Generally known as the modern master of horror—though his deeply humanist approach to drama compels some fans to dub him a sort of contemporary torchbearer for literary giants like Charles Dickens—Stephen King has been pumping out novels, novellas and short stories since the early ’70s. There are of course many tropes and cliches that come to mind when considering the “typical” King work: a Maine setting; themes of alcoholism and abuse; a protagonist who’s a writer with inner demons to battle; various inanimate objects, no matter how silly or nonsensical, that come to life to devour poor unsuspecting humans; animals previously thought to be benign turning into soulless monsters…the list goes on and on.
Yet as predictable as some of his output over the last four-plus decades might be, he never ceases to surprise us by stepping out of his comfort zone to deliver something truly unique and timeless. Here’s a writer who’s responsible for some of the most laughably subpar and stale genre work you’ll ever read, as well as literary masterworks that are already standing the test of time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that a ranking of movie and TV adaptations of his work covers a similarly extreme spectrum of quality. So join us as we list as many King adaptations as we thought humanly possible, starting from below the bottom of the barrel, all the way to some of the greatest films of any genre that have graced the screen.
Before we begin, a quick public service announcement, since a lot of you will more than likely object to omissions of some of your favorite King adaptations: attempting to rank all A/V material that has Stephen King’s name attached to it would have been a damn near impossible task, or should have come with a multi-book publishing deal of its own. Hell, just the amount of sequels to Children of the Corn would have taken up a good chunk. In order to distill the list to as much of the basics as possible, here are some ground rules:
The film/mini-series in question must have been adapted from a published work. This is a list of adaptations, after all, so stories directly written for the screen by King won’t be found here. (Sorry, Sleepwalkers.)
The adaptations should at least have some connection to the source material, i.e., characters, plot points, etc. Sequels inspired by original adaptations are not eligible. (Sorry, Eddie Furlong fans, no Pet Sematary II.)
The same goes for original works where almost none of the source material, sans the title, has been taken from King. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see everyone’s favorite horribly dated early ’90s virtual reality thriller The Lawnmower Man in here, since it has nothing to do with King’s original story. (New Line Cinema had the rights to the title, and decided to slap it on an unrelated property.)
Only TV films and mini-series are in contention. (Sorry, Under The Dome and 2017’s The Mist series.)
Anthology films like Creepshow are not included, since all of them involve at least one story that’s written directly for the screen by King or another writer.
Short films like 2005’s Gotham Café are not eligible.
And finally, this probably doesn’t need to be said, but just in case: If we can’t find a way to watch it, it doesn’t go in. For example, there’s a 2007 Indian adaptation of King’s short story, “No Smoking,” that’s not available in U.S.
Now that we got the technicalities out of the way, let’s dive headfirst into the closest we can approximate to an ultimate ranking of Stephen King film/TV adaptations, from the very worst, to the very best.
Director: Tom Holland
Based on one of the novellas found in King’s massive anthology book, Four Past Midnight, The Langoliers has an interesting premise that resembles one of the most well known original Twilight Zone episodes, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” After a majority of passengers on an airplane mysteriously disappear, the leftovers find themselves in a barren parallel dimension that keeps shrinking around them. They desperately struggle to find a way back to their reality, but the infighting and paranoia makes this goal increasingly hard. There are a lot of King stories and novels that use the claustrophobic and isolating results of a mysterious supernatural event as an excuse to study how people can revert to their basest urges when they’re cornered and scared. You can find other examples of this much higher on the list, but this shoddily executed and laughably over-the-top three-hour-long bad acid trip should be avoided at all cost. Bronson “Balki” Pinchot’s batshit crazy performance and the awful early ’90s Microsoft clipart CGI of the monsters who are responsible for the phenomena at the center of the story (who look like sunburnt testicles with teeth, by the way) almost turn The Langoliers into a “so bad it’s good” experience, but the long runtime makes it too much of a slog to enjoy it that way.
Director: Donald P. Borchers
The 1984 theatrical feature version of Stephen King’s short story about a group of murderous feral children who rule a rural town Lord of the Flies-style and an unsuspecting couple who are forced to survive their attacks was far from a masterpiece, but at least it had halfway alluring cinematography and somewhat solid performances from the two leads. This cheapo Syfy channel adaptation pretty much follows that version beat-by-beat, but with an evenly lit gaudy aesthetic, some unintentionally funny over-the-top performances from the child actors, and pretty much nothing substantial to add on the 1984 version. What’s really weird is that the 1984 film spawned seemingly endless sequels that were frequently pumped out up until 2011, so Syfy could have easily shat out another cash grab sequel that pretty much everyone could have easily ignored just like they did the others.
Director: Chris Thomson
If King’s (to this date) only directorial effort Maximum Overdrive was too goofy (Appropriately in my opinion), what with the premise of trucks coming to life to kill people and terrorize a gas station because they need that sweet, sweet petrol, Trucks goes the opposite way and takes the premise far too seriously in a profoundly misguided attempt to create a legitimate horror project. All this Canadian TV movie has going for it is that it has a surprising amount of gore for the medium and the time period. Even that doesn’t mean anything nowadays, since run off the mill network shows have already surpassed the then-impressive amount of graphic violence that was on display in Trucks. The stock characters, the lame synth score, and subpar acting turns this into a Stephen King adaptation that can be immediately ignored, even more so than Maximum Overdrive.
Director: Jeff Beesley
A straight-to-VOD revenge exploitation flick about a meek average joe (Wes Bentley) who is pushed to his limits by the horrific acts of a psychopathic criminal (Christian Slater) and in turn becomes a force for revenge. This is a story we’ve seen a million times before, and nothing of any unique or original substance is added to it here. If you’ve seen any typical revenge fantasy before, you can predict every single story beat before the opening credits end. Dolan’s Cadillac is an obvious byproduct of one of those situations where a short story by Stephen King was purchased for cheap and rolled into production for name recognition alone. The direction lacks any energy and the technical execution is a smidge above film school levels. You’d think Christian Slater would at least have some fun as the criminal who kills the protagonist’s wife, but even he looks bored as he sleepwalks through his performance.
Director: Ralph L. Singleton
Graveyard Shift serves as a cautionary tale, a scared straight program for any prospective King adaptation that not every single random word that he farts out is worthy of an adaptation, let alone a theatrical release by a major studio. This was originally a short story from very early on in King’s career, and it shows. What we get is a run of the mill (in many ways literally) B-movie giant monster flick about a mill worker (David Andrews) and his co-workers who are trapped in their workplace and have to battle a ridiculous monster to survive the night. Whichever executive was the first to blurt out, “Let’s remake a textile mill version of Alien where the monster is a giant rat” really needed to lower their daily nose candy allowance. The unpleasantly dark and dirty cinematography makes it nearly impossible to tell what the hell is going on half the time, yet considering the poor design of the monster, this might actually be a positive. It’s fun to see Brad Dourif chew the scenery in full Chucky mode as an asshole mill worker, but that’s not nearly enough of a reason to watch it.
Director: Tobe Hooper
The 1990s was a weird time for Stephen King adaptations, when even 10-page short stories King wrote so quickly that he didn’t even remember their existence until the check to option it was placed in his hand were adapted solely for a quick cash grab via simple name recognition. The inevitable conclusion of studios being so desperate to attach any film’s name to King is The Mangler. The premise of a possessed industrial laundry folding machine that eats people and draws its powers from antiacid chewables (Yep, you read that right) can only work as ZAZ-style self-aware bit of comedy. Co-writer and director Tobe Hooper gets the goofy part right, whether or not that was intentional is up for discussion, but he also takes this head-slappingly stupid idea too seriously. Hooper showed years earlier that he can handle an irreverent and playful horror-comedy tone with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, so what happened here? There are some inventively gruesome kills for gorehounds, and Robert Englund is a delight as the demon child of Foghorn Leghorn and Scrooge McDuck, but the overall film itself is a dud, despite a premise that’s tailor made for a schlock masterpiece.
