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.
30. The Dark Half (1993)
The ending of The Dark Half, reminiscent of the end of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Legacy with its attack of psychopomp sparrows, sours what is probably one of the better Stephen King adaptations. While it’s never going to be on the same level as Misery, Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption, it’s faithful, fun and well made, with a great performance(s) by Timothy Hutton and excellent direction by the master, George Romero.
Mild-mannered literary author Thad Beaumont (Hutton) has had great success with a series of thriller novels written under the pen-name George Stark (a nod to Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark pseudonym). When a blackmailer threatens to reveal Thad’s secret the author decides to publicly reveal the truth and ceremoniously “buries” the pen name. (This was obviously King working through some issues with the reveal of his pen name of Richard Bachman.)
Except Stark (Also Timothy Hutton) isn’t ready to be buried. Somehow George has become manifest, crawling out of the grave and starting a killing spree intended to pressure Thad into somehow writing the fictional character into the real world.
George Romero does a great job with this, his third studio film, ramping up the horror and pace (and humor) as the film progresses. The supporting cast, including Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker and Julie Harris, are all very good. The real reason to watch, though, is Timothy Hutton. His over-the-top portrayal of George Stark is just great, a sleazy and compelling killer with a dark sense of humor, but Thad is equally as interesting, with moments of darkness slipping through his ultra-civilized veneer.
If it wasn’t for that damn ending I think this would be considered one of the upper-middle level of King adaptations, certainly as good as the original Pet Sematary or Christine. Alas, the sparrows and the few lines about the how and why of George sprinkled through the film are never really enough for me. There’s an interesting premise to the opening (when we see where George REALLY comes from), that’s just never followed up on. It’s true to the book, but I feel like a more ambiguous treatment of the dichotomy of writer/pseudonym could have made this even better.
29. Lisey’s Story (2021)
Since it’s his favorite novel of his own, King wrote every episode of this mini series. He feels a deep, personal connection to the story and wanted to make sure that if it was a failure, at least it was his failure. Lisey’s Story is about the grieving widow (Julianne Moore) of famous author (Clive Owen), who, while going through his personal belongings years later, discovers he left her a scavenger hunt with clues that will lead her to a place of understanding and closure. As she relives memories of her life with her late husband, she tries to help her mentally ill sister (Joan Allen) who’s suffering from the same or similar issues her husband had. There’s also a subplot involving an obsessive super fan of her husband’s (Dane DeHaan) who’s trying to weasel into her life to get ahold of his unpublished manuscripts. The story then takes a turn that’s a bit polarizing for viewers. Let’s just say, the location her husband is leading her to tips the story into the realm of the fantastical, which you’ll either go with, or bounce right off of. Since the characters and the world they inhabit feel so real, it’s hard for some to take that leap into the Booya Moon but if you open your mind and trust King, he’ll lead you into a world you’ll never forget.
28. The Outsider (2020)
The first two episodes of The Outsider are dark, frightening and suspenseful – among the best King adaptation work ever, and damn good television. Terry Maitland (an excellent Jason Bateman, who also directed the first two episodes) is very publicly arrested for the horrible murder of a local boy. The evidence is incontrovertible, and includes witnesses, blood typing, video and DNA. Except there’s also solid evidence that it couldn’t possibly have been Terry.
The first two episodes handle the first half of the novel, and are brooding and intense, following the disintegration of two families in the aftermath and the growing uncertainty of the lead detective. If the series had managed to maintain the quality of these episodes then I think it’d be in the top ten of all King adaptations.
Alas, it doesn’t maintain either the pace or quality. Part of that is the source material, which adds a heaping helping of oddness and supernatural shenanigans, and part of it is the way the show drags out those elements over another eight episodes. There’s still plenty to enjoy, including great performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo, but it meanders and squanders a lot of potential suspense. Worth watching, but it never lives up to the promise of its early hours.
27. Needful Things (1993)
In the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, the mysteriously charming Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) has recently moved in to set up a shop of curiosities. He kindly offers deals with residents for various pieces that inspire emotional connections for them, making deals that involve a little bit of money and the promise to play a small prank on another town resident. These promises lead to escalating paranoia and violence, slowly devolving the town into chaos.
