Stephen King on screen: my top 10 King adaptations

The sheer number of adaptations of King’s work can be intimidating

stephen king
Julianne Moore in Lisey’s Story (Apple TV)
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To his many readers, Stephen King is the Dreamcatcher; to others, less keen on his prodigious output, Doctor Sleep may be a more fitting appellation.

On Friday June 4, Apple TV+ debuted King’s own eight-part adaptation of his 2006 bestseller Lisey’s Story. Reportedly one of King’s favorite books, the novel harks back to both Misery and The Secret Window, concerning as it does the widow of a popular author plagued by an obsessive fan, and the thin line between imagination and madness. Julianne Moore stars as Lisey, with Clive Owen as her late husband, the immensely…

To his many readers, Stephen King is the Dreamcatcher; to others, less keen on his prodigious output, Doctor Sleep may be a more fitting appellation.

On Friday June 4, Apple TV+ debuted King’s own eight-part adaptation of his 2006 bestseller Lisey’s Story. Reportedly one of King’s favorite books, the novel harks back to both Misery and The Secret Window, concerning as it does the widow of a popular author plagued by an obsessive fan, and the thin line between imagination and madness. Julianne Moore stars as Lisey, with Clive Owen as her late husband, the immensely successful novelist, Scott Landon.

The announcement of a new Stephen King TV series or movie is by now a regular event, but the sheer number of adaptations of King’s work can be intimidating. Few other genre authors have enjoyed this degree of popularity on screen, although Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Good Omens), Mark Millar (Jupiter’s Legacy) and Garth Ennis (The Boys, Preacher) all give King a run for his money. But since Brian de Palma’s hit version of Carrie in 1976, with no less than 17 movies and eight series (excluding Lisey’s Story) directly based on King’s work, currently in various stages of production, there has been no let-up in the veritable conveyer-belt of adaptations of the prolific author’s work. Despite the wealth of novels to choose from, certain titles have been filmed more than once, including The Shining, The Stand, The Mist and Salem’s Lot, which after two mini-series versions (1979 and 2004) is now headed to the big screen.

With this in mind, here are 10 of my favorites, both series and motion pictures, with the most recent first.

The Stand (2020, Paramount+)

This new version of King’s 1978 apocalyptic doorstep novel has much to recommend it, although the premise of a deadly man-made flu virus (‘Captain Trips’) that wipes out most of humanity may understandably not appeal to many, given the events of the last 18 months. Centenarian beacon of hope Mother Abagail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg) gathers the more virtuous survivors to battle the supernatural threat of the satanic Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) and his naughty band of orgiastic followers.

Despite the occasional longueurs, the mini-series builds nicely, but I felt badly let down by the deus ex machina ending, which makes the heroes perilous journey into Flagg’s own Las Vegas heart of darkness particularly pointless. I could have done without the heavy-handed religiosity as well. Skarsgård glowers convincingly as baddie Flagg, although I prefer Jamey Sheridan’s impish portrayal in the 1994 series, which is available to watch gratis on YouTube.

Mr Mercedes (2017-19, Peacock)

Mr Mercedes is atypical among King novels in primarily being a psychological crime thriller, although some of his trademark supernatural elements are present. Essentially the first two seasons of the show revolve around retired police detective Bill Hodges (the great Brendan Gleeson), in a battle of wits with cunning fame-seeking psychopath Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), perpetrator of the officer’s only unsolved case — ‘Mr Mercedes’, so named as the murderer was responsible for driving a luxury vehicle into a line of folks at a jobs fair, killing 16 and injuring many others. Season 3 turns to another crime, the murder of acclaimed but reclusive writer John Rothstein (Bruce Dern), whose irascible character combines aspects of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, John Updike and King himself. Exalted company, you might say.

Reportedly, King loved the show, which was also well received by critics.

1408 (2007, full movie available to watch free on YouTube or rent/buy on Amazon)

There are echoes of the classic portmanteau chiller Dead of Night (1945) in the way 1408 plays with the theme of being trapped in a recurring nightmare. John Cusack plays skeptical ghost-hunting author Mike Enslin, who foolishly takes up an anonymous challenge to spend the night in the notorious room 1408 of New York’s swanky Dolphin Hotel. Samuel L. Jackson’s hotel manager Gerald Olin explains to Enslin that 56 people have died in 1408 over the last 95 years and no-one has managed to spend more than a single hour in the room.

Of course, Cusack ignores this advice, otherwise the film would only last around 20 minutes. The Dolphin’s policy begs the question as to why the hotel didn’t just brick the room up.

The Mist (2007, Amazon rent/buy)

If you’re in an emotionally fragile state of mind, I wouldn’t recommend watching Frank Darabont’s (The Shawshank Redemption) version of The Mist, which incidentally is one of King’s favorite adaptations of his work. When military experiments open an extra-dimensional portal in the sleepy Maine town of Bridgton, the result is an unwelcome influx of bloodthirsty Lovecraftian monsters. No Trumpian border wall could keep these chaps out, as they proceed to lay siege to a local supermarket, defended by good guys David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and sensible assistant manager Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones). Unfortunately, religious fanatic Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) stirs the fears of the blockaded locals, which inflames the situation still further.

