Stephen King is having a good year for royalties. He’s seen three of his most popular books adapted for the big screen — well, one for the iPad screen, but still — and they’ve all gone on to do really well.
It, the supernatural tale of a paranormal entity who manifests itself into your worst fears has just become the highest grossing horror movie of all time, while kinky psychological suspense thriller Gerald’s Game has just been released to rave reviews on Netflix.
Meanwhile, The Dark Tower, King’s magnum opus saga of a gunslinger hopping between dimensions caught in an intense battle with the mysterious Man in Black, has been adapted for the screen with Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba in the lead roles. It’s been doing well financially, almost doubling its budget at the box office.
These three movies join the dozens of films that have been adapted from Stephen King’s work. He’s the master of horror, so of course studios with a market for horror have been grabbing at his stories ever since he first put pen to paper. Here are the 15 best movie adaptations of Stephen King’s work.
An evil car. Doesn’t sound very scary, does it? A car possessed by an evil spirit. It sounds like something Stephen King made up off the top of his head one day when he came to a deadline he forgot about. But still, the master of literary horror managed to spin it into something truly frightening.
And then John Carpenter, a master of cinematic horror, made it into a movie that captured that same frightening atmosphere. How do you make a car scary? It’s baffling. Just ask King and Carpenter, who share a similar sensibility: a love for creating scary concepts that play on the human psyche — like the shape-shifting monster in Carpenter’s The Thing that can change its form into literally anything, including your friends, so you don’t know who to trust.
What Carpenter did was make the car an actual character with a personality. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Christine that “by the end of the movie, Christine has developed such a formidable personality that we are actually taking sides during its duel with a bulldozer.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times’ review called the movie “engaging and well-acted, creating a believable high school atmosphere,” and Time Out said, “Carpenter and novelist Stephen King share not merely a taste for genre horror, but a love of ‘50s teenage culture.”
14. Needful Things
Needful Things gets brownie points for its intriguing premise. Ever seen that Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” in which Summer gets a weekend job at an antique store where her boss, Mr. Needful, sells the town’s residents exactly what they desire at an ironic price, like a cologne that makes women instantly fall in love with you but makes you impotent?
Well, where do you think Justin Roiland got the idea for that one? The brilliantly creepy Max von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt, the owner of the antique store whose products cause all kinds of mayhem that the town’s sheriff, played by the great Ed Harris, struggles to contain. It’s by no means a masterpiece or a classic of the silver screen, but it’s enjoyable.
13. The Running Man
When The Running Man was made back in the late 1980s, it was a frightening dystopian science fiction story set in the distant future of 2019 in which America had become a brutal totalitarian state. Well, it’s now 2017 and it’s safe to say that that’s exactly what 2019 will be like.
The story involves a reality TV show called “The Running Man.” It’s the most popular show in America and involves professional killers sent after contestants who must “run” for their lives. In the movie, one contestant is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
King has said that he wrote the lead character of Ben Richards as “scrawny” and “pre-tubercular,” and that the character in the book is “as far away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the movie as you can get.” But that doesn’t mean Arnie didn’t do a good job with it.
The Running Man was just one in a string of high-octane, low-intelligence, all-awesome action pictures that Arnie put out across the 1980s. It was a good decade for him.
12. The Dead Zone
The Simpsons did a parody of this King story in one of their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. They called the segment “The Ned Zone” and had the story happen to Ned Flanders instead of Christopher Walken. The movie takes itself much more seriously. It’s a thought-provoking adaptation of one of King’s most inventive and original concepts.
Walken awakens from a coma to find that he has gained the ability to see how people are going to die. He quickly realizes it’s both a gift and a curse as it drives him nuts. It’s a simple premise, but an effective one that luckily is done right by this movie.
David Cronenberg, one of the great horror auteurs of 20th-century cinema, handled the directing duties and ensured a well-crafted little movie worth a couple of hours of your life.
11. The Green Mile
Clocking in at over three hours, The Green Mile takes a toll on any audience member willing to sit down and watch it, but the rewards are worth it. And anyway, critic Roger Ebert had high praise for the extended runtime in his positive review: “I appreciated the extra time, which allows us to feel the passage of prison months and years.”
The Green Mile is the second adaptation of a Stephen King story to be set in a prison after The Shawshank Redemption, and both are by the same writer-director, Frank Darabont, who clearly has a type.