Director: John Power
The original novel that this misguided mini-series is adapted from is so silly and derivative, that it could have worked on the small screen as an unintentionally funny bit of camp. Unfortunately it’s too languidly paced and full of soap opera filler to work in any capacity. The Tommyknockers is basically Needful Things with aliens, where the addictive items that make the townspeople happy while stripping them of their humanity are created by an ancient species of extraterrestrials instead of the devil in a Max Von Sydow costume. First of all, neon green is not a scary color. Every time someone’s supposed to die horribly from the alien-made evil inventions, they glow this color, which says “Nickelodeon slime nostalgia” more than “gruesome horror death.” Add to that ridiculous set pieces like a character being attacked by a horde of old-timey dolls and a death-by-soda-vending machine-explosion, and Tommyknockers turns into a distinctly awful, but awful nevertheless, experience. (And hey, if you want a more inventive soda vending machine death, you’ll have to wait until we get to Maximum Overdrive.) That being said, Tracy Lords’ alien-controlled sultry nurse sucking two cops into her green neon laser-spewing alien lipstick is kitsch gold.
Director: Mikael Salomon
This was a Lifetime Channel movie, so what can you possibly expect from it? As much as I’d like to say the fact that it was based on a Stephen King story at least gives it some edge, that’s not really the case here. The flat, evenly lit execution, the cheesy music, the melodramatic performances (even from Maria Bello, who deserves much better material), all make it obvious that this is a lot more Lifetime than it is King. Sure, there’s more graphic violence than your standard bored housewife time waster—the story is about a writer (Bello) who gets raped and vows revenge on his truck-driving redneck caricature rapist. However, the generic revenge fantasy premise makes every story beat, just like with Dolan’s Cadillac, as predictable and stale as it gets.
Director: Mark Pavia
The Night Flier is usually listed as a theatrical feature. It was meant to be released in cinemas while it was in production, but was summarily dumped on HBO after it was finished. Since it was never released theatrically, it counts as a TV movie. A lot of Stephen King short stories would have made for perfect 22-minute episodes for a horror anthology series. The Night Flier is one of them. It’s essentially a Tales from the Crypt/EC Comics style morbid morality tale where a greedy and narcissistic reporter (Miguel Ferrer) who profits off of others’ misery gets his comeuppance by a vampire who travels in a small plane to dispose of his victims across the country. The film’s fable-like twist could have paid off better in a shorter format, but when it’s stretched out to a feature, we’re left with a whole lot of useless filler during the second act, enough to disengage the viewer from whatever clever climax that the story has in store for them. Ferrer (RIP) steps up to the plate as he always did, but his irredeemable jerk character is a one-dimensional cartoon without any depth. The design of the vampire is pretty creative, with more of a lizard look rather than the usual giant bat we’re used to, but that’s not nearly enough to give The Night Flier a shot.
Director: Mikael Salomon
There are enough tonal and plot differences between this version and the 1979 Tobe Hooper miniseries, so if you’re a hardcore fan of that one, you might find some surprises in the 2004 adaptation of King’s seminal vampire melodrama. A priest character (James Cromwell), who was a relatively minor figure in the 1979 miniseries, gets a much more beefed up presence here, and since a lot has changed concerning the amount of adult themes that can be explored in television between 1979 and 2004, this version can more openly deal with issues like child molestation. This Rob Lowe-starring take on the story of a writer struggling from writer’s block—what else could you expect from a King protagonist?—moving back into his hometown in search for inspiration, only to find out that the whole place is crawling with vampires, has an attractive and spiffy-enough look to work as a background curiosity for three hours. As much as it pushes the limits of basic cable violence, I still prefer the Tobe Hooper take, mainly because it uses the many limitations of network television of the time to deliver a melancholic soap opera/horror in tune with Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula. This one tries to be too spiffy and cool, like a CW show for the middle-aged audience, but since it was on TNT, it still can’t really deliver on many of the intense horror elements that it attempts to capture. James Cromwell seems to be having fun as a vampire priest, but the rest of the cast looks downright disinterested.
Director: Tom Holland
Director Tom Holland is responsible for some of the most iconic horror classics of the ’80s, with the original Child’s Play and the vampire/comedy classic Fright Night on his résumé. That’s why it’s a bummer that the quality of his output strongly diminished during the ’90s. Thinner is nowhere near as awful as The Langoliers, which he also helmed, but it represents yet another silly premise that tries too hard to be taken seriously as a product that’s genuinely supposed to scare audiences. The story of a dickbag attorney (Is there any other kind in movies?) played by Robocop 3’s Robert John Burke (now that’s star power!) who shortchanges a gypsy and is rewarded with a curse that makes him, wait for it, thinner until he shrivels up and dies, is prime material for a Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors episode. But as a straight horror piece, it leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, since the anti-hero protagonist is supposed to be obese at the beginning, in order to take full advantage of the striking visual changes he goes through during the story, Burke is fitted with one of the most cartoonish-looking fat suits this side of Fat Bastard. Holland seems to have been unaware of just how sub-par the prosthetics looked, since he has the brass balls to show the character naked in a brightly lit shower scene. The super-thin side of the make-up fares better, and the overall mediocre performances and execution prevents Thinner from being altogether awful, but this stupid or genius premise, depending on how you look at it, deserved a more exuberant take.
Director: Peter Askin
The premise of A Good Marriage is ripe for a sinister and mischievous dark comedy: An upper middle-class wife (Joan Allen) who’s been in a happy marriage for three decades finds out that her seemingly devout and levelheaded husband’s (Anthony LaPaglia) been cheating on her. She finds a way to forgive him, as long as he promises to never cheat again. However, the husband’s appetite might not be so easy to suppress. This is a type of domestic melodrama we’ve seen many times before, right? But here’s the twist: Take the above plot description and replace every instance of the word “cheating” for being a BTK-style serial killer, and you have the grounds for a weird and delightful dark comedy, full of scenes where the couple calmly discuss around the dinner table whether or not the husband can keep on brutally murdering innocent women and still maintain a healthy marriage. Give this material to a provocateur like John Waters and watch it shine. Unfortunately, this film, with a screenplay by King himself, takes this wild premise at face value as it attempts to build a traditional thriller out of it. Allen and LaPaglia are game as they bring out the absurdity of the situation their characters are in via admirably straight-faced performances. LaPaglia is especially chilling as he discusses dismembering his victims with the same calm tone of a suburban husband droning on about his recent fishing trip. The overall execution, with a borderline Lifetime Channel cinematography and flat direction, makes A Good Marriage deserve its status as a straight-to-VOD product.
DIrector: Peter Cornwell
Yet another Stephen King short that’s effective mainly because of its briefness turned into a convoluted mess in feature form. The original story, “Gramma,” is creepy because we don’t know how a cranky grandmother turned into a demonic spirit that ends up possessing her grandson. It’s a lean and effective campfire tale with a hair-raising finale. There was a way for this feature adaptation to retain the unsettlingly ambiguous tone of the original story while expanding the confines of the simple but promising premise, but it succumbs to the usual traps of such a project, adding a slew of unnecessary and predictable back-story and random supernatural mumbo jumbo to explain the mystery at the center of the story with annoyingly obvious and gratuitously overlong exposition. The bland digital cinematography, as if the “brooding” filter was turned on in iMovie, makes this supposedly studio-backed production look like a DIY film student project. Mercy is nothing more than a standard example of the possession horror sub-genre. If you’re aching to see a trippy movie centered on the unorthodox relationship between a boy and his grandma, watch David Lynch’s short film, The Grandmother, instead.
