By Steve Herte
Stephen King is my favorite author and has been since I started reading for enjoyment. My library of his books, mostly in hardcover, takes up considerable space on my porch. It’s not easy to be current with his latest creations because he’s so prolific. Even his publishers can’t keep up with him. Regrettably, the only works I haven’t read are the E-Books he produced over the last few years and the hardcover “comic-book” versions of the Dark Tower series – I only have one of these. I may not be his “Number One Fan” in the words of Annie Wilkes of Misery fame, but I’m darn close. I even had the honor of attending a book reading of up-and-coming novelists where he was present as moderator and reader at a Manhattan venue.
Best Stephen King Adaptations
Almost 50 of King’s stories have made the transition to visual media in one form or another with at least three more in the works and choosing the 10 best adaptations took some soul-searching. Mr. King’s own opinion of the presentations of his tales makes one tend to be more forgiving of unfaithfulness to the original text when choosing the not-so-good interpretations. Nevertheless, the 10 following stand out in my mind as the cream of the crop. I didn’t rank them numerically because it was too difficult and I hate arguing with myself because I never win. Besides, my favorite King is always the latest.
Under the Dome (15-part TV mini-series, Amblin/CBS, 2013) – Creator: Brian K. Vaughan. Cast: Mike Vogel (Dale “Barbie” Barbara), Rachelle Lefevre (Julia Shumway), R. Keith Harris (Peter Shumway), Dean Norris (James “Big Jim” Rennie), Alexander Koch (Junior Rennie), Britt Robertson (Angie McAlister), Jeff Fahey (Sheriff Howard “Duke” Perkins), Natalie Martinez (Deputy Linda Esquivel), Colin Ford (Joe McAlister), Mackenzie Lintz (Norrie Calvert-Hill), John Elvis (Ben Drake), Ned Bellamy (Rev. Lester Coggins), Samantha Mathis (Alice Calvert), Aisha Hinds (Carolyn Hill), Nicholas Strong (Phil Bushey), & Jolene Purdy (Dodee Weaver).
This tale of a mysterious, impervious, invisible dome suddenly cutting off the town of Chester’s Mill from the rest of civilization is not only a great “what if” story but a serious examination of people and what it takes to dehumanize them. The 15-episode mini-series was not even half done and I found myself raving about it. From the first airing I recognized several characters from the book without hearing their names – the casting was so well done. The special effects depicting things crashing into the dome, things cut in half by the dome and the dome’s direct impact on people are convincingly done and I find myself eagerly anticipating the next episode (even though they air after my usual bedtime, 10:00 pm). Not one member of the cast is failing to portray their character faithfully so far. And it’s been picked up for a second season.
Stephen King’s opinion (borrowed from his website):
If you loved the book when you first read it, it’s still there for your perusal. But that doesn’t mean the TV series is bad, because it’s not. In fact, it’s very good. And, if you look closely, you’ll see that most of my characters are still there, although some have been combined and others have changed jobs. That’s also true of the big stuff, like the supermarket riot, the reason for all that propane storage, and the book’s thematic concerns with diminishing resources . . . Many of the changes wrought by Brian K. Vaughan and his team of writers have been of necessity, and I approved of them wholeheartedly. Some have been occasioned by their plan to keep the Dome in place over Chester’s Mill for months instead of little more than a week, as is the case in the book. Other story modifications are slotting into place because the writers have completely re-imagined the source of the Dome . . . That such a re-imagining had to take place was my only serious concern when the series was still in the planning stages, and that concern was purely practical. If the solution to the mystery were the same on TV as in the book, everyone would know it in short order, which would spoil a lot of the fun (besides, plenty of readers didn’t like my solution, anyway). By the same token, it would spoil things if you guys knew the arcs of the characters in advance. Some who die in the book—Angie, for instance—live in the TV version of Chester’s Mill…at least for a while. And some who live in the book may not be as lucky during the run of the show.
