Stephen King doesn’t care if you adapt his work. He’s made that abundantly clear with his “dollar baby” policy. Said policy states that he’ll sell anyone the rights to a short story or novel on a dollar and a handshake. This has led to countless adaptations generally unseen by the public as all any film student with a budget of over 99 cents need do is be in Maine and have at least one extremity. King is so flush with cash ($400 million, last we checked) and an overload of ideas that another “based on” credit on a film makes little difference to him.
Recently, the Internet was aflutter with the first teaser trailer for Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of It. Unlike the 1990 TV adaptation of the novel, the film will be divided in two halves. The first will deal with the Loser’s Club – the ragtag group of Maine preteens who start to realize that something is amiss in Derry, Maine – and the latter will follow the Club as grownups, having once again to confront the inexplicable evil they thought they’d exterminated as children. For a teaser trailer, it offers a lot for fans of the novel – brief glimpses of scenes are just enough of a taste for fans to recognize their favourite moments. The most interesting aspect of the new adaptation is the new Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard in a role originated by Tim Curry. It’ll be interesting to see how a younger and much more malevolent-looking Pennywise will play out come October.
But with such a breadth of work and adaptations, you’re bound to wind up with some terrible ones – and we’re not just talking about those student films either. Big studio productions as well as independent works have turned out disastrously, often with King involved in a hands-on role. Here’s just a few of some of the worst.
15. The Tommyknockers
Stephen King’s long battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction in the 70s and 80s informed a lot of his ouvre (he reportedly doesn’t even remember writing Cujo). It’s so much a part of his work that a drinking game could be made out of how often a character, who is also a writer, battles the same issues, be it literal or metaphorical. One of his worst books, The Tommyknockers, features exactly that. After an alien artifact is unearthed, residents of a town in Maine (another hackneyed stereotype trademark) begin to experience supernatural abilities that include machines that make their jobs easier, typewriters that write novels while the author sleeps, and other obvious metaphors for how alcohol can make one feel a false sense of invincibility.
The Tommyknockers is one of numerous King novels adapted for a television miniseries and, like most of them, it suffers greatly from overlength. Jimmy Smits‘ hammy lead performance doesn’t help, either.
14. The Shining (1997)
It’s no secret that King hated Stanley Kubrick’s vision of The Shining. Supposedly, the last (and possibly only) conversation they had was a late night phone call during which Kubrick asked him if he believed in God. King said that he did. Kubrick responded, “Yeah. I don’t” and hung up.
King finally got the chance to adapt it his own way in 1997. His script followed the book much more closely, with Stephen Weber’s Jack Torrance ever-so-gradually descending into madness (King’s key criticism of Kubrick’s film was Jack Nicholson‘s performance, whom he felt went crazy far too fast).
All of that sounds promising to fans of the book, but like The Tommyknockers before it, the damn thing just drags on and on. The tension isn’t ratcheting up to unbearable levels of intensity over its six hour runtime – instead, it’s just unbearably dull. Nearly an hour of the film is spent simply touring the hotel. While it’s important to set a tone and sense of place, particularly for a work in which the setting plays a major role, a lengthy, scare-free tour in a horror film is maddening.
Thinner was based on an incident in King’s own life – he weighed 237 pounds and was told by his doctor he needed to lose weight. From there he concocted a story about an arrogant, overweight lawyer who accidentally runs over a gypsy woman. After his friends in the justice system let him off with a slap on the wrist, he finds himself cursed, rapidly shedding weight until he is in mortal danger.
Thinner was directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and it’s easily the worst film of his career – but the fault lies with the source material. Like a lot of King works, what should have been a short story has been expanded to novel-length. Thinner would have worked great as, say, a Tales From the Crypt episode, but there just isn’t enough material for a feature length film.
12. The Mangler
The Mangler gets a lot of flack for being about a demonic industrial laundry press. And that’s exactly what its about. The short story on which its based makes no bones about how silly it is, with the lead detective on the case relating the bizarre circumstances surrounding the machine. As written, it’s kind of fun, culminating in the giant machine breaking free and stomping down the street toward the detective.
