Stephen King’s prolific writing has always been synonymous with film. From terrifying horror to Oscar winning classics like The Shawshank Redemption, his work has been adapted to cinema and TV for years. With one of his most famous novels, IT, getting a blockbuster sequel, we’ve looked back at some of the most iconic adaptations of his work.
Isobel Roach on Stand by Me
Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand by Me is an unusual addition to the canon of Stephen King adaptations. A far cry from the unabashed horror of movies like IT and The Shining, Stand by Me is a heart wrenching nostalgia trip, dripping with nods to the zeitgeist of 1950s America. Based on King’s novella The Body, Reiner’s film follows childhood friends Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) as they hit the road to search for the body of a missing boy.
Haunted by the ever-present spectre of death – whether it be the body of an unfortunate young boy or the absence of a recently deceased older brother – Stand by Me is a coming of age film that embraces the dark mortality of growing up. Unlike several other young adult films produced in the decade (think Richard Donner’s The Goonies and Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.), Reiner’s movie doesn’t entice its audience with the false promise of a fantastical, cinematic childhood. Nor does it resolve the narrative with a convenient, restorative happy ending; this is a story of disappointment, fear and the agony of being misunderstood – even by yourself.
Stellar, heartfelt performances from Wheaton and Phoenix provide nuance to the movie’s more light-hearted moments. All four young actors embrace the driving humour of the film that manages to be morbid but somehow innocent. As the movie progresses through monologues, witty exchanges and near-death experiences, it becomes gradually more obvious that Gordie and his friends are encased in the stifling claustrophobia of oncoming adulthood. They are not only stalked by death, but by the prospect of their own futures; the grown-ups they’ll no doubt become. This is painfully articulated by Phoenix’s Chris who longs to escape the influence of his disreputable family and ‘go somewhere where nobody knows who [he] is’; a gut-wrenching confession that encapsulates the sentiment of this classic King adaptation.
Alex Daud Briggs on Misery
In an age where fans and fandoms are more vocal and transparent with content creators than ever, Stephen King’s Misery was truly ahead of its time. The book chronicles what has to be every writer’s worst nightmare, being held hostage by a fan who also happens to be a deranged sociopath. I wouldn’t be surprised if King based this on a few of his own crazed fans. This is the story of Paul Sheldon, author of the popular Misery Chastain novels, who after being left bedridden by a car accident has ended up in the care Annie Wilkes. Annie is a huge fan of Misery and adores Paul – at least until she finds out that Paul plans to kill off the character in his latest book so that he can work on a new more adult novel.
She breaks his legs and forces him to write a new book were Misery returns. From there, the plot becomes a disturbing facade of love and hatred. Now crippled, Paul must try to escape from Annie’s secluded cabin while also keeping her happy with his writing so she’s none the wiser. Annie Wilkes herself may be one of the most memorable villains King has made. The woman is a ticking time bomb, starting off as a sweet and caring, gushing over her idol but the smallest word or action could set her off into a malicious monster with a fiery temper. Even when she’s nice, the scenes between her and Paul have an eerie passive aggressive tone because of how on edge the character makes you feel. Actress Cathy Bates actually won an Oscar for her performance as Wilkes and she more than deserved it.
Misery has a simply yet chilling concept, perfectly showing King’s ability to take the most unorthodox of ideas and turn them into effective horror.
Coby Barker on The Shining
Arguably one of the most iconic horror movies in cinematic history, The Shining (1980) jumps out at me when thinking about my favourite Stephen King adaptations. Although King himself has stated several times his distaste for the film, I feel this story is a classic fully ingrained into pop culture which can never truly be recreated.
There is no overabundance of cheap jump scares, but rather a constant state of tension with a psychological build-up throughout. This is crafted perfectly through Stanley Kubrick’s use of details, including music and soundtrack in creating atmosphere, starting with the opening tracking shot with the unsettling score contrasting the beautiful scenery which sets the sinister tone and omniscient presence from the get-go. The cinematography maintains a sense of dread and one of a claustrophobic nature, with constant POV shots switching to steadicam shots with a focus on long hallways, the never-ending outdoor maze, making the large Overlook hotel suddenly seem very small.
Jack Nicholson’s performance is stellar and a stand out however Shelley Duvall is severely underappreciated in her role as Wendy Torrance, especially taking into account the amount of stress she was put under to maintain a ‘realistic performance’ (she had to redo the ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene 127 times and lost hair due to anxiety!) She carries the weight of her husband’s downfall with an effective portrayal of vulnerability, pure fear and desperation which uplifts Nicholson’s performance all the more making his descent into insanity, rallied by supernatural entities, seem more alarming.
The brilliance of The Shining is down to grounded roots; the focus on toxic family dynamics, abuse, alcoholism and isolation are all things that people can somewhat relate to and is where the true horror lies. There is a copious amount of never-ending questions and some of these may be answered with upcoming sequel, Doctor Sleep set to come out this Halloween, focusing on Danny’s experiences 40 years later – so here I am, ready to be petrified once again!