Stephen King is one of the world’s most prolific authors. Much of his work has appeared in film, the source for classics like Carrie, The Shining & Misery. Dan Grant takes a look at some of the greatest characters to emerge from his writing on-screen.
Stephen King has more than 300 million copies of his books in print. He has written some of the best horror stories ever produced. And yet, more times that not, his stories are so hard to film. It doesn’t help that many of his books are too rich in detail and to knock it down from 1000 pages to a 2-hour movie is incredibly difficult.
Even harder to translate from book to screen is the right interpretation of the character. Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens and I have something in common in that we both love the book IT. It is unequivocally my favourite novel. But our opinion differs in our appreciation for the two-part TV movie. Dan liked it a lot, I thought it was just passable. And part of the reason for this is that it is just too hard to get his characters to sound right on film. I just didn’t think John Boy and Jack Tripper could do justice to Bill Denbrough and Big Ben. But when the interpretation is done right, you have some of the better films from their respective years. Here are the top ten performances on film from a Stephen King piece of work.
10. Marcia Gay Harden (Ms. Carmody) – The Mist (2007)
In the novel, this character was a God-fearing and fear-mongering woman who believed in human sacrifice. She was willing and quite ready to use a child as a human sacrifice to appease what she thought were beasts sent by God to punish humans for their wicked ways. Frank Darabont directed the film and adapted the novel. He let Marcia Gay Harden run wild with the character. She won the Oscar in 2000 for Pollock and here she is just as good. She absolutely sneers at the screen and spouts off so much vitriol and biblical gobbletygook that you literally hate her. When she finally gets put to rest, you feel a sense of relief that she is gone.
9. Richard Dawson (Damon Killian) – The Running Man (1987)
Writing as Richard Bachman, King wrote this story that was about 15 years ahead of its time. This is a story about reality TV and societies pre-occupation with violence and death and seeing it all happen on live TV. Richard Dawson, of The Family Feud fame was the only choice to play the slimiest game show host around. He pretty much nails his character and there isn’t much difference between what King wrote in the novel to what Dawson gives us on screen, which is why it works so well. Dawson has game show experience and I think he used some of that charisma to make the character work so well.
8. Christopher Walken (John Smith) – The Dead Zone (1983)
Jeffrey Boam of Indiana Jones/Lethal Weapon fame, adapted the novel and body horror legend David Cronenberg directed this terrific film. It’s no wonder that Christopher Walken did so well with the character. In the novel, Smith is first and foremost a heartbroken man as his coma cost him his fiance, who remarried. Walken conveys this beautifully. While this is not a straight up horror film like many of King’s stories, it still has horrific elements to it and Walken is quietly brilliant in the role. He helps us understand the pain that he is going through and then when he is thrust into a crazy world where he must make some incredibly difficult decisions, Walken does the transition effortlessly.
7. River Phoenix (Chris Chambers) – Stand By Me (1986)
To be honest, any one of the four kids in the movie (you could even have Kiefer Sutherland here as well) could be mentioned here. They are all that good. But if you have to pick just one, Phoenix shines just a little brighter than the rest. Here’s a young boy from an abusive family and has a jerk for a brother. And yet he is a fiercely loyal friend and a young man with impeccable morals. Phoenix makes you feel for Chris Chambers, he also helps him grow on screen, from a young 12 year old to a boy much further along in age, intellect and maturity. Phoenix was a bit of a prodigy. Everything he was in was better because of his presence. Stand By Me is certainly one of those films.
6. Fred Gwynne (Jud Crandall) – Pet Sematary (1989)
When Crandall is first described in the book, you feel like you are reading about an avuncular southern member of your family. Fred Gwynne, of the Munsters fame, takes the characters and breathes life into him. He’s got a southern drawl and his large frame conveys the strength, both physically and mentally that King says he has in the novel. It also helps that King adapted his own story so he got the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the character down to perfection. But without Gwynne’s interpretation of him, we could have had a caricature of the character, not what we see on screen.
