Stephen King has been cranking out stories for so long, he isn’t an author at this point, he’s an institution. Everyone on Earth has heard of him and has seen at least one of his works, but what makes him special is not his omnipresence but his variety. He’s a brand without a unifying signature. His work runs the gamut from coming of age dramas and love stories to cosmic horrors and cheesy monster flicks. It’s a career that includes trash like The Mangler and Graveyard Shift to masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. With hundreds of millions of novels sold and countless film and TV adaptations made of his work, it’s safe to say that when it comes to stories that live with you forever, Stephen King is King.
These are the 50 Greatest Stephen King Adaptations of All Time.
10. It Chapter One (2017)
In 2017, fans of both the Stephen King classic and the made-for-TV adaptation flocked to theatres to once again return to the fictional town of Derry, Maine, and experience the horror that is Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The big question on everyone’s mind was whether or not this new Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) would be able to top Tim Curry’s iconic performance as the wise-cracking, killer clown. Well, let me tell you – Skarsgard fucking delivered. It’s got to be nerve-wracking to try to follow such an unforgettable performance, but Skarsgard’s Pennywise was nothing short of unbridled horror.
From the moment the audience catches a glimpse of those color-changing eyes in the sewers of Derry, it is obvious that this Pennywise is the embodiment of evil. His frightening appearance is more comparable to a murderous psychopath than that of a circus performer, which makes his ability to gain his victims’ trust that much more terrifying. Every word, contorted movement, and mannerism from Pennywise continues to leave the audience in dread, fearing what he will do to the next poor, unfortunate soul who happens across him. Adding to this already horrifying beast, Skarsgard brings his own individual style to the sadistic clown that is just as disturbing when he’s not in full makeup and costume. His unique ability to move his eyes in opposite directions and contort his face into what has become known as the “Pennywise smile,” as well as the way he is able to quickly switch up his tone and way of speaking gives him a spine chilling madness that only adds to his performance.
Speaking of stellar performances, the acting from the child stars in this film is so spectacular that it’s hard to pick a favorite. Finn Wolfhard’s Richie “Trash Mouth” Tozier is absolutely amazing and truly seems like he has an inability to hold back, and Jack Dylan Grazer’s performance of neurotic germaphobe Eddie Kaspbrak is the best I’ve ever seen. Don’t even get me started on Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. She is perhaps my favorite character in this film next to Pennywise. She’s sexually and physically abused by her father at home and doesn’t even have a safe place at school where she’s mercilessly bullied as well.
Despite this, she never plays the victim and is consistently the first to rise to a challenge among the members of the Loser’s Club. I literally can go on and on about this film, but I’ll stop here. If you haven’t seen it yet, get out from that rock you’re living under and go watch it, what the hell are you doing with your life? If you have seen it Though, give it another watch! A movie masterpiece is the sum of its parts, and every part of this film from the acting, to the villain, to the cinematography and score is just remarkable.
9. The Green Mile (1999)
Is there anyone else you would want directing a Stephen King drama other than Frank Darabont? The simple answer is no. He had already shown his talent directing the magnificent adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption, so there was little doubt in my mind that he would deliver a fantastic movie with The Green Mile. It may not be the masterpiece that Shawshank turned out to be, but it’s certainly an incredible movie, embracing the supernatural with the horrors of human behavior.
Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, an officer for a penitentiary’s death row. It’s there he meets John Coffey, a physically intimidating African American who is sentenced to death for the murders of two young girls. Coffey is sweet and mild-mannered and begins to exhibit a supernatural ability to heal.
I think the loudest criticism of The Green Mile is the film’s long runtime, but personally, I loved it. There was more time to flesh out the characters and to feel the passing of time along with them. Hanks gives an incredible performance, as does the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who received an Oscar nomination for his role as John Coffey. Darabont proved he was not a “one hit wonder” with Shawshank, and honestly, I thought the cinematography of The Green Mile was superior between the two films. Don’t kill me, please.
The Green Mile is a heartbreaking, solid drama, and one of the few adaptations that takes King’s work and elevates it.
