The Top 15 Best Stephen King TV Adaptations

     June 1, 2020

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It’s a great time to be in the Stephen King business.

Thanks to 2017’s blockbuster hit, IT, there has been a Hollywood resurgence devoted to giving King’s stories the live-action treatment. The author’s works have been more miss than hit on the big screen in recent years, with fans of his fiction finding more success on television, but for decades, King reigned as the go-to storyteller for miniseries events a network could tether their prime-time schedules to during Sweeps. For horror fans, especially those in the 1990s, you could count on everything from The Tommyknockers to The Stand to provide a sense of TV comfort food — King’s works monopolized so much of our viewing hours in a pre-Peak TV world.

As Creepshow continues its cable run on AMC, we revisited the Master of Horror’s best TV adaptations. The following list represents the best of the best, ranked from “worst of the best” to “best of the best”; sorry not sorry, fans of the objectively terrible The Langoliers.

15. Nightmares & Dreamscapes (2006)

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Image via TNT

On paper, TNT’s 2006 adaptation of Nightmares & Dreamscapes seems like the makings of a King classic: Turning some stories from this fan-favorite collection into an anthology series starring exceptional talent like William H. Macy and William Hurt. Sadly, the endeavor is a middling-to-bad one, with each of the limited series’ eight episodes varying in quality to the point of not even being worth a background watch at home.

What does work, however, are the special effects from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

14. Under the Dome (2013 – 2015)

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Image via CBS

So far, this noble misfire based on King’s popular novel is the longest-running adaptation of the author’s work. Adapted by comics and TV scribe Brian K. Vaughn, Under the Dome starts off with a compelling pilot and engaging first season, as it tells the story of a small-town struggling with life under a glass dome that brings out the best (and terrifyingly worst) in its people. While this could have been CBS’ attempt at filling the void left by Lost, the series ultimately fails to deliver on its exciting premise. This short-lived series marks one of the sharpest declines in quality in modern television, with its third and final season struggling to service what made the show so intriguing in the first place.

13. The Tommyknockers (1993)

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Image via ABC

Airing on ABC in May 1993, The Tommyknockers came at a time of Peak Stephen King Miniseries for the network. Coming off the success of It, and before the ambitious adaptation of The Stand, Tommyknockers is a meh take on material that deserves better.

The small town of Haven, a popular locale in King’s work, becomes ground zero for both crazy inventions and an even-crazier green power source with ties to origins that are extraterrestrial in nature. King stories work best when the terror is less “little green men” and more Earth (or Hell) based. Tommyknockers has an exciting premise executed poorly, despite the solid efforts of his dynamic ensemble headlined by Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger.

12. Kingdom Hospital (2004)

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Image via ABC

Kingdom Hospital is an outlier among Stephen King TV adaptations; it’s the first project King adapted himself from other material. Based on Lars von Trier’s chilling Danish hit, The Kingdom, Kingdom Hospital is a 13-episode limited series about the fictional titular hospital located in Lewiston, Maine, built on the site of a mill that made uniforms for the Civil War. The hospital is home to a diverse roster of frights, and King does his best to service them with his unique (but sluggish) take on the source material. Though one of its weirdest additions, the anteater named Anubis, is a disturbing sight you wish you could unsee.

11. Salem’s Lot (1979)

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Image via CBS

With a remake of this classic King adaptation on the way, it’s about time Salem’s Lot got an upgrade. The original 1979 CBS TV movie is not a great film, but there are moments of greatness in it as director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) excels at mixing the haunted house thriller with a vampire scarefest.

When author David Soul (Ben Mears) returns to his sleepy hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine, he discovers that its citizens are being preyed upon by Stephen King’s take on both Dracula and the Nosferatu vampire. The legacy of Salem’s Lot, the first King property to be adapted for TV, is how it helped pioneer an entire subgenre of horror, paving the way for modern horror classics like Fright Night and The Lost Boys.

