It’s almost a coin toss, seeing the words “based on a story by Stephen King” in the opening credits of a film. For fans of the horror master—affectionately referred to by the man himself as “Constant Readers”—it calls to mind a single question. Will the movie be faithful to the book or short story they know and love, or will it deviate completely from the source material?
Sometimes the answer is yes, and quite definitively so. Other times… not so much. There are a number of adaptations of King’s works that never deviate from his written words, but there are also many that share a title, but that’s where the similarities end.
Updated on May 13th, 2022 by Tanner Fox: Nearly fifty years after the release of the film adaptation of Carrie, movies based on Stephen King works are still filling theaters and piquing the interests of horror hounds. With versions of Salem’s Lot and Firestarter due out soon, that trend probably won’t be changing any time soon.
Yet, it’s sometimes surprising to see what filmmakers do with King’s plots. Stories like Needful Things and The Tommyknockers just don’t seem suited to the silver screen whatsoever, and, at times, it’s more appropriate to deviate from the source material. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for adhering closely to what’s on the page.
Stephen King Movies That Are Faithful To The Source Material
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
When a Stephen King adaptation is directed by Frank Darabont, Constant Readers know it’s in good hands. There are exceptions, of course; the ending of The Mist was far different from that of the novella, but it was horrifying in its own way. Darabont’s treatment of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, however, was faithfully and lovingly rendered and is easily a King movie with one of the best re-watch values.
With Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Red, it’s a rumination on the nature of freedom and one man’s fight to hang onto it, even if he’s institutionalized. Freeman’s narration is key to keeping the film from skewing off course, and the end result is as fine a film version of a King work as viewers could hope for.
An adaptation of a Stephen King short story that first appeared in his 2010 anthology Full Dark, No Stars, 1922 tells the story of a farmer who kills his wife to keep her from selling their property. Ultimately, the guilt drives him to madness and inadvertently leads to his death and the death of his son.
1922 is a slow burn that may have some audience members twiddling their thumbs, but it’s very accurate to the original story. It takes quite a while for the murder to take place and for the very Kingian horror to take center stage, which makes for a bit of a dreary, slow watch.
The Green Mile (1999)
Darabont hits another one out of the park with The Green Mile, this time featuring Tom Hanks as a prison guard overseeing a most peculiar death row inmate, played by Michael Clarke Duncan. There are, as with most King works, variations on good-vs-evil, but it’s a film about justice at it’s core.
Who deserves it, who gets it, and what does it say about society and mankind when it’s meted out unfairly? It’s an unflinching look at hard questions, but the supernatural elements keep it from becoming a heavy-handed philosopher’s stone, and the end result is a bridge to one of King’s most thoughtful works.
Stand By Me (1986)
Originally published as a novella in the 1982 collection Different Seasons under the title of The Body, Stand by Me is a coming-of-age story about four friends who trek through the Maine wilderness to find a corpse. Once again, narration—this time by Richard Dreyfuss, as the adult version of Wil Wheaton’s Gordie—helps director Rob Reiner stick the landing.
In fact, it proves that successful adaptations of King’s works almost require a voiceover narration because so much of what makes his writing powerful comes in the form of internal monologues by the characters he creates. Stand By Me takes some liberties with the ending, but, all in all, it’s a powerful and nostalgic look at the crossing from childhood to adulthood.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
For years, King’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game was considered unfilmable because so much of it takes place in the main character’s head. Actress Carla Gugino shoulders the burden of a woman left handcuffed to a bed after her husband dies mid-kink, and every scene is lifted from King’s words in a fashion few filmmakers have been able to match.
Credit director Mike Flanagan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, as well as Netflix for giving him an outlet. It’s not exactly one of King’s most popular novels, but, as a slow-burn of a psychological horror movie, Gerald’s Game sticks the landing when it comes to adaptations of the novelist’s works.
Tim Curry cast a long shadow as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 1990 ABC miniseries based on the King tome, but, given its presentation on network TV, there was only so much of the book’s horror that could be shown. In 2017’s It, and 2019’s It Chapter Two, director Andy Muscietti had no such constraints.
With an all-star cast of both children and adults, he faithfully recreates the story of a Maine town terrorized every 27 years by a creature who feeds on fear. While some of the book’s metaphysical elements are jettisoned because of their complexities, it’s an example of a director whose last name is not Darabont crafting faithful King fare.