1408 (MGM, 2007) – Director: Mikael Håfström. Cast: John Cusack (Mike Enslin), Samuel L. Jackson (Gerald Olin), Mary McCormack (Lily), Tony Shalhoub (Sam Farrell), & Len Cariou (Mike’s father).
Mike Enslin is a “ghost debunker” who decides to spend the night in New York City's most-haunted hotel room, Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. The hotel manager, Gerald Olin tries his best to change his mind, warning him of the death of more than 50 prior guests there over the decades. But Enslin is adamant and eventually learns that there are more things in Heaven and on Earth than are dreamed of in his philosophy and they’re all bad.
Helene and I agreed that this one was by far the most terrifying of King’s tales to hit the movies. For a small, three-room apartment, it is jam-packed with malevolent energy and the action is intense, almost giving the audience no time to breathe. Even during the brief periods of calm, the tension is palpable. Critics call some films “roller-coasters,” but this one doesn’t relent until the end. John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson are both excellent. The sometimes dizzying special effects make you forgot that this is all taking place in a hotel room in the city that never sleeps (which is actually appropriate for anyone staying there). Let it be known, after the storm at sea that develops from a picture on the wall I would have been out of there, dressed or not.
Misery (Castle Rock/Columbia, 1990) – Director: Rob Reiner. Cast: James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Virginia), & Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell).
Novelist Paul Sheldon wants to change his writing style from romances featuring heroine Misery Chastain to publishing literary fiction. He has the misfortune of wrecking his car near the residence of Annie Wilkes – a former (with good reason) nurse. She’s Sheldon’s number one fan (or rather Misery’s – as she says so many times) and rescues him, putting him up in a room of her remotely-located house. She freaks when she reads that he killed Misery off in his latest book and forces him to write the book bringing Misery back to life, keeping him prisoner until he does (even to the point of crippling him).
James Caan was a perfect fit for the part of a guy who’s bewildered by this bipolar fan but knows to treat her with kid gloves, or else. I’m not sure I could have been as patient with her, especially when one by one, the typewriter keys “n,” “r,” “t” and “e” break off and have to be written by hand on the final product.
Kathy Bates gave a sterling performance as Annie and well deserved her Best Actress Academy Award for it. After seeing her I knew that only one person could play the part of Dolores Claiborne when it was released later and I was not surprised she got the role.
The Stand (TV mini-series, Laurel Entertainment/ABC, 1994) – Director: Mick Garris. Cast: Gary Sinise (Stu Redman), Molly Ringwald (Frannie Goldsmith), Jamey Sheridan (Randall Flagg), Ruby Dee (Mother Abigail Freemantle) Miguel Ferrer (Lloyd Henried), Corin Nemec (Harold Lauder), Matt Frewer (Trashcan Man), Adam Storke (Larry Underwood), Ray Walston (Glen Bateman), Rob Lowe (Nick Andros), Peter Van Norden (Ralph Brentner), Bill Fagerbakke (Tom Cullen), Laura San Giacomo (Nadine Cross), Ossie Davis (Judge Richard Farris), Stephen King (Teddy Weizak), & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Monster Shouter).
A global pandemic results when a lethal virus (eventually dubbed “Captain Tripps”) is spread by a security guard escaping a research facility, where he was exposed by accident. Survivors drawn by visions navigate a sea of dead and dying people to form into two camps, one at Boulder, Colorado, and one at Las Vegas, Nevada. The two groups are the epitomes of Good versus Evil. Respectively, Mother Abagail leads the virtuous and Randall Flagg (the Walkin’ Man) commands the destructive in one final showdown.
This apocalyptic story was definitely one of the best adaptations and is most memorable for the terrifying transit from Manhattan to New Jersey through a darkened Lincoln Tunnel jammed with cars and littered with bodies in varying states of decomposition. Most people I know who saw this mini-series remember it vividly, as do I. The cast is as remarkable as they are all-stars and every one of them plays their part believably.
