Wednesday, 16 April 2014


As any sane person with a clue will tell you, Stephen King is one hell of a writer. For all his limitations (occasional clichés and self-plagiarism), few can create such powerful, absorbing imagery over the space of two short sentences. Imagery is of course what movies are all about, so you understand the strong creative itch that film-makers will have when reading a sweet little novel like The Stand

It really is no wonder that over one hundred film adaptations of King’s works have so far been made. Some have been dreadful (The Langoliers – if you are over 12), some have been remade multiple times (you should see last year’s Carrie to see how bad things can get), some have begotten completely unnecessary sequels (seven in the sad case of Children of the Corn). Some have angered Stephen King to no end. Some, however, are wonderful. This list includes what I believe are ten best adaptations of King’s novels, novellas, short stories. No TV series, no Salem’s Lot, but all of these have to be seen at some point or another. These are frightening, thrilling, often insane. And always impressive – so you have no excuse, really. 

Two films that narrowly missed out are The Dead Zone and Apt Pupil. Both are very good, with Christopher Walken and Ian McKellan giving some of their most memorable performances. Apt Pupil in particular is a very nasty piece of work, but then it has more to say about Nazism and past in general than you would care to admit. And the most unsettling thing is that I was actually rooting for Todd in that final scene... I blame Stephen King for that.

10. PET SEMATARY (1989)

As far as films with misspelled titles go, Pet Sematary is the scariest one. Freaky, unnerving experience. Even when something doesn’t quite work (the completely unnecessary subplot with Zelda), it is scary all right. The premise is your standard horror film fare: an adorable American family moves into a new house. Two cute children, a cat and swings in the yard. What’s not to like? The twist is a pet cemetery behind the house where things don’t exactly die. They come back to haunt those who buried them. It is one brutal twist, and I promise you that the last 20 minutes won’t leave you for days. The face of Gage will get stuck in your mind like that line from The Ramones: “I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary…”. Thank God I didn’t see it when I was a 14-year-old boy watching Soviet comedies in shady black and white.

9. THE MIST (2007)

The Mist is Frank Darabont’s least celebrated adaptation of King’s work. This time we’re dealing with a 1980 novella about a military experiment gone wrong. Thick mist overcasts a small American town and spawns monsters of various kind. Apocalyptic stuff. A group of people gets stuck in a supermarket, and the horrors outside (tentacles, gigantic insects) are almost matched by the horrors inside (general stupidity and religious fanaticism – King’s beloved subject). The Mist is engaging from start to finish, a perfect film for a late evening with a bad storm knocking on your window glass. A word of warning for those who have read the book: the ending is different. To this day I can’t decide whether I like it or not. But apparently Stephen King appreciated the change.

8. THE GREEN MILE (1999)

This is a big one, of course. Oscar-nominated, 3 hours long, Tom Hanks. Oscar-nominated fine, Tom Hanks fine (having said that, this is a serviceable but not especially inspired performance), but those three hours might have been stretching it. Still, everything exists in this film for a good reason, and despite obvious parallels with The Shawshank Redemption (this film suffers from inferiority complex), the thrill and the emotional impact go deep into your psyche. The mouse made me cry, twice. “The Green Mile”, a death row in the morbid era of the Great Depression, is a very real place due to strong performances and an expertly scripted plot. The supernatural element should look completely ridiculous, but somehow doesn’t. Not in a faithful Stephen King adaptation. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t cry because of that mouse. Twice.

7. STAND BY ME (1986)

I have already confessed my unconditional love for the brilliant coming-of-age novella this film is based on. This is one of those non-scary Stephen King works that are all about the man’s enormous storytelling power. Very minimalist plot: four boys go on a silly but exciting quest to find the dead body of a missing teenager. It’s not about where you get, of course, but how you get there. I’m generally a big ‘children’s acting’ agnostic, but Stand By Me didn’t make me wince even once. All the boys have different personalities and they convey those differences quite effortlessly. The film might seem more sentimental than the book, but as far as coming-of-age stories go – this is one of the best ever. Side note: “An Encounter” by James Joyce has to be my personal favourite.