Cujo, a rabid Saint Bernard from King’s 1981 novel of the same name, became one of the author’s most recognizable villains, but the novel itself is pretty far removed from the hauntings and horrors of typical King fare. In fact, it’s more of a drama that explores the depths of familial strife, only offering a very vague suggestion of the paranormal.
The 1983 Lewis Teague-directed adaptation was, for better or worse, a very exact reproduction of the story. Going so far as to borrow lines directly from the novel, it recaptures every aspect of King’s work, resulting in a halfway-harrowing, halfway-tiring viewing experience.
Stephen King Movies That Totally Aren’t Faithful To The Source Material
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
When the guy whose title inspires the film sues to have his name removed from association with it, viewers should take heed. King’s original short story by the same name involved a gardener who’s actually a satyr and makes sacrifices to the god Pan.
The 1992 film that bears its name has a lawnmower and a gardener, but that’s where the similarities end. Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan star in this cinematic abomination of The Lawnmower Man, and King was awarded damages after he sued to have his name removed from the marketing of the film.
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Doctor Sleep seemed so promising. It was a sequel to King’s groundbreaking work The Shining that released in 2013 and followed Danny Torrance as an adult. The film, released in 2019, oozed the same sense of dread in pre-release trailers that the novel and its predecessors had… but then it actually came out, and everything seemed to fall apart.
Director Mike Flanagan, who handled Gerald’s Game so admirably, tried to tie too many variables together, those being the novel upon which the movie is based, The Shining as directed by Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining as written by Stephen King. In the end, it proves to be too much, and the ending of the film bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book.
The Dark Tower (2017)
Few films elicited more of a collective outcry from fans of King than the adaptation of The Dark Tower. For one, the title alludes to a series of seven (eight, counting The Wind Through the Keyhole) books, the first of which is called The Gunslinger, but the film borrows elements from all of them instead of staying faithful to the one tome.
The end result is a bloated, haphazard mess that bastardized a series as sacred to many as The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. Idris Elba is a fantastic and outside-the-box choice as Roland, and Matthew McConaughey is ideally cast as Flagg, but everything else about the film is about as painful to watch as a boil removal.
Children of the Corn (1984)
While it was one of Stephen King’s most memorable novels, Children of the Corn may not have been particularly well-suited for a film adaptation, partially because the story is very long and drawn out, and partially because the ending is horrific.
Fortunately, the 1984 film makes a few changes. Most notably, it ditches the tired King trope of a bickering couple on the verge of divorce, instead focusing on a seemingly-happy boyfriend-girlfriend duo. Additionally, by the end of the film, the evil is defeated, and the protagonists rescue the children of Malachai’s cult. In the novel, however, everyone is sacrificed to He Who Walks Behind The Rows, leaving Isaac as one of the only survivors.
Pet Semetary (2019)
The problem with the 1989 film version of King’s Pet Semetary is that it was almost too faithful to the book, and getting a child actor to play an evil resurrected spirit comes across as laughable more than it does frightening. The 2019 iteration, however, chooses to change so many elements that it becomes a different beast altogether.
Sometimes, doubling down on the dark nature of King’s work has a powerful effect on movie-goers, and, as a Steven King evil cat movie, it certainly elevates that particular feline element of the novel. Darabont’s twist on the ending of The Mist is one such example, but the ending of the updated Pet Semetary is bleak to the point of hopelessness, something that’s characteristically un-Kinglike regardless of his penchant for terror.
It Chapter Two (2019)
It’s true that Andy Muschietti’s recent It films are pretty successful adaptations of Stephen King’s story, but, while the films maintain much of the novel’s overarching themes and important scenes, there’s an entire tome’s worth of cut content that makes the book a profoundly more disturbing experience.
Much has been made of the strange sexual sequences present in King’s version of the tale, but there’s a ton of minutia concerning Pennywise and his prey that’s also been left out. So much so that, by the end of the second film, the titular monster feels like a bit of a one-note joke.
The Shining (1980)
Books have been written and documentaries made about the profound differences between King’s original The Shining and the 1980 film by Kubrick. The filmmaker’s decision to cast Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance never sat well with King, and, to be fair, Nicholson’s turn in the film transforms it into something else entirely.
That’s not to say Kubrick’s version is a bad film; in many ways, it’s considered a classic, and another example of why Kubrick is a master of the craft. But, while it shares a title and a story with King’s novel, it’s most certainly one of the biggest departures from the original work out of the entirety of film adaptations of his books.
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