10 of the Most Underrated Stephen King Adaptations

10 of the Most Underrated Stephen King Adaptations

This week marks a milestone birthday for Stephen King, a diamond jubilee for one of America’s most popular, prolific, and accomplished writers. Snobs may unfairly dismiss his work, but they can’t ignore his impact. Even if you’ve never so much as thumbed through one of King’s many bestsellers, you’re certainly familiar with his work — and the movie and TV adaptations of his novels and short stories represent some genuine cinematic classics (Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.) as well as some…less good films.

Within the range of King adaptations from great to terrible, there’s an interesting middle ground: movies that aren’t masterpieces, but that aren’t execrable either. Movies that might not work in every regard, but include elements that make them some combination of watchable and fascinating. Some of these movies are hidden gems with established cult audiences, others are midnight movies…the kind of films that make for perfect late-night viewing. From giant rats to killer cars, these are some of the best.

The Running Man (1987)

Based on: The “Richard Bachman” novel The Running Man.

The Running Man is probably more of a cult classic than it is an underrated gem, but it doesn’t seem to have earned itself a spot in the King-adaptation pantheon. The story of a police officer framed for murder when he refuses to engage in a bit of casual brutality, Running Man sees the Arnold Schwarzenegger character forced to participate in a deadly game show designed to keep an easily entertained population from paying much attention to creeping fascism. As a pure 80s-style action blow-’em-up, it’s top notch (if a hair on the low-budget side), but as a critique of police overreach and the willingness of the American public to buy into just about anything providing it’s entertainingly packaged, it remains impressively, depressingly relevant. The stacked supporting cast (including a flawlessly cast Richard Dawkins) is also a highlight.

A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

Based on: This one’s an original story that picks up after the first miniseries.

The original Salem’s Lot TV miniseries is an early triumph; coming only a couple of years after Brian De Palma’s Carrie, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine that the bestselling author was primed for one successful adaptation after another (The Shining and Creepshow were on the way, but so were Cat’s Eye and Maximum Overdrive). This Salem’s sequel, with an original story, isn’t “good” or “coherent” in any conventional way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining (though edibles might have been involved in a recent viewing). The Larry Cohen film is all over the place tonally, vacillating between dark humour, gore, and scares, but that’s all part of the anything-and-the-kitchen-sink appeal of the thing — the movie really takes off when Samuel Fuller rides into town as a tough-talking Nazi hunter who needs almost no convincing to go full Van Helsing. Cohen and company make some valiant efforts at infusing the movie with critiques of American-style capitalism and Sam Fuller: Nazi Hunter could’ve sustained his own spin-off…but mostly it’s just wonderfully batshit.

Creepshow 2 (1987)

Based on: Original King treatments (“Old Chief Wood’nhead” and “The Hitch-Hiker”), as well as “The Raft,” collected in Skeleton Crew.

I’m a sucker for a horror anthology — often, a creepy concept that can’t sustain a two-hour movie is perfect at a fraction of feature length. The three shorts included here are all based on stories by King and adapted by George Romero, with the last (and best) serving as a gory riff on Lucille Fletcher’s much-adapted story, “The Hitch-Hiker.” The first segment, about a dime-store Indian stature come to life, isn’t as clever as it would like to be, but the remaining two (about a sentient oil-slick and then about the consequences of a deadly hit-and-run) are wonderfully entertaining, if a little goofy.

Needful Things (1993)

Based on: The novel Needful Things.

There’s a new arrival in Castle Rock: Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow), and he’s opened up the titular shop that sells things that people want, badly, even if they’re not precisely things that people need. As a concession to his generally low prices, he asks small favours of his patrons — typically some small prank to be played on a neighbour. Those small violations ultimately cascade, adding up over time in such a way that the residents of the small town begin to turn on each other with increasing violence. The movie wasn’t a particularly big hit on its initial release, but the story of a charismatic hustler who turns communities against themselves for his own amusement and self-aggrandizement? That hits home rather dramatically. As a film, it’s not a home run (the item-in-exchange-for-prank thing gets repetitive), but Von Sydow and Ed Harris, as the town’s untrusting sheriff, are well-suited as adversaries. King adaptations occasionally peter out on special-effects-challenged reveals (think the flying meatballs in The Langoliers, or the original It’s spiders), Needful Things builds to a satisfying, and appropriately explosive, climax.