Director: Mick Garris
Forget whether or not it deserved to be adapted into a movie, I’m not sure if Desperation, a half-baked random sampling of various supernatural horror tropes King threw at us during his prolific career, should have been published in the first place. With a slew of uninspired and atonal melding of King cliches, an ancient demonic presence that corrupts the souls of men, children with telepathic abilities, people discovering their inner monsters when trapped in a closed space, etc … , awkwardly crammed into a single story, Desperation gets as close as Stephen King gets to writing Stephen King fan fiction. King’s works command a small group of directors who have pretty much dedicated their careers to adapting his material. To this date, out of all the feature films that Frank Darabont directed, the only non-King adaptation is The Majestic. Mick Garris is the TV equivalent of Darabont, and Desperation is his worst and least-focused adaptation. The story of a woman (Annabeth Gish) who gets busted for marijuana possession by a demented sheriff (Ron Perlman) and taken to a town where everyone is dead in the middle of the street starts off promisingly enough, but soon devolves into a convoluted series of nonsensical and disconnected supernatural events, all of which are caused by an ancient demon named Tak (I wish I was making this up). Ron Perlman’s over-the-top performance, where he grawls like a zombie on heroin, and some of the ridiculous twists and turns during the third act makes Desperation weird enough to consider watching. Yet at over two hours, it’s too long-winded and slow-paced to work as a silly distraction. Garris commands a sleek style, as much as can be allowed on a made-for-TV project, save for an unintentionally hilarious sequence where silent film footage that’s supposed to be from the early 20th Century is achieved via the scratchy sepia filter on the Mac Photobooth app.
Director: Mick Garris
As much as pretty much everyone else on the planet consider Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining to not only be one of the scariest films ever made, but a great work by a master filmmaker still in his prime, King himself was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by this adaptation of one of his most beloved and acclaimed novels. So when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped at righting Kubrick’s “wrong” with a reboot of sorts in miniseries form. As opposed to many other miniseries based on his work, King himself was hands-on with this project, writing the teleplay adaptation himself and picking longtime collaborator Mick Garris to direct this four-and-a-half-hour behemoth. We all know the story by now: Jack Torrance (Steven Weber), a writer struggling with alcoholism, brings his meek wife, Winifred (Rebecca DeMornay), and his psychic son, Danny (Courtland Mead), to work as a caretaker at an isolated hotel as a desperate attempt to get over his writer’s block. After a couple of hits of insanity, partly brought on by the ghosts in the hotel, Jack turns into an exceptionally unhappy camper with an appetite for chopping his family up into itty bitty pieces. One of the most fascinating aspects of Kubrick’s version lay in how little of an explanation he gives about the supernatural elements of the film, which in turn allows the audience to gradually step into Jack’s paranoid mind. With a much bigger canvas to work with, King decides to explain pretty much everything, stripping the story of much of its mystery. Did you know that Danny’s alter ego, Tony (Wil Horneff), is actually an apparition of Danny’s future self? More importantly, do you care? The performances are a step above usual TV fare from the era, and one of the legitimate pieces of criticism from King to Kubrick, namely the fact that Jack doesn’t have much of a character arc in the original, is somewhat remedied here. As a mediocre miniseries, the 1997 Shining could have been mildly enjoyable, if it wasn’t so colossally overshadowed by the greatness of its predecessor.
Director: Tom McLoughlin
Based on a fairly short King story, Sometimes They Come Back was supposed to be part of the anthology film Cat’s Eye, until producer Dino DeLaurentiis decided to turn it into its own feature. A lot of King’s shorts adopt the mood and structure of spooky campfire tales, and Sometimes They Come Back fits that narrative approach with its premise about a group of menacing ghosts seeking revenge from a family man who they think has wronged them. Tim Matheson is perfectly adequate as an everyman who returns to his hometown, only to be forced to face a dark secret from his past that involved a quartet of greaser bullies who caused the death of his brother. As the ghosts of the greasers begin to haunt him, he has no choice but to fight them in order to protect his family. Director Tom McLaughlin showcases notable talent for stretching the tension during the first two acts, before the whole thing turns into unintentional camp as the ghosts transform into greaser zombies. Sometimes They Come Back is not altogether terrible, but it’s not necessarily memorable either.
Director: Mick Garris
Stephen King and whimsy seldom mix, and Riding the Bullet is apt proof of this. This is like a padded feature-length version of one of those Twilight Zone episodes that uses supernatural imagery but is actually a drama in the end, since the fantasy elements all exist within the protagonist’s mind. Riding the Bullet attempts to mix King’s penchant for 1960s nostalgia with a trippy gory version of Ally McBeal’s daydream whimsy, which yields interesting but ultimately tasteless results. The protagonist is an aspiring painter (Jonathan Jackon, who’s horribly miscast with a superficial CW hunk look, in a role that’s supposed to depict a deeply tortured artist), who, after a botched suicide attempt, has to hitchhike to his hometown after learning that his mother suffered a stroke. During the various rides he takes, his anxiety reveals itself via his shit-stirring alter-ego, as well as various playful fantasy sequences that try far too hard to add King-style gory horror elements into what’s essentially a straight drama about a depressed college kid facing his troubled past. David Arquette’s wild-eyes performance as an angry “ghost” and Barbara Hershey as the free-spirited mother are some of the (almost) saving graces.
Director: Vincenzo Natali
In The Tall Grass begins with a killer Twilight Zone premise, then pulls a Richard Kelly by adding one convoluted piece of mythology after another while failing to develop its characters or themes beyond its initial idea. The simplicity of its spooky setup immediately draws us in: A brother and sister (Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted) on their way to San Diego hear a little boy (Will Buie Jr.) yell for yelp from a giant field of tall grass in the middle of nowhere. They run to rescue the boy, but end up trapped “in the tall grass” when they realize a mysterious force is keeping them inside by messing with space and time. Writer/director Vincenzo Natali, who adapted King and his son Joe Hill’s novella, is no stranger to such high-concept thrills. His breakthrough was 1997’s Cube, a tightly wound exercise in bare-bones survival horror. Natali unwisely embraces King and Hill’s “let’s throw a bunch of shit at the grass and see what sticks” attitude to storytelling, indulging in multiple deus ex machina and miscasting Patrick Wilson doing his best with the “religious wacko turns murder-monologuing psycho” King archetype.
Director: Fraser Clarke Heston
It might seem obvious, but King’s penchant for high-concept sci-fi with fable-like moral overtones creates a lot of material that resembles Rod Serling’s game-changing show. In the case of Needful Things, adapted from King’s novel about a mysterious salesman (Max Von Sydow, who brings credibility to this silly role with a smooth and charming performance) who may or may not be the devil incarnate (Obvious spoiler: He is) giving people their innermost wishes for the low price of destroying the lives of their neighbors, is really a bloated version of the great Twilight Zone episode “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Both are morality tales about a non-human outside source that changes basic comforts in people’s lives to watch them destroy one another through their greed and paranoia. In “Maple Street,” that outside force were aliens who took away humans’ basic amenities in order watch them kill each other. In Needful Things, it’s the “mysterious” storeowner who manipulates people’s egos in order to prove the corruptibility of humankind. The moral of the fable is simple: People are willing to do horrible things to each other if it means getting exactly what they want in return. This point is made very early on, and the rest of the two-hour runtime—three hours if you can get your hands on the TV miniseries cut—consists of episodic sequences where each character is given their wish, along with an evil deed they have to perform on someone else. Once this predictable structure is established, there isn’t much suspense left to hang on to. There isn’t much of a mystery to unravel either, since we become privy to the story’s supernatural premise and tone right off the bat. All that being said, director Fraser C. Heston (Charlton’s son) at least creates an almost satisfying horror-fable tone.
