Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard
When Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, on April 5, 1974, the New England author unknowingly caused a rift in genre storytelling and filmmaking that has yet to zip back up. Since then, he’s published nearly 100 works and sold over 350 million copies, all of which have spawned countless films, miniseries, and television shows.
Some have been great, some have been awful, some shouldn’t even be allowed to use the original title. When you have an oeuvre that deep and licensing that expansive, it’s understandable why quantity would triumph over quality. Still, when filmmakers do connect with King’s work, it often conjures up something iconic and masterful.
“I love the movies, and when I go to see a movie that’s been made from one of my books, I know that it isn’t going to be exactly like my novel because a lot of other people have interpreted it,” King previously stated. “But I also know it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year, or a year and a half of my life working on it.”
That’s the allure of his many adaptations. Even at their worst, they all work off ideas that were at one time unique and exciting enough to compel him to write 400 or 1,500 pages about them. Having said that, we’re probably never going to revisit the bottom of this barrel ever again, which is why this feature should come in handy for you.
As for those Dollar Baby shorts, well, you’re on your own there.
80. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
In the history of loose Stephen King adaptations, The Lawnmower Man has got to be the loosest. Taking only the most basic element of King’s story (a man who mows lawns) and shoehorning in King tropes of creepy religious imagery and abusive fathers, The Lawnmower Man is actually based on the script Cyber God, written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimmel Everett. A sci-fi take on Frankenstein, the film features some very cool and (at the time) state of the art special effects that takes the audience into the world of virtual reality. New Line eventually relented and removed King’s name from the film. For the purposes of this list, though, it answers the question: “When is a Stephen King adaption not a Stephen King adaptation?”
King’s Consensus: Well, the film strayed so far from the source material that King went on to sue the filmmakers to remove his name from the title. Despite two court rulings in his favor, New Line still released the home video version as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. On King’s own site, the film remains unlisted among adaptations based on his work. In sum, he hates it.
79. Trucks TV Movie (1997)
Maximum Overdrive is an absurd, over-the-top adaptation of “Trucks”, a subdued Night Shift story that’s both ambiguous and despairing. It’s considered one of the worst Stephen King adaptations of all time, so it’s telling that the story’s other film adaptation is even lower on this list. Trucks is a TV movie from 1997 starring Timothy Busfield that’s almost more absurd than Maximum Overdrive in conception—holistic mumbo-jumbo attempts to explain away the living cars—but not nearly as violent, silly, or stupid. Really, this thing is an absolute snorefest; the best part is a tonally inconsistent sequence where some dude on the street is slowly, painstakingly killed by a tiny RC monster truck. I never thought I’d say this, but I really wish a coked-out King directed this one, too.
78. The Mist TV Series (2017)
On paper, it seemed like a good idea: King’s Skeleton Crew novella “The Mist” is a story ripe for serial television, chock full of memorable characters that must try and survive an impossible situation that is literally shrouded in mystery. It’s like The Walking Dead, what with all the dread and savage humanity, only with far more possibilities because anything can happen in the mist. Spike TV fumbled big time, though, as showrunner Christian Torpe took all the menace and characterization of Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation and funneled it through cheap CGI scares and insufferable archetypes. Now, more often than not, the worst of the King adaptations are saved by a capable cast or carried to the finish line by concept alone, but both lack so much imagination here that you find yourselves wishing for a bullet like Thomas Jane in the original. Woof.
King’s Consensus: “THE MIST TV series premieres on Spike, June 22nd. You might want to mark it on your calendar. It’s really good.” –Twitter, June 2017
77. A Good Marriage (2014)
Full Dark, No Stars, King’s 2010 short story collection, deals with themes of vengeance, and while A Good Marriage isn’t exactly one of its better stories, it still has all the trappings of a decent flick. So, when it was announced that there would be a film with Joan Allen and Stephen Lang on board, intrigue settled in. Unfortunately, this film turned out to be a by-the-numbers Lifetime special, complete with one poorly fleshed-out family, awkward sexual tension, and a great collection of coins! The direction is sophomoric, and some of the interplay between Anthony LaPaglia and Allen is downright cringeworthy. This is also Stephen King’s first screenplay in 25 years, and it shows. In the end, you’re better off divorcing yourself from A Good Marriage.
King’s Consensus: “Frankly, I thought It would make a terrific suspense movie.” –Fox News interview, September 2014
76. The Mangler (1995)
Tobe Hooper directing. Robert Englund starring. A Stephen King story. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s break it down: We have a director in Hooper well past his Texas Chainsaw prime. We get an Englund performance that is so cartoonish, it makes his take on the titular character in Freddy’s Dead seem as restrained as Gunnar Björnstrand in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. To top it off: the short story in which its based (about a haunted laundromat presser) is kinda lame! A bad supporting cast, a laughable “twist” ending, and some howlingly bad CGI and you get a mangled mess of a movie.
King’s Consensus: “Tobe Hooper, who directed it, is something of a genius…The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves that beyond doubt. But when genius goes wrong, brother, watch out. The film version of ‘The Mangler’ is energetic and colorful, but it’s also a mess with Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund stalking through it for reasons which remain unclear to me even now. … The movie’s visuals are surreal and the sets are eye-popping, but somewhere along the way (maybe in the copious amounts of steam generated by the film’s mechanical star), the story got lost.” —Stephen King Goes to the Movies, 2009
75. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009)
Christian Slater has saved many films in his life, but Dolan’s Cadillac is not one of them. Jeff Beesley’s 2009 adaptation of King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes short story is a sleazy genre affair that suffers from garish overacting and a total lack of self-awareness. Essentially, it’s a would-be hard-boiled revenge story, only its tires go flat right out of the gate without a spare in sight. Think back to the premise of James O’Barr’s The Crow, strip out the gothic overtones,replace them with some desert raunch from a flu-rattled Joe Carnahan, and, well, there you are. Had Beesley gone for a lead with a little more chutzpah than Wes Bentley, this might have fared differently, but as it is, Dolan’s Cadillac is a predictable waste of time.
74. “Chattery Teeth” from Quicksilver Highway (1997)
The King half of this made-for-TV anthology movie — the other half belongs to Clive Barker — isn’t much to write home about (and to be fair, neither is the Barker half). It’s oddly shot with performances that range from wooden to deeply silly, and frequent King interpreter Mick Garris takes every opportunity to say “THIS IS SPOOKY” that he possibly can (wait for the vulture shot — it’s not 10 minutes long, but it feels it.) Still, you can’t call a movie where a malevolent hitchhiker gets brought down by a pair of chattering toy teeth dull, so it has that going for it.
73. The Langoliers (1995)
King’s stories had found a new place to flourish in the ‘90s: television. After the success of ABC miniseries adaptations of IT and The Stand, things were looking up for TV King to wear the crown for the rest of the decade. Then The Langoliers happened. Unrecognizably directed by Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night), this adaptation from King’s Four Past Midnight has a cast that looks ready to bail ASAP. The lone exception is Bronson Pinchot, who looks thrilled to abandon his Balky persona. Bad, bad “Langoliers” special effects and one of the worst freeze-frame endings of all time contribute to this entry landing near the bottom of our list.
72. Cell (2016)
King often receives hell for his endings, but rarely does he fumble on the half-yard line. Such is the case with Cell, his 2006 zombie homage that essentially finds the author answering a call from one of his own deadly constructs about 150 pages into the story. Because what follows an incredibly strong start — one of his best, if we’re being fair to the author — is a frustrating downward spiral of logic and plotting. Naturally, that chaos extended to Tod Williams’ 2016 film adaptation as King returned to write the screenplay, rewriting the ending yet retaining all the annoying quirks that plagued the source material. What’s worse, the film reeks of VOD cheese, so much so that you start wondering if 1408 co-stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson might be better off answering one of the phones themselves. We all should.
71. Desperation TV Movie (2006)
With Desperation, director Mick Garris returns to the King universe once again with another stellar cast, this time made up of Ron Pearlman, Tom Skerritt, Annabeth Gish, Henry Thomas. Sadly, not one of them can save this strange story: An ancient evil, Tak, is unleashed on the small town of Desperation after miners accidentally disturb its lair in an old mine dug by Chinese immigrants 150 years prior. At times, it feels like Garris is trying to make a propaganda film about believing in God, only the message gets crushed under the weight of a story despite its two hour and 10 min runtime. Originally shot in 2004, the story was to be released as a two-part miniseries, but was burned off in 06’ in one fell swoop against American Idol. Needless to say, King was not thrilled. Maybe we can undo the wrongs of this film with an adaptation of its sister book, The Regulators? Eh, probably not.
