Being one of the most successful and ubiquitous authors ever allows Stephen King a certain amount of freedom to explore just about every corner of the cultural sphere. In addition to writing dozens of novels, 10 short story and novella collections, and five works of nonfiction, he’s collaborated on comics, penned an unproduced libretto, acted, narrated audiobooks, and even played in a band, The Rock Bottom Remainders. His work has similarly spread its tendrils throughout Hollywood, manifesting in everything from films and TV series to miniseries and shorts, and that’s not even including the “dollar babies” that he grants to young, starry-eyed auteurs. Many of those works have taken on lives of their own as well—both Children Of The Corn and The Mangler, neither of which resemble King’s source material, have spawned numerous sequels.
All of this is to say that any definitive ranking of King’s work is fruitless: There are just too many detours. So with It Chapter Two forcing us to reflect on the breadth of King’s dominion, we decided to pinpoint our favorite adaptations across several different mediums. That includes films, TV shows, and miniseries, obviously, but also his anthology contributions and even the derivative titles his work’s directly inspired. (We considered short films, but, once you factor in dollar babies, that’s simply too much content.) Considering how, let’s say, notorious some of these adaptations are, it would be a disservice to not also highlight the weirdest—not worst—of them as well. The distinction is important, lest you be left wondering why Maximum Overdrive is nowhere to be found below.
Stephen King will forever be remembered as the “master of horror,” but there’s a reason a hefty handful of the best adaptations of his work—The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Gerald’s Game—skew more toward drama than genre. Because for every bloodthirsty car or haunted cell phone, there’s a heartfelt ode to innocence and imagination—just look at his most enduring work, It, which remains the most elegant, impactful intertwining of his gruesomeness and sentimentality. King’s horrors have always struggled to translate well on screen, though, and Stand By Me, a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1960, benefits from not having to engage with that side of the author. Director Rob Reiner zeroes in on two things: character and atmosphere. Four pre-teens, each lacking in healthy role models, take rumors of an unattended dead body as an excuse to walk a rail line and, in doing so, forge a bond that’s as fleeting as it is timeless. Reiner allows these bonds to breathe across moments pure, scary, traumatic, and agonizing, and his young cast are the perfect mix of tender and reckless—River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, specifically, are tremendous. But Reiner’s nostalgia is as rich as King’s—the two are roughly the same age—and his work captures the wonder and danger of being young, unmoored, and reliant on friends whose importance you won’t grasp until you’ve long grown apart. [Randall Colburn]
If you’re in the market for shit blowing up, or dudes getting chopped in half, there’s very little wrong with Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man, which—even before you get to the opera-singing, dune buggy-driving supervillain, or a script filled with even-for-Arnie-high levels of Arnold Schwarzenegger quippiness—earns its place in the cheesy action movie pantheon with Richard Dawson’s brilliant heel turn on his own smiling-through-the-anger game show host persona. But Steven E. de Souza’s script is an objectively off-model adaptation of King’s original dystopian novel, which, like all of the books published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, finds the author at his most bleak and blatantly un-cheesy, bordering on nihilistic. It’s mostly a matter of tone, with King’s prose emphasizing the mundanity of the titular lethal game show and none of the comic book bombast the film so gleefully indulges in. Rather than an Austrian weightlifter, the book’s Ben Richards is a scrawny, scrappy father who willingly signs up for The Running Man in order to secure medicine for his ailing daughter. (Sort of a modern-day GoFundMe campaign, but with guns and a nation-wide manhunt.) Similarly, his main opponents aren’t a squad of costumed Mortal Kombat rejects, but regular citizens and cops hoping to pick up a little cash for themselves by ratting the runner out or gunning him down on America’s pollution-clogged streets. It’s an altogether grimmer, more “realistic” take on an ostensibly similar story, with the most telling difference arriving with the endings: Rather than making out with María Conchita Alonso and kicking a Family Feud host’s ass, Book Richards only manages to eke out a victory so Pyrrhic it barely even qualifies for the name, a far grimmer (and increasingly unfilmable, to modern eyes) conclusion that Arnold never would have stood for. [William Hughes]
