Stephen King, the high lord of heartland genre literature, has had his work fitted to the silver screen consistently over the past four decades. Just this year, we’ve seen the 61st and 62nd Stephen King adaptations with the panned Dark Tower and the much anticipated It. Here at Optimism Vaccine, we think it’s safe to say Hollywood doesn’t exactly have the Midas Touch with King’s work. Here’s our choices for which would’ve been best kept between the dust jacket.
As far as film adaptations of Stephen King’s work go, they tend to break off into two different camps: B-grade horror movies (Pet Sematary, Cujo), or prestige, Oscar-baity dramas, often set in some sort of prison location (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). In terms of the former, good direction and terrific performances can, on occasion, elevate the material above the trappings of genre convention, as found in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Rob Reiner’s Misery, or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As far as the latter goes, these films certainly mean well, but there’s an air of pretension about them that is thoroughly off-putting, and the films become so bogged down with their own undignified sense of self-importance that no amount of “Acting!” from heavy-hitters like Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman can completely shake it.
So, what do you get when your prestige, prison-drama level movie crew sets out to make a B-grade horror movie? With famous Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan directing? From a script co-written by Kasdan and two-time Academy Award winner William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men)? And featuring a cast rounded out by Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Jason Lee, and Timothy Olyphant? Oh, and it’s based off of a novel that King wrote under the heavy influence of OxyContin, while recovering from a car accident?
You get Dreamcatcher, a film so stunningly misguided and inept that it eventually becomes compelling to watch in its badness.
For a while, Dreamcatcher checks all the requisite boxes that are most prevalent in King’s works. A story centering around four childhood friends, all from Derry, Maine, each one harboring telepathic powers and a deep-rooted secret? Check. The arrival of unknown, intergalactic beings that require military intervention? Check. Invasive, predatory alien slugs that harvest themselves in the rectums of unwitting victims? Che- whoa, wait, what the fuck?!
Ok, so maybe Dreamcatcher is not quite par for the course when it comes to King adaptations, and is actually certifiably batshit insane most of the time. Over the course of the film’s 135-minute runtime, we witness, amongst other things, a monologue about merits of the Carl’s Jr. Six Dollar Burger, memory warehouses, Morgan Freeman as a crazed military commander, alien body possessions, a plethora of burping and farting, Donnie Wahlberg playing a leukemia-inflicted, mentally-handicapped man with powerful psychic abilities, and a now-infamous scene of Jason Lee wrestling with one of the aforementioned alien slugs (dubbed in the film as a “shit weasel”) while sitting on a toilet. It’s. Bonkers.
Make no mistake, Dreamcatcher is an awful movie. But it’s a special kind of awful, one I wholeheartedly recommend that you seek out immediately, especially if you’re having a few friends over and libations are involved. Is it the worst Stephen King adaptation to grace our screens? Most certainly not. In fact, it might secretly be the best. Chalk it up to schadenfreude, but I never tire of the sheer lunacy found in Dreamcatcher. Besides, where else do you get to hear Morgan Freeman ask about the “shit weasels”? Not in Shawshank, lemme tell ya.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
There’s a common truism you’ve probably heard before that goes something like “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” This of course can apply to just about any ill-conceived venture, whether you’re Pepsi and Kendall Jenner attempting to end racism with the power of soda or just some dude letting a glass jar burst inside of his colon. Unfortunately, when it comes to licensed commodities, it seems even the most well-worn, cliched advice gets ignored.
This is how we arrived at "The Lawnmower Man": A throwaway five-page short story buried in Stephen King’s 1978 Night Shift collection, adapted for the screen during the tail end of Stephen King mania.
In King’s original story, we follow Harold Parkette, American everyman, who hires some random slob to cut his lawn. Soon, the aforementioned slob is down on all fours bare-ass naked, eating the grass while the unaccompanied lawnmower zips around Harold’s yard. We then find out that Slobby McLawnboy needs to murder Harold for some poorly defined reasons and also serves the Greek god Pan. The End.
If you think i’m oversimplifying the story, overselling how relentlessly dumb it is, read it yourself. Seriously, it’ll take 5 minutes.
New Line Cinema didn’t think very highly of the story either, so they expanded their definition of “Stephen King adaptation” to include literally slapping King’s name on a terrible script originally titled CYBER GOD, which had nothing to do with the original short story aside from including both lawnmowers and men.
If King’s story is an exercise in short-form stupidity and half-baked narrative, the Cyber God script is The Lawnmower Man writ-large. Greek gods and naked grass munching are swapped out for a slightly-ahead-of-its-time-but-don’t-give-it-too-much-credit narrative which plays on tech anxiety during the infancy of the internet age. And, just for funsies I suppose, the titular lawnmower man is played as a cognitively disabled oaf, who seems to be the inspiration for Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack character in Tropic Thunder.
