We all have our memories of how we got into Stephen King. For this long-time reader it was a tattered copy of Needful Things passed down by my grandmother. The book – not his best but it didn’t matter – transported me to the state of Maine, and all the supernatural goings-on in the fictional towns of Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot.
That was nearly 30 years ago, and now, with a dedicated bookcase of King's novels, a cherished signed copy of Lisey’s Story (the author’s personal favorite) and an uneasy obsession with spotting Dark Tower references in his work, it’s wonderful to see King going through a renaissance on the big screen.
Now, great as my adoration for King is, it has to be said that some movies based on his books are truly terrible – the likes of The Langoliers, Maximum Overdrive and Cell are not worth the celluloid they’re printed on. But there have also been some cinematic gems, from a handful of directors who just get how to adapt the master of horror’s books.
So here, after much deliberation, are the best Stephen King movie adaptations, ranked in reverse order of awesomeness – from horror movies that truly scare, to coming-of-age dramas that make us yearn for our own lost youth.
10. Pet Sematary (1989)
Only the second King movie to be directed by a woman, Pet Sematary is the King movie that stays truest to the source material. Mary Lambert, at the time a successful music video director, creates a creepy-as-hell flick that fully captures the dread of a book that King has regarded as his scariest. One read of the plot and you can understand why: a family tragedy leads to a broken father try to raise the dead, but, in the word's of one the characters, “sometimes dead is better”. As a horror movie, it has it all: creepy kids, scary cats and gruesome gore. Both Lambert’s astute directing and King’s screenplay make for an uneasy ride – and one that's much better than the recent, role-reversing remake.
9. Gerald’s Game (2017)
The current King go-to kid, Mike Flanagan, has so far taken two seemingly un-filmable novels from the master of horror – this one, and Doctor Sleep – and managed to make a success of both. Gerald’s Game is the better adaptation, taking the story of Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) whose sex game with her husband goes very wrong. He dies, she’s handcuffed to a bed, and there’s wolves out there. Given this is a one-room premise (for the most part), Flanagan expertly weaves in the suspense through masterful manifestations, hallucinatory conversations and a scene that gives 127 Hours a run for its money in the grimace stakes.
8. The Mist (2007)
The Mist is one of Frank Darabont’s lesser-known King gigs – this is the director that brought us Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile after all – but it’s a masterpiece of suspense, focusing on strange creatures descending on a small US town. It’s grim, too, with an ending so bleak that one interested produced demanded that Darabont change it – he refused, and the movie is all the better for it. Thomas Jane stars, delivering an acting masterclass that’s simply mesmerizing, while the handheld look of the movie is thanks to Darabont roping in the crew behind hit TV show The Shield, a series he had recently finished working on.
7. IT (2019)
Director Andy Muschietti pulled off a near miracle with IT, creating a coherently chilling movie from perhaps King’s greatest book (and one of his longest), and managing to find an actor to match Tim Curry’s definitive performance as Pennywise – Bill Skarsgård is utterly terrifying as the clown looking to lure kids into his storm drain. The movie is based on an, albeit rewritten, script by the latest Bond helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga, and the fact that Chapter Two is nowhere near as good is likely because it doesn’t bear Fukunaga’s fingerprints.
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
1983 was some year for David Cronenberg – both The Dead Zone and Videodrome were released. One movie was his attempt at mainstream horror, the other featured a man with a vagina slit in his stomach. The Dead Zone works because of both its main star Christopher Walken, and Cronenberg’s intelligent direction. Leaner than the book it’s based on, its focus is on Johnny Smith (Walken), a man who predicts disasters and sees something very bad happening when he encounters rising political star and would-be President Greg Stillson, a charismatic populist played by Martin Sheen – and a character who seems eerily prescient when viewed through the prism of contemporary US politics.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
While Stephen King is best known for his long novels – we’re guessing his editor gave up trying to rein him in long ago – his novellas are where some of his best work lies. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption appears the four-story book Different Seasons (another of these stories makes the list further down) and tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) a banker found guilty of a crime he didn't commit. He ends up in Shawshank, a notorious prison, where he's befriended by fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman), and makes dangerous enemies. Again, director Frank Daranbont makes King caviar out of the source material. Changing the character of Red from a ginger Irishman to a black inmate was a genius move, adding a new narrative layer, but everyone in the film shines. Unappreciated when first released, Shawshank found its way thanks to word of mouth, and now there are few ‘best movies of all time’ lists that don't include it.
4. Misery (1990)
Rob Reiner should be up there with the Kubricks and the Spielbergs of the world when ‘who is the best director?’ is discussed. In whatever genre he’s played in, he’s made the best movie. Children’s fantasy? The Princess Bride. Romantic comedy? He directed When Harry Met Sally. He also made one of the best coming-of-age movies of all time (which is just below this entry), and he legitimized mainstream horror thanks to Misery.
