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Stephen King Movie Adaptations: The Successes and Failures

With the upcoming release of The Dark Tower and It: Part 1 - The Loser’s Club, we look back at the successes and failures of previous Stephen King film adaptations.

Stephen King published his first novel in 1974. That novel, Carrie, would go on to sell more than a million copies in its first year of publication. The popularity of this book resulted in a movie adaptation two years later. As Stephen King released more novels, his popularity as an author grew, and many more films, miniseries, TV shows, and graphic novels came to be based on his writings. Today, King is one of the most well known and successful modern writers. Although he has written in many genres (including contributions to comic books), he is best known for his horror writings.

58 films have been released so far that have been based at least in some part on the writings of Stephen King. Some of those films have gone on to become just as, if not more popular, than the original source material. Others have not had as much success, often becoming noteworthy only because of the connection to Stephen King. With the upcoming release of two new films based on Stephen King’s writings (The Dark Tower, and It: Part 1 - The Loser’s Club), let’s take a look at what has worked for Stephen King-based movies in the past, and what has not.


What Works: Realistic Characters

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Forget the supernatural. Movies based on Stephen King’s writings tend to succeed when they keep one foot in reality. Stephen King knows how to create interesting characters that you can’t help but feel for. The best films have those same type of characters, and utilize them well. Movies like Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Stand By Me work not just because we are being entertained by something supernatural or off-putting, but because we love the characters. Yes, it helps that all of these characters are brought to life by great performances, but King’s stories deserve credit as well. Movies that maintain King’s devotion to creating characters as human beings first rather than terror targets tend to be more highly regarded.

Even for the more traditional horror offerings, flushed out characters go a long way. Look at Carrie. By setting up the main character as someone who is cast aside by her peers and tormented by her mother, the audience feels her struggle. From here the film can more effectively explore and experience the impact of psychological horror. In The Dead Zone, the movie follows the struggles of Christopher Walken’s character. Before anything supernatural or horrific happens, the film takes the time to set him up as a normal average person. Once he gains his powers, that initial identification as a normal person helps the audience to better understand his struggles. The film plays off of his previous relationships to show how much his life has changed - and in this way it seems like more of a curse although he is able to use his abilities to help people. 


What Doesn’t Work: Repetition

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More than any other genre, horror films have a tendency to tread in familiar waters. Slashers, bloodbaths, exploitations, terror-inducing monsters, and demonic possession are all things that we have seen in film and in print many times - including in Stephen King’s writings and films. The Stephen King-based horror films that tend to succeed usually transcend the conventions of horror movies. These aspects are what make them stand out. Films like Carrie, Misery, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half make an impression because they present their terror in a way that we don’t necessarily expect.

Stephen King based movies tend to run into trouble when the recycle ideas or forget that Stephen King is an innovator in the genre. Graveyard Shift, for example, strays from the source material towards something more mundane. Where the short story finds shock in the weird (a colony of mutating rats), the film’s low budget prevents it from creating something genuinely strange enough to give you nightmares (it settles on an unoriginal giant bat). Silver Bullet is a movie you can probably guess the premise from the title. The filmmakers stick to genre conventions so well that Roger Ebert wrote that he wasn’t sure if “It is either simply bad, or it is an inspired parody of [Stephen King’s] whole formula…”  

Other Stephen King based films have one good idea and play it on repeat until the audience is bored. Needful Things is one such film. The plot revolves around Satan playing mischievous tricks on townsfolk to get them mad at eachother over and over again. The filmmakers even try to make things more exciting with an explosion-filled climax, which actually makes it feel more like they ran out of ideas entirely.  


What Doesn’t Work: Cheesy Supernatural

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Supernatural horror can be mystifying, frightening, and unexpected. It can also feel contrived, unreal, and boring if not handled correctly. Unfortunately for Stephen King, for every film adaptation that nails the supernatural aspect, it seems like there are two or three that do not. One reason for this is that Stephen King works in the supernatural so often that it is only a matter of time that the film adaptations aren’t able to adequately make the translation to the big screen. Another reason the supernatural is so difficult to cast in the right light is that it often requires special effects in order to bring it to life. Relying on special effects for thrills can be difficult if you don’t have a big budget. That’s the case for many Stephen King movies.

Children of the Corn is one of the first Stephen King feature films that isn’t able to pull off the supernatural as well as it could have. A low budget is primarily to blame - the film comes off as incredibly corny. Furthermore, it isn’t able to do anything exciting with its supernatural elements. Firestarter, is in many ways the opposite of Children of the Corn, but nonetheless it also struggles to find a way to make the supernatural elements exciting. This is a film that doesn’t struggle because of its budget, but it goes overboard on special effects instead. It forgets that more special effects are not substitute for actual drama, and it ends up being rather boring because of this. Pet Sematary is an example of how the supernatural can cease to be frightening and instead have the opposite effect. What happens here is poor direction and acting. If the audience isn’t able to suspend their disbelief due to the film’s execution, trying to get them to believe in supernatural elements is just not going to happen.


What Works: Horrors of Modern Life

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Stephen King’s horror writings don’t just focus on supernatural beings and occurrences. There is also a focus on the perils of living modern life. Many of his works take place in typical American small towns, and he shows us that even in these normal-seeming places, there can be things hiding in the shadows. The films that properly translate these real-life terrors to the big screen often end up as the most frightening. These filmmakers understand that a film can only be effective if the audience buys into it. Audiences will only buy in if they feel like they are watching something that is plausible - something that could happen to them.

