Top 10 unfilmed (as yet) novels of Stephen King
Nick Thompson, our guest blogger, is an occasional writer and horror fiction fan. He discovered Stephen King in his mid-teens and hasn't been the same since. He writes a blog now and then at https://themarzipanman.wordpress.com/ where you can read his novel, Headbanger, amongst other horrific scribblings.
A Stephen King blog for Halloween? Okay. But how to make it different from the millions that have already been written? Yet another examination of Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining? A hot take on how The Stand is actually a cautionary precursor to the climate change crisis? Anyway, surely every one of his novels have been made into movies by now, haven’t they?
Well, not quite. In fact, not even close to all of them. It’s true that pretty much all of his oeuvre from the first decade of his published career have been filmed, there’s still a fair number that haven’t been touched by the movies or TV.
Of course, the commonly held view is that when it comes to “The King of Horror” the old ones are the best. Whether that’s objectively true or just that we read those novels with different eyes I can’t say for sure but you can’t quibble with that early run from 1974 to 1983 - Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, The Gunslinger (the first in his epic Dark Tower series), Christine and Pet Sematary. There’s a reason they all became movies – because they’re damn good stories, brilliantly told.
However, there’s not much that can be added (not by me, anyway) to the conversation about those books, which everyone with a passing knowledge or interest in Stephen King will surely know already. So I thought I would instead concentrate on my favourite King books which have not yet been the subject of a major film or TV adaptation.
I did have some arguments with myself about what did and didn’t qualify for the list. In particular, I agonised over whether 1987’s The Tommyknockers was eligible. It did inspire a TV movie starring Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger, which - like the TV adaptations of Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Under The Dome, 11/22/63 and Mr Mercedes, among others - should have been enough to categorically rule it out. But The Tommyknockers two-parter is so terrible, such an early nineties TV-movie-of-the-week travesty, that I tried to tell myself that SURELY there must be a loophole that would allow me to include it.
But no. Rules are rules, the magic number is 19 and ka is a wheel. So, without any further in-jokes, here are my favourite ten unfilmed Stephen King stories...
10 REVIVAL A weird one to start with, in that I actually didn’t enjoy most of this book. Unusually for King, I found the characters uninvolving and the story strangely unconvincing, a series of episodes rather than his usual intricately woven plot. However, for a writer often panned for his endings, the resolution to this one is bona fide killer. If you’ve seen the ending to the movie version of The Mist and thought that was depressing just wait ‘til you get to this one. In retrospect, Revival might have made a better novella or long short story because it feels like everything in it is just a build up to the ending but when the climax is this horribly good I can go along with that. It kept me awake at night thinking about it and if that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is.
9 BLAZE Blaze was published in 2007 and could be said to be his Of Mice And Men, only Blaze’s George is the ghost of the learning disabled antagonist’s best friend. Much is made of King’s capacity to shock, scare and creep out the reader, but much less shouted about is the pathos he generates for his characters. Even though Blaze is a petty criminal who steals a wealthy man’s baby son, King still makes the reader care for him, worry about his fate and despair at his inevitable fate. A heartbreaker.
8 JOYLAND One of King’s shortest novels at less than 300 pages, Joyland was written for the Hard Case Crime imprint and published in 2012. It’s something of a coming of age story, conjuring the feel of the movies The Way, Way Back and Adventureland, as well as King’s own novella The Body (which was wonderfully filmed as the classic Stand By Me) and the faintest hint of an 18-certificate episode of Scooby Doo. Even in a short novel which would almost be considered throwaway by another writer, King pays his usual attention to detail to the characters, plot and detail of its setting, an amusement park in North Carolina, and time (summer 1973). It’s not essential King, but I recommend giving it a go to see another side to his repertoire – and given the enthralling plot and brisk pace I’ll make a carnival wager with you that you’ll finish it within a couple of lazy summer days.
7 DUMA KEY I always remember the books I read on holiday best, which might be one reason why 2008’s Duma Key sticks with me – I can’t think of it without picturing the sunny Turkish balcony I read most of it lounging on. But I don’t think it’s JUST that. It’s a pretty involving book and it was probably more notable for being a return to form after the understated Blaze and the long-winded Lisey’s Story. The plot centres around Edgar Freemantle, a building-contractor who is nearly killed when his truck is crushed by a crane. Freemantle loses his right arm and suffers severe head injuries which affect his speech, vision, and memory and cause suicidal thoughts and violent abusive mood swings, which lead to the end of his marriage. In 1999 King was almost killed himself when a van ploughed into him while he was out walking and it is hard not to think that at least some of Edgar’s plight is semi-autobiographical. In order to try and recover, Edgar rents a beach house on the island of Duma Key, off the coast of Florida and rekindles his old hobby of sketching. To say any more would be to spoil the many surprises and terrors in store – suffice it to say, “The feeling those Duma pictures conveyed was horror barely held in check. Horror waiting to happen. Inbound on rotted sails."
6 THE EYES OF THE DRAGON The first proper King novels not yet to be filmed as movies are The Talisman, co-written with Peter Straub (more on that in a while) and The Eyes of the Dragon. Both were published in 1984 and both stray into the realm of fantasy rather than the pure horror he had been known for up to that point (and pretty much his whole career). The Eyes of the Dragon is also the closest King came to a children’s book - but as you’d expect it’s still pretty scary, and nasty, and dark. A classic story of good, evil and magic in the vein of European fairy tales, it takes place in Delain, located in the world of King’s epic The Dark Tower series, recently filmed starring Idris Elba to disappointingly non-epic effect. It also features King uber-baddie Randall Flagg in one of his many guises, who seeks to destroy Peter and the kingdom because, well, he’s just THAT bad. While it was generally well-reviewed, some of King’s fans were apparently disgusted that he could write anything other than an out-and-out horror story, an experience that inspired my all-time favourite Stephen King novel, Misery...