8. The Mist (2007)
Stephen King is fucking great. You know what else is great? Frank Darabont’s adaptations of King’s work. He directed what IMDB considers the greatest film of all time and followed up with the greatest Christ allegory ever made. He was two for two and decided to got back to the ol’ King well one more time but this time, he decided to skip the King dramas and adapt one of his horror stories instead. And goddamn did that decision pay off in spades.
Taking place almost entirely in a supermarket which is surrounded by an unexplained mist, the film shows that mob mentality and unchecked religious fanaticism is far more terrifying than any Lovecraftian monster. Or at the very least equal to because this film has some pretty great fucking monsters. Which is also the only negative of the film. Some of the creatures are amazing looking, while others (tentacle in the storeroom), look terrible.
I believe the reason for that is the fact that Darabont always intended for this film to be in black and white and I believe he designed the film around that color palette. If you haven’t watched this film in the intended black and white, I highly recommend it. Not only is that the director’s preferred version of the film but it adds a layer of unease. It’s hard to explain but in the absence of color, everything seems darker and more bleak. Which, considering the infamous ending, makes the film 2x bleak. Which I’m pretty sure is a record.
7. Creepshow (1982)
If you were to create a Mount Rushmore honoring the greatest masters of horror, Stephen King would undoubtedly be the first head on the mountain, and right beside him would be George Romero. The two are undeniable titans of the genre. One has created more hit novels than almost any other author and the other fucking created zombies. They’re absolutely indispensable to the world of horror. So what happens if you were to combine their unique talents into one movie? You get the film Creepshow.
Much has been written about the faithfulness of certain comic book adaptations like Sin City or Scott Pilgrim vs The World but one that always gets overlooked is Creepshow. I don’t know if they forget it’s based on a series of comics or if they just plain ol’ forget it exists but Creepshow nails the tone and humor of the comics while also faithfully recreates panels straight from the books. There might not be a better love letter made for comics or horror in general. A rarity among horror anthologies in that every segment is great (the King one is a bit wonky but it’s still entertaining), Creepshow is, as King himself put it “the most fun you’ll have being scared.”
6. Carrie (1976)
Carrie covers a lot of ground. From religion and bullying to sexuality and coming of age. With a horrifically overbearing mother overshadowing everything. The lead character is abused and shamed for nothing more than being a normal teenage girl and as a viewer, you long for Carrie to have the normal life she deserves. Director Brian De Palma does an excellent job of building empathy for her.
After a lot of teasing suspense, when she eventually loses control and unleashes her telekinetic powers, her rage is very justifiable. In saying that, it’s not even an act of particularly glorious and satisfying revenge. It’s just sad. You can’t help but feel a little heartbroken as she takes a stand against her tormentors, causing all sorts of mayhem. Most of that is down to a fantastic performance from Sissy Spacek, as well as the perfect pacing dictated by De Palma throughout.
And that final jump scare is pretty special.
5. Misery (1990)
A masterclass in claustrophobic tension building, Misery is a psychological thriller that’s so intense, it’s probably more horror than thriller. Despite the movie being mainly confined to Annie Wilkes’ farmhouse, it never gets stale or repetitive, keeping you on the edge of your seat at all times. It features top directing and performances all around, but to be honest it’s Kathy Bates’ turn as the obsessive Annie that really elevates Misery to the top tier of King adaptations. The way she effortlessly switches from glowing superfan to obsessive psychopath sends shivers down my spine every time. She is an undoubted ’90s horror icon and a unique one at that.
As Annie shaves, nurtures, and cooks for her guest, we also get to ‘enjoy’ one of the most iconic scenes in any of King’s adaptations, when she carries out a spot of ankle breaking. Shocking, brutal, and a scene that will stick with me for the rest of my days.
4. Stand by Me (1986)
I remember the summer Stand by Me came out. I remember that song was all over the radio, because the movie had made it suddenly popular again. And I remember the film becoming an instant classic. It’s a movie that’s stuck with me over the years, not just because it’s a good movie with near-universal appeal, but because it so closely resembles my own childhood.
I was about the same age as Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern in the summer of 86 when Stand by Me came out. I grew up in a small town. My friends and I used to walk the tracks, cross the river via the train bridge into the woods beyond the town, and prowl into places we probably shouldn’t have been prowling into. We used to play among the broken down and discarded washing machines and dryers behind the Maytag appliance store. The owner never sicced his dog on our balls, but we did get run out of there a time or two. (He said we could get tetanus, but we never did.) We played impromptu games of baseball in sandlots, built forts, and climbed trees and buildings and just about anything else that presented a challenge. We even had our fair share of run-ins with older bullies, but we managed to come through it all with only a few scrapes and bruises. And lots of memories. Lots of good memories.
