The 20 Best Films Adapted from Stephen King’s Works
7. The Dead Zone (1983), dir. David Cronenberg
Legendary horror film director, David Cronenberg (Fly re-make in 1986) adapts King’s 1979 Sci-Fi horror/thriller, The Dead Zone. Like most of King’s stories, The Dead Zone focuses on a white, educated—a former school teacher—who has a fatal car accident and suffers a coma for the next five years. (Could this predicament possibly foreshadow King’s own fatal accident approximately fifteen years later? Life imitates art? After all, King had been an English Professor a few years before.)
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakes from his coma and discovers that he has attained a great gift of touch sight—he foresees the future and the past whenever he touches someone else’s hands. In the novel, Johnny believes his gift is a curse, especially after he discovers his fiancée (Brooke Adams) married another man. However, after he shakes hands with a corrupt politician (Martin Sheen), he believes what was once detrimental is now imperative for the future of mankind.
The filming of the Dead Zone is definitely Cronenberg-esque quality, which includes the eerie soundtrack, suspenseful camera shots and angles, low-key lighting and dark color contrast, as well as ominous and foreboding acting styles of Walken and Sheen.
It’s hardly noticeable that the film is categorized as Science Fiction or Horror, for Walken’s role of often likened to that in The Deer Hunter(1979), while Sheen’s character is comparable to the darkness witnessed in Apocalypse Now (1979). The film is probably, now, one of the lesser known King adaptations and Cronenberg classics, but it is one that should be continue to exist on any horror movie hit list.
6. Christine (1983), dir. John Carpenter
A teenage boy working on his muscle car: nothing seems more apple pie, James Dean, and
American Dream than this image. The boy, enthralled by his prize, always a name for the beaut—this one is called “Christine.”
Christine, a novel originally written by Stephen King in April of 1983, is about a seventeen year old “misfit,” Arnie Cunningham, who might love his adopted ’58 “too much” The same-titled film was adapted by renowned horror film director, John Carpenter, in December 1983.
In the film, Arnie (Keith Gordon) portrays a geeky teenager who becomes obsessed by his possessed vehicle. When Arnie’s friends realize how fanatic Arnie has become by his American Dream, the anthropomorphic Plymouth “Fury” runs amuck, leaving no prisoner behind.
Director John Carpenter, primarily known for birthing filmic horror legends like Mike Meyers in the original Halloween films, is no stranger to horror-ific elements. Changing few details—such as the location (California, instead of the east coast) and utilizing the original car owner (Roberts Blossom) as the primary reason behind Christine’s name and mystical supernatural powers—Carpenter encapsulates King’s masterpiece and allows the audience to realize, through camera angles spiraling with adrenaline pumping speed, that some of their most prized material possessions can possess their souls.
5. Stand By Me (1986), dir. Rob Reiner
Whil Wheton. River Phoenix. Jerry O’Connell. Corey Feldman. What says more about childhood than these four actors—besides roller rinks, G.I. Joe, neopolitan ice cream bars, Pez, and Corey Haim?
The film is primarily based on the flashback of a (yes, you guessed it) writer, who transports the audience back into a simpler time of crew cuts of plain white T’s. The author attempts to retrace the steps of four boys, who always hang out together, when tragic befalls the group in a dense Maine wood, making it the most memorable summer for the rest of their lives.
Rob Reiner adapts a lesser known story, “The Body,” also included in King’s short story collection, Different Seasons (1982). Though it was filmed in 1986, Stand By Me will probably never falter as timeless classic about a group of boys experiencing—together—the growing pains of friendship, bullies, adventures, leeches, life, and death.
4. The Green Mile (1999), dir. Frank Darabont
The Green Mile, a Stephen King novel, is another narrative about 1930s prison life (see The Shawshank Redepmtion), but this time, the men are on “death row.” The story also includes a slight paranormal twist, which director Frank Darabont enlivens in his film of the same tittle.
“The Green Mile” was originally published is 1996, in six parts, and compiled in a serial novel in 2000—a year after Darabont directs the film. The two artists collaborated during the film-making process to produce one of the most heart-felt, intensified prison movies of the decade.
Comparable to the The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile portrays a young prisoner, Jon Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who retains a supernatural gift—one that captures the hearts and souls of the audience and the characters, especially the warden, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks).
