Stephen King is arguably the most prolific author of the last century. A modern master of horror and suspense, he produces material at a terrifying rate. One would assume he’s made a deal with the Devil himself, to be able to write 54 novels, and nearly 200 short stories since Carrie was first published in 1973. The fact that the majority of those works have been adapted for television and the big screen, sometimes more than once, is both a blessing and a curse. While being prolific is a gift King posesses, exercising quality control is another story. For every good King adaptation, there seems to be another five or six that just don’t quite work.
For the first time ever, we here at IFC are putting together a definitive list of King’s adaptations, from worst to first. What left us shaking in a river of blood, and what made us reach for a bottle of red rum? Now, we’re aware that remakes of The Stand and It, along with adaptations of The Dark Tower and 11/22/63, are in various states of development. With King, something new is always coming down the highway to Hell. But for now, here’s the official ranking of every King movie and TV show ever produced. (Note: We are not including sequels, remakes, short films and the occasional X-Files script. If we did this list would be pushing 100.) Be sure to watch every single one of these in their entirety and then report back, to let us know if we got it right.
(WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD.)
57. The Mangler (1995)
“Three modern masters of horror” (Stephen King, Tobe Hooper and Robert Englund) combined to make this middling disaster of cheese-filled camp. What was meant as a graphic realization of Stephen King’s short story instead became a symbol of what bad King projects often turn into. The film was both over-the-top gory, while being surprisingly boring. It was cheaply executed, with familiar King tropes, like the haunted machine out to kill us all. But unlike the car in Christine, this machine can’t move. It just sits there, its power in hoping people fall into it. It felt like King, and everyone else, was just phoning this one in.
56. No Smoking (2007)
Expectations were high when No Smoking hit theaters in 2007. It was the first Indian adaption of a Stephen King story, in this case Quitters, Inc. It was written and directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, known for his grounded, realistic films. But while reactions were more mixed abroad, Indian critics and audiences found the film a pretentious mess, with a plot that was impossible to follow. Many felt it was an arrogant movie, about an arrogant character, made by an arrogant filmmaker. Mixing surreal elements and gritty action with traditional Hindi film flourishes created a bewildering movie for no one. While some wondered if it was merely too outside the box for an audience trained on a very different type of filmmaking, the consensus seems to be that the filmmaker’s ambitions outstripped his talents here. Kashyap took a big swing, and whiffed.
55. Sleepwalkers (1992)
The thing about Stephen King is, even his bad movies have something fun to dig into. And trust us, this movie is horrible. But any movie about incestuous energy vampires who turn into cat people as they desperately hunt for virgin blood is going to be a good for a laugh or two. This movie has it all: Were-Cat people afraid of house cats for some reason! Superpowers that can turn cars into NEW cars! Mark Hamill! Nothing here makes much sense, but it’s undeniably stupid fun.
54. The Langoliers (1995)
There was a time, back in the ’90s, when a Stephen King miniseries was a television event. None have aged particularly well, but The Langoliers may just be the worst of the batch. Adapted from the short story Four Past Midnight, this one-note plot would’ve worked better as an episode of The Twilight Zone. At four hours, this miniseries stretches the wafer thin concept well past its breaking point. There’s only so much time you can spend watching poorly drawn characters kill time in an airport, before you start wondering if there’s a new Home Improvement episode on another channel. Combine that with cheap effects, even for 1995, and a who’s who (no seriously, who is who here?) of ’90s TV stars, from Perfect Strangers‘ Balki to Al from Quantum Leap, and you’re left with a low-rent adaptation that feels like the dramatic equivalent of paint drying.
53. Trucks (1997)
Stephen King has never been shy about ripping himself off. When you churn out as much material as he does, there’s going to be some overlap. Still, there’s really no excuse for this utterly stupid story of a small town overrun by sentient, murderous trucks. The fact that this story has been adapted twice, here and as the film Maximum Overdrive, tells you everything you need to know about Mr. King’s love of a royalty check. Unless you always wanted to see the horror prequel to Cars, this movie is probably best left languishing on the shelf of a 1990s Blockbuster store, where it belongs.
