Back in 1973, when Stephen King sold his first book Carrie to a publisher (the manuscript of which he'd originally thrown away, and was rescued by his wife Tabitha), the up-and-coming, already published author might have thought: I may actually be able to make it as a professional writer. He probably didn't think: I will also eventually end up one of the big bestselling authors of the next few decades, a highly decorated man of letters, a brand-name – and a one-man cottage industry for the movies. So many of his now-canonical horror novels, as well as his non–spooky-story output, have been fodder for filmmakers far and wide; the phrase "a Stephen King movie" carries with it it's own expectations, parameters and conventions. And with not one but two big films coming out in the next month – the long-awaited blockbuster take on The Dark Tower hitting Australian theatres this week and a reimagining of the kids v. evil clown epic It coming on September 7th – the King movie remains a bankable category unto itself.
And like any genre, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Originally, we'd planned to do a comprehensive worst-to-best ranked list, but the "ugly" proved to be too much for us – the last 10 years alone seem to have brought a wave of adaptations that run from questionable to "Unclean! Unclean!" There's re-watching The Mangler, and then there's straight-up masochism. Life is really too short for Dolan's Cadillac.
So we'll leave those completist lists for other folks. Meanwhile, we've gathered 30 of the best-known, most notable Stephen King movies, and ranked them from worst to best. A few things to note: We're not including TV shows, TV miniseries or TV movies, so a hearty "sorry" to Salem's Lot, the best of the latter by a longshot. We've concentrated primarily on adaptations of his work, though there is one entry that fudges that notion a bit ... but that we could not bear to leave out. And finally, we ranked these movies on a dual scale of the quality of the movie itself and how well it worked as an adaptation of King's work. (Please keep this in mind when you get to No. 5. Don't @ us, people.)
Get busy readin' or get busy dyin'.
By Scott Tobias, Alex Suskind, Noel Murray, Stephen Garrett, Jenna Scherer, Tim Grierson, Bilge Ebiri, David Fear, Sean T. Collins, Gina McIntyre and Judy Berman.
Picture Twin Peaks' forensic expert Albert Rosenfield, only somehow crankier and more foul-mouthed and working for a Weekly World News-style tabloid. Now imagine he's covering a story about a mysterious commuter place that keeps showing up at the witching hour, with a sole occupant that leaves corpses in its wake. Trust us when we say that this attempt to bring one of King's cryptic short stories to the screen sounds a lot better here than what you would have seen in a theater. Not even the pleasure of witnessing the mighty Miguel Ferrer scream obscenities at everyone as he follows the trail of a caped bloodsucker (whose cowl is, per a rustic New England local, "black as a woodchuck's asshole" – and that's the best line in the whole film) and get served a literal Bloody Mary at bar can make up for the sheer straight-to-video–ness of every single aspect here. The only tragedy is that we'll never get a prequel that explains how the creature of the title got his pilot's license, how many hours in the air he had to log in, etc. DF
Ok, so maybe the Night Shift short story about a killer industry-press laundry machine wasn't top-notch source material for a feature – but you've got the director behind the best TV adaptation of a Stephen King novel (Salem's Lot), armed with two genuine horror-movie icons. What could possibly go wrong? (Who answered "almost everything"? Your prize is in the mail.) From the moment a worker drips blood into a machine in a factory scene straight out of a hair-metal video circa 1983 or a community-college production of Metropolis – take your pick – you get the feeling that things may be heading downhill and quick. Then Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund does a weird-as-shit dance, Ted Levine inexplicably has a fridge dropped on him and a New Age-ish hippie casually asks, "Have you considered the possibility that the machine may be haunted?" ... and all bets are off. Tobe Hooper gave the world The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so he gets a lifetime pass. But let's just agree that this isn't his, or anyone's, finest moment. DF
