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.
20. 1408 (2007)
Sorely underrated, 1408 is a mindf*ck of a movie. John Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a skeptic author who investigates hauntings in order to debunk them. An anonymous postcard lures him to a hotel called The Dolphin, where one room – 1408 – has been the scene of over fifty deaths. Mike insists on staying in the room and is finally allowed – reluctantly – by the hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin – played by Samuel L. Jackson. Mike begins to experience strange occurrences within the room, including hallucinations and psychological torture.
One thing I love about 1408 is the reliance on tension and psychological fear rather than gore or shock value. Cusack carries the film and does a fantastic job doing so, creating a grieving, cynical character whose skepticism is truly tested by a room attempting to push him over the edge, both metaphorically and literally. We want Mike to survive and escape, but by the end of the movie, even we’re questioning if what we saw was real, or just more mind tricks played on our psyche by the room itself. That’s just one reason this movie is so dang good.
19. It (1990)
You have no idea how scary Tim Curry was in this. Decades of more high-def horrors have numbed you. You may even think to yourself “yeah, I can see how he was kinda creepy.” NO. He wasn’t creepy, he was legit terrifying. He haunts the nightmares of an entire generation of kids who didn’t expect – COULDN’T expect – something so horrifying on network television. “Beep beep, Richie.” Geebus.
The mini series suffers from the same problem as the two more recent films, in that the kids and their encounters with both Henry Bowers and the monster are way more interesting than the adults (at least no one in the recent movies sports anything as terrifying as Richard Thomas’ ponytail). It’s also a network TV production, so the scares and the gore are pretty tepid. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have scary moments – again, any scene with Tim Curry in it is solid gold in this regard – but it does mean the show pulls its punches a bit.
All that being said, it’s still one of the best horror TV series of all time. Screenwriter Lawrence Cohen (Carrie) and director Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween 3) manage to craft a decent adaptation of the book, despite having the run time reduced to 4 hours from an original 8-10. While I would dearly have loved to see George Romero’s version (which was supposed to clock in at 6 hours), what we got was better than we had any right to expect. Sure that final confrontation is a little lackluster, but so was the end of It Chapter Two and they probably spent the mini series budget on catering alone.
Still well worth a watch these days, especially the first half. Much as I love the new films (the first one especially), these are still my Losers.
18. Gerald’s Game (2017)
As this ranking demonstrates, Stephen King adaptations can be hit or miss. King is known for writing lengthy novels which can sometimes be hard to adapt since you have to cut out so much to fit it into a two hour run-time. I’ve always found that his shorter works have made for the best adaptations (such as Misery, Stand By Me, and Shawshank Redemption to name a few). Gerald’s Game is a tense psychological thriller that follows an unsatisfied wife (Carla Gugino) battling her inner demons after her husband has a heart attack leaving her handcuffed to their bed in their isolated cabin. Gugino gives a terrific performance as the wife battling her past and her future. The film definitely has its moments of suspense and will leave you on the edge of your seat.
17. Cujo (1983)
Cujo isn’t a fun novel. It takes a dim view of humanity and our foibles that make it more a fit for the Richard Bachman cycle of novels than King’s usual fare. Bad shit happens, and sometimes it happens to good people. Or dogs. Or kids. Director Lewis Teague (with his second appearance on this list after Cat’s Eye) films it all almost dispassionately, infidelity and jealousy and familial abuse are all just part of life, shit that happens, like when a good dog like Cujo chases the wrong rabbit into the wrong hole and gets himself bitten by a rabid bat.
If the movie was just about human failings then it wouldn’t be much worth talking about. All the actors do a passable job – with genre stalwart Dee Wallace and Ed Luater sticking out in my mind – but it’s the last third or so of the film that makes it a classic. Once Donna and young Tad arrive at the Camber’s only to find it’s now Cujo’s stalking ground… yeah, that’s where this moves from drama to horror, and in the process becomes one of the better King adaptations.
The siege of their car by Cujo is harrowing and terrifying. I don’t usually buy dog attacks in movies – especially when the breed is one that’s generally as gentle as a Saint Bernard – but DAMN does Teague manage to make Cujo look horrible and scary. He’s a monster, no longer a beloved pet. And the stakes ratchet up as the movie progresses. The film pulls its final punches a little bit – the novel has a darker ending (a switch reversed with The Mist) – but it works for me.
