Stephen King and TV go together like popcorn and movie theaters. Since the late 1970s, more than a dozen stories from the master of horror have made their way to the small screen – and there are several more on the horizon. In 2017 and 2018, we’ll see The Mist and Mr. Mercedes turned into television programs, plus an original collaboration with J.J. Abrams, Castle Rock.
Though it’s too early to know just how effective these new TV series will be, fans do know that King’s programs can be hit or miss. Some have become outright classics, while others are laughably bad. So, we figured now was as good a time as any to give newbies to the author’s TV work an idea of which are must-see, and which would be better to skip over entirely. We kept TV movies like Desperation and Big Driver off the list, since they were one-off movies, rather than series. Everything else is fair game. Here’s Screen Rant’s Ranking of Every Stephen King TV Show, Worst To Best.
15 The Langoliers (1995)
Stephen King has had some pretty out-there ideas over the years. The one about a group of strangers on a plane that somehow end up flying through a rip in the space-time continuum is definitely one of them. King published “The Langoliers” in his 1990 novella collection, Four Past Midnight. Then, in 1995, the author and horror director Tom Holland adapted the story for an ABC miniseries.
They probably shouldn’t have, though. What made The Langoliers scary on paper completely failed to translate on screen. Sure, it had a solid – well, at least recognizable – ensemble of actors like Dean Stockwell, David Morse, and the illustrious Bronson Pinchot. It also served up some career-low bad dialogue and absolutely abominable special effects. The titular creatures, which pretty much exist simply to devour lazy people, look more like pointy-toothed Pac-Man knockoffs than actual monsters. Okay, yeah, the premise was a little shaky, too. All in all, The Langoliers may not be the worst Stephen King adaptation of all time, but it’s up there, and it's definitely his most pitiful outing on the small screen.
14 Golden Years (1991)
Usually, if Stephen King adaptations are less-than-stellar, they fall into the “unforgettably bad” category (see above). This one, though? It was so bad it that most fans would really rather forget it. Unlike most of the other titles on this list, Golden Years was an original work by King – a “novel for television,” as he called it. CBS originally planned to use the miniseries to launch a full-length TV show. However, when the network saw that viewers weren’t really responding to the first run, they pulled the plug on Golden Years for good.
The miniseries has a Twin Peaks vibe, that is, if David Lynch’s classic was half-baked and flavored with government conspiracy. That’s truthfully all it has going for it, especially because, while it focuses on laboratory experiments gone wrong, reverse-aging side effects, and extensive covert cover-ups, it’s incredibly, mind-numbingly dull. The plodding pace and lack of momentum make the series’ seven hours feel like they drag on far longer than they should. For that reason alone, we should be grateful that CBS never subjected us to more.
13 Under the Dome (2013-2015)
If there is any lesson to be learned from CBS’s completely bizarre adaptation of Stephen King’s epic sci-fi thriller, Under the Dome, this is it: maybe don’t create a TV series without an end game in mind. Though it ran for three seasons, and enjoyed moderately favorable ratings, Under the Dome was, for many King fans, a complete miss. The novel itself – which follows a small town that is suddenly isolated from the rest of the world from a nearly invisible and completely impenetrable dome – was weird enough, but it was at least sort-of good weird. The TV series that used that premise as a jumping off point wasn’t even in the neighborhood of decent.
The only thing CBS’s adaptation had going for it, really, was its decent ensemble cast. But even veteran actors like Dean Norris and Sherry Stringfield couldn’t save the series from its truly atrocious dialogue and completely insane plot twists. Like, a caterpillar infestation, and weird alien egg cocoons. The series barely resembled its source material by the end, and as far as most viewers were concerned, the citizens of Chester’s Mill could have stayed under the damn dome for the rest of eternity.
12 Bag of Bones (2011)
An eerie ghost story about an author who unravels a small town’s sordid past while trying to come to grips with the sudden death of his wife, Bag of Bones is one of Stephen King’s most celebrated novels. While A&E’s two-part miniseries managed to grasp the most salient parts of King’s 1998 novel, it missed very crucial pieces of what made it successful in its adaptation.
Many aspects of the book that resonated with anyone who’s grieved the loss of a love one came across as hokey on screen. Pierce Brosnan was passable as the beleaguered Mike Noonan, but failed to present any genuine connection between either of his love interests, played by Annabelle Gish and Melissa George, respectively. Furthermore, the story, which unfolded at a deliberate pace on the page, felt dreary and overcooked when meticulously translated to a live-action narrative. The only thing the miniseries really benefited from was a stellar production design, which managed to mostly capture the spooky setting of Dark Score Lake. Still, for a story so rife with high emotion, a story that is really about grief, Bag of Bones felt strangely emotionless.