70. “Gramma” from The Twilight Zone (1986)
Here’s one for the history books: On Valentine’s Day 1986, “Gramma” entered The Twilight Zone canon. Yes, King managed to slip into the revival of Rod Serling’s iconic television series, but so did Barret Oliver, who trades in his attic retreat, The Never-Ending Story, and “MOON CHILD!” for Castle Rock, the Necronomicon, and a Cthulhu chanting “Gramma!” Originally published in Weirdbook magazine and later recollected for Skeleton Crew, this story follows a young boy left behind to care of his dying grandma, who may or may not be a witch! Told mostly through voiceovers, something Oliver killed in The Never-Ending Story, one would think we’re in safe hands. However, director Brad Mayford rushes through a script that hemorrhages too much story in too little time. Harlan Ellison, who is responsible for Strange Wine, one of King’s favorite horror novels, does a poor job adapting this eerie tale, but one wonders what could have been with a little more time to flesh this monster out.
69. “The Moving Finger” from Monsters (1991)
The great Tom Noonan, of all people, stars in this adaptation of the memorable Nightmares & Dreamscapes short story that finds an everyday man grappling with the horrifically long finger poking out of his bathroom sink. This goofy, schlocky adaptation aired as the final episode of the early ‘90s anthology horror series Monsters and Noonan’s excessive mugging is outdone only by the short’s Looney Tunes score, which would sound a lot better underscoring the adventures of Elmer Fudd than this would-be horror tale. Sure, the tone is jaunty, but without an adequate peek into the mind of Noonan’s character it’s impossible to grasp the stakes or underlying horror of the actual situation. One watch and you’ll be happy to flush this one from your mind.
68. Children of the Corn (1984)
While Stephen King adaptations really didn’t lean into prestige territory until the ‘90s (outside of The Shining, that is, but King still hates that one), Christine, Carrie, and The Dead Zone were certainly top shelf affairs. Children Of The Corn, meanwhile, is a gleefully low-rent King adaption—from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, no less—which is fitting for a short story that premiered in Penthouse magazine. Featuring creepy kids and creepier religious imagery, Corn is an effective piece of schlock that provides a few good jump scares and a wonderfully over the top opening with the kids disposing of the adults in a variety of ways, including a deli style meat slicer.
King’s Consensus: “My feeling for most of these things is like a guy who sends his daughter off to college. You hope she’ll do well. You hope that she won’t fall in with the wrong people. You hope she won’t be raped at a fraternity party, which is really close to what happened to Children of the Corn, in a metaphoric sense.” —USA Today, May 1995
67. Graveyard Shift (1990)
1990 gave us three Stephen King adaptations, and while Misery walked away with an Oscar, only one gave us a gigantic rat. That would be Graveyard Shift, which, despite being released by Paramount, feels less like a major studio release and more like a Full Moon production. The simple tale concerns a team of workers tasked with cleaning out the basement of a textile mill, and removing the kingdom of rats that have taken over. And if an abundance of average-size rodents weren’t enough to get your skin crawling, there’s the queen, who’s not pleased with the presence of the exterminators—including Brad Dourif, whose chewing more scenery than the rats. Misery may get the accolades, but Graveyard Shift is infinitely more fun, with its combination of factory-town melodrama and quality Jawsploitation.
King’s Consensus: “I spent that day knocking out a story called ‘Graveyard Shift.’ I remember being very happy and very absorbed – having the time of my life, in fact. The story was gruesome, fast and fun. (It later became a film which was gruesome and fast, but unfortunately not much fun.)” –Introduction in a 1999 reprinting of Carrie
66. Under the Dome TV Series (2013-2015)
King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a pulpy genre affair with a capital G. It’s a ridiculous, asinine premise — the idea that a magical dome encapsulates a small Maine town — that’s about as on-the-nose as a high schooler making a metaphor about ant farms and the tiers of social class. But, King flipped the medium to his advantage, finding a nice line between humor and horror, and the lengthy book was a total page turner, thriving with addicting heroes and villains that you wanted to see win or lose. The CBS series, however, failed to capture that magic, lacking any self-awareness and doubling down on the kind of cheap drama that the network continues to sell for a dime a dozen today. To his credit, Dean Norris actually offers an OK turn as “Big Jim” Rennie, but it’s hard to thrive in a bubble of mediocrity, and that’s sadly all you’ll find under this dome.
65. Mercy (2014)
There are two reasons that Blumhouse’s Mercy, an adaptation of the short story “Gramma”, ranks higher on our list than the Twilight Zone episode also made from that story. One: The movie has Shirley Knight in it, and even when she’s just OK she’s still good. Two: It’s occasionally very pretty to look at. But, please, if you must view one of the two, make it the other one. It’s shorter. There’s not enough meat in “Gramma” to fill a feature film, making this thing an overlong, paralyzingly dull “horror” movie without so much as a single jump scare to be found. Watch if, and only if, you can’t get enough of Carl from The Walking Dead.
64. Rose Red (2002)
Rose Red is so weird. King’s spin on classic haunted house tales like The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House tells the story of a group of people with psychic powers who spend the night in a notoriously haunted mansion. It features some great talent—burgeoning stars Matt Ross, Melanie Lynskey, and Jimmi Simpson, most notably—but the narrative is a goddamn mess. It literally seems at times like there’s missing scenes or reshoots that were never quite finished; the fate of Kevin Tighe’s Victor is so vague it’ll make you think you must’ve missed something (note: you didn’t). It also features the worst King cameo of all time, where he shows up as a goofy, winking pizza man in a scene that completely shatters what little hint of horror the film had cultivated up to that point.
63. Children of the Corn (2009)
Donald P. Borchers was a producer for the original Children of the Corn and, rightfully so, didn’t think it was a successful adaptation. So he set out to write and direct something that would be more faithful to King’s short story. To his credit, he mostly succeeds in this goal. But the film still makes the same fatal flaw of showing what led the children of Gatlin to kill all of the adults before the opening credits even roll. That kind of ruins the mystery. Since we’ve already figured everything out as an audience, there’s no suspense in watching bickering couple Burt and Vicky trying to do the same thing. That only makes the film’s other flaws — awkward performances from the child actors, a gratuitous sex scene, and costumes that look lifted from a community-theatre production of Oklahoma! — even more glaring. It would be nice to see a filmmaker adapt Children of the Corn with King’s original conceit in mind: the reader discovering what happened in Gatlin at the same time as the characters.
King’s Consensus: None. Although the filmmakers sent him the script in hopes of him being involved, his lawyers sent back a letter saying he wanted nothing to do with the new adaptation.
62. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
King took a stab at directing and failed. No time for jokes here. Maximum Overdrive is a relic from a time when video stores were in vogue. Great cover: Emilio Estevez with a gun and Green Goblin semi. Lil’ Justin is in. Older Justin is not. With fresh pairs of eyes and nostalgia washed away we’re left with a movie overloaded with AC/DC, bad direction, illogical storytelling, and the longest 98 minutes of your life. King’s short story “Trucks” is a good short story that has proven to be impossible to adapt into a full-length feature. I do like the first 10 minutes, but the rest? I’m hailing the next semi, evil or not, and getting out of dodge!
King’s Consensus: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003
61. Carrie (2013)
The only good thing about Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic is that it’s directed by a woman. It’s a story about women: Carrie, Margaret, Sue, and Chris are all spirited, frustrated, and broken in their own ways, so why not see what someone as talented as Peirce could bring to the material? Unfortunately, she doesn’t bring much. The result is shiny, superficial, and boring, and the casting of Chloë Grace Moretz as the titular character counts among its most fatal of flaws. Moretz is a fine actress, but nobody would mistake her for an outcast, no matter how much you give her the She’s All That treatment. The biggest problem, however? That it uses the material as a revenge narrative. It’s as if we’re supposed to be cheering for Carrie, to celebrate and cheer for this mass slaughter. Horrifying in all the wrong ways.
King’s Consensus: “I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake, as I have about The Stand and It. Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book. Piper Laurie really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing.” –Entertainment Weekly, May 2011
60. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Two Stephen King films came out in 1992: The Lawnmower Man, which was so far removed from the source material that King had his name taken off the film, and Sleepwalkers, which King actually wrote specifically for the big screen. In hindsight, he should have taken his name off this one as well. Directed by Mick Garris, who you’ll continue to see on this list, Sleepwalkers is the story of two creatures of the night, Mary (Alice Krige) and her son, Brady (Brian Krause), who wander the world draining the life force of unsuspecting “pure” souls. It’s an interesting premise that is destroyed by bad special effects and incredibly campy performances, among them is Brian Krause’s portrayal as main villain Brady, who has the horrible fate of delivering the “COP-KABOB” line. Sorry Stephen, leave the horror comedy to Sam Raimi whose Army of Darkness came out that same year. Maybe Ash can make this disappear with the Book of the Dead: “Klaatu-Barada . . . COP-KABOB!”
