If one was to name the one name in horror that practically defines the genre, that name would be Stephen King. For the last 35 years, King has written classic horror novel after another, each one riding down the spines of its readers for a truly terrifying experience each and every time. So much so that Hollywood took notice early on and has been bringing his work to the big (and small) screen for about as long as he’s been publishing his stories. Rather than look at the man’s written work, let’s take a look at the films based on his books as well as the many different hats he’s worn in the movie-making business: screen writer, producer, actor, and even director. Listeners of the AITH Podcast know that I’m a mega-fife for King, as I’ve read every book / story he’s ever published, and am a fan of most of his movies. Ok loyal readers, let’s do this!
Since 1976, when his first published novel became a big-time Hollywood movie, King has been attached as Writer to over 152 projects, spanning both film and television. With that many projects under his belt, there’s bound to a few turkeys (we’ll get to those later), but for the most part, the man has had a solid run extremely solid film and television adaptations. Biran De Palma’s CARRIE, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (King never liked Kubrick’s adaptation, but one can’t overlook the important impact the film has had on the genre), David Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE, Frank Daranbont’s THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, and THE MIST, plus PET SEMETARY, IT, SILVER BULLET, STAND BY ME, 1408, MISERY, CREEPSHOW, CREEPSHOW 2, CUJO, and GRAVEYARD SHIFT. All of these films are definitive contributions to the genre, and all of them equate solid horror filmmaking, with many up there as some of my favorite horror flick ever.
For a few of his greatest hits, King not only wrote the source material, but he also wrote the screenplays (PET SEMETARY, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), served as director (MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), and even acted a little (CREEPSHOW, PET SEMETARY, CREEPSHOW 2, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE). All this from a man who is an author / writer of books by trade, it’s a damn honor he’s shared his success as a writer with the filmmaking community, as more often than not, especially throughout the ‘80s, everything King touch was horror-drenched gold. Hell, the man is even responsible for one of the best feel-good endings in cinematic history for a flick that wasn’t even a horror flick (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION). In some ways, it’s a goddamn miracle he’s had so many awesome adaptations come to the big screen based on his books, which are all extremely thick, layered, and almost always too big for any one movie to contain.
Because the majority of King’s novels are extremely long, there’s really no way a single movie can capture everything, which is why some of this best story-to-screen adaptations are from his short stories / novellas. And because there’s so much wiggle room in deciding what to bring to the screen, there are a ton of adaptations that just don’t work. Some of the worst include THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN (and all of the crappy sequels that followed), THE LAWNMOWER MAN, THE RUNNING MAN (an OK movie but bad adaptation), SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK AGAIN, DREAMCATCHER, and SECRET WINDOW. For those who do try to bring everything from his stories to the screen, they usually do so in the form a TV mini-series, and unfortunately, more often than not, those are pretty awful as well: THE STAND, THE SHINING, DESPERATION, THE LANGOLIERS, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, and most recently, BAG OF BONES. In other words, director Mick Garris should really stop trying to bring King’s story to life, as most (if not all) of his efforts are horrendous.
That’s not to say the projects King wrote specifically for the small screen (like KINGDOM HOSPITAL and STORM OF THE CENTURY) were great, because they weren’t… but those TV mini-series take the cake. I bring up BAG OF BONES because it’s the most recent, but also because it’s one of the most hilariously awful piles of garbage I’ve ever wasted my time with (over 4 hours!), and everyone involved in that one should feel a little bit bad about their participation, regardless of how big or small their role in the project was. Yikes… what a turkey!
King is a master at creating supernatural horror, as there’s always something spooky going on with ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and even vampires and werewolves from time to time. But what he really thrives on his the horrors between the people involved in these situations. The classic example of King mastery is Frank Daranbont’s THE MIST, which not only has the supernatural element of monsters stalking the perimeter of a grocery store during a full-on mist storm (if that’s what it’s called), but the real horrors happen inside the store between the group of people trying to survive. Religious nuts, scared simpletons, and people who are more or less sheep going with whatever the popular opinion is. By the end of the movie, you’re scared of some of the people in the store more than you’re scared of the monsters trying to get in.
Same can be said for CARRIE, MISERY, NEEDFUL THINGS, THE DEAD ZONE, and CHRISTINE (just to name a few). All great movies, and in each and every one of the them, the people are worse than the supernatural.
The one and only time King has gotten behind the camera and directed a movie he wrote (based on one of his short stories) is the 1986 classic MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, a film that seems to never really get the respect it truly deserves. When a green cloud over Earth turns every machine into a human-killing monster, a group of survivors holed up in a diner / truck stop try to defend themselves against an army of semi-trucks. Great effects, a great performance by Emilio Estevez, and some really memorable moments have put MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE as one of my all-time favorite Stephen King movies. The film is full of horrific fun without taking itself too seriously, and that’s all anybody can really ask for, right?
Besides a few novels always looming on the horizon (including the much anticipated sequel to THE SHINING!), there are a few movie projects in the works. THE DARK TOWER and THE TALISMAN are a couple that always seem to be nearing pre-production though never finding the right footing to get off the ground, but the biggest King book hitting the big screen a third time around is his first… CARRIE. That’s right, a new CARRIE will be splashing into theaters next year from director Kimberly Pierce and starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her crazy-ass bible-thumping mom. I can’t say I’m feeling Moretz as Carrie, but I will say that Moore as Mrs. White is genius casting and is just about the only reason I’ll be checking this one out (De Palma did a fantastic take on the book, no point in remaking it!).
Now that it’s October, it’s really the time of year when Stephen King movies, mini-series, novels, and short stories play at their very finest. I implore anyone to find a classier name in horror to dive into during the Halloween season. From CARRIE to 1408, THE SHINNING to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and GRAVEYARD SHIFT to SILVER BULLET, the man has reached heights in horror that no other has even come close to accomplishing, and while he’s had a few bumps in the road in terms of unwatchable tribal, those are few and far between. So kick off the Halloween season by diving into your favorite King flick and sleep better at night knowing that there is always, and I mean always, a King flick being made somewhere, with more looming on the blood-soaked horizon.