52. Secret Window (2004)
Much like Woody Allen, King likes to write stand-ins for himself in many of his stories. The tormented New England writer is as familiar a trope to King fans as a kid with psychic powers, a killing machine or a vaguely racist remark. Here, Johnny Depp steps into Mr. King’s shoes, with predictably weird results. The film, shepherded by writer-director David Koepp, is actually an effective character study for much of its running time, showing us a damaged man who’s shut himself off from the outside world. But when the third act shenanigans overwhelm the smaller movie that preceded it, we realize Depp’s protagonist was right: “The only thing that matters is the ending.” And the ending here is awful.
51. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
And unsurprisingly, here is Maximum Overdrive, which is reviled by King fans for its corny plot and tacky execution, and yet still manages to be better than the forgettable Trucks, whose short story it shares as source material. The only film directed by Stephen King himself, it won Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Director and Worst Actor. Congrats, Emilio Estevez! King himself has stated he was “coked out of [his] mind all through its production, and [he] really didn’t know what [he] was doing.” We aren’t really sure either.
50. Silver Bullet (1985)
Any movie that stars a wheelchair bound Corey Haim, Gary Busey, and a low rent ’80s werewolf is worth a watch. This movie is, without a doubt, hokey fun, but that’s a far cry from actually being good. Loosely adapted from the short novel Cycle Of The Werewolf, King himself penned the screenplay that had little to do with his own story. Instead, the film has an overly complicated plot, full of mystical mumbo jumbo, and a werewolf that falls far short of other, superior films of the time, from The Howling to An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf. Looking back, it’s a fun bit of ’80s silliness, but at the time it was a disappointing mess.
49. Graveyard Shift (1990)
Don’t go in the basement…No, seriously. Just don’t go in the basement. Much like The Mangler, there seems to be an easy solution to the terror that plagues this old mill. The biggest problem with this movie is that it’s utterly forgettable. King has written better mysteries, better monsters, and better gore. This movie is executed well enough, but there’s just nothing that sticks with you, outside of some fairly forced New England accents. Now those are scary.
48. Thinner (1996)
Stephen King’s riff on Meet the Klumps, this film feels like a bad episode of Tales From The Crypt. It’s no wonder King published this story under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, as it’s far from his best work. The idea of cursing someone to get thinner is ridiculous on its face, but the execution here leaves a lot to be desired. The tone is constantly over the top, whether it’s the acting, the makeup, or the violence. Star Robert John Burke spends much of the film thinking he’s in a comedy, cartoonishly mugging to the camera, only there is nary a joke to be found. Mix in a vaguely racist stereotype of a gypsy family, and you have a real head scratcher of a film. Despite the talent on and behind the camera (Joe Mantegna is in the cast and director Todd Holland gave us Child’s Play and the original Fright Night), virtually nothing here works. The film isn’t funny, or scary, or believable. Maybe the filmmakers were cursed with mediocrity.
47. Golden Years (1991)
A TV miniseries that dropped at the height of King’s popularity, this one remains relatively unknown. That may be for a good reason. The concept, about an elderly janitor exposed to strange chemicals after an explosion who begins to age backwards, was based on an unfinished novel King had laying around. He ending up writing it directly for television, but the one-note script and hacky direction don’t do the core concept any service. The series originally ended on a cliffhanger, but when CBS decided not to renew the series, a new final scene was tacked on. So at least someone got a happy ending out of this.
46. A Good Marriage (2014)
The concept here is intriguing: A longtime married woman discovers that her fairly ordinary husband is secretly a serial killer. There’s room for some psychological punch here, as you weigh a lifetime of memories against this horrible revelation. A strong cast, fronted by Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia, are more than capable enough to explore the nuances of this concept. Instead, the film becomes a fairly predictable, rote thriller, more at home on Lifetime than a Stephen King retrospective.
45. Kingdom Hospital (2004)
Here King adapts someone else’s work, namely Lars Von Trier’s Danish TV show The Kingdom. Whoever’s fault it may be, the dark humor and gothic notes of the original translate poorly, and King shoehorning in a doctor with a very similar backstory to his own comes across as silly yet again. Despite the best efforts of Weekend at Bernie’s heartthrob Andrew McCarthy, this show was DOA.
44. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
While King has proven he can write in a variety of genres, he’s usually at his best with some elements of horror and suspense. When he goes for straight drama, the results can wind up being a bit too saccharine, if not downright dull. Sadly, that’s the case here. King hits many of his usual tropes, from an older man looking back at his glossy childhood, to a mysterious man with psychic powers. But what this movie lacks is a story that goes anywhere interesting. Top notch actors like Anthony Hopkins, along with some beautiful cinematography, give this film the sheen of respectability, but dig a little deeper and you’ll realize there’s very little there.