59. Secret Window (2004)
What makes Secret Window so deeply bad is that, in other circumstances, it might have been OK. Writer David Koepp, also the director, was fresh off writing both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and David Fincher’s Panic Room. John Turturro is perfectly cast. The source material, the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden”, is ripe for a terrific adaptation. But Secret Window is the film that made me realize that Johnny Depp had well and truly given over to total, full-throated jackassery. His towering insincerity, studied affectations, and tendency to vacillate wildly between scenery-chewing and hitting the snooze button all make this thing a complete and total waste of time. I have gone well over my word limit and I still have more to say about fucking Secret Window. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner, crying about the future of the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
58. The Dark Tower (2017)
After toiling away in development hell for years, The Dark Tower finally hit the silver screen … with a thud. What should have been an exciting beginning to an extraordinary franchise instead became an orthodox YA adaptation in the vein of The Maze Runner and Divergent. Director Nikolaj Arcel and Hollywood Hack Akiva Goldsman took King’s magnum opus and distilled it down to a ramshackle 90-minute gasp that was as forgettable as it was maddening.
Look, it was never going to be easy to adapt The Dark Tower series, especially outside of the television medium, but most fans would agree that better minds might have prevailed. Sadly, the only ones who truly remembered the faces of their fathers on this go-around were Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, two actors that seemingly appeared straight out of another movie. Hopefully, they’ll find the right one in the near future, but let’s not palaver over that fool’s dream for too long. Oy.
King’s Consensus: “It’s true THE DARK TOWER movie runs a clean 95 minutes. Like the first book in the series (224 pages), it’s all killer and no filler.” –Twitter, July 2017
57. No Smoking (2007)
Stephen King is a worldwide phenomenon, but there’s only been one Bollywood adaptation of his work. No Smoking is a 2007 take on King’s short story Quitters, Inc. (previously adapted in 1984 for the film Cat’s Eye) from director Anurag Kashyap. The storyline remains basically the same with, featuring John Abraham as K, a narcissistic businessman looking to kick that nasty habit by less than conventional methods. No Smoking shines with a pitch black sense of humour and a stylish visual palate in tune with the works of David Fincher.
56. Big Driver (2014)
Lifetime’s Big Driver is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the Full Dark, No Stars revenge tale, which tells the story of a mystery novelist who seeks vengeance on the monstrous dude who raped her and left her for dead in a drainage pipe. Still, for all its simplicity, it features a lot of curious choices. There’s the talking GPS, a bartender distractingly played by Joan Jett, and Olympia Dukakis’ folksy, imaginary lady detective. Together, they all forge a light-hearted, playful air that might suit Lifetime, but not the actual material. In the end, the conflicting tones result in a confused, uncomfortable watch. You’d expect better from Richard Christian Matheson, the son of acclaimed novelist Richard Matheson, who adapted the thing.
55. Bag of Bones TV Miniseries (2011)
They say “write what you know,” and while Stephen King has likely not encountered aliens, killer trucks, or “meteor shit,” he certainly knows about the writer’s mind. Bag Of Bones features another author—Mike Noonan—coming to grips with the death of his wife, an impending deadline for his latest novel, and all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. The A&E miniseries adaptation features some terrific performances—particularly Pierce Brosnan as Noonan—and is directed by Mick Garris. Garris has helmed more Stephen King adaptations than any other director, and with that comes a certain class and care for the material.
54. The Tommyknockers TV Miniseries (1993)
1993 was not a great year for King adaptations (see: Needful Things, located a few clicks higher on this list). But while that one had at least a few things going for it, the best that can be said of The Tommyknockers is that it’s not worse than the book. It’s not really better, either, but we’ll take what we can get. There are a few upsides —Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger commit absolutely to the insanity, and when you look at the story as one of addiction, some of the shading in Helgenberger’s work in particular takes on additional depth. But this is a bloated, often silly novel, and while its adaptation takes great liberties with the source material, it can’t leave it behind. And that glowing green stuff is pure ‘90s sci-fi nonsense.
King’s Consensus: This isn’t about the adaptation, but it all applies. “I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I’ve thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, ‘There’s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides[.]'”
53. “Chinga” from The X-Files (1998)
On paper, Stephen King writing an episode of The X-Files seems like the perfect fit. But “Chinga” falls victim to contrasting sensibilities. Although the series and King’s novels are both preoccupied with strongly developed characters coping with the supernatural, there are tonal differences that neither King nor creator/executive producer Chris Carter thought of when they began collaborating. Where The X-Files tends to be clinical and steely in its horror and characterizations, King’s work has always had a folksier bent. The mismatch was apparently so jarring that, when it came to Moulder and Scully’s scenes, Carter had to make significant rewrites that kept the central duo apart for the entire episode.
What remains of “Chinga” still plays like a C-grade King story, even with Carter’s revisions. While vacationing in Maine (of all places!) Scully has to crack a mystery that involves a possessed doll who — among other things — commits murder and causes people to try and claw their eyes out in its presence. Despite some unnerving moments of gore and creepy-doll moments straight from the Richard Matheson playbook (if you haven’t read “Prey” or seen Trilogy of Terror, you should), “Chinga” simply doesn’t feel very much like The X-Files. The plot is too hokey, the structure glaringly calls back to the series’ early monster-of-the-week days, and, without Moulder and Scully in the same place, there’s little to anchor the episode to the greater world of the show.
52. Nightmares and Dreamscapes TV Miniseries (2006)
There’s nothing worse than mid-aughts cable dramas; they’re all so sterile, so flat, so insipid. TNT’s 2006 eight-part miniseries Nightmares and Dreamscapes falls into this dreaded wasteland, turning King’s handful of short stories into 48-minute parables that are either too lifeless or too maudlin. With the exception of Brian Henson’s wildly imaginative adaptation of “Battleground”, which features a dazzling physical performance by William Hurt, the remaining seven episodes amount to silvery fluff that capitalizes on drugstore Halloween costumes and bored talent like Tom Berenger or Ron Livingston. Some happen to rise above their own respective nightmares — William H. Macy’s double-duty turn in “Umney’s Last Case” is worth a look — but most get lost in these boring, half-assed dreamscapes that wouldn’t scare a Sunday school teacher.
51. Salem’s Lot TV Miniseries (2004)
My memory could be failing me, but when the second miniseries adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot came out in 2004, I remember it being marketed as more comprehensive, more frightening, more faithful to the original novel.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
While slightly more violent than Tobe Hooper’s far-superior 1979 adaptation, it takes the same type of shortcuts, but with none of the rewards. Take the composite characters, for instance. Here, it’s Dr. Jimmy Cody and Sandy MacDougall having an affair, rather than Corey Parker and Bonnie Sawyer. That means one of the main vampire hunters is suddenly saddled with an arc that was little more than a subplot in the original novel. And that means a lot of the meatier plot elements get short-changed. There are other confusing choices as well, such as Father Callahan becoming Kurt Barlow’s servant, even though the fifth Dark Tower book had just been released and made him a hero in that series. The 2004 adaptation of Salem’s Lot isn’t exactly horrible as much as it is misguided and confusing.
50. ”Sorry, Right Number” from Tales From The Darkside (1987)
Oh, I wish this one were better. The teleplay, written by King himself, is pretty good, if a bit clumsy in places. No clumsiness can mask the fact that this is one of the rare, often wonderful stories from the corner of King’s mind that knows that some of life’s truest, most unshakeable horrors are grief, loss, and remorse. (For an even better example, see Night Shift’s “The Last Rung On The Ladder”, a Losers’ Club podcast favorite.) On paper, solid. But lazy direction and some impressively forgettable performances make this one a pass.
49. The Shining TV Miniseries (1997)
For all of King’s grievances about the liberties that Stanley Kubrick took with The Shining, the core of his issues will always be that Jack Torrance, perhaps more than any of his other protagonists, is a proxy for the savagery that once lived in King’s own heart, in all his empathy and tragedy. But although the 1997 ABC miniseries is more slavishly faithful to the source text, right down to Chekov’s neglected boiler, it simply doesn’t manage the same excruciating tension as the classic film adaptation. Steven Weber is far more adept at the Torrance in recovery than the one trawling the halls later on, and ironically, Mick Garris’ miniseries merely offers further proof that The Shining is a lot scarier when you take most of the human element out of the equation.
48. Carrie TV Miniseries (2002)
Bryan Fuller’s script for 2002’s Carrie is actually quite faithful to King’s novel. The only problem? We already got a faithful adaptation in 1976, one that hit theaters with a distinct and complete vision from Brian De Palma, no less. The quality of his past six films aside, he’s still one of the few directors who actually earns the overused title of “auteur.” The 2002 version of Carrie isn’t directed by DePalma, but TV veteran David Carson. Though competent, he doesn’t exactly bring his own flair to the material, which makes his Carrie feel somewhat pointless. The end result is fine — fine performances, fine special effects, fine directing — but also feels like a WB soap opera.
To make matters worse, the sole major alteration to the novel is completely out of line with its thesis of unstoppable teenage cruelty. Instead of dying at her mother’s hands like on the page, Carrie White (a pitch-perfect Angela Bettis) actually fakes her own death with the help of Sue Snell (Kandyse McClure). The TV movie ends with the pair hightailing it Florida, presumably to have new telepathic adventures. Or something. The finale revealed that, while billed as a movie, 2002’s Carrie was actually a backdoor pilot for a TV series that never get made, thus spoiling the intentions of the entire project. Some novels call for a redemptive arc. Carrie is not one of them.
