Hey there, fellow Stephen King bibliophiles.
How do you judge a movie adapted from one of his books? Does the film have to get every aspect to the screen, or is it okay to leave a few things out? When it comes to my definition of “faithful”, it’s okay if the movie changes a few minor things, as long as major plot details and the overall feel stays intact (bonus points if both stay intact). With that in mind, here are my picks for the 10 most faithful Stephen King adaptations. Alas, you won’t see TV adaptations on this list; this list is for movies only.
10. IT (2017)
You may be screaming at me, “Why is this movie on here? It’s not a faithful adaptation of the book! The miniseries should be on here!” My rule about not including King’s TV movies notwithstanding, while the 1990s miniseries lifted more scenes directly from the book, there’s only so much you can do with a Stephen King movie on TV in the 1990s.
There are many things the movie changed. I won’t list them all, but here are a few: the time period (the movie is set in the 1980s). Pennywise doesn’t morph into 1950s movie monsters to torment the Losers Club. Beverly never got kidnapped got by Pennywise in the book, but was kidnapped in the movie. One of the few things the movie kept faithful: the death of Bill’s brother, Georgie, is lifted directly from the book.. albeit his body was never found.
But why do I feel this is a faithful adaptation? IT does a good job of faithfully capturing the spirit of the book. And while Tim Curry is responsible (along with Stephen King) for making people deathly afraid of clowns, the 2017 film’s Pennywise hits the creepy mark a little bit more and captures the spirit of the creepy Pennywise in the book. And the Losers Club? Sheer perfection.
9. The Dead Zone (1983)
One of the scenes I remember the most from the book: Greg Stillson kicking a dog to death. This and the all-out insanity of this man and made me scream out loud in frustration as people in the book were duped by his charms. The film pares out this part (and animal lovers like me breathed a small sigh of relief at that). It also pares out the fact that John Smith, played by Christopher Walken, has a brain tumor to go hand-in-hand with the newfound psychic abilities he received as a result of his accident. Each use of his abilities to predict the lives and future of people he touches slowly kills him.
The changes don’t completely kill this movie. What makes The Dead Zone a faithful adaptation is it preserves the central idea of John Smith having psychic abilities and pays homage to his sacrifice for humanity’s greater good. And though Greg Stillson doesn’t show up in the movie until the final third act, Martin Sheen does a good job of playing the charming, pseudo-likable character. While I wish the script and movie developed more of the interconnection between John Smith and Greg Stillson, it did a decent job of being a faithful adaptation.
8. Stand by Me (1986)
This line lifted directly from The Body (the novella from Different Seasons that Stand by Me is based on), is a line that stuck out to me when I first saw the movie. It was a bittersweet way to end this coming-of-age tale. The movie also lifts jokes and conversations directly from the book–remember when Vern tried in vain for nine months to find his pennies?–and Rob Reiner does an excellent job of maintaining the coming-of-age story and friendship between the four boys: Chris, Gordie, Teddy, and Vern.
The movie has glaring differences from the book: Gordie’s brother died in a military jeep accident instead of a car accident. The story of Lard Ass and the pie-eating contest did not exist in the book (in the book, the story was called Stud City and was a different beast entirely). The ending is also more depressing: at the time adult Gordie writes his story, Chris, Teddy, and Vern are all dead. There are also some minor differences: the movie is set in Oregon (not Maine), Gordie’s nightmare involves his friends drowning (not his brother’s funeral), and the leech exploded in his hand in the book.
The glaring differences, largely in the ending, keep this from being a truly faithful adaptation, but it’s pretty damn close and a movie I’ve watched many times in spite of this fact.
7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Another offering from Different Seasons, The Shawshank Redemption was directed by Frank Darabont, who loves directing Stephen King adaptations (The Mist and The Green Mile are two other Darabont-directed adaptations). The movie is beloved. It’s been number one on IMDb’s Top 250 Rated Movies since 2008 (I’m not joking), and people praise the movie for being better than the book…and people aren’t wrong. The Shawshank Redemption IS a great movie and a beautiful portrayal of the darker aspects of prison life.
A major glaring difference: Red, played by Morgan Freeman, obviously does not have red hair. Brooks didn’t leave a suicide note and didn’t kill himself after leaving prison. When it came to Andy’s scene in court, it hits harder in the book, as while Tim Robbins played Andy well, his version came off at times as bored, rather than detached. Tommy also did not die in the book. And the ending is another major difference: Andy already had a fake identity before he ever entered the prison and had no need of Norton’s laundered money. But overlooking those differences, it’s an emotional rollercoaster of a film that does a good job of sticking close to the source material
6. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Gerald’s Game was a book long-thought to be unfilmable, as a good portion of the story is Jessie Burlingame handcuffed to a bed after a sex game with her husband Gerald takes a deadly turn. It’s a premise that could potentially get very boring, very quickly, in the wrong hands. However, in the capable hands of Mike Flanagan (Oculus), this novel is given the onscreen treatment it deserves. Flanagan is faithful to the book when it comes to the torment of Jessie, the lifetime of guilt she felt after the sexual abuse at the hands of her father, the creepy man in the room (who only comes in at night), the gory escape from the cabin (yes, the majority of the action is in the cabin), what happens after the escape, and the courtroom finale.
