When it comes to outrageous and unique imagination, Stephen King takes the cake. His ability to craft complex but accessible stories for such a wide audience is nearly unmatched. Because of this, his works continue to be adapted for both TV and film.
Some of the best horror stories and dramas have been inspired by the works of Stephen King and with them iconic performances. Over the many, many years of Stephen King adaptions, a handful of performances stand out as the best though. Looking back to the 70s to now, here are the top ten performances found in Stephen King adaptions.
10 Fred Gwynne - Pet Sematary (1989)
Like the hallowed ground from its namesake, Pet Sematary adaptions have always seemed a bit cursed. Neither the 1989 or 2019 films have fully succeeded in their retellings of King's nastiest tale. But, this has rarely been due to the performances.
One of the most iconic characters in King canon is Jud, the fatherly but troubled neighbor in Pet Sematary. While John Lithgow does a commendable job, but Fred Grwyne truly embodied the character. His innate sweetness till comes through and through, but there is a broken melancholy that had rarely been seen from Grwyne. It's an exceptional performance and one of the most loyal to its source material.
9 Clancy Brown - The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption is arguably the most lauded King adaption to date (coming to a tie with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining for many). The story reaches the extreme lengths of the human spirit, and the cast captures that perfectly. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are exceptional, but it's Clancy Brown who gives what might be the performance of his career.
Brown is one of the greatest character actors of his generation, and his performance as Captain Hadley proves it. Where nearly any A-lister would have done a decent job in the role, Brown's ability to fully embody the character elevates the role. Hadley is a villain we love to hate, and Clancy Brown is an actor we love to watch.
8 Tim Curry - It (1990)
Tim Curry is an icon of genre filmmaking, there's no doubt about that. His signature voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who hears it, yet his ability to morph into deeply contrasting roles means you're getting something new every time. Curry is known for many performances, but his role as Pennywise in the TV miniseries adaption of It traumatized a generation.
Curry's Pennywise adopted a more classic clown persona, reaching back to the days of Bozo or Ronald McDonald. But that warm exterior was paper-thin. In an instant Curry could turn into a beastly force of pure evil, embodying the demonic nature of the role. This balancing act of humor and horror made for an iconic performance that would go unmatched for years.
7 Michael Clarke Duncan - The Green Mile
The late Michael Clarke Duncan was an exceptional character actor who appeared in numerous projects throughout his life. Many might recognize him through his many voice roles, but none of his other roles matched the work done in The Green Mile. This is the performance that earned him a nomination at the 72nd Academy Awards.
Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey is a beautifully captured performance by a powerfully deft actor. Heartfelt, simplistic, and complex, Duncan balanced a larger than life character with care and humanity. Duncan captured a sense of wonder and purity that most actors can only dream of.
6 Jack Dylan Grazer - It (2017)
When it comes to young heroes, few compare to the Losers' Club. These original Stranger Things kids are some of the best child protagonists in any story. Andy Muschietti's vision of It gave audiences the best portrayals of these heroes yet, with exceptional performances from all, especially Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis.
The best performance in the bunch though, and one of the best in any King adaption, was Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak. For such a young performer, this was exceptional character work. Sympathetic, hilarious, and sweet, Eddie was the second most impactful performance from 2017's It.
5 Sissy Spacek - Carrie (1976)
Carrie has surpassed being just an icon of the Stephen King canon, securing its place as a piece of horror history. The story of an abused and sheltered girl discovering her telekinetic powers after being pushed too far is still shockingly relevant today.
While Brian De Palma's direction still shines through, it is Sissy Spacek's titular performance which is the glue that holds to the entire project together. Spacek secured a great honor for genre films with her performance, gaining an Oscar nomination that year. While awards are not the end all be all, they certainly are a mark of impact. Spacek's raw and shocking performance continues to impact viewers.
4 Bill Skarsgård - It (2017)
Possibly shocking if not blasphemous for some, but Bill Skarsgård performance as the evil clown Pennywise not only matched Tim Curry's, but surpassed it in our opinion. While Curry's legacy is secured as legendary, Skarsgård brought something so unnatural and unnerving to his performance.
There is almost no humanity in Skarsgård's Pennywise, which is certainly a compliment. The slack-jawed, dead-eyed way in which Skarsgård plays the clown indicates that this is something far more sinister only pretending to be human. It's animalistic and uncanny, and is only bolstered by one of the best villain designs in recent memory. Here's hoping It: Chapter 2 gives even more incredible moments to this role.
3 Jack Nicholson - The Shining (1980)
While many might place Nicholson at the top, he fits securely at number three on this list. What is there left to say about Jack Nicholson and The Shining? It is a performance that is absolutely integral to the success of the film. Without a believable turn of insanity from Jack Torrance, the entire film would fall apart.
The only reason that Nicholson isn't at the top is that this is still, at its heart, an enhanced version of Nicholson himself. This is in no way an insult, as the commitment Nicholson shows in the role is almost unmatched by most performers. But, it is less a fully-fledged character transformation than the Nicholson iteration of one. No matter what, it remains an icon of the horror genre and an example of placing value in personalizing a character.
2 Shelley Duval - The Shining (1980)
One of the most underrated performances of all time also appears in The Shining. Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance gave the performance of her entire career. While the audience needed to believe in Jack Nicholson's performance, it was Shelley Duvall's that secured it. Her ability to convey true fear goes unmatched.
Many might devalue the performance as nothing more than reactionary, but it is in those reactions that the brilliance lies. What might have been a standard scream fest is instead elevated to primal fear thanks to Duvall. The moment where she defeatedly swings the bat while sobbing towards her husband, or when she stands slack-jawed and silently screaming through the end are just a few of the remarkable choices she made. Even in the small moments near the beginning of the film, when she covers for her husband's abuse, shows a shocking understanding on Duvall's part of toxic and harmful relationships. Duvall's work in The Shining can hopefully be recognized one day for the genius it is, because guess what: she is the hero of the story.
1 Kathy Bates - Misery
The title of best performance in any Stephen King adaption has to go to Kathy Bates in Misery. While it is still Kathy Bates, plain as day, she somehow embodies a whole different person in her role as Annie Wilkes. The unnerving entitlement makes us hate Annie, but her sad devotion to her novels and its creator incites pitty. While it is far more stripped down than other horror performances, it is the simplicity and honesty in which Bates plays Annie that makes it so good. It is frightening beyond belief because Annie could exist.
Perhaps Annie as a character and Kathy Bates' performance can shed some light on the behaviors of fans today. The overindulging of fantasy and the personalization of consuming art is embodied in her and pushed to the absolute extreme. She commits fully to the innate violence and selfishness of the character. It is a shocking reminder to us all that art never belongs to us, and believing it does will takes us to a harmful and toxic place.