Given Stephen King’s relentless success as an author, it seems only natural that gripping adaptations of his work should match this success on screen. Over 50 of King’s novels and short stories have been adapted for film or television since 1976. It is clear that there is something special contained within the worlds of his books. We are treated to subversive horror, creepy psychological thrillers, and supernatural jump-scares. With the latest take on his seminal Pet Sematary arriving in cinemas this week, let’s throw back to a few of the best of the many, many Stephen King adaptations.
10. It (2017)
Although this film fell short of expectations in terms of scares, It certainly deserves points for trying. There are moments of creepy intensity, but the full-on horror element never really comes to fruition. Scattered throughout the film are some half-hearted attempts at dark comedy, which generally slow any building of tension. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to (very successfully) appeal to a wider audience is up for debate. Having said that however, Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Pennywise the clown is enough give any adult the creeps.
9. Cujo (1983)
It is surprising that a film about a rabid St. Bernard can incite as much fear as ghosts and demons, but Cujo is a film that achieves just that. Dee Wallace gives a spectacular performance as Danny Pintauro’s on-screen mother, desperately clutching her son as they are trapped inside a car at the mercy of the hound. With every bite and kick, Cujo is closer to attacking and killing them. The subversion of the otherwise playful and friendly pet becoming a monster plays into an unusual type of fear. The loving friendship between pet dog and owner is stripped away. Not only might the characters be distressingly killed, but the loss of a member of the family unsettles in a way quite separate to most horrors.
8. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Using more traditional elements of the horror genre, Salem’s Lot treats us to a haunted house, vampires and holy water. Although this film does not compete psychologically with other King adaptations, there is plenty for audiences to sink their teeth into (pun fully intended!). Tension is built fantastically through constant threat. The protagonists are running from the vampires right through to when the credits roll. Religious elements also permeate the film, and the characters attempt to find solace within sacred church buildings. However, carrying glowing holy water and attending church provides little shielding from the vampires’ relentless pursuit. It is clear they will never escape.
7. Carrie (1976)
The very first King adaptation sees Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) inflict pain and death upon her fellow students in this unusual coming-of-age film. Carrie deals with bullying, religion, and teenage emotions in a way that had never been explored before. After being repeatedly humiliated by her classmates, Carrie discovers that she possesses telekinetic powers and uses them for revenge. The intensity of Carrie’s anger causes her classmates and teachers to meet their deaths at the prom, resulting in the now iconic image of Carrie covered in pig’s blood. Two opposing realities make King’s book – and, as an extension, the film and its remakes – special: as an audience we are fearful for Carrie, but simultaneously are fearful of her as a source of incomprehensible strength.
6. 1408 (2007)
Stories of sceptics frightened into believing in the supernatural are bound to scare those who already believe in ghosts. 1408 tells the story of one such character in the shape of Mike (John Cusack), who checks into the allegedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. Horror fans almost roll their eyes at the premise of another ‘haunted hotel’ film, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in style. Along with a hefty collection of jump scares, the hotel room itself seems inescapable; it encapsulates Mike’s whole world, switching from one physical place to another. From one room, it eventually becomes a whole floor of the hotel with no windows to escape. It dissolves into a beach when flooded with water, pouring from a broken painting. The film’s beauty is almost jarring against the presence of corpses and ghosts, which further adds to the claustrophobic tension.
5. The Green Mile (1999)
For a film centred around criminals on death row, The Green Mile is surprisingly uplifting and heartbreakingly beautiful. In this Oscar-nominated feature, King explores an entirely different genre. Through a crime drama, the author’s signature horror element is here expressed through evil human acts. A wrongfully convicted John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) befriends prison officer Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) when brought into his custody. The two men are opposites in every sense, and the friendship between them seems unlikely. However, after John begins displaying supernatural powers, the truth lying behind the people around them starts to unfold. After an act of supernatural kindness from John saves Paul’s life, it becomes all the more important for Paul to save John’s.
4. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Gerald’s Game, on the other hand, is the pinnacle of a psychological horror. Married couple Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) begin a break at an Alabama lake house which is cut-off and quiet. Gerald decides that the house is suitable to carry out his previously unexplored sexual fantasies. He begins handcuffing Jessie to the bedpost. As it becomes clearer that Gerald is exploring a rape fantasy, Jessie is shocked and disgusted. The couple argue intensely, and Gerald falls to the ground, dying from a heart attack and leaving Jessie trapped in the handcuffs. Supernatural hallucinations deepen Jessie’s helplessness, as she is at the mercy of everything around her. Gerald’s Game treats audiences to a similar tension that harks back to Salem’s Lot: a constant fear of being caught.
3. The Shining (1980)
Surely no Stephen King top ten is complete without The Shining. Although this film stylistically captures a very particular era, director Stanley Kubrick also encapsulates the timelessness of the story. A close family moves into the Overlook Hotel in order to maintain it during the winter months. The power of the mind takes centre stage with Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) and his father Jack (Jack Nicholson) suffering from vivid hallucinations. Ghosts of twins and rotting zombie women are just a few of the terrifying visions experienced by the characters, causing Jack to surrender to their power.
2. The Mist (2007)
The notion of an unknown creature lurking and hidden within an impenetrable haze naturally makes for a film full of tension. In The Mist, a group find themselves trapped in a supermarket as a mist descends onto the town. Contained within the mist is a tentacled creature that brutally kills anyone caught inside. An idea explored in similar ways by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, and more recently by Netflix’s Bird Box, the film centres around the human reaction to a desperate, incomprehensible event. The Mist centres itself as a figurehead of the genre by highlighting the futility of fighting something ordinarily considered a neutral, natural event. The characters have no control over the mist, and they cannot choose who lives or dies.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
As enjoyable now as it was two decades ago, The Shawshank Redemption continues to be no ordinary prison-break film. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman give stunning performances as inmates at Shawshank Penitentiary. Their friendship is palpable and they force audiences to care. Protagonist Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is convicted for murder and receives two life sentences at the prison. He and the other inmates are assaulted and mistreated by the prison staff. After almost 20 years of torture and manipulation at the hands of the corrupt officers at Shawshank, Andy achieves the impossible and escapes by digging a tunnel, which he conceals with a poster on his cell wall. We cannot help but share Andy’s relief and elation at his new found freedom, a feeling that is transferred perfectly from King’s words to the big screen.