While most of King's books are considered masterpieces of horror fiction (and even his lesser works are still pretty damned entertaining), movie versions or King's works are far more... varied. Sure, some of them are just as gripping and suspenseful as their source material, but some... some are just bad. Like, really, really bad. Sometimes that's because the filmmakers have taken great liberties with the original text -- although sometimes that ends up to the movies' benefit. Sometimes, the stuff that sounds so scary written in King's prose, when translated onto the screen, looks... well... stupid. With an adaptation of The Dark Tower looming on the horizon, it's worth looking back at the 5 best and worst Stephen King movies.
Stephen King wrote for years without any publisher taking notice until finally, Carrie became a success in 1974. His first published book was so popular that it spawned this film two years later by director Brian De Palma, who would later go on to do Scarface and Mission: Impossible. Carrie White is a strange, pale, gangly girl who is estranged from her classmates. Her mother, Margaret, is a member of a fundamental Christian sect of her own making and is undoubtedly one of the most terrifying women in the King universe. She has a closet where she often locks Carrie, along with the most disturbing crucifix ever conceived. Upon menstruating for the first time, Carrie realizes that she has telekinetic powers. One girl who teased Carrie does everything in her power, including giving up her prom date and shot at prom queen, to give Carrie one night in the starlight. At the same time, another girl kicked from the prom for teasing Carrie (her boyfriend played a very young John Travolta) ruins the evening in this scene.
Carrie's revenge is unrelenting. While this might have struck fear into the popular kids at school and should perhaps be at the heart of anti-bulling campaigns, it is by far not the scariest part of the film. Both Sissy Spacek (Carrie) and Piper Laurie (Margaret) earned academy award nominations for this film and I suspect that Piper Laurie deserved it most for being a goddamned creep. Carrie stands the test of time and still scares people. After watching it, it's hard to not have nightmares about your mother smiling with a knife in her hand, making the sign of the cross, and steadily walking toward you.
In horror, there is a tendency to meddle with the metaphysical, and King is as guilty of it as anybody. However, 1990's Misery, directed by Rob Reiner, never gets fantastical, and instead is a very scary, inescapable reality of a writer held hostage by a crazed fan. A writer named Paul Sheldon ends up in a car accident but is rescued by the seemingly sweet Annie Wilkes, a nurse. Unfortunately for Paul, she is not going to let him go unless he writes her a book first -- oh, and she has a penchant for letting her patients die mysteriously, logging her wrong-doing in her scrapbook.
This is probably the role that Kathy Bates will be most revered for, as her character's bipolar episodes are completely believable and totally terrifying. The above scene is certainly one of the best scenes of all horror cinema -- the nonchalance with which Annie goes about it is probably the most striking element of all. It's no surprise that she won the Oscar for best actress in a leading role, beating Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
3) Stand by Me
Also directed by Reiner in 1986, Stand by Me is based on King's novella, The Body, and is is a very different kind of King story in that it isn't horror fiction at all, but more a somber coming-of-age tale. A very young Wil Wheaton plays the lead role of Gordie, whose father pays little attention to him following the death of Gordie's brother. The late River Phoenix plays Chris, Gordie's friend, whose parents are alcoholics. Gordie, Chris, and two other friends with similar personality/family issues go out in search of a dead body, if only to see a dead body. The boys each have to confront the problems in their lives, or are at least on the right track to doing so by the end of the film. While some people might think this movie is a bit mundane for a King story, there is no denying that it is remembered fondly in the hearts of many movie-goers.
2) The Shining
While The Shining is well-loved and reviewed as one of the best King movies, the film strays far from its originating text; indeed, King himself hated it. However, since it was directed by Stanley Kubrick, there's no denying it's a hell of a movie. Jack Nicholson makes this movie as Jack Torrence, who moves with his family to a remote hotel in the mountains as the off-season caretakers. Since Jack is also a writer (typical), the silence of the massive hotel is a welcome respite... if only until things go bat-shit insane. When Jack investigates the claim that a certain room is haunted, he goes off the deep end to crazy town. He is then convinced by the dead occupants of the hotel to kill his family, something that Jack Nicholson attempts to do with gusto.
The film is a treasure trove of iconic lines and scenes, and there is something oddly hypnotic about the film's slow buildup of madness. Surprisingly, this film was not initially loved by critics, much like other Kubrick films. However, nowadays The Shining is considered not just one of King's best movies.
1) The Shawshank Redemption
Interestingly, this 1992 movie was actually based on nothing more than a King short story and went on to become the most acclaimed movie based on a Stephen King work ever. Frank Darabont, the master director behind last year's The Walking Dead series and The Green Mile in 1999 (a movie that very nearly made the list at #6) directed this film. Tim Robbins plays the movie's protagonist, Andy, and is joined by Morgan Freeman as Ellis, a.k.a. Red. While Andy is imprisoned for supposedly murdering his wife and her lover, Red is serving his life sentence and acquiring illegal items for inmates. The friendship between the two inmates escalates as the plot continues, and ultimately makes assumptions about the power of hope as a means of setting one free, regardless if you're in a jail or not.
Interestingly, King needed to make a decision as to which director to choose for the film as Rob Reiner was also intensely interested in doing so. Either way, as this list demonstrates, King couldn't have gone wrong. With seven Oscar nominations, The Shawshank Redemption is the highest achieving Stephen King film yet and is even claimed by some to be one of the best films ever made.
No more Mr. Nice Guy -- King's worst movies are on the next page.