I don’t think I ever had any friends later in life like I had that summer. Jesus, does anyone?
3. The Dead Zone (1983)
This was David Cronenberg’s first film that wasn’t based on an original idea, but the story of a man tormented by his psychic gift was definitely in his wheelhouse. The more restrained and even melancholy feel of the film, as compared to his previous work, might strike Cronenberg fans as a significant departure, but both he and King are concerned with the consequences of extraordinary circumstances forced on ordinary people. A condensed narrative (from the novel) and an extraordinary performance by Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith help focus the film and draw us into a story about the horror of knowing the future, and the consequences thereof. (Bill Murray was the original choice for Johnny – hard to imagine what that might have looked like!)
While the movie changes some of the details and the structure of the novel it manages to convey the mood and the essential conflicts quite well. Walken is an inspired choice – especially at the time, before he became such a recognizable character by himself – because he can convey both that affability and the cold, distant certainty that overcomes the character when his ability is being used.
Johnny is such a tragic figure. All he wants is to return to teaching and the woman he loves, but his ability prevents the first and the coma prevents the second. For Johnny, the good he manages to do with his ability (uncovering a serial killer, saving dozens of people from a fire, preventing a child’s drowning) always seems to be outweighed by the consequences of using something so few people understand or accept. When he meets an up-and-coming politician and receives flashes of a potential Armageddon we can easily see where the whole thing is headed – “the lone man in a high place with a gun.”
The Dead Zone remains one of my favorite King adaptations, and Cronenberg films. It’s understated, but still damn effective.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
There is a reason The Shawshank Redemption has held the top spot on IMDB’s Top 250 movies of all time list for… well, forever. It’s incredible to think this was Frank Darabont’s first feature-length movie as a director – his first directing gig was The Woman in the Room, a short film based on a short story of the same name written by, you guessed it, Stephen King. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those American dramas that withstands the passing of time. It does not feel outdated, problematic, or overrated. It was a masterpiece of filmmaking when it was released and nothing about that seems to have dulled over the past 28 years.
There is truly no weak link in this film. Everything about it is incredible, from the directing to the performances to the score. Considering this movie was based on a novella, it expands the source material in a way that truly improves it and I found its ending to be far more satisfying than the novella. The changes made to the story by Darabont certainly benefit it, from the ending to Morgan Freeman’s casting as Red (who is a red-headed Irishman in the novella). It’s hard to comprehend that The Shawshank Redemption essentially bombed at the box office. Now it’s lauded as one of the greatest films ever made and arguably the best Stephen King adaptation.
1. The Shining (1980)
Of the many, many film adaptations of Stephen King’s works, The Shining is arguably the most iconic. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts a job as the winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Jack moves into the old hotel with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) to spend the season snowed in and cut off from the rest of the world.
As far as psychological horror goes, The Shining represents the genre splendidly, with plenty of spine-chilling moments to keep you awake at night (even if you’re almost 40). Little Danny with his distant stare and psychic imaginary friend living in his mouth. Waves of blood gushing out of elevators. Creepy ghost twin girls. Jack maniacally shouting, “Here’s Johnny!,” while attempting to murder his family with an axe. Stephen King’s twisted storytelling and Stanley Kubrick’s dramatic cinematography go together like popcorn and butter, making Jack’s slowly burning descent into madness a delicious torture to watch. While no one does crazy quite like Nicholson (and his eyebrows), Duval’s and Lloyd’s performances can’t be overlooked. Lloyd’s distant stare and monotone utterances grow more chilling with every scene. Duval’s escalating wide-eyed panic, as the discordant musical score ebbs and flows in the background, is so palpable you’d swear it’s your own.
While it should be noted that Kubrick’s cinematic vision strayed from the source material in some rather significant ways, that doesn’t detract from its greatness.
What Stephen King adaptations are you surprised didn’t make the list? Tell us your Top 10 adaptations down in the comments!