Despite being the source novelist for many of Hollywood’s most well-known horror and thriller films, Stephen King’s work is notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen.
Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers of our times. With more than 50 book/story adaptations for the big or small screen, his work has been the source of many noteworthy pieces of cinema and TV. But his books are notoriously difficult to adapt. And despite several screenwriters and directors enjoying success, many more have failed King’s book.
How problematic can it be to make a good Stephen King book adaptation?
If history proved anything, it showed that you need vision, courage, and in-depth knowledge of King’s universe and spirit to make a worthy book adaptation.
Frank Darabont made history with The Shawshank Redemption, while the collaboration between director Rob Reiner and actress Kathy Bates turned Misery into an Oscar-worthy masterpiece. The Green Mile, Stand by Me, the new IT movie, and Netflix’s Gerald’s Game stand proof that directors have plenty of suitable material to turn into memorable entertainment pieces.
Unfortunately, some directors took liberties when adapting King’s books for the silver or small screen, failing to either bring out the qualities of the book or finding a cinematic direction that doesn’t do the book justice. Some films have failed so miserably that the author himself has spoke out against them. That is despite having his own troubles making movies out of his literary stories. Today, we will count our top 10 picks of directors that angered King’s fans, made the author cringe, and ruined otherwise acceptable (if not exceptional) literary works.
Nikolaj Arcel – The Dark Tower
Keep people waiting for over 30 years for a movie adaptation of King’s opus magna while reminding everyone you do not have the technology to pull off such a cinematic stunt. Then, take the project out of production limbo and announce the first installment in what you want to become a series to match Lord of the Rings in size, beauty, action, and character development.
And then… allow director Nikolaj Arcel to make a movie about something that was anything but the The Dark Tower series. The rage is indescribable among King’s fans and hardcore lovers of the The Dark Tower setting, mystery, adventures, philosophy, “multiverse”, intertwined story arcs, and especially characters.
Idris Elba did what he could to save the day, while Matthew McConaughey played either himself or the middle school bully from another movie. Suffice to say that many consider The Dark Tower to be the worst book-to-screen endeavour of the last years. Some say The Dark Tower was a sequel; others say it was a loose adaptation. We say it was the ultimate form of disrespect towards King and his fan base.
Arcel’s vision was so narrow, so shallow, and so wrong that The Dark Tower makes bad Stephen King film adaptations look comparatively attractive. If the directors of the past did not have the tech and the people to turn good books into good movies, Arcel has no excuse for such an epic failure. The film is so bad, some suspect he did not even read the books.
Tobe Hooper – The Mangler
Take the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, add Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), and top those with a Stephen King story about a vicious haunted object and you should get a masterpiece. Right? Wrong! This mangled mess of a movie shows that one man’s genius can wither and dry and another man’s talent can become a cartoonish pastiche of his past career.
In other words, Hooper used exciting visuals but also proved he was past the Texas Chainsaw glory; the plot twist is laughable, the supporting cast even more ridiculous, and some of the CGI made people cringe in their seats. Englund offered a caricature portrayal of the character and King still does not understand what happened in that movie.
Fritz Kiersch – Children Of The Corn
What could go wrong when you have a King story about creepy kids and creepier religious symbolism? Children of the Corn is a legendary short story coming from the “King of Disturbing” himself, but director Fritz Kiersch managed to mess things up in horrible ways.
In an interview for USA Today in 1995, King spoke of this movie adaptation, metaphorically referring to it inserting the word “rape” in the sentence, and we cannot blame the man. What should have been a piece of escalating tension, disturbance, chills down the spine, and gloriously creepy imagery turned into bouillabaisse.
None of the children can act, the dialogue is cornier than the corn itself, and the supernatural entity King foreshadows brilliantly throughout the story proves to be an animated frowny face.
We hope nobody watches this movie ever.
Lawrence Kasdan – Dreamcatcher
This 2003 movie adaptation of the novel Dreamcatcher will forever remain in pop culture history as the movie that presented you with the “shit-weasels” you cannot un-see or forget. Granted, the book has some ludicrous plot points, but director Lawrence Kasdan made them even more ridiculous. The cast seems to play in a completely different movie and the lines, together with the script, seem to have been improvised on the spot.
The original story is convoluted, of immense strangeness, and twisted – as King’s books are entirely crazy sometimes. Kasdan takes an eerie and disturbing tale about friendship and aliens and turns it into a movie about poop that lacks coherence, acting, atmosphere, proper conversations, or a satisfying ending.
Morgan Freeman should have never been in that movie, nor the shit-weasels, nor Donnie Wahlberg and his embarrassing delivery of the English language. This movie should have never been at all.