5 THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON One of King’s shorter novels, this is again one that disappointed readers at the time by being more psychological than horrific, the nature or extent of any supernatural element kept ambiguous and open to the reader’s interpretation. It concerns 9 year-old Trisha, separated from the rest of her family during a hiking trip and lost in the woods with her Walkman only a few items she has in her possession. As she strays deeper and deeper into the woods, the threat of death by supernatural means or sheer exhaustion, starvation or thirst increases and she starts to believe that Tom Gordon, her favourite baseball player, whose commentaries on her Walkman are her only company, is protecting her and guiding her to safety. I first read it when it was published in 1999. It’s a very different experience twenty years later when you have a 9 year-old daughter yourself.
4 THE OUTSIDER Imagine the sheriff arrests you in front of the whole town and charges you with the worst possible crime – the rape, mutilation and murder of a little boy. You know you didn’t do it, but the evidence is damning. Not only is your DNA and fingerprints found at the scene but also many of your friends and neighbours saw you in the area, with the vehicle used to abduct the victim. Everyone in the town thinks you did it and there’s no way a jury would see it any other than the direction the evidence points. That’s what happens to Terry Maitland in 2018’s The Outsider, which takes the “unjustly accused” nightmare scenario of The Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and adds a supernatural element. With the help of Holly Gibney (from the Mr Mercedes series), Terry attempts to track down the outsider, doppleganger, identity thief or other entity that framed him and, evidently, several other people for heinous crimes before his own life and freedom is forfeit. In many ways it is classic King, and continues a revival that started, for me at least, towards the end of the noughties after a few misfires and disappointments (Lisey’s Story, Rose Madder, Under The Dome and Dreamcatcher spring to mind) in the previous decade.
3 THE TALISMAN Like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series, The Talisman, co-written with Peter Straub, is more fantasy epic than horror story. In it, twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer embarks on a quest to find the talisman, which he thinks will save his dying mother’s life. The quest takes him from the east coast to the shores of California along the way dipping in and out of “the Territories”, a parallel universe, where people from his own have doppleganger versions of themselves called "twinners" – including Jack's mother, whose twinner is the queen of the Territories, who is also dying. With shades of The Dark Tower and Stranger Things (which is packed with King nods and homages), The Talisman is epic on every level, not just its 944 page length. However, though Kings has tended to be in need of a good editor who he is prepared to listen to for many of his subsequent long works, his early doorstops don’t feel in any way drawn out or superfluous. It’s a wonderful journey filled with memorable characters (including a teenage werewolf with a catchphrase - “Moon!”), nailbiting tension and genuine emotion. Not only that, it’s the subject of Ash’s song, “Jack Names The Planets” and Stephen Spielberg has been trying to make it into a film for three decades. You’ll never forget it – and once you’ve read it, you can crack on with its sequel, Black House.
2 THE LONG WALK Though Carrie was published first, in ‘74, just in time to stop him giving up on his authorial ambitions, The Long Walk was the first longform story King wrote, having begun it in 1966–67 while studying at the University of Maine. It was not published until 1979 under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman, one of four novellas that made up The Bachman Books (which also includes The Running Man, in rather different, less spandex-clad form to the Arnie movie). The Long Walk is set in a dystopian near-future in which the names of a hundred young men are picked every year to take part in a walk only one of them will finish, the other ninety-nine shot dead along the way if they drop below the required pace three times. What could be a boring, depressing read is enlivened by the characters King brings to life with his prose and, especially, dialogue and the story evokes parallels with both the fate of so many young American men drafted to fight and die in Vietnam and the realisation that comes with adulthood that life itself is a long walk which ends the same way for all of us - it’s what you do along the way that makes the difference. It’s one of the King books I can re-read again and again.
1 THE INSTITUTE Which brings us to the present, and a happy ending in that the top book of the pile is his most recent. Constant readers will know that not all Stephen King books have happy endings, but in this case, it’s a joy to report that his latest, a kind of cross between Firestarter and The Girl With All The Gifts, is a belter. I’m tempted to say it is his best stand-alone novel since 1991’s Needful Things.
The Institute is everything I love about Stephen King - he introduces a load of characters to you and before you know it you love the ones you’re supposed to love and hate the ones you’re supposed to hate, then he turns them against each other in a plot that feels effortlessly driven but which you know is painstakingly crafted. I found myself genuinely worried about Luke, Tim, Kalisha and Avery, characters I had only just got to know and knew did not exist, but who I was desperate for everything to turn out all right for. And that’s what I want from a King book. Well, plus the odd gory, terrifying or creepy setpiece, of course – and those are here in spades too. I loved it.
With the recent commercial success of IT and the Pet Sematary remake expect a renewed glut of Stephen King adaptations on the big and small screen very soon (starting, in fact with The Shining’s long-awaited sequel Doctor Sleep, out later this month, and the promised major TV series of The Outsider and The Stand). A glance at IMDb shows that versions of The Talisman, The Eyes of The Dragon, Rose Madder, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey’s Story, From A Buick 8, Duma Key, Sleeping Beauties and Joyland are all in production. Some of these won’t see the light of day, some will no doubt be terrible, but I’m willing to bet at least a couple will do the writer’s original vision some justice. And if they don’t, hey, there’s always the books to go back to.
Finally, if you do happen to be interested, these are my favourite SK books that HAVE been made into movies (based on the quality of the book, not the film):
1 Misery 2 The Dead Zone 3 Salem’s Lot 4 Pet Sematary 5 The Shining 6 IT 7 Needful Things 8 The Dark Half 9 The Stand 10 The Tommyknockers