I’m writing this list knowing full well it may become obsolete in a matter of weeks with Andy Muschietti’s IT and Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game premiering this month; of course, with Stephen King Fever raging, it’s still the perfect time to look back on the best of the best film adaptations of the Master’s extensive catalog. Believe me, whittling this down to a mere 15 entries was no easy task!
Have a read and let us know what you think in the Comments section! Did your favorite Stephen King-adapted film make the list? What are some other King-penned films that deserve a shout-out? Let the debates begin!
Carrie (1976, Directed by Brian De Palma)
Official Synopsis: In this chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, withdrawn and sensitive teen Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) faces taunting from classmates at school and abuse from her fanatically pious mother (Piper Laurie) at home. When strange occurrences start happening around Carrie, she begins to suspect that she has supernatural powers. Invited to the prom by the empathetic Tommy Ross (William Katt), Carrie tries to let her guard down, but things eventually take a dark and violent turn.
Stephen King’s first novel became his first film with 1976’s Carrie, and it remains one of the best adaptations of his work over 4 decades latter. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie made the dysfunctional family unit comprised of Carrie and Margaret White iconic. Brian De Palma’s daring and experimental techniques and King’s powerful material made for a winning combination.
The Shining (1980, Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Official Synopsis: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) becomes winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado, hoping to cure his writer’s block. He settles in along with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who is plagued by psychic premonitions. As Jack’s writing goes nowhere and Danny’s visions become more disturbing, Jack discovers the hotel’s dark secrets and begins to unravel into a homicidal maniac hell-bent on terrorizing his family.
While Stephen King’s personal disdain for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is legendary, but the film remains one of the most lauded and analyzed in cinematic history. While it’s absolutely packed with subtext, some critics have taken their search for hidden meanings to an extreme, hypothesizing The Shining is a metaphor for the Native American genocide and even Kubrick’s “confession” that he faked the moon landing.
Cujo (1983, Directed by Lewis Teague)
Official Synopsis: In this tale of a killer canine, man’s best friend turns into his worst enemy. When sweet St. Bernard Cujo is bitten by a bat, he starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive. As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage in a small town. Stay-at-home mom Donna (Dee Wallace) gets caught in Cujo’s crosshairs on a fateful errand with her son, Tad (Danny Pintauro). Stuck in their tiny car, Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal.
Without any of King’s hallmark supernatural elements, Cujo still delivered maximum terror with an unflinching dose of realism and brutality. As harrowing as the film was, the book was even worse. Dee Wallace gives a legendary performance of a mother pushed to extremes, willing to do anything to protect her son.
Children of the Corn (1984, Directed by Fritz Kiersch)
Official Synopsis: As physician Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and his girlfriend, Vicky (Linda Hamilton), drive across the Midwest to his new job, their trip comes to a sudden halt when they encounter the body of a murdered boy in the road. In trying to contact the authorities, Burt and Vicky wander into a small town populated only by children, followers of sinister young preacher Isaac Chroner (John Franklin). Soon the couple is fleeing the youthful fanatics, who want to sacrifice them to their demonic deity.
Children of the Corn can be seen as a metaphor for fear of youth-culture; an extremely effective and engrossing film that succeeds in creating a palpable sense of dread. I’m surprised more articles haven’t been written about this film’s connection to a larger shared universe created by King; some have hypothesized that “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” is actually another name for the infamous Bob Gray, aka Pennywise, aka IT!
IT (1990, Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace)
Official Synopsis: Seven friends engage in a struggle with the demon they first encountered 30 years earlier in their Maine hometown. From the Stephen King book.
I’m fully expecting Andy Muschietti’s IT to exceed the 1990 version in every aspect except one: Tim Curry’s epic portrayal of Pennywise. While I suspect Bill Skarsgård will succeed in his unique interpretation of the iconic “Dancing Clown”, Curry’s performance will remain legendary. When the miniseries was first released, the novel IT was just over half a decade old, and the staying power of this story is a testament to King’s skills, as well as Tommy Lee Wallace’s talent as a director.