47. In the Tall Grass (2019)
As a feature, In the Tall Grass was always going to need a larger narrative than what King and Joe Hill gave readers back in 2012. To his credit, director Vincenzo Natali nails the essence of King and Joe Hill’s novella throughout the first act by including its most minute details—Becky sees a plane passing overhead while lost in an endless sea of vegetation; her and Cal recite dirty limericks to comfort and keep track of one another when they get separated, building a creepy rural environment that’s often cast in broad daylight (a strategy in horror seldom-employed). But the film’s second act frustratingly retreads the same beats and jump-scares over and over again, rather than truly expanding or jumping into new territory. The strong atmospherics and performances aren’t quite enough to keep In the Tall Grass from feeling like, well, wandering through a bunch of tall grass.
King’s Consensus: “Check it out, but also watch it with a friend. Or a fiend.” —Twitter, October 2019
46. “Gray Matter” from Shudder’s Creepshow (2019)
Directed by Creepshow showrunner and effects guru/genre titan Greg Nicotero, “Gray Matter” is the Platonic ideal of a Creepshow story, and a really solid note on which to kick off the series. In classic King fashion, the story deftly weaves a simple setting of a rain-soaked coastal town with darker, more eldritch horrors that simultaneously dovetail into far more human foibles. Sure, there’s a big gloopy monster and Giancarlo Esposito shrieking in terror like the best scream queens, but it starts as a mournful tale of a man who drowns his grief in alcohol. Stuffing the cast with stalwart vets like Tobin Bell, Esposito, and Adrienne Barbeau certainly doesn’t hurt, either. By the closing minutes of this one, you’ll be suitably spooked.
King’s Consensus: “The first episode of CREEPSHOW (on Shudder) is a really excellent re-boot of the movie George and I made back in the day. God bless Adrienne, and my God, so many Easter eggs!” —Twitter, September 2019
45. The Running Man (1987)
Reconfigured to fit the action machismo of star Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Running Man is the first of King’s Bachman Books to receive a screen adaptation. Arnie is wrongfully convicted of murder, ultimately forced to join a game show and avoid being slaughtered in order to win/survive. It’s a grim plot that we’re likely only a few years away from. Disposable overall, but might be worth viewing just to see Richard Dawson play up his Family Feud persona. There are also crazy cameos including Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood (as “Mic”) and Dweezil Zappa! “Now that hit the spot.”
44. Dreamcatcher (2003)
If we were to walk up to you and tell you about a film where Donnie Wahlberg plays a man with a neurological disability who’s also an alien, fated to battle a malevolent species of “butt weasels,” would you assume anything other than “you are all insane liars”? Well, that’s the general premise of Dreamcatcher, the adaptation of a novel that was somehow delivered during King’s sober period. Despite its formidable cast (Damian Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Timothy Olyphant, Thomas Jane), Lawrence Kasdan manages to make a mess of one of the author’s strangest works, a story that aims for surreal resonance and instead lands somewhere between “incoherent” and “batshit nuts.” We’re still kind of baffled that Dreamcatcher exists at all, but in a few respects, we’re kind of glad it does, as proof that not every King novel needs the big-screen treatment.
King’s Consensus: “And in my case, more of the movies than not — if we except things like Return to Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn 4, The Children of the Corn Meet the Leprechaun or whatever it is — if you do that, then most times you’re going to have something that’s interesting anyway. That doesn’t mean you’re going to have the occasional thing that’s just a train wreck like ‘Dreamcatcher,’ because that happens, right?” —Time, 2007
43. Golden Years TV Miniseries (1991)
King’s first foray into original television was this little 1991 miniseries that ran on CBS for seven installments. Fueled by the cinematic television David Lynch was pioneering over at ABC with Twin Peaks, Golden Years attempted to do something similar, or as King put it, serve as “a novel for television.” He nearly succeeded, bottling all of his own signature quirks in this confident sci-fi narrative, which follows a 70-year-old custodian who survives a laboratory explosion and finds himself aging in reverse. Keith Szarabajka, Felicity Huffman, and Ed Lauter all offer glimpses of greatness in each episode, mostly due to King’s willingness to evolve characters at his own pace. That pacing, however, winds up being a pitfall as too many scenes get lost in the smaller details, resulting in a narrative that moves at a sluggish, nearly geriatric pace. Still, it’s an intriguing watch, but mostly as a piece of television’s long evolution, though diehard King fans will undoubtedly appreciate the references to The Shop. Just don’t expect to find Charlie McGee.
King’s Consensus: “Up until Twin Peaks came on, the only sort of continuing drama that TV understood was soap opera, Dallas, Knots Landing, that sort of thing. To some degree David Lynch gave them that. But he turned the whole idea of that continuing soap opera inside out like a sock. If you think of Twin Peaks as a man, it’s a man in delirium, a man spouting stream-of-consciousness stuff. Golden Years is like Twin Peaks without the delirium.” —The New York Times, July 1991
42. “The Cat From Hell” from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
This film version of the cult 1980’s anthology series eschews any sense of low-budget fun and creepy aesthetics for over-lit set pieces, a clearly-lit Christian Slater, and young Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore. One of its three tales comes from a short story by Sai King, adapted for the movie by frequent-collaborator George A. Romero. “The Cat from Hell” earns the title by the time the segment ends. Let’s just say if you ever wanted to see a cat force its way into the mouth of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, you’re going to enjoy it. “Cat” is easily the best segment of the bunch. The rest is really bad.
41. Riding the Bullet (2004)
Mick Garris’ low-budget adaptation of King’s 2000 online novel, Riding the Bullet, swells with emotion. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s kind of scary, it’s really heartwarming. You get the sense that this narrative means something to Garris. Set in 1969, the story follows a suicidal man encountering his own personal demons as he hitchhikes his way across Maine to see his mother in a hospital. On the road is the forever-underrated Jonathan Jackson, who adds wrinkles and creases to what’s an black and white script by Garris. Although the film often appears as if it’s been stripped straight from early ’00s television, Garris makes some bold creative liberties, flooding the scenery with meticulous coloring and rolling the action along with a handful of nifty camera tricks. Seeing how this was his fifth King adaptation, the film’s also peppered with Easter eggs.
40. Firestarter (1984)
Let’s not pretend that Firestarter is one of the greats in the King canon. Given that, it’s no surprise that the film is similarly lackluster. That fabulous poster, featuring a cherubic Drew Barrymore’s face and lots of fire, reels you in, and once you’ve been suckered into watching the thing, it’s… fine. There are two things that stand out, both in my memory of seeing this at an inappropriately young age and in this second time around: the performances of Drew Barrymore (as the titular starter of fire) and George C. Scott. Barrymore does what she can with a paper-thin character, and while I wouldn’t call it a great performance, it could have been much, much worse. And Scott never met a set piece that didn’t look delicious. Just watch them here, man. Worth the rental for that snarl at least.
King’s Consensus: “[I]t’s flavorless; it’s like cafeteria mashed potatoes. There are things that happen in terms of special effects in that movie that make no sense to whatsoever. Why this kid’s hair blows every time she starts fire is totally beyond my understanding.” —American Film, June 1986
39. Thinner (1996)
You know what? To hell with all the haters, Thinner is exceptional. It’s a total ’90s rental that absolutely nails the spirit of King’s sick and twisted sense of humor, and considering this is the Kingiest of the Richard Bachman books, it’s a perfect fit. Director Tom Holland, who’s always had a more whimsical flair for the macabre (see: Fright Night, Child’s Play), captures this sordid story with all the right beats. Everybody’s a total sycophantic asshole and everyone gets what’s coming to them — well, with the exception of one, finger-licking victim. Robert John Burke similarly strikes gold with the source material as a subversive anti-hero that you don’t necessarily champion, but can’t help but sympathize over. Toss in a lovable son of a bitch like Joe Mantegna and some despicable body horror and it’s all you really need from a King-stamped horror tale.
38. Creepshow 2 (1982)
Of the three segments in the sequel to Creepshow, only one of them is based on a fully fleshed out story by Stephen King. The other two came from King treatments that were further developed by George A. Romero and an uncredited Lucille Fletcher. And if we’re being honest, it’s the only one that works. So if you’re looking for a fast, hard, and disgusting half hour, skip the wraparound interludes, “Old Chief Wood’nhead”, and “The Hitch-hiker” in favor of “The Raft”. Like the Skeleton Crew story on which it’s based, “The Raft” finds four college students stranded on a wooden platform in the middle of a lake, stalked by a creature that can best be described as a monstrous oil slick. With barf-bag special effects from Howard Berger, there’s an exploitative glee in watching each co-ed get slurped up by the monster into nothingness.