Director: Fritz Kiersch
The best thing about the first (and clearly the best, if you check out how far back the TV version ranks) adaptation of King’s maize-themed take on a Village of the Damned/Lord of the Flies crossover is that it directly influenced one of the best South Park episodes of all time, where all the kids get rid of their parents by accusing them of being pedophiles, leading to a biting parody of this piece of mediocrity. One of King’s most prominent themes is the destructive nature of organized religion, and the concept of a bunch of murderous kids who kill all of the adults and form a society based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible holds a lot of promise in that regard. Unfortunately, director Fritz Kiersch is more interested in the lazy shock value of showing children dispose of adults in increasingly violent ways, than in any true analysis of how religious dogma can corrupt youth. The kid actors deliver genuinely creepy performances that beg for better material for their talents. Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton play the adult couple tortured by the kids, and it goes beyond saying that they’re a major step up from the cardboard cutouts of the 2009 TV version.
Director: Dan Attias
Want to see a pretty cool coming-of-age drama about a likable disabled kid (Corey Haim) who finds his self-worth through a heavily modded badass wheelchair/motorcycle given to him by his loving family get marred by a shitty werewolf movie with uninspired off-screen kills and the lamest wolfman costume you’ll ever see? You’re in luck. The selling point of Silver Bullet, which tells the story of the disabled kid and his precocious sister (Megan Follows) battling a local werewolf that’s terrorizing their small town, is of course the monster itself. That makes it so much more ironic that the only parts of the film that truly work are those that have no relation to the supernatural story whatsoever. The scenes that show the boy struggling to maintain a loving relationship with his sister as he also deals with the growing pains of being an early teenager, harking back to King’s deft handle on adolescent angst found in his better works like Carrie and The Body, would have made Silver Bullet a must-see, if the sub-par werewolf make-up didn’t constantly rear its ugly head. It’s downright embarrassing that Silver Bullet came out four years after An American Werewolf in London, which revolutionized werewolf transition effects and design at the time. Here, when the monster is finally revealed, it looks like a teddy bear on steroids.
Director: Kimberly Peirce
King’s first novel obviously made quite a splash upon its release, and is still one of his most defining works—it currently holds the distinction of being adapted more than any of his other literary output. Director Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 take is the least satisfying out of the (currently) three versions, for two clear reasons: First, the casting choices are misguided at best, poor at worst. As much as Chloe Grace-Moretz had previously proven herself as a naturally ominous presence in impressive horror fare like Let Me In, she’s too attractive and has too much of a charismatic aura to work as the emotionally scarred and isolated title character with a rather original view on what constitutes a successful prom. Contemporary Hollywood feels forced to cast conventionally attractive actors in roles that call for plain-looking nerdy characters—remember Shailene Woodley as the “ugly” geek in The Spectacular Now?—and this most recent <<i>Carrie flatly falls into this trap. Add to that the personality-free vanilla blandness of Ansel Elgort’s presence, and you get a pretty underwhelming cast. Julianne Moore tries her best as Carrie’s abusive fundamentalist mother, but she’s no Piper Laurie. Pierce’s second mistake lies in the way she tries make the famously shocking climax look as cool and spiffy as possible, which undermines the inherent haunting creepiness of the sequence. Pierce always brings a certain level of professionalism and talent, so Carrie isn’t a total loss, but also it doesn’t present much of a case about why it needed to exist in the first place.
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Two words: butt monsters. King himself admitted that his meandering and mostly batshit crazy novel about, among many other things, a psychic disabled kid who communicates through Scooby Doo quotes, an alien-related major government conspiracy led by a murderous madman, a bunch of telepathically connected frat buddies with the ability to hide their egos inside their library/warehouse minds, and of course, slimy worm monsters that gestate in human bodies until they get violently pooped out into the world, is far from being one of his best works. That’s why it’s especially baffling that prestigious Hollywood names like writer William Goldman and director Lawrence Kasdan decided that this was the one King book that deserved a big-budget adaptation. With impressive names like these behind the camera, it should be no surprise that Dreamcatcher maintains an ominous tone while delivering some well-crafted set pieces. I’ll be the first to admit that this misstep by Kasdan and Goldman is an unholy mess of a film, but as a lover of pure schlock, it’s impossible for me to downright dismiss this ridiculous B-movie with an A-list Hollywood polish. Say what you will about Dreamcatcher, but at least it’s downright unapologetic about its silliness.
Director: Andy Muschietti
The satisfying ending of 2017’s It Chapter One was replaced with a feeling of creeping dread as we realized we’d get the second part, where the adult Losers Club would once again face killer clown and creepy jig enthusiast Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). As those who’ve read King’s paperweight-heavy book and watched the 1990 miniseries know, the quality and cohesion in narrative takes a major dip once the story reaches present time, as if King tripled his cocaine intake once the kids’ side of the story was over. It Chapter Two definitively proves that any subsequent adaptation of this work needs to enact overwhelming changes from the source material in order to stick the landing. Gary Dauberman’s script showcases clear deviations from the novel, but retains many of the story beats. Thus, we still get the goofy deus ex machina climax with the giant spider—made all the more off-putting here since it has Pennywise’s face—as well as the overstuffed and episodic structure. The second act is a complete wash since the adult Losers, who work well together thanks to the chemistry between the impressive cast, split up on their own side quests to find a “totem” to use against Pennywise during a Native American cleansing ritual. Instead of exploring the more cerebral and practical fears of adulthood, Chapter Two triples down on the schlock as we get one cheap CG monster after the other, resulting in a hard-R horror film with PG scares. To be fair, director Andy Muschietti delivers on some spooky set pieces once he can restrain himself and rely on suspense over spectacle, but Chapter Two’s futile attempt to fill out 45 minutes worth of story into three hours eventually exhausts the audience.
Director: Mark L. Lester
Firestarter combines two of King’s favorite subjects: innocent people with psychic powers they can’t control, and the abusive overreach of government authority. Director Mark L. Lester’s take on King’s bestseller briefly criticizes the government’s self-destructive paranoid tendencies, as evidenced by the overzealous captain played efficiently by Martin Sheen, but he’s mostly interested in exploiting then-groundbreaking pyrotechnic effects as he pulls off a fairly average retelling of a telekinetic father (David Keith) protecting his daughter (Drew Barrymore), who can create fire with her mind, from evil secret agents who want to dissect said mind. Just like in the novel, all of the story beats are predictable, especially if you’ve seen your share of “pure-hearted civilians run from the horrible government” thrillers, but Drew Barrymore’s haunting presence and a striking midpoint set-piece that shows her burning a bunch of agents in her front yard turn it into a halfway-decent time-waster.
