Stephen King Week: J.W. Ward on Stephen King’s 5 best & 5 worst adaptations to film & TV

Horror author Stephen King is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific authors of the last 50 years.

He’s released forty-nine novels, nine collections of short stories, five non-fiction books and sold over 350 million copies, if Wikipedia is to be believed.

On the silver screen and on television, King’s success is equally notable.  With over forty movies and numerous TV miniseries, Stephen King has become one of the biggest names in not just horror, but entertainment.

Like any creator, some of the work is great.

Other work, not so much.

As we at Biff Bam Pop! continue to celebrate the legacy of Stephen King this week, here’s a list of the five best and worst film and TV adaptations.

The Best 5

5) Apt Pupil (1998) – Only after kids understand the idea of “actors” and “acting” should they see this movie, especially if they’ve been raised on a steady film diet of The Lord of the Rings and X-Men.

Starring Ian McKellan as a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Brad Renfro as a young student eager to learn about the Holocaust, Apt Pupil wasn’t much of a hit for director Bryan Singer when it was released.  Nevertheless, its dark portrayal of the teacher/student relationship builds on an unsteady ground of lies and blackmail, heading toward darker territory while letting you think redemption, for at least one of the main characters, is around the corner.

The movie’s ending, different and less gory than the one King wrote for the 1982 novella, stays with you longer and is the real highlight of the picture.  If you haven’t seen it, find it.

4) Stand By Me (1986) – A popular theme in Stephen King’s work is the struggle of growing up in the face of adversity, be it natural or supernatural in origin.  Thus it’s no surprise that one of his most enduring book-to-film adaptations is about the experiences of four boys facing the ultimate adversity – death.

Stand By Me helped make stars of Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell and River Phoenix as the four boys in search of a missing man’s body while struggling with demons of their own.  The heartfelt direction of Rob Reiner mixed humour and terror perfectly, creating a film full of great moments like Wil Wheaton’s encounter with the deer, the story of the pie-eating contest and the tension-filled showdown at the film’s climax.

Based on King’s story The Body, a sadly ironic detail of the film is that Chris, the character played by River Phoenix, dies before his time trying to break up a knife fight as an adult.  Phoenix himself died of a drug overdose in 1993.

3) It (TV miniseries, 1990) – If you found Tim Curry entertaining in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and scary as the Lord of Darkness in Legend, this was the miniseries that convinced you the man could be terrifying.

In 1960, a group of kids come together in the town of Derry, Maine to fight an evil entity that appears as a child’s worst fear before killing them.  After defeating the creature, the friends go their separate ways, only to be recalled to the town thirty years later when they realize that “it” has returned.

Curry’s portrayal of the demon/clown Pennywise is enough to put children and adults off circus entertainers for good, and made such an impact that It was voted as the scariest television series of all time by readers of the U.K.’s Radio Times magazine.

2) The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – What has become the ultimate sleepy-Sunday, must-watch-if-found-on-TV movie is widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of Stephen King’s work; a novella released as part of Different Seasons in 1982 and hailed by many critics as King’s best story.

Tim Robbins stars as Andy Dufresne, a banker convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover despite claiming innocence.   He’s sentenced to two life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he befriends “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), an inmate known for being able to “get things.”  The story details their twenty-year relationship in the prison as Andy finds ways to help the warden and guards with his banking know-how, earning their trust over time before he’s able to attempt an escape.

Perfectly cast and faithful to the source material, there’s only one problem with The Shawshank Redemption: too many crane shots.  It might be director Frank Darabont’s trademark, but is so overused that it can pull you right out of the narrative.

Or, be the makings of a great drinking game.

1) The Shining (1980) – There is, without a doubt, no other Stephen King adaptation that is as iconic as The Shining.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s wide-angle shots of the cavernous Overlook Hotel and Jack Nicholson’s crazed portrayal of Jack Torrance have made The Shining a film of horror legend, and easily King’s best known adapted work.