Jessie talks to several personas in the film while trapped in the cabin: a more sane version of herself, her 12-year-old self that suffered at the hands of her father, and her dead husband. In the book, she speaks to a woman she calls Goody, her college roommate Ruth, and her former therapist. The creep in her room is called Space Cowboy in the book; in the movie, he is Moonlight Man. Throughout both the book and the movie, Jessie is forced to confront the past she kept hidden. This is partly done through a letter she pens to a friend in the book, and to her young self in the movie. There is not much more to say about Gerald’s Game except props to Flanagan for taking a notorious King book, set entirely in a cabin, and doing it justice.
5. The Mist (2007)
Maine is a cursed state in the Stephen Kingverse (sorry to those of you who live in Maine), and Frank Darabont takes the helm again for another King adaptation set in the town of Bridgeville. A strange storm causes the town to lose power, and most of the town’s residents end up at the grocery store to get supplies. Among them are David, played by Thomas Jane, and his son, Billy. The normal quickly turns into the abnormal, as with the mist brings monsters, death, and panic.
In the panic, in both the book and the movie, some turn to the religious rantings of Mrs. Carmody, who says that the mist and the monsters within are God’s wrath. And God’s wrath can be placated by sacrifice. But the mist isn’t God’s wrath at all. In both the book and the movie, the mist is the result of the military project Arrowhead. The book leaves the story behind Arrowhead to the imagination, while the movie explains weird alternate dimensions developing because of the project.
The ending is vastly different between the movie and the book. In the book, some of the characters drive into the mist, with their fate and the fate of the world unknown. The movie’s ending brought a lot of “what!” and “screw this!” from some moviegoers. To me, it felt like an attempt to try and give the story a definitive ending, when the strength of the book rested in the fact you didn’t know what happened after.
That ending. In spite of this, it was a good reimagining of a King tale.
4. Carrie (2013)
It was very, very hard for me to not include Brian de Palma’s version of Carrie (1976) on this list, because, to me, Sissy Spacek’s bug-eyed stare of death makes that movie, as does Piper Laurie’s portrayal of Margaret. But when it comes to faithful adaptations, Kimberly Peirce’s version of Carrie stands out. The book in itself is another difficult one to bring to the screen, as it’s told mainly through news stories, courtroom proceedings, and third-hand accounts. Any movie has to take a straightforward linear approach, which this version of Carrie does well.
It takes the time of the book and updates it to the present day, where Carrie getting her period results in the sneering and bullying of the girls (and the incident being uploaded to YouTube). Carrie, like in the book, is seduced by her power and even enjoys it (she laughs at the boy being knocked off of his bike and fully lets the rage consume her at the prom). Margaret is as crazy in the movie as she is in the book, but in the book, Carrie stops her heart, and in the movie, she “crucifies” her mother. The movie ending is more faithful to the book, as the white house is pelted with stones and the courtroom proceedings happen. Nothing against de Palma’s version, but in terms of faithfulness, this updated version hits the mark.
3. The Green Mile (1999)
Another Darabont-directed adaptation based on the book of the same name, The Green Mile is about a death row dubbed “The Green Mile” by the guards because it’s the color of “tired old limes”. Paul Edgecomb is the head guard over the block in the year 1935. Several prisoners reside on the Mile, but the most infamous is John Coffey–“Like the drink, only not spelled the same.” John Coffey is on the Mile because he’s accused of the murder of two little girls. He also has the power to “take it back”–that is, save people from the brink of death and heal people from near-fatal injuries and cancer through mere touch.
The movie keeps a lot of the story from the book intact. Minor changes were made: the year in the book was 1932, instead of 1935. Harry and Dean, two guards on the Mile, had their ages swapped from the book to the movie–Harry was younger in the book and Dean was older. The reasons for some of the prisoners being on the Mile was not revealed in the movie, and one prisoner, Arthur Flanders, was left out of the movie entirely. But like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile was an emotional and well-adapted rollercoaster.
2. Misery (1990)
King likes writing about writers; thus, a good portion of his adaptations feature writers in movies. Misery, based on the book of the same name, is about the writer of a popular series of romance novels. Paul Sheldon hates his creations and is glad to finally be rid of the series for good since he killed off the protagonist of the series, Misery. As fate would have it, he is out in the middle of nowhere and has a car accident, when Annie Wilkes comes to his rescue. She is also his BIGGEST fan. But instead of taking him to somewhere called a hospital, she takes him to her lovely little home out in the middle of nowhere and holds him captive. While in captivity, Annie forces Paul to write a new book, Misery’s Return.
The film cut out the character Misery’s adventures. Paul does not get his foot cut off and blowtorched; it gets smashed instead. They keep much of the book’s dialogue and feel in the movie, yet Paul’s “crazy voice” in his head is absent in the movie. But have Kathy Bates, who played Annie, play every crazy lady in a movie. I wouldn’t mind.
1. 1922 (2017)
So says Wilfred James, played to perfection by Thomas Jane (who was also in The Mist). The movie is based on the novella of the same name found in Full Dark, No Stars and was directed by Zac Hilditch (These Final Hours). If you have seen this movie, you have seen the book quite literally unfold and come to life on screen, with only one minor difference: the book ends with a newspaper clipping talking about Wilfred’s death, leaving you to speculate if his death was real or the result of his delusions. The movie is more definitive about his death, where the ghosts of his wife, his son, and his son’s girlfriend bring him to his final fate.
I won’t spoil it anymore. Watch it for yourself.