11 Salem’s Lot (2004)
This won’t be the last time you see Salem’s Lot on this list – but the two adaptations of Stephen King’s popular novel are ranked very differently for a very specific reason. The 2004 miniseries, which starred Rob Lowe as author Ben Mears, and Rutger Howard as the nefarious Kurt Barlow, in many ways barely resembled King’s original story. Many of the characters were altered, and that subsequently changed the dynamic between them in most occasions. What Salem’s Lot did offer in direct translation from page to screen lacked any sense of energy or originality.
Rather than trying to infuse the story with a unique narrative quality, TNT’s two-part adaptation waffled between borrowing imagery almost directly from its source material and predecessor and watering down many of the story’s most unnerving elements. Though it offered a moody, dour aesthetic and some of the actors (including the perpetually awesome Andre Braugher) did the best with the material they had, the script was a bit of a clunker. What that all amounted to was a horror tale that was rarely, if ever, scary.
10 The Shining (1997)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is widely considered one of the best, and scariest, horror movies ever made. While it may be that, and while it has myriad merits, it is a sorry example of a page-to-screen adaptation. Stephen King’s qualms with Kubrick’s film are widely documented – and he was quick to praise ABC’s adaptation of The Shining when it aired in 1997. Fans who’ve both read the novel and seen the film can easily see why. Mick Garris’ miniseries is, in many ways, a truly faithful adaptation of one of King’s most personal, and horrific novels.
Steven Webber’s portrayal of the troubled Jack Torrance is really quite good, though it, of course, drew comparisons to Jack Nicholson’s maniacal take on the man. Indeed, the performances are really quite good all around. However, the special effects leave something to be desired, particularly where the dangerous hedge animals are concerned, and the story feels a bit too drawn out at times.
9 The Tommyknockers (1993)
Stephen King is, without a doubt, a master of horror. His mastery of the sci-fi genre is less of a sure thing, though. Over the years, he’s certainly honed his ability to craft a compelling sci-fi story, but some of his earlier attempts, like The Tommyknockers, often felt lacking.
That’s at least part of the reason why ABC’s 1993 miniseries adaptation was just kind-of blah. It followed King’s novel, about a small town population that gets pseudo-Invasion of the Body Snatcher-ed by a creepy group of aliens, more or less to the letter. Stars Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger are actually pretty decent in their roles, especially given the occasionally WTF-y situations their characters find themselves in. All in all, there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, aside from its clearly outdated, TV-budget special effects. But the two-parter also isn’t really the type of King classic that a fan is likely to dig out of the archives for a yearly (or monthly, or weekly…) rewatch.
8 Kingdom Hospital (2004)
Kingdom Hospital is one of the more unique TV shows Stephen King has worked on. The author was a huge fan of Lars Von Trier’s Danish series, Riget, and decided to put his considerable clout behind adapting it for American audiences. The result was almost as weird as you’d expect a Von Trier/King hybrid to be. Unfortunately, for some fans, it wasn’t quite weird enough – even if there was a random aardvark.
The thirteen-episode series centered on a New England medical facility with a troubled history, bizarre patients, and a staff of doctors with plenty of secrets to hide. Kingdom Hospital featured some worthwhile performances from former heartthrob Andrew McCarthy as the ambitious, calculating Dr. Hook and Dianne Ladd as an eccentric, psychic hypochondriac who senses something is a bit off at the hospital. Ultimately, despite an intriguing premise, the series failed to capture audiences’ attention, and it was canceled after the first season.
7 Rose Red (2002)
In 2002, Stephen King miniseries weren’t quite the event they had been in the mid-to-late ‘90s. That didn’t stop ABC from producing and releasing Rose Red, a particularly creepy original-to-TV story about a group of psychics that investigate a haunted house. If the premise sounds fairly basic, well, it was, but the series was still surprisingly solid and scary in spite of this.
Sure, at almost four hours, it dragged from time to time, but all in all, it’s one of King’s better televised endeavors. It was an original story, so fans mostly went into the miniseries without preconceived ideas of what the story should look like on screen. That could have partially contributed to the positive response it received when it originally aired – but Rose Red still holds up pretty well 15 years later. That’s mostly thanks to an impressive production design, which brought the haunted manor to life, the rich, layered plot that offered up some decent scares, and its especially fantastic ensemble cast, including the always-superb Melanie Lynskey and an excellent Nancy Travis.
6 Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006)
Stephen King isn’t just a great novelist -- he’s written some of the scariest short stories and novellas out there, too. So fans were excited when TNT adapted one of his most popular anthologies, Nightmares & Dreamscapes. They had plenty of reasons to tune in, since the four-week, eight-episode series brought most of the stories in that particular collection to life along with a few other interesting King creations. Nightmares & Dreamscapes featured a particularly stellar cast of actors, some that we’re honestly surprised agreed to even be in a small screen King production, like William H. Macy and William Hurt.
