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The Five Worst Stephen King Film Adaptations (and no, "Shining" haters, that's not here)

Updated on September 5, 2010
Oh, it's a nightmare all right...
Oh, it's a nightmare all right...

First, a little misconception...

It's been a mantra in Hollywood for a long time that "most Stephen King adaptations suck," but really, that's nonsense and should have been discarded a long time ago. Given that adaptations of the master of horror's work now include such acclaimed films as Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Stand by Me, Misery, Dolores Clairborne, Creepshow, 1408, The Mist, The Green Mile and of course the uber-beloved The Shawshank Redemption, not to mention excellent TV miniseries like Salem's Lot, The Stand and Storm of the Century, it's pretty clear that King has a track record no worse than any bestselling author has in terms of cinematic adaptations of his work. (Dean Koontz, for example, probably would bite off his right leg to get cinematic treatments worthy of King.) And even many of King's lesser works have their bright spots. Secret Window, for example, features another fabulous showcase for Johnny Depp's talents, while the campy and overly earnest Silver Bullet has good performances and some unexpectedly hilarious moments to reccomend it (I still crack up over the fact that the werewolf in the flim looks like Smokey the Bear gone berzerk).

Yet there are a few King adaptations that simply cannot be redeemed. It is these select few, I feel, that have poisoned King's repuatation for years and given rise to the misconception that his films are a bunch of cinematic stinkburgers. And I'm not talking about the merely mediocre, like say, 1984's Firestarter or the simply boring, like the 1995 miniseries adaptation of The Langoliers (where the biggest question was wondering whose bright idea it was to cast Bronson Pinochet, aka Balki from Perfect Strangers, as a murderous, knife-happy psycho). No, these are the low of the low in the Stephen King verse and in one case, he has only himself to blame...

Added note: Only adaptations of original Stephen King works are qualified here. That means no sequels. While efforts like Pet Semetary 2 and The Rage: Carrie 2 are certainly awful, they are spinoffs of already existing King adaptations and therefore don't qualify. But rest assured, they also stink.

#5. Dreamcatcher (2003)

Given the heavyweights behind this adaptation (directed by Lawrence Kasden, scripted by Wiliam Goldman), you expected a lot better than this seriously screwed up alien-invasion epic. In all fairness, though, the novel (King's first following his near fatal car accident in 1999) is one of his least efforts and certainly one of his most incomprehensible. The film's no easier to figure out. Four close friends (Damien Lewis, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee and Timothy Oliphant) have a telepathic bond with each other since childhood, when they saved a Downs-syndrome affected kid named "Duddites" (played by Donnie Wahlberg as an adult) from bullies. On their annual hunting trip in the Maine woods, they take in a nearly frozen fugitive and soon are thrust into a nightmare involving body-snatching aliens out to take over the Earth. When the invading aliens are referred to as "the shit weasels," it should be a sign not to expect much. There are a few decent things here, namely Morgan Freeman overacting with gusto in a rare villainous role as an alien-killing millitary man gone Colonel Kurtz, but the film is a colossal mess that culminates in a God-awful CGI showdown and an "excuse me, but did I just see that or was I on meth?" twist concerning a major character. And the dreamcatcher of the title? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

#4. The Lawnmower Man (1992)

It's almost unfair to call this a Stephen King adaptation, since this has almost nothing to do with King's original short story (available in his Night Shift collection). Indeed, King successfully sued the producers for adding his name to the credits; the only thing his story and this have in common is they have a "lawnmower man" in them (oh yeah, and an appearance by "The Shop," the malevolent secret government unit from Firestarter). A scientist (a pre-007 Pierce Brosnan) is experimenting with a way to increase intelligence by drugs and virtual realty simulation. Getting sick of merely experimenting on chimps, he finds a human subject in simple-minded, abused gardner Jobe (Jeff Fahey, now best known to Lost fans as wise-cracking pilot Frank Lapidus). The experiments work, but too well and soon Jobe is transformed into a mad superpowered genius who plans to completely enter cyberspace and become a virtual version of a god. This bizarre mix of sci-fi meets Flowers for Algernon is just plain nonesense and badly written, though it does have some decent f/x in it. But really, one can see why King wanted nothing to do with it. Followed by an even more ridiculous sequel Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, with Matt Frewer, a.k.a. Max Headroom, taking over a now Godlike Jobe.