37. 1408 (2007)
By and large, the aughts were fairly unkind to adaptations of King’s work. From Dreamcatcher to Secret Window and on, the decade found itself in a thankless position; it was too early to start remaking the classics in the canon, but most of the material up for adaptation was, shall we say, not among the writer’s best work. On those merits alone, 1408 is a notable success, a film that manages to faithfully capture the hallucinatory mania that King has often favored. An adaptation of a short story from Everything’s Eventual, the film works John Cusack’s grieving author through his paces, as the titular room in a New York hotel (with a death toll of 56 and counting among its clientele) exploits everything from his grief over his dead daughter to the question of his very sanity. If the film’s many, many fake climaxes do grow too clever by half after a while, director Mikael Håfström commits to the trust-no-happy-ending conceit of the short story to compelling effect. Fun fact: Håfström shot four different endings, just to maintain the deliberate uncertainty of the story. After all, if you can’t even trust that he left the room at all, what can you trust?
36. The Night Flier (1997)
“When you give blood, the most you can expect is a cup of orange juice, but when you take blood, you get headlines,” says Richard Dees. Miguel Ferrer returns to the Stephen King Universe in HBO’s The Night Flier to play Richard Dees, an investigative reporter (who originally showed up in King’s novel, The Dead Zone) hot on the trail of serial killer who may be a vampire. Spoiler alert: He is! Based on the short story of the same name, The Night Flier lands in the middle of the road as a serviceable adaptation with a few good moments, namely from Ferrer who gives it his all. As for the Night Flier itself, the creature winds up looking like a mix between a mutated dog and Meatloaf from the “I’d Do Anything For Love” music video. Sadly, Ferrer won’t be popping up in another King property as he passed away earlier this year to throat cancer.
35. The Dark Half (1993)
Nearly a decade passed between Creepshow and the next George A. Romero/King collaboration. After years of trying to get The Stand off the ground (and failing), Romero was finally able to tackle another King project with The Dark Half, a ghoulish tale of a writer trying to destroy his maniacal alter ego before his world gets torn apart. Orion Pictures gave Romero the go-ahead in 1990, but thanks to major financial issues behind the scenes, the film wouldn’t see release until the spring of 1993.
The strength of The Dark Half comes down to the dual-performance of Timothy Hutton. The actor could have relied on the badass honky-tonk psycho Stark to carry the day, but he gives equal time to a quiet writer coming undone at the seams. A strong supporting cast that includes an always-dependable Amy Madigan as Beaumont’s wife, Liz, and Michael Rooker as Sheriff Pangborn also help in making up for a runtime that’s about 20 minutes too long. The Dark Half is one of the better ‘90s takes on King. Take that as you will.
Bonus: Madigan’s real-life husband Ed Harris also played the role of Pangborn in another ’93 King adaptation, Needful Things.
34. Sometimes They Come Back TV Movie (1991)
Here’s something neat: Sometimes They Come Back is the rare adaptation that actually improves upon its source material. The story, originally published in smutty men’s magazine Cavalier and later collected in Stephen King’s Night Shift, is an illogical, uneven tale that’s somehow both too short and too long. An adaptation of the story was originally slated for 1985’s Cat’s Eye anthology, but producer Dino De Laurentiis eventually decided it merited a feature of its own.
He wasn’t wrong, either. The story is a heavy one—a man returns to his childhood hometown to be a teacher and begins seeing the now-dead thugs who killed his younger brother appearing in his classroom—and needs space to breathe. It also eliminates the book’s deus ex machina use of black magic, focusing instead on a more traditionally magical ending that’s a bit treacly, but also more suited to the material and tone.
Director Tom McLoughlin, who had previously helmed the delightful Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, brings a fresh visual style to the feature, playing up the anachronistic “greaser” quality of the baddies, while also lightening the tone by eliminating some of the story’s grislier aspects (though a scene where the villains throw a dude’s dismembered limbs resonates as comedic in ways I’m not sure it was supposed to).
A pleasant surprise, this one.
33. Needful Things (1993)
From the opening helicopter shot over the Atlantic to the crackle of dry autumnal leaves, it’s clear that director Fraser C. Heston had a clear sense of place when helming Needful Things. Of all the Stephen King adaptations to take place in Castle Rock, it’s the one that most visually nails the picturesque yet lived-in feel of the author’s most famed fictional town, even more so than The Dead Zone.
Unfortunately, where Needful Things succeeds in locale and performances (the cast includes past and future King regulars Ed Harris, Ray McKinnon, and Bonnie Bedelia), it fails at actually being scary. In the novel, the horror lies in how easy it is for satanic shopkeeper Leland Gaunt (played here by Max Von Sydow) to push the citizens of Castle Rock to do horrible things to one another, with much of their crimes taking place in broad daylight. By setting the violence in the most ordinary-looking environment, King reminds the reader that this could easily happen in their town, too. Case in point: The pivotal and fatal knife fight between Nettie Cobb and Wilma Jerzyk.
In the film, however, the sequence occurs not in a nondescript front yard, but the inside of Wilma’s American gothic farmhouse, complete with flashes of lightning, slow-motion tabs, and “Ave Maria” underscoring the entire duel. It’s an example of how, by building a Jenga tower of horror cliches, Heston causes the film to teeter, then collapse by the the end. “There’s nothing quite so invigorating as a crisp fall day in New England,” says Gaunt at one point in the film. True. But a movie can’t get by on location alone.
King’s Consensus: “The movie was a special case. The first cut was shown on TNT. I have a copy of it, and the length of this film was four hours long. As a four-hour miniseries, it works. When edited down to ‘movie length’, it is almost indecipherable because it doesn’t have time to tell all the stories and do all the setups.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003
32. Apt Pupil (1998)
After production troubles stopped a 1987 adaptation in its tracks, Apt Pupil would finally make its way to the big screen over ten years later. It was an up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) who decided a foray into King territory was the way to go. The outcome was a fairly faithful adaptation of the Different Seasons novella, and a pretty good film overall. This is no small part thanks to the efforts of pre-mainstream-fame Sir Ian McKellan as Dussander, the actor’s first of many team-ups with Singer.
The story is a tale as old as time: A young boy of today (Brad Renfro) discovers a Nazi-in-hiding living next door. He blackmails him for details of his past before succumbing to violent urges of his own. Unsurprisingly, Singer’s adaptation ditches some of the more uneasy aspects of its source material, but really drops the ball with its ending. The adaptation takes a somewhat easy way out, but not before effective performances by its two leads make the film worth watching. Before hamming it up in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, David Schwimmer makes an appearance as a mustache.
31. It TV Miniseries (1990)
Most King fans would agree that the childhood sections of It are the book’s most powerful. Not only is there a stronger air of mystery and uncertainty, but King somehow manages to capture the innocence of childhood, its slow curdling into fear, and how integral friendship is to surviving that process. Also, it has Henry Bowers. And Henry Bowers is the best.
The same can be said for the book’s 1990 ABC miniseries. Its first two hours are exceptional, well-structured in terms of storytelling and filled with several moments of effective terror. That first glimpse of Pennywise behind the clothesline, Georgie’s curbside chat, and Belch Huggins’ drift into the deadlights remain creepy to this day. Unfortunately, the film’s second half is a hot mess. The innocence and discovery of the first part is replaced by oodles of exposition and a healthy dosage of ham-handedness in its second, and while John Ritter, Annette O’Toole, and Tim Reid are all excellent, they lack the material to effectively mirror their child counterparts.
Squint your eyes enough and you could call that intentional; the story is about the perversion of youth and a distrust of adulthood, after all. But, really, it’s just a matter of time. The series was initially slated for eight to 10 hours, but was cut to four after ABC executives got cold feet. You’d think the shortened runtime might’ve freed up some budget for a better spider.
Instead, we got this.
King’s Consensus: “You have to remember, my expectations were in the basement. Here was a book that sprawled over 1,000 pages, and they were going to cram it into four hours, with commercials. But the series really surprised me by how good it was. It’s a really ambitious adaptation of a really long book. The kid actors were good, and the adult actors were terrific. There’s an earlier generation who remember watching Salem’s Lot on TV, and then there are the kids who remember seeing It. Get ‘em while they’re young, that’s my motto.” —Yahoo, November 2015
30. Storm of the Century TV Miniseries (1999)
Storm of the Century is one of the better miniseries efforts in the pantheon of King adaptations, and the fact that it’s the one based on an original screenplay may have more than a bit to do with that. While it’s comfortably within the wheelhouse of popular King subjects (the corruption of children, the panic of scared/isolated collectives, Maine), Storm paints one of the author’s bleaker portraits of what scared people will do to maintain the illusion of safety.
Colm Feore delivers an eerie turn as André Linoge, an ancient and demonic being who begins to torture the small island community of Little Tall in advance of revealing his true purpose: the acquisition of a child to carry on his “work” when he finally leaves this world. As the unexplained suicides begin to pile up and the town’s eight children go dormant, Storm admirably follows through on its hopeless premise, exploring how easily men will sacrifice one of their own for the alleged greater good.
