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The Essentials: 5 Great Films Based On Stephen King Novels

by Oliver Lyttelton
September 21, 2012 10:55 AM
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Stephen King
Stephen King is, all of a sudden, a hot property again. One of the major forces in popular literature of the past forty-odd years, it's been a few years since the last major King adaptation, but a wealth of projects from the director are on their way in the next few years.

Ron Howard finally has a backer for his epic adaptation of the author's fantasy series "The Dark Tower" in the shape of Media Rights CapitalBen Affleck is attached to a two-movie adaptation of "The Stand"; Cary Fukunaga is planning the same approach for "It"; a "Carrie" remake is due next spring starring Chloe Moretz; a prequel to "The Shining" is in the early stages while King will release novel sequel "Doctor Sleep" next year; Brian K. Vaughan is adapting "Under The Dome" for ShowtimeJustin Long is starring in Tom Holland's "The Ten O'Clock People"; Jonathan Demme is working on "11/22/63"; and there's many, many more in the works as well (and his son Joe Hill is following in his father's footsteps too -- the adaptation of his novel "Horns" starts filming any day now).

What's more is that today marks the still-prolific King's 65th birthday, and so to celebrate the seminal genre master's happy day, we thought we'd pick out five of our favorite big-screen adaptations of King's work. You may not agree, and there are some omissions that may prove a little controversial, But feel free to argue your case in the comments section below.

"Carrie" (1976)
The horrors of going through puberty in a hormone-infested institution full of your peers can be related to by more than most, but it takes the special combination of Stephen King and Brian De Palma to come up with a horror film that's both as terrifying and deeply felt as "Carrie." Based on King's debut novel, it opens with oddball Carrie White (an Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek) getting her first period (something her monstrous, fundamentalist Christian mother -- Piper Laurie -- never prepared her for) in the shower, and being tormented by her classmates as a result. As it turns out, Carrie has telekenetic powers so this, and their subsequent prom prank, turns out to be something of a mistake. De Palma brings all his Hitchcockian skills to racking up the tension, but crucially, it's his empathy with his central character (De Palma's abilities as a director of women are still underrated) that makes Carrie into a classic, pitiable yet terrifying movie monster that can hold court next to Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. One could argue that the film's dated a little over the past twenty-five years, but even so, Kimberley Peirce has an awful lot to live up to with next year's remake.

The Shining Jack Nicholson
"The Shining" (1980)
These days, relatively few people would disagree with the proposition that Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is the finest ever adaptation of King's work -- it's an endlessly rewatchable masterpiece, and regularly named as one of the best horror films in polls (number 2 in Time Out's last year). One of those few who don't like the film? King himself, who once wrote that it was one of the few adaptations of his work he could "remember hating," finding it departing from the source material, thematically and supernaturally, writing "What's basically wrong with Kubrick's version of 'The Shining' is that it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that's why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should." Well, due respect to the author, but anyone who's seen the King-approved 1997 made-for-TV miniseries version starring Steven Weber knows exactly how wrong he is. Kubrick made something that doesn't just elevate the source material, but also the horror genre in general, coming up with something richer, stranger and more profound. Indeed, this fall's "Room 237," an outstanding documentary looking at the various theories cooked up around the movie, only goes to highlight further the extent to which the film is a gloriously opaque, multi-faceted wonder, even aside from being visually stunning and brilliantly acted. Of course, much of this is down to Kubrick, but despite his feelings on the movie, much of King's text remains in there, so he should perhaps learn to feel a little prouder about the thing.

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More: Features, The Essentials, Stephen King

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  • Daisy | October 31, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    I am still waiting for a good adaptation of Duma Key. What a book it is

  • Daniel | October 9, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    "Not the popular favorite that 'Shawshank' is, but we'd pick "The Mist" every time."

    Well, you & I are exact opposites, then.

  • Tina | October 9, 2012 9:48 AMReply

    God...Another "Carrie" remake? Give me a break! Enough with these remakes! Carrie has been done and re-done enough. It's bad enough that Seth Grahame Smith also has "It" under consideration. After what he did to "Dark Shadows", I hope Mr. King nixes that idea altogether. If that man has anything to do with that screenplay, a lot of people won't go to it being that DS 2012 or "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" bombed in the U.S. Doesn't anyone have any original ideas anymore? This marketing to the teens and 'tweens is going the limit and Chloe Moretz's name won't sell a picture.