As a complete aside – I didn’t get to see Cujo when it was released. Not because I was too young (I was), but because when Mom dropped me off to see it, the theater had replaced it with Krull. So I still associate Krull with Cujo for that stupid reason.
16. The Running Man (1987)
For a movie as silly as The Running Man, there is a good measure of social commentary going on in the background. In a way, it reminds me of Starship Troopers. Something I watched in my younger days, and that I enjoyed as an all-out, over-the-top, gory action-fest. Add in the usual Arnie one-liners and I was a happy boy.
It wasn’t until later years that I picked up on the other aspects. The blurb states the global economy has collapsed, cultural activity is censored, and the government pacifies the populace by broadcasting game shows. Some of that sounds familiar. Satirical elements aside, the real fun comes in the form of chainsaws, flamethrowers, and jet packs, as the contestants are hunted by their stalkers. It’s no classic, it’s cheesy as hell, and the special effects leave a lot to be desired. But it’s still pretty damn entertaining.
15. Apt Pupil (1998)
One of King’s darkest and most difficult works, “Apt Pupil” was one of those stories I thought wouldn’t ever be adapted. I remember finishing reading it for the first time with a sense of distaste – almost revulsion. It took a long time for me to re-read it and realize how well done it is, though I still didn’t enjoy it. And if I’m honest, as good as Bryan Singer’s adaptation is, I didn’t enjoy the film much either.
It IS a well crafted piece of cinema. Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen are fantastic in it as two people who bring out and inflame the evil that lives in each other. McKellen is always worth watching, but I was surprised at how well Renfro manages the role of all-American high school student Todd Bowen. He moves easily between a strange earnestness and a creepy, overbearing disconnection. McKellan – as former Nazi officer Kurt Dussander, who’s managed to hide his identity until Todd discovers it and blackmails him for details – elicits sympathy at first, before his past (and his present) begin to poison our perception of him.
In some ways the relationship and performances actually serve to dissipate some of the worst parts of the novella – the original story takes place over four years, and includes a lot of ugly acts and details that are passed over or omitted in the film, probably for the sake of time. This dark descent isn’t quite as believable in the film, in part because we don’t see them engaging in the kinds of depravity we read in the original story.
I’ve seen some condemnation of the ending of the film, because Todd essentially gets away with murder – and more. In the novel he becomes a spree shooter and is killed. I always thought a darker ending would be him surviving. Learning one last lesson from Dussander – that of how to hide his monstrosity. How to pass as normal. In that respect I appreciate the film a little more. Even if I don’t want to watch it again.
14. Storm of the Century (1999)
For most, IT and The Stand are neck and neck in the battle for the best King mini series and while they both good, they’re also horribly uneven. The second half of IT is so mediocre (just like the latest film), I would’ve left it off this list if I could’ve and The Stand could’ve been great if it was better edited. The pace is glacier slow in places and the final confrontation is about as disappointing as it gets. For my money, the only mini series that’s great from beginning to end is Storm of the Century. Written specifically for the screen by King himself, the project was intended as a “novel for television”, which each part ending in a major cliffhanger or reveal. Since it’s an original property and not an adaptation, both television viewers and book enthusiasts were, for the first time, experiencing a new King story unfold in real time. It wasn’t as big a network event as either IT or The Stand, but for fans itching for some new King material, especially material they couldn’t get anywhere else, the hype was unparalleled. That might be overselling the excitement surrounding it but it was a big deal for some and it lived up to their expectations.
A powerful blizzard hits the fictional town of Little Tall Island (also the setting of King’s novel Dolores Claiborne) and with it, a more serious threat in the form of a mysterious stranger named André Linoge (Colm Feore). With all access to the mainland severed and with no means of leaving, the 300 residents are now stuck with powerful demonic entity who is slowly driving everyone within his proximity to kill themselves into they give him what he wants. It takes awhile for the story to reveal what exactly Linoge wants and why he wants it and without giving it away, it’s a devil’s bargain built around a sinisterly dark moral dilemma. It’s a slow burn with a wicked ending anchored by an insanely underrated performance by Feore. It’s a rare King villain that isn’t cartoonishly over the top or scene chewing. In fact, he never raises his voice above a measured tone. And yet, he might be the most menacing and chilling villain in all of King’s rogue’s gallery. He, along with the film itself, is wholly underrated and deserves a bigger fan base.