Unlike Shawshank, The Green Mile has a supernatural element. Death row prison guard Tom Hanks realizes that one of his inmates, Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey — whose initials “JC” reference a certain Messiah — has special magical powers after he fixes Hanks’ bladder problem.
It’s long, but it’s a tragic tale of capital punishment well worth a watch.
10. Gerald’s Game
Yes, this one is brand new, but I can guarantee that it’ll stand the test of time, and you’ll be glad it’s on Netflix when you want to rewatch it and show your friends what all the fuss is about.
Gerald’s Game is a simple story. A married couple head out to a cabin in the middle of the woods in order to spice up their relationship with a kinky sex game. It takes a sinister turn when the husband has a heart attack while his wife is tied to the bedposts.
Both the book and the new Mike Flanagan movie weave effective psychological scares. RogerEbert.com has called it, “the best Stephen King film adaptation of the year so far,” which is high praise, considering how great It was. GQ called it “an unrelenting sprint into madness…in what might be one of the great Stephen King adaptations of all time.”
9. Pet Sematary
The power of Stephen King, and the reason he’s so popular, is that he taps into a very real fear that we have, or at least something that we all universally have an emotional connection to, and exploits it in order to scare the shit out of you. Pet Sematary gets by on the strength that pets are usually the first experience that we have with death.
Louis C.K. describes the death of a pet as “a dry run for Grandma.” And so, King captured the primal fear that comes along with that connection we have with the idea of death, and thankfully, Mary Lambert’s screen adaptation did the same.
The New York Times praised the movie’s “effectively ghoulish moments.” And Bloody Disgusting wrote, “The plot alone would make for a scary movie, but by injecting excellent atmosphere, capable acting and generally nightmarish scenes, Pet Sematary is a truly effective horror flick and well worth the price of admission.”
It’s a testament to the quality of the new It movie that it’s now the highest grossing horror movie of all time. It just crossed the $500 million mark at the worldwide box office. That’s an absurd amount for a horror movie. $500 million is not horror movie money, that’s like James Bond money or Superman money.
Horror movies are lucky to scrape $100 million, but $500 million? It’s a testament to how far you can go when you simply approach your horror movie the same way you would a drama. That’s what Andy Muschietti did with his direction of It.
Every frame is carefully considered. The story structure is delicately orchestrated and balances the horror with the drama in an interesting way. It keeps the audience invested. On top of that, the cast is incredible. The film, overall, while far from a masterpiece, is a terrifying spectacle to behold.
7. The Mist
The Mist came out of nowhere as one of the most frightening movies in recent memory. It stars loveable everyman Thomas Jane as a guy whose house is broken into by a tree, so he heads to the general store with his son to get some supplies. All of a sudden, a strange mist settles over the entire town.
Anyone who attempts to go outside is devoured, poisoned, or otherwise mutilated by interdimensional creatures that populate this dangerous fog. Jane is desperate to keep his son safe and get home to his wife, but they’re all stuck there. Soon, everyone gets cabin fever, which is overshadowed as soon as gigantic flies turn up and start cracking the windows.
Eventually, Jane makes it out of the store and into a car with his son and a couple of the other survivors. It’s a rollicking ride from start to finish. It keeps taking unexpected and unpredictable turns — and then the ending comes. It’s the single most harrowing end to any movie ever.
Driving past the broken house, they find that Jane’s wife died pretty much the second the mist hit, so they drive and drive and drive in the hopes of finding salvation. When the gas tank’s empty, they’re still in the mist. Hopeless, Jane does the unthinkable seconds before the mist clears up and the military come through to save the day.
The Mist is just phenomenal. Frank Darabont successfully adapted the Stephen King horror novella for the screen. James Berardinelli wrote in his review of the film, “The Mist is what a horror film should be – dark, tense, and punctuated by just enough gore to keep the viewer’s flinch reflex intact.” Bloody Disgusting ranked it in the fourth spot on their list of Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade.
6. Children of the Corn
Say what you will about Children of the Corn, but we can all admit that it at least has an unsettling premise. Most of King’s stories play off fears that we had in our childhood —bullies, clowns, things that go bump in the night etc. But what Children of the Corn expertly does is give you a new fear as an adult.
The story takes place in a rural Nebraska town where a supernatural being known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” encourages children to murder all the adults in a vicious ritual that promises a better corn harvest.
Sure, adults think they can boss around kids and treat them like crap, but what if they finally had enough and rose up to fight back? They have youth and energy on their side.
