Ranking The Top 10 Stephen King Movie Adaptations
According to IMDb, legendary novelist Stephen King has had a hand in the writing of over 200 movies, mini-series, and TV shows. While even the most devoted King fan has probably missed some of the adaptations that have appeared over the years, a canon of respectable movies started to emerge early in King’s career and has remained relatively distinct from the writer’s more disposable efforts.
As it turns out, there are more good King adaptations than spots on this list, but after some very tough consideration, here’s one fan’s ranking of the 10 best Stephen King adaptations.
10. The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone plays a very different role in the careers of its two creative masterminds. For filmmaker David Cronenberg, this is a director-for-hire gig that lacks the wild imagination of his more personal work, but for King, this is something more noteworthy: a faithful, well-crafted adaptation made with taste and restraint. It should also be noted that Christopher Walken and psychic powers are an irresistible pairing, even if the movie itself is a little too inhibited.
9. Christine (1983)
Christine fits in roughly the same category as The Dead Zone. Again, we have a great horror director at the peak of his powers, making a film that pales in comparison to his three or four preceding films. However, when compared to other King adaptations, Christine stands out as one of the most stylish and tonally distinct. It may not be one of John Carpenter’s best, but the marriage of his sensibilities and King’s—for this unlikely story of a car with a mind of its own—remains re-watchable 34 years later.
8. 1408 (2007)
10 years after its release, 1408 seems largely forgotten or at least underestimated. Thanks to the involvement of inventive screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), this story of a paranormal debunker (John Cusack) trapped in a terrifying hotel room keeps plot to a minimum and inventive, surreal horror flourishes to a maximum. As a general rule, fans of King adaptations should always make time for surreal movies about authors losing their minds in hotels.
7. Salem’s Lot (1979)
King’s well-regarded second novel—which tells the story of vampires taking over a New England town—was also the first adaptation of his work to reach the small screen, pairing the writer with director Tobe Hooper, just five years after he shocked the world with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As a TV mini-series made for CBS, Salem’s Lot lacks the excess of many big screen King adaptations, but this restraint is a big part of the film’s appeal. As an added bonus, the mini-series running time allows for a more sprawling, digressive approach that mirrors the pace of King’s writing more closely than most adaptations.
6. The Mist (2007)
After earning Oscar nominations for a pair of dramatic King adaptations, Frank Darabont finally set his sights on adapting some of the author’s horror writing. Much like Dawn of the Dead, The Mist finds humans hiding from mysterious creatures in a place of commerce, ultimately engaging in battle with one another. Whereas the actual Dawn of the Dead remake does little to capture the appeal of the original, this completely unrelated—but undeniably likeminded—movie captures many of the same sensations, which may explain why Darabont was in charge of The Walking Dead when it arrived on TV three years later.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Regarded by some as the greatest movie of all time, The Shawshank Redemption would seem to be an obvious candidate for higher placement on this list. But there’s one thing fans of this film sometimes overlook: not everyone is equally affected by this particular brand of emotional uplift. Placing Shawshank at number five is high praise that acknowledges its general excellence, but there’s a streak of careless manipulation and sentimentality that distinguishes this film from the more uncompromising work lower on this list.
4. Misery (1990)
Rightly remembered for Kathy Bates’ bizarre performance, Misery should also be celebrated for the way it deftly navigates its many restrictions. For most of the film, we are trapped alongside a bed-ridden Paul Sheldon (James Caan), as he passively awaits each new threat from the dreaded Annie Wilkes. However, director Rob Reiner, writer William Goldman, and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who later directed films like Get Shorty and Men in Black) find inventive ways to benefit from the story’s restrictions, giving us a clear sense of the characters’ shifting dynamic. They also achieve a perfect blend of horror and black comedy that is apparent in most King novels, but surprisingly absent from many adaptations.
3. Stand By Me (1986)
Like The Shawshank Redemption, this coming-of-age classic—which also originated in the 1982 novella collection, Different Seasons—is miles away from the horror storytelling that built the author’s reputation. But for a generation who grew up on King’s horror movies, Stand By Me was of equal importance, acknowledging the emotional depths adults often overlook in kids, while also offering an infectious sense of childhood’s more carefree potential. Like the next film on this list, Stand By Me demonstrates King’s refreshingly unsentimental vision of youth, which may explain why it remains distinctive and resonant three decades later.
2. Carrie (1976)
On another day, the number one spot on this list could easily have gone to Carrie, one of two King adaptations deserving of full-blown masterpiece status. While you would never guess it from the quality of the work onscreen, this is both the first King novel and the first adaptation of his writing. Rather than offer the kind of superficial handling of the material that we get in the awful 2013 remake, director Brian De Palma dives deep into the conflicted inner world of Carrie White, a young woman repeatedly punished for her innocence. Surrounded by emotionally unstable influences, she miraculously enjoys a taste of bliss, making her eventual decline—and revenge—that much more impactful. De Palma navigates her tragic path with exacting precision, capturing the baffling highs and lows of high school life far more convincingly than any realistic high school movie.
1. The Shining (1980)
As you can probably tell by now, the faithfulness of these adaptations has no bearing on their ranking. This is particularly true of The Shining, a film that King has consistently derided for decades. As the writer of the novel, it’s understandable that he would take issue with the movie’s deviations from its source, but Stanley Kubrick approached the novel as a skeleton to support a more general exploration of horror and his other cinematic preoccupations. By taking the emphasis off of story information and logic—yes, Jack already seems crazy before arriving at the Overlook—Kubrick creates a mindblowing, cross-medium remix, turning an accomplished work of literature into a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. In essence, the movie feels like a nightmare you had after reading the book—which is exactly what we should demand from horror adaptations.
The latest King adaptation, The Dark Tower, is in theatres today. Check out our review here.