Since 1976’s Carrie there have been about 200 different screen adaptations of Stephen King’s novels, novellas, and short stories. If you whittle that number down to include only the feature film adaptations — which means you’d ignore all the TV movies, mini-series, traditional TV series, the endless array of sequels, and the massive collection of “dollar baby” short films (where King would grant option rights to film students in exchange for $1) — you’d have 36 movies. Of those three dozen films, at least half are what one could call well-made, well-regarded movies that struck a chord with ticket-buyers, film critics, and movie fans in general — while others are generally dismissed as b-movie junk, curious misfires, or plain old bad movies.
While it might be more amusing to dissect the latter category — for example, how the hell did so many talented filmmakers produce something as silly as 2003’s Dreamcatcher? — it’s probably a lot more rewarding to focus on the good stuff. With that in mind — and as CBS’s King adaptation Under the Dome wraps up — here are five firm suggestions for any filmmaker who hopes to adapt a Stephen King story with any degree of success.
1. BRING SOME NEW IDEAS
Turning a popular novel into a movie requires a tricky balancing act. On one hand, the filmmakers should try to retain a good portion of what the readers enjoyed, but on the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to turn a long book into a two-hour film without changing a whole bunch of stuff. Sometimes it’s as simple as trimming “superfluous” chapters, but more often than not, the filmmakers are required to make some drastic alterations to the source material.
Nobody would ever accuse the late Stanley Kubrick of taking the obvious path, which is part of what makes his 1980 adaptation of The Shining so damn noteworthy. The director turned the lead character from a slightly nerdy everyman into volatile powder keg; he excised a good portion of the character’s struggles with alcoholism; and he turned a bunch of creepy hedge animals into an equally creepy hedge maze. Some, even King himself, have expressed displeasure with Kubrick’s rendition of the novel, but there’s no denying that the movie has gone on to become a horror classic.
When it comes to filmmakers that Stephen King trusts, Frank Darabont clearly ranks pretty high on the list. His adaptations of King’s non-horror tales (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) are pretty fantastic, but his rendition of The Mist is a full-bore, old-school, gore-soaked monster movie of the finest order. It sticks pretty close to King’s short story about monsters who invade a supermarket — but then there’s that ending. A true, out of the blue, gut punch of an ending that I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say it’s not how the original story ends. And King had nothing but praise for the film’s bleak finale.
1987’s The Running Man offers another good example of how to retain the spark of King’s source material, even if you’re going to end up changing about 75 percent of the story. Published in The Bachman Books (easily one of the author’s finest collections), The Running Man is about a wimpy guy who volunteers for a hyper-violent game show that allows its contestants to roam all over the country while earning cash prizes for collateral damage. This is vastly different from the story told in Steven de Souza’s adapted screenplay: The “wimpy” guy is now Arnold Schwarzenegger; he doesn’t “volunteer” for the game as much as he’s framed as a criminal by horrible villains; and his exploits are now contained within one super-grungy ghetto. And yet, despite all these wild changes, The Running Man still holds up as an oddly entertaining action flick — not to mention one that turned out to be almost eerily prescient in regard to “reality” television.
2. HIRE GREAT ACTORS
Say what you like about Brian De Palma, but you can’t say he doesn’t cast his films remarkably well. His Carrie would have probably been a successful horror flick with different actors on board, but it’s the vulnerability of Sissy Spacek and the wild-eyed intensity of Piper Laurie that have cemented the film in the annals of horror history. (They both earned Oscar nominations as well. For a horror movie.) Even the supporting roles are pitch perfect, whether you’re quietly cheering for nice girl Amy Irving or actively booing the rotten bitch played by Nancy Allen. There’s not a weak, limp, or flat performance to be found in this film.
There’s a whole lot to appreciate in David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of The Dead Zone: the small town setting; the quietly creepy vibe that never goes away; the quick jolts of outright scary stuff, and great support from actors like Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, and Martin Sheen — but we also get a bonus in the form of a truly wonderful lead performance by Christopher Walken. Although the man is generally known as a colorful supporting player and a shameless scene-stealer, he’s certainly no slouch as a lead actor; his work as the haunted tragedy magnet Johnny Smith easily ranks among the best of Walken’s career.
Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Misery had the potential to irritate the King faithful: the William Goldman screenplay tossed out a lot of cool stuff from the book, and that sledgehammer sequence that everyone loves to squeal over? In the book it was a axe. But of course the film didn’t really need any of the stuff they left out — and the now famous “hobbling” scene is probably more horrifying with the sledgehammer than it would have been with a axe. But one thing we all seem to agree on: Kathy Bates, as Annie Wilkes, is absolutely, undeniably brilliant. (James Caan does fine work as well.)
And I didn’t even get to The Shawshank Redemption, which is so overstuffed with great character actors it’s unreal.
You’ll also find some fantastic performances in some of the less celebrated King adaptations: Timothy Hutton in The Dark Half (1993); Ed Harris in Needful Things (1993), Robert John Burke in Thinner (1996), Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis (2001); Johnny Depp and John Turturro in Secret Window (2004); and, hell, I’d even throw Miguel Ferrer in there for his work in the 1997’s all-but-forgotten The Night Flier.