10. Rose Red (2002)

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Image via ABC

Rose Red came at the tail end of King’s exceptional run of successful TV miniseries and is all but forgotten, given it wasn’t as big a hit with audiences as It or The Stand. But just because it didn’t have record ratings doesn’t mean fans should overlook (no pun intended) this King homage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Originally conceived as a theatrical release, with a pitch by King to Steven Spielberg in 1996 (Spielberg would go on to executive produce the awful 1999 The Haunting remake), Rose Red is a loose remake of Jackson’s story (and Robert Wise’s movie about it) that underwent changes to fit the miniseries format following the 1999 Haunting’s release. In the first three minutes of this three-part installment, Rose Red emerges as the far superior telling of the haunted house story, as director Craig R. Baxley and actors Nancy Travis, Matt Ross, and Julian Sands grapple with Seattle’s scariest haunted mansion.

Like Jackson’s book, or Wise’s film, Rose Red invests the characters with a vice grip of psychological horror, one that tightens as more unexplained things go bump in the night. (Rose Red also succeeded with its then-novel marketing approach, with ABC executing a fake website for fictional university featured in the film.) As scary as evil spirits and the dark can be, Rose Red tells us that nothing haunts us more than the scariest parts of ourselves.

9. Golden Years (1991)

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Image via CBS

This emotional cousin to The Twilight Zone, Golden Years is a supernatural-y take on Cocoon that has surprisingly held up better than some of King’s more high-profile adaptations. Ironically, Golden Years is an adaptation of a novel idea that sat in King’s notebook for years. Inspired by Twin Peaks’ serialized approach to storytelling, King decided to roll the dice on one his more sentimental TV ventures that is worth revisiting as we approach its 30th anniversary.

CBS’ 1991 TV movie is an endearing, if somewhat overplotted, tale about an elderly janitor (Keith Szarabajka) who survives an explosion at a top-secret lab. But he may wish he hadn’t as he realizes he now ages in reverse as mysterious operatives from “The Shop” are on his tail. Szarabajka and co-star Felicity Huffman’s performances are exceptional, as is the theme music from David Bowie. Yes, that David Bowie.

8. The Dead Zone (2002 – 2007)

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Image via USA

The Dead Zone feature film from David Cronenberg is an all-timer. It casts a long shadow and reframing it for TV was a risky proposition for fans back when the fledgling USA Network was trying to find a niche for itself in the genre TV space. Surprisingly, Dead Zone the series is a largely successful effort that escapes the shadow of its big-screen predecessor and pushing King’s concept of a man with psychic abilities into truly captivating story areas.

From 2002 to 2007, fans gave significant care space to former Star Trek: The Next Generation showrunner Michael Piller’s take on King’s 1979 book, with the show centering on Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall), who wakes up from a coma invested with the ability to see future and past events by touching objects or things. His abilities are both gift and curse as Smith gets roped into helping solve crimes. The procedural elements are a bit creaky in the age of Peak TV, but they manage to find inventive ways to use Smith’s ability to subvert the genre’s popular tropes. But the reason why this show holds up so well is Hall’s performance; he is the beating heart of this show, playing a man struggling to live in the present when his mind spends so much time on either side of it. The show was denied a proper series finale when it was canceled in 2007; it’s too bad rumors of SyFy picking up the series to finish its run never came to fruition.

7. Haven (2010 – 2015)

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Image via Syfy

Loosely based on King’s The Colorado Kid, Haven, like Dead Zone, is another underrated entry into King’s deep-bench of TV properties. Which is surprising, considering that Haven was, ratings-wise, one of his most popular adaptations.

The series, which ran from 2010 to 2015, stars Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant, and Eric Balfour, as residents of the titular town forded to help and defend their townsfolk from the consequences of their supernatural afflictions. With Ross playing an FBI agent tasked with Haven’s versions of X-Files, the series’ PG-13 tone makes it a solid companion piece to FOX’s classic series — and one of the most entertaining stories based on a King property.

6. It (1990)

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Image via ABC

Look, dollars-to-donuts, Warner Bros. 2017 hit feature film is the far superior It adaptation. But the 1990 original is pure nightmare fuel for ‘90s kids, thanks to Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal of the murderous, supernatural clown, Pennywise.

Pennywise’s reign of terror on the town of Derry, Maine is perfect fodder for a miniseries, and ABC capitalized on that with this TV hit that would become the staple of many a sleepover. The late John Ritter, Annette O’Toole, and Richard Thomas lead the strong ensemble cast, who invest the characters with more than what’s on the page of this two-night television event that would set the stage for all future King miniseries adaptations.

5. The Stand (1994)

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Image via ABC

For King fans, when asked which is the best ‘90s-era adaptation, it’s a Sophie’s choice between It and 1994’s The Stand, with a slight edge going to the latter.