  • Brickz | October 1, 2012 1:04 AMReply

    Cat's eye deserve to be on this list for that pigeon scene alone.

  • Brock | September 26, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    Interesting choice to include the Mist on the "Essential List of Great Stephen King Films" and to leave off The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. I don't agree at all, but I do love all three. All three certainly outshine Dolores Clairborne and Stand By Me. Leaving the long standing #1 rated movie on IMDB off a list of "essential" works is ballsy, to say the least - but certainly not accurate or wise.

  • Phillip | September 25, 2012 3:10 PMReply

    Kubrick's film is superior to the miniseries but it's not as half as powerful as the original novel.

  • ro828 | September 23, 2012 7:09 PMReply

    I hated Kubrick's THE SHINING almost as much as King himself did. Nicholson is a great actor but for some reason nobody tried to put a saddle on his horse for this one. The film slid into the crapper during the scene in Denver where Torrance is interviewing for the job watching over the hotel during the winter months. Told what the former caretaker had done, he says that no, he could never do a thing like that. But while his mouth is delivering that line in a straightforward manner, his eyebrows are going up and down like garage doors. It's a "Look how crazy I am!" moment that in Act One that told us things we shouldn't have figured out until the middle of Act Three. The director's attitude was, hell, everybody's read the book and knows what's going to happen so I'll just throw in some blood and guts and four letter words and hope nobody figures out what a turd this movie is.

  • Daisy | October 31, 2012 2:04 PM

    You are absolutely right about the movie Shining. the book Shining is a masterpiece but it is unfairly shadowed by the easy access to cinema. I cannot understand how on earth people that praise the movie Shining to skies do not bother to read the book Shining, which is an epitome of horror literature.

  • Stephen Kahn | September 23, 2012 5:01 PMReply


  • John Constantine | September 23, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    At the time I saw it I liked Hearts in Atlantis. I don''t know how I'll feel now. Also I liked the miniseries The Stand when I saw it.

    All those stupid comments complaining about this and that. Annoying. There's always at least one person who has to complain in articles like this. But I agree that the headline is not accurate. "Works" instead of "novels" and that "The Essentials", although I understand it's a category of articles, sounds more like a "that's the definitive list". But hey, anything to atract the readers :P

  • Edward Copeland | September 23, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    Not to be a stickler for semantics but "Stand By Me" wasn't based on a novel but the novella "The Body" from King's collection "Different Seasons," which also contained the novellas that were adapted into "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Apt Pupil." "The Mist" also was a novella that was included in the collection of stories "Skeleton Crew." This isn't an argument for or against the films' inclusions, just a plea for more accurate headlines. Change novels to works and you have no problem.

  • Heidi | September 22, 2012 11:43 PMReply

    "Dolores Claiborne" was sooooo much better than Misery. As to the Jack Nickelson in "The Shining...meh...even Stephen King was furious what they did with it. I can see why, they slaughtered the book, and it by NO means was better. At ALL. The better version is with the guy who used to be in the tv show "Wings" was SO much better! They did the book right. Jack Nicholson was a VERY poorly devoloped character, but the other guy, really could get into his head. You saw where he was coming from, not just that he was going crazy. It was so much more like it was in the book.. And In the end with his boy and graduation...WOW...just WOW. I watch it every halloween...

  • d | September 23, 2012 1:20 AM

    WOW EVEN STEPHEN KING? IT MUST BE HORRIBLE. No but seriously, it makes sense that he would be furious. That doesn't mean the movie isn't far, far better. In fact, that movie's better than most things. Unless you're a diehard King fan, it seems absurd to argue that the TV version with the guy from "Wings" is better than Kubrick's masterpiece. But to each his/her own.

  • JD | September 22, 2012 11:40 PMReply

    Dolores Claiborne is a good movie, but Misery is better. Any list of the best adaptations would have to include Misery, The Dead Zone, Creepshow, a little film a few people might have heard of called THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, ahem....and some of my personal faves would be Silver Bullet, Christine, and Cujo. There should be adaptations of The Long Walk and Eyes Of the Dragon, and a better and more faithful version of The Running Man....

