As big a fan of Stephen King as I am, there are some of his stories that just didn’t resonate on the screen for one reason or another. Some are just incredibly bad in their adaptation, some are just bad in their execution. These are five of, in my opinion, the worst Stephen King film adaptations.
The Shining (1980)
I know many people are going to be up in arms about this pick, especially fans of Kubrick, but hear me out. I am a huge fan of Kubrick and there are many enjoyable moments in this film based on the novel of the same name from 1977, but the movie is a bad adaptation of the source material. While I am aware of the constraints of a movie when it comes to the passage of time, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrence was just bad. Torrence is a man fighting his demons internally and externally. He is constantly trying to struggle against his past demons that threaten to derail everything in his life that he truly cares about, his family. His struggles with alcohol are highlighted by his desire to be the man his wife and child need him to be.
The film doesn’t convey any of that emotional struggle in Jack. At no point in the movie do I even get a sense that he likes his family, let alone cares enough about them to make me care about the madness that is overtaking him. In fact, his performance doesn’t come across as anything less than a crazy man being allowed to be crazy versus a struggling man driven crazy by the Overlook. Torrence’s wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) is so meek and fearful in her performance that I never got a sense why these two people would even be together, let alone married. There are moments in the novel when Wendy forcefully puts herself between her son Danny and the danger that Jack has become. Nowhere in the Kubrick film do I get a sense of that bravery from her. As a haunted house movie, it works to a degree. As an adaptation of The Shining, it fails across the board.
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
I almost hate to put this one on the list because parts of it are funny, but it wasn’t meant to be a comedy and it caused the director to never direct another film. This adaptation of the short story Trucks from 1973 was written for the screen and directed by Stephen King himself. The movie is about a group of people trapped in a roadside diner as cars and trucks begin to move on their own and act with a consciousness. As they seemingly murder everyone around them, the survivors band together to find a way to escape from the killer vehicles.
Let’s just negate the first serious flaw being the killer trucks and their natural kryptonite being hills and water, what doesn’t work in this film the most is the people. Not one person in this film is interesting or entertaining enough for me to root for them to live. Even Emilio Estevez’s character is so annoying as the hero that I wished him to die along with everyone else. What could have been an exercise in horror becomes an idiotic shoot em up as the owner just happens to have a cache of weapons under the store. Even more ridiculous is the jeep with the M60 attached to it via post that can all of a sudden fire at the people in the truck stop. There is almost nothing not dumb about this movie.
Apt Pupil (1998)
This is another adaptation that, on paper, should have worked. Based on the 1982 novella, the film was directed by Bryan Singer, who had just come off of directing The Usual Suspects and starred Ian McKellen who had been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Gods and Monsters the year before. The problem with this film was that it was too tame in regards to the source material. They took a story of a young man descending into murder due to his relationship to a former Nazi in hiding and turned it into a generic thriller about a kid blackmailing everyone.
The character in the novella was more well-rounded and, at times, sympathetic. The film literally makes everyone so emotionally vapid that there is no one in it that you care about. Everybody sucks, everyone is a douchebag and nothing they do in the film is either particularly clever or interesting in its execution. Even in the moments where you should be seeing the slow descent of Todd Bowden, Brad Renfro’s performance doesn’t portray any of that. His face looks empty like he can’t understand the moment that he finds himself in.
Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
The biggest problem I have with this movie based on the 1999 novella Low Men in Yellow Coats, is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It is a series of unconnected threads that never meet anywhere significant. The novella itself is part of a larger interconnected story that covers the entire book Hearts in Atlantis. The writer and producer decided to cut out the rest of that story and focus on the first part about Bobby and his relationship with Ted Brautigan. The moments with Ted as father figure are ok, but there aren’t enough of them. The moments when Ted is showing the powers that he possesses are too short and the “Low Men” are neither menacing or convincing as a threat.
Everything about this movie feels like it is the start of a better movie. The performances are not bad per se, but none of the actors are really given that much compelling to do. I think the fact that this came out after the much better done The Green Mile speaks to the studios desire to try to capture some of what made that Stephen King adaptation so special. Unfortunately, Hearts in Atlantis is such a rich book that covers multiple stories involving multiple people, that the story they chose feels unfinished, even if you never read the book.
This is a film that had everything positive going for it…on paper. You had a screenplay by great writers Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, Silverado) and William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride). It was directed by Kasdan and starred Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant and Damian Lewis. So what happened with the film based on the 2001 novel of the same name? Short answer: it was just boring.
The alien invasion plot works well in book form because it allows for time to be spent with each character. The movie dragged on trying to put in elements that work on the page but not on the screen. All of the male leads are given little to nothing to do and the tension is sucked out of the movie the moment Morgan Freeman opens his mouth to spout something crazy. Overall, it felt like I was dropped into the boring side story of a more interesting movie.
Now I know not every Stephen King adaptation that is not on this list is Oscar-worthy material, but most of those adaptations know what they are, what they are trying to be and have moments that are interesting. The ones on this list have taken more interesting material and taken away everything that made the stories work in the first place.
Let me know what you think. What do you think is the worst Stephen King adaptation? You know where the comments are.