The warden is a refreshingly stark contrast to Shawhank’s Bob Gunton. He is truly kind, compassionate, and thoughtful to the prisoners on “The Green Mile” of the Cold Mountain Penitentary, and takes a unique interest in Jon—despite the challenging odds against the “cold-blooded murderer.”
What King establishes in the readers’ imaginations, Darabont equally displays (visually) on screen—from the dialogue amongst the prisoners, prison guards, and townsfolk to the special effects of John Coffey’s miracles. The Green Mile continues to capture the hearts and souls of audiences almost two decades after its production.
3. Carrie (1976), dir. Brian de Palma
“Plug it up! Plug it up!”—Sue Snell, Carrie. The biggest nightmare for any high school girl is to start her period in the middle of gym class. Stephen King ignites this fear and propels it to much higher plane.
Probably the most renowned horror novels of contemporary literature, Carrie is eerily invigorated on screen in Brian de Palma’s frightening adaptation. The scrawny titular character, Carrie White (aptly played by the young Sissy Spacek), is a not-so-average teenage girl, sheltered by an overtly religious single mother (Piper Laurie), but holds (she later discovers) telekinetic powers.
Carrie attends a new high school and has absolutely no friends; to make matters worse, she begins her menstrual cycle in front of all the other girls, but has no idea what has happened to her. Many of the girls laugh at her ignorance and stupidity, but one of the popular girls, Sue (Amy Irving) feels sorry for poor Carrie. Carrie’s dreams of being “normal” magically come true when she is asked by the most popular boy in school, Tommy, to attend prom.
Excited, Carrie runs home to tell her mom the great news, but is immediately disappointed by her mom’s fanatic behavior. Her mom reluctantly allows her to attend prom without first damning her to hell, forcing her to ask God’s forgiveness in her “prayer closet,” and mocking that “they’re all going to laugh at you.”
Carrie, however, terribly desires to be normal, ignores her mom’s psychotic (but unfortunately true) remarks, and hopes for the time of her life. What could possibly be the catch? After all, Tommy is Sue’s boyfriend, and Sue asked him to do it as a favor. Well, Carrie isn’t privy to this information; and Sue, Tommy, and the rest of Bates High School are clueless when a prom prank, including a rigged prom queen and king election, goes awry under Carrie’s powerful control.
For a 1976 horror film, Carrie captures the essence of modern teen spirit. King, who writes his first novel only two years earlier, admits he hoped to emit the most typical fears of the teenager (see On Writing), while de Palma channels those fears in a grippingly peculiar musical score, palpitating camera shots and angels, and grotesquely fierce special effects.
Though a contemporary version was spawned in 2013, the pig’s blood spilled on the Carrie of the seventies will undoubtedly resonate in the nightmares of King’s fans for years to come.
2. The Shining (1980), dir. Stanley Kubrick
What can possibly happen when America’s favorite nuclear family, the Torrances, room in the most beautiful lodging of the Colorado Rockies during the worst weather in state’s history? Stanley Kubrick (1980) perpetuates three isolated characters of the adapted film through his innovative editing and unnerving musical score.
A historical ski resort, “The Overlook,” is home to several celebrities and presidents during the spring “open” season. As a result of harsh winters and closed roads, the glorious landmark shuts down for the winter, around September, with only a caretaker to see to its massive landscape before re-opening the next May. The walk-in freezer is fully stocked and there is plenty of room to “spread out.”
Fired from his last teaching job for mishandling one of his own students, the ill-tempered Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a struggling (wait for it) writer takes the care-taking job as the last hope to keep his family afloat. The unknowing Torrances soon discover what it’s like to catch “cabin fever” after they become “snowed in.”
The coined phrase, “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” holds symbolic meaning for pages in the novel, but Kubrick cinematically displays this treacherous monotony in one scene, which establishes the outcome for the rest of the film.
In the book, the boy (Danny), who holds supernatural powers (or “the shine” as Halloran the cook calls it) is the driving force behind the narrative; while in the film, Kubrick focuses little on Danny’s shine—mentioning it in passing—and utilizes Jack Torrance’s fear of the obsession with the drink, which results in insane behavior toward his family and in hallucinatory supernatural occurrences–the walls and rooms that spring to life in the absence of a human soul. Jack’s family is negatively affected, especially his son, who reacts remarkably peculiar toward Jack’s alcoholism and the nuclear family unit.