The Shining (3-Part TV mini-series, Lakeside/WB, 1997) – Director: Mick Garris. Cast: Steven Weber (Jack Torrence), Rebecca DeMornay (Winifred Torrence), Courtland Mead (Danny Torrence), Wil Horneff (Tony), & Melvin Van Peebles (Richard Hallorann).
Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and their son Danny become winter caretakers of the Overlook Hotel in a remote part of Colorado. Jack figures that it’s a perfect opportunity to write his novel but he’s completely unaware of the malevolent evil residing in the hotel itself, which eventually takes over his mind. Danny befriends Richard Halloran, the head chef who tells him about a psychic gift they share called ‘The Shining” – basically a telepathic link – and warns him not to enter room 237. But you know he goes in anyway.
Disappointed in the way Stanley Kubrick directed the previous version of this story led King to produce this mini-series. Although Steven Weber is not as adept at playing a lunatic as Jack Nicholson was we get the idea that he is merely a pawn of the evil energy suffusing him and slowly driving him mad. Gone is the hedge-maze from the first version and in its place are the monstrous hedge topiaries of dangerous beasts such as lions that come alive. Gone is the axe Jack chases Danny with; the croquet mallet written in the book replaces it.
Rebecca DeMornay is not the clueless Wendy that Shelley Duvall portrayed and is more the character from the book. It’s tough to say whether Courtland Mead was better, worse or the same as Danny Lloyd because they both played the part equally well. The same goes for Melvin Van Peebles versus Scatman Crothers, both excellent performances. I prefer this version because of its truer representation of the characters and situations in the book.
The Langoliers (2-Part TV miniseries, Laurel Entertainment, ABC, 1995) – Director: Patricia Wettig (Laurel Stevenson), Dean Stockwell (Bob Jenkins), David Morse (Captain Brian Engle), Mark Lindsay Chapman (Nick Hopewell), Frankie Faison (Don Gaffney), Baxter Harris (Rudy Warwick), Kimber Riddle (Bethany Simms), Christopher Collet (Albert Kaussner), Kate Maberly (Dinah Catherine Bellman), Bronson Pinchot (Craig Toomey), & Stephen King (Chairman of the Board Tom Holby in a dream sequence).
Sleeping passengers on a flight from L.A. to Boston wake to find only jewelry, pacemakers and metal implants are left of their fellow alert passengers. They land at Bangor, Maine, only to find it deserted and nothing works. Eventually they discover that because they slept they avoided the fate of the others when the plane flew through a time warp that left them in the immediate past. What happens to the past? It is eaten by the Langoliers: horrific flying furballs with huge, buzz-saw-like teeth. Their only hope is to fly back through the time warp (asleep, of course – although someone must stay awake to fly the plane). But all is not that easy as Craig Toomey gradually loses his grip on reality and falls deeper and deeper into insanity.
Aside from the great acting and screenplay of this mini-series, the faithfulness to the original story was impeccable. Here was a truly novel concept. What exactly happens to the past? Apparently it only remains in our minds because the Langoliers eat everything else. I loved Bronson Pinchot’s performance. He is the consummate nervous breakdown in the making.
Needful Things (Castle Rock/Columbia, 1993) – Director: Fraser Clarke Heston. Screenplay: W. D. Richter. Cast: Max Von Sydow (Leland Gaunt), Ed Harris (Sheriff Alan Pangborn), Bonnie Bedelia (Polly Chalmers), Amanda Plumber (Nettie Cobb), J. T. Walsh (Danforth Keeton III), Ray McKinnon (Deputy Norris Ridgewick), & Duncan Fraser (Hugh Priest).
A new shop called “Needful Things” opens in the town of Castle Rock run by the mysterious and strangely sinister Leland Gaunt. Everyone who enters the shop finds the one thing they’ve always wanted. The price? A prank played on a fellow neighbor. One by one the townspeople become increasingly violent because nobody suspects the correct prankster and instead vents their fury (sometimes lethal) on someone they suspected (or just didn’t like) from the beginning. Sheriff Alan Pangborn senses Gaunt’s involvement when he sells his girlfriend Polly a cure for her disabling rheumatoid arthritis. Now he has to save the town alone.
