Five Lesser-Known Stephen King Adaptations
Love him or hate him, Stephen King is back. The prolific American author first became a household name with the slew of mainstream and critical successes in the 1980s and 90s that came in the form of movie and TV adaptations. Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining remains a horror classic while cult classics The Shawshank Redemption and The Running Man showcased King as not just a master of horror.
While adaptations continued to be churned out throughout the 2000s, they remained largely forgettable to the general audience. It wasn’t until the recent success of the horror phenomenon It that has given the author a new shine. King-mania is back in full swing with the recent update to Pet Sematary and Doctor Sleep – King’s sequel to The Shining – premiering tomorrow.
And if you’re somehow craving for more of the always-insane-but-never-boring author, here are five picks of lesser-known adaptations based on his work:
Yes, perhaps King is best known nowadays as the mind behind the demonic clown Pennywise but his ability to find horror in the everyday should not be understated. Case in point – Misery. With the novel published in 1987 before being adapted into film by director Rob Reiner in 1990, it’s a story of the relationship between a best-selling romance writer Paul Sheldon and his superfan Annie Wilkes. Following a car accident that leaves him incapacitated, Paul finds himself rescued by Annie.
Things start innocently enough until Annie practically imprison Paul in her house, refusing to take him to the hospital despite his injuries while torturing the crippled author. Misery has been regarded by critics as a must-see King adaptation, thanks to its innocuous yet terrifying premise and Kathy Bates’ outstanding performance as the deranged Annie.
The Langoliers (1995)
Throughout the 90s, King’s work was not only a staple of movie theatres but of television screens as well, in the form of feature length mini-series such as The Langoliers. Directed by Tom Holland (no, not Spiderman), this adaptation is more of a mystery thriller than horror, and is notorious as a prime example of how cheesy and outlandish King’s adaptations can be. Ten passengers on a packed cross-country flight wake up to find themselves alone, soon figuring out that they have been left behind by time itself.
Its steep runtime of almost three hours is a hard sell and there are really only two reasons to give The Langoliers a watch. First, it’s a masterclass in hammy acting. Bronson Pinchot plays Craig Toomy, a psychotic broker that will stop at nothing for the plane to bring him to an important business meeting. It’s clear that Pinchot is having fun in the role, delightfully chewing the scenery in every scene he is in.
Then we have Dean Stockwell, a star student from the William Shatner class of acting, taking long unnecessary pauses during his long-winded expositions. His role as Bob Jenkins, a mystery writer that deduces most of what is happening to the crew, is played with earnest and suitable camp.
The only other reason to watch this mini-series is for the reveal of its monsters – the titular Langoliers – near the end. I won’t spoil anything; it’s one of those things that has to be seen to be believed.
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
While 1986 was the year that the author from Maine penned the little-known novel It, it was also the year he hit rock bottom with his cocaine and alcohol addiction. Perhaps most emblematic of his mental state during that dark period of his life is his only directorial effort (to date) Maximum Overdrive – King has been brutally frank about his drug abuse while writing and directing this film.
Loosely based on King’s short story Trucks, Maximum Overdrive imagines a world where a mysterious by-passing comet gives life to previously inanimate machines. From ATM machines to even bascule bridges, all machinations have grown a thirst for human blood. While marketed as a horror film, Maximum Overdrive leaned more towards being a campy, over-the-top thriller – especially when its main villains are a sentient truck with a Green Goblin mask and a machine gun with a mind of its own. Meanwhile, soundtracking all the madness on screen is the frantic music of one of King’s favourite bands, AC/DC.
The film may have been panned when it was first released but it has gained a cult status in recent years. Maximum Overdrive is a bunch of fun that unfortunately came at the cost of King’s health.
2017 is not the first time King’s landmark novel, It, was translated into screenplay. Originally running over the period of two episodes in 1990, this version is not much different from its big-screen cousin. A group of misfit children team up to destroy a demon before gathering again thirty years later to do the same. George Romero was once tapped to direct the adaptation but duties eventually fell on Tommy Lee Wallace, known for his divisive third entry to the Halloween series.
The mini-series is very much a product of its time, especially with its dated special effects. However, there is still a lot to love about this version. It was exactly because of its limited budget and technological restraints that the mini-series had to focus on developing its characters and creating haunting atmospheres, instead of the recent theatrical adaptation’s heavy reliance on special effects and cheap jump scares.
Perhaps the main selling point of the 1990 version is Tim Curry’s performance as the demonic clown Pennywise. Sure, he can get goofy (and the cheap special effects definitely do not help) but I felt Curry was far more convincing as the clown that could lure children to their death than Bill Skarsgard’s performance, who was more of just a scary, other-worldly CGI demon. Nevertheless, the mini-series is a must-see for those that can’t get enough of It.
The Shining (1997)
Even if it continues to be celebrated as one of history’s best horror films, Stephen King hated Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – so much so that he decided to adapt the story for himself. With a teleplay written entirely by King, the 1997 mini-series may have been a commercial and critical flop but it does give us a fascinating look on the elements King wanted to focus on with his novel.
For example, he was critical of the casting choice of Jack Nicholson as the lead, Jack Torrance, because he felt audiences would already assume that Nicholson’s character at the start of the film is already insane given the actor’s past works. He wanted Jack Torrance’s story to be a tragedy – as a convincing everyday man struggling with family issues and alcoholism before he finally snaps by the end. Similarly, he felt that Kubrick misunderstood the supernatural elements of his story, famously describing the auteur as “a man who thinks too much and feels too little”.
While this adaptation does lean closer to King’s vision, it does suffer from wooden acting, drawn out dialogue – perhaps a product of King’s novel-writing background – and dated special effects. Still, King’s adaptation gives an interesting twist of perspectives to its more celebrated big screen cousin. With Mike Flanagan, director of Doctor Sleep, wanting to balance both Kubrick and King’s vision of the story, this often-forgotten adaptation may be the perfect companion piece to the upcoming film.