While I wouldn’t call The Lawnmower Man film thematically rich, it does trump the source material by actually having themes, so that’s something, I guess. These really don’t rise above the level of “useless shit the stoner in your Philosophy 101 class would blurt out” and include classics like “What if good technology is bad?,” “Maybe man shouldn’t play God” and “Maybe stupid people should stay stupid because when they’re smart they’re total dicks.”
As seriously as the film takes itself with this laughable material, I don’t know how anyone could have kept a straight face during the garish CGI sequences. Imagine a giant, floating, yellow Jeff Fahey head zapping cops with lazer eyes before killing a bunch of dudes with a swarm of GIANT POLYGONAL BEES. Now imagine this is all being rendered on an Atari Jaguar and you’ll only be scratching the surface of The Lawnmower Man’s embarrassing special effects.
It’s hard to identify why an adaptation this woefully inept ever needed to exist in the first place. King himself seemed to agree when he slapped New Line Cinema with a lawsuit for causing "irreparable harm" to his reputation. I’m siding with King on this one. As bad as his short story is, at least it’s a merciful five-minute read, while the loosely adapted film pummels your senses for two hours. King also never wrote a sequel to his story that had the gall to replace Jeff Fahey as our beautiful blonde cyber-villain. That shit should be criminal.
The Mist (2007)
I’ve never read Stephen King’s original novella, The Mist, but I can tell you categorically that Frank Darabont’s film adaptation is not a good one. How can I know this without reading the source? Because a book should always aspire to be a good book and a film should always aspire to be a good film. Art should aspire to be the best version of itself in all circumstances, and that includes the art of adaptation. Faithfulness be damned, if a film adapts a book with a weak storyline, it should correct or minimize those problems as it ports them to the screen. Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, which includes new elements he specifically fought for, including a much touted extra dark ending, manages no such alleviation of deficiencies.
The Mist’s intentionally sparse storyline involves an inter-dimensional rift releasing hostile monsters upon the Earth. The film centers on a father and son, trapped with others, in a small supermarket. They don’t know how widespread the outbreak is, or if there’s any countermeasures being deployed to repel the monsters. They know nothing other than that they dare not stray outside lest they be killed by the creatures shrouded in the titular mist. Death and uncertainty reign, and with them, high drama, but Darabont’s attempt to frame the collapse of order within the supermarket as some kind of mirror of society at large is a bit rich. A key sticking point here is the religious, and of course, mean-spirited woman who leads the charge for the apocalypse. She claims mankind’s sins have summoned the creatures and starts demanding blood sacrifices. Half the supermarket quickly side with her, converting from dull-witted “salt of the earth” types to murderous cultists. This all transpires in maybe 48 hours. The stakes are raised by the confusion outside, but the compressed time period reduces the scenario to farce. Darabont’s (and, let’s be honest, likely King’s too) depiction of religious belief is unerringly petty and simplistic, an insult to actual religious faith, both positive and negative.
This indicates what’s really driving Darabont. For him, it’s not about society or religion, despite the film continually harping on about such things. It’s about playing “cynicism” as something inherently more real than any other consideration. And it’s a dumb enough trick some people will believe him, deciding that everyone being pointlessly mean-spirited is definitely more real than everyone, y’know, just sitting in stunned silence like they’ve actually been doing for millennia now. The apotheosis of this is the film’s much-touted conclusion, a sledgehammer blow of manipulation predicated on a scenario and characters that command no authenticity. Free from the supermarket, our plucky father and son find themselves out of gas and stranded. The mist, and presumably the alien menace, still surrounds them, though no immediate danger is visible. So now seems like a good time for our hero father to spare his son a death at the pincers of ropey CGI marauders by executing him himself. Of course he’s short the bullet that would allow him to turn the gun on himself afterward, but that’s what makes him a hero: he pulls the trigger, violating nature’s most taboo law, knowing he will have the time to dwell on his actions.
It’s kind of a legitimate dramatic scenario but the kicker is that, while Darabont’s film is anything but short — this thing prattles on for 126 minutes — every significant dramatic detail feels rushed. It feels like you could still fry an egg on the jeep’s engine block before our hero dad just pops a cap in his son and looks vaguely sad about it. Like the religious insurrection before it, it’s just decided and it happens instantly. But then hero Dad is rescued. Everyone is rescued. And it turns out all the fools in the film were justified and all our heroes were indecisive fools. But it means nothing because Darabont was too busy misrepresenting religion and claiming everyone is actually a poisonous miscreant ready to shirk off civility for murderous barbarism if they miss a meal. Cynicism must be borne of some kind of reality but here it’s just haphazardly tethered to a series of silly events. Whatever the father or the zealots do, it is not supported by any genuine human impulse. And I’m reminded that The Mist would be more interesting if it started at its conclusion rather than ending there. That’s when the actual drama begins, after all the pointless shouting and harrying has passed. But instead you get end credits and the realization that Darabont has wasted your time.
