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The Essentials: 5 Great Films Based On Stephen King Novels

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by Oliver Lyttelton
September 21, 2012 10:55 AM
33 Comments
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"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" (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" (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."

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33 Comments

  • 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

    PET SEMETARY!

  • 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, WOW...you 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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