Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 5 Best: Stephen King Movie Adaptations

Stephen King has a very interesting relationship with Hollywood. The industry has taken his vast collection of short stories and novels, and produced a few masterpieces, dozens of halfway-decent fare, and a whole lot of shit. When I was sorting through the catalog of his movie adaptations (including those made for TV), I counted at least 50 titles. And that's not counting King's original material, a la Cat's Eye, or the well-received mini-series Kingdom Hospital, or direct-to-video sequels to unworthy films (Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, anyone?).

Like I said, there are a lot of crappy movies (The Lawnmower Man, Maximum Overdrive, Dreamcatcher, just to name a few) and a handful of just-okay stuff (The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Apt Pupil, Hearts in Atlantis). But I was surprised by the hefty amount of pretty decent films. For instance, TV has been good to him. I really admired the string of miniseries that ran in the early-to-mid 90's on ABC. The Stand, It, The Langoliers, The Shining -- all very entertaining with low budgets, solid casts, and somewhat faithful retellings of King's more popular stories. Speaking of The Shining, I loved Kubrick's version just as much as the TV mini-series (I'm in the minority, I know), but both are unique spins on King's shocking thriller about a writer who terrorizes his family in a hotel. Kubrick's version was a masterwork (and Nicholson was his usual fantastic self), despite the film not being all that faithful to the source. At least the miniseries kept closely to the book, and its leisurely pace allowed for a genuinely suspenseful build-up. I almost had both Shining films at a tie for the fifth slot, but I didn't want to cheat and I couldn't make the sacrifice!

Max Von Sydow in Needful Things
Some of his 80's thrillers still stick with me. Christine, about the car that kills people, and Pet Sematary, about animals coming back from the dead, traumatized me when I was a kid. I had nightmares for years. I haven't revisited them in quite some time, but I doubt they'll hold up. The Running Man was terribly cheesy, but I still can't get over the inspired villainous casting of Richard Dawson of Family Feud fame. That's like having Howie Mandel being chased by Dwayne Johnson. (Do I smell a potential remake?). And I'm probably the only one who totally dug Needful Things, that Ed Harris thriller where he played a sheriff who embattles the devil, played to perfection by Max Von Sydow. JT Walsh, Amanda Plummer, Bonnie Bedelia round out the eclectic cast. Terrific '90's kitsch.

On the more acclaimed side, in addition to leaving out The Shining, I had to take off The Green Mile, which I thought was overrated and by far the weakest of the three collaborations of King and writer/director Frank Darabont. I liked it enough, but it felt very shallow for its long running time. The other title that didn't quite make it: Carrie. DePalma's terrific retelling of King's earliest work would have made my top 10, easily. But alas, I had to draw the line somewhere.

So without further ado, below are my favorite films adapted from the work of one of literature's best novelists.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Darabont)
Let's get the obvious one out of the way. This is best of the bunch, by far and large. Based on King's novella, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, this is the first and most fruitful of the magical collaboration between the author and Frank Darabont. This film is just tremendously moving. The plight of the two imprisoned men -- Andy and Red -- is deeply felt and beautifully portrayed by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, respectively, in their career-best performances. If this film was not released in the same year as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, it would have swept the Oscars. Though it walked away empty-handed that night, The Shawshank Redemption has never left our hearts since.

The Mist (2007, Darabont)
One of the best films of 2007. After those final scenes, my jaw was on the floor. It was the ballsiest ending I had ever seen out of a Hollywood production. This was no edgy independent thriller - this was a mid-budget monster movie originally set up at Paramount (who sold it to Dimension, possibly in fear of controversy) and the film just completely drained the blood out of me. King's novella ended ambiguously, but Darabont wanted a finite ending. King approved of the final cut and said The Mist is the most frightening adaptation of his work he had ever seen. I couldn't have said it better.

Stand By Me (1986, Reiner)
The first of another inspired pairing: King and Rob Reiner. Reiner took King's short story (The Body), made it less macabre and more heartfelt, added young up-and-coming actors (Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, Kiefer Sutherland), sprinkled in a Richard Dreyfuss narration, and stirred. Stand By Me is a wonderful concoction, a tasteful, bittersweet drama. It is the epitome of "coming-of-age" films.

Misery (1990, Reiner) 
Reiner again, this time bringing the legendary William Goldman on board to adapt King's frightening and hilarious novel about an obsessed fan who takes things too far. Stephen King knows a thing or two about obsessed fans. Could this have been autobiographical? Is he Paul Sheldon? I wouldn't put the notion past him! The character of Annie Wilkes (played to perfection by Oscar winner Kathy Bates) is quintessential King, one of the best creations in his long list of eccentric personalities. Like Frances McDormand in Fargo 6 years later, it's the perfect role matched with the perfect actress.

Dolores Claiborne (1995, Hackford)
Like Annie Wilkes in Misery, Kathy Bates can thank Stephen King for giving her yet another extraordinary role with Dolores Claiborne. It's a full-bodied performance - one of her best - in a crackling domestic thriller about a disturbed woman accused of murdering her employer. Is she innocent? Does her own estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believe her? David Strathairn is also damned good as Claiborne's dead husband who pops up during flashbacks, which are beautifully orchestrated by director Taylor Hackford. Dolores Claiborne is an underseen, underrated drama, one of the best films to come out from Uncle Stevie's canon of the macabre.

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