Stephen King has long been the master of macabre horror and supernatural terror, and along the way, many of his books and stories have been adapted for the enjoyment of moviegoers.
With The Dark Tower (King’s self-professed magnum opus) film adaptation’s casting and production underway, and the film adaptation for the 2006 novel Cell scheduled to release later this year, we thought this would be a prime opportunity to look back at some of the best movies to come from the mind of Stephen King.
We chose to concentrate on films that received a wide theater release, but that doesn’t diminish the iconic status of some of his best mini-series adaptations, such as The Stand and It. There are many more Stephen King movie adaptations out there, but these are our 15 favorites of the bunch.
15 Pet Sematary (1989)
If you’ve never seen another Stephen King film adaptation, odds are you’ve seen Pet Sematary. Although critics don’t hold this movie in particularly high regard, it is undeniably one of the most mainstream (and successful) King horror movies ever be produced.
A Maine family discovers a small pet cemetery behind their home which rests upon an old Indian burial ground. This cemetery has the power to bring things back from the dead, as the family discovers after losing a beloved family pet. But the things that come back from the dead aren’t the same as they were in life, as a darkness consumes their souls. When the family’s young son tragically dies in an accident, the grieving father does the unthinkable, starting a nightmare everyone will soon regret.
14 Children of the Corn (1984)
There are few things creepier than a cult of blonde, soulless children, and Children of the Corn delivers that in spades. A malevolent entity, known only as “He Who Walks Behind The Rows," has the children of a Nebraskan farm town ritually murder all of the adults to guarantee a successful corn harvest, and a couple on a road trip (including Linda Hamilton of the Terminator series) get caught in the children's murderous rampage.
Based on King's 1977 short story of the same name, critics haven’t exactly been kind to Children of the Corn, but the titular phrase has become such a pop-culture reference for creepy children that leaving this film off the list would be a horror unto itself. 8 subsequent entries have been made into the CotC franchise, none of which were anywhere nearly as successful as the original adaptation.
13 Cujo (1983)
Not everyone sees dogs as big, slobbery, cuddle buddies. While phobias of snakes and spiders are more common, dogs are a more intrinsic part of our everyday lives, leaving those with a fear of canines constantly surrounded by a society which generally adores the stuff of their nightmares. Cujo plays on these fears through a rabies-infected Saint Bernard and a woman who finds herself trapped and under attack by the vicious animal.
While the film does fall flat compared to the fantastic Stephen King novel of the same name, the special effects crew did do a fantastic job in making the dog look sick and ferocious, and that’ll be enough for those people who are already unsettled by the presence of a such an enormous pup.
12 Running Man (1987)
When you think about Stephen King stories, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t usually spring to mind, but for 1987’s Running Man film adaptation, Hollywood turned to one of the biggest action stars of all time in order to bring the dystopian future to life.
If you think reality TV is bad now, you should see what King imagined would entertain audiences around the year 2019. Contestants are forced to run a gauntlet filled with modern-day gladiators called Stalkers who are attempting to kill the participants before they can escape the maze, all of which is for the entertainment of the viewers watching at home.
The film is only loosely based on King’s novel, which he wrote under his "Richard Bachman" pseudonym, but it’s an entertaining enough Arnold flick to be worth the watch if you haven’t seen it already.
11 Cat’s Eye (1985)
Three separate stories loosely tied together by the presence of a stray cat, Cat’s Eye left many young viewers convinced that a tiny troll could come out of their walls and steal their breath in the night.
The first two stories of existing King works were titled "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge," with the third story, "General," being penned by King specifically for the film. "Quitters, Inc." features a company willing to torture your loved ones in order to get you to stop smoking, "The Ledge" tells the story of a man who is forced to walk along the ledge of a gothic high rise, and "General" features the stray cat protecting a small girl from a tiny troll who wants to steal her breath in the night.
That cat plays a part in each of the stories, but becomes a focal part of the action in the final act as he looks to finally find a permanent, loving home.
10 1408 (2007)
If unexplained supernatural events and classic ghost stories send a chill up your spine, Stephen King’s 1408 is perfect for you.
King often tells the stories of authors, a profession he can easily relate to, and in 1408 we follow cynical horror author Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who after years of writing about haunted locations without actually finding any evidence of such things finds himself trapped in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City — with something truly evil lurking in the shadows.
As an added bonus, 1408 also stars Samuel L. Jackson as a very Samuel L. Jackson-like hotel manager, and it’s just hard to say bad things about that.
9 The Dead Zone (1983)
Christopher Walken and a Stephen King story go together like milk and cookies, as evidenced by the success of 1983’s The Dead Zone.
This supernatural thrill ride tells the story of the generically named Johnny Smith, who sustains injuries which leave him in a coma for five years. When Smith awakens, he realizes he has psychic abilities, abilities that allow him to see things others can’t.
The incredibly popular book spawned an equally popular movie, which in-turn spawned a popular television series. It’s hard to argue that The Dead Zone isn’t deserving of a top ten spot on our list of best Stephen King movies, as Walken's presence in the film alone is worth the price of admission.
