I grew up in Maine and Stephen King has been our unofficial creepy uncle for most of my life. I read all of his books growing up and watched most of his movies as well. While there have been some stinkers – I’m sorry, Stephen, but Maximum Overdrive is always going to lead that list – there have been some all-time great adaptations as well. The Shawshank Redemption, Misery and Stand By Me (check out Romona Comet’s fantastic Canon article) almost always top lists of favorite or best Stephen King films.
Those three tend to top my lists as well, but those movies are primarily dramas (though Misery treads that Thriller/Horror line). For Fear Flashback I’m going to focus on five of my favorite adaptations of his horror tales. (And as a bonus, five of my favorite TV adaptations as well.)
It’s not the best Stephen King film, it’s not the best George Romero film, but it’s one of my favorites from either creator. The EC comics inspired look and feel, with the comic borders, illustrated transitions and dramatic hues are genius. I’ve always loved that strain of horror that’s full of almost ghoulish glee, the Halloween and pumpkins and ghosts and goblins joy I remember from childhood trick-or-treating and classic monster movies. Creepshow exemplifies that joy, that sense of wicked fun. Throw in fun performances by a great cast – including Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau and Stephen King himself – and it’s a movie that I always have a good time watching.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining was the first film to ever give me nightmares. That lady in the bathtub in room 237 (217 in the book) was all sorts of “nope” for me as a young kid and she kept coming out of the tub at me for weeks afterwards. I was always slightly disappointed in the lack of the hedge animals in Stanley Kubrick’s film, and Jack Nicholson’s take on Jack Torrance didn’t so much descend into madness as take a flying leap of a cliff into it, but I still love this adaptation. Much more than the 1997 miniseries. Those endless steadycam shots, the girls in the hallway, Redrum, ‘All work and no play.’ It’s a smorgasbord of classic horror moments. And the moment with the axe and Scatman Crothers near the end? Jumped the shit out of me when I first saw it.
The Dead Zone (1983)
This was David Cronenberg’s first film that wasn’t based on an original idea, but the story of a man tormented by his psychic gift was definitely in his wheelhouse. The more restrained and even melancholy feel of the film, as compared to his previous work, might strike Cronenberg fans as a significant departure, but both he and King are concerned with the consequences of extraordinary circumstances forced on ordinary people. A condensed narrative (from the novel) and an extraordinary performance by Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith help focus the film and draw us into a story about the horror of knowing the future, and the consequences thereof. (I recently found out that Bill Murray was the original choice for Johnny – hard to imagine what that might have looked like!)
The Mist (2007)
When I was a kid I had a cassette tape of The Mist in 3-D Sound! It was an adaptation of the story in surround and done as a radio play. I think I played that thing a hundred times. I loved the original novella as well. It was like a 1950’s monster movie, with Stephen King’s unique voice. The film adaptation manages to keep that that feel and most of what I loved about the original – which is ordinary people faced with horrifying monsters. If I’m honest I don’t really care for Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody, but that’s mostly because I recognized the character in the book as a person I might have seen around my rural Maine town and her belligerent, over-the-top version just wasn’t as familiar.
I’m also one of those people that doesn’t really care for Frank Darabont’s revised ending. It feels needlessly cruel – especially with the scenes immediately following. I understand and recognize it’s narrative power, I just miss the final note of the original story, which was one of hope rather than despair. In spite of that, I love almost everything else about the film – and very much prefer the black and white version, which makes it feel even more like that 1950’s monster movie I saw in the original tale.
While I love the original novel, I always thought the back and forth structure between ‘present day’ adults and the past with the same characters as children was problematic. The scenes with the kids were just always better and by directly comparing them the present-day scenes always suffered. I couldn’t help but wonder if the stories would work better if they were completely separated – the past being the first half of the book, the present the later.
Andrés Muschietti’s adaptation proved this to be at least half true – the past (now 1987, the same ‘present day’ in the book) parts of the original novel work fantastically well as a single narrative. The film works as a much more horrific take on Stand by Me, with a gang of kids on the edge of adulthood forced to depend on each other against multiple external threats – some of them possibly from beyond this universe. While it’s maybe not quite as horrific as it could have been, it’s still a great adaptation and one of my favorites. I just wish the sequel had been as good.
Five TV Shows for Stephen King’s Birthday
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Tobe Hooper’s adaptation hasn’t aged particularly well, but there’s still some good scares to be had. The Nosferatu-inspired look of Barlow, in particular, is still a great choice and Danny Glick’s appearance at Mark Petrie’s window still chills.
The Stand (1994)
I think this was the first DVD I ever bought for my wife. It did everything it could with the TV conventions at the time and I still love the opening scenes with Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” playing, Gary Senise as Stu Redman and Matt Frewer as the crazy and tragic Trashcan Man. Very much looking forward to the new adaptation.
The Dead Zone (2002-2006)
The episodic nature of the original book really lent itself to adaptation as a TV series, and USA made the most of it. Though it struggled with the limitations of the novel – we all know how the series has to end – Anthony Michael Hall was great as Johnny Smith and the supporting cast always made even the lackluster episodes worth watching. Unfortunately it was cancelled before it reached a proper finale.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes
I’m including this almost entirely because of one segments – “Battleground,” starring William Hurt as a hit man forced to defend himself against an army of toy soldiers. I always loved the short story and the adaptation kept pretty much all of the elements I liked. I know there were other decent segments, but this is honestly the only one I remember.
One of the few adaptations of King’s work where I haven’t (yet) read the source material. The Hulu series takes the extraordinary premise of a man traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK and grounds it in a great performance by James Franco.
These are some of my personal favorites of Stephen King’s work. What about you? What are some of your favorites? (Don’t say Lawnmower Man, don’t say Lawnmower Man…)