Best: It (1990)
To say the 1990 TV miniseries of It looks dated is to undersell it. The overlit sets, clunky editing, and who’s who of ’80s TV actors in the lead roles all mark it as being of a certain era. But what makes it so memorable—and such a successful adaptation of its tricky source material—lies primarily in the casting of its malevolent antagonist. Tim Curry’s Pennywise remains iconic after all these years because the actor captured the warped sadistic spirit of the supernatural clown. He could be genuinely goofy and playful, in a manner that actually went some way toward showing why kids fell for the act—which is what made his heel-turns to menacing and saw-toothed so much more disturbing. In addition to successfully evoking the nostalgic hue of the ’50s-set portion of the novel, this adaptation remains a source of nightmares for every former kid that happily tuned in to be scared shitless. Curry made the clownish evil into a source of fascination—he pulls you in, just like his magnetic alter ego. [Alex McLevy]
Honestly, what isn’t “WTF” about Bag Of Bones? It opens with a scene of a woman being mowed down by a bus to rival Meet Joe Black’s infamous auto accident, and ends with Anika Noni Rose slapping Pierce Brosnan around in the guise of a vengeful tree. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of mind-numbing moments in between. Time moves oddly in Bag Of Bones, which suffers from baggy pacing, a chaotic structure, and strange internal laws of physics that transform all of the jump scares—a fiery truck explosion, a sniper’s bullet flying through a window mid-conversation, a fucking raccoon falling out of a ceiling—into giggle-inducing non sequiturs. Then there’s Brosnan’s performance, full of misplaced intensity that original A.V. Club reviewer Zack Handlen described as “looking like he’s going to burp, fart, and sneeze simultaneously every ten minutes or so.” All this garish goofiness turn relatively minor storytelling tics and narrative crutches from King’s original novel into glaring absurdities, dragging its source material into the waterlogged madness along with it. [Katie Rife]
If there’s a reason Mr. Mercedes has yet to puncture the zeitgeist, it’s probably due to it being relegated to the Audience Network, a portal exclusive to DirectTV. That said, DirectTV’s done well by the show in terms of giving it the chance to breathe across multiple seasons, with the third season premiering next week. David E. Kelley’s smart, surprisingly gruesome adaptation of King’s sorta-supernatural detective trilogy—originally published between 2014 and 2016—improves upon the books in myriad ways, namely via an on-point cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, and rising stars like Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) and Justine Lupe (Succession). Kelley plays fast and loose with King’s narrative, restructuring the books’ timeline and smartly elaborating on the journeys of compelling, underused supporting players like Breeda Wool’s Lou Linklatter. Toying with King’s template is dangerous, but there’s a thoughtfulness to Kelley’s approach that preserves the book’s hard-boiled spirit while carving out its own narrative. If this thing ever hits streaming, it’s going to gain a whole slew of new fans. [Randall Colburn]
Stephen King’s Under The Dome is about how the big, human problems of a small town get accentuated and twisted by the sudden appearance of a giant dome with extraterrestrial origins that cuts the town off from the outside world. CBS’ Under The Dome, despite sharing a title, some character names, and a giant dome with extraterrestrial origins, might as well be a completely different story. Part of that was by necessity, since the show was a surprisingly big hit and had to fill three whole seasons of plot, but it did that by diving headfirst into needlessly complex sci-fi origins for the dome and a race of aliens with the ability to control people. It had a post-Breaking Bad Dean Norris as the villain and noted comic writer Brian K. Vaughan as showrunner, but it also had a mountain of mythology about alien eggs and mini-domes and underground caves that needlessly complicated a story about the residents of a small town becoming increasingly unhinged and killing each other. At least we’ll always have the cow that got split in half. [Sam Barsanti]