Director: Tod Williams
Stephen King’s foray into the zombie genre wasn’t one of his most cherished works to begin with, so not much should be expected from the film adaptation either. Cell suffered through many production and distribution problems, and it shows, haphazardly paced and nonsensical at times. A more epic approach, and not this 100-minute trifle, could have carried the grand apocalyptic ambitions of the story, which starts off as a run-off-the mill 28 Days Later clone, then evolves into an internet-based Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. If you leave behind the need for a certain amount of genre prestige due to King’s name being attached to it, it actually can be enjoyed as a manic B-movie with tons of gore and some giddy subversion of basic horror elements. (A sequence where the protagonists run over thousands of inert zombies as if they’re in an episode of South Park is a high point.) Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as a sardonic no-nonsense survivor is a delight, but John Cusack in an audience surrogate Everyman role is too lethargic to carry the film.
Director: Lewis Teague
King himself admitted that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo, since he was consistently shit-faced at the time. This issue is reflected in his novel, which takes the rather simple concept of a rabid dog trapping a terrified mother (Dee Wallace) and her asthmatic son (Danny Pintauro) inside their car and unnecessarily dilutes it with a bunch of filler that take up too much space (such as the mother’s marital problems). The film version suffers from the same issues, as the first hour of Cujo is spent on stale melodrama that pretty much has nothing to do with the cuddly Saint Bernard who gets bitten by a bunch of rabid bats and decides to go medieval on the whole town. The final 30 minutes, which focus entirely on the mother and son’s deadly predicament, creates a terrific short film that takes full advantage of the claustrophobic setting.
Director: Stephen King
I can already hear a lot of you gasping at the fact that Maximum Overdrive, King’s (so far) only directorial effort and one of the dumbest movies ever made, made it to such a high place on this list. I’ll admit that King’s own adaptation of his short story, “Trucks,” which sees electronic devices coming to life and an army of trucks threatening the lives of a bunch of thinly written morons huddled up inside a dingy gas station, is a film that’s far from a well-oiled machine. During the hilariously ill-advised trailer, Stephen King glares directly into the audience’s face and proclaims with laughable conviction, “I’m gonna scare the hell outta you!” Alas, the final product is an intentionally goofy horror/comedy that tries to be a balls-to-the-wall heavy metal gorefest without a single legitimate scare. Was King trolling the audience in the trailer, or was he, as he admitted later on, so high off his rocker on coke during the production that he couldn’t be held accountable for anything he did on any given day? The amateurishness of the production, be it the cartoonish performances or scenes that are so darkly shot that it becomes impossible to see what the hell is going on, is on full display at every turn. Yet it’s really hard to dismiss the zany energy of the whole enterprise. Can we ignore scenes such as an ATM calling a man (King cameo) an “asshole,” or a character being killed by soda machine projectiles, or the kick-ass “death by pinball machine”?
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
The main reason for the overall negative reaction to The Dark Tower from critics and fans of the source material seems to be that this 90-minute-long (sans credits) adaptation of King’s sprawling seven-book series is the Cliff’s notes version of the real thing. (At least the Cliff’s notes would have more detail and a more comprehensive retelling than this limp paint-by-numbers YA supernatural adventure cash grab.) Hell, reading a short synopses of all seven books would take longer than 90 minutes. What we get in the end isn’t much more than a glorified trailer: The Dark Tower distills King’s massive universe into a generic action blockbuster fantasy about the battle between good and evil, and the stereotypical misunderstood kid (Tom Taylor) who finds himself in a wondrous fantasy land before being told that he’s the “chosen one” and the “key to the whole thing.” If we were to distance ourselves from the fact that this is supposed to be an actual adaptation of the books and treat it as if it’s an original product, then it’s not altogether terrible. The real tragedy here is that Idris Elba genuinely comes across as a badass action hero as the Gunslinger, but he’s not given much to do beyond spewing some pseudo-spiritual platitudes while filling bad guys full of lead. Also, the running joke of him being a fish out of water who finds himself in modern day NYC after living in the post-apocalyptic “Mid-world” all his life becomes grating really fast.
Director: Bryan Singer
Apt Pupil is the bastard stepchild of cinematic retellings from King’s four-novella anthology, Different Seasons, which spawned two cinematic masterworks you’ll surely come across near the end of this list. The haunting story of an impressionable young boy (Brad Renfro) who’s trained in the subtle art of being a violent evil prick by his Nazi neighbor (Ian McKellan in an admittedly unsettling performance) attempts a not-so-subtle allegory regarding the virus-like spread of blind hate. To his credit, director Bryan Singer executes the story with a deft handle on mood and suspense, but it eventually doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know (unless you’re the POTUS) and some tonal inconsistencies become quickly annoying. Most of the film has a grounded dramatic approach, which makes a Tales from the Crypt-style sequence—like the one where the old Nazi tries to push a cat into an oven—stand out that much more.
Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
The 2019 Pet Sematary follows the 1989 film down to the specific ways some characters are killed—except for one specific change that could have added a new dimension to the third act, but ends up as a superficial attempt to separate the project from previous iterations. Jeff Buhler’s script fills in some new details and character development to give more credibility to plot holes, motivations and extremely stupid decisions made by the characters, but Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Todd Cherniawsky’s production design disappoints with a flat and lifeless look. Compared to the 1989 film, 2019’s Pet Sematary is a minor step up in narrative, and a minor step down in technical efficiency. The two kind of even cancel out one another.
Director: Mary Lambert
The book might be one of King’s biggest-selling works and the movie adaptation might have been a success at the box-office, but let’s face it: Pet Sematary has a really stupid premise. It’s essentially a pre-Romero, old-fashioned zombie tale with flesh-eating undead kitty cats and little boys. Don’t get me wrong, director Mary Lambert’s take on King’s novel probably represents the best possible cinematic outcome for this silly tale, with an overbearing gothic mood that unsettles the audience at every turn, and an admirably straight-faced execution that manages to give the project some gravitas. But at the end of the day, this is a movie that takes the idea of a zombie cat seriously, while also climaxing with an annoyingly clichéd genre twist.
Director: Scott Hicks
Even though it carries the title of a collection of stories, Hearts in Atlantis loosely adapts “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” An affable, heartfelt drama about the budding friendship between a mysterious old man named Ted (Anthony Hopkins) and a lonely, introverted boy (Anton Yelchin), the film thrives on Hopkins and Yelchin’s palpable chemistry, able to engages the viewer in a fairly conventional coming-of-age tale, as Ted gradually helps the boy find his inner strength. What doesn’t really work is the sci-fi mystery element that reveals Ted as a psychic on the run from shady government figures. (What did you expect? It’s Stephen King.) Fortunately, the undercooked subplot ends up being fairly inconsequential to the relationship at the core of the story.
Director: Mike Flanagan
That Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining, adapted from King’s own novel, is almost its undoing. Every beat or reference that hearkens back to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece has either no narrative purpose or needlessly re-contextualizes a work of art. Do we really need an on-the-nose monologue handholding the audience through Jack Torrence’s motivations behind being an alcoholic? Did we really need to know that the ghosts in The Overlook had the power to cross into the land of the living because then-five-year-old Danny Torrence’s super telekinetic shining midichlorians were so off the roof that the evil spirits fed off of his spiritual essence, referred to as “steam” without a hint of self-aware humor? “Redrum,” the blood torrent from the elevator and various other references are only that; a supporting character’s office is designed to look exactly like the office from the beginning of the original for no discernible reason. A “famous” ghost from The Shining is not only referenced in dialogue, but later shown delivering his catchphrase —just in case you forgot.
