From the earliest days of his career, the writing of Stephen Edwin King (along with close friend and pseudonym cancer victim Richard Bachman) has thrilled and terrified readers around the globe with tales of killer clowns, haunted hotels, and demented game shows broadcast in dystopian futures – to much critical and financial acclaim.
Of course, with success comes the perpetually originality-deficient Hollywood and its desires for film adaptations of anything that could make a splash in pop culture. For King, first on the silver screen came Carrie, and coming up next will be a proper adaptation of the Pennywise-starring IT later in September of this year.
Though those two stories have gone on to be remembered by countless people, sometimes, versions of Mr. King’s work that are adapted into a different form don’t leave a lasting legacy. With that, here are 15 Movies And TV Shows You Didn’t Know Were Stephen King Adaptations.
If you haven’t seen or read these films, you might want to skim through the titles, because the write-ups contain SPOILERS!
15. Stand By Me
Directed by former All in the Family star Rob Reiner in the earliest days of his career behind the camera, the 1986 film Stand by Me tells the story of childhood friends who go on a trek to find the body of a missing young man in 1960s Oregon.
In the film, children come of age, iconic moments occur, and viewers get to witness a fictional character played by a young Kiefer Sutherland that bears a strong resemblance to what actual Kiefer Sutherland looks like when he’s on a bender.
What most people don’t know is that the piece comes from a short story written by Stephen King. First published in 1982 in a short story collection called Different Seasons, and later shaped into a novella, The Body differs from its silver screen adaptation in a number of ways. None of King analogue Gordie’s friends survive into adulthood, and in the end of the piece, the character comes close to the Sutherland-played antagonist Ace in the future – a stark contrast to the final act of the beloved ’80s film.
14. The Lawnmower Man
Released at the dawn of the Clinton administration, this 1992 film is the rare King adaptation in that the author loathed it so much that he sued to have his name taken off the piece and emerged victorious in court, arguing that it bore no resemblance whatsoever to his original short story.
In the film, there are intelligent chimps trained for warfare, a mentally disabled man whom Pierce Brosnan’s fictional scientist Dr. Angelo experiments on to make intelligent (side note: wow, that bit would be condemned today) and a weird sexual storyline with a widow. The movie tanked and ended up with the standard sub-par straight to video sequel a few years later.
Maybe the film would’ve worked better had it adapted King’s actual story…well…maybe not. In the original short, a naked man follows a lawnmower and eats the grass behind it, and later on, the god Pan gets referenced just before the police arrive to investigate a brutal slaughter. It’s certainly not the most normal story by any means.
13. Needful Things
Another ‘90s adaptation of one of King’s works, Needful Things is a story about a supernatural antique shop in the often-visited setting of Castle Rock, Maine that frequently appears in King’s writing. In the piece, Max Von Sydow’s Leland Gaunt (read: Satan) manipulates residents of the area and generally causes chaos in the town before moving on to sow discord elsewhere.
Even though the film had a great cast with luminaries such as Ed Harris and the late and beloved scumbag character actor J.T Walsh giving their all, it was not a success. Currently, it sports a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Now, to be fair, at the time the piece was released, ads did mention that it was based on Stephen King’s original short story. But catching the film on some 3rd rate cable channel today at any point before the beginning and end credits, you wouldn’t realize it’s from the same man who gave us Christine and Children of the Corn.
12. The Night Flier
In this film about a killer who flies from place to place to commit his murders in a black Cessna, the late and always underrated Miguel Ferrer plays an investigative reporter hot on the killer’s trail. Over the course of the horror flick, he slowly loses his sanity and ultimately perishes in the struggle against the ultimate evil.
Like many of King’s adaptations (including the recent Dark Tower dud), this movie was not a success. Critics loathed it, and it has languished in obscurity since its debut in 1997. In spite of its flaws, the film more than likely inspired someone at Marvel for how they sometimes approach their world building. Some tabloid headlines in the film reference incidents in Children of the Corn, Needful Things, and Thinner, and at one point in the piece, the town of Derry is referenced.
