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The Essentials: 5 Great Films Based On Stephen King Novels

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 21, 2012 at 10:55AM

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.
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Stand By Me
"Stand By Me" (1986)
King's first collaboration with Rob Reiner (who'd later name his production company, Castle Rock, set up the following year, for the fictional Maine town in which many of King's novels are set) showed a new maturity for a director who'd previously worked mostly in the comedy arena. Not that "Stand By Me" -- about four friends who set out in search of the body of a missing boy -- isn't funny. The script, from "Starman" writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, has that raw authenticity that reminds you of the friends you had as a child that made you laugh until it hurt. But there's also a melancholy tone here too, with the pain for those friends, for the men they became and the boys they'll never be again. But, it's the way that it veers away from sentimentality, even as the material seems to demand it, that marks it as something special. Reiner's ever-developing keen eye for casting ends up with four very special leads in Wil Wheaton, Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix (whose sad passing only seven years later gives the film extra poignancy), and they don't so much seem to be acting as just being captured as they come of age. King considers it his favorite of the adaptations of his work, and when you exclude the author's views on "The Shining," it's hard to disagree.

Dolores Claiborne
"Dolores Claiborne" (1995)
We should start off at this point by saying that "Misery" is brilliant, and certainly in the upper reach of Stephen King's works on screens. But we'd already had one Rob Reiner film, and wanted to keep it to one director per movie. Besides, there's another Kathy Bates-starring King adaptation of as much merit, but that's somewhat undervalued: 1995's "Dolores Claiborne." Directed by Taylor Hackford and featuring the breakout script from future "Michael Clayton" and "Bourne Legacy" director Tony Gilroy (his second, after "The Cutting Edge," of all things), the film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena, an alcoholic New York reporter who returns to her Maine birthplace when her mother Dolores (Bates), who was widely believed to be responsible for killing her husband (David Strathairn) 20 years earlier, is accused of murdering her elderly and disabled employer (Judy Parfitt). The story is one of the least genre-tinged things that King ever wrote, and as such, the film was perhaps a difficult beast for audiences to latch onto at the time. But seventeen years later, it's aged beautifully. Hackford's direction pulls the film back admirably from melodrama while layering on the atmosphere (it's arguably his best film), Gilroy's script is taut, neatly structured and psychologically complex, and the performances are terrific, not least from Bates, who's probably even better here than in her Oscar-winning turn in "Misery." It's a smart and powerful film that undoubtedly deserves to sit aside the others on this list.

The Mist
"The Mist" (2008)
Over the last twenty years, Frank Darabont has adapted King's work more than anyone (bar B-movie/miniseries type Mick Garris), and his first crack, prison drama "The Shawshank Redemption," sits atop the IMDb Top 250 films. But it's not that, or his similar but more supernatural follow-up "The Green Mile" that we've picked out. Instead, we've chosen his 2007 horror "The Mist," based on the short story by King, that involves a group of small town folk, including Thomas Jane, Toby Jones, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Andre Braugher and William Sadler, who are trapped in a convenience store by an impenetrable mist that seems to contain terrifying creatures. It would have felt odd to have a list of King films without a proper monster movie, and for the moment, "The Mist" is the best of them, with Darabont nicely melding his B-movie instincts and the psychological realism of his earlier films. And like all the best monster movies, the humans -- namely Harden's terrifying, Michelle Bachmann-ish religious nutcase -- are just as terrifying as any of the giant bugs (indeed, a limited budget means that the effects are somewhat ropey and actually play better in the black-and-white version on Blu-ray). It's strong and scary stuff, but nothing compared to the gut-punch of an ending (altered by Darabont from the original), one of the bravest, bleakest and most haunting given to a genre picture since "Night of the Living Dead." Not the popular favorite that 'Shawshank' is, but we'd pick "The Mist" every time.  

Honorable Mentions: Aside from "Misery," 'Shawshank' and "The Green Mile," as mentioned above, David Cronenberg's 'The Dead Zone" is probably the most notable omission. It's a fairly gripping thriller, but a bit middling by Cronenberg's high standards, if you ask us. We do like Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" a fair bit -- it's arguably the director's best film bar "The Usual Suspects," but didn't quite make the cut. Anything else you reckon we've missed? Let us know below. And hey, at least we didn't pick "Dreamcatcher."

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Stephen King


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