If film-making is about stringing together memorable moments, The Shining has them in spades.  From Danny Torrance’s trike ride through the Overlook’s empty halls, to the sudden appearance of the Grady Twins, to Jack Nicholson’s use of Ed McMahon’s famous line from The Tonight Show, it’s a movie that combines horror fiction and cinematic storytelling so well that it remains an influence on filmmakers worldwide.

This didn’t please Stephen King, however.  The film’s ending differs from that of the book and bothered him enough to authorize a more faithful television miniseries in 1997.

The Worst 5

5) The Stand (TV miniseries, 1994) – When this miniseries hit television screens in 1994, it was the thing to watch.

Packed with an all-star cast including Gary Sinise (Forest Gump), Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club) and Rob Lowe, this four-parter was ABC’s must-see event in May of that year. With a teleplay written by Stephen King himself, you’d think The Stand would have all the pieces necessary to make it awesome.

It did, except that it was a TV miniseries that, at one point, required the literal hand of God to appear.  When it did, cheesy special effects ruined the climax of an otherwise excellent miniseries, putting it firmly in the number five position.

4) Dreamcatcher (2003) – After 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, you’d think Stephen King plus Morgan Freeman would equal box office gold.  So did film execs.  Problem was, they didn’t pay attention to much else.

Dreamcatcher, adapted from King’s 2001 novel, was simply another alien invasion story dressed up with a King-trademark mentally challenged person with powers, Morgan Freeman as a trigger-happy colonel and four bromancing friends in snow-covered woods.

It was creepy, sure, just not in the way it was intended.

3) Silver Bullet (1985) – Directors and werewolf killers know it’s important to aim for the heart.  It’s just too bad that this silver bullet totally misses the mark.

Adapted from Stephen King’s 1983 novella Cycle of the Werewolf, this film follows a young paraplegic boy named Matty (Corey Haim) as he comes to realize strange attacks in his hometown of Tarker’s Mills, Maine are the result of a werewolf.  No one seems ready to believe him except for his alcoholic Uncle Red (a pre-crazy Gary Busey) and his older sister Jane (Megan Follows), so the three team up to find out the identity of the werewolf and stop the killings.

Poor special effects help to ruin what could have been a great concept,  but it’s the weak acting of Busey & Haim that really bring the flick down.

Please, someone, remake this right so we can stake the sparkly vampires already.

2) Firestarter (1984) – Following Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Drew Barrymore became the child actor in Hollywood.  Her follow-up?  This terrible take on King’s 1980 novel of the same name.

Drew plays Charlie, a young girl with the ability to create fires with her mind.  Her father and mother (David Keith and Heather Locklear) had been subjects in a drug trial that gave them both the power to read and influence the minds of others.  After the death of her mother, Charlie goes on the run with her father while a secret government agency is hot on their trail.

Martin Sheen and the late George C. Scott camp it up as over-the-top villains in the film, realizing they might as well have fun while they collect the paycheque.  Poorly directed, badly executed and topped with an overlong climax that tries to be Carrie and fails, Firestarter is a film best left forgotten.

1) Maximum Overdrive (1986) – Yes, the one with the truck with the Green Goblin head.  That one.

Oh, you think it was a good film?  When was the last time you saw it?  Back in the 1980s?  That’s why.

The worst of all of Stephen King’s adaptations also has the dubious honour of being King’s one and only directorial effort.  Emilio Estevez is the best part of the film as Bill Robinson, a man stuck at a truck stop with a bunch of people trying to stay alive as newly-sentient machines try to kill them.

What was supposed to be dark and ominous turned out darkly comic and camp.  It only made back 3/4 of its $10 million budget and earned King a nomination for “Worst Director” at the 1987 Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in cinema.  After the release of Maximum Overdrive, King vowed to never direct another film again.

The best thing to come from the entire experience?  An AC/DC soundtrack album titled Who Made Who, along with a single of the same name.

Think we missed anything on this list?  What’s your favourite Stephen King movie, and why?

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