Top 10 Stephen King Movies, Ranked
The latest adaptation of a Stephen King property is The Mist, debuting on Spike June 22. It’s a re-imagining of the novella, expanding the world beyond King’s writing and the 2007 movie of the same name.
Judging by Dave Trumbore’s review, it’s one of the better King adaptations to date, even if it isn’t an adaptation in the strictest sense of the word. But it got me thinking — what are some of the best films, TV movies and TV series adapted from King source material?
When looking at the best adaptations, there are a few things to consider. First of all, King’s material is generally better suited to the silver screen than the small screen. He’s not called a Master of Horror for nothing and television is always going to be hamstrung by what they can show or imply, especially since King adaptations tend to be on broadcast networks.
Secondly, opinions may differ wildly if you’re considering a film or miniseries on its own merits or comparing it to the source material. The Shining is a, well, shining example — the film is outstanding, but as an adaptation it’s not the best representation of the novel. How much does that matter? It’s a balancing act.
Finally, while King is definitely synonymous with books and their respective movies that keep you awake at night with fear, some of his strongest adaptations are not works of horror, which is interesting. Is the source material stronger? Not necessarily. Is better talent attracted to King’s more mainstream stories? Maybe. But whatever the reasons, a third of my Top 10 list is made up of non-horror properties.
With no further ado, here are my picks for the best adaptations of Stephen King’s works.
10) The Mist
Yes, I’m including on the list the 2007 feature film that the Spike series is expanding on. Why? Because it’s good, especially because it didn’t wimp out on the ending.
The premise of the film and King’s 1980 novella is that a thick, unnatural fog envelops a small Maine town, concealing vicious monsters. The action focuses on a group of ordinary citizens trapped in a grocery store, trying to figure out what is going on and how to survive it and each other.
The movie isn’t so much about the monsters as it is about the people — though one could then argue it’s about the real monsters, setting up atmospheric tension that is ratcheted up by the warring personalities at play in the grocery store. It features an all-star cast that includes Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Laurie Holden, Melissa McBride and Alexa Davalos, plus it takes King’s open-ended resolution in the novella and turns it into a rather gutwrenching scene of the tough decisions one must make in a survival situation like this. It’s no wonder writer/director Frank Darabont went on to shepherd the first season of The Walking Dead.
9) The Green Mile
This tearjerker is not typical King fare, but it’s an outstanding film bolstered by enthralling performances by Tom Hanks and Michael Clark Duncan. It received a Golden Globe nomination, two SAG Award noms and four Oscar nods.
The 1999 film tells the story of prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks), whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of death row inmate John Coffey (Duncan), a mentally-challenged man convicted of raping and murdering two white girls. Over the course of the film, Coffey shows that he possesses otherworldly gifts, including resurrection and healing powers, and he ultimately reveals psychically to Edgecomb that he is innocent of his crime. But he is executed anyway, because Coffey does not wish to remain in such a cruel world.
8) Dolores Claiborne
There’s a reason that between the Emmys, Oscars and Golden Globes, Kathy Bates have 17 nominations and five wins. She’s an incredible actress (and you’ll see her pop up on this list again) whose talents are on full display in this 1995 thriller co-starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The premise is that Dolores (Bates) and Selena (Leigh) are an estranged mother and daughter — the daughter thinks her mother killed her father some 20 years prior — who are brought back together when Dolores is accused of murdering her employer, a wealthy old woman named Vera (Judy Parfitt). At the time it came out, Roger Ebert said of the film, “This is a horror story, all right, but not a supernatural one; all of the elements come out of such everyday horrors as alcoholism, wife beating, child abuse and the sin of pride,” which is a perfect summation of its terror, backed by Bates’ powerhouse performance.
7) The Shining
The Shining is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. In fact, the American Film Institute ranked this 1980 Jack Nicholson classic as No. 29 on the 100 Years… 100 Thrills list. It is suspenseful and builds to an absolutely terrifying climax, with Shelley Duvall more than holding her own in the freak-out department opposite Nicholson.
But the reason it’s not higher on the list is because it’s not actually a great adaptation of the source material. In fact, King himself isn’t a big fan, because the Stanley Kubrick film diverges wildly from the novel in a lot of ways.
