discovers Coffey’s innocence and that despite his size, Coffey is a gentle soul with the power to heal. Themes of prejudice figure deeply into this Christ allegory. Screenwriter and director Frank Darabont’s cat was dying of a brain tumor while he was working on the screenplay and Darabont credited this experience with contributing to the screenplay and referred to his cat as his co-writer. Darabont stated, “It’s the whole Green Mile death row experience…The writing of it was very much that. I had this creature I really cared about walking that mile.” The Green Mile features excellent performances by David Morse, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, William Sadler, and Bonnie Hunt.
The Mist (2007)
In This Mist, a mysterious mist descends on a small town in Maine following a storm and several shoppers, including devoted father David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy, become trapped in a supermarket. When religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) begins to form a cult, David discovers that not all the monsters are outside. While the novella The Mist has an open ending, screenwriter and director Frank Darabont conceived a much darker and bitterly ironic conclusion to his film. Darabont was offered a $30 million deal to produce the picture, provided he changed his ending. Darabont instead opted to make the movie for half the amount just to keep the ending intact. King praised the new ending, saying that he wished he’d thought of it.
The 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It makes several changes from the original source material. The time period was moved from the late ’50s to 1989, presumably to resonate more with King’s fan base of Generation Xers. The book flips back and forth between the present and flashbacks of the Losers’ Club as preteens. The movie is told in two parts, in chronological order. The first part takes place when the Losers’ Club (Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Wyatt Oleff) are preteens. The second film, It Chapter Two (out in 2019), will tell the story of the Losers’ Club’s final showdown with It as adults. The 2017 film also omits an extremely disturbing sex scene. However, It is true to the spirit of the novel and features a truly chilling performance by Bill Skarsgård. Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things shows off an impressive set of comic chops as class clown Richie Tozier. It was directed by Andy Muschietti with a screenplay by Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman.