MH: Hi Craig! Well, it’s been about six months so let’s do another post! Today we’re going to talk about our top five Stephen King film adaptations. Most of King’s novels and a whole bunch of his short stories and novellas have been adapted into film and TV, some multiple times. Is he the most adapted author of the modern era?
CHB: (Six months? Wow. Time flies when you’re listening to too many Dark Tower audiobooks.) I would have to agree, it’s like he’s seen as a goldmine for Hollywood, where everything he writes is optioned, and fast tracked into script development, but the strange thing is his books are hardly the cash cow that he would appear to be, with more films failing than succeeding, for a variety of reasons.
MH: I think it probably has to do with the ROI on horror films; they’re usually cheap to produce and stand a better chance of becoming profitable, even if they’re not breaking records. He has an in-built fan base and brand recognition, plus he’s made good sense over several stages of his career. In the 80s and 90s he was a blockbuster novelist whose books sold in massive numbers, and now he has the cultural cred that his adaptations can be taken seriously. (And for the record, it’s not been six months, I was exaggerating.)
CHB: Phew. I was worried the senility was kicking in. See, it’s interesting though. It’s rare his horror is successfully translated onto screen, despite being the recognisable genre for King’s name. It seems to be his more straight drama that only borders on horror (or sci-fi) that reaps the rewards and is able to be adapted in a way that retains the strengths of the story.
MH: I’ve been having a look on Box Office Mojo. Adjusted for inflation, the top 5 highest grossing King adaptations at the US box office are: 5. Pet Semetary 4. Misery 3. Carrie 2. The Shining 1. The Green Mile. A couple of interesting things from that, first it’s been 15 years since we had a King adaptation that reached blockbuster heights, and second it seems that it’s a mix of his straight out horror (Pet Semetary, Carrie, Shining) and drama/horror (Misery, Green Mile) that appeal. And that’s really his strength, he is able to talk to different audiences despite the fact that he’s primarily a horror writer.
Link if anyone’s interested: http://boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=stephenking.htm
CHB: Well there goes some of my theory. I guess it’s easy to forget The Shawshank Redemption didn’t actually make much money initially. But those are five of the stronger adaptations, so it does make sense. Though it does show how there’s no easy way. The Green Mile was prepared to be somewhat ponderous and risk echoing Shawshank in its style and approach, even though it was a vastly different story. The Shining famously abandoned much of the novel and set upon creating its own horror in its own medium. Carrie as well streamlined the narrative and hinged everything on one major sequence. Misery went the faithful route, to an extent, and Pet Semetary benefited from having a fairly lean and straight novel to adapt, which relied on relatively stock characters and minimal context outside of the main horror narrative.
So it’s clear that you can’t just take a King novel, adapt it, and hope for an imported audience and and surefire narrative to guarantee box office revenue.
MH: Yeah, and I think the problem with box office charts is that they do only measure how a film did on initial release, they don’t take into account the numbers of DVDs sold, and they can’t measure the cultural impact. For example, The Shawshank Redemption must rank as one of the most popular and well regarded King adaptions of all time, but it took a while for it to find and build an audience. And those charts also don’t include TV adaptations, so IT may also rank as a popular adaptation. Anyway, shall we look at our lists? You go first, what comes in at #5 for you?
CHB: Okay I need to make an executive decision here. I’ve got four clearly in, and another four jostling for the fifth spot.
I’m going to go with Misery.
MH: Nice one!
CHB: Such a strong, successful adaptation, perfectly cast and gets every aspect of how the story should be presented just right.
Kathy Bates. Seriously.
MH: If ever there was a perfectly cast film, this was it. For the record, Misery comes in at #3 for me! What a great adaptation. A guy stuck in a room for 2 hours and it’s absolutely riveting. It succeeds because the changes are minimal and the characters are allowed to shine through.
CHB: Yeah. And such a simple conceit. King played with this idea of a haunted writer many many times, but I think this is one of the best presentations of it. And that he’s a pulp writer as well! Just makes it hysterical, yet Bates’ character is so plausible, without ever going too far into the implausible. Oh god the hobbling.
MH: The hobbling! It’s done well in the film but I remember feeling the pain in my legs when I read it. And the idea of the terrifying uber-fan is so interesting, that there are people who love things so much they can hurt and destroy them. I think it’s probably one of the stories where we really get to see something that genuinely frightens King.
And it’s anchored in reality more than most of his novels.
YOU DIRTY BIRD
Sorry, had to be done.
CHB: Definitely. And it was meant to be a Bachman wasn’t it? But he was found out before the publication? So this was while he was still trying to write and yet hide part of his writing, just wanting to write for the joy of it without the pressure and expectation.
MH: Yes I believe so.
CHB: Oh and from memory Richard Farnsworth is in it, who is possibly one of my favourite actors ever. Made famous in David Lynch’s The Straight Story.
MH: Yep, he is. IMDB is so handy.
CHB: Okay, your number 5?
MH: My #5 is the De Palma version of Carrie. I won’t go into too much detail as we discussed it at length when we did our review of the new Carrie. But it’s a film I’ve grown to appreciate more in the past year or so. There’s an approach to the material that just gets the spirit of the novel. He conveys the horror without going to the lengths the novel does, and it’s supremely well-crafted on a minimal budget.
Also amazingly well cast.
CHB: True. Spacek is phenomenal. (Also in The Straight Story!) I wanted to find a spot for this but couldn’t fit it in. Ultimately I had to go for others, as it’s just dated a bit too much for me. But for its time was so well done, and so many elements of it have become cornerstones of the film genre. And part of cultural knowledge. People know Carrie at the prom without having actually seen Carrie at the prom.
MH: Spacek’s performance is iconic and this really is, as you say, a cornerstone of the horror genre in film, and I’d say a cornerstone of American cinema. I know we differ on our opinions of Piper Laurie as Margaret, but I think she was great. It has dated, but I still rate it much higher than the new version. Ok, so what comes in at #4 for you?
CHB: The Shawshank Redemption for me.
I wasn’t a huge fan of it for a long time, though I could appreciate it. I do tend to resist those films that everyone goes completely batshit crazy over, particularly ones that the mainstream embrace when they might otherwise resist certain aspects of the plot (or the author). It always smacks of being disingenuous to me, and a bit of a bandwagon. But it’s such a well-made film.
I recently re-read the novella, and I actually think the film improves on it.
The additions that Frank Darabont brought in are perfect, and most end up being the lasting impressions of the story, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t actually in the original. Particularly sequences like what happens to Brooks after he leaves prison, and Red’s final journey. They’re so well told, so gently presented to the audience in the film, it’s hard to imagine the story without them.
MH: I agree with you 100% on this one (first time for everything)! This is such a good film, and it’s one of the highest-rated films on the IMDB which shows that it’s been embraced by audiences long after its initial run. My first exposure to this was in high school. Our English teacher was trying to give us a film course and she showed this. I had no idea what the story was, outside of it being a prison drama, and it totally blew me away. It’s powerful, it’s moving, and it’s thrilling. Phenomenally good movie. And it is so much better than the novella, which takes the form of a letter written by Red.
CHB: Yes, and I think the best thing about revisiting this is how little the reveal of the prison escape actually matters. The story is so much more than that, and so much more than the lines people quote all the damn time. I could watch Tim Robbins rig Mozart into the prison’s PA all day long.
MH: And another film with an amazing cast including the wonderful actors William Sadler and James Whitmore.
CHB: Again, perfect casting. And Darabont is almost the sole director who gets King’s America, like really gets it. The two seem to just share the same vision of neighbourhoods and individuals from that generation.
MH: Yes, it seems that if you want a trashy King adaptation you hire Mick Garris, and if you want a classy one, you book Darabont!
CHB: Darabont and Rob Reiner. They’ve got the goods.
#4 for you?
MH: Ok, I’m going with another Darabont adaptation and it’s one that may be surprising. I’m going with The Mist. It was great to see a director like Darabont handle one of King’s pure horror stories. It’s based on a novella that was in Different Seasons (I could be wrong about that). It’s a great story in that it looks at character dynamics, survival situations that go wrong, and it’s set against this backdrop that’s a throwback to paranoid monster movies from the 50s.
It’s rare that a King adaptation has looked so good on screen (he really used the mist conceit effectively) and the partly-glimpsed horror works well. The ending is problematic.
CHB: Oh I wanted The Mist in there, I really did. Left out on a technicality.
Yes, the technicality was that ending.
For the most part though it’s just great horror. And so well made, all the supermarket scenes are so well laid out. Tom Jane is excellent, and looks like he basically stepped off the page. Such a King main character.
MH: Ha, yes. And one of the things I loved about that film was that Jane’s character was an artist who designed movie posters, and at the beginning of the film he’s working on a poster for The Dark Tower. But yes, great horror both inside and outside the supermarket. And, like Dawn of the Dead, proves that our temples of capitalism can be terrifying places when the doors close.
CHB: Nice description.
MH: But that ending is too much, although King apparently prefers it to his own.
CHB: I loved the Dark Tower nods. And that glimpse at the end of that huge…well, I’ll leave it for whoever wants to see it. But it is really the closest we’ve got to a great depiction of the Dark Tower world on screen.
