Legendary author Stephen King has written so many books and short stories, in such a wide variety of genres, it’s easy to see why a year rarely passes by without some form of movie or TV adaptation of his work. Hollywood’s King obsession has resulted in classic films like Carrie, The Shining Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s also given us experiences we’d rather forget; see The Langoliers, Dreamcatcher or Maximum Overdrive or, rather, don’t.
This past year was a particularly prolific one for King adaptations. We had six opportunities to get lost in King’s dark, twisted and often very entertaining world. But not everyone has the luxury of watching every King adaptation that comes into being, which is why I’ve decided to rank each adaptation from the past year, from worst to best. Which ones are most worth your time? Find out below.
* Note: I have not read much of King’s work, so (with the exception of The Dark Tower), I will be judging the work on its own terms, not in how faithful it is to its source material.*
6. THE MIST
Spike TV’s adaptation of King’s 1980 novella (which itself received a fairly well-liked Fran Darabont-directed film in 2007) is one of the more frustrating shows I’ve seen in recent years. That’s not because it’s bad. On the contrary, quite often it’s close to riveting. It’s got solid acting, great atmosphere and decent visual effects. So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s also frequently maudlin, preachy and just…stupid.
An eerie Mist rolls into a small town, and those who remain unprotected from its fumes experience hallucinations and, soon after, a gruesome death. The Mist acts as sort of a righteous judge, one that came before as “the black spring” in the 1800s to cleanse the populace of sin. Or, so says Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy), who proclaims she is nature’s messenger and that The Mist is telling her what must be done to appease it. The film follows several interlocking storylines: in addition to Raven’s power struggle with a priest who believes The Mist is the beginning of the divine judgment foretold in Revelations, there is the Copeland family, who is separated early in the series; an amnesiac soldier; a recovering drug addict; the manager of a local mall; and Alex Copeland’s gay BFF Adrian.
These characters range from intriguing (Adrian, played by Russell Posner, might be my favorite in the entire show, and the priest character is surprisingly complex and sympathetic) to flat-out annoying. I lost count of how many times I wanted to punch Raven in the face, yet her apocalyptic rambling might end up being the town’s only salvation.
And that’s the show in a nutshell—an intriguing mystery undone by inconsistent characters and an undeniable mean streak. I feel like The Mist often punishes the good characters while the evil ones get to continue surviving. Characters do reprehensible things to each other, and, for my money, the show views them with a much too objective lens. For this, the show fails on a fundamental moral level.
The internal logic of The Mist isn’t even consistent. Characters The Mist seems to “avoid” for unexplained reasons are later attacked by it, with no explanation of the sentient atmosphere’s change of heart. But the biggest flaw is not exactly the show’s fault; Spike cancelled the series after the first season, meaning many of the big questions (such as where The Mist came from) will not be answered anytime soon. I will say the last episode of the season is super messed up and all kinds of batshit crazy. I loved it, because it took risks and went places I didn’t expect. Sadly, you’ll have to sit through 9 sluggish episodes to get there. I might recommend this show if I knew there was another season coming, but as it stands, it’s just not worth it.
5. THE DARK TOWER
Oh man. What can I say about The Dark Tower? This long-in-gestation adaptation of King’s seminal sci-fi/fantasy/western series of novels (Ron Howard was originally attached to direct) has “troubled development” written all over it. And man, does it show. It’s hard to believe such a bad-ass epic could be reduced to such dull drivel, but here we are. The titular gunslinger, Roland Deschain, is played here by Idris Elba, which seems all around to be a smart casting choice. I love the decision to cast a black actor in this role; I don’t know if King ever envisioned Roland as black, but I sure didn’t. His paths cross with adolescent Jake (Tom Taylor), who begins having visions of a gunslinger, a large tower and a man dressed in black. Soon he finds a portal that transports him to Midworld, a sort of hub that connects different parallel universes and realities. It turns out Jake might have special abilities that will help Roland defeat the nefarious Walter, aka the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who intends to destroy the dark tower at the center of all worlds, one that holds together the very fabric of reality itself.
It’s hard to guess who this movie was made for. Fans of the books would notice vague similarities, but the film adds some strange sci-fi elements and plot points that are far removed from the world King created. Those who haven’t read the books will likely be scratching their heads, as the film attempts to squeeze in King’s complex, 7-book universe into 90 minutes. Hey, at least it’s short.
Elba is great here, but McConaughey seems completely miscast, and I can’t think of a more phoned-in performance he’s given in recent years. He almost looks like he’s sleepwalking through most of the movie, which doesn’t make for a very menacing villain.
On the plus side, the film is nice to look at, and several of the bullet-whizzing actions sequences are impressively choreographed. But, the film’s biggest sin is not that it is bad, but that it is dull. I never really felt connected to these characters or this universe, and Roland’s mission is ultimately reduced to the most generic “save the world” plot imaginable. And, for an adaptation of such innovative, bizarre and frequently breathtaking source material, that is the biggest sin of all.
One of two Netflix produced King adaptations released in 2017, 1922 is a gripping, disturbing little nightmare, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Thomas Jane. Jane stars as Wilfred James, a simple farmer desperate to hold onto his land. His cold and distant wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) is intent on selling the land and moving to the city. In the center of the conflict is the couple’s son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), who is ready to side with his mother until he falls in love. Arlette, Wilfred suggests, would soon tear Henry away from her, and he thinks there’s only one thing left to do: murder Arlette and take hold of what’s rightfully theirs.
