The Best and Worst of Stephen King Adaptations
There are few Stephen King novels that haven’t yet been adapted for the screen — or remade several times. Here’s a look at the great — and no so great — movie and TV versions of the the author’s work.
BEST: 10. The Dead Zone (1983)
Director David Cronenberg brings his signature brand of Canadian creepiness to this taut supernatural thriller starring a haunted Christopher Walken as a school teacher who comes out of a coma with a gift that feels more like a terrifying curse. He has the psychic ability to tell a person’s fate just by coming into contact with them. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode spiked with arsenic.
BEST: 9. The Running Man (1987)
It may not be as well-known as The Terminator or Predator or even Commando, but director Paul Michael Glaser’s dystopian sci-fi satire is Peak Schwarzenegger. Ahnuld plays a wrongly convicted man who has to fight for his freedom on a deathsport TV reality show hosted by former Family Feud kissing bandit Richard Dawson (who, let the record show, is as fantastic movie villain). Totally prescient and highly underrated.
BEST: 8. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
This powerful feminist psychodrama feels like a love letter from King to his single, working-class mother who was left to support her family alone after King’s father walked out. Kathy Bates plays Dolores — a hardscrabble Maine housekeeper who hasn’t seen her estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in 15 years. Selena returns after her mother is suspected of a murder that mirrors the events surrounding the death of Selena’s abusive, alcoholic father (David Strathairn). Director Taylor Hackford toggles between the past and present in a way that reminds you that sometimes in life, it’s hard to tell them apart.
BEST: 7. Pet Sematary (2019)
Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation has its hardcore fans. But for my money, Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake digs into something darker and more primal as the Creed family (led by an excellent Jason Clarke) moves to Maine, watches their beloved cat, Church, become road kill, and then brings that pet back to life by burying it in a supernatural cemetery deep in the woods. There’s a lesson in here about grief and not messing with the dead (or our cherished memories of them), but you’ll be too busy digging your fingernails into your armrest to give it much thought until you get home and are laying in bed. Oh, and P.S., good luck trying to fall asleep.
BEST: 6. The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont is the go-to director when it comes to King adaptations (see also: The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption). And he certainly found every ounce of the author’s air of locked-room dread in this one. Set almost entirely in a small-town Maine supermarket where the locals are hiding out from…well, what exactly? Thomas Jane steals the show from a great cast of character actors, especially in a final scene that is so raw and bleak and amazing that I may just go watch it again right now.
BEST: 5. Stand by Me (1986)
Sometimes lost in all of those volumes of white-knuckle horror prose is the fact that King is more than just creeping dread and gotcha scares. He’s also a master of nostalgia. Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me may be the clearest example of the author’s Proustian obsession with the smallest quotidian details of youth — the recollected smells, sights, and sounds of long-ago summer nights that we’re only able to share with our oldest (and first) friends. But yes, there’s also a dead body. Told in sun-dappled flashback, Stand By Me revolves around four childhood friends (beautifully played by River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman) who, in 1959, set off to find that dead body. But really it’s about male bonding, the first taste of freedom, and how the most insignificant things (a catchy pop song, a campfire story about a pie-eating contest puke-athon) can feel like the only things that matter.
BEST: 4. Misery (1990)
This is the moment Kathy Bates became an icon. Her Annie Wilkes, the self-proclaimed number-one fan of a jaded bestselling author played by James Caan, is an unforgettable cocktail of G-rated verbal abuse and hard-R physical violence (the sledgehammer!). “I thought you were good Paul. But you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy.” King and Bates both make Annie perfection in their own ways. She’s arguably King’s most vivid – and dementedly noble — character.
BEST: 3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Although it was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was greeted at the box office with relative indifference. Since then, thanks to an infinite loop of cable airings, Shawshank has snowballed into the ultimate male weepie — a nakedly sentimental drama that guys can choke up watching and not feel guilty about afterward. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman play Andy and Red — a pair of long-term convicts who gradually become best friends despite Andy’s undying dream of freedom and Red’s suspicion that after so long behind bars, he might not know how to live on the outside. Shawshank has its naysayers who dismiss it as melodramatic hooey, they’re wrong.
BEST: 2. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King isn’t a fan. Then again, he may be too close to the story to see what everyone else loves about Stanley Kubrick’s haunting goose-flesh adaptation. Part supernatural chiller, part psychological thriller (with a dash of sub-zero cabin fever thrown in for atmosphere), The Shining is the horror movie as art film – a dream-logic nightmare that begs you to wrestle with it, rearrange it, decode it, and find your own terrifying answers. And driving it all, like the mad conductor of a runaway train is Jack Nicholson and his devilish smile.
BEST: 1. Carrie (1976)
A harrowing coming-of-age story masquerading in horror movie drag, Brian De Palma’s masterpiece stars a 26-year-old Sissy Spacek as small-town outcast Carrie White — a sheltered, picked-on wallflower with a deranged religious zealot mother at home (Piper “Dirty Pillows” Laurie) and a telekinetic gift triggered by a rage she’s just beginning to grapple with. De Palma’s suspenseful, vise-tightening Rube Goldberg-meets-Alfred Hitchcock pig’s blood at the prom climax gets all the attention, but this sympathetic love letter to teenage misfits everywhere wouldn’t work without Spacek’s wide-eyed vulnerability and King’s deep understanding of the humiliations of adolescence and popularity that every teen knows all too well.
NEXT: The five worst Stephen King adaptations…
WORST: 5. The Dark Tower (2017)
Is it really that bad? Well, probably not. But judged against eight novels and four thousand pages of expectations, not to mention two starry leads (Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba), it’s certainly disappointing. The Dark Tower is everything that King’s book series wasn’t – lifeless and forgettable.
WORST: 4. Dreamcatcher (2003)
Congratulations, Lawrence Kasdan, you win the prize for making the Stephen King adaptation most likely to be confused with a schlocky Troma flick.
WORST: 3. The Mangler (1995)
Despite the presence of dueling horror titans, Robert Englund (a.k.a. Freddy Krueger) and Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill), this Tobe Hooper dud about a possessed laundry machine not only puts most of its cast through the wringer (literally), but the audience as well (figuratively, but by the time it’s over, you’ll wish it was literally).
WORST: 2. The Shining — TV miniseries (1997)
Unhappy with Stanley Kubrick’s take on his Torrance family novel, King tried to set the record straight with his own TV miniseries adaptation. It goes without saying that Stephen Weber is no Jack Nicholson. But every facet of this project felt…churlish. It was like telling millions of Jimi Hendrix fans that they were wrong to like “All Along the Watchtower” because his version wasn’t what Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote it.
WORST: 1. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Based on King’s short story “Trucks,” Maximum Overdrive marked the maestro’s first and last outing as a Hollywood director. Smart move. The machines come to life. AC/DC music is cranked. Brain cells are obliterated. King himself would reportedly later describe the film as “wonderful moron picture.” He ain’t wrong.