As with all the impish spawn of EC Comics, both the anthology series and the 1990 movie version of Tales From The Darkside have a punchy comic-book sensibility that give their tales of ghastly terror a larger-than-life feel. That proves to be an asset for “The Cat From Hell,” a segment from the film based on King’s 1977 short story of the same name. Sometimes, King adaptations stumble by trying to present his more outlandish ideas—like, say, a cat clawing its way down a human’s throat like a boa constrictor in reverse, grotesquely turning the man into a human puppet as it goes—at face value. Within the heightened universe of Darkside, however, the idea of a black cat with a blood grudge makes total sense, allowing director John Harrison to extract both amusement and disgust from the premise. Casting Academy Award nominee William Hickey alongside New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, and then having Hickey give the more outrageous of the two performances, deepens the interplay between nightmarish horror and comic-book kitsch, for a King cocktail that goes down mighty smooth. [Katie Rife]
WTF: “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill,” Creepshow (1982)
As far as King adaptations go, this Creepshow vignette is actually pretty faithful; certainly, it hits more story beats from its source material, the author’s 1976 Lovecraft-but-with-plants riff “Weeds,” than most of its cinematic ilk. No, the WTF-ness of “Jordy Verrill” comes almost solely from the man cast as its titular cash-hungry, sense-poor yokel: One Stephen Edwin King. As far as acting goes, King is, well, one of the most successful novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries—which is to say that there is much that should be overtly horrifying about “Jordy,” as a series of dumb, desperate decisions swiftly promise to doom the entire human race beneath a carpet of hostile foliage. But, in practice, there’s nothing a bushel of space seeds can do, Constant Reader, that’s even remotely as horrifying as watching one of America’s most respected authors—equipped with a cornpone accent, wildly rolling eyes, and some make-up effects that must have cost George Romero upwards of $9.95 at a local party supply store—attempt to convey either comedy or horror while screaming about his alien-weed-infested dick. King has continued to cameo in various projects over the years, but “Jordy” is his only starring role. Thank god for that. [William Hughes]
Brett Leonard called his 1992 adaptation of Stephen King’s bite-sized “The Lawnmower Man” one of the most “radical adaptations ever,” but we’re just gonna go ahead and say it’s not an adaptation at all. To be fair, it’s technically not, as King detached himself from the project after suing for the “misleading and deceptive use” of his name. He was right to do so—Leonard’s script, originally titled Cyber God, was retrofitted to the IP with, well, a lawnmower man and little else. But Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man somehow emerged more interesting than the bizarre story it tried to exploit. Its imperfect tale of a scientist’s journey to boost the IQ of a dull gardener via VR still has something compelling to say about virtual worlds and their impact on the human mind and personality. And the movie’s distinctive digital effects, while dated, remain aesthetically interesting in an age where what’s digital often strives only to be more lifelike. The Lawnmower Man’s virtual landscape is silly, sure, but it’s also singular, composed of odd geometric flourishes and religious iconography. It’s almost enough to make up for the weird cyber-fucking. [Randall Colburn]
Fulfilling the dreams of everyone who ever thought, “What Carrie needed was less psychological intrigue and more late ’90s nu-metal,” The Rage: Carrie 2 takes everything dark and intense about its progenitor and finds the campiest possible reworking of it. Justifying its narrative logic under the wafer-thin veneer that new protagonist Rachel (Emily Bergl) and the original Carrie White are half-sisters from the same father—thereby granting her what are now officially designated as hereditary powers of telekinesis, we guess—the movie proceeds to deliver the same beats, in hilariously extreme manner. (“This is a Carrie who gets biz-zay—consistently and thoroughly!” the film’s execs presumably uttered at some point.) To wit: Rachel’s only friend (Mena Suvari) dies early on in a manner so over the top, it could be its own Lifetime movie; Rachel snaps after a sex tape of her first time gets broadcast at a party; oh, and the final explosion of her powers? Explaining it with “Home Improvement’s Zachary Ty Bryan gets his dick shot off with a harpoon gun” doesn’t quite do it justice. The title makes more sense if you imaginable someone yelling “Rage!” like they’re in an old Surge commercial. Rarely has the description “stupidly fun” emphasized the stupid quite so much. [Alex McLevy]