  • Rick | September 22, 2012 1:31 PMReply

    The dead zone is probably my favorite of all King adaptations. I'll watch Christopher Walken make breakfast though

  • LiveFreeOrDieRob | September 22, 2012 9:50 AMReply

    Seriously, including The Mist is just wrong when there are other movies you opted out for weird reasons (one film per director?) Honestly, The Mist would have been tops for me as being classic King and well executed as a movie, to boot. Except for that "gut-punch" ending, which I would actually term "shock-value inspired garbage." That movie is ruined by the ending.

  • Brock | September 26, 2012 6:21 PM

    Are you serious? That ending even floored Stephen King. It wasn't shock, it was pure Lovecraftian inspired human despair. Giving into the insanity of the horror of the unknown. The Mist was easily King's most Lovecraftian work.

  • Huffy | September 22, 2012 4:09 AMReply

    The Mist being on here is complete bullshit, I'm sorry. That ending is all shock and no substance; it's just cheap emotional manipulation with no real purpose other than to shock the audience into thinking they just witnessed something emotionally profound, not to mention it makes no sense within the film's logic. What preceded it isn't bad but this idea people have that it transcends the horror genre is dumbfounding.

  • HorrorNazi | September 21, 2012 5:38 PMReply

    "Boris Karloff's Dracula" really?

  • Archer Slyce | September 22, 2012 10:06 AM

    I must say that was so big ... I didn't see it ! It's been corrected though.

  • katie | September 21, 2012 11:07 PM

    seriously. i stopped reading there. it's a rather glaring mistake to make in front of a bunch of movie lovers, dude.

  • efbrackett | September 21, 2012 2:02 PMReply

    Thanks for including The Mist. The B&W version on the blu-ray is glorious.

  • Archer Slyce | September 21, 2012 11:31 AMReply

    These internet lists are bound to start intense debates about what's missing and what shouldn't be here. I still have to say: kudos for picking Dolores and The Mist !! The only film I would really "miss" here (apart from Misery) is Christine ... one of my fav King adaptation and one of my fav from Carpenter (which is a lot to say). Honorable mention on my behalf would go to Cujo.

  • Richard Schitz | September 21, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    The Mist was good up until the ending... Which was awful. The ending in the novella was much, much better.

  • Drucifer | September 22, 2012 3:59 PM

    The one where they drive off into an uncertain future? That would have pissed audiences off more and people would have put its ending in the same category as The Devil Inside. An anticlimax is hard to pull off. I like both but one works for film and the other works for the written word.

  • Mark | September 21, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    I always thought that since Kathy Bates received an oscar for "Misery", than she should get at least two oscars for "Dolores Claiborne". That's how good she is in it. But... not even a nomination, as it it is usually with masterpiece roles.
    And the ending of "The Mist" - didn't expect that at all. Wow!

  • jt | September 21, 2012 11:35 AM

    Mark, yes, I loved Kathy Bates' incredible performance in Dolores Claiborne, and Jennifer Jason Leigh deserved an Oscar nomination for her great turn. Judy Parfitt and David Strathairn also deserved Oscar nominations. Playlist , thanks for giving a shout out to The Mist. I was shocked Marcia Gay Harden didn't a Oscar nomination. She was on fire in that movie.

  • Greg | September 21, 2012 11:16 AMReply

    I'm glad you guys included "The Mist." That's got a pulpy nastiness to it that absolutely needed to be included on here. I'm also bummed that "The Dead Zone" didn't make the cut, but glad to see it mentioned at least. I'll also put that one forward as a great horror-ish movie to watch with someone who can't really stomach horror movies.

  • Richard Schitz | September 21, 2012 11:16 AMReply

    Maximum Overdrive is a glaring omission.

  • alphabet | September 21, 2012 2:52 PM

    ..but you know, not really.

  • rotch | September 21, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    I agree with the list and the logic behind it. Would like to see Tobe Hooper's phenomenal 'Salem's Lot in the honorable mentions, even if it wasn't a theatrical release.

  • Drucifer | September 22, 2012 4:02 PM

    Thank you. one of my absolute favorite films and possibly the best example of horror on network television. James Masons line deliveries in the film are absolutely brilliant. Just saturated with such a thick menace. What happened to Hooper....

  • Sam | September 21, 2012 11:04 AMReply

    You're not including "Misery" because you have a one director per film policy? Then, sorry, but that's not a list of "essentials." Another horrible omission: "The Dead Zone."

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