My Favorite Stephen King Adaptations Ranked!
Updated: May 14
For the most part, I’m going to kick my cinephile self to the curb for this list. You’ll just have to trust that I’ve forgotten more films–in more genres and from more countries–than the average self-proclaimed film buff has ever seen, and that I have more than a passing grasp of what the art form is capable of. Having said that, I don’t mean to apologize for the order of my list of Stephen King adaptations. Something I’ve come to understand with ever increasing clarity as I get older is that my gut reaction to a movie is in fact an important consideration in my overall evaluation of that movie. In the case of this list, it simply takes more-than-usual prominence. Can I be serious about Pet Sematary being a better film than Shawshank Redemption or Misery? Well, some of its merits are too often overlooked, but I will admit that it’s a special movie for me. This isn’t the first time I’ve cited Pet Sematary and Nightbreed as being responsible for the two best moviegoing experiences of my life. I was young when they were released, had recently read (and loved) the books they were based on, and the adaptations happened to be extremely faithful. You don’t have to justify that kind of connection to a piece of art. It’s unbreakable.
I suppose I should also devote a few words to why some truly good films have managed to slide relatively far down my list. The reasons aren’t dissimilar to why I’ve ranked what some might deem lesser efforts as high on the list as I have. Maybe they hit me at the wrong moment. Maybe they weren’t faithful enough when faithful was what I needed. Maybe they missed that elusive Stephen King vibe that the best adaptations manage to capture. That might be the most important thing, actually. A Stephen King story takes place in a singular landscape, probably two parts America to one part hell, and good luck distinguishing between the two. Sprinkled over the top is a loving nostalgia and a fondness for straight shooters.
One more layer of complication and then I’ll get out of the way. There are three films on this list whose source material I have not read. That’s a little odd on the surface. Why should they be on my list of favorite adaptations if I don’t know how good a job they’ve done at adapting? The only answer I have is that it’s my blog and I’ll do what I like. The Dead Zone, for instance, is one of my favorite movies from the eighties. I have never felt compelled to read the book, since I already love the movie so much. Maybe I will someday. Maybe I won’t. But I know this much: David Cronenberg tapped into the aforementioned Stephen King vibe as well as anyone before or since, despite being Canadian.
By the way, if a favorite movie of yours is missing from my list, it only means that I haven’t seen it yet. Unless I’ve missed something. Anything’s possible. And I suppose I can always add entries to the list as time goes on, in which case you’ll be none the wiser.
Still curious? Read on.
1. The Stand (1994)
It feels like a miracle that this was ever made. That it was also excellent, despite airing on network television, is the cream on top. What a cast. What a production. And most importantly, what a script.
2. IT (1990)
Everything I said about The Stand is true here, too. Another miracle. One of King’s most beloved novels–an enormous one, at that–and it gets the miniseries treatment. You have to understand, that was the only way to tell a thousand-page story visually back then, and miniseries were an occasional event. What was lost in terms of production value, violence, and swearing was made up for by having the time to tell the whole story with a phenomenal cast.
3. The Dead Zone:
I already mentioned this one above, but what a masterpiece. David Cronenberg has never topped his work here.
4. Pet Sematary (1990)
Again, nothing much to add, since I documented my feelings about Pet Sematary above. The book and movie will always have a special place in my heart.
5. Stand by Me
It was so frustrating referring to this as a Stephen King movie when it came out. People would look at you and say, “What? That’s not a Stephen King movie. No way.” I suppose there are still people who don’t realize that it’s based on a novella from Different Seasons. That’s okay. Ignorance is forgivable. What galls me is the conviction that it simply couldn’t have come from the mind of a horror guy.
6. Shawshank Redemption
What I had to say about Stand by Me applies just as well here. Both are marvelous films.
7. The Shining (1980)
Go ahead, argue yourself blue about what a disrespectful adaptation this is of one of King’s scariest novels. Me? I couldn’t care less. I saw the movie before I read the book. That probably has something to do with my ambivalence. All I know is that a Kubrick film is always fun to watch, even when things are going a little off the rails. How else would you explain the perennial appeal of 2001: A Space Odyssey? It’s driven by a terribly dull plot, but it’s gorgeous to look at.
8 Carrie (1976)
Not only did Brian De Palma understand King’s novel; he also understood that horror works best when an audience cares about the characters involved, and that horror can go deep without losing tension.
Who doesn’t love Rob Reiner’s take on this amazing novel? Thank God it was made when there was still an appetite for literal film adaptations. I appreciate the occasional movie that deals only a glancing blow to its source material (Apocalypse Now, anyone?), but my preference has always been the more humble transference of a literary story to the screen. I’m reminded of the conductor’s relationship to the composer.
I shouldn’t have liked this as much as I did. I loved the book. One of King’s best, easy. That’s already a reason to be wary of an adaptation. Then throw James Franco into the damn thing–in the starring role, no less–and I should have laughed my way through the first episode and given up in despair. But I didn’t. I kept with it and ended up loving it. Definitely the best thing I’ve seen Franco in. They captured the 1960s damn near as well as King’s novel, and deviations from the plot made cinematic sense and helped carry the thing through its paces without any boring patches.
Among King’s numerous strengths is his ability to capture the angry young man. It’s never been reflected more clearly on the big screen than it was in this John Carpenter vehicle. I love Keith Gordon’s unpredictable performance here. In any given scene, you never quite know whether he's going to win your sympathies or scare the bejesus out of you.
12. The Dark Half
Who could have seen this dual performance from Timothy Hutton coming? Well, anyone with a subscription to Fangoria magazine in the months leading up to the movie's release, but you know what I mean. Between his wholly engaging portrayal of Thad Beaumont/George Stark and George Romero’s eye for terror, this movie outshines the novel for me.