43. Mercy (2014)
This is a fairly typical horror movie that lacks the idiosyncratic touch King often brings to his work. Based on a short story of the same name, the movie follows a young man (Chandler Riggs, aka Carl from The Walking Dead), as his fears about his convalescing grandma turn out to be very real. This movie isn’t horrible, it’s just bland and predictable.
42. Under the Dome (2013 – present)
Developed by Steven Spielberg, comic book impresario Brian K. Vaughn and King himself, and starring Hank from Breaking Bad, this TV show debuted with a lot of buzz. That is, until people got a look it. Bland characters playing out soap opera melodrama inside a mysterious dome that recalls The Simpsons Movie, this show felt like any other Lost rip-off that hit the air in the late aughts. What should be fun is instead an endless slog though one-note characters with vague motivations, caught up in obtuse mysteries that we never care about solving. Still the show has its fans, which explains why what should’ve been a mini-series at best is currently on its third season.
41. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009)
Not a horror film as much as a revenge flick, this is an able, if underwhelming adaption of its source material. The story of a teacher who plots revenge against the mob boss who killed his wife, it stars capable actors Wes Bentley and Christian Slater. It’s not that this film is bad, it just has a flat execution that undermines what could have been a fun story, with exciting twists and turns. At its best, this could be No Country For Old Men, populated by desperate characters who have no choice but to kill each other. As it stands, it feels more like a straight-to-Netflix lark.
40. Big Driver (2014)
Maria Bello stars in this particularly brutal revenge tale, which found a surprising home as a Lifetime Movie of the Week. While the story of an abducted woman escaping, and then seeking revenge against, her brutalizer has its moments, it’s also an uncomfortable story for a middle-aged, white man to tell. At times the whole film feels exploitative, and the odd moments of humor don’t fit the otherwise bleak tone. Overall, this is an odd entry in the King canon, from its concept, to its home on Lifetime. King doesn’t exactly scream “Television for Women.”
39. Storm of the Century (1999)
A latter day King miniseries, this supposed TV event hit at the tail end of the era when anything with King’s name attached to it was a surefire smash. Everyone seems to be phoning it in here, most of all King. Not an adaptation, King wrote the script from scratch, which may be why it feels like cobbled together parts from other King vehicles. Elements of Needful Things and The Mist are present, as are typical tropes like a small Maine town and a mysterious stranger with dark powers. A fairly bland cast, fronted by vanilla actor Tim Daly, does nothing to liven the fairly straightforward material.
38. and 37. Rose Red (2002) and The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003)
Psychics. Haunted, gothic mansions. Creepy little girls. If any other writer were behind Rose Red, they would be accused of ripping off The Shining. I guess King gets a pass on that one. This was the first project King worked on after he was struck, and nearly killed, by a van while walking home in a remote part of Maine. And while the miniseries was a ratings hit, critics were less than kind. Many felt it was overly stuffed with plot to pad out its running time. Others felt its characters lacked depth and personality. All in all, its been largely forgotten, and is a fairly middling effort for such a distinctive writer. Its eventual prequel miniseries, The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer, suffered from many of the same problems.
36. Quicksilver Highway (1997)
Starring lanky, eccentric actor Christopher Lloyd and lanky, eccentric actor Matt Frewer (seriously, these two should do more projects together), this anthology film is based on short stories from Clive Barker and King. Helmed by frequent King director Mick Garris, it’s neither great nor terrible. It is odd though, and that eccentricity is what makes it watchable. King’s story, about a man saved from a murderous hitchhiker by a set of wind-up teeth, is far from his best, but weird King is always better than boring King, and this movie is definitely weird.
35. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
Based on a short story of the same name, this tale was originally supposed to be part of the anthology film Cat’s Eye, but producer Dino De Laurentiis felt the story would work better on its own. It was later adapted into this TV movie, starring Tim Matheson, about a group of dead greasers who kill a teacher’s students and take their place in an effort to stay out of Hell. While the movie is fine, it lacks enough story to really keep us engaged, and may have worked better in a more condensed form. It still was enough to inspire the direct-to-video movies Sometimes They Come Back…Again and Sometimes They Come Back…for More.
