Throughout the last century, no author has remained more prolific or celebrated than Stephen King. He’s the unofficial master of thrills and chills, crafting over 50 novels and 200 short stories that have shocked the senses and baffled the mind. Ever since his first novel, Carrie, was published in 1973, audiences have been captivated with the author’s twisted tales, and movie studios have taken notice.
While The Dark Tower and It will be getting the big screen treatment later this year, there’s an entire collection of Stephen King novels and stories that have already made the jump to the silver screen, sometimes more than once. And while King may have more cinematic adaptations under his belt than any other author in history, it doesn’t mean that they’re all masterpieces.
The following contains ten of the very best Stephen King movie adaptations, and six of the absolute worst. The greatest examples range from horrifying thrillers to sentimental dramas, while the poorest range from cheese-filled camp to convoluted sci-fi disasters. To be clear, this list is movies only, so, while we love the TV version of It and loathe the Under the Dome TV series, they will not be making an appearance in this article.
Here are the 10 Best And 6 Worst Stephen King Movie Adaptations.
16. Pet Semetary (Best)
Pet Semetary begins with Doctor Louis Creed and his family moving into a quaint house in the countryside. Everything seems to be perfect, until Creed’s young son, Gage, wanders out onto the nearby narrow road and is fatally killed by an oncoming truck. Grief stricken and riddled with guilt, Louis buries his son in a nearby mysterious cemetery, in hopes that it will have the power to bring his boy back from the dead.
Although simple, Pet Semetary benefits from an intriguing premise: what if we could bring back loved ones from the grave? It might sound tempting, but, as Fred Gwynne so eloquently points out in the film, “sometimes dead is bettah.”
The deceased that are placed in the infamous cemetery return to the land of the living as soulless killing machines, which includes Louis’ formerly adorable son Gage. The twisted plot about necromancy creates a surprisingly chilling movie, with a creepy atmosphere, grotesque imagery, and perhaps the best cinematic Maine accent of all time from Fred Gwynne’s character of Jud Crandall. As far as Stephen King adaptation go, it doesn’t get much bettah than this.
15. The Mist (Best)
What at first appears to be a freak lightning storm, soon turns out to be something more horrifying, as a strange mist unleashes all sorts of bloodthirsty creatures on a small New England town in The Mist. A ragtag group of survivors hold up inside a convenience store as they fight for their lives while the growing threat threatens to tear the group apart.
Soon to be made into a televised series on Spike, Stephen King’s The Mist was first adapted with this 2007 movie directed by Frank Darabont, who does a more than commendable job of bringing this sci-fi/horror to life. The actors provide a level of complexity to the movie, especially Thomas Jane, who plays the lead. Though the movie is certainly dark and cynical at times (especially the ending), it is part of the reason The Mist is so compelling.
14. Carrie 2013 (Worst)
Many of Stephen King’s books are treated to more than one adaptation, especially Carrie, which was first made into a movie in 1976, a Broadway musical in 1988, a made-for-television film in 2002, and then another movie in 2013. Though they all range in quality, the backlash from the 2013 version was particularly strong, not so much for being terrible, but completely unnecessary.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation still holds up today, providing a sense of dread and creepiness with terrific performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. The 2013 remake boasts some equally impressive acting talent with Chloe Grace Mortez and Julianne Moore in the lead roles, yet somehow the movie just never clicks.
13. The Green Mile (Best)
In The Green Mile, death row guard Paul Edgecomb has seen it all, until, one day, a prisoner shows up by the name of John Coffey. Paul and the rest of the prison guards face a huge moral dilemma when they discover that Coffey, a convicted murderer, is in possession of one of the most miraculous gifts they’ve ever seen.
Another Frank Darabont-directed King adaptation, The Green Mile stars Tom Hanks and Oscar-nominated Michael Clarke Duncan in a powerfully emotional prison-drama. The story about death row is simple, yet the events in the film are completely enthralling.
This is due to the wonderful cast of characters, including a very unhinged Sam Rockwell as a kooky murderer. However, it is Michael Clarke Duncan’s show from beginning to end, creating one of the most tragic characters of all time with John Coffee.
12. Dreamcatcher (Worst)
Dreamcatcher follows four telepathically gifted friends who get together for their annual winter trip to a cabin in the woods. However, things take a turn for worse when they find a race of carnivorous aliens who have crash landed nearby. Using their special telepathic powers, the friends attempt to defeat the alien threat while dealing with a government agency with a secret agenda.
Though Dreamcatcher has a fantastic set of actors, including Morgan Freeman and Damien Lewis, its script is lacking, and is infuriatingly confusing to the point of absurdity.
