The Four Best Stephen King Adaptations
Be sure to keep the lights on for these stories about haunted hotels, nightmarish prisons and much more
Stephen King may be the most adapted author of all time — but at 69 years old he’s about to have his biggest cinematic moment yet.
“The Dark Tower” hits theaters Friday. It’s based on King’s magnum opus — an eight-book series that follows the rivalry between a mysterious gunslinger and an evil man referred to as only “the man in black.”
If the film succeeds, King has a “Game of Thrones”-type franchise on his hands. If it doesn’t, he’ll still likely be OK, since he’s cranking out original novels with no sign of stopping. He also has other highly anticipated TV and movie projects coming up based on his works, such as September’s “It” reboot and next year’s television series for Hulu, “Castle Rock,” which pulls from a variety of King works to create a fictional universe.
In celebration of the resurgence of King’s novels on the big screen, here’s a look at the four best works adapted from the creations of one of the most influential novelists of all time.
1.) “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). This film fell flat when it first hit theaters. Later, on home video, people really discovered the film — and catapulted it to its legendary cinematic status today.
Starring Tim Robbins as a man perhaps unjustly imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover, “Shawshank” is a deeply moving film about friendship and keeping hope alive — even when pushed to a corner of the universe, where hope becomes dangerous.
In 2015, the Library of Congress chose “Shawshank” for preservation in the National Film registry. It remains the highest-rated movie by IMDB users.
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Based on a King novella, “Shawshank” was the first adaptation of the writer’s work by filmmaker Frank Darabont, who would later create the effective films “The Green Mile” and “The Mist” from King works.
“When I first saw it, I realized [Darabont had] made not just one of the best movies ever done from my work, but a potential movie classic. That turned out to be the case, but he continued working almost up to the moment the film was released,” King wrote for Oscar.org in 2014. He called the film an “American icon” and said he was “delighted to have been a part of it.”
“When I first saw it, I realized he’d made not just one of the best movies ever done from my work, but a potential movie classic.”
It’s difficult to imagine a movie like “Shawshank Redemption” being made today, something so poetic with such universal appeal — and something that stands the test of time more than 20 years after its release. With two emotionally gripping performances from Robbins and Morgan Freeman, the film is not only the greatest film to be inspired by a work of Stephen King’s, it’s also one of the best American films period.
2.) “The Shining” (1980). King was no fan of the classic film that Stanley Kubrick made from his novel of a writer going mad.
King told Deadline last year about the film that stars Jack Nicholson, “I think ‘The Shining’ is a beautiful film and it looks terrific, and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it. In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favorable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much.”
He continued, “I feel the same [now] because the character of Jack Torrance [played by Nicholson] has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all.”
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Despite King’s hesitation to embrace the film, “The Shining” has become an American classic and one of the most dissected and studied horror movies.
While not entirely faithful to King’s book and its tone, it’s a creepy thriller with a mesmerizing performance by Nicholson, whom we watch slowly embrace madness as the film progresses. Kubrick made one of his more visually interesting films with “Shining,” despite working with essentially one location. It’s a claustrophobic and unnerving horror creation about madness and family — and not an overstatement to call it a masterpiece.
3.) “Misery” (1990). This was a very personal book for King, who wrote “Misery” while trying to kick a drug addiction. The story follows a writer (James Caan), who is abducted by a crazed and delusional fan (Kathy Bates) after a car crash in the dead of winter. When the fan reads the writer’s latest work and discovers he plans to kill off her favorite character, she goes … a little mad.
The tortuous fan always represented King’s addiction, according to the author, and he was the bedridden writer.
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The book is intense and chaotic, and the film came pretty close to capturing the electricity of those pages, thanks in large part to great performances from Caan and an absolutely insane, unforgettable Bates.
Released in 1990, “Misery” is still effective all these years later. It’s a brutal story of survival and obsession. The fact that the story came from such a personal place is likely what makes both the book and the film feel so lively and real. It’s nearly 30 years old, but “Misery” remains one of the best adaptations of King’s work.
4.) “Stand By Me” (1986). Is it any surprise a Stephen King coming-of-age story would include a dead body?
“Stand By Me” follows a group of young friends as they make a long, obstacle-filled journey to catch a glimpse of a rumored dead body in their area.
Grim as it sounds, the story has heart and is a top film about growing up. The 1986 feature has influenced countless film and TV projects, including Netflix’s popular “Stranger Things.”
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Based on King’s novella, “The Body,” director Rob Reiner’s adaptation is the one project on this list that some may be surprised to learn came from a King story. There are no frightening clowns, nightmarish prisons, or haunted hotels — instead, there are a bunch of kids coming face-to-face with the realities of adulthood and life.
Yet that fact doesn’t detract from “Stand By Me” in any way. It’s difficult not to connect to the tale of these young boys and their shared mission.