What makes a successful Stephen King movie adaptation?


Stephen King is one of our most prolific authors dabbling predominantly in both horror and crime genres with near-equal success. With any successful novelist comes the inevitable film adaptations of their work. From debut wonders to slowburn success stories, Hollywood will sniff out the ones they think will make it on the silver screen. King is no exception.

There are the classic adaptations such as Carrie and The Shining or the infamous adaptations of Maximum Overdrive and The Lawnmower Man. There is a frankly ludicrous number of Children Of The Corn films.

Over the course of my odyssey through the adaptations of his work, I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes an adaptation of a King novel successful. What follows are the three key ingredients I think go into crafting a King concoction that not only please fans of the original material, but also those discovering this particular story for the first time. 

Be brave

All creatives have to have a little bravery when it comes to their work. Art is personal and therefore requires it. Writers adapting the work of another writer especially so. It’s a tricky business; you have to work out what is essential to the plot, if it will translate well to the screen, and what can be cut or compressed to ensure a runtime on the right side of bum-numbing. Adaptors of King’s work who aren’t King himself have to be especially so. Not only do they have to deal with his reputation, they have to be prepared to change his work as most successful King adaptations do. Fidelity to the source material is not always the way to go.

The Shining is probably the best example of this and King’s dissatisfaction with Stanley Kubrick’s film is well-documented. The key to The Shining’s considerable success though is the willingness to depart from the specifics in King’s story. The basic narrative is the same – man moves family into hotel, hotel is evil, man attempts to murder his family under the influence of said evil hotel. But Kubrick changes aspects of the Overlook hotel to fit the screen. King’s moving topiary animals (which are incredibly unnerving in the book) would never have scared visually, so they become a seemingly endless hedge maze instead, which features in the climax of the film. This is also notably different to King’s ending. Kubrick’s bleaker ending fits better with his darker philosophy than if he had stayed faithful to King’s.

Another example is Stand By Me, in which Rob Reiner’s film takes the novella’s incredibly sad and tragic ending and turns it into something that still captures that tragedy, but also manages to be more bittersweet and hopeful in its own way. Likewise, Frank Darabont’s The Mist reworks the novella’s ending into something divisive but undoubtedly one of the most outright impactful endings in the King cinematic canon. That’s not to say that a faithful adaptation can’t work either, but if you look at the most successful King films, a little tweak or a big shift is usually to be found.

Casting is everything

Sissy Spacek. Kathy Bates. Christopher Walken. Just a few of the actors who have turned in iconic performances in Stephen King roles. There’s something about King that attracts a really committed actor, one who is ready to truly embody the horrible or face the darkness. Commitment is key because whether you’re psychically wreaking havoc on your high school classmates or shouting “the ice is gonna break” at a cynical father, you need to be able to sell it.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck between selling the more outlandish concepts and taking the material seriously enough for the emotional moments to land. The aforementioned Kathy Bates manages to do that with two roles in Annie Wilkes of Misery and the eponymous Dolores Claiborne. The characters are two women who, to put it mildly, aren’t very good at conforming to traditional female roles for various respective reasons. Not only does Bates manage to fully throw herself into the violent, abrasive aspects of Wilkes and Claiborne, but she also keeps them understandable and sympathetic (well, sympathetic up to a point in the case of Annie).

Then there’s the flipside. The low budget nature of a lot of the minor King adaptations means that there is a certain strata of acting talent that is immediately unavailable as a result. This means you get the B-List or C-List, and sometimes, you’ll slide even further down the alphabet. 

In this case, it’s a bonus if you can get at least one actor in the cast who is aware of the level of energy that might be needed to lift the film out of the doldrums. Take, for instance, Graveyard Shift. It is not a great movie. It is a not-great cast. And then there’s Tucker Cleveland the exterminator, played by movie-lifter extraordinaire Brad Dourif. He almost makes it tolerable. Almost. This is also the case for Alice Krige in Sleepwalkers, which might be one of my favourite King movies so far because it’s bonkers. There are plenty of strong and silly performances in this tale of incesty Egyptian cat monsters, but Krige is on another level and clearly having an absolute blast. Sleepwalkers is brilliant.

It’s all about the atmosphere

You’ve got your script in place, reworked for its journey to the big screen. Your cast is ready to gurn, shout, and scream as required. So what’s left? What all good horror stories need: an atmosphere. Tension is at the heart of everything that King has written and he’s a master of it, building it slowly over the course of a book before he delivers his traditionally divisive endings. For anyone adapting his work, that tension needs to translate to screen. It’s hard to feel scared by a horror that you aren’t invested in.

Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a beautiful example of how well that tension is transferred from the novella to the fixed, claustrophobic set of the supermarket. Those tight confines, the building shrouded in mist, and the increasingly traumatised and terrified occupants all work together to build the kind of thick, oppressive atmosphere that appears before a storm. As Thomas Jane’s David tries desperately to keep his son safe, Marcia Gay Harden’s evil-in-a-twinset Mrs Carmody is stirring her followers into a frenzy. And that’s before you even make it outside to battle Lovecraftian tentacle monsters.

Another adaptation where the source material has what should be a slam-dunk nervous nightmare is Thinner. Unfortunately, in contrast to The Mist, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Part of this is to do with the source material itself. King wrote Thinner in his Richard Bachman guise and it’s a nasty little book with a central character that is hard to root for. This is where the being brave aspect of adapting King comes in, but alas, Billy Halleck’s journey isn’t changed enough to make his fight against his weight loss feel like a race against time rather than a tedious slide into inevitability. The terrible fat suit didn’t really help either.

As with any general list of trends, there will be movies in the Stephen King cinematic oeuvre that break with them and are still successful. Likewise, there will be those in which the trends appear and the films still don’t work all that well. The glorious thing about King adaptations is how wonderfully diverse they are in terms of both subject and quality. For every masterpiece, there is a shocker not far behind. But that’s why we love them.

• You can read all our revisits of Stephen King movies here. 



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