Mick Garris – Bag Of Bones
Bag of Bones is like a classic McDonald’s burger: you have seen it before, but it does not disappoint in the end. The story has its fair share of clichés, but it also comes with King’s personal and unique touch on character and atmosphere building.
Mick Garris directed a handful of King’s book adaptations and failed almost every time. Like some people say, the Bag of Bones TV miniseries is Garris’s way of showing all directors of the world how NOT to make Stephen King book adaptations.
Pierce Brosnan manages to save the series here and there, but it takes more than just an A-class actor to turn a mess into an exciting piece of entertainment. Almost as infuriating as The Dark Tower from this point of view, Bag of Bones maddens the viewers because of the wasted material and human talent.
Mikael Salomon – Salem’s Lot
With two Oscar nominations under his belt in the nineties, director Mikael Solomon took upon himself the burden of adapting Salem’s Lot into a miniseries that would be more faithful to the original material, more comprehensive, and more frightening.
Tobe Hooper’s 1979 version was better than Salomon’s 2004 vision. Salomon changed characters, plot points, and the entire “multiverse” for that matter, as he ruined the character of Father Callahan who is a hero in The Dark Tower series (not that Hooper or Arcel know that). Nobody knows why.
This adaptation is not horrible per se, but it is confusing, misguided, and misleading for anybody who wants to discover King’s “multiverse” or some of his iconic characters. The cast is excellent though: Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, and Rutger Hauer make an excellent addition to the movie, but the director’s perspective on the whole story is merely an unnecessary jumble.
Brett Leonard – The Lawnmower Man
The film strayed so far and wide from the source material, King sued to remove his name from the film. Now his name is only associated with the title, as the rest of the story has nothing to do with the text. Everybody admits it was not King’s best work, but the movie is even worse, a psychedelic mess wasting Pierce Brosnan’s charm and talent once more.
Weirdly enough, the movie generated a sequel and two official video games, so director Brett Leonard did something right after all. However, what he did not do was a satisfactory Stephen King book to movie adaptation.
Tod Williams – Cell
The Cell book left critics, and the public baffled a bit – and King takes responsibility for the incoherence and the illogic twists and turns the book takes from the middle onwards – but the movie is horrendous. It lacks all scares, all originality, and all psychological tensions and tribulations you find in the book. In conclusion, it is not the cast’s fault as neither John Cusack nor Samuel L. Jackson forgot how to act since 2007.
The movie version needed the clarity the book lacked, but it failed miserably, and the public did not miss the opportunity to express its feelings.
Christian Torpe – The Mist (Miniseries)
Why would you remake something that was good? Nobody has figured that out yet. However, people should have left Frank Darabont’s 2007 The Mist where it was – among the stellar adaptations of Stephen King’s books. Christian Torpe, however, wanted his own take on the horrifying story and setting and served us a flat, downright ridiculous, and unimpressive puzzle of cringe-worthy acting.
Factor in entirely forgettable locations, no blood-chilling music, no special effects to care about, a cast that can barely act, the silliest, most ridiculous, and most laughable alien creatures (ghosts on horseback instead of grisly, human-eating monstrosities) and you get something impossible to watch.
In other words, no, Christian Torpe, just no.
Stanley Kubrick – The Shining
The Shining is the most controversial Stephen King book adaptation, and pop culture relishes on King’s relationship with the movie. Does he hate Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining? Yes. After all this time? Always. The problem is that King is the only one hating Kubrick’s vision of the Overlook hotel and the Torrance family, as the public loved everything. In truth, the public loves Jack Nicholson, and even King cannot deny the man’s top-notch performance. However, King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s The Shining are two different things, loosely sharing some joint characters.
We will not say that Kubrick failed the book (although he did) or the public (some hardcore fans hold the ending against the director still). Kubrick failed the author in so many ways that Stephen King took decades to come back to better feelings about seeing his written works on the screen.
We are glad he did, however. Stephen King is all the rage right now, again, as he should be, as more and more directors are adapting his works for TV or cinema.
Andy Muschietti’s IT was a revelation, not to mention Netflix Original’s intentions of breathing new life into King’s masterpieces. Talking about the network, make sure you check out Netflix Guides to see what King’s adaptations you can enjoy as movies or TV series. Moreover, keep an eye on the original productions as well, as they have become incredibly promising as of late. Like other literary geniuses, King offered us many chefs-d’oeuvre, and it seems Netflix wants to do them justice and put the nineties behind us all.
Over to you: what Stephen King book adaptations have failed in your eyes?