Every list has to have a surprise choice, and mine is this little film from 2004 that was unjustly dismissed by critics. Worthy, sharp direction from David Koepp. Masterful soundtrack from Philip Glass. And one of the strongest performances from Johnny Depp. I don’t see how this could go wrong, and it didn’t. Depp plays Mort Rainey, a frustrated writer who has recently lost his wife and is currently going through a severe bout of writer’s block. The frustration intensifies when one morning he is confronted by John Shooter (John Turturro giving a very cynical performance), a farmer from Mississippi, who accuses Mort of plagiarism. It’s a tight thriller, engaging and with a good twist. Plus, the film is well aware that the ending is the most important part of the story. Secret Window was based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden.


Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I couldn’t look away, this truly was one of the most compelling acting duets I’ve ever seen. The story is well-constructed and overall Dolores Claiborne is a powerfully bleak drama. Still, it’s Bates and Leigh that make it happen. Mother and daughter, seemingly so different, who are reunited following the suspicious death of a paralyzed old woman Dolores was looking after. There’s a huge will left, and Dolores is suspected of premeditated murder, not least because there was one particular incident in the past involving the death of her husband. Her daughter, Selena, is a semi-successful journalist who gets back to the depressing small town of her childhood to help. There are lots of hair-raising flashbacks telling about the gruesome past that brings the women so close to each other. Alcohol, cigarettes, despair and those immortal words: “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to”. A devastating film.

4. MISERY (1990)

If you’ve read King’s brilliant book On Writing, you’ll know how proud he was of the idea for Misery. A famous writer gets into a bad accident and is rescued by an obsessive fan. His number one fan that is a complete nuthead, a nurse with a history of violence. She traps the writer in her quiet, isolated house, and does things that will occasionally make you scream or look away or jump in your chair. She makes him write a new novel with the sort of plot she would like. She also has a pet, a pig named Misery. You have to give it to Stephen King: it’s the sort of idea many writers would kill for. Also, it’s the sort of idea that pretty much ensures the success of the actual story. Kathy Bates again, and this is the performance that won her the Academy Award in 1990 and so early in her career. Unforgettable little film.

3. CARRIE (1976)

Carrie is a classic and a very peculiar one. There’s an interesting juxtaposition at the heart of this film, and it will work into your brain slowly and in a very unnerving way. There are all these bright colours and there’s something inherently dark and frightening creeping in. It’s something that will draw many new generations into this story of an awkward girl who gets her period blood and thinks she’s about to die. Carrie was of course the first adaptation of a Stephen King book, and arguably it’s the most stylish one. It was directed by Brian De Palma, and you will know it from the first shots. Carrie is hated by everyone in her school, she has no friends and her mother is an abusive religious fanatic. However, Carrie has supernatural power and she will unleash her revenge. Some intense and memorable scenes will stay with you for quite some time. By modern-day standards, Carrie will hardly be considered a horror film, but then what modern-day standards have to do with anything?


This is one of the most universally adored films of all time and while I would love to dispute that, there’s precious little to fault here. The Shawshank Redemption is brilliant entertainment and one of the very few Stephen King adaptations that can be enjoyed by just about anyone over 16. It’s a thrilling prison drama, and a plot that never lets go. Unlike The Green Mile, it doesn’t have a supernatural element and doesn’t feel overlong. There’s basically no horror element here, and it masterfully balances the high voltage and intensity with moments that are reflective, humourous and sometimes genuinely moving. The pacing is perfect. Tim Robbins? His best performance. Morgan Freeman? One of his best ever. The twist is so smart and well-plotted, it will impress you even on later viewings.

1. THE SHINING (1980)

Anthony Burgess didn’t like what Kubrick did to A Clockwork Orange, and Stephen King flat out hated what Kubrick did to The Shining. Makes perfect sense: Kubrick's artistic vision was too vast to be placed within another man’s plot. He reworked The Shining to his own vision, and in the process made one of the greatest, most bizarre, disturbing and enigmatic films of all time. People will never stop talking about the symbolism and the ideas of The Shining (I highly recommend last year’s documentary Room 237, but only if your nervous system is really strong), just like they will never find out how Jack Torrance got out of the pantry. I think King wrote a great novel, but I also think that Kubrick took it to a whole new level of artistic achievement. There’s no need to describe the plot. Just see it for yourself and watch the Overlook Hotel slowly sink into deep, and quite graphic, insanity.

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