And like some of King’s most memorable work, there’s no peaceful or optimistic resolution to the miniseries’ horrifying scenario. A young boy is lost forever, and only grief and confusion and a weary kind of resignation can follow in the wake.
29. Cat’s Eye (1985)
Yet another Dino De Laurentis production, Cat’s Eye is a delightful adaptation of two Night Shift short stories in addition to a King original. The result is an effective anthology film. Before and after Cat’s Eye, too many King short stories would get adapted and transformed into feature-lengths. The original length of these shorts work as well as they do because they were written to be read in short bursts. Lengthier takes often sapped any tension or added unnecessary plot padding. Why more filmmakers didn’t go the route of Cat’s Eye, we’ll never know.
“Quitters, Inc.” stars excellent thespian/questionable human James Woods as a man trying to quit smoking by any means necessary, with an against-type Alan King making sure he does. “The Ledge” finds Airplane’s Robert Hays forced to take a stroll around a high-rise apartment building, all in an effort to save the woman he loves from the over-the-top clutches of Kenneth McMillan. The final story, “The General”, features a tiny troll trying to suck the life out of poor little Drew Barrymore. The tales are tenuously tied together by a cat (hence the title) and are lighter fare, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Beware the ridiculous nods to earlier King work, though.
28. “Word Processor of the Gods” from Tales From the Darkside (1984)
Being a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s easy to see the influence of E.C Comics on the works of Stephen King. “Word Processor of the Gods” (originally released as “The Word Processor” in a 1983 issue of Playboy) feels like a direct line from Tales From The Crypt, so it being adapted for an episode of the George Romero-produced Tales From The Darkside feels appropriate. Word Processor features TV’s Bruce Davison as Richard Hagstrom, a struggling writer with a shrewish wife and jagoff son who make his life miserable.
Hagstrom is gifted a D.I.Y word processor from his nephew, who was tragically killed—along with the boy’s mother—when Hagstrom’s brother took the whole family off cliff in a drunk driving accident. As the episode only runs 22 minutes, it doesn’t take long at all for Hagstrom to discover that his new toy has the supernatural ability to make things happen (or disappear), a notion he accepts rather quickly. Basically, whatever Hagstrom types into the word processor will come true. It’s a rare E.C. comics style tale that has a happy ending, and an example of King hitting a home run with the conclusion (while a top tier storyteller, he’s been known to whiff on his endings).
27. The Dead Zone TV Series (2001-2007)
If you look back at both the 1979 novel and David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation, The Dead Zone is pretty episodic. There’s the early romance between Johnny and Sarah, the fateful car crash, the harrowing recovery process, the cold-hearted murders involving Frank Dodd, those electrifying tutoring sessions, and, naturally, everything involving nuclear firecracker-turned-politician Greg Stillson. It’s also a very expansive world, what with the introduction of Castle Rock and Johnny’s various travels in and around Maine, chock full of characters that work on paper and on screen. In other words, all of this prime source material for a long-running television series, which is why USA was able to stretch this story for six seasons and 80 episodes.
Okay, so maybe The Dead Zone went on a little too long, but this series started out as riveting summer television. Anthony Michael Hall was an excellent Johnny Smith, possessing all the right kind of boyish charm and supernatural glow to keep everyone glued each week. Though, much of that success came from creators Michael and Shawn Piller, who wisely unpacked King’s novel in ways that could support and nurture the narrative beyond its original premise. Because of this, Johnny always had mysteries to solve and people to help — aka, the Vision of the Week — and those anecdotal stories were traditionally hyper-stylized in ways that made you feel like you were right there figuring shit out with Johnny. It was addicting … for awhile.
26. Pet Sematary (2019)
Pet Sematary is already one of Stephen King’s thinner novels in terms of plot and character, and the first two acts of this latest version are skeleton reproduction of his pages. That’s to say that they’re far more bare-bones than Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation, which worked from a screenplay by King himself.
Thirty years later, screenwriter Jeff Buhler takes only what he needs. By stripping Pet Sematary‘s first two acts of everything except what’s strictly necessary, he and directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch leave room for a third act that delves deeper into the novel’s musings on death and why we’d be wise to accept it.
Although the changes to the source material are guaranteed to polarize some Stephen King fans, Pet Sematary bucks the remake trap of simply paying homage to an iconic piece of horror. Instead, it makes drastic changes to the plot so it can ultimately go more complex with its themes. That’s a hell of a trick to pull off. Sometimes, different is better.
King’s Consensus: “This is a scary movie. Be warned. You might consider skipping this movie if you have heart trouble.” –Twitter, February 2019
25. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Hearts in Atlantis is loosely adapted from the short stories “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling” from the book of the same name. Mind you, the book steadily references The Dark Tower, though as with most King adaptations (including the actual Dark Tower adaptation itself) much of this was left out of the film. Even so, Hearts in Atlantis is one of the few adaptations in the King canon where straying from the source material actually works out quite well.
Much of this success is owed to its solid cast and crew who bring to life one hell of a screenplay by Hollywood champ William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery). The inimitable Anthony Hopkins gives a grand performance as Ted Brautigan, the old psychic on the run from The Low Men, while a very young Anton Yelchin plays Bobby Garfield at his side. Like Bronco Nagurski, Hearts in Atlantis continues to gain more and more ground as it stacks up against the myriad of films that have come after.
24. Mr. Mercedes TV Miniseries (2017)
This ranking is based, at least in part, on optimism, as this AT&T Audience Network series heads into its second season come August 22nd. Still, based on the stellar first season, it’s safe to say that Mr. Mercedes is pretty damn good.
Helmed by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and Jack Bender (Lost), this is an adaptation that starts out solid and only gets better. Like King, Kelley and the show’s other writers lean into the cliches of the nerdy psychopath (Harry Treadaway) and the grizzled, aging detective (Brendan Gleeson). But that’s not the only resemblance, and the next is what makes this such a solid adaptation. Before long, they elbow past those tropes to explore bigger, more complex questions and themes. To take what’s familiar and bend it to your will, to use it to dig deeper: that’s very King.
Add in a hell of a cast (Holland Taylor, Breeda Wool, and Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome, to name a few) and a towering lead performance from Gleeson and you’ve got a winner.
King’s Consensus: “A good writer/director combination sit down and say how do we break this loose and make it interesting for the audience? And they did that.” —Variety, August 2017
23. Silver Bullet (1985)
Silver Bullet may not be the best werewolf movie ever made, but it’s certainly the best film ever based on a calendar. Adapted from Cycle Of The Werewolf, a project from King and comic book artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet features Corey Haim as a paraplegic young man, who, with the help of Gary Busey (basically playing himself), engages in a battle of wits with a local werewolf. King adapted the screenplay ditching the month by month concept but retaining most of the characters and situations from the novel.
Silver Bullet blends coming-of-age heart with scares, showcasing skillful direction from Daniel Attatis (and sometimes Don Coscarelli). There is a real sense of dread to the proceedings, particularly a sequence in which a vigilante group hunts the werewolf in a dense fog. Arguably the most terrifying moment of the film is a dream sequence featuring a pack of werewolves attacking Everett McGill’s Reverend Lowe, who turns in a terrifying—and rather nuanced— performance himself.
Plenty of readers begin discovering King around 12 or 13 years old, and despite its R rating, Silver Bullet is a sleepover classic, perfect for junior horror hounds and older fans alike.
King’s Consensus: “I like the screenplay a lot, and that’s why I’ve allowed it to be printed here. Is the picture any good? Man, I just can’t know. I’m writing without benefit of hindsight and from a deeply subjective point of view. You want that point of view? Okay, I think it’s either very good indeed or a complete bust. Past a certain point you just can’t tell (and probably my punishment will turn out to be just this: in 10 years no one will remember it at all, one way or another).” –A foreword to a published version of King’s Silver Bullet screenplay, which was packaged with the original novella
22. It: Chapter Two (2019)
When It: Chapter One became the highest grossing horror film of all time in September 2017, not even filmmaker Andy Muschietti could have anticipated the following that would ensue. Since then, the blockbuster has become a brand even removed from its creator Stephen King, amassing a cult-like following that’s inspired fan artwork, theories, memes, etc. The film has brought the genre mainstream to an upper echelon that not even the greatest movie monsters have enjoyed in the decades past.
So, it’s not the least bit surprising that Muschietti (and both Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema) went bigger and bolder. It: Chapter Two is a genuine summer blockbuster through and through. This is filmmaking on a scale the genre hasn’t seen in quite some time (if ever), with a runtime that nearly matches this year’s box office event Avengers: Endgame and set pieces that rival much of the MCU. Not surprisingly, there’s a ton of collateral damage that comes with this kind of seismic shift, but Muschietti shoulders what he can.