The movie is bloated, overly-complicated, and downright bizarre (just take a look at those eyebrows on Morgan Freeman), but it has its share of so-bad-it’s-almost-good moments, including butt-dwelling slug aliens– which are something you just have to see to believe.
11. The Dead Zone (Best)
After waking up from a five-year comma due to a serious car crash, former schoolteacher Johnny Smith discovers that he has the ability to glimpse into other people’s lives– past, present, and future– in The Dead Zone. Learning of his gift, the police convince Johnny to help them solve a recent murder case, but the medium soon finds that his powers often cause more harm than good.
Unlike so many Stephen King adaptations, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone does a remarkable job of staying faithful to the original novel. The slight changes it does make, like certain character motivations, manages to give the film an extra depth not present in the book.
Christopher Walken’s performance, while not his best, is still emotionally charged. He portrays Smith as an empathetic, lonely guy who is just trying to do the right thing. While Cronenberg is renowned for his body-horror aesthetic, his work here is surprisingly restrained, making The Dead Zone a gripping thriller/drama worthy of the Stephen King title.
10. The Mangler (Worst)
The Mangler starts with a horrific accident involving a folding machine in an old laundromat. John Hunton is sent to investigate and soon realizes that he’s over his head, after discovering that the folding machine has been possessed by a demon from hell and has acquired a taste for human flesh. Yes, this was really based on a Stephen King story.
King is notorious for making inanimate objects into bloodthirsty killers. Christine is about a murderous car, Maximum Overdrive is about killer trucks, but who would have thought that one of his movie adaptations would actually feature a carnivorous laundry press?
It’s an idea that’s unfortunately more silly than scary. Despite the best efforts of horror veteran director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist), the film falls flat on its face with laughable performances and even goofier dialog. The Mangler is about as mangled as it gets.
9. Dolores Claiborne (Best)
When Delores Claiborne is accused of murdering a wealthy elderly woman whom she takes care of, her daughter Selena– a big-league reporter– returns from New York in order to investigate. In Delores Claiborne, Selena discovers some intriguing information, including details about her family’s past.
Though it’s not as well-known as some of the other movies on this list, Delores Claiborne is a Stephen King adaptation that is a master-class in thrills and suspense. Director Taylor Hackford chooses to unfold the movie in jumbled-up chronological order, which benefited the winding narrative and kept the viewers on their toes.
Kathy Bates’ performance as Dolores is absolutely commanding. Though the movie does get a little off-topic from the main plot at times, Delores Claiborne is a riveting drama that will keep you guessing until the very end.
8. Maximum Overdrive (Worst)
After a comet passes by Earth’s atmosphere, machines across the globe start to spring to life in a murderous rampage in Maximum Overdrive. Among the killer machines is a group of trucks that hold a group of human survivors hostage inside a gas station.
Maximum Overdrive marks Stephen Kings’ directorial debut, as well as his last, and, after one viewing of this action/horror, it’s not hard to figure out why. Maximum Overdrive is a campy B-movie that inspires more laughter than chills, and King’s uneven direction is mostly to blame.
Admittedly, the film is entertaining as star Emilio Estevez struggles to hold conversations about gasoline with killer trucks, but the premise is so comical that its almost impossible to take the film seriously. However, if you’re willing to switch your brain off for a couple of hours, Maximum Overdrive can be a good deal of fun despite its many, many flaws.
7. Carrie 1976 (Best)
One of the very earliest Stephen Kind adaptations, Carrie, stars Sissy Spacek as Carrie White, a shy, troubled teenage girl who has telekinetic powers. Carrie is just trying to get through her tumultuous time in high school while dealing with her domineering, religious mother, but is eventually pushed over the edge by a humiliating prank that leads to dire consequences at the senior prom.
Director Brian De Palma stylishly brings Stephen King’s first novel to life, creating one of the best adaptations of the author’s work. Sissy Spacek’s breakthrough role as the troubled teenage Carrie is both sympathetic and frightening, resulting in one of the very best performances in any horror film ever.
With stellar performances, De Palma’s film conveys the pain and misery that comes along with being a fish-out-of-water in high school. Though it does have moments of gruesome violence (the ending prom scene is a standout moment in the world of horror), Carrie acts more as brutal character study of the dangerous effects of bullying, and the disastrous consequences it can lead to.
6. Cell (Worst)
John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson star in the Stephen King reworking of Cell, which is set in a world that has been plunged into chaos after a mysterious cellphone signal causes a murderous epidemic. Every country is overrun with bloodthirsty humans, while a group of people in New England attempt to deal with the ensuing chaos.
