I’m as constant as Constant Readers come, so I had a lot of fun reading Scott Von Doviak’s Stephen King Films FAQ, a rundown of every film, miniseries and TV show based on Stephen King’s work. Naturally when reading such a work, a head canon of one’s own can’t help but form. So without further ado here’s my top five Stephen King adaptations, as well as my pick for of the low lights.
5. The Shining: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Kubrick’s film is notorious for bearing its source material little love and King has never made any secret of his distaste for it. Those who hold the book in high regard, usually turn the film into a kind of whipping boy and visa versa (for the record I consider it to be pretty much my platonic ideal of a popular novel, it’s constructed with a precision that rivals Kubrick’s, albeit of a completely different stripe). But there’s no denying that The Shining is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, akin to watching a horror film on mescaline. It’s a film where every shot feels off on a subliminal level, one that positively gnaws on your subconscious. Kubrick may have reduced King’s deeply felt characters to dolls, but at the very least he constructed one of the most unsettling houses in horror history to house them in.
4. Creepshow: Anthology films are uneven by their very nature, but Creepshow is among the best of the genre. King and Romero’s tribute to the EC Comic’s school of horror is pure fun for monster kids. “Father’s Day” is a pulp delight. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” hits the exact tone of one the weird two page shorts that EC used to split up their main features. While the rest of the segments all fulfill the EC mandate of horrible things happening to awful people. Romero directs with his lightest touch, finding just the right tone for the material, fun but never watered down. His experimental comic frame style editing beat Ang Lee’s The Hulk to the punch by twenty years. King’s other anthology films wouldn’t be nearly as successful and sadly most of his collaborations with the simpatico Romero would remain mired in development hell (and The Dark Half, the only one that did get made, kind of makes you wish it had stayed there). But thankfully they made the most of their one chance to really show what they could do together.
3. The Mist: Like Creepshow, The Mist is a conscious throwback to an early school of filmmaking, complete with an alternate black and white version, and the featured work of Drew Struzan. Unlike Creepshow, The Mist isn’t exactly fun. Instead it’s a genuinely stomach churning act of sustained tension, that uses its scenes of monster mayhem to punctuate a bleak, unsettling portrait of normal people giving into their worst instincts with all possible speed. This is a film to reckon with even before the bleak ashes in the mouth ending. A grim horror epic that deserves a spot on any list of the best horror films of the aughts.
2. Carrie: In hindsight, given his… well, let’s call it complicated relationship with gender, Brian DePalma seems like a somewhat odd choice to direct Carrie, but he was also the perfect one. Carrie the book is a work of raw emotion first and foremost, and DePalma ever adapt at melodrama understands just how much all of this means to his characters. Aided by Sissy Spacek at her most moonchild alien, DePalma builds a landscape of cruelty and hurt all before pulling out the full force of his virtuosity for his climax. DePalma fashions an eight minute slow motion duel of perspectives that seems to be over in a second, followed by a three minute split screen cinematic meat grinder that seems to last forever. DePalma drives Carrie to an operatic, apocalyptic climax, which is the exact register that it belongs at.
1. The Dead Zone: Cronenberg’s take on The Dead Zone on the other hand is a hushed film; quiet and contemplative, fully invested in the grief of his lead character. Cronenberg shoots Johnny’s visions with a chill matter of factness. The blend of King’s empathy played against Cronenberg’s cool reserve, creates a tension in the film unlike any other King adaptation (though the tone seems to carry over into Cronenberg’s The Fly, which also features a likable lead slowly hollowed out by a process he can’t comprehend). King’s tempering influence on Cronenberg is often mentioned, but of equal import is Cronenberg’s willingness to follow King into the freakier corners of his imagination where other filmmakers fear to tread (witness the Frank Dodd suicide). Christopher Walken’s performance is among his best and he receives able back up by Martin Sheen who brings the right level of zealous confidence to his proto Tea Partier, as well as an underrated Herbert Lom. With its austerely gorgeous winter atmosphere and haunting score by Howard Shore, The Dead Zone isn’t merely one of the best Stephen King adaptations, it’s among the best literary adaptations period.
Annnnddd my picks for the worst:
I used to have an easy standby for my pick for worst Stephen King adaptation, but recent events have forced me into a tie. First off, my old standby Christine. John Carpenter upsets the delicate balance of Stephen King’s killer car novel, playing everything campy and broad. The real problem with Christine is that it’s sloppy in a way that even the worst of Carpenter’s films aren’t. My favorite bit of terrible continuity comes at the end when Harry Dean Stanton approaches the heroes at a graveside and solemnly informs them that they are both heroes. Stanton and the leads have not shared so much as a single scene. I keep waiting for one to turn to him and ask who the fuck he is. Even the practical effects and stunts are unimpressive; it’d be tempting to write that off as cynicism in the post Death Proof era, but they don’t even match the level of such deathless movies as The Car. There are worse movies derived from King’s work, but I’d be hard pressed to name any more disappointing…
Until last October that is. It’s hard for me to describe just how much of missed opportunity on every conceivable level Carrie is. Here is that rarest of remakes that not only had a narrative reason for existing (constrictions of budget and technology forced King’s more apocalyptic ending to be trimmed from De Palma’s film), but one whose material was more socially relevant than ever, and would allow a criminally underused, perfectly suited director a crack at her biggest audience. Why the only way they could screw things up would be to just re-adapt DePalma’s screenplay and pretend the last forty years had never happened.
Anyone want to guess what they did? A bad movie like Carpenter’s Christine may be baffling, but has its own D grade charm. But the wasted potential of Peirce’s is downright disheartening.