It’s almost a coin toss to see the words “based on a story by Stephen King” in the opening credits of a movie. For fans of the horror master – affectionately referred to by the man himself as “Constant Readers” – it begs a simple question: Will it be true to the book or short story they know and love?
Sometimes the answer is yes – faithful. Other times … not so much. There are a number of adaptations of King’s works that never deviate from his written words, but there are also many who share a title but who stop the similarities.
Believe in the source material
The Shawshank Redemption
When a Stephen King adaptation is directed by Frank Darabont, Constant Readers knows it’s in good hands. There are, of course, exceptions – the end of The trains was very different from the short story, but terrifying in its own way. Darabont’s treatment of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, however, is faithfully and lovingly rendered, and is easily a royal film with one of the best gens values.
With Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Red, it’s a consideration of the nature of freedom and a man’s struggle to hold on to it, even though he’s institutionalized. Freeman’s narrative is the key to keeping the film off course, and the end result is such a fine film version of a King work that viewers could hope for.
The green Mile
Darabont hits another out of the park with The green Mile, this time with Tom Hanks as the prison guard overseeing a highly peculiar death sentence, played by Michael Clarke Duncan. There are, as with most King works, variations on good-vs-evil, but basically it’s a film about justice.
Who deserves it? Who gets it? And what does it say about society and humanity when it is unfairly measured? It is an unshakable look at difficult questions, but the supernatural elements prevent it from becoming a hard-hitting showpiece, and the end result is a bridge to one of King’s most thoughtful works.
Stand by me
Originally published as a short story in the collection from 1982 Different seasons under the title The body, Stand by me an adult story about four friends who wander through the Maine desert to find a corpse. Once again, the narrative – this time by Richard Dreyfuss, as the adult version of Wil Wheaton’s Gordie – director Rob Reiner helps keep the landing firm.
In fact, it proves that successful adaptations of King’s works almost require a voiceover narrative, because so much of what makes his writing powerful comes in the form of internal monologues of the characters he creates. Stand by me takes some liberties with the ending, but all in all, it’s a powerful and nostalgic look at the crossroads from childhood to adulthood.
For years, King’s novel from 1992 Gerald’s game was considered unfilmable because so much of it goes on in the protagonist’s head. Actress Carla Gugino carries the burden of a woman left handcuffed to a bed after her husband dies in the middle of her knees, and each scene is lifted from King’s words in a way that only a few filmmakers have been able to to match.
Credit Director Mike Flanagan, who also co-wrote the script, as well as Netflix to give him an outlet. It’s not exactly one of King’s most popular novels, but as a slow burning of a psychological horror film, Gerald’s game sticks ashore when it comes to adaptations of the novelist’s works.
Tim Curry cast a long shadow as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 1990 ABC miniseries based on King Tome, but given its presentation on network TV, there was only so much of the book’s horror that could be shown. In the 2017s That, and 2019 The second chapter, director Andy Muscietti had no such restrictions.
With an all-star cast of both children and adults, he faithfully recreates the story of a city in Maine that is terrorized every 27 years by a creature that lives on fear. While some of the book’s metaphysical elements have been rejected because of their complexity, it’s an example of an instructor whose last name is not Darabont making faithful King food.
Is completely not true to the source material
The lawnmower man
When the guy whose title inspires the film seeks to have his name removed from affiliation with it, viewers should take heed. King’s original short story of the same name involved a gardener who is actually a satyr and sacrifices to the god Pan.
The 1992 film, which bears his name, has a lawn mower and a gardener, but this is where the similarities end. Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan star in this cinematic abomination The lawnmower man, and King was awarded damages after he sued to have his name removed from the marketing of the film.
Doctor Sleep seemed so promising: A sequel to King’s groundbreaking work Evil hotel, released in 2013 and after Danny Torrance as an adult. The film, released in 2019, oozed the same sense of dread in pre-release trailers that the novel and its predecessors had … but then it actually came out, and everything seemed to fall apart.
Director Mike Flanagan, who took care of Gerald’s game so admirably tried to tie too many variables together: the novel on which the film is based, Evil hotel as directed by Stanley Kubrick, and Evil hotel as written by Stephen King. In the end, it turns out to be too much, and the end of the film is not at all reminiscent of the book.
The dark tower
Few films evoked more of a collective outcry from fans of King than the adaptation of The dark tower. First, the title alludes to a series of seven (eight, counting) The wind through the keyhole) books, the first of which is called The Gunslinger, but the film borrows elements from them all instead of staying true to the one tome.
The end result is an inflated, random mess that bastardized a series as sacred to many as Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. Idris Elba is a great out-of-the-box choice as Roland, and Matthew McConaughey is ideally cast as Flagg, but everything else about the film is about as painful to watch as an abscess.
Pet Semetary (2019)
The problem with the 1989 film version of King’s Pet Semetary is that it was almost also true to the book, and getting a child actor to play an evil resurrected spirit appears more ridiculous than frightening. However, the 2019 iteration chooses to change so many elements that it becomes a completely different beast.
Sometimes, doubling the dark character of King’s work has a strong effect on moviegoers, and like a Steven King evil cat movie, it certainly elevates the particular cat element of the novel. Darabont’s twist at the end of The trains is one such example, but the end of the updated Pet Semetary is gloomy to a point of hopelessness, something that is characteristically unconventional, regardless of his penchant for terror.
Books have been written and documentaries made about the profound differences between King’s original Evil hotel and the 1980 film by Kubrick. The filmmaker’s decision to cast Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance never went down well with King, and to be fair, Nicholson’s turn in the film turns it into something completely different.
This is not to say that Kubrick’s version is a bad movie – in many ways it is considered a classic and yet another example of why Kubrick is a master of the craft. But even though it shares a title and a story with King’s novel, it is certainly one of the biggest deviations from the original work out of the entire film adaptations of his books.
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