Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: Ranking Stephen King’s TV Movies, Part 2 (#11-1)

September 7, 2017 | Posted by Joseph Lee
Stephen King IT

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Last week, I began the rather ambitious task of ranking all of Stephen King’s TV miniseries and films. Outside of the fact that a lot of people inexplicably like The Langoliers, it went over well, I think. Of course the whole point of this is that IT opens this week and the 1986 novel was originally adapted as a miniseries in 1990. It will make this week’s half of the list, but where?

This half of the list is full of the King adaptations I feel have merit. The last half ranged from terrible to bland, and I didn’t enjoy any of them. This time we’ll see (for the most part) adaptations that I can find good things in, even if I have problems with it as a whole. Here’s last week’s half to catch you up:

22. Desperation
21. The Langoliers
20. Rose Red
19. The Tommyknockers
18. Salem’s Lot (2004)
17. Bag of Bones
16. The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer
15. Children of the Corn (2009)
14. Firestarter: Rekindled
13. Carrie (2002)
12. Trucks

Keep in mind, I’m not counting Kingdom Hospital, The Dead Zone, Under the Dome or the new version of The Mist. Those are all actual TV shows. Let’s get into part two.

#11: Big Driver (2014)

The second-most recent film on this list is from the novella of the same name in Full Dark, No Stars. It aired on Lifetime in October of 2014, which is fitting because it’s a very 90s Lifetime kind of movie. Maria Bello plays an author who is beaten, raped and left for dead. She makes the decision not only to not tell anyone, but track down the man who did it and get revenge. It’s a rape and revenge TV movie. Remember when those were rated X back in the 70s and barely shown in theaters?

Anyway, outside of the trappings these films tend to have, it’s solid enoug. It goes to the lowest common denominator of rape in order to make the audience uncomfortable instead of building any kind of actual suspense, and the revenge portion is a typical vigilante justice movie. However, Maria Bello is a very good actress and delivers in her role, managing to justify the adaptation’s existence. It’s just an exploitation movie, but the acting from Bello makes it at least worth one viewing.

#10: Golden Years (1991)

This is one of King’s original projects and I think it holds well. It almost doesn’t count as a miniseries because it was originally intended to be an actual TV series. However CBS pulled the plug before it got that option and so King talked them into getting more time to finish the story. It aired over the summer in 1991, with seven episodes by running at a little under four hours. I guess the episodes must have been stretched out with a lot of commercials.

There is a big drag in the middle of the series but it’s still an interesting premise. A old janitor is hit with radiation in an explosion that causes him to start getting younger. The Shop, the shadowy government cabal that appears in a few other King works, starts hunting for him as they want to know just what happened. The acting is decent, if a little melodramatic, and the story mostly works. I almost wish this had gone to series, as it would have been interesting to see where things led. Alas, what we’re left with is an uneven promise of what could have been.

#9: Quicksilver Highway (1997)

Okay way back when I ran a list of the worst King films, Quicksilver Highway was on it. I don’t know why I hated this film so much back then because I’ve softened quite a bit on it now. It’s still not great, but it’s a silly little anthology B-movie that sees two of my favorite authors working together. It’s hard to hate something like that, even if the stories they chose aren’t really their best. This movie aired on FOX in May of 1997 before quickly hitting home video.

The stories are connected by Christopher Lloyd, a name that I’m surprised never showed up in any of the weirder King stuff before then. King’s contribution “Chattery Teeth,” about a pair of large, toy chattering teeth that kill people. It’s one of his dumber stories and obviously that carries over into the film. Barker’s story “The Body Politic” is a little better from a farcical standpoint, as the hands of the world remove themselves from the bodies of people and revolt. It’s a dumb but occasionally fun movie, which is fine enough for what it is.

#8: The Shining (1997)

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick released his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s widely regarded as one of the best horror films (and best films) ever made, by a lot of people including those who are way better at analyzing film than me. Anyway, Stephen King was not one of those people. He didn’t like that Kubrick took liberties with his story and changed the ending, which removed Jack Torrence’s redemption and self-sacrifice to save his family. So in 1997, he teamed up with Mick Garris to turn the book into a six-hour miniseries that aired over three nights on ABC.

First of all, I know there are a minority out there who think this is better than Kubrick’s film because it’s closer to the book. To that I say, nay. The Shining plods along, especially since its SIX HOURS LONG. On top of that, there are barely any scares, and one of the scenes from the book that was ridiculous when it was written (the moving topiary animals) is just as silly as you’d think it would be on screen. The miniseries’ only saving grace, and the reason it is also so high up, is Steven Weber. The man perfectly embodies Jack Torrence as the everyman with issues who eventually succumbs to the madness of the Overlook. It’s hard to catch in the monotony of the six hour adaptation of a 400+ page book (IT was 1136 pages and only got three) but it’s there. Weber is damn good and along with a couple of creepy moments, manages to save the minseries from itself.

#7: Salem’s Lot (1979)

One of these days, we’re going to get a proper cinematic adaptation of Salem’s Lot. Until then we have to settle for both tepid TV versions, of which this is the better one because it actually has some chilling moments. The vampires in general are creepy here, with their sunken, yellow eyes and pale skin. Granted, that’s a look that other vampire shows have given them, but for some reason it works a lot better in this. Plus there’s that bit of the vampire boy floating outside of his friend’s window that scarred people for life.

That said, the creepy moments almost come few and far between in this three-hour miniseries that aired over three nights on CBS in November of 1979. Plus I’m not particularly a fan of making Kurt Barlow an almost mindless savage when he had some intelligence in the book. He is a master vampire, after all, he’s supposed to be of a higher class. Between that and a lot of dull spots, Salem’s Lot hasn’t particularly aged well even with its positives. That said, it’s still better than the 2004 attempt.

