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.
50. Riding the Bullet (2004)
Based on what is widely considered the world’s first e-book, Riding the Bullet is about a death-obsessed college student (Joshua Jackson, remember him?) who hitchhikes home to visit his sick mother and encounters the grim reaper along the way. As with most Mick Garris directed adaptations (there’s a reason most of his movies are all on the bottom end of the list), it’s marginally enjoyable with some glimpses of entertainment sprinkled throughout. If it wasn’t for David Arquette, who’s giving a fun as hell performance as Death, the film would be justly forgotten. It’s just good enough to edge out some real stinkers but not good enough to stick with you longer than a day after you watch it.
49. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Sleepwalkers gets points for pure WTFuckery alone. It was the first time King wrote a screenplay intended for the screen first, rather than adapting one of his already-existing novels or stories and boy howdy, it shows. This story is so bizarre, I’m amazed any studio let him write for the screen ever again. The film follows two humanoid cat monsters (played by Brian Krause and Alice Krige) who’s incestuous relationship turns into an ugly battle when the boy cat monster falls in love with the virgin (Mädchen Amick) they intend on eating. It’s like King saw Schrader’s Cat People and thought to himself “I can make that weirder, more sexually explicit and grosser!” He one upped a movie no one cared about for a story no one really wanted but God bless him, he made a unique trashterpiece of cinema. Come for the story and Krige’s unhinged performance and stay for the fun cameos, I promise you won’t forget any of them.
48. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Besides the performances of the two leads, the only note worthy thing about this film is its horribly convoluted origins. Hearts in Atlantis is a “loose” adaptation of a Dark Tower tie-in short story called “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” which is part of a larger collection titled Hearts in Atlantis, which also has a short story in it called “Hearts in Atlantis,” which has nothing to do with this movie adaptation. Still with me? Good. As a film, it’s much better than The Dark Tower but what that film has that this one doesn’t, is a pulse. It has a heart to be sure (thanks largely to Hopkins, who gives a surprisingly tender performance) but not a big enough one to keep the film from flat lining every time he’s not on screen.
47. Desperation (2006)
If this was half the length, it would most likely be about twenty spots higher on the list. The cast is insane (Tom Skerritt, Steven Weber, Annabeth Gish, Henry Thomas, Charles Durning, Matt Frewer) and premise is solid (a group of strangers has to escape a town run by a demonically possessed evil sheriff) but it’s far too long and, like everything he directs, is hamstrung by its director Mick Garris. If he edited down to it’s essentials, he’d have a helluva thrill ride because then the savior of the film would have much more screen time. Ron Perlman is giving the performance of a lifetime as Collie Entragian, the diabolically sadistic sheriff who delights in torturing, tormenting or straight up killing anyone he comes across. It’s one of his most fun roles (which is saying something) wasted in a forgettable TV movie.
46. Dreamcatcher (2003)
The Problem with being a fan of Stephen King and having read most of his work is that you’re predisposed to dislike any adaptation. I went into these writeups knowing that was my bias and trying to watch/rewatch as many of them as I could and to try and be as fair as possible.
Dreamcatcher is actually one of the more faithful adaptations of King’s work – it just happens to adapt a book that wasn’t very good. The best parts of both are in the first third, as we’re introduced to friends with a touch of “shine” as a result of saving a special needs child when they were kids. The actors – including Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphan and Jason Lee – all have great chemistry and they’re fun to watch interact when they head to their annual get-together at a remote hunting cabin. Things begin to get nicely weird, with a lost and injured stranger showing up and all the forest animals fleeing… something.
And then suddenly it’s a crappy alien invasion movie with Morgan Freeman acting crazier than his eyebrows and Tom Sizemore being the reasonable one. It’s tonal whiplash and the film never recovers. There’s another hour and a half of crap with shitweasels, mental storage spaces, “gray” aliens and psychic shenanigans as one of the group is taken over and driven to try and infect a huge swath of humanity. This all leads to an alien-ex-machina ending that somehow manages to be both better and worse than the book (where we’re all saved by a character’s broken hip – this was, after all, King’s first book written after he was struck by a van).
Both the book and the film are decent long enough to sucker you into thinking this can’t be as bad as reviews made it out to be. Sadly, that initial promise is washed away in blood, poorly staged action sequences and Morgan Freeman’s eyebrows.
45. The Dark Tower (2017)
The Dark Tower as a weird action/sci-fi movie featuring alternate worlds, psychic kids, demonic bad guys and a hero with nigh-magical gunslinging abilities wasn’t as terrible as I expected. Idris Elba is always worth watching, there are some decent action sequences, some suspense and we get Mathew McConoughy chewing up scenery like he’s the hungriest person at the buffet. Is it good? Well, no. The plot and details are too compressed in its short (95 minute) running time, it barely holds together as a narrative, and the editing is mostly indifferent. But I did find myself enjoying parts of it. And the short run time meant don’t think I was ever bored.
That being said, The Dark Tower sucks as an adaptation of its source material. There’s no sense of either scale or intimacy, and the details they do include from the various books (from both the Dark Tower series and its expanded universe) serve only to annoy and distract. If you’re a fan of the books then they just remind you of those and how you’re not getting anything even remotely like them. If you’re NOT a fan of the books, then they’re either wasted set dressing or odd asides that don’t seem to serve the narrative.