One of the worst movies of last year, Cell is a cinematic disaster from start to finish. Its plot, about a strange cellphone signal that turns everyone into rabid murderers, is extremely dated and hokey, especially since King wrote the novel in 2006, when the concept was much fresher.
This all leads to an amazingly corny movie that can’t even be saved by the usually charismatic Samuel Jackson. Sloppy editing, an absurd premise, and bad writing from Stephen King (who actually adapted the script from his own story) make Cell an almost unwatchable movie.
5. Stand by Me (Best)
Taking place in the summer of 1959, Stand By Me is a coming-of-age story about four friends who embark on a journey in the woods to find a missing boy. Along the way, they discover a little something about friendship, life, and what it truly means to do the right thing.
Directed by Rob Reiner, Stand By Me is a movie that will make you laugh, cry, and wish you were 12 years old all over again. It’s a movie that lives and dies by the performances of the four friends, who are each unbelievably convincing in their roles, especially River Phoenix. The “milk money” scene by the campfire is particularly heartbreaking, with Phoenix providing a poignancy and sincerity most child actors are simply incapable of.
With fantastic acting, a flawless soundtrack, and an ending that is near perfect, Stand By Me is a timeless classic that proves Stephen King can write stories that aren’t just frightening, but inspiring.
4. Misery (Best)
As the second King adaptation to be directed by Rob Reiner, Misery is a psychological horror that stays with the viewer long after the credits are done. It’s a simple story of a writer, Paul Sheldon, who is saved after a car crash by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, who turns out to be a complete psychopath.
The rest of the runtime sees Wilkes torturing Paul by berating him, yelling at him, drugging him, and, in one particularly disturbing scene with a sledgehammer, hobbling him.
Though Reiner’s direction is solid, what really keeps viewers coming back to this King adaptation is the incredible acting. James Caan is perfectly cast as sympathetic Paul Sheldon. The unpredictability and manic energy that Kathy Bates brings to the table creates one of the best movie villains of all time, and earned the actress her first Academy Award in 1991.
3. Children of the Corn (Worst)
Children of the Corn is not only a poor representation of a Stephen King story, but a flat-out terrible movie. It features sloppy acting, terrible effects, a laughable script, and an atmosphere that is, honestly, more comical than it is frightening.
In theory, a plot about a murderous cult of children who sacrifice adults should be bone-chillingly scary, but all Children of the Corn manages to do is confound audiences with how something so bizarrely unlikable ever got made in the first place.
Although the first movie is abysmal, Children of the Corn nabs the lowest spot on this list mostly for the fact that it spawned a string of terribly made sequels. One after another (ten movies total), each new entry in the series gets worse and worse, while deviating further and further from King’s original story.
The Children of the Corn franchise isn’t entertaining, isn’t suspenseful, and certainly isn’t scary. It’s one of the lowest rated franchises on Rotten Tomatoes, and easily gets the dishonor of being the worst Stephen King adaptation film that’s ever been made.
2. The Shining (Best)
Ever since its release in 1980, audiences have been calling Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining one of the scariest movies of all time. It’s not hard to see why, what with elevators opening up to rivers of blood, creepy undead twins popping up in hallways, and a truly frightening performance by Jack Nicholson.
Yet, it is The Shining’s chilling atmosphere and fascinating mystique that keeps audiences coming back for more. Why was Jack Nicholson in that photo from the 1920s? What is the importance of Room 237? We may never get answers to these questions, but film fans will forever be haunted by the questions they bring up.
Even though The Shining deviates heavily from the source material in King’s original novel (to the point that King has publicly announced his hatred of it), it is still regarded as a horror classic, and remains as one of Kubrick’s very best films.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Best)
The Shawshank Redemption follows Andy Defresne, who is sentenced to the gloomy jailhouse of Shawshank after being framed for a murder he didn’t commit. He soon forms a bond with a fellow prisoner named Red. The two friends find some sort of solace and, eventually, redemption while dealing with their tortuous lives in prison.
No other Stephen King movie adaptation is on quite the same level as The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, the film is one of the most poignant prison dramas ever made. It’s backed by gripping, compelling performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who are each undeniably powerful and moving in their roles.
Shawshank explores prison life unlike any movie that came before it, detailing with the harsh reality of day-to-day life and the backlash of assimilating with normal society afterwards. It’s riveting, shocking, and, perhaps most of all, inspirational, claiming the title of not only the best Stephen King adaptation, but one of the best movies of all time.
Which Stephen King film adaptation was your favorite or least favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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