You can't fault the ambition of director Lawrence Kasdan's audacious mixture of alien-invasion thriller, creepy-crawly horror movie, blockbuster action film and sensitive character drama. You can, however, fault everything else about this badly misguided mess, in which a group of lifelong buds go on a hunting trip and stumble upon interstellar slugs. King himself isn't fond of the book – as he told Rolling Stone "I was pretty stoned when I wrote it" due to his post-accident Oxycontin intake – and likewise, the film feels like a hallucination of incoherent ideas. There is camp pleasure in watching Morgan Freeman sport wise-old-owl bushy eyebrows while playing a Kurtz-like lunatic specialising in extra-terrestrial eradication. But it's never a good sign when, in a cast that includes Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant, the best performance comes from a CGI alien – because it doesn't have to speak any of the dopey dialogue. TG
A jaded author (John Cusack) who reviews supposedly haunted tourist traps checks into a New York hotel room that is, as the establishment's manager (Samuel L. Jackson) puts it, "fucking evil." While he dodges slashers, shivers through tundra conditions and tries to avoid a window that's determined to make him jump, the travel writer is tormented by reminders of the tragedy that destroyed his marriage. Along with a premise that stacks clichés like suitcases in a bellhop's outstretched arms, the movie serves up plot twists you can see coming from 13 floors away. The only real draw is Cusack's Nicolas Cage-level scenery chewing, in an unhinged, often solo performance. JB
The tail of a rogue comet sends machines into a weeklong homicidal rampage (cue rabid electric knife, lethal Walkman, predatory lawnmower). And when a gas-starved convoy of sentient long-haulers – including an 18-wheeler with a Green Goblin face plate – lay siege to the Dixie Boy Truck Stop, short-order cook Emilio Estevez and customers keep the big rigs at bay with hand grenades and a bazooka. King's gonzo directorial debut (and last behind-the-camera excursion to date), based on his short story “Trucks,” is one looney-tunes junkyard mess, all set to the head-banging hits of his favorite band, AC/DC. Who made who, indeed. SG
Aside from featuring a lawnmower man – and a sequence where the lawnmower runs by itself and turns homicidal, because of course – this notoriously kitschy Nineties techsploitation flick had so little to do with King's original short story that the author successfully sued to have his name scrubbed from the credits. But like a half-wit turned God-like homicidal megalomaniac whose cognitive powers erase the line between the real world and a pixelated realm of terrifying possibility, the film lives on. At the time, The Lawnmower Man introduced audiences to virtual reality, which would, it warned, surely lead to psychosis and mind control! Now, it's more like The Net, a technophobic freakout that time has rendered hilariously quaint. ST
Perhaps the only thing that obsesses Stephen King more than horror is childhood, in all its lights and darks. There's a little bit of supernatural but a lot more coming-of-age in Scott Hicks and William Goldman's languorous adaptation of King novella Low Men in Yellow Coats. A young Anton Yelchin (R.I.P.) plays Bobby, a boy in 1960s suburbia caught between his distant mother (Hope Davis) and a mysterious older man (an avuncular Anthony Hopkins) who moves into the top floor of their house ... and may have psychic powers. The movie sometimes veers into sentimentality, but strong performances from Yelchin, Davis and Hopkins keep it dreamily afloat. JS
Published under the nom de plume Richard Bachman, King's 1984 novel about an obese, corrupt lawyer who gets a gypsy curse placed on him and starts to waste away is one of his oddest works: a twisted comedy posing as a tense thriller. And maybe this film adaptation really needed someone like David Cronenberg, who could have gone to town with the absurdist body-horror aspect of the story. Instead, director Tom Holland leans into its comic, morality tale elements. (The cheapo effects make sure that the actual curse has little visual impact.) As the protagonist, Robert John Burke goes from smug sleazebag in garish fat-suit to obsessive vigilante who's lost some weight. Somehow, the arch, silly tone keeps things moving along: It's a goofy film, but unlike many King adaptations, it seems to know it. That self-awareness counts for something. BE
