Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
With the release of the latest adaptation of a Stephen King work, I want to look at my favorite adaptations of King’s writing. This will also be the first time I pull in television programs into the lists.
While these may not be the all-time best Stephen King adaptations or everyone’s agreement on the best such films, these five films are among my favorites. Here are my favorites in order of release.
The first film ever adapted from a Stephen King Novel, Brian De Palma’s Carrie also happens to be one of the best. It stars Sissy Spacek as the telekinetic teen who suffers at the hands of her peers as well as her holy roller mother, played terrifyingly by Piper Laurie. After a humiliating incident at the prom, Carrie’s powers manifest to the bloody chagrin of all those around her.
A frightening story from beginning to end, De Palma knows just how to frame the narrative so as to create the maximum amount of sympathy for Carrie and in spite of her horrific acts, we still feel that those who injured her got what they deserved. Spacek and Laurie are absolutely brilliant in the film and its iconic prom sequence is one of the best ever crafted on film for a horror flick.
The Shining (1980)
Although King himself hated what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining, there’s little question that it remains a high water mark for artful horror films. The story, which surrounds a father and his family caretaking a haunted hotel in the middle of winter, gives Jack Nicholson one of his most unhinged and frightening roles. Shelley Duvall is utterly terrified in her performance and while there are times her wide-eyed reactions seem a bit over the top, her fear is appropriately palpable.
Employing tracking shots to follow young Danny (Danny Lloyd) through the halls of the hotel, Kubrick established a new and popular filmmaking technique, part of the brilliant work of cinematographer John Alcott. There are so many scary scenes in the film and numerous iconic images that cinema horror history would never be the same. Whether it’s the blood pouring out of the elevators, the creepy twins in the corridor, the chilly maze, or the decrepit denizen of a hotel room bathtub, the film is terrific and utterly unforgettable.
Sometimes the content of a King novel is so violent and disturbing that it has to be modified in the transition to the big screen. That is the case for Misery, Rob Reiner’s disturbing look at a crazed fan who takes her favorite author hostage and forces him to write a different ending to her adored character’s literary demise.
Several scenes were changed from the novel, such as using a sledge hammer in lieu of an axe, or disposing of the sheriff with something other than a lawn mower. Misery still maintains the chilling thrust of the narrative thanks to a skilled adaptation by William Goldman, a solid performance from James Caan as the author, and the unparalleled triumph of Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Winning the Oscar for this role is one of the most deserved in Oscar history as the deranged Wilkes is both human and monster in the most convincing way possible, shifting from calm demeanor one minute to unhinged a split second later.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Bates is one of the reasons why Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of King’s Dolores Claiborne works so well. The story revolves around a big city reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who returns to her hometown where she must absolve her mother (Bates) of the murder of the woman she was taking care of (Judy Parfitt).
Told with ample flashbacks, Bates gives a riveting performance as Dolores whose past is filled with abuse and terror at the hands of her husband (David Strathairn). As the tale unwinds, we discover that an accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend. Bates was not alone in career-high work here. Leigh, Parfitt, and Strathairn are all terrific. While this ranks right below Bates’ performance in Misery, there’s no question that she deserved all the accolades she could get as it’s a chilling performance that showcased her talent as an actress in a role so disparate from the one she won her Oscar for.
The Shining (1997,TV)
Much more to King’s liking, the three-part miniseries adaptation of The Shining starred Steven Weber in Nicholson’s role and Rebecca De Mornay in Duvall’s. While Weber could never hold a candle to his predecessor, De Mornay is Duvall’s equal in the miniseries. While the film is much more faithful to the novel, a lot of the terrific mood and visual splendor of Kubrick’s film is lost in this made-for-television translation.
That said, the end result is still a compelling four-and-a-half hours. The final sequence of part 2, involving topiary animals, was utterly mesmerizing and was the only element of the film that could challenge the 1980 version. If you were watching this miniseries without the reference of the original film, you would be impressed with its overall tone, pacing, and content. While it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original adaptation, it’s the best of the TV adaptations of King’s work, though the 1990 miniseries It is a close second.