The tale ends with one of the bleakest moments ever for a mainstream movie, which I won’t spoil for readers who have yet to see the picture. The story was made into a vastly inferior TV series in 2017, which was canceled after one season.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Amazon rent/buy)

Hard to believe, but classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t a commercial smash on release in 1994. Star Tim Robbins (who plays wrongly-convicted murderer Andy Dufresne), had his own pet theory as to why the picture was not an immediate hit:

For years after that film came out, people would come up to me and say, “You know, I really liked you in that film Scrimshaw Reduction or Shimmy, Shimmy, Shake or Shankshaw — you know, so many different ways that people got it wrong.”‘

The movie went on to be a video/cable hit, and, along with Stand by Me (1986) is one of the most moving adaptations of a Stephen King novel, with Robbins and co-star Morgan Freeman (Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding), providing a touching depiction of true friendship forged under the most grueling of circumstances. Fingers crossed that no hotshot producer decides that the time is now ripe for a remake.

Needful Things (1993, Amazon rent/buy)

I admit that Needful Things is not the greatest Stephen King movie adaptation of all time, in fact it wasn’t even the best in 1993 (George A. Romero’s The Dark Half was marginally better). So why have I chosen this picture? Solely due to the performance of the late Max von Sydow as the twinkling Devil-turned-antiques dealer Leland Gaunt, who has a whale of time leading the generally boorish inhabitants of Castle Rock astray. Ed Harris and the sadly missed J.T. Walsh provide decent support.

Misery (1990, Amazon buy only)

Both James Caan and co-star Kathy Bates are magnificent in Rob Reiner’s two-hander Misery. Caan plays best-selling romantic fiction novelist Paul Sheldon, who is desperate to kill off his popular heroine, the long-suffering Misery Chastain, and move on to more serious work. Tough luck then, when after a near fatal car crash in snowbound Colorado, the severely injured Sheldon falls into the hands of unhinged homicidal nurse and #1 Misery fan Annie Wilkes. When Wilkes reads the galleys of his just-completed novel and discovers Sheldon has offed Misery, holy hell rains down on the unfortunate writer.

As viewers of the picture no doubt remember, an enraged Wilkes makes sure that Sheldon’s tap-dancing days are well and truly over. The novel was also adapted as a stage play; Bruce Willis played Paul Sheldon on Broadway in 2015.

The Dead Zone (1983, Amazon rent/buy)

Some have seen a prophetic quality in David Cronenberg’s King-approved movie, where schoolteacher Johnny Smith (in a relatively rare sympathetic role for Christopher Walken), wakes up with psychic abilities after a near-fatal car crash (a recurring theme for the author). When Smith crosses paths with up-and-coming populist politician Greg Stilson (Martin Sheen) the fate of the planet itself is at stake. Johnny’s vision of Stilson launching a pre-emptive missile strike (‘The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’) seemed to certain commentators a foreshadowing of President Trump’s early saber-rattling with North Korea (“They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”)

Thankfully, Sheen’s on-camera cowardice in using a child as a human shield when Walken attempts to assassinate him proves his undoing.

Salem’s Lot (1979, Amazon rent/buy)

David (‘Hutch’) Soul excels as author-turned reluctant vampire hunter Ben Mears, in this enduringly spooky chiller. Reggie Nalder as head bloodsucker Kurt Barlow is quite terrifying, channelling Max Schreck’s cadaverous Count Orlok from Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). James Mason plays (with great effect) Barlow’s creepy human sidekick Richard Straker, who has fun laying out the groundwork for his undead master’s takeover of the quiet burg. The series is full of scarifying scenes, which retain the power to unnerve the viewer — case in point, the appearance of the freshly-turned vampire youngster Ralphie Glick at his brother’s window. A sequence which made me double-check my bedroom windows and pull the curtains tight when I first saw the series.  (Back in the early 1980s, I hasten to add, not the other week).

Carrie (1976, Amazon rent/buy)

Why no The Shining, you may ask. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 picture is a very effective horror movie, but unless you’re in the mood, it tends to drag on a bit. And to be frank, Wendy Torrance’s (Shelley Duvall) near-incessant screaming during the last third set my teeth on edge, after a while. Carrie was the first Stephen King novel to be published and the first to be made into a film, helmed by visual stylist Brian De Palma, who delivered a $33.8 million box office hit on a $1.8 million budget. The movie gave a star-making role to Sissy Spacek as Carrie, with John Travolta showcased as nasty bully Billy Nolan; male lead William Katt (Tommy) went on to star with Norman ‘Mr Grimsdale’ Wisdom in 1992’s heist movie Double X, probably not one he would regard as the highlight of his long career as actor. Piper Laurie (The Hustler) makes a truly despicable villain playing Carrie’s deranged mother Margaret.

As we know, the bullying students (and a fair few innocent bystanders) get their comeuppance when Carrie exhibits the full extent of her telekinetic powers after being humiliated at the high school prom. Later, the still-miffed teenager crucifies her nagging mom with levitating kitchen knives and then destroys the family abode. But, in a movie first (now a cliché), the closing nightmare scene sees Carrie executing a surprise peek-a-boo from the wreckage of the house, her bloody hand thrusting from the grave to grab that of wreath-laying lone prom survivor Sue (Amy Irving).

This article was originally published on Spectator Life.