Stephen King is the most adapted author of his generation. His work has been hitting the screen since his first novel, Carrie, was translated to film in 1976, and the adaptations haven’t really slowed down since that launching point. If anything, they’ve sped up, as evidenced by everything from the two-part IT film series to Hulu’s Castle Rock to the most recent adaptation, Mike Flanagan’s film version of Doctor Sleep. King is so frequently adapted that Carrie has been made into a film three different times, and one of his short stories, “Children of the Corn,” spawned a film franchise that’s stretched across 30 years and ten different movies.
The dozens of adaptations of his work over the last four decades prove that King has struck a nerve with filmmakers, even if they’re not all able to pay back that favor with a good adaptations. The filmmakers that do manage to make good movies, even masterpieces, out of King’s works, are the ones with either a firm understanding of the underlying cinematic power of his language or the huge heart present in his voice. The very best King films, listed from worst to best below, are good enough to do both.
10. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Gerald’s Game is one of King’s most conceptually daring novels, and depending on who you ask, the boldness didn’t exactly pay off. It’s the story of a woman who’s left to fight for survival after her husband suddenly has a heart attack during a sex game at their secluded lake house. When he dies, she’s left handcuffed to the bed, and as hallucinations set, in she’s forced to reckon with her past while fighting for her future.
King stretched this intriguing hook into an entire novel by having much of its conflict play out entirely in a single desperate character’s mind, making it both a challenging book for even longtime fans and an especially confounding story for anyone trying to make a visually arresting film out of it. Somehow, Mike Flanagan (Oculus) pulled it off. His film version of Gerald’s Game — anchored by a commanding performance from Carla Gugino — is somehow both a streamlined version of King’s narrative and a more expansive take on the story that delves into the nature of trauma, memory, and the lies we tell ourselves just to get through a day. It’s a rare adaptation that’s arguably a better version of the story than its source material.
9. IT (2017)
IT is a novel about a group of friends during two very distinct periods in their lives, with a 27-year gap between one pivotal childhood summer and their dark reunion to battle an ancient evil decades later. Director Andy Muschietti and company decided these two eras should be largely split into two different films, in contrast to King’s constant interweaving of them on the page. It was a gamble, and while it didn’t always work for 2019’s IT Chapter Two, the gamble paid off in magical ways for the initial installment in 2017.
Though the film moves the childhood action from the 1950s to the 1980s, Muschietti’s adaptation retains the sense of nostalgia-smeared mythology the book instills in its ensemble. With an immensely charismatic cast of young actors, IT makes the jump to the screen with a few key changes, but the heart of the story remains an epic saga of a group of weird kids who set out to hunt down a monster. Throw in Bill Skarsgard’s unforgettable take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and you’ve got a new King classic.
8. Pet Sematary (1989)
Pet Sematary is, famously, the novel that even King thought might be too horrifying to publish. With this chilling story about a family in the midst of tragedy and the supernatural force that could offer a way out, King felt that he’d pushed himself into particularly uncomfortable territory. Readers agreed, but they were still happy to devour the novel and its grim story of what happens when a grieving father tries to cheat death. Mary Lambert’s film adaptation, scripted by King himself, sets out to retain this sense of creeping discomfort, and succeeds in just about every frame. The film is skin-crawlingly effective, from the peaceful country bliss we know will soon be shattered to that final disgusting gore effect.
7. Misery (1989)
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King describes the conception of the story that would become Misery, and reveals that he initially thought of it as a rather gruesome short story with a sad ending for stranded novelist Paul Sheldon. Fortunately for all of us, King is not a writer who likes to marry himself to a rigid plot outline, and Paul Sheldon managed to find a way to survive the devastating devotion of his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. Misery succeeds, as both a novel and a film, in no small part because King is able to create the seat-of-your-pants sense that the story could all go horribly wrong at any second, no matter how many pages you have left.
Director Rob Reiner retains that feeling for the film adaptation, weaving a taut thriller out of a stripped down story about two people who are each willing to go as far as it takes to get what they want. Of course, Misery doesn’t work without two dynamite actors in the leading roles, and it’s here that the movie is left is in the capable hands of Kathy Bates and James Caan. They trade blows for 100 pulse-pounding minutes, making this movie so much more than just that one, stomach-churning scene everyone knows about.
6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Though he will forever be known as the man who dreamed up haunted hotels and vampire boys tapping on windows for many readers, King’s greatest asset as a composer of fiction might be his knack for voice. This is one of the reasons that one of his novellas, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, is so compelling to begin with, and perhaps the best decision Frank Darabont ever made as a filmmaker was to retain the novella’s narrative voice for the movie. The Shawshank Redemption’s success begins and ends with the soothing, soulful narration of Morgan Freeman’s Red. The stirring visuals, sensational ensemble cast, and gorgeous Thomas Newman score do a lot of the heavy lifting along the way, but it’s Red’s voice — much of it lifted directly from King’s text — that makes the film truly soar. Sometimes adapting prose to film is a lot like cooking: find the best ingredients you can, and do as little to them as possible.
