The History of the Stephen King Miniseries

Drew Dietsch

Hulu has gotten into the miniseries game in a big way with their adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a time-traveling adventure about a man determined to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is hardly the first time that a King story has been adapted in this way, and King himself has given loads of praise to the miniseries format in the past.

In honor of the release of 11/22/63, we here at Fandom decided to take a look back at all the miniseries adaptations of King’s works. It should be noted that we only considered projects that were made with the intention of being a miniseries. Regular TV series such as Golden Years or Under the Dome were disqualified, as well as made-for-TV movies like The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer and Quicksilver Highway.

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)


Ask anyone who was a child at the time that this miniseries aired if ‘Salem’s Lot was scary and you’ll get a resounding “hell yes”. I was seven years old when I saw Ralphie Glick floating outside his brother’s window and the odd way in which he floated into the room. I slept that night under my parent’s kitchen table while they played cards with friends because it was so intense an image. ‘Salem’s Lot is far from perfect and it’s a pared down approach to the seminal novel it’s based upon, but director Tobe Hooper packed in enough great elements to make it a high water mark for Stephen King onscreen.

It’s pulpy, it steals from better sources, and it suffers rather substantially from the transitional stylistic period it was filmed in but the overall result is a winner. The vampire Barlow is the stuff nightmares are made of, the vibe is spot on, and there’s a playful sense to the production itself. It’s a cornerstone vampire story from a time where the world wasn’t overburdened with them. [Nick Nunziata]

It (1990)


The ’90s would end up being the most prolific decade for the Stephen King miniseries, and the decade kicked off with one of the more successful adaptations on this list. It tells the story of a group of childhood friends who battle against a shape-shifting monster, only to have to reconnect years later as adults to finish it off. King’s story is a thesis on horror as a genre and its influence on our culture, and it reads just as well today as it did when it was published thirty years ago.

While Tim Curry’s portrayal of the titular creature’s favorite form, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, is certainly iconic, the rest of the show is a mixed bag. Shown in two parts, the first part that focuses on the main characters as kids has all the best stuff. The second part languishes for most of its running time, and the climactic ending is a goofy misinterpretation of the source material. Even with the advantage of the miniseries format, It is a sprawling epic that needs a lot of time and a big scale to tell its decades-spanning story. With a two-part feature film adaptation finally getting off the ground, maybe we’ll see a more accurate adaptation.

Still, the miniseries is worth a watch for King fans. It was proof that King’s works could make the transition to the small screen and achieve some level of effectiveness. It is nothing great, but it’s certainly deserving of a look. [Drew Dietsch]

The Tommyknockers (1993)


Stephen King has always been weird about writing science fiction. Much like Dreamcatcher and the unfortunate yet amazingly awful Maximum Overdrive, Tommyknockers finds the writer playing in the SF sandbox again with strange results. The miniseries adaptation of the novel of the same name, has been panned as one of the worst adaptations of the author’s work. It doesn’t help that the source material is rather lackluster. It’s almost baffling how bad the two-parter is considering the star power involved.

The cast here is made up of genre greats such as Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), E. G. Marshall (Christmas Vacation), and Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds). Jimmy Smits (Star Wars) and Marg Helgenberger (Species) lead the cast. Supporting performances from Traci Lords, Allyce Beasley and Cliff De Young help lift the show to almost cult classic status; but what really makes it all worthwhile are the bargain bin visual effects and the overall tone that couldn’t possibly take itself more seriously. It’s ridiculous. [Andrew Hawkins]

The Stand (1994)


The Stand is perhaps King’s greatest work. No, it’s definitely King’s greatest work. Like it or not, this mini-series is the biggest TV adaptation based on King’s work. Like its source material it’s ambitious, it’s packed full of characters and it takes forever to get through. While there is a lot to dislike (A LOT) there’s also much to admire.

For starters, the casting is mostly spot-on. Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ruby Dee as Mother Abagail, Jamey Sherdian as Randall Flagg and Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid are legitimately terrific. Then there’s Rob Lowe, then there’s Molly Ringwald, then there’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for some reason. Then there’s the heavy-handed dramatic moments and the lackluster special effects and budget.

Most people agree this mini-series lacked the teeth to do the book justice. You can blame network TV’s standards and practices for that. It tried but it ultimately failed. It’s still worth a viewing every once and awhile…if you have eight hours to kill. [Brandon Marcus]

The Langoliers (1995)


Have you ever slept in the same room with someone who talks in their sleep? Well, the plot of The Langoliers, adapted for the screen by Tom Holland (Fright Night), is the kind of disconnected nonsensical stuff that a snoozing spouse might say. On a commercial flight from LA to Boston, ten sleeping passengers wake to find that all of the other people on the flight have vanished, including the pilots. Among the ten that remain are a blind girl named Dinah, a deranged businessman called Toomey, and luckily enough, an off-duty airline pilot named Brian (David Morse).

Brian tries the radio and gets no response, but manages to land the plane safely in Bangor, Maine. A whole lot of weirdness ensues, and eventually one of the passengers concludes that while the plane was mid-flight, it flew through a rift in time, sending these ten characters back in time a few minutes. Yeah, don’t ask. Things go south for the group when Toomey goes unhinged, stabbing Dinah and killing another passenger. The group decide to take off again, but are attacked by The Langoliers: flying creatures that look like gritty reboots of Pac-Man. I’ll spare you the rest.