Somehow, though, director Tobe Hooper saw potential for a feature length film – one that played its absurdist plot completely straight. Not only did he make it feature length, he stretched out what couldn’t have been more than 15 pages into an interminable hour and 46 minutes. Not even the usually reliable Ted Levine can save this dreck. Nonetheless, the film managed two in-name-only sequels.
11. The Night Flier
For low-budget shlock, The Night Flier starts out pretty well. Yellow journalist Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) is hot on the trail of a serial killer with a vampiric M.O. and flees the scene in a small airplane. The mystery isn’t hard to solve, but it’s fun to watch Ferrer track down his suspect. When he finally catches up with the creature, the film unravels into a jumbled mess. An overlong hallucinatory scene prior to the film’s climax derails it, hurtling into boredom – in part because director Mark Pavia doesn’t have the skill or the budget to really make it work.
10. A Good Marriage
King wrote this novella after reading about Dennis Rader a.k.a. The BTK killer. When the murders began in the 80s, the killer was so incorrectly profiled it’s often used as a case study in just how inaccurate criminal profiling is (all that crap your parents see on Criminal Minds is horse$#!*). Rather than being the social reject the FBI assumed he was, Rader was a well-respected family man. He was even president of his local church.
In the novella, Darcy learns her husband of 25 years is, in fact, a serial killer. It’s a tantalizing premise, made more interesting by how it deals with the issue. Rather than play cat-and-mouse with one another, they deal with it as a couple would any obstacle in their marriage. Darcy confronts him almost instantly. He confesses, and from there they try and work it out. The novella is a wryly funny commentary. The film is the same story, scripted by King, without any of the nuance or cleverness. Rather, it’s just plodding. Despite very little changing from page to screen, it somehow manages to fall into the trite cat-and-mouse nonsense the book so cleverly avoided.
9. Graveyard Shift
Graveyard Shift, based on a short story, follows a group of factory workers tasked with cleaning up a their rat-infested textile plant.
The story, and the film, end with the discovery of a giant, mutated rat acting as a broodmare for the plant. You’d think a film about giant rats dispatching blue collar workers (including horror staple Brad Dourif) would be fantastic camp.
The grime feels less like atmosphere and more like couldn’t afford better. In a giant rat movie (a sentence I never thought I’d write), it’s all about the effects. By the film’s end, the budget clearly did not allow a full scale model of the monster. One couldn’t even piece together just what it is from the bits and pieces we see.
8. Maximum Overdrive
Welcome to the 80s, where anyone even close to Hollywood was invited in with their own complimentary shoebox full of cocaine and a cassette of AC/DC songs. At least, that’s what Stephen King got. The film’s trailer is enough to give viewers a contact high simply by staring into King’s unblinking eyes. And we’re not theorizing, the author has admitted he was completely coked out during filming.
Kings only directorial credit, from his short story “Trucks,” unveils its horrific plot the same way Ray Liotta rattles off the last day before he got arrested in Goodfellas. There’s something about the tail of a comet then machines come to life to rise up against their human masters and then a child gets runover by a steamroller and a sodamachinepeltsamantodeathwithcansand holycrapyoudon’tevenAHOOOOOWerewolvesofLondonAHOOOOO.
Maximum Overdrive gets even further 80s cred by casting Emilio Estevez in the lead.
7. The Lawnmower Man
The Lawnmower Man is the only time King cared enough to sue to get his name removed from the credits – unsuccessfully. His original story involves a naked man who follows a lawnmower, eating the grass that is shot out. Turns out the man is a follower of the Greek God Pan. It’s a relatively short, incredibly oddball story.
The film involves Pierce Brosnan trying to make Jeff Fahey more intelligent through the miracle of early 90s virtual reality. Which is clearly the same story with a few mild tweaks. The film has more in common with the likes of Awakenings and Charly – if Robert De Niro and Cliff Robertson turned into psychic murderers hellbent on leaving his corporeal form behind and ruling a virtual world.