I’m not sure anyone could really do the series justice, though I still do wish we’d gotten to see that alternating TV/Movie series that was being talked about when Ron Howard’s production company was involved. I guess someone had to try, I just wish they’d done more than throw together a bunch of random elements from the novels and hope that they’d make a story. In the books there’s an element of fate that the characters refer to as “ka.” Unfortunately, the movie turns out to be mostly ka-ka. (I do feel bad for that joke. But only a little.)
44. Firestarter (1984)
I feel like there’s a decent movie in here somewhere. That if someone took the disparate pieces and re-edited them in a different order then the narrative might work. Start with Charlie and Andy already captured by the Shop, build the twin narratives of Rainbird and Charlie learning her powers with Charlie and Andy on the run into a double ending? I dunno. I think it would be better than what we got, though. Firestarter manages to include much of the events of King’s novel without any of the character, pathos or suspense. Nothing feels important or real. No relationships click. Every actor’s delivery is almost mechanical. The only one interesting to watch is George C. Scott, because he could read the phonebook and still be watchable.
The effects are also nothing special, with some laughable burn-suit action and chunky pyrotechnics alternating with closeups of a sweating, constipated-looking Drew Barrymore. By the time Charlie finally lets loose and sets about destroying the Shop I was happy only because I knew the film was just about over. I’m always disappointed in the film because I think the story could really support a decent thriller. Or maybe set it up as a TV series, with Charlie and Andy on the run from the Shop as Charlie figures out her powers? Meeting other survivors of Lot 6? Something like a Hannah with psychic powers. Maybe the more recent film was better. It would have to be.
43. The Night Flier (1997)
I actually kind of like The Night Flier. I know, I know. Maybe I just watched too many of these low-tier King adaptations in a row and it broke my brain. Maybe I’d had such low expectations that there really was no place to go but up. There’s a lot of cheapness in the film, but it has some decent gore, a spooky atmosphere and a morbid sense of humor (I laughed out loud at the bathroom scene, with Dees seeing disembodied stream of blood hitting the urinal in the reflection in the mirror). That being said it does feel like, production-wise, it’s only slightly above your average X-Files episode.
If I’m honest, most of my enjoyment really comes down to Miguel Ferrer.
Ferrer’s Richard Dees is Carl Kolchak if he was an absolute asshole. The kind of ambulance chasing tabloid reporter who doesn’t think twice about smearing a tombstone with blood or re-posing a car accident victim (with his foot!) for a better shot. His world-weary cynicism and cold-blooded pursuit of the next story to win him his byline on the front page could have been just unpleasant and difficult, but Ferrer makes him a joy to watch. Even if the character is just as much of a bloodsucker in his own way as the monster he’s tracking.
King and director Mark Pavia tried to produce a sequel featuring the Katherine Blair character (played by Julie Entwisle in the movie, and who doesn’t appear in the original story), but couldn’t get financing. I’m not sure I’d want to watch a version of this without Miguel Ferrer.
42. Thinner (1996)
I hated Thinner. To be honest, I hated the book as well. It remains my least favorite of King’s work. It was the last book written under the Richard Bachman pseudonym (until The Regulators in 1996, but by then we all knew who it really was) and shares that same darker view of humanity as the rest of the books under that name. I always thought it was a shallow and ugly story about shallow and ugly people, and the film embraces that view of humanity pretty much wholesale. That somehow worked for me in The Night Flier, but nobody in Thinner is as much fun to watch as Miguel Ferrer.
Thinner uses the hoary old cliché of the “gypsy curse” to inflict misery on arrogant and self-satisfied attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) after he runs down the gypsy patriarch’s daughter. As he wastes away, Billy tries everything to get them to lift the curse, eventually calling in a favor from mobster Richie Ginelli (Joe Montagna) to bring the “white man from town’s” curse down on the band. (Spoiler alert: it’s bullets.) It’s all just as terrible and cringe as it sounds. And the fat suit they make Burke wear triggers that “uncanny valley” sensation every time he’s on screen.
The best I can say about Thinner is that it’s competently shot, directed and edited and… huh. Yep, that’s about it. I mean, I guess Joe Montagna isn’t bad. Everything else, though. Yeah, everything else is pretty terrible.
41. The Shining (1997)
Since he infamously hates the Kubrick version, King decided to take matters into his own hands and adapt The Shining his way. The end result is a much more faithful adaptation that begs for rediscovery. The only things holding it back from being the definitive version is Garris’ direction and the casting of Courtland Mead as Danny. Mead is about as bad as any kid in any movie has ever been. He’s truly, truly terrible and actually starts to ruin the film the longer he’s on screen, and Garris actually directs the hell out of this but since he lacks a signature style, the entire production feels flat and nondescript. Unlike Kubrick, he never makes the Overlook Hotel feel like a character. He never quite nails the horror of isolation. But what he does deserve credit for is the brilliant decision to cast Steven Webber as Jack. It’s a performance that slowly escalates to madness instead of the immediate threat of danger that Nicholson brought to the original. If you don’t compare the two and only judge it based on the accuracy of the text, he’s brilliant. Almost as brilliant is Rebecca De Mornay as Wendy. It’s not as manic as Duvall but it’s equally as maternal. You really feel like she’d die to protect her son and would even kill her own husband to do it. They’re rock solid performances in one of the most underrated mini series King ever made.
What are some of your favorite Stephen King adaptations? Where do you think they will rank on the list?