Secret Window (2004)
Nine reasons why Secret Window is the ultimate forsaken son of Hollywood’s attempts to give Stephen King the Midas Touch:
1. I always confuse it with The Number 23
This is a bad thing. You don’t want your movie to be, in any way, similar to or reminiscent of The Number 23. It’s something about the use of alter egos and huge stars in rail-level psychological thrillers that make these two twisty trash piles run together in my head.
2. It’s a key figure in one of cinema’s dumbest trends of all time
This probably also ties back to #1. The psychological thriller with a twist-that-upends-the-entire-film-as-you-know-it, or the Shyamalan Effect, of the early 2000s is without a doubt one of cinema’s worst looks. David Koepp, the writer and director of Secret Window was no stranger to this formula; his previous film was another one in the dumb twist canon, Stir of Echoes.
3. The Philip Glass score
I always forget Philip Glass did the score. This film joins the likes of No Reservations, Taking Lives, Cassandra’s Dream and The Illusionist as weird occurrences of the inimitable composer doing mediocre work for bad movies (save for Cassandra’s Dream). I don’t understand it. Glass doesn’t need the money, and these scores don’t seem like they would scratch his creative itch.
4. One of King’s most overwrought premises
Like many of King’s stories, it’s about a writer. More specifically, like The Shining, it’s about writer’s block — the old chestnut of squeezing lemonade out of your own batch of creative logjam lemons. It immediately feels indebted in the abstract.
5. Jon Turturro
Turturro is usually a shoe-in for a scene stealer in Hollywood’s humdrum, but in Secret Window, he gets caught red handed. Past the prologue, the film’s first lines come from Jon Turturro, still in his Miller’s Crossing digs. He shows up at the door of Johnny Depp’s isolated cabin to tell him, “You stole my story” in a backroads twang that would make a country pop singer blush.
6. “Shooter” as the new “Redrum”
Jon Turturro’s character, who essentially stepped off of a farm from the 1950s to bully Johnny Depp, goes by the ingenious name “Shooter.” When Depp eventually finds out Shooter is just a psychological manifestation of his urges, he realizes he named him “Shooter” in order to tell himself to shoot her. Not only is this the laziest reiteration of the “Redrum” thing in The Shining, but also….he doesn’t even shoot her! I don’t even think he has a gun, so “shoot her” is quite an odd directive to give yourself when you don’t own a gun.
7. “This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful home.”
Depp sincerely appropriates this famous Talking Heads lyrics in a cringey way that will probably never leave my memory.
8. The “Battle of the Minds” trope
The feud between Shooter and Depp attempts to drum up some mileage on the ol’ “Battle of the Minds” setup. Seeing as he’s battling himself, it should be quite a contentious battle. He knows everything that makes himself tick. Yet, the physical articulations are flaccid and the scares lack teeth.
9. Timothy Hutton’s Tennessee “accent”
Hutton’s got nuttin’ on Tennessee.
Children of the Corn (1984)
If the quality of a book-to-film adaptation could be gauged solely by how much film-stock that book produced, then Stephen King’s Children of the Corn must surely be one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. A short story, which I recall breezing through one afternoon as an adolescent, has thus far produced a staggering ten films. That translates to one film for every three pages or so of the original text. The usual case for long-running horror franchises is that the original film stands as the best. There are rare exceptions where a later entry is so outlandish or cynical it asserts primacy, but even then the first film is essential as a reference point. So it’s a bad sign that Children of the Corn starts so badly. It’s not a terrible adaptation in the sense that the original story was really just a brief sketch to begin with, but since you could read the story in less time than the film takes to play out, it’s staggering how little of substance was added and how incompetent it all is.
The film suffers from a usual hang-up with Stephen King adaptations, which is a nostalgia for the original material. I read a lot of King books growing up, but only between the ages of about 11 to 13. After that, I got bored and moved on. His books feel dangerous and scary and challenging when you’re that age, but they’re actually perfectly accessible. They feel like you’re not supposed to be reading them, but actually, you’re the core demographic. Reflecting on his work as an adult, any scariness is linked with your memories of being scared as a child, when you were (hopefully) much more impressionable. So I guess there may be a case to be made that Children of the Corn isn’t too bad as horror movie for adolescents, a movie kids can think they’re not supposed to be watching but which is actually made just for them. But it sure sucks if you’re anyone else.