34. Haven (2010 – present)
Haven is a long-running series, loosely based on the King short story The Colorado Kid. It centers around the (where else?) Maine town of Haven, where supernatural events keep occurring. While the show has been a mixed bag in terms of quality, the fun really rests in its references to other King works. Everything from It to Misery to Shawshank Redemption have gotten a nod over the course of the show’s five seasons. It’s basically one big King inside joke, made by fans, for fans.
33. Cat’s Eye (1985)
Quitters Inc. shows up again here, as one in a series of shorts that make up this anthology movie. Stephen King himself adapted the stories for the screen, which are competently, if unremarkably realized. Drew Barrymore returns to King’s world, after a memorable turn in the previous year’s Firestarter. James Woods and comedian Alan King round out the ensemble held together by a cat, who weaves its way in and out of the various stories. Not the best of King’s movies, it at least knows to quit while its ahead, and not turn a few dozen pages of prose into a feature film — or worse, a four hour miniseries.
32. Bag of Bones (2011)
James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, takes his turn as a Stephen King stand-in, in this fairly typical mishmash of supernatural and thriller tropes. The biggest problem here, outside of the occasional camp, is that the two-part TV movie desperately tries to be scary, and rarely succeeds. Brosnan feels miscast, overplaying what should be a fairly subdued part. All in all, this is a typically muddled, middle-of-the road entry for King.
31. Riding the Bullet (2004)
This movie isn’t great, but it works better than it has any right to. Helmed again by King’s director of choice, Mick Garris, the story follows a hitchhiker who’s forced to face his past on the road, as he encounters the living and the dead from his turbulent life. A low-budget adaption, from the director of Critters 2: The Main Course, starring David Arquette as a mysterious and malevolent ghost, doesn’t exactly scream quality. But there are some genuinely spooky moments, and the movie never veers into outright camp. Compared to some of the other entries on this list, that puts it squarely in the middle of the pack.
30. Dreamcatcher (2003)
King’s stories often work best as B-movies. A level of camp allows the cheesier side of his writing to blend in, instead of stand out. When top-notch talent gets a hold of his work, they often reimagine it in some way. Here, legendary filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, writer of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, teams up with screenwriter William Goldman, of Princess Bride fame, to faithfully execute one of King’s more bizarre novels. The results are, unsurprisingly, mixed. While the film looks like a million bucks, and has a host of memorable performances, there is too much going on, including King tropes like the mentally challenged man with psychic powers. Still, while highly uneven, there are some fun moments to carry you through. Cornball drama meets action adventure meet Stephen King clusterf*ck in this bizarre, big budget bomb.
29. Children of the Corn (1984)
Stephen King wrote a screenplay for this adaptation, supposedly grounded in character and atmosphere, that was ditched in favor of a more conventional horror structure. The results are mixed. While this movie has gone on to become one of the more famous in King’s canon, spawning eight sequels and counting, it is not a good movie. Bad acting, lousy dialogue, and a hokey third act hang this fun premise out to dry.
28. Nightmares and Dreamscapes (2006)
In 2006, TNT ordered an anthology series based on King’s short stories. Most of them came from his book of the same name, although some were cherry picked from his extensive catalog. An all-star cast, fronted by William H. Macy and William Hurt, helped this series get decent ratings and some positive reviews. While it wasn’t renewed, overall it did a good job of capturing King at his most Rod Serling-esque.
27. The Night Flier (1997)
While not the most famous King short story, or movie for that matter, this picture is surprisingly effective. Sure, it can be corny at times, but it knows the story it’s telling, and does it with precision. Miguel Ferrer, who also stars in King’s The Stand miniseries, lends the proceedings enough gravitas to cover for the goofy villain in a Dracula cape. Overall, this is a nice little genre pic, and worth a look for King fans who’ve never seen it.
26. The Dark Half (1993)
George Romero directs this semi-autobiographical work about a writer who uses a pseudonym for his more violent stories, only to find that his alter go has come to life. Timothy Hutton gives a great performance as both the protagonist, and his fictitious counterpart. The script is surprisingly smart, and nuanced, and Romero gets out of the way, creating an atmospheric horror movie with some interesting twists and turns. All around, a solid movie that makes the best of King’s standard quirks and themes. This is the movie The Secret Window wanted to be.
25. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Look, this isn’t a good movie. We can all agree on that. But somewhere between the early ’90s graphics, the campy performances, and the ridiculous concept, a fun movie emerged. Today’s cutting edge effects are tomorrow’s laughing stock, but that’s just part of the charm here. Jeff Fahey — dressed like Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber and doing his best Lennie from Of Mice And Men — completely goes for it. What “it” is isn’t totally clear, but it’s highly watchable. While it shares a title with a King short story of the same name, the film bore little resemblance to its source material. So much so that King sued the filmmakers to take his name off of the film. When the writer of Trucks wants nothing to do with your film, you might be in trouble. But this movie was a modest hit, and somehow defines a certain moment in movies, before PC culture and good CGI got their mitts on everything. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the sheer camp of the proceedings. But sometimes bad Stephen King is more fun than the good, and this just might be a perfect example.
24. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
While the book this movie was based on featured some fairly experimental choices, at least where King is concerned, the movie takes a much more straight-ahead approach to the material. While it works, crafting an interesting tale of murder and deceit, the movie ends up being a touch too typical to really stand out. Kathy Bates’ return to the King fold is far less memorable than her Oscar-winning turn in Misery. All in all, this is a good, solid melodrama, but it lacks the distinct vision to make it really stand out.
23. The Dead Zone (2002 – 2007)
Though the film adaptation is better (it’ll come up later in this list), the USA TV series was a solid enough genre show. Anthony Michael Hall proved to be a capable lead and the show went to some interesting places during its six season run.
22. Desperation (2006)
A corny romp through the mind of King, this movie is ridiculous, which is what makes it work. Ron Perlman stars as a demonic force possessing a small-town sheriff, and if that isn’t enough to get you on board, then may God have mercy on your soul. Flimsily executed, with cheap effects and minimal locations, this movie has no right being as enjoyable as it is. And if you’re looking for some King eccentricities, look no further than Perlman’s character, half of whose dialogue consists of him barking the nonsense word “Ack!” Keep in mind this is not a good movie, but it is a fun one for fans of King’s cheesier side.
21. The Green Mile (1999)
Some fans might be surprised to see The Green Mile this low on the list, but that’s only until you really unpack it. For one, it’s King at his most saccharine. King has trouble excelling at straight drama, so he often hits the melodramatic notes hard, and gunks up the story with mystical mumbo jumbo. Both things happen here. In addition, King has a long history of making questionable choices when it comes to race. Here he leans into some questionable tropes hard, using a mentally slow but mystical black man to help teach a white man a lesson. It’s uncomfortable material, that hasn’t aged well. While the story is executed ably by director Frank Darabont, the underlying themes and quirks force this movie further down the list than it may have been five or ten years ago.
20. Firestarter (1984)
This is a perfect example of a 1980s Hollywood adaptation of King’s work. Gone are the artistic flourishes of the auteur driven Carrie. This is just B movie magic. Barrymore, in her prime as a child star, fronts this sometimes ridiculous, sometimes fun, sometimes well-executed hit movie. King movie alum Martin Sheen is joined by George C. Scott, ’80s “It Girl” Heather Locklear and a ton of fire in this big, dumb blockbuster.
19. Cujo (1983)
Cujo‘s reputation may not have aged well, but the movie behind it surprisingly has. The story is stripped down to its core, and is surprisingly terrifying. When a bat bites the family dog, he goes rabid, and attacks those who love him the most. A mother and son are trapped in their car, with no help coming. For any pet owner, it is about the worse case scenario you can imagine. There is little fluff here, just an unrelenting attack from man’s best friend. While not high art, this is simple genre filmmaking at its best.
18. Needful Things (1993)
Needful Things isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is pure, uncut King. Here is a simple, moral message, mixed with a supernatural premise, leading to some grisly outcomes. If that’s not the “modern master of horror,” we don’t know what is. The concept is what really makes this entertaining. A mysterious man (oh how King loves those mysterious men) opens a shop in a small New England town. The twist is, he will sell you what your heart most desires. The mysterious man slowly turns the screws on the locals, making them pay for those desires in some dire ways, until it becomes clear that he is (wait for it!) the Devil himself, corrupting the world one person at a time. Some fun performances, and an operatic third act, makes this a guilty pleasure.
17. The Tommyknockers (1993)
The Tommyknockers falls right in the middle of King’s ’90s miniseries heyday. It isn’t the abject failure of something like The Langoliers. It also isn’t the iconic success of better series, like It and The Stand. Instead, it’s a sometimes ridiculous, sometimes genuinely scary, story full of glowing green eyes and wacky inventions. It is unmistakably King letting loose with his quirks, and coming up with a story that only he could write. Jimmy Smits is at the top of his heartthrob game here, and former porn star Traci Lords proves she’s an actual actress. Come to think of it, she could have starred in the porn parody of this without even having to change the title.