6. Children Of The Corn
Children of the Corn is another case of a short story expanded into feature length. The children of Gatlin, Nebraska suddenly murder all the adults and begin to rule the rural town, being led by Isaac and worshiping “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” The short story is simple: a bickering couple arrive in town after accidentally hitting a child who ran in the street and find it abandoned. The husband enters what appears to be a make-shift town hall and discovers ledgers that explain just how Gatlin came to be the way it was. The couple are then sacrificed to the corn God. The bare-bones story clearly wasn’t enough for a film, so director Frits Kiersch added scene after scene of the couple being chased by children. It’s not tension-filled, it’s just kind of dull.
Cell got a lot of buzz upon release due to a marketing stunt. A charity auction was held on eBay for a bit part in the novel. It was won by a Fort Lauderdale woman, who paid $25,000 and gifted the role to her brother. The novel was mostly well-received (save for the usual criticism of a cop-out ending). Early on, director Eli Roth planned to direct an adaptation, but soon left the project due to creative differences. Instead, it was the second King adaptation pairing John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. The first, 1408, was a success.
Cell is far from a success – a plodding, cliche take on the zombie genre (in the novel, the zombie-like people are infected through a cell signal). And if readers had a problem with King’s non-ending, the indecipherable, confusing mess of an ending here is likely to just infuriate.
4. Salem’s Lot (2004)
Salem’s Lot, directed by Tobe Hooper in 1979, was so successful it was re-edited for length and released theatrically. It’s likely responsible for the rash of TV mini-series based on the author’s work. The story follows the novel about a young writer’s return to his hometown only to find it slowly being overtaken by vampires.
The retelling debuted on TNT, and was hated for its divergence from the original novel. Rob Lowe, who played the lead, tells an amazing story of just how haphazard and chaotic shooting was, which might lend some insight into just why it failed. Rutger Hauer, who plays the lead vampire, arrived on set to shoot his big scene. He was to give a two-page monologue. Rather than learn any of his lines, Hauer decided to ad lib, making up something on the spot about being a cowboy. The director demanded he play it straight, however Hauer didn’t even bother to learn his lines, convinced his random cowboy soliloquy would be dynamite.
3. The Langoliers
Of the miniseries based on King’s work, The Langoliers is the worst of the bunch. A group of people who fell asleep on a flight awake to find the rest of the passengers, and pilot, gone. It soon becomes clear that they were left behind in time, and have to find a way back before what a crazed Bronson Pinchot refers to as The Langoliers eat the past with them in it.
What results is three hours of a dull group of people wandering an empty airport and Bronson Pinchot, whose performance is off-the-charts terrible and possibly the only reason worth sticking through this disaster.
2. Under The Dome
Stephen King’s epic novel about a small town suddenly quarantined under a mysterious, transparent dome was one of his finest works in recent years. It tracks the town’s slow decent into fear, corruption and madness in great detail. The believable work was optioned rather quickly, at first planned as a miniseries. Fans of the novel immediately began fantasy casting. Then it was announced it would rather be a limited series on broadcast on CBS.
Fans watched as, episode after episode, they saw their hopes for the fascinating complexities of the novel and the characters they grew to love and despise mutate into this terrible Lost clone. The difference is, while Lost may have had an unsatisfying conclusion, it had a conclusion. Under The Dome had suffered so badly and ruined what could have been an excellent, tense story that the finale just petered out into nothing, raising more questions than answering any.
Dreamcatcher is exactly the kind of bad that a bugnuts Stephen King novel needs. Not only does it boast an Oscar winning screenwriter (William Goldman) and director (Lawrence Kasdan), its cast includes Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Tom Sizemore, and Jason Lee. But you already know something is amiss when Morgan Freeman is cast as the stark-raving lunatic and Tom Sizemore is the voice of reason.
King’s novel was written while he was recovering from being hit by a van, and the film and book both play out like a fever dream – one involving aliens that explode out of their hosts’ posteriors and people can live inside their memory palaces. There’s just no way to do it justice by describing it. It’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.
But is it a good film? By absolutely no known metric.