Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone

What makes a good Stephen King adaptation? The question has no easy answer, though not for lack of a sizable sample. At this point King has more than 250 writing credits on the Internet Movie Database. That number is slightly inflated by his practice of letting aspiring filmmakers license some of his stories for $1 on the condition that their work won’t be sold. But even so, there have been a lot of movies and TV shows inspired by King’s stories over the years, a trend that shows no sign of abating thanks to the recent success of It. Shakespeare and the Bible may have him beat, but they should watch out.

This weekend Music Box and the Chicago-based website Consequence of Sound will offer an immersive course in the rewards and pitfalls of adapting King. “Greetings From Castle Rock,” an eight-film Stephen King festival, coincides with the premiere of Hulu’s new, King-inspired series Castle Rock and largely features films set in and around King’s fictional small town in Maine. No selection of King adaptations could be called representative, but this one comes close, ranging from classics like Stand by Me (1986) to the less acclaimed Needful Things (1993). It also proves that there’s no right way to adapt a Stephen King story. Some faithful adaptations work brilliantly, some fall flat. Some adaptations work best when filmmakers bend themselves to the material, some benefit from the stamp of a distinctive director.

David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation The Dead Zone (Sat 7/28, 2:45 PM) falls squarely into the latter category. Christopher Walken stars as a Castle Rock schoolteacher who develops psychic powers after a car accident. As in Cronenberg’s preceding films (Videodrome, Scanners), the hero’s powers are more of a curse than a gift, wearing him down and alienating those around him. But thanks to King (and to Walken’s performance), Cronenberg finds an emotional depth, unseen in his previous work, that has served him well in the years since.

The Dead Zone hit theaters in a year rich with memorable King adaptations, including John Carpenter’s Christine and Lewis Teague’s Cujo (Fri 7/27, 9:15 PM). Teague (Alligator, Navy SEALs) makes this 1983 release one of the best early King adaptations in part because he keeps its aspirations modest. The novel has a simple premise—a mother and child are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard—and Teague sticks with it, recognizing that a compelling setup and suspenseful execution can be all a thriller needs. But in building up to that crisis, Teague also retains much of what makes the novel (and many of King’s best efforts) so vital, with scenes of marital discord and domestic abuse that ground the fantastic story in the real world.

Reconciling the real with the bizarre can be hard work, as Mary Lambert demonstrates with Pet Sematary (Sat 7/28, midnight), her 1989 adaptation of one of King’s bleakest novels. A doctor moves to rural Maine to take a teaching job, only to find that a nearby pet cemetery brings dead people back to life. Working from King’s own script, Lambert stays true to the plot of the novel and creates some truly unnerving images, but she loses most of the book’s thematic subtext about the dangers of denying death (less-than-memorable lead performances from Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby don’t help). By contrast, Fraser C. Heston’s Needful Things (Sat 7/28, 9:30 PM) suffers from a shortage of scares but benefits from Max von Sydow’s colorful performance as an antiques dealer, newly arrived in Castle Rock (and possibly the devil incarnate), who turns the townspeople against each other. Tonally it’s all over the place, and Heston, like Lambert, neglects the thematic possibilities lying just beneath the story’s surface.

King’s name will always be synonymous with horror, though he’s frequently strayed from the genre. For Stand by Me (Fri 7/27, 7 PM), Rob Reiner turned to “The Body,” a novella included in King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons. Both the story and the film, about four boys who embark on a day-long hike to confirm rumors of a body lying in the woods, prove that King can deliver the goods without a ghoul or killer car anywhere to be seen. Reiner moves the action from Maine to Oregon and scoots the year up from 1959 to 1960, but otherwise he respects the simplicity of the source material. The film is driven by reflection more than action, exploring the bonds of childhood friendship and the consequences of parental neglect and abuse, subjects King has returned to repeatedly throughout his career.

Creepshow, (Fri 7/17, 11:30 PM), on the other hand, is all horror. With this anthology film, King and director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) pay tribute to the gory morality tales of Tales From the Crypt and other EC Comics titles from the 1950s that made a deep impression on them in their youth. Some of the episodes King adapted from his own short stories, others he concocted for the movie; as with all anthology films, some segments work better than others (the one starring King as a yokel in bib overalls works least of all). But the nostalgia covers up some of the rough spots, even if the movie ends up feeling like a heartfelt homage more than an original statement.

Anyone seeking a shorter crash course on adapting Stephen King might want to focus on the two films from writer-director Frank Darabont: The Shawshank Redemption (Sat 7/28, 11:45 AM), his beloved 1994 adaptation of another Different Seasons entry, and The Mist (Sat 7/28, 7 PM), his 2007 film in which a handful of small-town Maine residents find themselves stranded inside a grocery store by an impenetrable fog and the Lovecraftian creatures emerging from it. Where Shawshank is grandiose, sweeping, and grounded in humanistic hope, The Mist is gritty, scary, and misanthropic, approaching the edge of nihilism. Each is terrific in its own way, but both retain King’s idea of characters clinging to what makes them human, against overwhelming forces. King’s works don’t always translate to the screen, but these two movies show why so many filmmakers keep trying.  v