Related Article: Cutest Cosplayer as Tim Curry’s Pennywise
Misery (1990, Directed by Rob Reiner)
Official Synopsis: After a serious car crash, novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie brings him to her remote cabin to recover, where her obsession takes a dark turn when she discovers Sheldon is killing off her favorite character from his novels. As Sheldon devises plans for escape, Annie grows increasingly controlling, even violent, as she forces the author to shape his writing to suit her twisted fantasies.
Another King creeper that shocked without a shred of supernatural flare, Misery won Kathy Bates a much-deserved Oscar. The “Hobbling” scene remains one of cinema’s most brilliantly cringe-worthy moments but pales in comparison to Annie’s mutilations in the novel.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Directed by Frank Darabont)
Official Synopsis: Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for the murders of his wife and her lover and is sentenced to a tough prison. However, only Andy knows he didn’t commit the crimes. While there, he forms a friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman), experiences brutality of prison life, adapts, helps the warden, etc., all in 19 years.
It might not be a horror movie, but The Shawshank Redemption deserves a spot in any conversation of Stephen King’s best adaptations. The film elicits a different kind of horror: A loss of control manifested in the portrayal of an innocent man sent to prison. It absolutely taps into something primal, the idea that our basic freedoms can be snatched away without warning or merit. Ultimately, of course, The Shawshank Redemption is a story of triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.
Related Article: Top 10 Stephen King Adaptations! Will A Mini-Series Make the List?
The Mist (2007, Directed by Frank Darabont)
Official Synopsis: After a powerful storm damages their Maine home, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head into town to gather food and supplies. Soon afterward, a thick fog rolls in and engulfs the town, trapping the Draytons and others in the grocery store. Terror mounts as deadly creatures reveal themselves outside, but that may be nothing compared to the threat within, where a zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) calls for a sacrifice.
Despite a heart-wrenching conclusion that left horror fans polarized (and special FX that don’t hold up especially well over time) The Mist is one of King’s most compelling and engrossing adaptation. Director Frank Darabont also helmed The Shawshank Redemption, proving he has a unique knack for adapting Stephen King’s works with skill and perceptive sensibilities.
Related Article: See the True Ending of “The Mist” as Stephen King Wrote It
Stand by Me (1986, Directed by Rob Reiner)
Official Synopsis: After learning that a stranger has been accidentally killed near their rural homes, four Oregon boys decide to go see the body. On the way, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) encounter a mean junk man and a marsh full of leeches, as they also learn more about one another and their very different home lives. Just a lark at first, the boys’ adventure evolves into a defining event in their lives.
Another horror-adjacent Stephen King adaptation we simply can’t disregard is Stand by Me, a truly poignant and effective exploration of adolescence at its most harrowing. Director Rob Reiner also directed Misery, proving he knows how to process King’s works in a compelling and genuine manner, one that resonates with viewers long after the end credits roll.
Related Article: Wil Wheaton Bullied by “Stand by Me” Co-star
Pet Sematary (1989, Directed by Mary Lambert)
Official Synopsis: Doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) moves his family to Maine, where he meets a friendly local named Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne). After the Creeds’ cat is accidentally killed, Crandall advises Louis to bury it in the ground near the old pet cemetery. The cat returns to life, its personality changed for the worse. When Louis’ son, Gage (Miko Hughes), dies tragically, Louis decides to bury the boy’s body in the same ground despite the warnings of Crandall and Louis’ visions of a deceased patient.
Often regarded as Stephen King’s most terrifying novel, it’s no wonder many fans also consider Pet Sematary the scariest of all adaptations based on his work. Lacking a central villain, the story of one family’s descent into hell exposes us to a slew of dangerous manifestations and revenants, both physical and ethereal. To this days, the scenes involving Zelda send me into a panic!
