The Dark Tower is surely the biggest budgeted Stephen King adaptation thus far, releasing after a relatively long-lull since the King cinematic-adaptation factory downsized about a decade ago. With It primed to make a boatload at the box office in little more than a month, let’s take a look at a few of King’s most notable film adaptations, diamonds in a truly rough slog of visual atrocity.
A psychological pas de deux charged with the energy of exploitation, consider Misery a pile-on of Ingmar Bergman and Tobe Hooper, and lay back as the hammer comes out. Drawing toast-dry absurdist humor from director Rob Reiner’s naturally comic vein, this relatively snug adaptation of Stephen King’s writing is a mordantly tragic, truly mournful film that carries a deviously comic undertow of absurdity. The punishingly long, artistically pale TV adaptation of IT is more famous from the same year, but Reiner’s unnaturally terrifying film is the better work by far.
It’s also breathlessly free of distraction beyond its central premise: writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan), after an accident, is found and helped to recovery by super-fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who gets extraordinarily angry when she finds out that Sheldon is planning on killing off his star character. It’s high concept – what King adaptation isn’t? – but its low-slung filmmaking, a consummate work of pop-craft with enough rough edges left un-cleansed, enough psychological tendrils not tapered down, to fascinate for the duration of its run-time, if not to linger in the gut afterwards.
Reiner’s film is basic stuff, but considering the truly astonishing depths of atrocity King adaptations could plumb to (it says something that It is merely in the middle of the pack), Misery is brutally satisfying. For a comedy director (never the most aesthetically inspired of genres), Reiner is surprisingly clever with negative space and utilizes the snow-bound setting to expose elements of loneliness about the film’s characters. The score, meanwhile, is teasingly evocative and amusingly comic with its playful perversity and subversion of the designated jump-scare moments.
Ultimately, in a minor sense, Reiner’s film is hobbled (couldn’t resist) by an understanding of fan-writer relations which obviously stem from a personal well for King. They’re extremely tacky and self-serving, and there’s nothing unnaturally clever or especially sly about the film’s insinuation that fans imprison the artists they adore. I already threw out the Bergman card, but that was partially in gest; don’t expect a truly serious commentary on the way that objects and subjects, the viewing self and the viewed being, shape one another dialectically.
But when Kathy Bates is on the screen, none of that really matters. Caan is excellent, although his character is necessarily subservient, but this quality makes fascinatingly counter-intuitive use of Caan’s impressionistic torpor and man-of-few-words persona. But Bates is a force of nature in a cooking apron, a melodramatic maelstrom of a woman who lives and breathes the kind of equally melodramatic writing an author like Sheldon (if he is a King analogue) would use, a cheeky expression of a writer shaping the expression of his devoted follower. The film’s flaws are apparent, but they fade away with, or become sucked up and appended to, Bates’ volatile ball of Grand Dame elan. Misery lacks the psychological infrastructure of a truly great film – to say nothing of what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining – but it does wrangle a mood of anticipatory terror out of its domestic setting. Admittedly – and with apologies to Shawshank partisans, a club membership in which is seemingly required for the internet – it does say something that Misery is more notable today – to my mind at least – for being the last inarguably good King adaptation, almost three decades later. But it is inarguably good, and I suppose that’s all that matters.
The Mist is Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, and excuse me for considering it to be quite easily the sharpest and most cunning among them. Adapted from a story in Skeleton Crew, a legitimate King offering, rather than the other works Darabont adapted, Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, monochrome melodramatic pap hewn from King’s Richard Bachman alias, The Mist is also Darabont’s first horror film in the King canon. Focusing on the writer’s most famous genre might instill, in any other case, a belief that he is hewing too close to expectations, resorting to formula and conventionality. But King’s “dramatic” stories (ie, Shawshank and Green Mile) bear exactly the same leaden religious overtones and cloying “its horror of the soul” vibes anyway, so they aren’t really any less conventional when all is said and done.
Now, The Mist is not exactly great, or even inherently good, cinema. Its characters, for one, are non-entities, including protagonist Dave (Thomas Jane), a movie poster designer who find himself trapped with his son in his small-town supermarket when he goes for provisions to deal with the influx of a particularly severe fog around his house. Worse is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Haden), a zealot for whom the mist is a form of divine intervention, punishment for humanity’s wrongdoings. For the most part, the story is pleasingly anecdotal, but the religious overtones reveal a work straining to amount to something and mostly failing.
The horror here is a bouillabaisse of icky Grand Guignol, King’s usual Christian Conservative human monstrosities, and (best of all) foggy nothings half-glimpsed through a haze of absence. The latter obviously promotes existential implications, although Darabont is frankly thrilled not to seriously consider them for more than a minute or two at a time. I’m inclined to defend the decision to treat the film like a B-picture rather than to suffuse it the portent of “wider themes”, but as mentioned, the film does half-heartedly try to do something with its paucity of religious observations. Plus, all the great B-pictures sneak metaphysical particles into otherwise corporeal threats and that doesn’t damage them, so letting The Mist off the hook for its failures seems a level of forgiveness it doesn’t really deserve. If a B-film can be both deeply resonant and sleekly brutal, The Mist only achieves the former.
So it isn’t exactly unconventional so much as it is just gruesomely effective in an old-fashioned sense. (The director’s preferred black and white version of the film is fittingly superior, suffusing the picture with the ghostly pallor of a Val Lewton chiller where the terror is hazily debatable and undetermined). Darabont is a technically proficient enough filmmaker that it works in spite of its flaws, particularly when the low squalls of the sound design intimate undertows of the unknown. Or during a few particularly gangrenous set pieces where Darabont really announces his forte with flesh. Far removed from King’s worthless dramatic masquerades, the gutsy, low-brow pleasures once the viscera flies cut through the high-mindedness of the screenplay. Not everything comes together. For instance, the now-famous, forced climax is completely arbitrary and, I suspect, intentionally so, but it is colossally unearned despite its pulpy kick. But The Mist is easily among the best King adaptations, perhaps the only truly worthwhile one released since the turn of the century.