While not without its moments, this three-hour miniseries is for die-hard fans only, and is available on DVD. [Travis Newton]

The Shining (1997)


King has always been vocal about his dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, a story that King felt very attached to due to his own issues with alcoholism which are reflected in the main character of the story, Jack Torrance. Eventually, King decided to take his own swing at adapting the book in 1997 with this miniseries directed by longtime associate Mick Garris.

Though it’s by no means a slam dunk, The Shining miniseries isn’t half bad. Steven Weber delivers a surprisingly effective performance as Jack Torrance, and there are moments of genuine horror interspersed throughout (see above!). With King writing the script, the miniseries is slavishly faithful to the original novel, and it’s a fun experience just to see how different Kubrick’s version is from the source material.

If you can divorce yourself from the utter classic that is Kubrick’s film, you’ll find an uneven but overly enjoyable experience in The Shining miniseries. It’s nowhere near perfect (there’s some dodgy CGI and the actor playing Danny can be pretty grating at times), but it’s a must-see for fans of King’s novel. [Drew Dietsch]

Storm of the Century (1999)


Now this Stephen King mini-series was a bit different, namely because it wasn’t based on a priorly-released book. But aside from that this is vintage King.

A small New England island is hammered by the – wait for it – storm of the century. At the same time, a mysterious stranger (played by Colm Feore) comes to town with a deadly and frightening ultimatum. The tension in Storm of the Century is high throughout the mini-series and it’s paced incredibly well. Matched with some great casting (Tim Daly!) this was something quite special. It’s a spooky tale told best in the dark on a cold winter’s night. It has its supernatural tropes, of course, but it’s actually a very human story. That’s when King is at his best, when he deftly examines both the monsters and the humans haunted by them. [Brandon Marcus]

Rose Red (2002)


Rose Red is actually not that bad. The three part miniseries has its merits and actually features a pretty solid cast of notables. Based heavily on haunted house stories like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Hell House by Richard Matheson, Rose Red is based on a script by Stephen King that with a bigger production budget and a shorter running time could have been one of his better efforts on screen. Minus the extraneous scenes that over establish the titular mansion, this work is worth watching for Stephen King fans and horror buffs alike.

The problems here mainly concern the miniseries’ pace and lackluster effects. The cast is composed of worthwhile actors such as Nancy Travis (So I Married an Axe Murderer), Julian Sands (Warlock), Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) and Kevin Tighe (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). The idea behind having almost every character possess a different kind of psychic ability is nothing new, but the way King handles the narrative here is definitely interesting. Honestly, this is the one that would likely benefit most from a remake, or a Special Edition Director’s Cut. [Andrew Hawkins]

‘Salem’s Lot (2004)


Even though it was pretty creepy for its time, the 1979 miniseries of ‘Salem’s Lot was a little too far removed from its source material. TNT attempted to rectify that with this 2004 adaptation.With a stellar cast that included Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, Andre Braugher, and James Cromwell, ‘Salem’s Lot looked like it was destined to be a fitting take on King’s second novel.

While it certainly gets points for trying, this version just can’t escape its television budget or its lack of scares. With the exception of an over-the-top performance from Sutherland, none of the cast does anything extremely memorable. This is especially damning when it comes to Hauer’s portrayal of the villainous vampire Kurt Barlow.

There’s more to like here for King fans as far as fealty to the novel goes, but the original 1979 miniseries did a better job of capturing the eerie quality of the novel. If you could mesh the ’79 version’s tone and atmosphere with the ’04 version’s structure, you might have a really good miniseries on your hands. Until then, we’ll be waiting for another take on one of King’s best books. [Drew Dietsch]

Nightmares & Dreamscapes (2006)


The source material here (one of King’s many short story books) is fantastic and worth your time. The television adaptation? Mostly pretty good. This was more of a TV series than a mini-series, which each episode telling a short story from the book. There was good and there was bad but the good was actually quite impressive. Plus, TNT gave the producers a decent chunk of change so each installment looked flashy.

Some of us were hoping this was going to start a slew of TV adaptations based on King’s short stories. In fact, he has enough stories that a regular series could run for years adapting them. But TNT had other plans and Nightmares and Dreamscapes was a one-and-done situation. It didn’t set the world on fire but it definitely warmed the hearts of King fans hungry for a television fix. [Brandon Marcus]

Bag of Bones (2011)


Bag of Bones is one of Stephen King’s most emotional and powerful novels. It’s also one with moments of great subtlety and grace that make it one of his upper echelon works. As a result, it’s hard not to expect the television incarnation of the story to mine that to maximum effect and sadly it doesn’t. Filmmaker Mick Garris is the most prolific adapter of King’s work and his heart’s in the right place but ultimately Bag of Bones focuses on a lot of the less effective but more overt moments from the source material, choosing horror over the less visceral but overall more rewarding terror inherent in the leading character’s dilemma.

Pierce Brosnan is miscast in the lead, though he sells the intellectual nature of an author who’s lost the love of his life he just doesn’t deliver the resonance and emotional weight that elevated the novel. The source material actually lends itself more to a rich feature film than a TV event and it’s a shame because this one had quality production values and an actual budget. It just wasn’t enough. [Nick Nunziata]

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