The 10 Greatest Stephen King Films — and 5 to Skip
The King of Horror has inspired a scary ton of movies, both fantastic and horrifying
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first film adaptation of one of Stephen King’s works, the 1982 anthology film Creepshow, which included sections based on his short stories “Weeds” and “The Crate.” More than 50 film, TV and miniseries adaptations later, this month will see the release of a new version of Firestarter, starring Zac Efron as the father of a young girl who develops pyrokinesis and is hunted down by a secret government agency. The horror flick, which will be released in theaters and stream on Peacock on May 13, is the second adaptation of King’s 1980 novel of the same name, following a 1984 film starring a young Drew Barrymore. Over the years, the 74-year-old King of Horror has amassed a filmography that is, to put it mildly, a bit uneven: For every classic like Carrie or The Shining, there are outrageous duds like Maximum Overdrive and The Lawnmower Man. Here, 10 King adaptations we love — and five horrifyingly bad films that send shivers up our spines for all the wrong reasons.
10. 1408 (2007)
Based on: The short story “1408” from the audiobook collection Blood and Smoke (1999)
The premise: Author Mike Enslin (John Cusack, 55) has made a career debunking supposedly paranormal phenomena. For his next book, he decides to check into a New York City hotel where the titular room is reported to be haunted. In fact, when he tries to check in, hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson, 73) tells him that, for the last 95 years, no guest has lasted more than an hour inside room 1408. The current death toll: 56. Once inside, Mike becomes trapped in a nightmarish space that includes the ghosts of past victims, rising flood waters, freezing temperatures and a creepy doppelgänger of himself. Instead of gore and jump scares, this is a movie built on psychological terror that gets under your skin.
The scariest part: You’ll feel genuine unease as Mike starts to regret his decision, especially when The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” starts playing creepily on the clock radio.
Watch it: 1408 on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
9. The Green Mile (1999)
Based on: The Green Mile (1996)
The premise: Five years after his success with The Shawshank Redemption, director Frank Darabont, 63, tackled another prison-set drama inspired by a Stephen King novel. Tom Hanks, 65, stars as Paul Edgecomb, a Louisiana death row guard who befriends an inmate named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). Though he has been charged with the murder of two young girls, Coffey appears to be a gentle giant who’s afraid of the dark and possesses special healing powers — which he puts to use curing Paul’s bladder infection and resurrecting a fellow inmate’s dead pet mouse. It’s a sentimental film that stretches to three hours long and borders on Oscar bait, but the baiting paid off: The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best supporting actor for Duncan.
The scariest part: The graphic electric chair scenes may leave you slightly traumatized.
Watch it: The Green Mile on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
8. It (2017)
Based on: It (1986)
The premise: The small town of Derry, Maine has a little problem that keeps cropping up every 27 years: Like clockwork, an ancient, shapeshifting clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) shows up to terrorize the local kids, preying on their individual worst fears. Fighting back against him this time around is a ragtag group of misfits known as the Losers Club, led by Bill (Jaeden Martell), whose little brother may have been killed by the evil presence. The source novel — which was already adapted into a 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry, 76, as Pennywise — is a hefty 1,138 pages, so there was more than enough material for a 2019 sequel, which covers the second half of the book and sees the Losers Club all grown up, 27 years later, with a cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and James McAvoy.
The scariest part: Little Georgie’s attack in a rainy sewer is appropriately bone-chilling.
Watch it: It on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
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7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Based on: Dolores Claiborne (1992)
The premise: Kathy Bates, 73, may have won an Oscar for Misery, but she considers the title role in this grim thriller to be the greatest performance of her career. Bates stars as a New England housekeeper, whose wealthy boss turns up murdered. With Dolores as the only suspect, her estranged daughter, New York City journalist Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 60) returns home to their tiny Maine village, where decades of long-buried trauma and pain begin to resurface. “Bates’s performance is terrific,” wrote Desson Howe in The Washington Post. “The star of Misery seems to thrive in King Country. Full of offbeat charm, eccentric charisma and colorful profanity (none of which can be repeated here), she exudes a believability you don’t normally expect in movies like this.”
The scariest part: This is one of those nonsupernatural King films where the cruelty endured at the hands of another human (even a loved one) can be worse than the horrors perpetrated by any evil clown or sentient car or killer dog.
Watch it: Dolores Claiborne on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
Based on: The Dead Zone (1979)
The premise: Leave it to director David Cronenberg, 79, to get on the same creepy wavelength as King. In this underrated supernatural thriller, teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, 79) gets in a terrible car accident, and when he awakens from the ensuing coma, he discovers that he has psychic powers: By touching a person, he can see into their futures. Let’s just say that, when he shakes the hand of the charismatic politician Greg Stilson (Martin Sheen, 81), he really doesn’t like what he sees. Thanks to Walken’s grounded performance, the film will have you wondering what you’d do if you could see the future and had the power to change it.
The scariest part: While not as frightening as some of King’s other works — and certainly not as graphic as Cronenberg’s body horror classics like The Fly — Johnny’s visions are disturbing in their own way.
Watch it: The Dead Zone on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
5. Misery (1990)
Based on: Misery (1987)
The premise: Kathy Bates won the only Oscar ever awarded to a Stephen King movie for her realistically terrifying portrayal of the obsessed superfan Annie Wilkes, who ranks at number 17 on AFI’s list of the greatest villains in cinema history. When romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan, 82) crashes his car in a blizzard, Annie Wilkes takes him into her remote cabin to recover. The good news: She’s a nurse who’s a big fan of Paul’s work. The bad: She’s a psychopath who really doesn’t appreciate that Paul plans to kill off her favorite character, the Victorian heroine Misery Chastain. Unwilling to let either of them go, she keeps him prisoner until he writes a book that will bring her back from the grave.