Yes, I think I remember hearing Darabont say he wanted to make an ending like the ending in Seven. That there hadn’t been a great down ending in a decade, so they were going to go for it. But it’s too far. And the cover art lies! The poster art that promoted the film gives you an image that does not exist in the film! Completely unfair, given the way the ending goes.
MH: Yes, it’s one of those films that I thought was brilliant when I saw it, but I have no desire to rewatch. Just can’t! But I gave it a slot in my top 5 because of that. It’s a horror film that’s so horrific I can’t bring myself to watch it again. So, what are we up to? #3?
CHB: Yes, and I’m still on Darabont. The Green Mile.
Just edges out Shawshank because, well, I just like it.
It’s a fable, a tall tale, a myth, a prison-drama, science fiction, a question of ethics – it’s so much.
MH: Yes, it’s a brilliant story. And again, Darabont is a guy who is able to do King justice no matter what. It didn’t actually make my list, I lean towards Shawshank. But it’s another atypical King story, released as a serialised novella in the 90s.
Have to say, once again, brilliant cast.
CHB: Yeah, I think I enjoy that. The serialised aspect translates. Told really straightforward in these big chapters, no dressing up, no huge tricks of narrative. Here’s a story about a thing that happened. I like that Darabont used old-school film tricks to enhance the look of it as well, from the colours and feel of the Mile itself, to the emphasising of John Coffey’s size. It’s almost a children’s tale, told to grownups.
MH: Yes, and it has the biggest box office for any King adaption, which is interesting given how different it is to what people expect from him. Setting a story around the idea of executions and then not making it a horror story really subverted expectations for his genre and pushed him towards the literary and mainstream acceptance that helped to drive this film to the heights it reached. Multiple Oscar nominations too if I’m not mistaken. Yes, nominated for Picture, Supporting Actor and Screenplay.
CHB: That’s right. I wonder if it was the build-up of acclaim for Shawshank that made everyone jump on this when it was released. I was showing it to a class of mine two years ago, and the day we got to the final John Coffey scene was the day Michael Clarke Duncan died. Tears in the classroom.
MH: Woah, that must have been quite a screening. I can’t even imagine.
CHB: They loved it.
Can’t quite recall the academic necessity for showing it, but…
MH: Seems like all the awesome teachers show King films! Hey, you’re teaching them that ‘reading’ and ‘text’ aren’t limited to the page.
That was the justification my English teacher used.
Think she actually wound up getting disciplined.
CHB: I’m going to take that as an official warning.
MH: Hahaha, no don’t! That was my favourite class!
CHB: Your number 3 was Misery, so number 2?
MH: This is going to be short. My #2 is Shawshank! So we already discussed that, but I just wanted to add that Morgan Freeman’s voice over about hope at the end of the film, hits me right here (I’m patting my heart). “I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope.” I know it’s corny but it speaks to me.
CHB: Was that in the book? I think it was. I remember reading that part aloud when I got to it.
For the record, sounded nothing like Morgan Freeman.
MH: Yes, although not in that exact way. Also the film shows him meeting Andy, while the novella just ends with that and you have no idea if he makes it or not. Gives them completely different tones. So what’s #2 for you?
CHB: The Shining, which I’m guessing is your #1.
MH: Ha! Yes. I’m guessing your #1 is Stand by Me?
MH: Are we really that predictable?!
CHB: It would appear that we are.
So, The Shining though. Probably next to Shawshank the most famous adaptation of King’s books, yet so different at the same time.
MH: Yes, and done by an absolute master filmmaker.
CHB: It’s hard to ignore it, given that it’s effectively in the top two horror films ever made.
MH: Scream 2 is hard to top.
CHB: Hah. That Neve Campbell.
It rewards in spades this film. The first time I watched it I was creeped out. The second time terrified. The third scared witless. It just keeps building. Not having Torrance’s inner monologue deprives us of answers and understanding, and the film is effectively impenetrable, and offers no solution.
MH: Yes. I make no secret of the fact that Kubrick directed my favourite film of all time, 2001. And he just takes the material and makes it his own. King famously hated this adaptation but it’s hard to see why. Yes, it deviates from his text quite a bit, but what it creates is a terrifying and unique experience.
The sets are creepy, the scares are genuine, and the tension is tangible.
CHB: I think it’s because Kubrick and King were such different people, had such different philosophies on the nature of individuals, I think King just missed seeing himself in his story.
MH: Yeah, I think that’s right. King’s biggest problem was the casting of Jack Nicholson, who already seemed crazy from the beginning, whereas in the book Jack Torrance is a normal man who is struggling to conquer addiction (so essentially yes, he is King). But I think Kubrick recognised that 2 hours isn’t a huge amount of time to tell that kind of complex character narrative, and instead opted to foreshadow the horror that was to come. Nicholson did look crazy and it was only a matter of time before he snapped, but that helps to fill the early sections of the film with a sense of inevitable dread and foreboding.