Related Article: “IT” Director Wants to Tackle “Pet Sematary” Remake Next
Christine (1983, Directed by John Carpenter)
Official Synopsis: Unpopular nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury, which he names Christine. Arnie develops an unhealthy obsession with the car, to the alarm of his jock friend, Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell). After bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) defaces Christine, the auto restores itself to perfect condition and begins killing off Buddy and his friends. Determined to stop the deaths, Dennis and Arnie’s girlfriend, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), decide to destroy Christine.
While it was considered a critical and financial bomb following its release in 1983, Christine (directed by John Carpenter) absolutely deserves a second look. Despite the outlandish premise involving a living car, Carpenter gives the story a serious treatment without a hint of sarcasm or self-deprecation. Next to Carrie, I feel Christine is King’s most harrowing exploration of the violence of adolescence.
Related Article: 10 Things You May Not Know About Stephen King’s “Christine”
Dreamcatcher (2003, Directed by Lawrence Kasdan)
Official Synopsis: “Dreamcatcher” tells of four young friends who perform a heroic act — and are changed forever by the uncanny powers they gain in return. Years later the friends, now men, are on a hunting trip in the Maine woods when they are overtaken by a blizzard in which something much more ominous moves. Challenged to stop an alien force, the friends must first prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians by a military vigilante, then overcome a threat to the bond between them.
Stephen King’s meditations on the existence of aliens are hit and miss, illustrated by the extremely disappointing Tommyknockers, but Dreamcatcher excels. While the concepts of otherworldly parasites being birthed from human butt-holes sounds ludicrous on paper, it’s the most violent representation of extraterrestrial violation since Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Also, the novel makes a direct connection to IT and Pennywise.
Secret Window (2004, Directed by David Koepp)
Official Synopsis: While in the process of an ugly divorce from his wife (Maria Bello), writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) relocates to his remote cabin in upstate New York for solitude. Attempting to recover his mental health, Rainey has the misfortune of being found by John Shooter (John Turturro), a farmer who claims Rainey plagiarized his work. At first, Rainey ignores the accusations, but Shooter has no intention of quietly disappearing. Soon, Shooter becomes increasingly vicious in his quest for retribution.
Often dismissed and disregarded, Secret Window is one of King’s best adaptations of the 21st Century. Yes, I concede the ending is wacky, but the concept of a writer being haunted by a character he didn’t do right by is creative and cerebral—a metaphor for self-censorship and “creator’s regret”. This one sports some wicked dark comedy below the surface, best exemplified in the chemistry between actors Johnny Depp and John Turturro.
1408 (2007, Directed by Mikael Håfström)
Official Synopsis: Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a successful author who enjoys worldwide acclaim debunking supernatural phenomena — before he checks into the Dolphin Hotel, that is. Ignoring the warnings of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), he learns the meaning of real terror when he spends the night in a reputedly haunted room.
1408 is brilliant cinematic eye-candy wrapped in a surreal and supernatural wrapper. The story of a paranormal skeptic trapped in a haunted hotel room is also an exploration of grief, as the journalist reconciles emotional devastation he suffered following the death of his daughter. Hotels have always been excellent locations for horror as illustrated by Psycho in 1960, and American Horror Story: Hotel and Room 104 more recently.
Salem’s Lot (1979, Directed by Tobe Hooper)
Official Synopsis: A writer (David Soul) and a boy (Lance Kerwin) hunt a vampire in their New England town.
While it’s definitely one of the grittiest Stephen King adaptations in terms of storytelling and production, there’s something extremely compelling about Salem’s Lot. To this day, it remains one of the scariest films of the 1970s with enduring power to terrify, even when compared side-by-side with today’s most brutal genre offerings. The scene of a young vampire floating outside his brother’s window still gives me nightmares! Most people don’t realize that Tobe Hooper, the mastermind behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, directed this film, which originally aired as a miniseries.