3. TAKE THE SCARY STUFF SERIOUSLY
Let’s face it: The concept of a “haunted car” has the potential to be outrageously silly. Yet nobody seems to poke fun at John Carpenter’s masterful 1983 adaptation of Christine — and it’s because the film maintains such a grim, gritty, realistic tone throughout. Maybe it’s not the car at all; perhaps it’s just that an unhappy teenager’s first taste of freedom can lead to some decidedly dangerous decisions. A big part of why Christine works so well is Keith Gordon’s impressive, multi-faceted performance, but it’s also because Bill Phillips’ screenplay focuses more on what Christine represents and less on simplistic automotive carnage.
Lewis Teague’s Cujo (also from 1983) also succeeds through sheer force of stone-faced seriousness. There’s virtually nothing in the way of light, warmth, or even comic relief to be found in this film. We have one rabid dog, one sickly kid, one resourceful mother, and a broken down car that’s baking under the desert sun. It’s a lot easier to sell a killer dog concept on the page than it is on the screen — and yet Cujo still holds up as a powerfully intense thriller.
Sometimes it’s not enough to take the scary stuff seriously. A few of King’s finest horror stories manage to combine the powerfully tragic with the potentially absurd — and somehow these stories still work. Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary not only strikes a meticulous balance between silly and scary, but (thanks in large part to the King-penned screenplay) it still stands as one of the most horrifying Stephen King movies ever made. For the first half of the movie we’re in old-fashioned horror tale territory: A patch of cursed land can bring dead animals back to life. Simple, pulpy, and appealing. But then we take a sharp right turn into full-bore melodramatic family tragedy, and the movie never misses a beat. For my money this is still the scariest of all the King flicks, and it’s because the premise is never played for laughs. Not even close.
4. FOCUS ON CHARACTER
This might be the most important factor. Stand By Me (1986) was the first film to show moviegoers that (maybe, just maybe) there was more to King than just horror. Screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans knew there was a lot more to King’s novella “The Body” than just a grim tale about kids searching for a corpse — which is why most of the film has nothing to do with “scary stuff” at all. The fear of losing a loved one; the misery of being bullied; and the portents of impending death… they’re all touched upon in Stand By Me, but director Rob Reiner doles the out the darker stuff sparingly. Without a clear focus on character first, Stand By Me could have been some sort of death-obsessed Goonies-style misadventure.
Even the minor characters can have a major impact on the viewer. Consider not only the central characters in The Shawshank Redemption, but also the warden, the guards, the inmates, and the confused ex-con (played by the late, great James Whitmore) who provides the film’s most sobering, poignant moment. It may be predictable that the guards are (mostly) rotten and the warden is (obviously) a devious monster, but where Shawshank really shines is in its depiction of the inmates. It’s safe to assume that they’re all fractured men who’ve done terrible things, but it also seems that many of them have matured, mellowed, and found their kinder side. Of course the movie succeeds on the talents of Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and writer/director Darabont, but it wouldn’t be half as powerful a film without all the great little background characters and quietly fantastic performances.
And while very few would argue that 1999’s The Green Mile is “better” than Shawshank, it still holds up as an unexpectedly touching tale of crime, punishment, and redemption. And much like its spiritual predecessor, The Green Mile is packed with a number of multi-faceted characters. Okay, Tom Hanks is our typically noble Tom Hanks, but the late Michael Clarke Duncan gives a revelatory performance as a hulking “brute” who turns out to be some sort of angel. But it’s the supporting characters that elevate the film at every turn: Doug Hutchison as a manipulative monster; James Cromwell as a prison warden who is actually not a horrible person (nice switch there); Bonnie Hunt as a loyal wife who actually has more than one shade to her personality; and on and on: Sam Rockwell, David Morse, Graham Greene, Michael Jeter, Barry Pepper, Harry Dean Stanton, etc. It’s not just that The Green Mile has a remarkably good cast; it’s that every character has their own unique little wrinkles, regardless of how much screen time they actually get.
Character is also the key in 1990’s Graveyard Shift… Nah, just kidding. That’s a bad freaking movie.
5. HAVE SOME FUN
It’s always a good thing when a horror film puts story, character, and creativity ahead of basic, visceral chills — and we already covered the importance of taking the scary stuff seriously — but, for the most part, horror films are supposed to be fun.
Ask a seasoned horror fan to name their favorite moments from a King adaptation and you’ll get a non-stop litany of selections. That crazy crate creature from Creepshow. Christine’s dark powers of automotive repair. Drew Barrymore hurling fireballs at evil soldiers in Firestarter. Robert Hays navigating around a precarious ledge in Cat’s Eye. The kick-ass werewolf in Silver Bullet. The homicidal soda machine in Maximum Overdrive. The pie story in Stand By Me. Richard Dawson’s wonderfully twisted performance in The Running Man. The queen rat in Graveyard Shift (it’s super gross).
A good horror movie can be dark, devious, and sometimes a bit disturbing at times, but let’s not overlook this most obvious appeal: How giddy a scary movie can be.
So there you go, If you follow these five handy steps, you’re sure to make an excellent Stephen King adaptation. Unless something goes horribly wrong. Or you hire the wrong people. Or you forgot to actually acquire the book’s screen rights before making the movie.