Stephen King has had more film adaptations of his work than any other living author. It stands to reason, then, that some would work better than others. The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, Misery, these are near flawless translations from book to screen. But for every one of those, there are many more that just fall flat. Sometimes they try to take on too much. Sometimes they don’t go bold enough. Or there are the bizarre, rare cases that just ignore the story they’re adapting entirely.
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We’ll see bits of all three on this list. In the exploration we’ll also try to avoid the obvious. IE: It’s really common knowledge at this point that The Shining is a great horror movie, but not a faithful adaptation of the book on which it’s based.
It is a different thing entirely, and much more common, when a movie fails both in the adaptation and on its own. In most cases, the story was there, if only they had found the right approach to tell it. But sometimes the budget is simply too small to feasibly bring what’s on the page to life, other times, they just don’t understand what they’re working with at all.
There have been a wealth of Stephen King miniseries for television over the years. Some of them have succeeded, like It and Storm of the Century. Rose Red has plenty of fans as well. The Tommyknockers, however, is a mess. And I say that as someone who actually enjoyed the novel it’s based on, which is not widely considered to be one of the author’s best. Most of the plotlines are completely removed, characters who appeared in one or two scenes are fleshed out into primary antagonists. Even if King didn’t realize it at the time, this was his book about succumbing to addiction. The filmmakers had that take a backseat, deciding that the true focus should be on Traci Lords seducing men with alien lipstick.
I’ll admit that Graveyard Shift grows on you over time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a successful adaptation. It takes away a lot of the charm of the various mutated forms of rats in King’s story. Instead, we have many normal rats who happen to be rather aggressive and one big mother rat—which is much more bat-like, really. On top of that, it features some of the worst Maine accents ever committed to film.
I’ve talked quite a bit about Tobe Hooper’s hit or miss career, but even I was surprised by how truly bad The Mangler could be when it really wanted. Some things don’t just translate well to the screen. It’s a testament to King’s ability as a writer that he can somehow make a possessed laundry press work on the page, but on film it’s a hard sell. When the machine starts moving around to stalk its prey, that’s when the movie really becomes a treat. Robert Englund appears, but under a ton of old age makeup and with bionic legs, for no real reason. At least he seems to be the only one to understand what kind of production he’s in.
I’m not going to say The Running Man is not a fun feature. I couldn’t do that. It’s fun, it’s fast-paced and entertaining, it’s a lot of things but it is not the book. The novella, written under the Richard Bachman pseudonym, is one of King’s most poignant, scathingly accurate pieces of science fiction. There’s a sense of dead-on black humor about violence and television, and the relationship and nature of both. And here it is, turned into an action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why have social commentary when Arnold can be punching something? It’s actually extremely ironic. A story about a man forced to compete in mindless violence for people’s entertainment is simply turned into mindless violence for people’s entertainment.
Unlike a lot of entries on this list, Dreamcatcher had a whole lot going for it. The film has a great cast, including Morgan Freeman, Timothy Olyphant and Damian Lewis. Not to mention a great director and screenwriter. This is pure A-list entertainment. So what went wrong? It’s tough to say, but it might be the fact that no matter how great the cast is and how much money was put into it, it’s still about aliens that come from your butt.
With all the bad adaptations out there, this is the only one that Stephen King actually sued to have his name removed from. The short story, collected in Night Shift, is about a man who is being stalked by the guy who mows his lawn. The film is about a breakthrough in virtual reality technology that leads a man to recruit the simple fellow who mows his lawn as a test subject. But then the lawnmower man becomes addicted to the power and has to be stopped. The two ideas could not be more different. Yet it bears the title and claims its influence all the same.
Leave it to one of the most bizarre, weirdly accomplished adaptations ever to be directed by the author himself. Maximum Overdrive is a stupid movie. Entertaining, but stupid. It’s about all of the machines in the world taking over, which sounds hard to screw up. But it’s so bizarrely directed and the acting is so over the top. King himself has used this to point out that he is not a director and should not be allowed to direct anything else ever again.