When it lays its own path is when Doctor Sleep, well, shines. That is, at least as a schlocktacular bit of horror/adventure goofiness about the adult Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) and a teen (Kyleigh Curran) with even more extra supreme shining powers battling a coven of child murderers who stay immortal by ingesting children’s “steam.” As seen in The Haunting of Hill House, writer/director Mike Flanagan knows how to blend spectacle with in-depth character detail, and Rebecca Furguson has a blast imitating an old school Disney villain as the leader of the “steam” addicts. As a Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep is embarrassing. If approached as a standalone batshit crazy Stephen King epic, you can do a whole lot worse.
Director: George Romero
King wrote The Dark Half during the tail end of his alcoholism, so the theme of the writer becoming obsessed with his work to the point of addiction feels personal. It’s about a drama writer, Thad Baumont (Timothy Hutton), whose violent pulp novelist nom de plume, George Stark (also Hutton), actually comes to life to destroy him. This is a premise that’s ripe for a cerebral and introspective psychological thriller that could examine the inherent darkness of the creative mind with a fine-tooth comb. Unfortunately, King and director/zombiemeister George A. Romero feel compelled to satisfy all of the basic horror genre requirements, so the story gets bogged down into a pretty standard slasher flick structure as George Stark picks off one victim after the other in expected gory fashion. Timothy Hutton is fine as the timid writer, but is miscast as the alter ego. Michael Rooker is wasted here as a strait-laced cop who’s investigating the case, especially since his naturally sinister presence would have been a much better pick for the Stark character. (This would have made more sense, since the physical appearances of the two characters were different in the book to begin with.) Romero’s trademark build-up of dread is fully on display here, especially with the Hitchcockian way he handles a visual motif centered on ravens. But the final product, as satisfying as it might be as a straight genre example, shortchanges its potential.
Director: Mick Garris
The Stand is the best of the Stephen King/Mick Garris collaborations, with a star-studded six-hour visual retelling of King’s brick-sized novel. The first three hours focuses on the rebuilding of any form of normalcy after an experimental flu destroys 99% of the world’s population. The survivors are then given a moral option via lucid dream-like visions: Join the kind mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) and live a peaceful but restrained life, or go to Vegas and bathe in unchecked hedonism with the satanic Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). The second three-hour chunk works like a dress rehearsal for The Walking Dead, using a supernatural world-destroying plot point to examine how human nature either thrives or implodes while faced with the possibility of extinction. Abigail and Randall are two juicy parts for a possible feature adaptation (hopefully in multiple parts and not a bastardization like The Dark Tower), but it’s hard to top Dee and Sheridan’s immersive presence (even though the latter’s Billy Ray Cyrus mullet didn’t age well).
Director: Tobe Hooper
Primetime soap opera-style melodramatic miniseries about the scandalous goings-on within seemingly wholesome little American towns were all the rage in the late ’70s, and director Tobe Hooper takes full advantage of this by creating such a project and merely adding old school 1931 Dracula and 1922 Nosferatu vampires into the mix. The premise is the same as the 2004 version, with a writer (David Soul) moving back to his hometown to battle writer’s block, only to find out that it has a major vampire infestation problem. Hooper is clearly limited by how much violence and gore one was allowed to show on network TV in the ’70s. He gets around this by adopting Tod Browning’s use of exaggerated theatrics—smoke effects, stark lighting, etc.—to instill an overall sense of dread, and a Blue Man Group version of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu make-up on the vampires to deliver visceral chills. It might not offer much for contemporary fans of more graphic horror, but is a fun watch for genre fans who appreciate the more restrained 1930s Universal approach.
Director: David Carson
The (so far) longest adaptation of Carrie suffers a bit from including unnecessary back-story from the novel, explaining the source of Carrie’s powers and drastically changing the famously dour ending as an attempt to use this solid TV movie as a springboard for a series. A Carrie TV show about the titular telekinetic mass murderer helping other kids with their mutant mind control powers would have been a horrible idea, so let’s thank heavens that this version didn’t get enough ratings to allow for that to happen. But still: Angela Bettis represents the most loyal and most effective translation of Carrie White to the screen. As we could easily surmise from the ill-advised 2013 theatrical feature, a Carrie adaptation soars or crashes depending on this vital casting choice. With her natural, intimidating energy tailor-made for becoming a genre queen (check out 2002’s May for proof), the reasons why Bettis didn’t turn into a modern horror star is a discussion for another day. Carrie is supposed to be meek and powerless, which Sissy Spacek captured, but she’s also meant to have intense anger and a dash of movie monster charisma that’s bubbling under the surface, which Chloe-Grace Moretz did a better job at embracing. Bettis delivers the best of both worlds.
Director: David Koepp
The dual mind of a writer, especially one that tackles violent subject matter, is common theme for King. David Koepp’s adaptation of King’s novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, about a writer (Johnny Depp) suffering from depression due to his recent divorce visited by a violent hillbilly (John Turturro) who insists he stole his book from him, covers very similar grounds as The Dark Half. Secret Window, though, gets an edge, partly because Koepp is able to focus on a strict psychological thriller tone while Romero slid into slasher territory halfway through, but mainly thanks to Johnny Depp’s no-fucks-given mad-eyed performance as the writer on the edge of self-destruction. The mid-2000s was an exciting time to lay eyes on some out there Depp performances, since he let himself take chances with his roles after securing boffo “fuck you money” from Pirates of the Caribbean’s success. Depp gleefully chews the scenery (sometimes literally, as evidenced by the film’s final shot) and Secret Window becomes something of a last sign of the who the actor used to be.
Director: Zak Hilditch
Based on King’s same-named novella, 1922 takes a premise ripe for a Coen Brothers dark comedy—about bumbling criminals digging their own graves while trying to cover up for their horrifically violent acts—and sucks out all the possible humor and irony in favor of a grim morality tale. It’s a closer cousin to Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan than the Coens’ Fargo. Thomas Jane does his best Billy Bob Thornton from Sling Blade as a farmer who kills his wife (Molly Parker) after a dispute about whether or not to sell their farm, only for the series of botched cover-ups and his ever-growing guilt corroding his soul and dooming him. Writer/director Zak Hilditch lays down some heavy symbolic—if you thought the last shot of The Departed was too on the nose, check out the overused rodent motif here—but the allure of a hard-R after school special with beautifully stark noir cinematography (care of Ben Richardson) is hard to pass up.
Director: Mikael Håfström
1408 is nothing more than a campfire ghost story in feature form, but man is it effective. The set-up is deceptively simple: Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a famous debunker of the paranormal. His job consists of staying at places that are presumably haunted, only to come out the next day well rested, without unwanted visits from evil ghosts. Of course that all changes when he’s asked to check into room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. The hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson in full fun macabre mode) practically begs him not to step foot in there, which of course excites Mike even more. As soon as we enter the room, 1408 turns into a chamber horror piece inside the clearly haunted and giddily murderous title location for the remainder of the film. As far as intense peek-a-boo set pieces are concerned, director Mikael Hafstrom throws everything and the kitchen sink at the audience, expertly creating a breakneck pace that will rattle even the most jaded genre hound. There’s an attempt at a thematic character arc that alludes to a tragic event in Mike’s past, but Hafstrom is aware that this subplot is just an excuse to string together one hair-raising scare after the other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
The reason Stephen King’s It still has staying power amongst his gazillion other novels lies in the way it turns the concept of fear into an unstoppable abstract form that can ultimately destroy us. Yes, Pennywise the clown is the general embodiment of fear in It, but the timeless nonfigurative monster beneath him feeds off of specific fears that all of us struggle to put behind us, but might not be able to face. That, more than anything else, makes King’s magnum opus still relevant and terrifyingly relatable. This mini-series directed by John Carpenter protégée Tommy Lee Wallace, is memorable mostly thanks to a dedicatedly unnerving performance by Tim Curry as the eponymous evil clown. The first 90 minutes of its three hours mostly focuses on flashbacks that show a group of seven outcast kids who vow to destroy what they believe is a child-murdering demon that’s terrorizing their otherwise quiet Maine town. The isolated scenes where Pennywise scares the children using creative ways to get into their heads are still fun and creepy, thanks to some inventive practical effects, and of course, Curry’s giddy weirdness. The climax of this section, showing the kids fighting back their fears in order to beat the demon, feels relevant today, thanks to the resurgence of nostalgia-based kids’ adventure-horror material like Stranger Things, which itself borrowed a lot from King’s work. It’s when we deal entirely with the adults during the second section that It loses some of its steam. Returning to the town thirty years after they defeated the monster, the lucky seven has to face him again. Instead of dealing with adult fear as a concept while organically inserting horror set pieces based on it, the second part rushes through the story by throwing us a bunch of uninspired jump scares until we get a fairly unsatisfactory final battle. That being said, the solid kid half alone makes It the best TV adaptation of King’s books so far.