If you're a Stephen King character, writer's block can be a beast – and Mort Rainey, the character at the centre of King's novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, doesn't fare much better thanJack Torrance. David Koepp's film follows its short-story writer (played by an appealingly twitchy Johnny Depp) as he broods over his recent divorce in a cabin in the woods. When a menacing stranger (John Turturro) shows up claiming that Mort stole his story, the unraveling begins in earnest. It's a tad predictable – though this slow-burn character study is satisfyingly ominous and surprisingly twisted. JS
Never trust a curiosity shop that stocks precisely what every oddball in your community needs – especially when its owner happens to be a suspiciously urbane newcomer named Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow). That's the lesson of this adaptation of King's final "Castle Rock" novel, which plays like a more wholesome, less hysterical Twin Peaks. As a series of increasingly sinister pranks amp up existing animosities between locals, a big-city cop (Ed Harris) realizes the stranger is something far more terrifying than a kindly old gentleman. Von Sydow imbues his fiendish character with the perfect mix of charm, erudition and menace. Amid a strong cast of character actors, his is the only performance that shines ... but that’s kind of the point. JB
A spiritual cousin to The Shawshank Redemption, this adaptation of King's serialised prison novel focuses on Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), a guard who heads up a Louisiana correction facility's Death Row. He's our guide to the various personalities populating the joint, from outrageous (viva Sam Rockwell!) to outright sadistic (Doug Hutchison's bastard of a screw). Then Edgecomb witnesses the unique healing powers of an illiterate inmate named John Coffey (Oscar-nominated Michael Clarke Duncan), and this straightforward story soon turns into a tale of magical realism. Helmed by Shawshank director Frank Daranbont – and famously criticised by Spike Lee for perpetuating the "magical Negro" stereotype – the movie lacks the melodramatic momentum of its convict–character-study predecessor. But as an examination of one man wrestling with moral decisions he makes, his faith in God and his place in the world, it hits the books marks with grace. AS
As far as lycanthrope movies go, this riff on King's Cycle of the Werewolf – done by future Peak TV MVP Dan Attias – is no The Howling. But its tale of a small Maine town plagued by bark-at-the-moon beast on the loose is a solid B-movie, complete with flying decapitated heads and a young Corey Haim. The workman-like approach actually fits King's prose and tone from the 127-page novella, as well as forcing everything to adhere to a forward momentum that amps up the tension. Which is not to say that the movie won't pause for a showstopping hallucinogenic sequence in which the local reverend (played by Twin Peaks' Everett McGill) imagine his entire congregation suddenly turning into fanged, furry predators and causing chaos among the church pews. DF
A mother and her young son are held hostage in a hot, broken car by a massive, rabid St. Bernard – but first, there's a whole lot of domestic drama to get through! The characters in Lewis Teague's film version aren't quite as fleshed out as they are in King's claustrophobic 1981 novel, nor are their actions always understandable. Not to mention the fact that the film's moody approach to the story makes one miss the devil-may-care sleaziness of the book. (The author was reportedly drinking himself silly during the period when he wrote it.) Despite all that, this dog-eat-person tale works: The central set piece of Dee Wallace v. killer canine is wonderfully tense and despairing – a terrified mother trying to protect herself and her fragile young son in the most surreal and terrifying of circumstances. BE
King published his 1982 dystopian thriller under the pen name Richard Bachman; Paul Michael Glaser's movie adaptation is both the most Eighties artefact of all time and a scarily relevant social satire. It's set in 2017, when America has become a totalitarian corporatocracy in which government and reality TV have become hopelessly intertwined. (Sound familiar?) A young, super-jacked Arnold Schwarzenegger is a captured rebel forced to participate in a life-or-death reality competition – think The Hunger Games, but with synth music and chainsaws. But the most enduring legacy of The Running Man isn't Ah-nold's cheesy dialogue or the film's gleeful violence. It's the audience of cheering all-American consumers all too happy to sacrifice freedom for escapist entertainment. JS