Yet for all its faults—and there are many—it’s still an enthralling and emotionally affecting piece of blockbuster filmmaking. King’s novel has always been a coming-of-age story wearing a Halloween costume, and director Muschietti nails that. You’ll tear up, you’ll feel your heart stir, you’ll hate to say goodbye to the Losers. For that alone, this near-three hour tome is worth its hefty minutes. Having said that, one can’t help but wish this was more than a Ferris wheel surrounded by predictable carnival fare.
King’s Consensus: “Looking forward to IT CHAPTER 2? You should be. I’ve seen it, and it’s terrific.” “The final confrontation is epic.” –Twitter, May and July, 2019
21. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
If Dolores Claiborne has one fault, it’s that composers Danny Elfman and Hendrik Meurkens sometimes overdo it. As a prestige drama in the same vein as Misery (Kathy Bates comes back to play the title character), there’s already a lot going on as Dolores gets investigated for possibly murdering her employer. The investigation soon opens the Claiborne family closet to unleash an army of (metaphorical) skeletons ranging from alcoholism to domestic violence and, ultimately, sexual abuse.
But the only reason the constant invasion of strings feels so melodramatic is because the rest of the movie is so goddamn good. Director Taylor Hackford strikes the perfect balance between focusing on the present and the past, and the central performances of Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh as her daughter, and David Strathairn as one of King’s most despicable fathers (and that’s saying something) do all the legwork required for a compelling film. They even get the Maine accents right! Bates may have won the Oscar for Misery, but that in itself deserves its own special category at the Academy Awards.
King’s Consensus: “Unfortunately, Dolores Claiborne is a film, like Kubrick’s The Shining, that is nearly overwhelming because of its beautiful photography, but the story that surrounds the photography is flawed.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003
20. “The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson” from The Outer Limits (1997)
I may be the cheese that stands alone on this one, but I think “The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson” is a goddamned delight. Listen for the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as the gun-that-starts-it-all somersaults through the air, and the gentle jingle as it lands cozily in a box of Christmas ornaments. Watch the dead-on awooga faces John Diehl’s boorish Joe makes as he peruses a magazine full of women in swimsuits, or the cartoonish way he looks around for the other people who are making money around here (after he suggests his wife she a veterinarian instead of a physician). Watch for the delicious, understated sneer Steven Weber (also the director) wears as the 8×10 Man. Look for the visual jokes and the macabre imagery and the downright leisurely pace — they’re all good.
Above all, however, watch literally everything Catherine O’Hara does. The determined grunting sounds ‘Becka makes as the pushes an eyeliner into the bullet hole in her forehead, just to see how far it goes. The tiny raised eyebrow after she accidentally says “hussy” aloud and her husband says “bless you.” Every odd wiggle and turn and hand gesture, all of them perfect. “‘Becka Paulson” is 43 minutes of bizarre dark comic camp perfection, one hindered only by the limits of network television. It’s so weird, and so good, and Catherine O’Hara is a (Canadian) national treasure.
19. Doctor Sleep (2019)
With Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan acts as a mediator between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick — and really, he’s always been up for the task. As he proved with 2017’s Gerald’s Game — and 2018’s brilliant series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a pseudo-exercise for this project, in hindsight — he’s almost a historian when it comes to source material. He treats it as scripture, clutching on to all the minutiae in translation. Granted, that also worked against his favor for Gerald’s Game, namely for its jarring coda that’s ripped straight from King’s novel, but his filtration system has only improved. In fact, it’s on fire. He takes everything we cherish about Kubrick’s vision — the stoic horror, the lingering dread, the iconic aesthetics — and uses it to fuel King’s narrative. But he improves upon that narrative by trimming the fat to make it his own.
Again, that dance is paramount to the success of Doctor Sleep, and also why it’s such a remarkable feat. Because let’s be real, it’s already a challenge adapting King, but to followup Kubrick? There’s really only been one name to follow his footsteps and it’s director Peter Hyams, who was similarly tasked to pick up where Kubrick left off on 2001: a space odyssey with its 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. The difference with this sequel, however, is that Flanagan actually has the finesse and wherewithal to rekindle Kubrick’s aesthetics. That’s not to say it’s a direct continuation, but it’s not far off. Where the two sequels do align is on their insistence on narrative, and Flanagan’s grip on King only adds to its effectiveness. Unlike so many of his peers, he not only recognizes what beats count, but why they count, and that inference is key.
King’s Consensus: “Mike Flanagan is a talented director, but he’s also an excellent storyteller. The movie is a good thing. You’ll like this if you liked THE SHINING, but you’ll also like it if you liked SHAWSHANK. It’s immersive.” —Twitter, October 2017
18. Salem’s Lot TV Movie (1979)
Even a three-hour-plus miniseries couldn’t possibly hold all of the ensemble drama that Stephen King packed into his vampire masterpiece ’Salem’s Lot. And screenwriter Paul Monash wisely never tried to, instead combining characters or eliminating them altogether across its two parts.
As directed by recently deceased horror maestro Tobe Hooper, Salem’s Lot (the title’s apostrophe got the axe, just like many of the characters) still retains the novel’s rural-suburban sprawl, despite all the omissions. In fact, the smaller cast size actually makes the film feel bigger than it would with more roles, with Hooper able to spend a generous amount of time on each person. This gives Salem’s Lot a sense of patience, a thirst for sinking its teeth into the often dark lives of its supporting cast just like King did on the page.
The cast doesn’t hurt either. Although David Soul isn’t quite able to elevate protagonist and hunk-King surrogate Ben Mears, who, if we’re being honest, isn’t exactly the most compelling character in the book; James Mason chews the scenery and daintily wipes his mouth afterwards as the head vampire’s servant Richard Straker; child actor Lance Kerwin finds both the competence and vulnerability in Mark Petrie; and, in one of his early roles, Fred Willard makes scummy real estate agent Larry Crockett sympathetic by also making him scared to death.
But Monash’s most effective alteration to King’s story was, at the urging of producer Richard Kobritz, changing the head vampire, Kurt Barlow, from an Eastern-European charmer into a blue-headed, bat-eared creature more similar to Max Schreck’s take on Count Dracula than Bela Lugosi’s. By rarely talking, Barlow becomes more of a parasite, which fits right in with the novel’s theme of small-town America slowly being sucked dry without anyone noticing.
King’s Consensus: “Sorry to hear Tobe Hooper passed. He did a terrific job directing the ‘Salem’s Lot miniseries, back in the day. He will be missed.” –Twitter, August 2017
17. Creepshow (1982)
It’s tough to make a horror anthology that will stand the test of time. In recent years, many filmmakers have tried their hand, what with VHS, Southbound, or Trick or Treat, and while they all have their moments, none of them hold a candle to Creepshow. Hot on the heels of their own respective fame, director George A. Romero, special effects wizard Tom Savini, and King himself, who made his screenwriting debut, paid homage to the EC and DC horror comics with this outstanding anthology.
Littered with memorable stories and against-type performances by Hal Holbrook, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, and even King himself, the collection of tales captures the core essence of King and seemingly set the tone for the brand of midnight horror that would come to be so emblematic of the era. Of course, the best and most memorable part of this collection is Savini’s Crate Monster, who may still be out there hoping to hunt down his maker … or us.
Fun fact: Creepshow is one of the early instances in which there was an adaptation made of King’s film, and not the other way around. The accompanying comic book, illustrated by the late and great Bernie Wrightson of Heavy Metal fame, dropped soon after the film was released. Needless to say, the comic is pretty spot-on with the movie, and something most kids probably read with a flashlight and a brewing storm. Good luck getting to sleep now, kiddies!
King’s Consensus: “Good memories of the late George Romero, and Creepshow: ‘Just tell it to call you Wilma.'” –Twitter, August 2017
16. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Given the premise of Gerald’s Game, screenwriters Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (who also directs) had a lot more room to expand if they wanted to when compared to the typical King novel. At a (relatively) slim 332 pages, the book takes place almost entirely in one setting: a lake-house bedroom where Jesse (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to a bedpost. Her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), lies dead on the floor after a sex game gone horribly wrong.
Because of the simple location, small cast size, and short timeframe, the entire novel comes off like a bizarre chamber drama. The Tommyknockers this is not. As such, it poses a different set of challenges than usual to the filmmakers. Instead of figuring out how to portray some elaborate monster with a minimal budget (i.e. “How do we animate hedge animals?”), the questions focus more on story structure (i.e., “How do we stay in one room with one woman and make it interesting?”).
To Flanagan’s credit, though, Gerald’s Game was never going to be the easiest Stephen King novel to bring to the big screen, and despite a handful of faults, it’s that rare horror film that works on both a psychological and a visceral level. That’s where so many other filmmakers to take on the Master of Horror have fallen short. And with the King Renaissance that’s already underway — and several King Easter eggs hidden in Gerald’s Game (yes, even that big one) — there will hopefully be plenty of more opportunities for Flanagan to show others how it’s done.
