- Author Becky Roberts
- Published August 11, 2014
The five best Stephen King films
The Shawshank Redemption is 20 years old this year, and we’ve got the perfect way to celebrate: the How To Live It guide to the very best Stephen King film adaptations.
Arriving at a neat five films was a tall order: our “short” list was eleven-strong within a few minutes, and that was only the horror films. After all, King is the master of horror fiction. (With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe.)
King is the brains behind many a blockbuster beauty; everything from rabid dogs (Cujo) and telekinetic teenagers (Carrie) to coming-of-age dramas (The Body became Stand By Me) and one of the best films of all time (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption became The Shawshank Redemption). Whether it’s his short stories, novellas or full-blown novels, King’s stories translate perfectly to the silver screen: here are our picks of an awesome, terrifying, compelling bunch.
Obviously we’re talking about the 1976 original rather than the ropey 2013 remake (although the latter produced an ace bit of viral marketing; YouTube “telekinetic coffee shop surprise” to see what we mean). Carrie’s a great place to start a Stephen King watch-a-thon: it was the great man’s first first published novel and the first of his stories adapted for screen.
Carrie is a social outcast at school. A helpless victim bullied by her classmates thanks to a strict religious upbringing by her insane evangelical mother. That’s until she discovers her telekinetic powers, which help her enact a fitting revenge.
The film is a bittersweet teen angst drama with a supernatural twist, elevated to the cinematic stratosphere by Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-nominated performance. She does an amazing job capturing the eponymous loner’s vulnerability and desperation. Director Brian DePalma translates King’s themes of abuse and ridicule into a horrifyingly visceral display, producing one of the bloodiest prom scenes and most powerful endings to any film in history.
Most writers’ worst nightmare involve writer’s block or running out of ink. For Stephen King’s creation Paul Sheldon – author of a best-selling romance series featuring Misery Chastain as the central character – it’s Annie Wilkes. The retired nurse and self-proclaimed “number-one fan” of Sheldon’s books pulls him from a car crash and nurses him back to health at her secluded home. But Wilkes’ care is short lived when she learns Sheldon’s latest book will see her beloved Misery killed. Holding him captive, she forces him to re-write the book. Or else.
The 1990 film stays true to the novel, and is one of the most chilling King adaptations. If Florence Nightingale was an “angel of mercy”, Kathy Bates’ Wilkes is surely the devil. Bates won an Oscar for Best Actress, and her psychotic persona is terrifying: her calm, calculated and friendly façade a harrowing guise for her demented wickedness.
The whole movie is a living nightmare, but it’s her timely utterance of “dirty birdy” that sends shivers down your spine, while the sledgehammer-crushing-ankle scene has you screaming through gritted teeth.
The acting duet between Bates and James Caan as Sheldon is a knock-out – and Rob Reiner’s direction is a love letter to the twisted novel. Its acclaim isn’t surprising: Reiner did a great job with Stand By Me (another King adaptation) just four years earlier. Speaking of which…
Stand By Me (1986)
This cutesy boyhood adventure is actually the mother of all coming-of-age films. Based on King’s 1982 novella The Body, Stand By Me sees four young friends search for the missing body of a dead boy in their hometown. The story is the memoir of Gordie, one of the boys, which in the novel is written in his first person.
The film, partly narrated by Richard Dreyfus, is more observational. King recently said Stand By Me was the first successful translation to film of any of his works – and it’s delightful.
Carried by a throwback cast of River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton and Kiefer Sutherland, it’s a modest, touching journey of sentiment and sadness as the boys learn about friendship, the hardships of life and how to fend for themselves.
The juxtaposition of youthful innocence and vulnerability, male identity and adulthood is potent, and like all good fables it ends with a lasting message: those who talk the talk can’t always walk the walk.
The Shining (1980)
Some of our all-time favourite horror movies are from Stephen King’s pen, and this is one of them. You don’t need us to tell you it’s a genre classic, of course, and deals with King’s familiar themes – the supernatural, violence, the intelligence of children, and authors-gone-mad.
Jack Torrance, an alcoholic, abusive writer, seizes the opportunity to work as a caretaker in the luxurious Overlook hotel in the mountains, and takes up residence with his wife Wendy and young son Danny. But the hotel is haunted and it’s not long before Danny starts having visions of the place’s dark past. It’s all fun and games until danger strikes and history begins to repeat itself.
King disliked Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation, damning its flimsy portrayal of the main characters, especially that of Wendy – but it’s the character of the hotel that deserves accolades here. The manipulative and dangerous effect it and its ghosts have on Danny (how many times have you shuddered through the ‘REDRUM’ scene?) and Jack is compelling and disturbing. Jack Nicholson’s famous performance as frenzied madman Jack stays with you long afterwards.
It’s not the easiest film to love, mind – its complexities draw several different theories and fan readings, some of which are investigated in the 2012 documentary Room 237. It’s more an unnerving psychological study than a proper ghost story – but it’s almost faultless at that.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Us? Leave the best till last? You bet. Based on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 adaptation written by Frank Darabont needs little introduction. An epic story of survival and a touching journey to freedom, it tells the tale of former-banker Andy Dufresne’s 27-year incarceration: how he lives, who he meets, what he learns and how he plans to get out.
The short and simple storyline is uplifting and sincere – this is a feel-good film about human strength. It’s primarily told through dialogue: the calm, matter-of-fact narration is an effective storyteller of the characters’ desperation and longing for hope. But it’s the film’s fine performances – most notably from Morgan Freeman as Andy’s prison buddy Red – that secures its cinematic legacy.
It would feel unjust to finish without mentioning Salems Lot (1979) – based on King’s 1975 novel – and Pet Sematary (1989) – the novel published in 1983 – because they come in a close sixth and seventh. Those two kids give us the creeps.
Becky Roberts is a staff writer on Whathifi.com
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