8 Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Actress Kathy Bates has referred to her role as the titular character in Dolores Claiborne as her favorite performance she’s ever given.
In this psychological thriller based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the titular character is accused of murdering the wealthy elderly widow she cares for, an accusation she can not shake, especially considering the entire town and her own daughter believe Dolores killed her husband years earlier. As Dolores’s daughter struggles with deciding whether or not her mother is guilty of committing either murder, dark secrets from the past come begin to surface.
Time magazine named Dolores Claiborne one of the top ten greatest King adaptations, and it gains the same honor on our list.
7 Carrie (1976)
While the 2013 remake headlined by rising starlet Chloe Moretz is sure to have its share of fans, it’s the original 1976 version, starring Sissy Spacek, that makes our list of top Stephen King movies.
The image of Carrie White standing on stage, covered in pigs’ blood, remains one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history for many moviegoers, and the classic performance of Piper Laurie as Carrie’s overprotective, obsessively religious mother helped make the original Carrie film an instant horror classic. Both Spacek and Laurie earned Oscar nominations for their performances in what was the first adaptation of any King story to date. Of course, Hollywood likes to stick to tried and true formulas, so it wouldn't be the last.
6 The Mist (2007)
The Mist was originally a standout short story in the horror anthology Dark Forces, which was slightly edited and re-released six years later in the Skeleton Crew collection. The longest story in either book, The Mist tells the story of residents from a small Maine community who find themselves engulfed in a mysterious fog which hides a menagerie of dark creatures not of this world.
The movie adaptation (starring former Punisher and dirty laundry doer Thomas Jane) brought the dark and dangerous feel of the story to life for many King fans who had long hoped to see the tale brought to the big screen. The movie remains true to the written work for the most part right up until the end, but even King admitted that the movie ending was the perfect way to close the dark, tense story. Not all moviegoers agreed, but there seems to be a lot of that going around lately.
5 Misery (1990)
Stephen King created what is perhaps an author’s worst nightmare within the pages of the 1987 novel Misery, and the subsequent film adaptation brought that nightmare to life with fantastic performances from James Caan as author Paul Sheldon, and Kathy Bates as the psychotic superfan Annie Wilkes.
At first, Wilkes seems like an angel sent from above when she saves Sheldon’s life, but it soon becomes apparent that Annie doesn’t intend to let the author of her favorite book series about a character named Misery out of her home. Annie takes extreme measures to keep Sheldon imprisoned as she forces him to finish the final book in the Misery series to her liking.
It’s a chilling look into a possible worst-case scenario for any celebrity who finds themselves at the mercy of an extremely overzealous fan, one that earned Bates a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.
4 Stand by Me (1986)
Stand by Me is a coming of age story featuring an '80s all-star cast of child actors, including Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland.
The film is based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, which sees a group of young boys set out on a journey to find the body of another boy who had gone missing in the area. Through a series of misadventures, the group of kids discover a great deal about themselves before finally discovering the body of the missing boy.
King himself considered Stand by Me to be the first successful translation of his written work to film, and it ranks as one of the greatest coming of age films ever made.
3 The Shining (1980)
There are many iconic films on this list, but it's the 1980 Stanley Kubrick-directed classic The Shining that boasts perhaps the most iconic moment in horror film history. The visual of Jack Nicholson’s face emerging through a hole in the door he just created with an axe stands out as one of the most memorable scenes ever seen on screen, as does his now infamous catchphrase, itself a riff on Tonight Show host Johnny Carson's stage entrance.
Homages to The Shining have been present in media ever since the film’s release, with easter eggs hidden throughout other films, including the Toy Story films, which are full of references to this Stephen King masterpiece.
2 The Green Mile (1999)
Depth of storytelling combined with Stephen King’s typical flair for the supernatural make The Green Mile one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved films created from King’s work.
Set in the era of the Great Depression, death row corrections officer Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) must balance his affection towards some of the condemned men housed in his ward, especially when a black man (played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in a career-defining performance) accused of raping and murdering two white girls shows signs of a special gift, a gift Edgecomb believes could only be the work of a divine power.
Break out the tissues for this one, because it won’t be long before someone starts cutting onions in your house.
1 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The story of Andy Dufresne could easily be summed up as the story of a man sent to prison (despite his claims of innocence) and the life he makes for himself behind bars, but much like the previous prison-centric entry on this list, The Shawshank Redemption is so much more than that.
Based on a Stephen King short story titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this movie touches the lives of several inmates in the Shawshank State Penitentiary, including the bond of friendship that is formed between Andy, played by Tim Robbins, and fellow inmate Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne’s story steers clear of the macabre supernatural Stephen King is known for, but the compelling storytelling present in this film would almost be diluted by anything less than the more realistic story being told.
Multiple stories overlap to form one cohesive narrative that leaves viewers rooting for the inmates, whether they’re actually innocent or not. Of course, if you asked any of the inmates of Shawshank, they're all innocent.
What's your favorite Stephen King movie? Be sure to let us know in the comments.
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