13. Christine (1983)
I’ve always enjoyed the EC books and found them to be a step above your average horror comics (like the pallid Comics Code Authority approved books by DC and Marvel like The Witching Hour and Haunt of Horror). The quality of artwork was generally high and the stories themselves were always a bit more cutting, had a gleeful sense of macabre fun to them. Christine evokes a similar response in me. It’s a pretty straightforward hack-horror plot – Haunted Car! Watch as the Death Machine Wreaks an Unholy Vengeance on Those Who Have Done Her Owner Wrong! – but in King’s hands it’s a little more interesting, a bit more fun. It’s not his best work by any stretch, but it’s a good read, a page-turner in the best sense.
I feel the same about John Carpenter’s film adaptation. While not his best work, it’s a damn fine horror film and manages to work in the exact same way as the original novel, even if some details have changed. I think only George Romero has managed to evoke that same quality of King’s work. Others have made better adaptations, but I think those two have hewed the closest to the same feel, if that makes sense. In some ways I think the movie is actually better than the novel, which is forced to switch narrative viewpoints a couple of times. Christine the film is more focused and murderous, like the car herself.
Christine is partly a relationship drama – with a kind of horrific love quadrangle between Arnie, Dennis, Leigh and Christine. On another level it’s just a really good slasher flick, one in which the killer is an immortal car. The combination of car effects, music choices and Carpenter’s direction are perfect for the kind of film it is. It satisfies that hunger for plain-ol’, meat-and-potatoes horror. It isn’t filet mignon, but it tastes just fine.
12. Doctor Sleep (2019)
When you’re King and you crank out a book a year, sometimes two, for decades on end, you’re bound to produce some clunkers. For me, one of these clunkers happened to be Doctor Sleep, a sequel to his own Shining (not Kubrick’s) in which an adult, alcoholic Danny Torrance takes on ‘steam vampires.’ Sounded dumb before I read it and it largely was. Leave it to Mike Flanagan to make a faithful adaptation of the pretty forgettable book and somehow make it one of the best Stephen King movies around. All grown up and damaged by the events of The Shining, Dan Torrance nomadically and alcoholically makes his way through life until he fatefully endures another horrible event. Sobriety comes calling, as does a steady job as an orderly at a retirement home wherein he earns the moniker Doctor Sleep, helping old-timers bite the dust (it’s Stephen King, not me).
He makes friends with a child touched with the “Shinin’,” only this special ability is sustenance for vampires. And here’s where Flanagan really elevates the material. The antagonist is top hat-wearing Rosey the Hat played. Very King-ian. Does not work in the book, but on screen, somehow, she works. The menace is there and, admittedly, the hat sells in no small part to Rebecca Ferguson. Everything culminates with a well-earned trip back to the Overlook Hotel, and it is something of a comfort to have Danny Torrance, of all people, as your protagonist during this nightmare. The movie is big enough without the director’s cut, which is worth the watch, and the story is rich enough and the threats real enough that it’s a head-scratcher King himself didn’t make it work.
11. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
“Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has left to hold on to.”
Kathy Bates has been a dependable King-player for his adaptations. She absolutely deserved her Oscar for her role as Annie Wilkes in Misery, but she deserves just as much acclaim for her role as Dolores Claiborne in this film. Many of King’s stories have a supernatural bent, but Dolores Claiborne tackles real horror in the form of spousal abuse, child abuse and alcoholism. And of course there’s the murder mystery. Did Dolores murder her long time employer? Was she also responsible for the death of her husband twenty years prior? The answers to these questions unfold as the movie progresses, but the truth is not as black and white as some may think. Many King adaptations end up being disappointments, but Dolores Claiborne is both a great adaptation and a great movie carried by a powerhouse performance by Kathy Bates and a sublime supporting turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
What are some of your favorite Stephen King adaptations? Where do you think they will rank on the list?