5. The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone is one of King’s best novels, and also among his most unwieldy when it comes to cinematic translation. It’s the story of an ordinary man (so ordinary that his name is actually John Smith) with the extraordinary power to see the future when he touches someone, which already means much of the most exciting stuff is taking place in one guy’s head. Throw in the sprawling timeline of the book, and it’s a tricky thing to get up onscreen indeed.
Director David Cronenberg, producer Debra Hill, and writer Jeffrey Boam somehow made it work. Their version of The Dead Zone is a heavily abbreviated version of King’s story, so much so that the primary antagonist (Martin Sheen as a morally bankrupt politician) doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie. Copious edits aside, though, they retain the frightening spirit of King’s original work, thanks in no small part to Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith. When you get an actor who always looks like something strange is going on just behind his eyes to begin with, you’re halfway to where you want to be. Cronenberg’s precise direction does the rest.
4. Christine (1983)
Stephen King is so good at what he does that he can pitch you things like “a kid buys a car that turns out to be haunted and can repair itself between murders” and then somehow make them work on the page even as you might be scoffing at the logline. Christine works like gangbusters on the page, but coming up with a convingly evil car for the big screen was another story, especially in 1983.
Fortunately for everyone involved, John Carpenter is also the kind of horror storyteller who can come up with a wild idea on the page (“guy sees aliens through magic sunglasses,” etc.) and then pull it off onscreen. His Christine is fast-paced, playful, and truly scary thanks to both Carpenter’s expert pacing and the convincingly menacing antics of the car itself. Leave it to John Carpenter and Stephen King to make a Plymouth Fury popping dents out of its own hood into something truly nightmarish.
3. Stand By Me (1986)
The Shawshank Redemption is a basic cable staple, so it’s often held up as the first and only necessary evidence that Stephen King can do more than just horror. As great as Shawshank is, though, it’s not the only proof of King’s ability to tell a non-scary story, nor is it the best. That honor belongs to Rob Reiner’s adaptation of King’s novella, The Body, which appeared in the same collection as the Shawshank story, Different Season. Stand By Me is the story of four friends who embark on a two-day adventure to find a dead body out in the Oregon woods, and the dangers and personal struggles they encounter along the way. The wonderful ensemble — led by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell — carries the film through its emotional beats, but its greatest asset seems to be Reiner’s ability to know exactly which heartstring to pluck at any given time, like some kind of tearjerking virtuoso. It’s a beautifully realized, nostalgic gem.
2. The Shining (1980)
No other horror film has been studied, dissected, and mythologized quite like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has. This movie is so lodged in our collective pop culture consciousness that an entire movie exists that’s just about how fascinated some people are with The Shining. It’s that ubiquitous and that impactful. Watching the film now, nearly 40 years after its initial release, it’s still easy to see why. The Shining is a masterpiece of strange, sustained tension and judicious use of the supernatural. It’s a textbook example of how to create a dread-inducing atmosphere out of a single location, and remains a masterpiece of the genre. There’s no denying The Shining’s impact or its masterful depiction of a man slowly unraveling in a supposedly haunted hotel. As an adaptation of a Stephen King work, though, it leaves something to be desired, and King hasn’t been shy about saying so. The liberties the film takes with King’s overall plot are fine, and often they’re improvements (Jack Torrance freezing to death in a hedge maze is more memorable than Jack Torrance dying in a boiler explosion), but the fundamental thematic core of the book feels tampered with, and that’s enough to just edge The Shining out of first place here.
1. Carrie (1976)
Carrie, King’s debut novel, is a lean, mean thriller about a girl who’s so disliked at her high school that she’s bullied for being frightened by her first period, who then manages to exact revenge thanks to telekinetic powers she’s only just learning to use. It’s a slim book and therefore lends itself to a fast-paced film adaptation, but where other filmmakers might have simply delivered a solid thriller, Brian De Palma instead turned Carrie into an ultra-stylized, operatic bloodbath that’s as funny as it is scary. Led by Sissy Spacek in the title role and a mesmerizing Piper Laurie as Carrie’s overbearing mother, the film version of Carrie takes King’s high-school-as-hell metaphors and writes them even larger and louder. The moment when Carrie’s gauzy, dreamlike prom queen celebration descends into blood-drenched madness is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s bold, relentless aesthetic. De Palma knew exactly what kind of film Carrie would make, and he didn’t miss a step in giving it to us.