This film was a truly wonderful, if extremely gory (and appropriately so) adaptation. I eagerly anticipated its release and saw it on opening day. Max Von Sydow was brilliant as Leland Gaunt, Ed Harris was the only person who could have been Sheriff Pangborn and Bonnie Bedelia was wonderful as Polly. This movie was so neatly produced that it is one of very few that stands up to multiple viewings. Again, as in Under the Dome, the characters are recognizable from the book – excellent casting.
It (Two-part movie for television, Lorimar/ABC, 1990) – Director: Tommy Lee Wallace. Cast: The Losers Club (Child/Adult) – Jonathan Brandis/Richard Thomas (Bill Denbrough), Brandon Crane/John Ritter (Ben Hanscom), Adam Faraizl/Dennis Christopher (Eddie Kaspbrak), Emily Perkins/Annette O’Toole (Beverly Marsh), Marlon Taylor/Tim Reid (Mike Hanlon), Seth Green/Harry Anderson (Richie Tozier), Ben Heller/Richard Masur (Stanley Uris), & Tim Curry (Pennywise the Clown).
Pennywise the evil clown is once again murdering children in the town of Derry, Maine, and the group of children once known as the Losers Club (who defeated him in their youth) must reunite as adults to destroy It once and for all.
This movie reinforces anyone’s coulrophobia (fear of clowns), and rightly so. Pennywise is not only evil itself, he’s a monster in masquerade. Anyone who was picked on or bullied or ostracized by their peers as a child can identify with one or more of the Losers Club. Together they form the only hope for the children of Derry and both sets of actors (young and old) perform beautifully to draw the audience into the story. It’s a lesson in cooperation and friendship almost to the point of being a morality play.
The Green Mile (Castle Rock/WB, 1999) – Director: Frank Darabont. Cast: Tom Hanks (Paul Edgecomb), David Morse (Brutus ‘Brutal’ Howell), Michael Clarke Duncan (John Coffey), Bonnie Hunt (Jan Edgecomb), Patricia Clarkson (Melinda Moores), James Cromwell (Warden Hal Moores), Michael Jeter (Eduard Delacroix), Graham Greene (Arlen Bitterbuck), Doug Hutchison (Percy Wetmore), & Sam Rockwell (‘Wild Bill’ Wharton).
The characteristic green tile floor of the death row section of Cold Mountain Penitentiary is aptly called “The Green Mile.” The latest inmate to be locked up is John Coffey (“not spelled like the drink”) a mountain of a man accused of raping and murdering two young girls. In the course of his acquaintance with John, Paul Edgecomb (the ward superintendant) discovers John’s healing power as well as his innocence. At the same time he discovers the serious character flaws in his own employees.
Two Best Supporting Actor/Actress Awards attest to the quality performances in this film, that of Michael Clarke Duncan and Patricia Clarkson. Tom Hanks does his usual superb job, especially when Coffey is doing his empathic magic. I understand that Spike Lee took a dim view of the character and he’s entitled to his opinion but I don’t see things in just black and white. John, as a force of nature could have been any race or color but being in the situation of having been wrongfully accused of the demise of two white girls it would not have worked as well otherwise. The injustice is the bottom line here.
The Mist (MGM, 2007) – Director: Frank Darabont. Cast: Thomas Jane (David Drayton), Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Carmody), Laurie Holden (Amanda Dunfrey) Andre Braugher (Brent Norton), Toby Jones (Ollie Weeks), William Sadler (Jim), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dan Miller), Frances Sternhagen (Irene Reppler), Nathan Gamble (Billy Drayton), Alexa Davalos (Sally), & Chris Owen (Norm).