One of King's scariest novels becomes one of the scarier movies made from one of his works. Director Mary Lambert's take on this creepy story (a variation on the horror classic "The Monkey's Paw") follows a mourning father trying to use an ancient Indian burial ground to resurrect loved ones from the grave. It doesn't quite have the pathos of the book; King's original is not only terrifying, it's also impossibly sad. (That coda is devastating.) But the movie is still a ruthlessly effective chiller – filled with jump scares and things that go bump in the night. Sometimes they do come back. BE
Because the author's long, winding novels are often hard to translate into two hour movies, it's too bad more filmmakers haven't gone the anthology route, adapting multiple pieces of his short fiction to the big screen. The King-penned 1985 triptych is a good model to work from, adding one original story to two adaptations of Night Shift pieces – one with James Woods as a guy who signs up for a cruel smoking cure, and another with Robert Hays as a desperate man forced to circumnavigate a narrow ledge on a skyscraper. (The third features the Firestarter herself, Drew Barrymore, a feline and a killer troll.) It's terse, tense and way more fun than some of the more ambitious takes on his work. NM
King's hot (literally) bestseller gets a violent, mournful screen version, with Drew Barrymore – immediately following her baby-faced breakout in E.T. – as a pyrokinetic tyke on the run from shadow agency "the Shop," whose experiments unleashed her conflagratory powers. Featuring many of the author's favorite tropes (telepathic minors, secret government agents, stressed families, financial desperation), this impressively dark tragedy doesn't have the cinematic eloquence of his best adaptations. But its no-frills storytelling, as well as the obligatory exploding cinderblocks and blazing henchmen, are surprisingly effective. And Barrymore's tortured, terrified performance is heartbreaking. SG
A high school student/burgeoning psychopath develops an interest in an older German neighbor after discovering his past as a Nazi war criminal. Based on King's much-bloodier Different Seasons entry of the same name – director Bryan Singer cut out the shooting spree and additional murders that originally appeared in the novella – the film pits Kurt Dussander (a German-accented Ian McKellen), an ex-S.S. officer who settled in Southern California after WWII, against Todd Bowden, a devilish teen (Brad Renfro) suspiciously curious about the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and his followers. Bartered tales of concentration camp horrors ensue, and the movie nails the perverse bond between an aging monster and a young, impressionable monster-to-be. AS
After he tries to exorcise the pen name under which he's written some of his schlockier, more popular books, a writer's dark side manifests itself in person – in the form of the deranged, unborn twin. The late, great George Romero's film of King's surprisingly personal tale was, sadly, not a hit. But horror legend was still the ideal director for this material, thanks to his ability to balance comedy, suspense and character. The result is one of the more moving of King adaptations, as Timothy Hutton's tortured family-man scribe does battle with his scarred-up, bourbon-swilling doppelgänger (also played by Hutton), while resisting the temptation to simply give into his demons. It's vastly underrated. BE
After winning her Misery Oscar, Kathy Bates returns to the author's world in an even richer role as a put-upon maid accused of murdering her senile millionaires boss. The news spurs the return of her estranged, brittle daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh); as the investigation proceeds, flashbacks reveal the dark secrets of their forlorn lives in a depressingly masculine world. Taylor Hackford's elegant expressionistic direction showcases this beautifully crafted feminist nightmare, which doubles as a sterling example of the author eschewing supernatural scares for the horror of everyday existence – and a great case study for how to turn such material into a first-rate character-based thriller. SG
It's technically not an out-and-out adaptation of one of King's books – the author wrote most of this E.C. Comics homage for the screen, only later turning the collection into an incredible graphic novel with legendary artist Bernie Wrightson. But we're including it nonetheless, as the movie could not be a purer distillation of the novelist's horror-centric sensibilities. The writer teamed up with George A. Romero for this bloody valentine to William Gaines' 1950s gore-peddlers – "the epitome of horror," he declares in Danse Macabre – and the quintet of delightfully ghoulish tales (two based on King’s stories "Weeds" and "The Crate") are a scream: undead patriarchs, interstellar kudzu, sea-soaked zombie lovers, an ancient Antarctic gorilla ... even King himself as a hillbilly rube. Plus, thanks to make-up wizard Tom Savini, this candy-colored nightmare features some of the most indelible gross-out images of the Eighties. Cockroach-infested corpse, anyone? SG