Carrie is one such film that is arguably more scary because of the potential real life implications than the supernatural ones. The main character has psychological health issues because of her demanding mother. At school, she gets picked on because she behaves differently, which pushes her to a breaking point. The Shining is another good example. The film may not stay close to the source material, but is nonetheless effective in creating a constricting and uncomfortable experience. The idea of isolation and pressures to provide for one’s family are more than adequate catalysts for a psychological breakdown. Misery is another great example. This film deals with unhealthy obsession. In our celebrity-driven culture it's easy to believe the great (and disturbing) lengths some fans could go to be with their idol.


What Doesn’t Work: Action Films

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Stephen King is known for horror. His horror writings can become action-packed, but that isn’t what he is known best for. The same goes with the films based on his writings. The best films have not exactly been action packed. Movies like The Shining, The Dead Zone, and Stand By Me, aren’t exactly fast paced. Instead, they are more moody, plodding, and tense. Since they can’t exactly use King’s words to tell their story, they use their picture. Silence, slow moving cameras, and darkness are used effectively in the best Stephen King films to create a tone.

Movies like Lawnmower Man, Cell, and Maximum Overdrive try to up the pacing over the standard horror film. In the case of Lawnmower Man, the filmmakers used Stephen King’s story only as a jumping off point, extrapolating an idea rather than using it as a source for an adaptation. Cell is, at its core, a zombie movie. Zombie movies tend to be more dynamic than your typical horror film. It just happened to be that the premise of this zombie movie felt a bit ridiculous. It may have worked as tongue-and-cheek, but the filmmakers wanted to try and make you take it seriously. Maximum Overdrive has the same problem, only compounded by the fact that Stephen King as director didn’t know what he was doing. It seems like when filmmakers try to inject their own ideas into adapting a Stephen King story to make it more entertaining for the big screen, it doesn’t work well.

I’ll admit, there are a few glaring exceptions. The Running Man is an action-packed Stephen King film that actually did turn out fairly well. But I feel like it is successful because it was adapted into a Schwarzenegger vehicle. It’s also not something that is necessarily good at representing the type of stories that King typically writes. It’s horror for sure, but in a less direct way. The other exception is Christine. The premise of Christine is more indicative of King’s style. It just happens that the plot lends itself to being more action-oriented. It also helps that it had a veteran filmmaker at the helm. Speaking of...


What Works: Established Directors

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It’s true for most films, so it is also true for Stephen King adaptations. Directors that have a lot of experience and credibility tend to make consistently better films. For one, they have an approach that works. If they have a formula that has brought them success, why change it? Second, well-known directors tend to bring with them a lot of talent. That talent can help to bring out the best of a particular film project where someone of less experience might struggle. Furthermore, established directors are going to have a better idea of what will and will not work for the type of movie they want to make. As such, they are going to make more efficient changes to the source material (if necessary) in order to incorporate it properly. A director that doesn’t have as strong a vision could easily become overwhelmed with the task.  

The best example of this is Stanley Kubrick and The Shining. Stephen King famously did not like this film because of the changes and overbearing nature that Kubrick used. Nevertheless, the film is successful because of the decisions Kubrick made, even if it isn’t the greatest Stephen King adaptation. David Cronenberg and John Carpenter may have stayed closer to their source material, but their films (The Dead Zone and Christine) still feel very much their own. They weren’t overwhelmed by the task at hand. Rob Reiner is an interesting director because he is best known for comedies and romantic comedies. So on one hand, it may seem odd that his Stephen King adaptation, Misery, worked so well. However, consider the intimacy that Reiner uses for his films, and you will see that Misery is actually a great fit for his style. Brian De Palma is another legendary director that took on a Stephen King adaptation. Carrie is today considered a classic horror film because it stands out. De Palma wasn’t afraid to take risks with his film because he knew that they would work. Directors that aren’t as confident may not have been able to pull it off.  


What Doesn’t Work: Remakes and Very Unnecessary Sequels of Stephen King-based Movies

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Movies based on Stephen King films have had a lot of success. Because of this, it is no surprise that some of them have been remade. Remakes are typically attempts by filmmakers to create a new vision of a popular story, or update a classic tale for contemporary audience tastes. Remakes have traditionally had a tough time living up to expectations because the original films they choose to remake are often well-respected. When an original film is based on a piece of writing, a remake can become even more difficult because the filmmaker is trying to create another story from one that has already been told. The remakes of Stephen King films have so far found this out the hard way.

In 1997, Stephen King himself wrote the script to a multi-part TV movie based on his book The Shining. This film stayed much closer to the book than Kubrick’s 1980 release, but the talent involved was lacking. Furthermore, Kubrick’s original film is so well loved that this remake seems futile. Carrie has been remade no less than two times. First a 2002 TV movie, and then the 2013 film starring Chloe Grace Moretz. In both cases, the remakes told the same story from King’s first novel, just set in different times. Audiences responded to both with a shrug. King’s second book, Salem’s Lot has been made into TV movies twice (1979 and 2004). While these aren’t terrible, audiences found the newer version to be less shocking than the original, and even then one would be hard pressed to find a reason that the story needed to be told again.

Ok, so the TV version of The Dead Zone didn’t turn out too shabby. But, in that case it was an expansion of the premise which was explored in the original film, rather than a retelling of the same story. I’m not even going to waste effort talking about how many awful awful sequels of not-great Stephen King movies there are out there. The horror genre has a reputation for many of its films going after cheap thrills, and making unnecessary sequels of Stephen King movies fits this bill perfectly.

The upcoming 2017 It film will be the second adaptation of King’s 1986 novel. The Dark Tower is the film adaptation of perhaps his most popular book series, but it will be part of a genre that King’s films haven’t traditionally had much success in. Will they find a way to succeed where past Stephen King remakes have failed?   

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