16. Pet Sematary (1989)
This movie may not be high art, but it knows how to wring scares out of a bizarre concept. Zombie pets give way to killer toddlers in a movie that just keeps steamrolling you with graphic violence, jump scares, and the freakiest flashback ever committed to film. One can only imagine what kind of movie we would have gotten if original director George Romero hadn’t dropped out, but as it stands, this is just good, over-the-top horror. Not a great movie, but one that will stick with you.
15. Apt Pupil (1998)
Bryan Singer, fresh off the success of The Usual Suspects, decided to adapt this fairly untypical King short story for the screen. The monsters here are from the real world. The horror resides in the secrets we all keep from each other. Singer worked to make the story his own, streamlining the narrative and reducing the violence of the original story. While the film received positive reviews, some found it hallow, lacking a moral point of view. Still, this is a solid film, that shows a talented filmmaker at least attempting to dig into the depth other King adaptations ignore. An odd entry on the list, but one well worth revisiting. (Fun fact: A 1987 film adaptation starring Silver Spoons‘ Rick Schroder was abandoned after the production ran out of funding.)
14. 1408 (2007)
The story of a cynical ghost hunter who finally meets the real thing, this movie does a good job of continually surprising us. Cusack is perfectly cast as an everyman, ill-prepared to step into the horrors of Stephen King’s mind. The fact that the majority of the movie takes place in one room lends a suffocating horror to the more typical elements of a King movie. And one knockout twist towards the end takes this from a fun romp to something pretty original. As far as modern, big budget King adaptations go, this is about as good as they get.
13. Creepshow (1982)
The first (and best) collaboration by horror icons Stephen King and George Romero, this anthology film saw King mix some of his popular short stories with some original works, all tied together by a somewhat broad tone meant to honor the classic horror comic books that the two men had grownup on. With Leslie Nielsen going full psycho, and monster makeup maestro Tom Savini providing his talents, this movie is Tales From the Crypt-esque horror camp at its best.
12. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, would be his first foray in television, and would help establish him as THE name in horror. While certain aspects of the miniseries, like the makeup and special effects, haven’t aged particularly well, the overall eerie build of the story is still effective. Sure, the clothes and look of the series may come across as dated now, filmmaker Tobe Hooper took the material seriously, which made all the difference when it came to truly terrifying viewers. This is King establishing himself as a writer to be reckoned with, and it’s well worth watching for that alone.
11. Christine (1983)
Horror icons King and John Carpenter teamed up for this stripped down, simple tale of terror. While not his most famous movie, the idea of a 1950s sport car coming to life and killing anyone who steps inside of it could only come from the mind of King. (The intersection of a teenage boy’s id with 1950s iconography is King’s bread and butter.) Carpenter brings his typical straightforward style to the proceedings, creating an understated horror classic that has aged better than many of the entries on this list.
10. The Stand (1994)
The Stand is King at his best and his worst. An operatic tale of the end of the world, it allows King to indulge all his favorite quirks. Surprisingly, there’s little action for such a massive miniseries. For the most part, it’s just people wandering around. That’s where King dips into his bag of tricks: There’s a deaf and dumb savant AND a mentally challenged man who can only say “M-O-O-N! That spells moon!” played by Dauber from Coach. There’s also a “magical person of color” character yet again, in the form of Mother Abagail. And the all-star cast assembled here hasn’t aged so well. While Gary Sinise still impresses, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose himself Corin Nemec makes this feel like the darkest episode of The Love Boat ever. This is a great story, one of King’s best, told in epic fashion. If you can overlook the hokey effects, and miscast stars, its still a lot of fun.
9. The Running Man (1987)
Perhaps the most surprising entry on the list, this Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster was based on a book King authored under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. While many of the details changed to suit the more conventional action adventure movie the Austrian Oak was making, the core idea remains the same. And that idea, about a prisoner forced to fight for his freedom and his life on a televised game show, feels more and more prescient with each passing year. The fact that this is a ridiculously fun movie, full of classic Arnold quips and Day-Glo ’80s costumes, makes it one of the best movies on the list, even if it doesn’t really fit in with the typical Stephen King fare.