Greed and fear are not new themes either in literature or film, and stories about bargains with the devil are older than Faust. While Needful Things doesn’t break the mold in its exploration of these themes, it does an excellent job of reminding us just how easy it is to inspire the absolute worst in people. It requires no mental gymnastics at all to imagine Gaunt, without any supernatural influence, gently nudging a town of people in just the right direction to spark the same frenzy. There’s no doubt that Von Sydow’s performance makes the film, but he has strong support from Ed Harris as Sheriff Alan Pangborn; Bonnie Bedelia as Polly Chalmers; J. T. Walsh as Danforth Keeton III (don’t call him Buster), and more.
26. Pet Sematary (1989)
I really like the Pet Semetary novel, a dark, depressing, and gruesome story that deals with the ins and outs of grief. Having dealt with my share it feels like King understands that aspect as much as anyone can. Pet Sematary is, at its core, a story about grief. About loss. About the way those things can take root and grow – even in the stony soil of a man’s heart – and eventually overwhelm a person, driving them to do things that some might see as insane.
There’s nothing really wrong with Pet Semetary the film (except, perhaps, how bland Dale Midkiff is as Louis), but it never really digs deep enough into that facet of the original novel. (The more recent version has the same issue.) There are moments – the fight over Gage’s coffin, for instance – but it I know when I first watched the film I was massively disappointed in everything except Miko Hughes (who remains the best and most terrifying part of the film). I seem to like it more and more each time I rewatch it, however. It grows on me. Fred Gwynne’s accent is comforting now, as little as it resembles a Mainer’s voice. You can feel the nightmare coming as soon as Judd shows Luis the older burial ground, like a freight train or one of those Orinco trucks. The last twenty minutes or so are fantastic.
Budget and a dogged determination to keep to the surface scares and avoid really digging into the deeper themes keeps Pet Semetary from being in the upper echelon of King adaptations, but there’s a lot to like in it. Pascow, Timmy Baterman, Gage after he returns, and that relationship between Luis and Judd that actually makes you believe a man might damn another just to keep him or his family from feeling the horrifying weight of grief.
25. 11.22.63 (2016)
A recently divorced high school English teacher (James Franco) gets drafted by his friend (Chris Cooper) to travel back to 1960 through a portal in his diner to prevent the assassination of JFK. His mission is to monitor the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to see if he acted alone, and then stop him and whoever else may have been working with him. As with all time travel stories, complications inevitably arise. First, he gets involved in the lives of school librarian (Sarah Gadon) and bartender (George MacKay), which starts jeopardizing his mission and then, it starts feeling as if the longer he’s back in time, time itself starts rejecting him, as if it doesn’t want him interfering. Since it came out right at the beginning of the new golden age of King adaptations, 11.22.63 tends to get overlooked, which is criminal since it’s one of the best mini series based on his works ever produced. Franco is as good as Franco usually is (your milage may vary) but the rest of the cast are dynamite, especially Daniel Webber as Oswald and Josh Duhamel as the father of the lead’s friend. Like most mini series (and books by King if we’re being honest), it starts to run out of steam around the half way point but then it starts to gain momentum and by the end, you’ll be glued to the screen till the credits roll.
24. The Stand (1994)
The Stand is a miniseries based on Stephen King’s epic post-apocalyptic tale of what happens when a weaponized strain of the flu breaks out of a government lab and kills 99% of the world’s population. Survivors are divided into two groups — one is drawn to the pious Mother Abagail, the other to the supernaturally dark Randall Flagg — before eventually coming together for a showdown to decide the fate of the world.
Originally aired in four parts, the series features a huge cast, led well by Gary Sinise, Jamey Sheridan, Ruby Dee, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Laura San Giacomo, and Ray Walston. While it is not a perfect rendering of the book and comes across as campy in many cases, I still think it does a good job of bringing an incredibly complex story to the screen. And since watching it in the ’90s, I’ve never been able to hear the opening notes to Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” without pausing for a moment to wonder if somewhere in a lab, a disease that will reset the world is just waiting to be set free.