Directors: James Strong, James Franco, John David Coles, Frederick E.O. Toye, James Kent, Kevin Macdonald
King’s novel about a teacher named Jake (James Franco) going back to the ’60s to stop the JFK assassination adds an intriguing twist to spice up the usual time travel plot: The assassination famously takes place in 1963, but the Narnia-inspired closet that takes Jake to the past strictly places him in 1960. Thus, he has a full three years to foil the assassination, but by taking away the time traveler’s ability to control the specific date to travel to, King and miniseries creator Bridget Carpenter posit a simple but layered question: If you had to live in a different period just to fulfill a singular purpose, would your human nature eventually settle into this new normal and become accustomed to this new life, enough to perhaps naturally deviate from the mission at hand? So even though Jake sticks to his plan by spying on Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber, who’s terrifically tense in the role), he takes a cushy teaching job and falls in love with a co-worker (Sarah Gadon), leading him to question whether or not to say “fuck Kennedy” and settle into a white picket fence life. The addition of the unseen personification of time, the way death is personified in the Final Destination franchise, actively working to thwart Jake’s plans for meddling in its cosmic rules, adds another original concept to an experience somewhat marred by Franco’s disinterested performance. (I also can’t shake the feeling that this eight-episode miniseries would have worked much better with four.) Two separate but similar home invasion horror episodes that deviate from the main plot, as well as a filler episode where Jake gets amnesia, could have easily been excised without affecting the core of the narrative, character development or themes.
Director: David Cronenberg
As expected from a King adaptation, we’re once again dealing with a protagonist who has telekinetic powers he doesn’t want. Will that gift become a curse, or the curse a gift? For the first half of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg’s twist-filled thriller, the first outcome seems to be the case, as Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) uses his newfound powers of touching people to see into their secrets and pasts to help those in need. Then the latter outcome presents itself, as Johnny is forced to dispose of a presidential candidate (Martin Sheen) who will certainly bring about nuclear holocaust. Sound familiar? Also, minor spoiler: Does anyone really think Trump won’t use a baby as a human shield to save his own life? Perhaps The Dead Zone itself has powers of premonition. This is one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films, with a fairly straightforward mystery-horror structure, but this doesn’t stop him from building a mood full of dread and confusion, right from the terrifically enigmatic opening titles. Walken had the ability to come across as a likable conduit for the audience before his oft-imitated mannerisms turned him into a caricature. He displays that side of his work really efficiently here.
Director: John Carpenter
Forget Trucks or Maximum Overdrive, Christine is the ultimate Stephen King “car comes to life to kill people” movie. The story centers on the spiffy Plymouth Fury of bullied nerd Arnie (Keith Gordon) taking sweet revenge on Arnie’s tormentors in increasingly creative ways. In one of them, the victim could have easily survived by climbing on the car, but we’ll give that one a Charlize Theron-in-Prometheus pass. Director John Carpenter’s take on King is full of the maestro’s trademark moves, such as a strict reliance on mood and tone over narrative substance, spectacular practical effects—the sequence where the car fixes itself is still impressive—and, of course, that raw synth score.
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
You have no idea how happy it makes me that a 1980s Ah-nold cheesefest made its way into a ranking of Stephen King adaptations. Sure, as far as the overall tone and style is concerned, The Running Man sticks out the most in this list of mostly moody horror or humanist drama pieces. It’s much more of a typical Schwarzenegger vehicle than anything we might expect from King. Loosely based on the source novel, written under King’s then-nom-de-plume Richard Bachman, the film has a the book’s basic concept: Criminals join a deadly elimination TV show in exchange for the promise to regain their freedom, used as a generic base to insert gaudy pastel-colored exuberant costumes, over-the-top violent set-pieces and a bevy of classic one-liners. How can you hear him yell, “He was Sub-zero, now he’s plain zero!” and not crack a smile?
Director: Andy Muschietti
Even if director Andy Muschetti’s solid take on It, one of King’s most beloved and resonant novels, didn’t involve a terrifying incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown/Ancient Child-eating Fear Demon (Bill Skarsgard) and the many pulse-pounding horrific set-pieces that come with him, I’d be perfectly content watching the Losers’ Club—the seven quirky kids who find strength in each other to fight the literal and figurative monsters out to consume their souls—shoot the shit as they ride their bikes around the seemingly serene piece of Americana known as Derry, Maine. The combination of King’s honest depiction of R-rated dialogue between early teens, the natural performances from the young actors and the palpable chemistry between them creates one of the most instinctively endearing King-branded kid gangs since Stand By Me. Focusing on the children’s section of the novel works in both giving more depth to the characters than the 1990 mini-series did, and in honing in on the story’s inherent theme of fear being a self-destructive force. Skarsgard’s performance is different enough from Curry’s iconic take on Pennywise that a comparison becomes moot. While Curry fashioned a playful evil clown who obviously took pleasure out of tormenting his victims, Skarsgard creates a sort of feral animal who will starve if he doesn’t feed on the children’s fear, which translates into a desperate and twitchy interpretation.
Based on King’s 1992 novel, Gerald’s Game has a killer premise for one of those single location survival thrillers, a-la Buried: Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), on the brink of a divorce, decide to engage in a hopefully sex-filled getaway as a last-ditch attempt to spice up their marriage. In order to fulfill his power fantasies, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost. Not only does the experience sour immediately for Jessie as Gerald’s aggression teeters on marital date rape, but things immediately go even more south after Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack, forcing Jessie to find a way to survive her predicament. Even though co-writer/director Mike Flanagan peppers his literally tightly wound thriller with pulse pounding set pieces, the premise is used to boldly examine the lifelong trauma of sexual abuse and how self-empowerment can come out of the unlikeliest of situations. As Jessie hallucinates about her past, she unearths not only Gerald’s affinity for abusive behavior, but a horrific act by her father forces her to contend with her strength to move on. Thus, the inner battle takes precedence over the physical survival, giving Gerald’s Edge a fresh and socially relevant take on the genre.