If you’re ever curious about a more faithful adaptation, check out the 1997 version of The Shining starring Steven Weber. It’s not the cinematic masterpiece of horror that Kubrick’s film is, but it’s honestly still pretty solid and it’s a much better representation of King’s vision — which makes sense, because King wrote the teleplay.
The brilliance of director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of IT isn’t because of the clown, it’s because of the kids. Not much has more potential to sink a promising film than a miscast child actor. Just ask George Lucas. But Muschietti and Co. somehow assembled an endlessly charming, pitch-perfect Loser’s Club—Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, and Jack Dylan Grazer—to do battle with shapeshifting fear-demon Pennywise above and below the streets of Derry, Maine. Like Stephen King’s mammoth source novel, this film is as much a coming of age tale in the same vein as Stand by Me as it is a straight horror show. It just also happens to include a homicidal clown with a werewolf hand.
And, fine, the clown is dope, too. Bill Skarsgard has such a naturally unsettling presence and gift for googly-eyes that he’s pretty much become the poster boy for King’s oeuvre. It’s hard to top a legend like Tim Curry, but Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a completely different beast, both slimier and more monstrous than Curry’s circus clown sensibilities. Skarsgard will be back for IT: Chapter 2, but this opening intro to Derry is so enjoyable it’s almost a shame the Loser’s Club has to grow up. – Vinnie Mancuso
Talk about Kathy Bates’ tour de force — and James Caan is no slouch either. This tale of an author kidnapped by a crazed fan is one of the creepiest isolationist horror movies, capitalizing on the small cast and remote setting to create a suffocating sense of claustrophobia — plus there’s that whole scene where Annie (Bates) breaks Paul’s (Caan) ankles with a sledgehammer. Good times.
Misery earned Bates the Best Actress Oscar in 1990, which is quite the feat for a horror movie. It also earned praise nearly universally across the landscape from critics and is an excellent adaptation of the novel of the same name.
4) Stand By Me
King isn’t all horror, all the time. This 1986 film is one of the classic coming-of-age stories. Adapted from King’s novella The Body, it tells the story of four friends in 1959 Oregon who set out to be local heroes by finding the body of a missing child, encountering bullies and menacing adults along the way.
It stars Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, whose performances are absolutely incredible, aided by Rob Reiner’s direction. King considers one of the best adaptations of his work and reportedly had to take a minute to compose himself after screening it for the first time.
3) The Shawshank Redemption
This film is now considered one of the best films of all time and also an excellent adaptation of King’s novel Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. But interestingly, this story of holding on to one’s dignity and self-worth in a place like prison was kind of a bomb when it came out. Critics loved it and it earned seven Oscar nominations (though it didn’t win any). But audiences didn’t really find it until it began airing regularly on television a few years after its release.
This is another adaptation King considers to be an outstanding depiction of his work. It’s the first of three King projects directed by Frank Darabont, who also helmed the King adaptations The Green Mile and The Mist.
2) The Dead Zone
Despite not adhering to King’s novel as closely as other highly-ranked adaptations, this 1983 film starring Christopher Walken as a man who awakens from a coma to discover he has psychic abilities is one of the strongest King adaptions anyway. King himself has praised the filmmakers for strengthening his narrative and Walken gives an electric performance.
The film is definitely more spooky than straight-up horror, which is actually more effective for this story. It’s definitely worth a watch. The television series starring Anthony Michael Hall was also pretty solid, if you’re ever looking for something to randomly binge watch.
The top entry on the list has to go to the Brian De Palma 1976 horror film based on King’s novel of the same name. It garnered rave reviews and earned Oscar noms for both of the stars, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.
Spacek plays the titular bullied high school student whose psychic powers are unleashed on her tormentors at the prom scene to end all prom scenes; Laurie is Carrie’s abusive mother in one of the scariest performances in one of King’s adaptations. The film is a brutal look at high school bullying filtered through a supernatural lens. Over the years, various sequels and remakes have tried to capture the feel of the original but have all fallen woefully short.
The AFI 100 Thrills list has it in the criminally low spot of No. 46, but for this list, Carrie is No. 1 with a bullet for me.