King wasn’t thrilled with the casting choice for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), nor did he agree to Kubrick’s choice to change the point-of—view (from father-to-son). In fact, Kubrick changed a few major items—the recurring “ghost” twins and Room 237, for instance, instead of the wretched woman in 217.
According to Roger Ebert, “Those who have read Stephen King’s original novel report that Kubrick dumped many plot elements and adapted the rest to his uses. Kubrick is telling a story with ghosts (the two girls, the former caretaker and a bartender), but it isn’t a ‘ghost story,’ because the ghosts may not be present in any sense at all except as visions experienced by Jack or Danny.”
Many scholars and critics (even King himself in his memoirs titled On Writing) have associated the primary character of the novel, Jack Torrance, to an untreated alcoholic father who victimizes family. King, in fact, admits in his memoirs that he was writing about himself (95-97)—King was Jack Torrance: an isolated alcoholic author, who took advantage of his family, had suicidal tendencies, and was fighting demon spirits.
King’s uncontrollable behavior befuddled him at first, and the sobering part about writing The Shining, for King, was that he did not realize he was writing about himself until years later (95). He spends pages in his On Writing discussing his writing disappointments, admitting that if he had remembered his own story-telling, he could have “enjoyed” his mastery work (99).
The underlining (and fascinating) feature of King’s self-criticism is that he does not blame the alcohol—he blames himself. In fact, King claims that after his self-discovery, he was not “in denial…but had a frightened determination” (On Writing 95).
Success or failure is in the eye of the beholder. The film performed decently at the box office, but didn’t win many awards (only two from the Academy of Science, Fiction, and Horror—in 1981, Scatman Crothers (Dick Halloran) won for best Supporting Actor and in 2012, again via the Academy of Science, Fiction, and Horror for Best DVD Collection.
In 1981, Kubrick won a “Razzie” for Wost Director and Shelly Duvall for Worst Actress in a role. Duvall, according to Ebert, admitted how laborious the actors worked to get the characters “just right” for Kubrick—who apparently was tyrannous and difficult to work for—but was disappointed with the reviews.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994), dir. Frank Darabont
Adapted from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” an “innocent,” timid man named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plans a twenty-year prison break, gaining the trust of the corrupt, Bible-thumping prison warden (Bob Gunton) and the foul and immoral prison guards (i.e. Clancy Brown)—as well as earning the respect and friendship of the “only guilty man in Shawshank,” Red (Morgan Freeman)—providing hope to the other male prisoners, even if their only fate is despair.
“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” along with three other stories—two of which films were also adapted [“The Body” (Stand by Me) and “Apt Pupil”(Apt Pupil)]—is part of King’s shorty story collection titled Different Seasons (1982). Director Darabont adapts King’s classic “prison break” story into one of the most important films in cinematic history.
Darabont brings King’s fiction to life, using a poster of “Rita Hayworth” as the crucial existence of the seat-gripping story line. Concepts of the enigmatic human condition—hope, trust, corruption, rehabilitation, institutionalization, friendship, and loyalty—are strategically positioned throughout the piece to win the hearts and souls of the audience.
Because this derives from a King novella, this adaptation is the ultimate epitome of making a successful “mountain of a molehill”—one that is usually problematic for most directors. Darabobt’s acute understanding of human fraility is captured beautifully (and realistically) behind the stone, gray and blue walls of Shawshank prison.
If prison life doesn’t seem dreary enough, King’s main character—and Darabonot’s portrayal—Andy is soft spoken, methodical, trusting. He not only gives hope, but lives hope. After watching this film, we can all learn a true lesson of living life to the fullest.
The success of The Shawshank Redepmtion has been catastrophic. Since its cinematic inception twenty years ago, the film has won a plethora of awards, including being ranked number one in IMDBs “Top 250 list,” and still often airs on prime time television. Like many other unknown King stories, Darabont permanently situated this narrative on the map of illustrious cinema.
Author’s Bio: Manya D. Wren, a devoted film aficionado and Adjunct Professor of English at CBU (Riverside, CA), lives in Seal Beach, California. Manya received her M.A. in English Literature from CBU, which includes the success of her Master’s thesis on rebellious women and Russian Law in the short works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Her current writing experiences, which comprise of scholarly research devoted to film and literature, have been presented at academic conferences and are being considered for publication.