A strange, abnormal storm causes people to flock to a local supermarket for supplies when a weird, dense fog envelops the store, trapping everyone inside. It’s not just the visibility factor, it’s the deadly alien creatures lurking in the mist that keep people from venturing outside. The terror wreaked by these monsters polarizes the group into two camps, one around Mrs. Carmody (a religious fanatic who gains followers when a creature that looks like a giant mosquito doesn’t harm her after killing another guy with its dagger-like proboscis), and the other around David Drayton and his son who try to rationalize an irrational situation. At long last the reasonable faction decides to venture outside only to find that it’s worse than being with the fanatics in the store.
Knowing how great a story The Mist was to read made me rush to the theater to see the film and it delivered, big time. Not only could I recognize characters from the book by the excellent portrayals by the actors, I could also recognize the monsters. The special effects department did a sterling job. The adaptation was so superb that The Mist is now a part of my permanent collection.
The Worst Stephen King Adaptations
The Shining (WB, 1980) – Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrence), Shelley Duvall (Winifred Torrence), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrence), & Scatman Crothers (Richard Hallorann)
(See the plot description in the later version above)
Even with the eerie effects and a memorable performance – to the point of being quotable – by Jack Nicholson, King disagreed with this adaptation of his story and it was the only one he could remember “hating.” His own problem with alcohol at the time and the deleterious effect it was having on his own family was part of the impetus for writing The Shining. He felt that Jack Torrence’s descent into madness was “tipped off” to the audience merely by the casting of Nicholson, who identified the character with McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The whole supernatural aspect of the story, the evil inherent in the hotel itself and its background of underworld activity infecting Torrence – if you would, the “haunting“ – was lost, or rather misdirected as coming from poor Jack himself.
Maximum Overdrive (De Laurentiis, 1986) – Director: Stephen King. Cast: Emilio Estevez (Bill Robinson), Pat Hingle (Bubba Hendershot), Laura Harrington (Brett), Yeardley Smith (Connie), John Short (Curtis), Ellen McElduff (Wanda June), J. C. Quinn (Duncan Keller), Christopher Murney (Camp Loman), Holter Graham (Deke Keller), Frankie Faison (Handy), & Stephen King (cameo - man trying to use the ATM).
A UFO visiting Earth is obscured by a rogue comet flashing by and suddenly 18-wheelers, back-hoes and major machines become sentient and start murdering people. Curt and Connie (on their honeymoon) along with others, take refuge at the Dixie Boy truck stop to escape the crazy vehicles. Bubba, the restaurant owner convinces Bill Robinson to form a resistance group against the machines.
Based on his own short story “Trucks,” this film suffered mostly from King’s own directing attempts, for which he was nominated a Golden Raspberry Award in 1987. Somehow, the situation was much more terrifying and less silly in the story. In his own words, King described it as a “moron movie,” but later he revealed that he was DWI (Directing While under the Influence) and learned a lot from the experience. It’s a moderately entertaining movie, but doesn’t have the kick of the written word.
The Running Man (TriStar Pictures, 1987) – Director: Paul Michael Glaser. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ben Richards), Maria Conchita Alonso (Amber Mendez), Yaphet Kotto (William Laughlin), Jim Brown (Fireball), Jesse Ventura (Captain Freedom), Erland Van Lidth (Dynamo), Marvin J. McIntyre (Harold Weiss), Gus Rethwisch (Buzzsaw), Professor Toru Tanaka (Subzero), Mick Fleetwood (Mic), Dweezil Zappa (Stevie), & Richard Dawson (Damon Killian).
Reality television has gone off the deep end in 2025 when the show “The Running Man” pits people against themselves in a life and death struggle to win fabulous wealth. Ben Richards enters the game to get money to pay for treatment of his daughter’s illness. The $1 billion prize is a great motivator; all he has to do is evade the police and trained trackers for a month. But wait, that’s not all. Everyone who is watching the show can collect a reward for turning him in.