#6: Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

There were several changes made to Stephen King’s short story in this TV movie that debuted on CBS in 1991. The ending has some changes and there’s little differences throughout. Oddly enough, Sometimes They Come Back Again is closer to the story even with different characters. But this is the better film, and it’s a decent supernatural tale at that. It has a entertaining cast who try to lift up one of King’s weaker stories, as well as a firm grasp on atmosphere.

Is it perfect? No. Some of the acting tends to get cheesy and the script isn’t great. But it manages to make up for its flaws to be one of those under-the-radar King adaptations that no one talks about but is secretly fun (like The Night Flier).

#5: IT (1990)

Before I came up with this idea, I had another to basically tell everyone why this miniseries didn’t hold up as well as you might think it does. I decided against it, but here’s my basic points. Yes, Tim Curry is a lot of fun, but outside of Georgie’s death and a unsettling image or two, IT wasn’t as scary as you remember. Not only that, it’s not even as good as you remember. Tim Curry, as great and entertaining as he is, is nowhere near as frightening as IT is in the book and the movie itself is basically a cliff’s notes version of that story. The second half in particular falters quite a bit.

Now, with that out of the way, Tim Curry is pretty great. Not only that, but the child actors are great. The adult actors are hit or miss, but I do enjoy John Ritter as adult Ben. And there are some creepy moments, like when Pennywise is digging graves in the cemetary or when Beverly hears the voices of the dead kids in her sink. If this were just the first half, it might be even more beloved than it is today. It’s not, unfortunately, but even when IT is at its worst (dog clown), it’s still pretty fun to watch, which is more than can be said for a lot of the King TV adaptations from the 90s.

#4: Nightmares and Dreamscapes (2006)

This is another one that veers dangerously close to being a full-blown TV show, but it was only ever meant to be a limited series of eight episodes, so I’m counting it as a miniseries. It aired during the summer of 2006 on TNT. The stories adapted include several from the book it’s named after, but a couple of them are from others. “Battleground,” for example, appears in Night Shift while “Autopsy Room Four” is in Everything’s Eventual.

How you feel about this miniseries will depend on how you feel about each individual episode, but I’m a pretty big fan of most of them. I loved “The End of the Whole Mess” and “The Fifth Quarter,” while both “Umney’s Last Case” and “Autopsy Room Four” are a lot of fun. Even the worst ones benefit from the actors in them, such as “You Know They Got A Hell of A Band.”

#3: 11/22/63 (2016)

I absolutely loved the book 11/22/63. Not only did I enjoy the mystery and time travel aspects, I just loved Stephen King doing what he arguably does better than scaring people: writing characters the reader loves. Such is the case with Jake Epping, Sadie Dunhill and all of the people that reside in Jodie, Texas. The book is 849 pages long, and a good quarter of it is devoted to Jake’s time just living as a teacher in the 1950s. You wouldn’t think that would be interesting, but it is. Anyway, when a film was announced I was skeptical and when it was changed to a series I was relieved.

The Hulu miniseries turned out to be much better than expected. It takes some liberties with the story, mostly condensing it a bit and beefing up a character to give Jake someone to interact with, but it’s still mostly the same. James Franco is really good in the lead and his chemistry with Sarah Gadon helps bring those two characters to life. It feels slightly subdued overall, mainly because I knew where it was going, but it’s definitely one of the better King adaptations overall. It’s definitely another example of why modern TV should be the way to go for his longer adaptations. As long as they don’t turn it into Under the Dome.

#2: Storm of the Century (1999)

I absolutely love Storm of the Century. It has all the best traits of Stephen King’s best books and none of the usual flaws that plague his TV adaptations. Well okay, the special effects aren’t good but the acting and atmosphere more than make up for it. This one aired on ABC in February of 1999 over three different days. It follows Little Tall Island in Maine, which is hit with the titular winter storm that cuts them off from the rest of society. It’s on that occasion that a supernatural being named Andre Linoge arrives, threatening to do bad things to them. However, if they give him what he wants, he’ll go away.

This movie is almost entirely driven on the performance of Colm Feore as Linoge, who just has this aura of pure evil during his time on screen. Tim Daly is also pretty good as the lead and in spite of its 4+ hour run time, it manages to move along a decent pace and there’s always something interesting happening. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, is a total punch to the gut that feels more reminiscent of King’s work as Bachman. It’s a very good watch and one that you should check out if you aren’t familiar with it.

#1: The Stand (1994)

The Stand is one of Stephen King’s longest novels, particularly if you’re reading the “Complete & Uncut Edition,” which I prefer. It’s a sprawling epic story about a plague that wipes out most of humanity, and that’s just for starters. The survivors are then recruited to two opposing sides that will eventually have a final confrontation. It might be impossible to adapt the book into one feature film due to its imposing size, which is why all talk of cinematic adaptations have mentioned it as a multi-feature franchise. They knew it wouldn’t work as one movie in the 90s, which is why a four-part miniseries aired on ABC in May of 1994.

I’ve talked about how great this is in the past and I feel like there’s not much else I need to say. It captures the spirit of the book as well as a TV miniseries could and on top of that it has quite a few great casting choices, including Gary Sinise as Stu, Jamie Sheridan as Flagg and Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen. That’s just three of the better ones, but most of the cast gets enough time to shine and bring something worthwhile to the miniseries. And Molly Ringwald is there too. It cuts some corners to get the book onto television, mostly the more risque content and some consolidation of characters, but it’s a tremendous watch. I only hope that the level of care shown with this pops up in any future King adaptations.

Ending Notes:

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