23. 1922 (2017)
A farmer convinces his teenage son to assist in the murder of his wife for the insurance money, but their actions have unintended consequences. Unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix with little to no fanfare, 1922 is easily as good as the streaming service’s other King adaptation Gerald’s Game but somehow it got lost in the shuffle while the former was a big success. A ghastly slow burner that stacks minor incident upon minor incident until they tally up to something major. Like the best of King’s adaptations, the film is a reminder that the author’s biggest strengths lie in his ability to build tension, create atmosphere, and tell a direct and brutal story, which 1922 is and then some. It’s as mean slice of Americana that’s rotten to its core and I mean that as a compliment.
22. “Battleground” from Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006)
I was happy to see “Battleground” on the top 50 list, as it’s the only episode of Nightmares & Dreamscapes that I actually remember. The original story was also a favorite of mine from King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. In general details the adaptation follows the story fairly well, adding an introductory section featuring William Hurt’s high-class hitman in the performance of his duties, assassinating a toy company CEO. While this introduction does its job of showing us that Renshaw is a professional and that the toys from the company are pretty ubiquitous, the episode really gets going once he returns to his apartment. And receives the box full of plastic army men.
“Battleground” is an apartment siege story in the same vein as “Amelia” from Trilogy of Terror. There’s even a reproduction of the Zuni fetish doll from that story on top of Renshaw’s trophy case. A nice nod, especially as Richard Matheson – on whose stories Trilogy of Terror was based – also wrote the screenplay for “Battleground.” The siege in this case has a box full of army men, vehicles and support artillery pitted against a brutal and violent hit man.
It’s so much damn fun. Hurt is always great and the special effects by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop are top notch, with only a few slightly wobbly moments. (The episode was also directed by Brian Henson.) It’s loaded with a ton of dark humor and some great set pieces, as when a Rambo-esque commando stalks Renshaw in the elevator, or when the hit man has to navigate a precarious outside ledge while being strafed by a toy helicopter. All of it done without a single line of dialogue.
There are seven other episodes in the series, but none of them are anywhere near as good as “Battleground.” It’s good enough to justify buying a used copy. (As it’s not currently available on any streaming service.)
21. Castle Rock Season 2 (2019)
In addition to Tales From the Darkside, the only things not eligible for this list were TV shows. The Dead Zone, Under the Dome, Haven (remember that?), The Mist, Mr. Mercedes, Chapelwaite, Kingdom Hospital — none made the cut. I felt like there was enough of them that they could be their own list. Plus, the further each of them went on, the further they deviated from King’s source material, so they were basically their own things anyways. The only exception: Castle Rock season 2. Since each season was it’s own self contained story (with reoccurring characters that pop in and out) set within the multiverse of King’s stories, I treated each season as it’s own separate mini series and if this season is a mini series, it’s far and away one of the best. The show incorporated characters and actors from King’s previous works such as Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård intermingling with fan favorite locations such as Shawshank State Penitentiary and characters with familiar winky winky nudge nudge last names such as Torrance.
It’s the Paul’s Boutique of King adaptations — a sampling of a million different things all connected to his works to make one new, albeit bizarre, work of glorified fanfiction. And it was a glorious disaster. I don’t know if it was the plan from the beginning to start introducing actual King characters in the second season or if that was a reaction to the tepid response of the first season, but whoever decided to center this season around Annie Wilkes, deserves a lifetime supply of free tacos. Since she’s so radically different to the version we all know in Misery (this one has a daughter), it’s easier to judge Lizzy Caplan’s performance on its own merits and my God, is she perfect. She still has the same overly sanitized vernacular and penchant for violence but she’s a completely different take on the character. Her arc through the season was so good, it should’ve immediately green lit five more seasons. If the show sounds too bizarre for your sensibilities or it just doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, so the first season and go straight into this one. I promise you, Caplan will make you lament the fact that the show never got to go crazier with it’s character reinterpretations in future seasons.
What are some of your favorite Stephen King adaptations? Where do you think they will rank on the list?