8. Misery (1990)
What more can you say about this movie, than that Kathy Bates is a powerhouse in it. A simple story of a kidnapped man at the whims of his biggest fan, Bates sugary innocence belies a deep darkness underneath. This movie is King at his most simple, and yet most terrifying. While his penchant for placing a surrogate at the head of his own stories can grow tiresome, here it makes the story all the more profound. This is King’s greatest fear, and we are living inside of it.
7. The Mist (2007)
A largely unheralded, but undeniable modern horror classic, acclaimed King adapter Frank Darabont actually improves upon the source material here. (King was so blown away by the ending Darabont came up with, he expressed envy that he hadn’t thought of it himself.) This is a flat out great movie that shows King and Darabont firing on all cylinders. A nice nod to King’s Dark Tower series also makes this a must-watch for diehards. It’s a shame this movie isn’t better known, because it’s probably the best King adaptation of the new millennia.
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
Most people probably assume Christopher Walken can see into the future anyway, so this movie was a natural fit. The story of a psychic haunted by his visions, only to realize that he’s the one man who can stop nuclear annihilation, this movie is a perfect marriage of concept and talent. Walken and smarmy, psychotic politician Martin Sheen are never better. David Cronenberg brings an edge to the story, which balances high camp and gritty drama. Not King’s most iconic movie, but definitely one of his best.
5. It (1990)
While It suffers from some of the same problems as The Stand — namely cheap effects, stunt casting, and an unmistaken whiff of ’90s cheese — it has something special that pushes it over the top. That something is “It” himself, Pennywise the Clown. Brought to life by a terrifying Tim Curry, Pennywise is a movie monster for the ages. Few characters have represented such pure, unvarnished horror. There are boatloads of adults today who still see the creepy clown in their nightmares. Hell, he probably could give Freddy Krueger nightmares. That ability to create such a singular, iconic character puts this miniseries, blemishes and all, so near the top of the list.
4. Stand By Me (1986)
King doesn’t have to write horror to create something special. Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, is a perfect example. Playing with King’s love of quirky kids exploring a 1950s America that doubles as a representation of his childhood, director Rob Reiner perfectly translates the author’s work to the screen. An incredible cast of then child actors, led by River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, made the film both highly entertaining and grittily real. Notes of genuine humor and real terror seamlessly mix together here, creating a modern classic. Each time we re-watch the movie, we experience the joy and sadness of growing up all over again.
3. Carrie (1976)
King’s first book, the story of an abused teen girl discovering her dark powers, put the horror author on the map. Combining his ability to explore teen angst through the supernatural, and his skill at ratcheting the scares up to 11, this movie is on the short list of the best horror films ever. Director Brian De Palma brings gravity to the story, allowing a certain realism to mix with the melodrama. Sissy Spacek has never been better, as the teen who just wants to fit in, and who finally realizes she never will. An out-and-out classic, this book, and the movie it’s based on, inspired some lesser sequels and remakes.
2. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick was a visionary, who created one of the most memorable films of his career, and perhaps of film history, with The Shining. Sadly, it was that vision which led to a clash with King himself. When the movie first came out, it received decidedly mixed reviews, especially from the disgruntled author of the book it was based on. King felt that Kubrick portrayed Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance as a creep from the beginning, which threw the arc of the movie out the window. Whole swaths of backstory, character work, and closure were jettisoned in search of the horror tone poem Kubrick landed on. Whether King’s grievances have merit or not, there’s no doubt that Kubrick brought a whole other level to the author’s usual tropes of haunted houses and psychic kids. Arguably the most influential horror movie of our time, King has had to begrudgingly accept that people really like this thing. Maybe it was his own attempt at a TV miniseries adaptation, starring Wings‘ Steven Weber, that convinced him Kubrick was on to something after all.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
One of King’s personal favorite adaptations, and we aren’t one to argue. Where The Shining has its ardent fans, and its head scratching detractors, this movie is beloved by filmgoers and cable TV viewers alike. Director Frank Darabont takes a small story of an innocent man wrongfully convicted, and makes it universal. Tim Robbins has rarely been better, and while Morgan Freeman’s Red veers a touch close to stereotype, he imbues the character with such humanity, that all is forgiven. This movie is film at its most uplifting, and while it lacks some of the supernatural touchstones King fans expect, it more than makes up for it with a heavy dose of the author’s humanism. Underneath all that blood, it turns out there’s a beating heart.