The storyline, which manages a frustrating combination of being slow-paced yet skipping over every important dramatic beat, involves a supernatural entity that convinces the children in a rural Nebraskan town to murder all the adults. They do so and then, reformulating society, they adopt mannerisms that are reminiscent of the Amish or a similar Luddite sect. That might sound kinda prejudiced and small-minded but when you think about it, it’s really okay because no one really understands or wishes to understand the Amish, so accordingly don’t we all just think they’re scary and write off their beliefs as delusional? Okay, maybe not, but they’re easy marks for horror cinema because guess who doesn’t frequent the video store? In any case these murderous kids, isolated for several years because Nebraska is a barren wasteland with no passing traffic, are interrupted by two obnoxious upper-class white saviors.
The film’s villains are barely even worth considering. Considering all the baskets available in horror cinema, it’s certainly “unusual” that the makers of Children of the Corn decided to put all their eggs in one's titled: “Boy with a squeaky voice;” “Gangling, left-handed, ginger kid who is constantly drawing a knife yet simultaneously looks like he has never held a knife before;” and “Demon that is the gopher from Caddyshack before coming above ground and actually being an especially poorly animated red light in a film full of poorly done things.” So that brings us to the film’s “heroes,” a junior doctor and his girlfriend, who spend the entire film interrupting the children, who actually know what’s going on, telling them they’re stupid, and then doing something that is of absolutely no use. This continues right up to the idiot male protagonist mansplaining how the kid’s creepy God isn’t real after it’s literally attacked him and blown up the squeakbox kid. When’s the last time Jesus literally blew something up before your eyes? Be honest.
The only reading of Children of the Corn that isn’t simply stating, “it’s a desperately boring film devoid of even the basest of visceral thrills,” is that it’s a pretty good lampooning of post-colonialist ideologies. Some douchebag walks in, claims he’s the voice of reason and normalcy, completely ignores functioning systems and basic reality, and is then almost killed by stuff the people already living there spent the entire time trying to tell him about. The great tragedy of this piece is that our protagonist survives. And then there’s the next nine films…
The Mangler (1995)
Adam M. Miros
Tobe Hooper. Robert Englund. Ted Levine. This should be a blast, right? I suppose it is... for all the wrong reasons. The problems begin at the source: "The Mangler" is a slight and preposterous story that barely merited publication, much less adaptation. It's the tale of a possessed laundry press, and one man's gambit to exorcise said machine. The whole thing feels like it was inspired when King noticed that the occult staple Belladonna was a common ingredient in certain antacids. A sound foundation for a hundred minute film.
A possessed laundry press. Honestly.
Hooper does nothing to help matters. Coming off of Spontaneous Combustion and Night Terrors, his career was soundly into the death spiral phase. His methodology for stretching this sparse material into a feature film is... questionable. He essentially fractures the film into two distinct pieces, editing them together seemfully. His other major directorial choice appears to have been spending half of the film's obviously strained budget on dry ice.
The first of the film's two sets is an industrial laundry. It appears to consist of two rooms: Robert Englund's office and the factory floor, which is inexplicably dominated by the rejected Tim Burton prop that is meant to be a laundry press. I'm not an expert in the ways of the factory, but the fact that a single machine with a limited function takes up 90% of the factory floor doesn't make a great deal of sense. The other 10% is obscured by smoke. Robert Englund plays the owner of this apparently flourishing business, and let's just say he is making some choices in the role. He's caked in old age makeup, apparently suffering from cerebral palsy, and (because he needed one more goddamn affectation) wearing an eye patch. He spends the film strapped in archaic braces, shuffling along a balcony barking unintelligible quips at the factory workers and being generally lecherous. Although the bulk of the plot unfurls in these scenes, they manage to feel entirely inconsequential. The laundry press kills people. That's the long and short of it.
The remainder of the film centers around Detective Ted Levine and his handy occultist brother-in-law. Levine appears to have gone method in the role of a drunk, apathetic burnout. Levine is investigating this series of suspicious accidents, but spends the bulk of the film hanging around the backyard he shares(?) with his wacky brother-in-law. This set also doesn't make any sense. Do these characters live together? Are they neighbors? Does he just avoid his own home for the entire runtime? It doesn't matter. Levine is kind of special here, in the way that I would be entirely unsurprised if he had never acted again. He exudes a weariness and disillusionment that feels entirely genuine. He feels like a man in the midst of personal crisis, culminating in a scene in which he beats the hell out of a demonic refrigerator with a hammer. Yup. This is a profoundly stupid movie. He obviously despised participating in it. Or he's the best actor I've ever seen. Or both. He is Ted Levine, after all.
I recognize that I've said nothing about the plot. There's not much to say. The rudimentary conceit of a haunted machine and an attempt to rid the world of it is subsumed by some vast conspiracy involving virginal sacrifice and four fingered men. It's a goddamn mess. But it was around the fifth superfluous mention of The Hand of Glory that I realized exactly what this was: A feature length episode of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. And viewed through that prism, The Mangler is indeed glorious.