The scariest part: You really don’t want to see what Annie can do with a sledgehammer and a block of wood.
Watch it: Misery on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
4. Stand by Me (1986)
Based on: The novella “The Body” from the collection Different Seasons (1982)
The premise: Rob Reiner, 75, directed this sweetly nostalgic coming-of-age tale that feels quite different from King’s other works, even if the general concept is a bit morbid: It’s 1959 in small-town Oregon and four friends — Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Vern (Jerry O’Connell) and Teddy (Corey Feldman, 50) — set out to find the body of a missing boy. King is famously fond of the film, and he told Rolling Stone that it’s probably the best adaptation of one of his books. After first screening the movie with Reiner, King recalls, “I hugged him because I was moved to tears, because it was so autobiographical.” Over the years, it has become a favorite of kids of the ’80s, and it earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay and Golden Globe nods for best drama and best director.
The scariest part: This one isn’t about supernatural frights or jump scares, but instead very human fears — such as losing loved ones.
Watch it: Stand by Me on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Netflix
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on: The novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” from the collection Different Seasons (1982)
The premise: Just how well has this 1994 prison drama aged? Although it was only the 51st-highest-grossing movie of the year, it currently sits at number 1 on the user-voted IMDb ranking of the greatest films of all time, ahead of The Godfather. It’s a warm-hearted character study about two inmates in a fictional Maine prison in the 1940s: Andy (Tim Robbins, 63), a banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover; and Red (Morgan Freeman, 84), a contraband prison smuggler. You can’t help but root for this duo, who fill their days talking about big ideas and spouting quotable lines like, “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” Though it didn’t win any of the seven Oscars it was nominated for, including best picture, it would go on to appear at number 72 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies — and, perhaps more tellingly, at number 23 on its list of the most inspiring.
The scariest part: Darabont doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of prison, including sadistic guards and sexual assault.
Watch it: The Shawshank Redemption on Amazon Prime, Apple TV
2. The Shining (1980)
Based on: The Shining (1977)
The premise: Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, 85) takes a job as a winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Rocky Mountains, but when he moves in with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall, 72), and young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), they get more than they bargained for. When a blizzard traps them inside, Jack quickly begins to lose his grip on reality, as he’s faced with twin terrors: supernatural occurrences and writer's block. The film is filled with some of the most memorable images in the horror genre, including twin girls standing in the hallway, elevators gushing a torrent of blood and Nicholson’s joker grin peering in through an ax hole in the door. The Shining is now widely considered one of the defining films of the genre, but it was anything but a success upon its initial release; reviews were mixed at best, and it was the only one of Stanley Kubrick’s last nine films to receive no Oscar or Golden Globe nominations. One of its biggest detractors? King himself, who vocally hated the film.
The scariest part: “Here’s Johnny!”
Watch it: The Shining on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
1. Carrie (1976)
Based on: Carrie (1974)
The premise: King’s first published novel made for a masterwork of a horror flick, and so much of that success rests on the shoulders of Sissy Spacek, 72, who brought real pathos to the role of high schooler Carrie White. The shy 16-year-old girl is tormented from all sides, by bullies at school and by her religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie, 90) at home. When she begins to develop telekinesis, well, you better watch out if you ever wronged Carrie. Directed with style and a surprising dose of empathy by Brian De Palma, 81, the film reaches its bloody climax with a prom scene that’s almost operatic in its ever-escalating terror (pig blood, electrocution, fire), and it’s one of the few horror films to get some much-deserved attention at the Oscars, earning nominations for both Spacek and Laurie. The King novel went on to inspire a Broadway musical (with songs like “Out for Blood”), a sequel, a TV movie adaptation and a later remake, but none matches the intensity of that 1976 original.
The scariest part: This is one prom you don’t want to be invited to.
Watch it: Carrie on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
... and the five worst Stephen King adaptations
5. The Mangler (1995): If we gave you 100 tries, you’d never guess who (or what) the Mangler is. Ready? It’s a demon-possessed industrial laundry press that folds its victims like sheets. And it’s owned by a man played by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, 74.
4. Graveyard Shift (1990): Workers on the night shift at a rat-infested textile mill keep getting killed. When a drifter is hired to clean out the basement, he encounters the culprit: a giant bat creature with a taste for blood. The schlockfest has a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.
3. Cell (2006): We know, we know: Cellphones are bad for us. But in this too-on-the-nose cautionary tale, they’re really bad for us. As in, a mysterious signal broadcast through mobile networks turns-humans-into-murderous-zombies bad.
2. Maximum Overdrive (1986): In the only film ever directed by King himself, Earth passes through the tail of a comet, and machines become sentient — and homicidal. Soon, everything from Mack trucks and lawnmowers to hair dryers and vending machines find sadistic ways to hunt down humanity.
1. The Lawnmower Man (1992): Its TRON-lite visual effects are dated, and the plot has fared even worse. Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan, 68) uses psychoactive drugs and virtual reality to experiment on an intellectually disabled gardener (Jeff Fahey, 69), who develops superhuman strength and later turns vengeful. It had so little to do with King’s source story that the author successfully sued to have his name removed from advertising.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.