Director: Taylor Hackford
An underrated gem of Stephen King’s non-horror adaptations, Dolores Claiborne probably went under the radar because audiences were bombarded with one low-rent King horror flick after the other at the time. We’re well aware of King’s immense talent when it comes to drama, but he’s not primarily known for writing insightful works from a female perspective. (Check out the simplistic Big Driver for proof of that.) That’s what makes Dolores Claiborne so special. Director Taylor Hackford’s tender and empathetic take on an estranged mother (Kathy Bates) and daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) forced to face their painful pasts as the mother’s accused of murdering an old woman, covers familiar, dark King themes like alcoholism and abuse. The story’s many twists and turns reveal a painful and heartbreaking cycle of trauma, but the strangely hopeful ending lets us know that even the deepest cuts can be mended over time. As far as King adaptations are concerned, Bates will always be immediately associated with her Oscar-winning turn in Misery, but the subtle ways she gives life to the broken woman she portrays here is more than on par with her better-known role.
Director: Frank Darabont
When it comes to loyally capturing King’s Dickensian humanist dramas, you can’t go wrong with Frank Darabont, even if that drama involves gross giant creepy crawlies lurking beneath a mysterious thick fog (which we’ll get to very soon). “Another Stephen King adaptation that’s set in a prison?”, a lot of Shawshank Redemption fans asked upon hearing about Darabont’s follow up. I remember the hype and the skepticism around the film were running neck-and-neck in the cultural zeitgeist up until the release of The Green Mile. Many fans were excited about Darabont returning to what he obviously did best, while an almost equal number were afraid that a repeat of similar material would yield diminished returns. The Green Mile wasn’t the masterpiece many hoped it would be, but it’s a rock-solid epic drama with a heartfelt supernatural center. The magical elements, centered on a child-like death row inmate (Michael Clarke Duncan in a star-making performance, RIP) who has the ability to heal others with a simple messianic touch, are of course what set the two films apart on the surface. The Green Mile’s tonal approach is also a bit darker as it leads to more morally complex third act, with an ending that frustrated some viewers because of this, but impressed yours truly.
Director: Rob Reiner
In many ways, Misery might be King’s most personal work. On the surface, it’s obviously a horror story that King wrote about something that would scare him: one of his rabid fans taking their infatuation with his books many steps too far by imprisoning him. Twenty years after Misery’s publication, King offered an alternate inspiration for his famous novel: The character of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), the “greatest fan” of writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan), great enough to use cringe-inducingly creative experimental foot surgery to keep him at her remote home against his will after rescuing him from a horrific car accident, was actually a representation of King’s bout with alcoholism, an oppressive force that violently impaired his free will while isolating him from the outside world. From that perspective, the correct decision to hand Kathy Bates the Best Actress Oscar for his spine-chilling yet shockingly empathetic performance as Wilkes becomes further solidified. In director Rob Reiner’s classic chamber thriller, Bates takes what might already be one of the most formidable monsters in King’s oeuvre, helped tremendously by the simple everyday facade of the character, and turns her into the frighteningly oppressive and overbearing presence that King was originally going for.
Director: Frank Darabont
A lot of the monsters and ghosts that terrorize a large and diverse group of protagonists in King’s work are excuses to deliver deft sociological studies on how easily members of a “civilized” society can toss out their polite and calm pretensions and let their reptilian brains, infused with fear and paranoia, take over in order to do horrific shit in the name of individual survival. From The Stand all the way to sub-par material like Trucks, there are many examples of this approach, but none are executed as efficiently and satisfyingly as Frank Darabont’s take on The Mist, King’s tale of a bunch of normal townsfolk gradually turning into a death cult when they’re trapped inside a grocery store after a mysterious mist that harbors a bunch of not-so-friendly monsters covers their town. The leader of the cult is the crazy, bible-thumping zealot played by Marcia Gay Harden, who’s mocked by others as she spews a bunch of apocalyptic bible verses but becomes a more and more credible voice, much to the chagrin of the more logic-based intellectual minority, as the creatures slither closer and closer to annihilating everyone. Thus a microcosm of our contemporary world is intricately mirrored, with a majority of weak minds ruled by fear, and the minority of levelheaded individuals powerless to stop the madness. Even if we were to take out the societal symbolism of the story, The Mist would still work as a terrific 1950s style monster flick that would have made William Castle drool. The shocking ending is a big plus or minus, depending on how much you like being traumatized by a work of fiction.
Director: Rob Reiner
Stand By Me, based on King’s novella, The Body, endures as one of the quintessential coming-of-age dramas. The uniquely personal yet immediately relatable way it captures that painfully exciting period when children take their first steps into adulthood, when our inherent innocence is abruptly stolen from us, replaced with a lifetime of cynicism fueled by the indifferent starkness of reality. For Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), four buddies from a small town in Maine, the swift end to that innocence lies lifeless in a ditch somewhere. The dead body for which the children travel for days and through many perilous adventures, just to sneak a peek, represents the final fleeting moments of their previously unshakable bond. They know that their friendship, and their childhood along with it, are on their last days, and that’s what makes the journey that precedes their discovery so special. The story’s told by the now-adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss), who buttons the whole affair with “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” That sentiment, in a nutshell, defines why Rob Reiner’s masterstroke on childhood nostalgia is still one of the greatest films of its kind.
Director: Brian De Palma
The third and oldest adaptation of Carrie White’s adventures in alternative prom decorations, Brian DePalma’s take on King’s novel stands head and shoulders above the other two because of one very simple reason: Brian DePalma. Yes, DePalma can be accused of being a one-man Hitchcock tribute band, but his airtight handle on building suspense and tension comes to full fruition with his take on the meek abused teenager with deadly telekinetic powers. What makes DePalma’s version of the infamous bloody prom prank one of the most unforgettable and iconic moments in film history, one that’s pretty much impossible to upstage no matter how many remakes and reboots are around the corner, lies not in the act of the pig’s blood being dumped on poor Carrie (Sissy Spacek), and the subsequent carnage, but in the way DePalma plays the audience like a violin as he prepares us for the inevitable climax by stretching the tension to its breaking point, and then stretching it even more. Study the series of pulse-pounding slow-motion shots, aided heavily by Pino Donaggio’s “Bernard Herrmann on steroids” score, right before the dastardly act is committed, combine it with the manic immediacy of the mayhem that follows it, and you’ll get a crash course on how to perfectly structure a genuinely terrifying horror sequence.
Director: Frank Darabont
Film snobs and critics are usually guilty of undermining great movies that become immensely popular with the general audience. Call it overrated or make as many “It’s on a loop on TNT” jokes as you want, The Shawshank Redemption is a timeless classic and one of the last great American dramas. This adaptation of a lesser-known Stephen King novella by a first-time director could have failed in so many ways, but Frank Darabont’s focus and determination, aided by extraordinary performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, turn The Shawshank Redemption into the prestige powerhouse it is today. You might not think it’s the best film ever made, but we all understand why it’s been holding the number one spot on IMDB’s viewer-culled Top 250 pretty much since the site’s inception, and shows no signs of ever being dethroned.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
What more can possibly be said about Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, the one that still deservedly tops every one of those “Scariest Movies Ever Made” lists? A film that’s meticulous and unrelenting in its quest to unnerve the audience and shake them to their core, with impeccable camera work that qualifies any random screenshot as a piece of photographic art? A popular culture staple where every iconic moment, from the way the subtle change in audio as Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) tricycle traverses from the carpet to the wood flooring messes with our minds, right down to the unnatural, primal howl that Jack (Jack Nicholson) exudes like a wounded predator as he hunts his family with an axe through a snow-covered maze? A work so enigmatic in its narrative approach, that entire documentaries are made about the many wild theories that stem from it? A movie that gave an elevator the worst period of its life, causes people to still be afraid of adorable twin girls almost forty years after its release, and bravely tackled the issue of dog-on-man fellatio? One of the greatest films ever made, regardless of the genre? Nope, nothing more can be said about it, so I’ll stop right here.