Writer-director Frank Darabont crafted the bleakest ending imaginable for King's tale about a mysterious fog that descends over a small Maine town. Commercial artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son are among a group of locals stranded in a supermarket when the mist rolls in; soon, the barely glimpsed monsters concealed inside this unexplained meteorological phenomenon come a-knockin'. Skeptic Andre Braugher insists they have nothing to fear; religious zealot Marcia Gay Harden believes the end times are at hand. Then the squabbling turns violent after a predatory incursion, and a desperate escape attempt leads to unfathomable sorrow. In the years since its release, the movie has become a cult classic, and Darabont’s black-and-white director’s cut (available on Blu-ray) only heightens the dread-inducing mood. GM
King's love of outsized characters and old-fashioned Americana make him a good match for Halloween/Escape from New York auteur John Carpenter, who oddly enough has only ever adapted one of the author's books: This wild tale of a haunted car's symbiotic relationship with a high-school nerd. The first hour of Christine is the director at his best, with his camera mapping out all the ways small towns can be both comforting and confining. He also brings as much of King's colorfully profane dialogue and keen sense of character to the screen as he can, while always making sure the automotive horror runs neck-and-neck with scenes of teenage boys exploring their independence. Note to future filmmakers: This movie's opening is the only acceptable way to use George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" in a movie. You will never top this. NM
Seven months before The Terminator hit theaters, Linda Hamilton was being terrorized by a completely different menacing force: A nightmarish cavalcade of creepily angelic tykes causing unspeakable horrors amidst the vast, empty stretches of the Midwest.An upwardly-mobile couple (Hamilton and Peter Horton) is en route to Seattle when they stop in a small Nebraska town, which just happens to be ruled by a murderous religious cult of glowering kids. Seizing elements of the zombie movie and the Western, Children of the Corn is a lean, brutally tense slasher film. But what's most chilling is its deft weaponizing of American cultural tensions — between generations, economic classes, big cities vs. tiny rural communities, god-fearing conservatives vs. liberal atheists. Our heroes burn down the cornfield, but they can't snuff out those still-lingering conflicts. (Or, for that matter, the ability to endlessly franchise a good idea for the home-video market.) TG
This now-classic big-screen take on King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (good call on shortening the title) was well-reviewed but barely seen during its original theatrical run; lots of frequent airings on cable, however, have turned it into one of the most beloved movies of the past quarter-century. Perhaps that's because the decades-spacing story of an innocent convict (Tim Robbins) and a kind-hearted wheeler-dealer (Morgan Freeman) is as episodic and sprawling as what would become known as "prestige TV." Or maybe its just that once audiences finally found Frank Darabont's movie, they found it easy to relate to the central metaphor of imprisonment, which the movie beautifully translates (and expands upon) from King's non-horror source material. Criminal or not, who hasn't felt trapped? And who hasn't dreamed of doing whatever it takes to feel free again? NM
