Since Stephen King first published Carrie in 1974, he has turned into a veritable goldmine for Hollywood. With over 60 movies adaptations of his works and a few dozen TV shows and mini-series already available (and another 8 projects along the way), it is almost easier to list his books that haven’t gotten a screen adaptation than to list which ones have.
Of course the mere fact that a lot of adaptations have been made is not an indication of the quality of said adaptations. The sad truth is that while Stephen King has attracted some of the biggest directorial names to tackle his work, he has also been generous to offer his work to a host of first-time and no-name directors where the batting average is decidedly lower. So as a public service, here I humbly present what I think are the best adaptations of his work where I hope to keep you away from the precipitous drop in quality where most King adaptations find themselves. Without further ado, here are the best Stephen King movies (for this list, TV-movies are eligible but TV-series are not):
(Note: Of course, if you are anything of a horror buff like me, you consider it a right of passage and a mark of honor to trudge through the lesser known – for all the right reasons – works of Stephen King. Far be it from me to deter you from that task)
15. SECRET WINDOW (2004) dir. David Koepp
A good horror movie manages to drive nervousness and fear into the viewer, jolting the viewer out of their usual status quo as the ground shifts beneath their feet. Secret Window manages to accomplish this easily. However a great horror movie is one that manages to get under your skin so that its effects linger far beyond the end credits. This Secret Window fails to do, mostly because it is entirely reliant on a great twist that once known, eliminates all the mystery of the plot. Still it’s great to see a Jonny Depp performance where he actually attempts to do some acting.
14. SILVER BULLET (1985) dir. Daniel Attias
Silver Bullet is not a “good” horror movie in that it provides a high-quality viewing experience. For indeed the movie is derivative of many, many better horror movies that have gone on before it, literally adding nothing to the horror genre. But what this movie does have is the truly campy joy that is seeing a bunch of kids and Gary Busey try to take down a werewolf before it takes them out. I mean, its Gary Busey. How could you not be entertained by that?
13. THE RUNNING MAN (1987) dir. Paul Michael Glasser
The great tragedy of the outing of Richard Bachmann as a pseudonym for Stephen King is that it deprived us of the development of a different kind of King story, one not necessarily rooted in horror. This is the only Bachmann-penned novel to get an adaptation, and fortunately its a pretty good one. Of course how much of this has to do with the source material or with the natural charisma and entertainment value that is Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his powers is an open question. It hardly matters though.
12. CHRISTINE (1983) dir. John Carpenter
Nothing outs Stephen King as a Baby Boomer faster than this 1950s-set horror story about a demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury. While the central premise of the story, that in a misguided attempt at building social credibility a wimp of a boy purchases the murderous and nefarious Plymouth and quickly falls under its influence, is admittedly silly but Carpenter plays the story as straight as possible that it ultimately becomes compelling. That it also doubles today as a perfect allegory for toxic masculinity is simply a bonus.
11. 1408 (2007) dir. Mikael Hafstrom
A great ghost story is not just a collection of scares, but usually an exploration of trauma and grief. Thankfully trauma and grief are aplenty in this box-episode of a movie. John Cusack plays yet another Stephen King writer character, this time as a talented novelist who sells out by churning out haunted hotel guidebooks whose commercial success is outweighed by their cultural bankruptcy. His latest expedition finds him going to the Dolphin Hotel to the supposedly haunted room 1408, where he encounters the first hotel manager who refuses to give him the room (Samuel L. Jackson). Naturally he ultimately gets his way, setting in motion a series of events designed to embattle and ultimately break the writer. And while this is a pretty good movie and John Cusack puts on a tour-de-force performance, it ultimately needs much more Samuel L. Jackson.
10. THE DEAD ZONE (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
While this is a surprisingly subdued effort for body-horror maestro David Cronenberg and the choice of casting Christopher Walken to play every-man Johnny Smith is a bizarre one, this movie – about a man who gains the psychic ability to know a person’s secrets by touching them – surprisingly works. It is the rare Stephen King adaptation that is faithful to the source material but also manages to be a very good, if conventional, movie.
9. IT (2017) dir. Andy Muschietti
While the Tim Curry-led TV-miniseries iteration of Pennywise was a suitably traumatic viewing experience for this young viewer when it first came out, it hasnot aged well. Thankfully stepping up in its place was last year’s adaptation which takes seriously the deep and dark themes of what is arguably King’s masterpiece, while applying all the lessons that the current renaissance of horror movies has taken in terms of creating and sustaining a terrifying narrative. Put these two together and you get one of the few movies that my wife had to run away from, because it is easily the scariest movie on this list. Clown-phobic people should definitely look elsewhere.
8. DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995) dir. Taylor Hackford
While there are no ghosts, ghouls, or hideous creatures to scare us in Dolores Claiborne, there is more than enough exploration of the banality of evil to terrify us. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Selena, a burnt out reporter who returns to her isolated hometown when her estranged mother Dolores (Kathy Bates) is accused of murder. This leads to family secrets being unearthed, old wounds being reopened, and the sins of the past coming home to roost. It is the kind of melodrama that requires strong performances to make it believable and fortunately Leigh and Bates are up to the task.
7. SALEM’S LOT (1979) dir. Tobe Hooper
Almost all Stephen King TV-movies are unbelievably bad. Cheap TV-budget mandated production values, broadcast television content restrictions, and the inevitably clunkiness of having to leave space for commercials create a lethal combination that effectively dulls most of King’s edge in these TV-movies. Salem’s Lot is naturally, the exception that proves the rule as future Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper is more than capable in providing some bite for this vampire chiller. While it is somewhat astonishing that there hasn’t been a big screen version of King’s book, this is more than a decent substitute (But seriously Hollywood, where’s our big screen Salem’s Lot adaptation?).
6. MISERY (1990) dir. Rob Reiner
That the central conceit of the movie – an avid fan going postal when a writer disappoints her with his latest novel – doesn’t seem so farfetched today speaks both to the disheartening nature of modern toxic fandoms (where death threats on Twitter are not just surprising but somewhat expected) and to Stephen King’s prescient powers in anticipating the phenomenon that many years earlier (although who knows what kind of fan mail he had been getting up to that point). Kathy Bates puts in a fantastic (and arguably her best) performance as the troubled and deranged fan who traps a surprisingly subdued James Caan in her isolated cabin. The fact that I cannot put the words “misery” and “ankles” together without making you involuntarily wince speaks to the power of this movie.
5. CREEPSHOW (1982) dir. George A. Romero
Anthology horror movies are notoriously difficult to pull off. They usually perfectly illustrate the maxim “you are only as strong as your weakest link” as several good to excellent segments get derailed by a truly bad segment (and almost every anthology movie has a “bad” segment), or the framing device is weak and contrived, or the segments feel disconnected in tone and theme. Creepshow manages to avoid all of those pitfalls, mostly thanks to the pedigree of having Stephen King story ideas being told by the George A. Romero who both bring clear tongue-in-cheek delirious joy of campfire ghost story-telling into the proceedings. I cannot conceive of too many better pairings.
4. CARRIE (1976) dir. Brian De Palma
Part of what makes King such an effective horror writer is his ability to take our ordinary anxieties and fears and twist them just enough that they become truly terrifying. In this case, I can think of a more horrific exploration of the fraught anxieties of puberty than Carrie. While much attention gets paid to the shocking and cataclysmic ending when Carrie (Sissy Spacek) gets pushed to her limit on prom night, the ending is only powerful because it is the inevitable conclusion of the journey she has gone so far. The torment and social anxiety Carrie goes through as she navigates the cruel landscape of teenage life is just as unnerving as the ending, making it is easy then to both cheer and be horrified by her ultimate coronation.
3. STAND BY ME (1986) dir. Rob Reiner
Unlike most coming-of-age movies, Stand By Me is unique in that it doesn’t portray a journey that takes place over several months, but rather tragically shows how children can grow up in a single traumatic experience. Boosted by what is arguably the best child-actor cast in history (Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and Jerry O’ Connell along with an appearance by Kiefer Sutherland) the movie expertly navigates the line between a nostalgic rose-colored view of childhood and a harsh reminder of innocence lost. That is also came in the middle of Rob Reiner’s hot streak of extremely diverse filmmaking (coming on the heels of mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, and soon to be followed by The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally) provides ample evidence that Reiner is an extremely underrated director.
2. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) dir. Frank Darabont
True, the movie has become the male college freshmen go-to for trying to show how sophisticated you are (along with a love for Fight Club that ironically misses the point of Fight Club). But Shawshank Redemption earns its reputation as a college dorm movie-night cliche because it happens to be a really good movie. It is a simple and unpretentious movie that wears its pleasures plainly on its prison garment sleeves, featuring two outstanding lead performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, an unassuming camera that knows not to insert flash into this story and to get out of the narrative’s way, and just enough darkness to give the redemptive storytelling some real weight and heft. In other words, it is the perfectly non-offensive kind of quality filmmaking that is perfect for uniting dorm room audiences every Fall for years to come.
1. THE SHINING (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Is is somewhat ironic that the best adaptation of a Stephen King work is famously despised by the author? Yes, but it also proves the importance of allowing directors creative freedom in adapting books to screen. King’s novel is a great ghost story that is terrifying and creepy on the page but, as the technically-more-faithful-but-infinitely-worse TV-mini series proved, it comes across as a little goofy on screen. Instead, Kubrick took the bones of King’s book and turned it into a psychologically disturbing profile of a family slowly driven insane by the perils of cabin fever, so that their ultimate destruction are not just the result of external spirits tormenting them, but also because of demons within.