Like with any King anthology, there were highs and lows in terms of story quality in Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Entries like “The Road Virus Heads North” wasn’t quite as frightening as it could have been, given that it was about an evil painting, and “Crouch’s End” failed to truly capture the creepy feel of its source material. The good news is that when the episodes were effective adaptations, like in the case of “Umney’s Last Case” and “Battleground,” they were really freaking great.
5 The Stand (1994)
There are so very many things that ABC’s four-part adaptation of The Stand got right – and it could have gone very, very wrong. The story of a superflu that decimates the world’s population, and the subsequent struggle to rebuild society, it’s one of Stephen King’s most beloved novels. Given the length of the book and the story’s massive scope, adapting it must have truly been an enormous undertaking. Luckily, director Mick Garris managed to nail a lot of what made King’s story so successful.
It’s not a perfect miniseries. Two decades later, the effects are decisively subpar a lot of the time, and the dialogue often borders on cheesy. Luckily, the huge ensemble tasked with bringing some of King’s most iconic characters to life helped smooth out even the roughest edges in the production value. ABC’s version of The Stand felt big, spanning multiple states and stories, and, perhaps most importantly, it managed to capture the feel of King’s incredible story of good versus evil.
4 11.22.63 (2016)
When Hulu announced they were adapting Stephen King’s 11-22-63 into an eight-part miniseries, fans were a little uncertain. After all, the streaming network hadn’t really established itself as a creator of consistently quality original programming. The fact that the enigmatic James Franco was set to star didn’t help assuage their fears.
11.22.63 shocked critics and King fans alike, however. Not only was it an exemplary adaptation of the novel, it managed to truly represent the complex tone and structure of its plot. Franco was actually great as Jake Epping, a time-traveling English teacher tasked with preventing John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The rest of the cast, especially Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald, were equally compelling. Though Hulu’s version did make some pretty vital changes to King’s original story, they mostly enhanced, rather than detracted, from the occasionally dense source material. In many ways, 11.22.63 is one of King’s most nostalgic and emotional stories, and the miniseries brought both of those aspects to life in spades.
3 Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot was the first adaptation of Stephen King’s work to hit the small screen, and in many ways, it set a pretty hefty precedent for all that followed. Directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, the two-part miniseries remains one of the scariest King adaptations on film or television. A lot of that is thanks to the way that Hooper chose to render the creatures of the night that infiltrate the small town.
From Ralphie Glick, the young kid who floats up to windows in search of his next victim, to the truly horrific Kurt Barlow, the monsters in Salem’s Lot aren’t just scary for TV. They’d go toe-to-toe with many cinematic monsters of their era and easily top some of them in terms of sheer creep factor. While Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash did condense some of the key parts of King’s novel – they eliminated multiple characters and altered the timeline and location of events – so it won’t ever win any awards in terms of faithful adaptations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best.
2 Storm of the Century (1999)
If fans have slept on any of Stephen King’s small screen endeavors, it’s Storm of the Century. It’s a creepy story, one that brings together many of the author’s most frequently used themes – parent-child relationships, small town dynamics, and ancient evil turning seemingly normal lives upside down. The 2002 miniseries was written specifically for television by King, so in many ways, it avoided the pitfalls of his televised adaptations. The story felt complete, the characters fully drawn, and the scope never felt too ambitious.
Storm of the Century takes historical legends about populations that just disappeared overnight and makes them, somehow, even more macabre. Andre Linoge, an evil entity with Biblical ties, comes to Little Tall Island in the midst of a blizzard and demands an unthinkable sacrifice in exchange for the rest of the town’s chance at life. Eighteen years after it first aired, it remains one of King’s strongest, scariest, and saddest TV shows, and one that is infinitely rewatchable.
1 It (1990)
Yes, the giant spider at the end of the film is ridiculous. The second part isn’t nearly as tight, or as compelling, as the first. Despite these pitfalls, It is, in every sense of the word, the quintessential Stephen King television adaptation. Aired over two nights on ABC in 1990, the miniseries follows a group of misfit friends that encounter a terrifying evil – one that eats children, and often takes the face of a seemingly friendly clown.
A great deal of It’s success as an adaptation is thanks to Tim Curry’s brilliant, maniacal portrayal of Pennywise. The child actors that brought the Losers Club to life are good, too, though, and their segments, in particular, really nailed the melancholy but also magical qualities of King’s supersized novel. So many of It’s most memorable moments have become legend for fans, both those who saw it when it originally aired and those who have found it since. Though we’re excited for the upcoming R-rated adaptation, there will always be a special place in many fans’ hearts for the original miniseries. We all float down here, and when you’re down here with Stephen King’s biggest fans, you’ll float, too.
What’s your favorite Stephen King TV show? Which new series are you looking forward to the most? Let us know in the comments!