King’s Consensus: “I had casting approval and I approved [Bruce and Carla] immediately. I knew their work, of course. Bruce Greenwood had worked for a while on [the King-penned musical] Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and I’m just sorry he didn’t get to sing in Gerald’s Game, because he has a terrific singing voice. It was a no-brainer for me. The script broke the book open to get to the interior part of the story in a way that I thought was terrific.” —Vulture, October 2017
15. The Stand TV Miniseries (1994)
Let’s make one thing clear: The Hand of God was a mistake. When Ralph Brentner describes the ball of electricity that blankets the A-bomb the Trashcan Man drives in during the book’s climax as such, it’s a metaphor, a twist of the mind that raises just a shade of ambiguity. In Mick Garris’ 1994 made-for-TV film adaptation, it’s literally a hand. This turns the entire story into a God vs. the Devil scenario, hindering the stakes and minimizing the human sacrifice at the center of the story.
And here’s the thing, that’s not the only mistake in our one and only miniseries adaptation of The Stand. There’s the Hallmark hue coloring much of Garris’ direction, poor performers playing key characters (looking at you, Corin Nemec), and the general sense that flocking to Flagg’s camp made you bad while following Mother Abigail made you good (it’s not nearly so clean-cut in the novel).
Yes, these are bad things, but this seven-hour adaptation gets more right than it does wrong. The weight of an apocalyptic event, for one, and the disorientation and deep, pervasive sense of loneliness that’s bound to accompany such a massive loss of life. Garris also nails many of the book’s most horrific sequences, from Stu’s harrowing escape from Stovington to Nadine’s mental disintegration at the hands of Flagg to that climax (before the Hand of God, of course).
Really, though, the miniseries thrives on its ensemble, the sum of which transcends the few weak performances swimming around in it. Gary Sinise is strong and kind-hearted as Stu, Jamey Sheridan finds layers in his deliciously slimy portrayal of Flagg, Bill Fagerbakke charms as Tom Cullen, and Miguel unearths shades of nuance with limited material as Lloyd. Elsewhere, Laura San Giacomo, Adam Storke, Shawnee Smith, Ray Walston, and Matt Frewer add texture and heart.
For all its post-apocalyptic musings and biblical horror, The Stand has always and will always be a story of community.
King’s Consensus: “No one will be able to top Gary Sinise, who played Stu Redman in the original ABC miniseries. He was perfect. When he says “You don’t know nothing” to the soldiers who are putting him under mandatory quarantine, you believe his contempt completely.” –Entertainment Weekly, February 2011
14. 1922 (2017)
To be clear, the source material from which 1922 is based upon is Stephen King at his nastiest. There’s a reason it’s part of a collection called Full Dark No Stars. Like the book’s other three stories — two of which have already been made into lesser King adaptations — there is no light at the end of the tunnel for many of its characters. The texts are more drawn to the idea of reckoning; of depicting the worst in humanity and making them pay for their sins. Or, even more frightening, allowing them to get away scot-free.
In 1922‘s case, the despicable protagonist is Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a Nebraskan farmer in the early 20th century. When his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) wants to sell her neighboring land to a meatpacking company from Chicago, he knows it will make his own land unfarmable. But Arlette remains steadfast, wanting to break free from rural life and move them and their son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to the city. Divorce is discussed, no compromise can be made, and Wilfred eventually decides to slit his wife’s throat with the help of his son, and then throw the body in a well.
It helps that director Zak Hilditch cast Jane in the central role. Along with Carla Gugino’s turn in Gerald’s Game, Netflix has two of the strongest performances in any King adaptation to date. But where Gugino’s performance combined the emotionally raw with the physically grueling, Jane’s role is more about quiet calculation. He says every line without moving his jaw, sucking on his teeth to convey the image of a vulpine-eyed killer who views everyone as a threat to his land.
Spending so much time with a homicidal farmer who’s more concerned with his pride than his moral integrity likely isn’t for everyone, but Hilditch knows this. Even so, he never pulls any punches for his depiction of the James family, and it’s a wise move
King’s Consensus: “With 1922, was I a little surprised that somebody wanted to make it? I was, and I was also pleased by the challenge of it and anxious to see what would come out. And you know, what 1922 reminded me of was a film called There Will Be Blood. It has the same kind of flat, dead-eyed, affect to it, so it made for a really good suspense picture, and it’s a movie that won’t leave my mind. It has this sort of poisonous effect, it just sort of sticks there because some of the images are so good.” —Vulture, October 2017
13. It: Chapter One (2017)
Andy Muschietti makes IT his own by remembering to inhabit his story with a Losers’ Club not full of victims, but winners. The director’s take proves quite different from Tommy Lee Wallace’s ABC-miniseries adaptation. Yes, yes, Pennywise is the embodiment of evil in both films, but while Wallace pays passing acknowledgement to the fact that Derry itself is evil, Muschietti fully embraces the idea. In this new adaptation, the adults are presented as somewhat grotesque physically as well as picaresque — an ever-present threat to the town’s children with their willful ignorance. The director’s sense of mood, setting, and, most importantly, time is note-perfect.
The aforementioned “Losers” are the true key to the film’s success. The best of the gang are Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis as Bill and Bev, characters that struggle in their search for stoicism. And who can leave out everyone’s favorite guitarist, Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard in a scene-stealing performance as comic relief Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier? There is a sweetness to this young septet of actors that is never saccharine. They call to mind on-screen childhood bonds that we see not only in today’s Stranger Things, but in another King adaptation: Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. The casting here is a minor miracle of minors.
As for that clown, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise serves as a pretty frightening representation of Derry’s evil. Consequence of Sound’s Randall Colburn described him as “marionette-like”, and while the inevitable CGI fails him at times, it’s never down to his performance. The film isn’t really about him anyway, and Muschietti understands that. We hope the director and company took a blood oath of their own that the follow-up will be just as satisfying.
King’s Consensus: Months before the film’s release, King’s official message board announced: “Steve asked me to pass along that he saw a screening of IT today and he wanted to let everybody know that they should stop worrying about it as the producers have done a wonderful job with the production.”
12. 11.22.63 (2016)
It’s a crackerjack premise: A man discovers a portal that takes him back to the late ‘50s, then uses his knowledge of what’s to come to prevent the death of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. The tricky part? It’s a long one, even for King. Jonathan Demme initially conceived of a film adaptation of the book, but King himself admits that even he had “some doubts about that.” Eventually, it was J.J. Abrams who shepherded the project, taking it to Hulu where it was given eight episodes to stretch its legs.
A good thing, too, as the story needs that time to nail the emotional complexities of protagonist Jake Epping’s journey. Because what’s just as riveting as Jake’s journey to stop Oswald is the life he forges in the past and the relationship he forms with a schoolteacher named Sadie. In Bridget Carpenter’s script, their relationship is gracefully drawn; as is Jake’s friendship with a young man named Bill Turcotte, whose role in the book is expanded here in order to create a sounding board for Jake’s planning.
That treatment of Bill is just one of 11.22.63’s smart adaptation choices. People looking for an exact replica of the book won’t find one here, as a great deal of the story is streamlined. The benefit of that, however, is the ability to watch James Franco, Sarah Gadon, George MacKay, and Daniel Webber truly exist in this world. Never does it feel like the characters exist only to serve the story, which is often a problem in King adaptations. Here, the characters are every bit as vibrant on screen as they are on the page. And in the case of Jake, perhaps even more so.
King’s Consensus: “[F]or a while it looked like Jonathan Demme was going to make a film about 11.22.63. I had some doubts about that. I loved Jonathan’s work, but it’s such a long book, and even if the movie was Godfather-length at over three hours, it still felt too short to encompass the material. Eventually, [Demme] came to agree with that and my next thought was maybe J.J. Abrams would be interested in it, so I put out some feelers. He likes those off-the-wall stories. I think it’s a pretty good fit for J.J., I really do. He put together a hell of a team and I’m very satisfied with the result.” –The Daily Beast, February 2016
11. Cujo (1983)
There’s a lot that gets lost in translation from page to screen with Cujo. The somewhat rambling domestic dramas of the book’s various characters don’t condense into a 91-minute film particularly well, which makes all of the familial drama at play feel rushed and overwrought. Cujo himself fares even worse. In print, the good dog ravaged by rabies is probably one of King’s more realistic villains, but the limits of early ‘80s effects make him look as much like a vicious killer as Mr. Ed chewing peanut butter looks like an actual talking horse.
What saves the film, though, are the performances, particularly Dee Wallace’s turn as the terrified but protective mom Donna. Cujo’s potential victims are so realistically terrified and shocked by what’s happening to them that they encourage a similar level of psychological horror from its viewers. Or at least enough suspension of disbelief to imagine that the characters aren’t being menaced by a muddy and drooling ball of fluff.
King’s Consensus: “Cujo is a terrific picture. You know, that one often gets overlooked. If I have a resentment, it’s that Dee Wallace [Stone] never got nominated for an Academy Award. She did a terrific job as the woman who gets stuck out there with the rabid dog who’s menacing them.” —ABC’s Nightline, November 2007