Here again, as in The Shining, the deeper meanings and themes King intended to bring out were lost shooting the movie as a television show by Glaser’s direction. The original director, Andrew Davis, was fired one week into production. It could have been a completely different presentation. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger believed this hurt the film. On the good side, Richard Dawson was wonderful as the sadistic host of “The Running Man Show.”
The Tommyknockers (2-part mini-series, ABC, 1993) – Director: John Power. Cast: Jimmy Smits (Jim ‘Gard’ Gardner), Marg Helgenberger (Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Anderson), John Ashton (Trooper Butch Duggan), Allyce Beasley (Deputy Becka Paulson), Robert Carradine (Bryant Brown), Joanna Cassidy (Sheriff Ruth Merrill), Annie Corley (Marie Brown), Cliff DeYoung (Joe Paulson), Traci Lords (Nancy Voss), & E.G. Marshall (Ev Hillman).
Bobbi Anderson finds something in the woods by her house and becomes obsessed with digging it up. Jim Gardner assists her in uncovering, of all things, an alien spaceship. As the vessel is uncovered, exposure to it has strange, unhealthy effects on the residents of Haven, but they are inspired to come up with novel inventions using battery power. Then, guess who becomes the real batteries?
This movie is a borderline good adaption. It is true to the spirit of the King story but a plethora of plot changes have a negative effect on the presentation. No one dies from radiation poisoning from the gas emanating from the ship. The “becoming” (transition from human to alien) is much more dramatic in the original tale. Only Nancy Voss becomes psychotic under alien control whereas psychotic violence is rampant in the book. The government corruption in the book is played down so far as to be benign in the mini-series. The list goes on. A joke was started after the first episode (which actually started well) about “what’s green and in two parts?”
The only change that was positive was toward the end. The aliens in the spaceship remain dead in the novel, but in the mini-series they come to life and attack Gardener.
The remainder of the adaptations I’m citing actually have no business being here and became a part of this list due to the temerity of having been produced. None of them have any connection to any creation of King except maybe the titles.
Lawnmower Man (Columbia Tri-Star, 1992) – Director: Brett Leonard. Cast: Jeff Fahey (Jobe Smith), Pierce Brosnan (Dr. Lawrence Angelo), Jenny Wright (Marnie Burke), Mark Bringelson (Sebastian Timms), Geoffrey Lewis (Terry McKeen), Jeremy Slate (Father Francis McKeen), & Dean Norris (The Director).
The film is named after a King short story of the same title, but aside from a single scene, the stories are unrelated. Remembering vividly the original story and wondering how they were going to bring it to the big screen with the weird nudity of the title character duped me into running to see this film. It sounds a little perverse, I know but I also know I can’t recall when I’ve been so disappointed.
And now, The Rogue’s Gallery: films made just for the box office:
· Pet Sematary II (Paramount, 1989)
· Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Dimension Films, 1993)
· Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Dimension Films, 1995)
· Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (Dimension Films, 1996)
· Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (Dimension Home Video, 1998)
· Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (Blue Rider Pictures, 1999)
· Children of the Corn, Revelation (Creeper Films, 2001)
· Children of the Corn, Genesis (Dimension Films, 2011)
· Sometimes They Come Back…Again (Trimark, 1996)
· Sometimes They Come Back…For More (Trimark, 1998)
· The Mangler 2 (Barnholtz Entertainment, 2001)
· The Mangler Reborn (Barnholtz Entertainment, 2005)
· Firestarter 2: Rekindled (SyFy, 2002)
· Creepshow III (Taurus Entertainment, 2007)
This last one consists of five short films, none of which have any connection to King’s work. Creepshow 2 had one story that was actually adapted from one of King’s.
The great majority of the films and television productions visualizing the many stories King has written are marvelous. Their only limitations are the current technology for special effects and the audience’s imagination. As for the future, I hear a buzz about The Gunslinger (the first book of the Dark Tower series), The Talisman (one of two co-authorships with Peter Straub), and Rose Madder are all in the works. Being, as Stephen puts it, a “Constant Reader,” I look forward to their production.