11. Tales From The Darkside: The Movie
One of many anthology films from the 1980s that went on to be well remembered – while the format itself languished in obscurity until it returned to form under the banner of Ryan Murphy’s productions – Tales from the Darkside tells several stories.
In the wraparound, a young boy tells tales to a modern day (for the ‘80s) witch in order to stall her from cooking and eating him. In the various segments, viewers are treated to the tale of a reanimated mummy, a villainous feline, and finally, a tale of love, a man, and a monster that ends up going horribly wrong.
It’s the second of these mini stories that comes from the mind of King. In the George A. Romero directed Cat from Hell, a hit man does battle with a cursed kitty that ultimately causes him to meet his end. Originally, the piece was published shortly after Carrie in the ‘70s in a magazine called Cavalier. Surprisingly, it was unfinished. They even held a contest for readers to conclude it.
10. The Dark Half
Man, King sure did have a lot of his work translated in the early ‘90s. Directed by previous collaborator George A. Romero, this story tells the tale of a writer named Thad Beaumont whose pen name identity George Stark ends becoming sentient in order to wreak havoc in a small town in Maine.
Like most King adaptations, the piece reflected an aspect of the writer’s personal life (The Dark Half was written as a symbolic way of retiring his Bachman pen name after it was revealed), and it was not a success critically or financially. It opened in 6th place at the box office during its debut week in 1993 and ended up earning a paltry $10 million against a budget of $15 million. Like Richard Bachman, this adaptation has stayed buried.
9. Dolan’s Cadillac
A 2009 adaptation of a 1989 short story by King that originally appeared in his Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection, Dolan’s Cadillac tells a crime story set in and around the city of Las Vegas. Stars in this piece include popular ‘90s sensation Christian Slater and a just-beginning-his-comeback Wes Bentley.
If you haven’t heard of the film before, well…there’s a reason for that. Unlike many of King’s adaptations, which have been released in theaters or as event broadcasts on television, Dolan’s tale was released straight to video. It was shot in Canada in one of the more obscure provinces, and if the reception from the users who have seen it on Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, the company behind the adaptation was wise to bury it.
8. Hearts in Atlantis
Released in the early ‘00s, this piece was loosely adapted from a tie-in from within King’s epic Dark Tower mythos. Though you wouldn’t know it from the final result.
The film keeps King’s name off of the poster in big letters, is presented as more of a coming of age story featuring Anthony Hopkins as a mysterious old man, and it ends with a Stand By Me style ending, where the protagonist reflects later in life about the adventurous experiences he had as a child.
In the short story, the young man ends up spending time in a juvenile detention facility and later receives a package full of items which come from the alternate universe that contains the Dark Tower. Clearly, filmmakers were not paying respect to this part of King’s work, long before the much-maligned Sony adaptation came along. Perhaps he’s pleased that this film didn’t make much of an impact.
Airing from 2010 to 2015 on the Sharknado network that is Syfy, this small run television series detailed the supernatural happenings known as The Troubles that went on in a small town in, you guessed it, Maine. The piece begins with an FBI agent coming to the town to dig into a case, and it was ultimately cancelled before the showrunners could wrap it up in the way they’d envisioned.
In the book, there are no supernatural elements, the main characters are not in law enforcement, and unlike virtually every single mystery story ever written in the history of mankind to date, it doesn’t have any answers to its puzzles! (Except for Lost, of course.)
Clearly, that concept wouldn’t have worked on television. Normally, producers get excoriated for bastardizing a beloved story when it is taken into a new form, but here, it seems that they made the proper call.
6. Riding The Bullet
In 2004, Psycho IV and Critters 2 director Mick Garris set out to direct an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2000 novella of the same name. While the original release was historic for being the first ever e-book released to mass market, the film adaptation was not so fortunate to have a notable aspect associated with it. It received a limited release, grossed an average of only $1,000 dollars a screen and made less than $100,000 when all was said and done.
