Stephen King, love him or hate him, is a very important figure in contemporary American culture. When King started out writing, as his memoir On Writing might suggest, he set out to be a writer. That’s all. King is no longer just a writer. He became, like Mark Twain and John Steinbeck before him, a vivid chronicler of American life and like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, an artist of the darkly supernatural. Whatever it is King thinks he is, he has become a pop culture icon and a refined man of letters. At his core, however, he’s a damn fine storyteller. King’s stories happen to make great movies, and many terrible ones as well.
After reading through several lists of critically acclaimed movies based on King stories, I compiled a list of my own. Before Andy Muschietti’s highly anticipated It comes to movie theaters this weekend, let’s revisit the best movie adaptations of King’s stories.
The following is a list of the greatest Stephen King cinema from good to greatest:
7. Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg, master of the bizarre psychological thriller, was the perfect pairing for King’s creepy story about a mild-mannered school teacher who awakens from a coma with powerful psychic abilities. A young, fresh-faced Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a high school English teacher who loves his work and adores his fiancee Sarah (Brooke Adams). After a tragic car accident leaves his comatose for five years, Smith awakens to find that all of life has changed. His beloved has moved on and married. He also possesses the “gift” to touch a person and see their deepest secrets. As the bloody story unfolds and Smith is enlisted to help Tom Skerritt’s small-town sheriff hunt down criminals, we learn that possessing a gift like this is just going to lead to exploitation by other human beings for their selfish gain. With Martin Sheen as a corrupt politician on the brink of leading the US to nuclear holocaust, The Dead Zone acts as a timely morality fable and a cautionary tale about power and secrets. It’s certainly worthwhile to view and it is touted as one of the greatest King movie adaptations ever made but, as a Cronenberg film, it dwarfs in comparison to the director’s other work.
6. The Green Mile (1999)Directed by Frank Darabont, The Green Mile film is sometimes referred to as the “spiritual sequel” to Darabont’s first adaptation of one of King’s novellas, The Shawkshank Redemption. Both films are prison dramas and both films established Darabont as a respected American filmmaker. There’s just something about King that Darabont likes. Tom Hanks, always good and always playing Tom Hanks, is Paul Edgecomb, a likable family man and prison guard who is suffering from a severe urinary tract infection. King, not above allegory, introduces one of his most perplexing and beloved characters as a convicted criminal on Death Row aka “the green mile,” a developmentally disabled black man with the mystical power of healing named John Coffey. It is not a mistake, as King himself explained in his memoir On Writing, that John Coffey shares the initials of a rather important Messiah figure. While the prison scenes are brutal, Darabont’s screenplay, based on King’s serial novel, is a much more accessible and gentle narrative that gives us hope and room to breathe.
5. Stand by Me (1986)Richard Dreyfuss narrates Rob Reiner’s adaptation of King’s novella, The Body, with the earthy wisdom and old-timer quality that we have all come to love and appreciate in Morgan Freeman. Dreyfuss’s narration is, in and of itself, one of the most memorable characters in King’s coming-of-age story about four boys who travel to find the body of a missing boy. Stand by Me would go on to influence every other coming-of-age movie that followed it. It is, truly, King at his most small town and it feels like the story that gave birth to King’s It.
Stand by Me stands the test of time because it grounds us in the curiosity and extraordinary depths of boyhood. King cherished his own childhood and projects his memories, both precious and painful, into his work. The Body is the full incarnation of these childhood memories and Reiner’s film presents us with the iconic images of these memories, images that forever changed the way America viewed and continues to view male coming-of-age narratives.
4. Misery (1990)Misery is considered one of King’s greatest novels, if not his very best. It was written in the throes of addiction, and King has been very open about saying that the character of Annie Wilkes is the literary incarnation of his addictions to cocaine and alcohol. In this way, Misery is one of King’s most personal stories.
Rob Reiner, fresh off directing Stand by Me, joined forces with legendary screenwriter William Goldman to craft one of the most well-received King film adaptations of all time. Misery cast Kathy Bates as nurse and psychotic fangirl, Annie Wilkes, in a performance that would make her a forever a Hollywood icon. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a writer who crashes his car and is rescued by Wilkes, a crazy fan who keeps Sheldon in abusive captivity until he finishes writing his novel series like Wilkes wants him to write it. Knowing that Misery is, essentially, an allegory for the hold of addiction makes the film experience all the more terrifying.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)Frank Darabont’s love affair with King’s stories began with the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” The Shawshank Redemption would go on to be one of America’s most beloved classics. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are two prison inmates who bond over a lifetime of suffering and scheming. The film is set in a prison, but, it is truly about the depth of relationship that Andy and Red experience while on the inside. Morgan Freeman’s narration would also, for good or ill, set him up as one of the most popular and sought after movie narrators. Every prison movie that followed Shawshank would take all of its cues from that glorious film. It may not be the most “Stephen King” of Stephen King movie adaptations, but it remains one of his most watched and most beloved stories.
2. The ShiningThe Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, epic horror film, is famously hated by Stephen King. That aside, it remains a classic of its genre and it contains one of Jack Nicholson’s most career-defining performances. King complained that Kubrick’s film was cold and detached, but, those are crucial pieces of the Kubrick formula. Cold and detached are both things that make Kubrick films great and memorable!
Those who have read King’s original novel know that Kubrick’s films omits a great deal of detail. They are almost, in some ways, different stories. Kubrick’s film, however, is still to this day, a standard of horror filmmaking. It is the best of its kind and it is a thrill to watch every damn time. If you are looking for something that is more faithful to King’s actual literature, look at films like The Green Mile. Darabont was praised for following the plot of that novel pretty closely.
Brian De Palma, who made his name making gangster films and erotic thrillers, proved himself as a master filmmaker with his adaptation of King’s inaugural novel, Carrie. There are pieces of the novel that fans complain should have made their way into De Palma’s film, but, much like The Shining after it, Carrie stands as one of the greatest American films ever made.
King’s story about a poor, abused, bullied high school girl was actually a thrilling and empowering piece about feminist empowerment and the fragility of the small town psyche. What De Palma does with the film is both artful and tender. Much like the novel it is based on, Carrie isn’t another horrific bloodbath designed to excite the senses. It is further proof that America loves Stephen King and it is not just because King’s pen frequents tales of the macabre, it is because King gets something about people and Carrie and the other great films of cinema de King are less about horrific events and more about the human beings who occupy those horrific events. This is why Carrie still stands up as a masterpiece of horror filmmaking. Let us hope that Andy Muschietti’s It promotes the stories of people over the stories of horror and maybe it, too, will hold up as a masterpiece.