Stephen King’s books and short stories have been adapted into many movies. A few of them are great. Most of them are terrible. And another terrible one, The Dark Tower, hits theaters today.
But which one is the absolute worst? Below, four other members of the MEL staff and I make the case for our personal (least) favorites.
John McDermott, Staff Writer: I’m in the rare position of liking most of the Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen. The Shining is a bona fide classic, and gave us the cinematic gift that is the documentary Room 237. Pet Sematary scared the bejesus out of me as a child, and I will forever hold it in esteem for that reason. I also enjoy The Shawshank Redemption, and will defend it against the inevitable contrarians on the MEL staff who love nothing more than to cine-splain to me why perfectly fine, enjoyable movies are actually bad.
But I hate the TV version of The Shining that aired on NBC in 1997 when I was in third grade. As legend has it, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King despised each other. When Kubrick adapted King’s novel The Shining into the legendary horror film starring Jack Nicholson, Kubrick broke from the source material. The overturned truck on the mountain highway was allegedly intended as a subtle “Fuck you” to the renowned author. King hated the film for straying from the book — he called it “a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little” — and felt compelled to produce a truer representation of the original text. That culminated with the three-part TV miniseries that I couldn’t wait to watch (and not just because it starred Steven Weber from Wings, my favorite TV show as a child). Unlike the film, which my parents deemed inappropriate for a 10-year-old, I could easily watch this since it was on network television.
Like most 10-year-olds, I didn’t have much of a critical eye at that age. But I remember watching it and thinking, What’s the big deal? Years later, I saw the version of The Shining we all know and love and the hype was justified. The miniseries is campy, heavy-handed and low-budget; it lacks any of the creeping menace of Kubrick’s nightmarish 1980 masterpiece.
I still love Wings, though. Thomas Haden Church’s finest work.
Tim Grierson, Contributing Editor: Don’t let your kid play in traffic.
The plot of Pet Sematary goes into motion precisely because the world’s dumbest dad can’t remember this basic bit of parenting. Louis (Dale Midkiff) and his family have just moved to the quaint little town of Ludlow, Maine, and pretty soon after their arrival their kindly neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) has to save their infant son Gage from being run over by a truck. You gotta be careful, Jud tells Louis, there’s a major roadway right in front of your house, and huge-ass commercial trucks go by here all the time.
Normally, the terror of possibly watching your child get crushed under the wheels of a big-rig right in front of you would be enough to instill a life lesson. But not for our Louis: A few scenes later, he’s looking away from the road and totally ignoring Gage, who promptly walks straight into the path of another tractor-trailer. Who could have imagined such a tragedy occurring?!? Only everybody watching Pet Sematary and just about everybody else in Pet Sematary.
I’m repeatedly told that this is possibly Stephen King’s scariest book. The 1989 film mostly made me laugh. It’s full of super-cheesy jump scares — that damn cat! — and some very bad “scary” makeup. But mostly, Pet Sematary is terrible because its characters are very stupid. Especially Louis.
In theory, Louis is meant to be a tragic figure — a bright-eyed doctor excited for the future whose inability to let go of the past proves to be the downfall of him and many of those around him. But Pet Sematary doesn’t play out that way. It’s mostly the story of a guy who’s an idiot and gets what he deserves.
Early on, Louis is told about the ancient Indian burial ground nearby his home — you know, the one where, if you bury things there, they tend to come back to life. Rather than being freaked out, Louis decides, what the hell, to bury their beloved cat there. When the cat returns to the family, rather than saying, “Sweet mercy, why are Church’s eyes all super-glow-y in a way no regular cat’s eyes are?,” Louis figures that it’s all good. And then when his son is killed — even though he’s been warned that burying people in the cemetery is a very bad idea and if you don’t believe us, here’s this whole horrible flashback to strengthen Jud’s case — he elects to do it anyway. Presumably, a masterful actor could make this seemingly moronic decision feel empathetic, letting us understand just how torn up by guilt, grief and shame Louis is. Midkiff is not that actor. To be fair, though, I’m not convinced Daniel Day-Lewis could have pulled it off either.
People tend to be nostalgic about the movies of their childhood, even the ones that aren’t very good. But of all genres, horror films might hold up the least well over time. What’s considered scary can change from decade to decade — what was once deemed to be cutting-edge technology eventually looks really goofy. Pet Sematary is a beloved cult item for people of a certain age. (“God, it really scared me back then,” I’m told.) But watching it now, it’s just like Louis — incredibly dopey. I’m glad his wife knifes him at the end.
