Though I have adapted my share of the work of Stephen King to the screen, it doesn’t diminish the fact that I’m a huge fan of his work. As film and television versions of his works seem to be more ubiquitous than ever, now seems a good time for me to take a trip back to the works that so enchanted me before I ever had the chance to throw my directing hat into the ring. So here are five of the King adaptations that I shall always hold close to my heart.
In this chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, withdrawn and sensitive teen Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) faces taunting from classmates at school and abuse from her fanatically pious mother (Piper Laurie) at home. When strange occurrences start happening around Carrie, she begins to suspect that she has supernatural powers. Invited to the prom by the empathetic Tommy Ross (William Katt), Carrie tries to let her guard down, but things eventually take a dark and violent turn.
Of course, it all started with Carrie. Like most of the world, I’d never read the book before seeing the film, so it was 100% a surprise to me when I saw it in its first release in cinemas. A career-making film for King and director Brian DePalma, Carrie captures the quicksilver elements that make for a successful adaptation: a supernatural story set in a very real world, with characters we recognize and identify with. Who hasn’t known—or been—Carrie White? Misfit, mocked, uncomfortable in her body and in her life. The casting is perfection, and Sissy Spacek’s haunted teenager who gets a chance to take revenge on those classmates who treated her like shit is one of the most powerful King characters of all time. And Piper Laurie as her way-beyond-Jesus-freak mother won a well-deserved Oscar.
In this tale of a killer canine, man’s best friend turns into his worst enemy. When sweet St. Bernard Cujo is bitten by a bat, he starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive. As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage in a small town. Stay-at-home mom Donna (Dee Wallace) gets caught in Cujo’s crosshairs on a fateful errand with her son, Tad (Danny Pintauro). Stuck in their tiny car, Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal.
Cujo is often overlooked, but it, too, is filled with the power that compels so much of King’s work as an author. The people are so real, and the tension as a lovable dog becomes a rabid tormentor from a bat-bite on his nose is practically unbearable. Dee Wallace’s role as the heat-stricken mother doing anything to protect her little boy from the vicious beast is so real that it hurts. Lewis Teague’s real-world drama energizes this small-scale thriller to massive heights.
The Dead Zone (1983)
When Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a coma caused by a car accident, he finds that years have passed, and he now has psychic abilities. Heartbroken that his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) has moved on with her life, Johnny also must contend with his unsettling powers, which allow him to see a person’s future with a mere touch. After shaking the hand of aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny sees the danger presented by the candidate’s rise and resolves to kill him.
Though it seems so natural now, the pairing of David Cronenberg and Stephen King was an odd one. The director had only made movies from his own original screenplays, and his body horror aesthetic would not at first glance appear to be a marriage made in heaven. But it was. The chill of the earlier Cronenberg movies is replaced by a heartbreaking performance by Christopher Walken, whose sense of loss is palpable, weighty, and utterly painful. It’s probably Walken’s finest and most touching performance ever, and the movie and its twist ending are all too apropos of today’s headlines.
Stand By Me (1986)
After learning that a stranger has been accidentally killed near their rural homes, four Oregon boys decide to go see the body. On the way, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) encounter a mean junk man and a marsh full of leeches, as they also learn more about one another and their very different home lives. Just a lark at first, the boys’ adventure evolves into a defining event in their lives.
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Renaming King’s novella, The Body, with the title of a warmly nostalgic classic rock song from the era, Stand By Me is perhaps the most powerfully personal of King’s story, and you feel the veracity radiating off the screen. With an amazing cast of unknown young actors who have all gone on to successful careers (and, in the case of River Phoenix, an early death), it may be the most haunting of all the King adaptations… even though it isn’t even remotely supernatural, or even a horror movie. But, like all of the best of best of the King adaptations, director Rob Reiner found the beating human heart at the center of a tale of young friendship and personal loss and pain. These young damaged lives share the horror of discovering a dead body, and that releases new worlds of experience to these boys, who have to grow up much more quickly than they should ever have to.
After a serious car crash, novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie brings him to her remote cabin to recover, where her obsession takes a dark turn when she discovers Sheldon is killing off her favorite character from his novels. As Sheldon devises plans for escape, Annie grows increasingly controlling, even violent, as she forces the author to shape his writing to suit her twisted fantasies.
Reiner hit it out of the part again with Misery, which earned Kathy Bates an Oscar, as well, for her perfect portrait of a superfan gone ballistic. Anyone who works in the public field has experienced fans who get a little too close for comfort, who believe they own the works and the creators who made them just for them. James Caan’s resourceful and underplayed author, a stand-in for the maestro himself, it seems, is grounded and creative in ways that might eventually save his life, but at a very steep cost. The claustrophobia of Annie Wilkes’ snowbound home is agonizing, and the explosions of violence are shocking and horrific, especially in a big-budget movie-star major-studio production.
The King catalog is a vast one, and this is just the tip of the iceberg of wonderful adaptations in the Stephen King Universe. And we haven’t even mentioned the television stuff!
What are YOUR favorite Stephen King movies?