There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.
It almost seems unkind — or maybe foolish — to take umbrage with the vaguely defined list of Stephen King adaptations recently published at New York magazine’s Vulture site. For starters, it’s obvious advertorial nonsense, released in conjunction with Spike’s needy attempt at cashing in on the lucrative market for genre-driven television. There’s also a woeful intellectual sloppiness to the endeavor, making it feel especially embarrassing to snap into the hook carrying this particular wad of pungent bait.
Even so, the damn quintet of pallid movie assessments is currently one of the top hits when King’s name is entered into Google. Chagrined, I find myself compelled to offer a corrective answer.
The Vulture-posted list tentatively offers that it covers “King adaptations that fall within the horror genre,” which strikes me as both needlessly reductive and a cheap attempt at avoiding some of the stronger cinematic renderings of the writer’s work, probably in part because they’re the titles everyone would expect. While strictly avoiding the entries in the other list (only one of which I’d be all that tempted to include anyway), here are five strong adaptations of King’s work, presented in no particular order.
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994). This is surely destined to go down in the popular consensus as the finest film to stem from a King work, even if it doesn’t quite deserve the level of unquestioned veneration bestowed upon it when it became the centerpiece of TNT’s “New Classics” promotional campaign. The prison drama is adapted and directed by Frank Darabont with consummate craftsmanship and boasts a Morgan Freeman performance of graceful understatement that he’s been Xeroxing into ghostly oblivion ever since.
Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986). This story of childhood friends on a quest to see a dead body, on the other hand, still deserves any designations as the best film to ever include King’s name prominently in the credits. Drawing on reservoirs of empathy, Rob Reiner delivers a film that manages the tricky feat of being simultaneously nostalgic and truthful.
Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1995). Released just a few months after The Shawshank Redemption, this seemed like the film that was going to lock in legitimacy for adaptations of King’s work, after years and years of big screen efforts that were dismal or worse. Then critics shrugged, audiences rejected it, and the film faded almost entirely from the cultural memory. Prickly and bold, it deserves better. Anchored by a pair of fierce, deep performances — by Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh — Dolores Claiborne hostly grapples with the psychology of pain while also drenching the screen in bold visuals conjured up by director Taylor Hackford and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. It’s not perfect, but it pointed to an unfollowed route of treating King’s stories as if they are fully worthy of being spun into ambitious cinematic art.
Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989). King’s novel arrived when I was still in middle school. It immediately become the book that all my peers raved about, thrilled by the illicit saunter into more adult horror that it provides. Though it was a major bestseller and just about every King book got dragged through the movie machine in those days, the bleakness of its story — in which a nuclear family discovers that maybe magical resurrection isn’t such a gift, after all — made it a tougher adaptation to crack than most. The resulting film is too messy to be called genuinely great, but it boasts a near-relentless tension, a strikingly good performance from Fred Gwynne, and spooky-good casting in the crucial role of Gage Creed. And as for the harshest elements of the film, director Mary Lambert doesn’t flinch.
The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007). And here again is Darabont, who’s regularly gone to the King section of his own personal library whenever he needed a bit of a career reset, doing pretty well by both himself and the author every time. The Twilight Zone-style tale follows a small group of people turning against one another while wracked by understandable duress when a thick fog populated by vicious monsters traps them in a small-town supermarket. It’s rock solid in its original iteration, but the black-and-white version — released as a DVD bonus — pushes toward the transcendent. Darabont was previously a dutifully faithful adaptor of King, but in The Mist he comes up with a drastically different ending that is starkly better. Even King knows it.