Stephen King’s novels have permeated popular culture since 1974 and have been a part of the film landscape since Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Carrie in 1976.
Since then, a total of sixty-three films have been made from his novellas, short stories and novels. Whilst some have been outright classics, others have been less so. Here’s our pick of the nine best adaptations of Stephen King. We originally published this article back in 2016, and we’ve updated to include the most recent adaptation of It.
So, here goes…
9. THE MIST
Although many would associate Frank Darabont with The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile, he also made a cracking adaptation of The Mist, a small novella published in 1980 that went largely overlooked by all except hardened King fans. More than any other director, Darabont was able to cut to the core of what King was talking about his novels and none more incisive than The Mist. While the horrifying creatures that surround the supermarket were the draw of the film, the real monsters were inside the supermarket. The film works beautifully as an allegory for Bush’s America and the divides in the nation are focused here in a small supermarket. Witty, intelligent and deeply scary.
8. THE DEAD ZONE
While some might dismiss The Dead Zone as David Cronenberg honing his craft before he’d go on to the likes of The Fly or Naked Lunch, they overlook what is probably one of his most skillfully directed films. The film wisely underplays everything – from Christopher Walken’s powers to the nature of what it can do – and, instead, allows an eeriness to creep over the entire film. Martin Sheen is electric as the raucous, gibbering maniac Greg Stillson and the flash-forward scene is a powerful one; Sheen’s deranged delivery and Bible-thumping antics were pertinent in 1983 and are just as frightening in today’s political climate.
You can read our review to get the full opinion on It, but for now, we’ll say that it’s by far the strongest Stephen King adaptation we’ve seen in quite some time and will most likely stay that way for quite some time. Funnily enough, It owes a certain debt to Rob Reiner and Stand By Me as the non-horror moments in the film are definitely cribbed from that. Like we said, read the review to get the full opinion.
The film that started it all. Brian DePalma’s love of blood and gore was well-documented, having directed the excellent Sisters in 1973. With Carrie, DePalma’s direction focused correctly on Sissy Spacek’s incredible performance in the title role. Here, the horrors of teen angst, high school cruelty and the frightening changes in puberty, and religious orthodoxy were the real components for horror. Nancy Allen is also excellent as the bullying classmate whilst Piper Laurie is utterly frightening as the zealot mother.
5. THE GREEN MILE
Like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile was a lesser-known work by King that gained a second life thanks to an excellent adaptation by Frank Darabont. Again, Darabot’s innate understanding of King’s work is on show here and the spot-on casting of Tom Hanks, David Morse and the sadly departed Michael Clarke Duncan made the film what it was. Darabont infuses the story with mythic qualities, turning a squalid prison into a sort of make-believe kingdom of odd characters and strange happenings. King’s work was always about the extraordinary in the ordinary and was never more pointed than in The Green Mile.
As of writing, Misery is the only Stephen King adaptation to win an Academy Award and that’s because of Kathy Bates. Easily her greatest role, Bates’ performance as Annie Wilkes made Misery what it was. Her larger-than-life delivery, the screaming eyes and the casual violence enveloped the entire film, to the point where you’d almost forget that James Caan was acting next to her, Rob Reiner was directing or that William Goldman wrote the screenplay. The hobbling scene will go down as one of the most horrifying scenes in film history, made all the more brutal by the excellent sound design.
3. STAND BY ME
Rob Reiner’s eye for casting has always served him well. You only need to look at When Harry Met Sally and the instant chemistry between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal to know that Reiner has a mind for choosing the right actors for the right roles. The same is true of Stand By Me. As Wil Wheaton himself said in a 2011 interview, “I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive, and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us, Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since, and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.” Reiner skilfully directed these into a beautifully told coming-of-age drama that just happened to be based on a short novella by the writer of…
2. THE SHINING
The stories surrounding Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s involvement in The Shining is legendary. King himself that it was the only adaptation of his work that he hated. His disapproval of the film does seem to have dulled over time, but the fact remains that The Shining is the pinnacle of the horror genre. Why Kubrick decided to adapt the novel is something of a mystery, with speculations going all the way into the land of conspiracy theories. The excellent documentary, Room 237, expounds on a number of these and really is worth checking out as a companion piece to the film. As it stands, The Shining is – in our opinion – the greatest horror film ever made.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
What can be said about The Shawshank Redemption that hasn’t already been said? It has topped iMDB’s user-generated poll of the Top 250 Films since 2008. It was cited by Roger Ebert as one of the greatest films ever made. It has broken countless records for TV airings and the actors associated with it – Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins – are still to this day associated with the film. For Stephen King, however, he admits that he was surprised anything came of it. There has rarely been a film like The Shawshank Redemption that so accurately shows the birth and survival of hope in a truly hopeless place. Many recount how the film changed their lives upon viewing and, to this day, the film still resonates with audiences through it message of integrity, hope, balance and life.