5. Morgan Freeman (Ellis Boyd, “Red” Redding) – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In the novella, Red was a white Irishman with red hair. Frank Darabont didn’t seem to care that Morgan Freeman was about as opposite to that as you can get. He covers it with one line in the movie: When Andy Dufresne asks why they call him Red, Freeman replies, “Maybe it’s cause I’m Irish.” Morgan Freeman, it’s been said, has the voice of a God. It’s soothing, commanding and virile all at once. That can be said for his portrayal of Red as well. He’s a strong character, one that commands respect and he is also fiercely loyal to all his friends in the film. Freeman has had some truly incredible performances over his lifetime, this is considered one of his best.
See Also: Top 10 Morgan Freeman Twosomes
4. Michael Clarke Duncan (John Coffey) – The Green Mile (1999)
I’m not really sure why Michael Caine won best supporting actor in 1999 for The Cider House Rules. What Michael Clarke Duncan brought to the table here is nothing short of miraculous. Stephen King wrote Coffey as a giant of a man with the intellect of a small child. Duncan brings all of that to the performance. Frank Darabont also directed this one and wrote the screenplay. Like The Shawshank Redemption, he is apt to get iconic performances from his cast. Duncan made us believe. He made us understand and feel for this man so that at the end when he is willing to accept his fate because he is tired of being who he is, you want to cry with him. In my opinion, this is one of the best performances of 1999.
See Also: The Gentle Giant – Tribute to the late Michael Clarke Duncan
3. Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance) – The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick is a noted perfectionist. Some would say he is borderline psychotic. He has been known to do 50 takes for some films. He was so abrasive towards Shelley Duvall that she came close to quitting at one point. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when you hear that Kubrick let Jack Nicholson do a lot of improvising with his character. The entire “Here’s Johnny” scene was Jack’s idea and he did it at first without Kubrick’s knowledge. Kubrick, not knowing The Tonight Show at the time, thought it was an odd thing for Jack to do. And then when he found out about the reference he liked it and kept it. Beyond that, and in spite of what Stephen King says about the movie (he hates it), Nicholson slowly and meticulously brings us along with him as his character descends into a personal hell. Nicholson has had too many brilliant performances in his career to mention, but this certainly is up there with his best.
See Also: Top 10 Films Of Stanley Kubrick | Top 10 Ghosts In Film
2. Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes) – Misery (1990)
A quick story to this performance. I was 18 years old in 1990 and when I first saw this film, I turned to my best friend and said, “I’ve never heard of Kathy Bates, but she is winning best actress this year.” A lot of King’s characters go on a journey into some personal and private hell. No one did it better or more convincingly than Kathy Bates did. Here’s a character that, if played by someone else, could have perhaps been laughably misinterpreted. King himself was so impressed with Bates’ work that he wrote Delores Claiborne with her in mind and he even wrote a part in the mini-series The Stand just for her. This is a character that starts off as a caregiver, helping injured writer Paul Sheldon back to health. Then her slow decent into madness culminates with her taking a hammer and blowtorch to his legs. Bates won the Oscar for best actress and in the process made me look like a genius to my friends.
See Also: Top 10 Most Frightening Female Characters | Top 10 Dominant Women In Hollywood Film
1. Dee Wallace (Donna Trenton) – Cujo (1983)
Dee Wallace is a terrific actress and her career spans five decades. She is known in horror circles as a bit of a scream queen. This is her best performance and in my opinion, one that she should have received an Oscar nomination for. Her character arc ranges from adoring mom and loving wife to adulterous partner, matriarch and terrified victim, instincts that cause her to fight for her life and the life of her child. She gives a roller coaster ride of emotions to the audience and when the film finally ends, and you see her physical appearance, you feel like you have gone on this emotional and physical escapade with her. Dee Wallace let it all hang out here, she held nothing back. These might sound like cliches, but cliches are there because they make sense. Stephen King has even said that of all the performances in any of his films or TV series, this is the best one. I agree with him.
Written & Compiled by Dan Grant
What do you think? Did I miss any? Are there any here you would remove? Who would you add?