CHB: That’s so right. There’s dread from the opening frame. It’s a film that feeds off dread. And so atypical for a horror story, or at least what horror cinema has become. The crazy psychopath only kills one person, and that’s it. And that’s an invention of the film, in the book he doesn’t kill anybody! But I tell you, the creepiest bit in the whole thing is that brief shot of the man dressed up like a dog. Once I read the corresponding scene in the book, and the story about how that character in the dog suit came about, it’s just terrifying.
MH: Yeah, I agree! Dog man is so creepy. That opening with the car driving through the mountains and the eerie soundtrack. That’s just terrifying even if you don’t have any context! I recently watched the mini-series King wrote and it’s much closer to the novel. Much less terrifying though. The craft and imagery that went into Kubrick’s version is all designed to unsettle the viewer. Everything is uncanny. And the horror is unforgettable.
CHB: Uncanny. Perfect. Have you seen the behind-the-scenes that Kubrick’s daughter made? Watching Nicholson get into character is amazing. Eerie.
Okay, so I should probably explain why Stand By Me is my favourite.
Other than the fact that it’s the best.
MH: Yes, please do!
CHB: Again, a simple story. So straightforward, and so clearly adapted from the novella. Which was in Different Seasons, which also had Shawshank, and Apt Pupil, which was an honourable mention for me, well worth seeing.
But again, Reiner, like Darabont, perfectly captures that childhood that King writes so well. The characters are so clearly drawn, and (dare I say it) perfectly cast. The scene where they’re all introduced, it’s just so real. The childhood sequences in King’s novels are always the bits I love the best, and that’s why I’m drawn to this story in particular. It’s a story about childhood, and friendship, and boys. Who basically just go on a walk, tell stories, argue, do stupid things, and express their frustration at growing up. And then they go home.
And Richard Dreyfuss’ voiceover is on the money. Again, last lines, just like Shawshank: ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?’
MH: Yes. And just for the record, you are correct, this was in Different Seasons as ‘The Body’ and The Mist was in Skeleton Crew. It’s funny but I don’t have a whole lot of opinion on this film. I watched it years ago and never revisited it because it didn’t have a huge impact on me. And while ‘The Body’ is a great story about childhood from King, it kind of fades into the background when I compare it with his other work. Not saying there’s anything wrong with it, probably more that there’s something wrong with me! The cast is great, it’s well directed, and it’s certainly one of the most influential adaptations of his work.
But does it have a scene where Sherman from American Pie gets killed by a mist monster? No it doesn’t.
CHB: Yeah, it was one of those films I had seen when I was young, but I picked it up a couple of years ago and (again) showed it to a class, and was just struck by how much I now loved it.
MH: I should revisit it.
CHB: Yes you should.
I love that this is a journey they take to see a dead body. That’s all they want to do. It’s so clear, these boys who come to realise that one day they will grow up and die. It’s heartbreaking, but so perfectly normal.
Okay, any other honourable mentions? Or ones people should steer clear of, for all the listeners out there?
MH: Honourable mentions, I’d go for Apt Pupil, IT (just for Tim Curry), 1408 is decent, and Pet Sematary was good. Probably best to avoid some of the worse TV mini-series like The Tommyknockers, but that was a weak book to begin with.
CHB: Yes, agree with those, and The Stand miniseries has some nice moments, if you can get your hands on it. Avoid the ‘Salem’s Lot miniseries like your life depends on it. And Dreamcatcher, because it’s Dreamcatcher.
Oh and Dolores Claiborne is great, in a story King wrote for her because of her work in Misery. As is Dead Zone. Just not great enough for top 5 material.
MH: Oh fucking Dreamcatcher don’t even get me started.
CHB: Hahaha. Shitweasels.
MH: I think the next big adaptation we have to look forward to is Cell. Again, not the greatest novel.
CHB: Yes, true. John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson again, just like in 1408.
MH: And of course there’s The Dark Tower. But we could probably dedicate an entire post to that.
CHB: True. And King’s got a new novel out soon, in about a month, so there’s that to look forward to as well.
MH: Yes! Mr. Mercedes! I think that we should probably review that for our next post.
MH: Awesome. Well, until next time…
CHB: Get busy living…
Mark’s Top 5:
1. The Shining
2. The Shawshank Redemption
4. The Mist
5. Carrie (1976)
Craig’s Top 5:
1. Stand By Me
2. The Shining
3. The Green Mile
4. The Shawshank Redemption