What is the best Stephen King movie? New 'Pet Sematary' revives a classic debate

While hits like "Carrie" or "The Shining" top many lists, "The Dead Zone" depicts an icy, frightened America that feels eerily prescient today.
Image: Stephen King
The king of suspense.Brownie Harris / CBS file
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By Noah Berlatsky

With the release of the new “Pet Sematary” film premiering over the past weekend I've been wondering — what is the best Stephen King film adaptation?

It's certainly not the new “Pet Sematary” — an enjoyable but innocuous genre exercise which mostly misses the book's emotional weight. Many people would probably vote for Brian De Palma's clinically cruel version of “Carrie,” from 1976. Others might prefer Stanley Kubrick's gleefully manic 1980 “The Shining,” with Jack Nicholson shoving huge chunks of melting scenery into his dribbling maw.

For me though, right now, the King adaptation I'm most attached to is David Cronenberg's 1983 film “The Dead Zone.” It's not the scariest film version of King's work; it certainly doesn't have the jump scares that fill the new “Pet Sematary.” It's not even exactly a horror film. But the movie’s vision of an icy, frightened America feels eerily prescient — as is its offer of a bleak hope, almost indistinguishable from despair.

For me though, right now, the King adaptation I'm most attached to is David Cronenberg's 1983 film “The Dead Zone.”

“The Dead Zone” is about Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), an English teacher who spends five years in a coma following a car crash. When he wakes up, his fiancé Sarah (Brooke Adams), has married another man. He's also gained disturbing psychic abilities; he can see glimpses of someone's past and future when he holds their hand.

(Spoilers below.)

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By this means, Johnny accidentally discovers that populist third-party Senate candidate Greg Stillson is a dangerous religious psychopath, and that he will eventually become president and start a nuclear war. To prevent this outcome, John tries to assassinate Stillson. He misses on the first try, and then Stillson uses Sarah's baby as a human shield to prevent a second attempt. Johnny is shot by a bodyguard, but his psychic powers allow him to see that images of Stillson risking the life of an infant will lead to the candidate's downfall anyway. "You're finished," he tells Stillson, with satisfaction. Then Johnny dies.

More than any other director, Cronenberg captures the cold inevitability of King's world. Christopher Walken is all awkward angles and repressed bitterness as he limps through the frigid Maine landscape. His face is often so clenched it seems like his skull is going to pop through his skin. His gaze is transfixed by a future that slides towards him with the grimly lumbering grace of the tractor trailer that collides with him on the highway.

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"Do you know what God did for me?" Johnny demands, jerking like the words are being pulled from him by some sadistic puppeteer. "He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless... Blessed me? God's been a real sport to me!"

King's novels are filled with gods who “sport” with humans; fate in his books is often an actively malevolent horror. “Pet Sematary” just about robs its characters of free will. They're doomed as soon as they buy their new house, which rests too close to the evil, stony graveyard — old neighbors, cats, and tractor-trailers on the road near their home are all collaborating in a conspiracy of evil.

Similarly, "11/22/63" is a time travel story about the immutability of history, with fate reaching down to crush anyone who tries to alter its slow, grinding procession. In “The Stand” and “It,” the protagonists are pushed about by shadowy forces, some supposedly good and some supposedly evil, but all moving humans here and there like pieces on a dark gameboard. King's characters are like the contestants in “The Long Walk:” They put one foot in front of the other on a preordained trail, marching towards their own demise.

King's characters are like the contestants in “The Long Walk:” They put one foot in front of the other on a preordained trail, marching towards their own demise.

Johnny certainly fits that mold. As soon as he appears on screen, enthusiastically quoting Edgar Allen Poe's “The Raven,” you know he's doomed — a pinned insect, thrashing slowly until the movie's runtime ticks down. Johnny's visions are little movies within movies; he watches children burn, or drown, or the world end in fire. "I stood there and did nothing!" he shouts after seeing a murder in a vision. Johnny stares frozen, like the audience, as those sharp scissors come out and down, and everyone dies.

But in “The Dead Zone,” unlike in many of King's other works, the sense of futility is at least partially an illusion. The future Johnny sees isn't set in stone. He can change it if he's willing to act.

Doing so comes at some risk. Jonny's psychic abilities give him terrible headaches and leach his life away. And there are more mundane costs as well. He is shot while foiling a murderer; he loses a job because he's so insistent that one of his students stay home from an ice hockey game. Defeating Stillson costs him his life. Moving the ugly, dead weight of fate requires not just vision but sacrifice. It's a cold, unpleasant business. But it's possible.

Given our current situation, even “The Dead Zone” feels overly optimistic. Greg Stillson is a religious maniac, but his brand of populism isn't curdled in bigotry, like that of the current GOP. Assassination attempts rarely solve political problems as neatly as they do in the film. And of course, Stillson's career disintegrates after he threatens the life of a baby on camera. Maybe Trump would finally be done if he did such a thing, but I'm not as sure as I'd like to be.

But the greatness of “The Dead Zone” is less about the specifics of the plot than it is about the way it treats mourning as a door, rather than as a blank wall. In “Pet Sematary,” the family is buried by their own inescapable sadness. Despair is their fate, and their fate is despair.

Johnny's misery, though, doesn't (just) isolate him. It also helps him see what others need, and how he can help them. We're all born to grieve, which is both a doom and a basis for solidarity. The heart of the dead zone is cold. But it's still a heart.