ABC’s epic ratings hit rivals most feature films in terms of cast, as it brings one of King’s most evil villains to life, the demonic Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), as a plague wipes out society and its survivors are forced to rebuild in a post-apocalyptic world. Lines are drawn and sides are taken as one group gathers around the prophet Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee) as the future of what’s left of mankind hangs in the balance.

With a cast that includes over 125 speaking roles, including Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Kathy Bates, and Ed Harris (!), The Stand gave the small-screen an epic anamorphic scope while raising the bar on what kinds of stories you could tell on television. This classic miniseries is a fan-favorite largely due to its (mostly) faithful take on the source material, which is no easy book to adapt. As eager as we are to watch CBS All Access’ much-anticipated take on the book, it’s going to be tough to beat the original.

4. Mr. Mercedes (2017 – present)

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Image via AT&T Audience Network

Mr. Mercedes is both an underrated King novel and TV adaptation of it.

A show worth more than the audience AT&T’s formerly-owned Audience Network can give it, Mr. Mercedes follows the always-entertaining Brendan Gleeson as retired detective Bill Hodges. His investigations put him on the trail of supernatural serial killer Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadway). Hartsfield triggers Hodges and the demons he has regarding the unsolved case of “Mr. Mercedes,” a murderer who left 16 people dead after driving into them with a Mercedes at a local job fair. What starts as a chilling game of cat-and-mouse online leaks into the real world, with truly disturbing consequences, as Hartfield won’t stop his crimes until he leaves both Hodges and our world permanently scarred. The fate of this compelling series remains in limbo, ever since Audience Network shut down in late May 2020. Fingers crossed a streamer picks up the show for a much-deserved fourth season.

3. Castle Rock (2018 – Present)

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Image via Hulu

Castle Rock is as ambitious as it is unsettling, as executive producer J.J. Abrams lends his brand — and love for all things Stephen King — to this densely-plotted series that finally creates a Marvel-like shared universe across multiple King characters and stories.

The bumpy first season of this must-see Hulu show gave way to an underrated Season 2, which centers on Misery’s Annie Wilkes (played by the scary-talented Lizzy Caplan). Castle Rock’s greatest strength is how it anchors both the extraordinary and the terrifying to relatable, likable characters who just happen to live in a town that nightmares call home. Equal parts horror series and mystery thriller, Castle Rock is the rare King adaptation for the small-screen that seems to know, tonally, exactly what’s necessary to bring King’s unique voice to life.

2. The Outsider (2020 – Present)

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Image via HBO

HBO’s The Outsider is a black-on-black supernatural murder mystery that does for King adaptations what True Detective did for police procedurals. In fact, The Outsider subverts the expectations of the procedural with a strong dose of slow-burn horror as Georgia police investigate a gruesome murder that seems to have been committed by a man (Jason Bateman) who can be in two places at the same time.

Using black-and-white investigative practices to solve a crime that defies the reality those practices are founded in gives The Outsider a thematically-rich edge often absent in King adaptations. What starts as a small-town crime becomes a struggle to accept — and stop — supernatural forces from pushing into our world. The scariest thing The Outsider pulls off isn’t convincing us that The Boogeyman is real, it’s that there may be no stopping him.

1. 11.22.63 (2017)

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Image via Hulu

Hulu’s painfully underrated limited series, from executive producers JJ Abrams and Stephen King, is either the best time travel show ever or in the running for close second. Based on King’s 2011 page-turner, 11.22.63’s eight-episode run is a riveting, character-driven trip through time. It stars a never-been-better James Franco as Jake Epping, a divorcee and English teacher who stumbles upon his friend’s attempts to reach back in time and prevent President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Once you get past the tricky, only-from-the-mind-of-Stephen-King conceit of a time portal existing in the back of Jake’s local diner, the series is relatively easy to follow along. It takes the grand themes of fate and destiny and threads them around a tragic love story that transcends the fabric of time itself.

While some plot points feel more rushed than fans of King’s book would have liked, it seems to be done in favor of giving ample screen time to Sarah Gadon’s young librarian who gets caught up with Jake’s mission and falls in love with him. Their romance is as compelling as the ticking-clock tension and suspense that rockets viewers to an exceptional, gut-punch of a finale.

Television