A couple driving through town find themselves in a sticky situation when He Who Walks Behind the Rows tells the kids to kill them too. This is one of the few adaptations Stephen King enjoys. He said, “I could do without all of the Children of the Corn sequels. I actually like the original pretty well. I thought they did a pretty good job on that.”
Misery is one of Stephen King’s most terrifying novels. It tells the story of a popular author who is kidnapped by his biggest fan and forced to rewrite a story that killed off her favorite character.
The author, Paul Sheldon, is played by The Godfather’s James Caan, while his sinister captor, Annie Wilkes, is played expertly by Kathy Bates in what is perhaps her most memorable and iconic role. She won an Oscar for her role, making Misery the only Stephen King adaptation so far to win an Academy Award.
It’s a classic, and has a heck of a legacy. The infamous ‘hobbling’ scene — where Annie sticks a piece of wood between Paul’s legs and uses a sledgehammer to make sure he ain’t going anywhere — was included as the number twelve spot on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
Horror magazine Bloody Disgusting ranked the movie fourth on its list of 10 Claustrophobic Horror Films. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus reads, “elevated by standout performances from James Caan and Kathy Bates, this taut and frightening film is one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date.”
4. The Shining
Stephen King himself hates The Shining because it was a very unfaithful adaptation of the book. That’s not what Stanley Kubrick’s forte. He never served some other dude’s vision. He mad every movie elementally his own with his unique visual flair and mountains of research for every project.
Kubrick took the basic premise of The Shining — a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic takes his family out to an empty hotel to watch it over winter while it’s closed and then slowly goes mad — and put his imprint on it.
The result is a brilliant movie — creepy and visually stunning and spectacular, with a lot of beautiful, symbolic imagery to read into — but it’s the stark opposite of King’s book. As King himself put it, “the book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice.”
3. Stand By Me
“If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That’s easy: Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.” Stand By Me is a movie with such universal themes. The closing line sums it up perfectly. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” That’s what the movie’s about.
It tells the story of a group of kids who head out into the woods to see a dead body they’ve heard rumors of. But it’s really all about friendship and how you should cherish the times you have with your best friends as a carefree kid, because you’ll never have that much fun and never have friends that close to you for the rest of your life.
And if you’re too old to do that, then you can at least identify with those themes. After an early screening of the film, King took a moment to compose himself before telling the movie’s director, Rob Reiner, “that’s the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written, which isn’t saying much. But you’ve really captured my story. It is autobiographical.”
Brian De Palma’s gory and shocking adaptation of the original Stephen King novel — the one he almost didn’t even write until his wife dug the first chapter out of the trash and encouraged him to keep with it — is the quintessential King movie.
It combines relatable everyday situations like bullying — a recurring theme in King’s books — with the terror of a blood-soaked teenage girl brutally murdering other children with her mind. It’s brilliant. It’s De Palma’s definitive work.
He introduced to moviegoers his signature flair for stylish violence that would later become a hallmark of his movies like Scarface and Carlito’s Way. There was a crappy remake in 2013 starring Chloë Grace Moretz in what promised to be a ‘more faithful’ adaptation of the book, but De Palma’s was already the most faithful adaptation you could make.
All the remake did differently was throw in random, unnecessary scenes like Carrie’s birth. And Moretz is way, way too pretty to fit the description of Carrie White that King provides in the book: an acne-ridden, overweight victim.
And they claimed to ‘modernize’ the sort for the social media age, but all that entailed was having Carrie Google “telekinesis.” But anyway, I digress. The De Palma version is a classic, it’s a perfect adaptation of the book, and the remake was a steaming dog turd.
1. The Shawshank Redemption
IMDb ranks The Shawshank Redemption as the greatest movie of all time. Another Frank Darabont oeuvre, it’s the quintessential prison movie.
Tim Robbins’ fish out of water Andy Dufresne introduces us to the brutal and very real world of the movie, while Morgan Freeman’s veteran inmate character’s calm and thoughtful voiceover narration takes us through the horrors of life behind bars as we witness raw and unsettling depictions of prison rape and brutality by the guards.
And the work of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has been praised as the film’s biggest strength. Critics called his camera work “foreboding” and “well-crafted.”
Okay, there is a glaring plot hole: when Andy escapes, he wouldn’t have been able to put the poster back up over the hole he crawled out of. Still, that’s a very minor flaw in an otherwise masterful piece of cinema.