#3. The Mangler (1995)

One would think acknowledged master of horror Tobe Hooper, the man who brought us Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, would be perfect to adapt Kings' works. Indeed, Hooper already has one fine King adaptation to his credit with his 1979 TV miniseries version of Salem's Lot, featuring some of the creepiest vampires ever committed to celluloid. However, that was the old Tobe Hooper, not the new Tobe Hooper who seems to have been in a creative funk for the last two decades. But Hooper hit a new low with this adaptation of King's short story (also availabe in Night Shift), which makes the previous two messes on this list look like masterpieces of coherence. Detective Hunton (Ted Levine) investigates bloody accidents at the local industrial laundry and comes to the realization that "the Mangler," as the laundry's giant clothes presser is dubbed, has become possessed by a demon. Worse, the deranged laundry owner (Robert "Freddy Kruger" England) is purposely feeding people to it, which leads Hunton to try and stop it via an exorcism. King's short and straightforward story is blown up into a complete and utter mess, including a ridiculous backstory where the town elders all sacrifice their first born to the Mangler on their sixteenth birthday (what, is this The Lottery all of a sudden?). Realism is chucked in favor of cartoonish nonsense, whether its the insanely over-elaborate sets to England's apperance, which has him decked out in leg braces, crutches and a monocle, complete with a bad German accent, looking for all the world like some f__ked up Nazi experiment. And Levine (Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) plays his role as if he was drunk 24/7 during shooting (you don't suppose?). Only worth seeing by those who like to see the cinematic equal of a ten car pile-up on the freeway.

#2. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

 King has no one but himself to blame for this one, given he made his directoral debut here and wrote the adaptation of his short story "Trucks" (also available in Night Shift). In doing so, he earned the enimity of every author who's ever boasted that he could adapt his work to the screen better than anyone else could, by giving peopel the rejoinder, "Yeah, but what about Stephen King with Maximum Overdrive?" The earth passes through the tail of a comet and as a result, all manner of inanimate objects (ranging from motor vehicles to things as small as electrical knives) start taking on lives of their own and become hostile, attacking and killing unwary bystanders. A gang of marauding trucks, led by a toy truck with a Green Goblin from Spiderman face on its front, trap a small group of travelers at a gas station, demanding they refuel them or end up like the pedestrians you run over in any edition of Grand Theft Auto. It's up to heroic Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez in his Brat Pack days) to rally the survivors, defeat the trucks and escape to safety. The word "bizarre" doesn't even begin to describe this flick, which, among other things, features a scene with a Little League team getting assaulted by a rogue soda machine (and there's a sentence I never thought I'd write). Insanely campy, right down to Estevez risking his dignity for all time by trying to talk to a pissed-off truck. King's script is equally to blame, full of howlers like "You sure make love like a hero." Ends with a tacked on motivation for the rogue machine revolution that only adds to the insanity. King himself admitted he didn't know what he was doing when he made this and that he was "coked out of his head." I agree, drugs probably are the only thing that will help you make sense of this.

#1. Children of the Corn (1984)

 This is it, the absolute worst of the King adaptations and not just for its own incompetence, but because it inexplicably became a box office successs and spawned a seemingly never-ending string of atrocious sequels. It was this adaptation of one of King's best and creepiest short stories (available in - you guessed it - Night Shift; perhaps they should stop adapting stories from that collection?) that, in my view, tarred all King adaptations as shit for years to come. Young couple Burt (Peter Horton, later to star in thirtysomething) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton, the same year she became Sarah Connor in The Terminator), recently graduated from college, take a road trip to California,where their new life awaits. But on the way, they stumble into the rural Nebraska town of Gaitlin, where things have seriously gone to hell. Seems the children have gone religious-nutty, killed off all their parents and now worship some cornstalk-dwelling demon/god called "He Who Walks Behind The Rows." Now Burt and Vicky are in the crosshairs of the children's diminuative, power-mad leader Isaac (John Franklin) and his lanky Ron Howard-on-crack-lookalike muscle Malachai (Courtney Gaines), who are hankering for some sacrificing. Oh sweet Jesus, where to being with this one? How about the awful dialogue (especially the now immortal "OUTLANDER!!! WE HAVE YOUR WOMAN!!!")? Or the atrocious acting by the children (especially Franklin and Gaines, who need a grounding and a quick spanking, pronto.)? Or the horrendous special effects ("He Who Walks Behind the Rows" is more like "He Who Was Made For a Buck And a Half.")? Or the idiotic and jarringly abrupt ending? Couple in two of the dumbest protagonists in horror film history and a snail's pace and you've got one thoroughly unpleasant viewing experience. Yet it has spawned seven, yes, seven sequels (with an eighth reportedly in development), as well as a Syfy Channel remake in 2009. The horror...the horror...

Please, no more corn, we can't take no more...

What is the worst King adaptation of all time? With Bonus Choices!

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    • UndercoverAgent19 profile image


      4 years ago

      I was hesitant to watch Dreamcatcher, because the book was just so convoluted and bizarre. But now, after reading this hub, I feel even less inclined to see it. And I am ashamed to be one of those people who loves Children of the Corn as well as many of the sequels. But, just because I love those movies, doesn't mean I actually think that they are GOOD.

    • Glimmer515 profile image


      7 years ago from Never Never Land

      I was so dissapointed by dreamcatcher!!! I cant tell you how happy i am to see it on your list as well! I did a hub on worst horror movies awhile ago and DreamCatcher was for sure on it!!


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