It’s a nasty little premise, and the opening minutes of the film are indeed shocking. Thankfully, the film doesn’t relent during its entire runtime. As Wilfred deals with the consequences of his decisions, he begins to devolve into a hellish nightmare that contains equal parts regret and rodents (seriously, this movie has a disturbing obsession with rats).
The film is well shot and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s nothing groundbreaking or mind blowing, and some might be disappointed at the lack of major twists in the story. But, for those looking for a gruesome little thriller, this is an easy recommendation for your Netflix watch list.
3. MR. MERCEDES
Released exclusively on the AT&T Audience Network, this TV adaptation of King’s 2014 novel likely remains underseen. Which is a shame, because it’s excellent. The always-brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Detective Bill Hodges, who has turned to alcohol and isolation following his inability to capture the Mercedes killer, so named because he drove a Mercedes into a crowd of people, killing many. Hodges is reeling from his perceived failure when the killer begins to reach out to him, sending him sadistic messages and emails. The killer is a local nobody named Brady Hartsfield (a smarmy and creepy Harry Treadway) who lives with his addict mother (Kelly Lynch) and works a dead-end job at a regional electronics store.
He gets a reprieve from his dull life when he begins to torture Hodges. But how far is he willing to take this at the risk of potentially getting caught? And, can Hodges find the justice that has so long eluded him? The psychological interplay between these two characters is fascinating, and both actors are riveting to watch. What makes the film even better is how much attention is given to the supporting characters, including Brady’s mother, Bill’s neighbors and a new friend and possible romantic interest (the great Mary Louise-Parker).
I wouldn’t call this show “enjoyable.” It’s easily the most dark, disturbing and adult of this year’s King adaptations. But, despite some sluggish pacing in the middle, it’s well worth the time of anyone looking for a gruesome, psychologically fascinating character study. If there is a second season coming (I thought it was conceived as a limited series, but the ending suggests otherwise), I’m on board for this wild ride.
The second adaptation of King’s infamous “killer clown” epic (the first was the memorably terrible 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry), was a smash hit at the box office, and it’s easy to see why. The movie is a total crowd pleaser, and an absolute blast from start to finish.
The film is anchored by sensational performances from a young group of actors, including Jaden Lieberher as Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, Sophia Lillis as Beverly, Finn Wolfhard as Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as the frequently foul-mouthed Eddie. Together, these friends investigate the disappearance of Bill’s little brother, who’s not the only kid in town to disappear recently. Soon, they discover the terrifying monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a shape-shifting clown who lives under the sewers of Derry, Maine, abducting children and scaring them by manifesting himself as their greatest fears.
This film, which sticks to half of King’s story (the other half, following the kids as they return to Derry as adults 30 years later, is already in development for a sequel), is a well-paced and terrifying affair, but it’s best moments have nothing to do with killer clowns. At times, the film resembles King’s coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, as the kids deal with love, loss and puberty. The writing is impeccable, and the actors bring it home all the way. Derry is a strange place where every adult seems wicked, almost as if we’re viewing everything from the distorted lens of childhood. And that means that everything is a potential threat.
That’s not to say that the clown at the center is nothing to sneeze at. Skarsgard takes a very different approach to Pennywise than Curry did. He’s much more menacing and deranged, which makes him more effective. There are a couple of legitimately terrifying moments that made me jump out of my seat, but that smile of his is something that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Alas, Pennywise, like Jaws, gets less scary the more we see him. And we see too much of him at the end. The film’s horror elements rarely match the perfect pacing and haunting brutality of the opening sewer sequence, but the film’s quieter moments more than make up for its sometimes-goofy Pennywise scenes and occasionally cheesy effects. It’s a fantastic film, and an easy recommendation for anyone without too much of a clown complex.
1. GERALD’S GAME
Netflix’s other King adaptation from this year, Gerald’s Game is an astonishingly effective and nail-biting thriller based on King’s 1992 novel. From start to finish, the film grabs you and doesn’t let go. When done correctly, I’m a sucker for single-location thrillers. They often come off as gimmicky, but this one never does.
Carla Gugino gives one of her fiercest performances as Jessie, who travels to a remote lake house for a little getaway with her husband Gerald (the always great Bruce Greenwood). Their goal: to spice up their marriage with some new sexual fantasies. Gerald ties Jessie to the bed, but Jessie, feeling uncomfortable, changes her mind, much to the chagrin of her husband, who proceeds with the affair. Suddenly, in the heat of the moment, and with his wife protesting, Gerald has a heart attack and dies. Jessie, still handcuffed to the bed, is forced to attempt an escape as time runs short. How long can she survive without food and water, and will she make it out alive?
Most of the film takes place in the bedroom, and everything is perfectly manufactured to give Jessie the hardest time possible. Simple, everyday objects like a phone, a glass of water, a straw and one very memorable dog suddenly become characters in the story, items which, if used the right way, might spell salvation for Jessie. It’s a relentlessly stressful experience, and one made all the better by writer-director Mike Flanagan’s decision to view the story through the lens of a feminist psychological thriller. Both Jessie and Gerald show up as different parts of Jessie’s psyche; one speaking empowerment and one condemnation. Through this internal dialogue, we get a unique perspective into Jessie’s character and her history with Gerald. This turns a very simplistic concept into something much more memorable and engaging. Here’s a woman who’s had quite enough of felling trapped and controlled by a man, thank you very much.
Gerald’s Game is, in its own way, a pretty perfect little movie. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it nails both its thriller elements and its larger social message. I know this won’t be leaving my Netflix rotation anytime soon, and it should be on yours immediately.