Nick Leftley, Senior Editor:
Int: TriStar Pictures Executive Briefing Room, 1986, where two identical executives sit at a large polished table opposite Stephen King.
Executive #1: Love your novel, Mr. Bachman, uh, King, ah, whatever. Love it.
Executive #2: Love it.
Executive #1: And we want to pay you a lot of money to make it into a quality motion picture, one that really does the novel justice.
Executive #2: Justice.
Stephen King: Well, that’s great, guys, because I do seem to have trouble getting movie producers to remain faithful to the source material, meaning that the point of the work is sometimes lost in transl-
Executive #1: [Looking up as he finishes a line of cocaine that runs the length of the entire table.] Anyway, we have a few slight changes we need to make. First up, the character of Ben Richards. What if — and just hear me out here — what if, instead of being a painfully gaunt, exhausted, but intelligent man who’s knowingly sacrificing his life to pay for his sick child’s health care, instead, he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in a lemon-yellow spandex jumpsuit, holding a submachine gun?
Executive #2: Yes!!!
Stephen King: Uh…
Executive #1: [Dusting the underside of his scrotum with cocaine like it’s Gold Bond powder.] And what if, instead of being mostly anonymous but terrifyingly effective former government agents who chase Richards across the country, the “hunters” are essentially American Gladiators knockoffs with WWE gimmicks, who hunt Richards through a tricked-out TV studio, complete with its own ice rink and wrestling ring?
Executive #2: That’s a movie!
Stephen King: Well…
Executive #1: [Climbing a 300-foot ladder to the top of a ramp, then literally ski-jumping into a nine-foot drift of cocaine.] And what if, instead of being a commentary on the dangers of unlimited corporate power, unregulated pollution and the total disenfranchisement of the working classes as entertainment that ends with its gut-shot protagonist committing suicide by flying a commercial airliner into the skyscraper headquarters of the TV studio, this is about — stuff, I guess? And it ends with Arnold making out with the hot chick he kidnapped at the beginning who loves him now, because of, y’know, stuff. And then this song plays.
Executive #2: I JUST SHIT MY PANTS!
Stephen King: [Sighs deeply.] Can I have some of that cocaine, please?
Miles Klee, Contributing Writer: There are a billion trash adaptations of the many bad stories King wrote in the depths of alcoholic oblivion, and I’d rather watch them all in order than sit through The Shawshank Redemption again. (At least Maximum Overdrive has a sentient vending machine that kills an entire Little League team with flying cans of soda.) Shawshank is the Forrest Gump of prison movies, a fellow nadir of mid-1990s treacle that only exists so boring straight white bros can call it the best film ever made.
That it occupies the number-one slot on IMDb’s Top 250 list says more than I could about its profound and brain-deadening mediocrity, but I might add that the best performance here is given by a poster of Raquel Welch. With each viewing, one embarks on a long, dark crawl through a narrow tunnel filled with shit — that is to say, a repulsively sentimental take on lives spent behind bars. The melodrama drags on and on, and rather aimlessly, helped not at all by Morgan Freeman’s narration, a lazy device that ensures we never have to deal with anything approaching ambiguity.
Give me the fire and bloody spectacle of Carrie, the claustrophobia of Misery, the uncanny dread of The Shining; just don’t make me pretend to care that Tim Robbins gets to build a boat in Mexico. I hope it sank on the maiden voyage.
Andrew Fiouzi, Editorial Assistant: When it comes to movie adaptations of Stephen King’s stories, I’d only ever seen the greatest hits: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Stand by Me. That is until recently when I was instructed to hate-watch Dreamcatcher. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my lifetime — some great, some bad and some awful. Dreamcatcher is in a league all its own.
Let’s set aside the fact that it’s several movies packed into one, none of which are any good. Let’s also put aside the acting, which ranges from abysmal to even more abysmal. Instead, let’s consider the alien monster that transforms from a piranha slug to a slimy pseudo-E.T. When it appeared, I thought seriously about giving up on the rest of the movie. Foolishly, I kept going. As the cliché goes, it was a two hours and 16 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.
Thanks, Stephen King.