There’s an extended version of Needful Things that adds about an hour to the runtime — this was from an era when TV stations would sometimes look for longer versions of popular movies that could be played over successive nights to help recoup ad revenue. The extra time lets the story breathe a bit more, and suggests that this might have been better suited to the miniseries format.

Christine (1983)

Based on: The novel Christine.

I’m not sure that it’s fair to include a John Carpenter movie alongside Creepshow 2 among King’s underrated adaptations, but the movie did mediocre box office business and opened to mixed reviews — the premise, about a jealous and possessive car, isn’t a particularly easy sell. John Carpenter only took the job because The Thing did poorly enough to instantly back-foot the formerly in-demand director; and, indeed, it’s not his best work. Nonetheless: It’s an improbably good movie, one that somehow sells us on the central relationship between Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and his classic a classic red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury. Carpenter and company manage to establish the car’s personality strongly enough that we’re empathizing with it (her?), even in a climactic bulldozer battle.

Pet Sematary 2 (1992)

Based on: This one’s an original story that picks up after the first movie.

The original, 1989 Pet Sematary works best as a midnight movie, a wonderfully trashy movie that overcomes its own shortcomings through a truly bizarre combination of disturbing child horror and high camp. That being the case, it’s interesting that Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary 2 doesn’t even rate cult status. It hits many of the same beats as the original (including some wonderfully ill-conceived humour) while adding a bit of visual flair (Lambert cut her teeth on some of the ‘80s most memorable music videos) and some impressive special effects. It also shifts the focus from the adult relationship drama of the first movie to teenage trauma (where it feels like it belongs), and throws in a perfectly whackadoo Clancy Brown as the evil sheriff.

Storm of the Century (1999)

Based on: This one’s an original screenplay from King.

Lost amid a string of middling King-related miniseries’ of the 1990s, the original story (King wrote it for the screen), Storm of the Century is an effectively creepy thriller about a small town and the mysterious stranger (Colm Feore) who arrives and quickly makes clear that he has the power to make the lives of the residents hell until they give him what he wants: a single child. Colm Feore’s Andre Linoge is a top-tier King villain, and ambiguous in that, on one level, he only seems interested in punishing people for their own crimes and cruelties. King has described it as his favourite television adaptation, and Mike Flanagan cited it as a major influence on his Midnight Mass Netflix mini. Set in the same location (Little Tall Island) as Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, it also has appeal to King completists who won’t be able to find this story in novel form.

Graveyard Shift (1990)

Based on: The short story “Graveyard Shift” from Night Shift.

Back to entertaining schlock, Graveyard Shift is a cheap, often ugly, production with atrocious special effects. On a (certainly unintentional) meta level, though, that all contributes to the movie’s vibe: It’s about American workers laboring in horrid conditions, having arrived on screen just after the Reagan administration had talked us all into wiping out many of the labour-related gains of decades past. Stephen Macht plays a particularly nasty boss who’s perfectly content to see his employees work in the worst possible conditions if it saves him money — even when the mill’s assortment of vermin give way to one enormous and very hungry rat.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Based on: The short story “The Lawnmower” from Night Shift, though King sued to have his name removed from the movie.

This is a horror-tinged examination of our technological future from the perspective of 1992. A journey into cyberspace done on a limited budget, The Lawnmower Man should be required viewing in history classes. The movie has a ton of retro-campy charm, and it’s fun to watch a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan go slumming.

Firestarter (1984)

Based on: The novel Firestarter.

There’s a great movie to be made from Stephen King’s Firestarter, especially in an age of superhero movies. The story of a young girl who fights through a deeply ingrained fear of her own power, before owning it in deeply satisfying ways, it’s both a horror-tinged twist on the movies we’re watching anyway, as well as an impressive story that winds up being not about the dangers of female power, but about the dangers of trying to restrain female power. The desperately cheap and almost entirely ill-conceived remake from just a few months back doesn’t do any of that, so we’ll go back to the original: It doesn’t quite do what it needs to do, but the movie features a great performance from Drew Barrymore and a strong central relationship between her and her dad, played by David Keith. Casting George C. Scott as King’s indigenous assassin was…a choice…but there’s plenty here to appreciate while we wait for a better adaptation. Or just read the book.


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