Misery is pitch-perfect: a dial-up-the-tension-till-you-scream sort of movie that many an actor passed on because it was a ’genre’ film. That doesn’t matter, as James Caan is brilliant as the writer who, bedridden after a car crash, is nursed back to health by his number-one fan Annie Wilkes – a character who's entered the horror villain pantheon thanks to an utterly terrifying, and Oscar-winning, performance by Kathy Bates, a relative unknown at the time.
3. Stand By Me (1986)
Adapted from the novella The Body, found in Different Seasons (alongside Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and a story about a woman giving birth after being decapitated in a car crash, so we don’t think we’ll see that one on the big screen), Stand By Me is a movie that fizzes with 50s nostalgia. Everything about it is fantastic: the endless summer vibe, the soundtrack, the acting from the kids, including Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix and Corey Feldman… you almost forget that the plot is driven by them going on a pilgrimage to find a dead body.
It’s a movie about a certain time that remains timeless, perfectly capturing the mood of King’s novella, and that moment of childhood that many of us were lucky enough to experience… you never have friends like the ones you had when you were 12, after all.
2. The Shining (1980)
A stone-cold horror classic that’s slightly marred by King not being happy with the finished result. Which is a real shame, as what Stanley Kubrick does with The Shining is layer the book with such a visual identity that it’s hard to separate movie and book in your mind. Jack Torrance, for good or bad, will always be a psychotic Jack Nicholson, the Overlook Hotel will always have that carpet, and the twins (who aren’t even in the novel) will always scare the crap out of anyone who sees them. King thought it too cold (sometimes literally), and was unhappy that there was no redemptive arc for Torrance. Kubrick shrugged, and produced a masterpiece that will be picked apart forever.
While not perfect, director Mike Flanagan did a commendable job bringing Kubrick and King closer together with his movie version of the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep.
1. Carrie (1976)
Unfairly dismissed as a Hitchcock wannabe, director Brian DePalma is much more than that – and Carrie is his masterpiece. It’s Stephen King’s first novel, famously saved from the trash by the author’s wife, and it's a story that captures the terrors of being a teenager – albeit one with telekinetic powers – while swiping at religion and promoting feminism along the way. Shot like a Giallo with dreamy blood-stained imagery, DePalm’s film is a casting masterclass: Sissy Spacek is the perfect Carrie, Piper Laurie horrific as the overbearing mother. Chuck in the all-American John Travolta, Amy Irving and Nancy Allen as the high-school villains and what you have is a deeply unsettling movie about fear, anxiety and humiliation… and that’s before it descends into true horror.
5 Stephen King movies we want to see made
Yes, there are a lot of King adaptations doing the rounds right now, but these are the ones we really want to see, with our choice for director...
Revival is one of King’s newer books, and centers on Jamie Morton, who as a child befriends a pastor who tries to save his brother from dying. They meet again later in life, and things have taken quite a turn for both of them. It’s a book packed with recurring King themes – the evils of organized religion, the afterlife, small-town America – and wraps them all in a storyline that is, well, electrifying.
Our choice for director: It’s another 'un-filmable' King book, so it would have to be Mike Flanagan – which is good news, as he's currently attached to the project.
The Long Walk
This story is set in a dystopian near future, where 100 teenage boys are taking part in a macabre walking contest. They must maintain a speed of 4mph, and if they drop below this they are given a warning. Three warnings and they're shot dead, with the winner getting whatever he wants. What a premise – and what a lean novel from King, writing as Richard Bachman.
Our choice for director: Last we heard, this one is in the works with Trollhunter director André Øvredal attached. But we'd love to see The Invisible Man’s Leigh Whannell tackle The Long Walk, especially if he recreates the 80s retro-future vibe he brought to the fantastic Upgrade.
Given that King sets most of his books in Maine, he defies convention with Crouch End, which is set in London, and focuses on two policemen who are investigating the disappearance of an American woman’s husband. What ensues is a terrifying miasma of monsters and beings that works wonderfully on the page.
Our choice for director: Go all-out and give it to Guillermo Del Toro, who desperately needs to do a King adaptation at some point.
The Eyes of the Dragon
If you're looking for a Game of Thrones substitute, The Eyes of the Dragon is a brilliant place to start. It’s like The Dark Tower lite, focusing on Flagg (yep, that one) an evil court magician who wants to take over the kingdom of Delain after its king dies. The problem is he has two sons, both of whom are also warring over the land.
Our choice for director: Ava DuVernay has already proven herself in the fantasy stakes, and she would be perfect here to tell a tale that’s been born out of many fairy tales.
Bad Little Kid
This is one freaky story, found in the collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams. It’s about a man whose life is tormented by his childhood bully – the only thing is, while he’s all grown up now his bully is still the same age. It’s a gut-punch of a story that could easily transfer to the big screen.
Our choice for director: Ben Wheatley has managed to balance directing Doctor Who with some seriously freaky horrors, so we’d love him to take a stab at this one.