It's easily a ringer for both the Top Two Haunted Hotel Movies and the Top Three Man-Being-Fellated-By-A-Gent-In-A-Bear-Costume Movies Ever Made. Why, you may ask, is The Shining not the No. 1 choice on this list? Because if you're talking about adaptations of King's work, Stanley Kubrick's glorious, grandiose ghost story gets docked points for often feeling like a semi-superficial skim over the source material – the equivalent of merely passing a bottle of vermouth over a dry martini rather than pouring any in. The author has long gone on record as hating Kubrick's take; as recently as 2014, he was still lamenting Jack Nicholson's crazy-from-the-get-go performance and the film's hermetic vibe: "The book is hot, and the movie is cold." Whether you think the film improves on the novel is a matter of opinion (we think it does), and anyone who wants fidelity can check out the 1997 miniseries, topiary animals and all. But seen through the lens of "Stephen King movies," it's an interesting interpretation of the book's familial dysfunction and writer's block en extremis, and thus not a top-of-the-heap choice. It'll just have to settle for being one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. DF
He's a modern master of horror-lit – and yet two of the strongest big-screen adaptations of the genre's most popular purveyor don't even try to be scary. Just like The Shawshank Redemption, the plot of this coming-of-age classic originated in King's eclectic (and excellent) 1982 collection Different Seasons, and eschews vampires, killer dogs, and haunted hotels in favor of a low-key, personal story about four small-town boys in the late 1950s, played by stars-to-be River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell. As the kids take a dangerous hike to go look at a dead body, they share one last moment of camaraderie and bonding, before they get pulled apart by class differences and teenage angst. Rob Reiner gives it just the right touch of wistfulness and wonder, as well as somehow bringing the story's anecdotal centrepiece – a pie-eating contest that ends in copious vomiting – to the screen with all its technicolor grossness intact. Kudos, sir. NM
David Cronenberg is the man who made "body horror" a thing; Stephen King's tales of terror derive much of their power from down-to-earth Americana. An odd couple, to be sure. But the Canadian auteur brings out the best in the story of a New England schoolteacher (professional weirdo Christopher Walken, pitch-perfect) who awakens from a five-year coma with the ability to see the future of anyone he touches. Co-starring Martin Sheen as a blustery, right-wing politician rising to power via blue-collar populism and ready to trigger World War III – imagine that! It's cerebral but not chilly, complex but compelling – and as eerily prescient as its psychic protagonist. STC
Given that the writer takes defiant pride in penning books for fans and not critics, it's more than a little ironic that his one Oscar-winning movie is about a reader who loves an author way too much. Kathy Bates took home the Best Actress prize for her alternately funny and terrifying performance as a rural nurse who saves the life of her favorite novelist (James Caan), then forces him to write a novel that indulges her fangirl whims. (King noted that the bestseller was both influenced by and written under the influence of some addictive substances. "Misery is a book about cocaine," he claimed. "Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.") Rob Reiner not only captures the original's comic and waking-nightmare elements; he also gave the world a film that ended up predicting the increasingly toxic artist/audience relationship that's developed in the the age of the internet. And that "hobbling" scene? Hoo boy. NM
Brian De Palma's film version of King's first published novel is a masterpiece that stands on its own – both deeply unsettling and one of the more compassionate horror flicks you'll ever see. Could we even call it horror? Before it gets there, the movie goes through everything else: coming-of-age story, family drama, high school movie, social allegory, vigilante thriller. As the shy, repressed teenager tormented by her fellow students on one side and her deranged, Bible-quoting mother (Piper Laurie) on the other, Sissy Spacek is appropriately haunted and anxious – her intense performance has the quality of an exposed nerve. We feel for this girl and understand the impossibility of escaping the emotional prison that she lives in.
Meanwhile, De Palma's stylisation is both lush and forbidding: His swooping camera moves and sly editing tricks mix sentimentality and suspense, so that, much like Carrie herself, we never quite know where any given situation is headed. And the film sustains its tense, hesitant tone for so long that by the time the climactic prom night massacre arrives – resulting in one of the great shock-and-awe set pieces of all time – even those of us who've seen the movies a dozen times are on the edge of our seats. The bestselling author's literary debut got the inaugural cinema du King film it deserved. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. BE
Topics: Stephen King