Normally, quiet releases like this can sink the career of a filmmaker, but fortunately for Garris, he got to continue on. In 2006, he directed the television adaptation of Desperation (Another King work.) for ABC and made Bag of Bones in 2011 for A&E. One wonders what he’ll do next?
5. X-Files episode “Chinga”
These days, The X Files is best known for being the proving ground for the team that would go on to make Breaking Bad, having a couple of meh movies, and a creative staff whose writing talents often outshined those of the series’ creator.
Perhaps it is due to that last reason that Stephen King was able to write a script for the show in its fifth season after he requested it. Titled after the plot central evil doll, “Chinga” ended up receiving mixed reviews from critics and was ultimately re-written by series creator Chris Carter before it reached the airwaves. Such changes in the story prompted longtime X-Files director Kim Manners to say that when all was “said and done, there was very little Stephen King left in it.”
4. No Smoking
Across the world in one of the other major centers for film production, King made his adaptation debut in Bollywood with the 2007 drama titled No Smoking. Based on the short story Quitters, Inc. that previously featured in the ‘80s anthology film Cat’s Eye, the piece tells the story of a man so desperate to quit smoking that he gets hooked up with a shadowy and sinister organization.
In India, the piece received critical derision. Critics and audiences found it confusing and hard to decipher and ultimately thought the dialogue was sub-par. Ultimately, it fared better overseas and was compared to the work of well-known surrealist director David Lynch.
During one of the break periods of the AMC cash cow that is The Walking Dead, Chandler Riggs (A.K.A. Karulllll, A.K.A. The little bastard who doesn’t stay where he is told to.) found the time to star in Mercy in 2014. An adaptation of the short story titled Gramma that was written by King in 1984.
In the story, a mom and her two children go to visit their grandmother who it is revealed has magical powers. People die, there’s an unhappy ending and all the standard fare that one would expect from one of King’s works in another form. Also, much like the other pieces of his work that have been filmed, this one was not a smash hit.
It was released straight to video by Universal and, according to audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, only 27 percent of people who viewed it enjoyed it. Yikes, that’s right up there with the critical score for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
2. Apt Pupil
One of the few films Bryan Singer made before he began populating the X-Men cinematic universe with young, relatively hairless, sometimes effeminate looking men, Apt Pupil is based on a novella published by Stephen King in the 1980’s. In the piece, a young man in California discovers a Nazi war criminal in his midst and blackmails him into sharing his stories about his days in the Third Reich.
In the movie, Brad Renfro’s character (Who bears an eerie resemblance to Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold in some parts.) lives on and graduates from high school, while in the story, he snaps, goes on a rampage and is ultimately killed by the authorities.
Had the film followed the original ending of King’s story, perhaps it would’ve influenced various school shooters like his now out of print novel Rage. If that was a worry at the time, clearly, the creative team was right to change the ending.
1. The Shawshank Redemption
Often viewed by many as the greatest prison movie ever made, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a false accusation of murder, a lifelong friendship with Morgan Freeman’s Red, and a daring escape into Mexico.
Directed by Frank Darabont (who also penned the screenplay), the film was widely acclaimed at the time of its release, but it suffered at the box office due to competition from films like Pulp Fiction. Only due to its repeated airings on cable would it end up earning the legacy it has today.
And most people don’t know Stephen King created it!
He first published the piece in the ‘80s in a novella collection called Different Seasons. Even in later years, many people don’t realize he wrote the story that crafted this film. King himself once told the following anecdote to Neil Gaiman in an interview…
I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner, this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain. She said, ‘I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.’
And I said, ‘I wrote that’. And she said, ‘No you didn’t’. And she walked off and went on her way.
Are there any other adaptations of Stephen King’s work that most don’t realize he was behind? Let us know in the comments.
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