13. Silver Bullet
If Gary Busey could have delivered this level of talent on a consistent basis, his life and career might have had a very different trajectory. This is another classic case of scares stemming from our involvement with the characters.
14. Salem’s Lot (1979)
People are sometimes too forgiving of the concessions that were made to get this to television, but it’s still good and scary. The novel is even gooder and scarier.
15. The Night Flier
This movie had me at Miguel Ferrer. If you enjoyed his performance as Special Agent Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Add to Ferrer’s seemingly natural sense of who-gives-a-damn humor a dash or three of good old-fashioned sleaze, and you’ve got a pretty good hint of his character, Richard Dees, tabloid “journalist.” Just don’t lose sight of the fact that this is actually a very scary vampire movie, based on a very scary vampire story.
Great suspense and a great performance from Dee Wallace. What’s not to like?
Enjoyed as a pulpy throwback to the glory days of horror comics–which clearly was the intention–it’s really a fun ride. Don’t be swayed by the haters.
18. The Outsider
Here’s another one that manages to make some improvements to the novel on which it’s based. Some really great performances throughout, and one hell of an atmospheric score. It’s worth noting, too, that Jason Batemen not only stars in but also directs the first two installments of this limited series.
19. Dolores Claiborne
A very faithful adaptation with a great cast that nonetheless falls short of capturing the intimacy of the novel, which was, I believe, King’s first told in the first person.
20. IT (Chapter One and Chapter Two)
Taken together, though Chapter One is better than Chapter Two, these films represent a dramatic step down from the integrity of the original miniseries. Pennywise himself has some show-stopping moments, but the human characters lack most of the charm they have in the novel and in the miniseries. The casting of the miniseries was so perfect that the remakes were bound to be a disappointment on some level.
21. Sometimes They Come Back
A straight-ahead supernatural thrill ride. Made for television but scary all the same.
22. Apt Pupil:
This should have worked better than it does. Who could have been a better choice for the lead role than Ian McCellan, for Christ’s sake? But it lacks the build-up of King’s excellent novella.
George C. Scott might be the only actor who could work in a genre he had no regard for and knock it out of the park. He did it here, and he did it in The Exorcist III. Truly one of the greatest American actors of all time.
24. Needful Things
It’s an admirable effort to bring King’s most satirical novel to the screen, but there proves to be too much story for one movie. Not even Max Von Sydow can fix that.
25. Gerald’s Game: I loved the book. I liked the movie.
26. The Green Mile
I’m not a huge fan of the books or the film. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m in the minority on this. I just don’t think the story goes anywhere. Still, some memorable characters keep it afloat.
27. Cat’s Eye
Fun, fun, and more fun.
28. Children of the Corn
Somewhat effective if watched alone.
29. The Running Man (more like The Running Meh, amirite?)
Ah, when Maria Conchita Alonso roamed the silver screen! Notable mostly for a foul-mouthed cameo by Richard Dawson, the film also features Arnold Schwartzenegger. It is largely forgettable.
I remember very little about the story on which this was based and even less about the movie itself. I’ve never fully connected with John Cusack, either. Do I need to relinquish my Generation X membership card? I do love Samuel L. Jackson; I just don’t remember much about his performance here.
What does it mean when we say a book is too long? In this case it’s that the novel reads like a grotesquely padded short story. The film necessarily trims things down, but it’s not enough to give the narrative the tautness it seems to struggle for. (I don’t revel in taking pot shots at the King of Horror, but since he’s penned some of my favorite novels and short stories of the 20th and 21st centuries, I’ve made my peace with the occasional criticism.)
I suspect that I like this novel more than a lot of people, but it was too much book for a feature film.
33. The Tommyknockers
I seem to recall that Jimmy Smits was less than thrilled to be a part of this. Maybe that kind of negative energy can be sensed by an audience. I don’t know. I suppose it’s kind of fitting that one of the least appreciated King adaptations was based on one of his least loved books.
34. Secret Window
I’m not much of a Johnny Depp fan, so it was unlikely I was going to get much out of this uneventful adaptation of King’s novella, which was itself only marginally good, as I recall.
35. Riding the Bullet
Good story, painful adaptation. Mick Garris has done many brilliant things. This is not one of them.
36. In the Tall Grass
I’m not sure how such a fantastic short story could be made into such an abysmal movie, but here we are.
37. The Lawnmower Man
What the hell even was this mess? Jeff Fahey was much better suited to Eric Red’s Body Parts.
38. The Mangler: Someone siphoned off all the ingredients that make King one of our greatest storytellers, poured them down the drain, and made a movie out of what was left. Worse, that someone was Tobe Hooper!
39. Graveyard Shift
The Mangler has Robert Englund. This one has Brad Dourif. Those are the highlights of both films.
40. Salem's Lot (2004)
Whew, boy. Whatever went wrong here did so with breathtaking commitment to its objective. My advice? Steer clear.
41. Quicksilver Highway
See Riding the Bullet. Subtract two or three stars from my rating. Quicksilver Highway did an equally poor job of adapting a Stephen King story for one of its segments and a Clive Barker story for the other half.
42. The Langoliers
There’s no point in gilding the lily when you get this far down a list of this nature. The Langoliers miniseries is an absolute waste of time. The novella is a nice homage to the Twilight Zone style of storytelling and imbued with a palpable sense of dread throughout. The miniseries is a woeful misfire.
And that’s it. Time for me to duck and cover. Share your counter-opinions if you must. Or compile your own list. Or just brood. Whatever makes you comfortable. In any case, thanks for indulging me—and my list.