Top 10 Stephen King Adaptations

Stephen King is one of the world’s greatest novelists with his work adapted for cinema countless times. Here are the 10 best Stephen King film adaptations…

My fascination with Stephen King started with a paper boat. The boat bobbed and weaved its way along a tiny stream created by the day’s rampant rain fall. Little Georgie, whose boat it was, happily followed the paper toy until it disappeared down a drain. Saddened and a little ashamed that he had lost the boat his older brother had made him, Georgie begins to walk home but is alerted by a gravely voice from within the blackness of the drain. Georgie investigates. He peers into the drain. To his surprise a smiling clown stands before him holding the boat…

…they never did discover Georgie’s body.

I was hooked. I had never read any of his books and hadn’t seen any of the other movies but the story of It grabbed me from minute one and wouldn’t let go. I think it was the characters more than anything – from the good guys to the bad guys, King’s densely populated narrative lived and breathed through unique characters who each had a personality dissimilar from anyone else. King has an eye for unusual but interesting people, who he uses to populate mystery and horror stories of high originality. Stephen King’s It was the starting point to my love of his work, especially its depiction on film.

10. Thinner (Tom Holland, 1996)

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The underrated gem in the Stephen King film cannon. Not surprising Tom Holland, director of the equally excellent Fright Night, is at the helm. Thinner is essentially about greed and arrogance with the added bonus of age old black magic. Billy Halleck, a self-serving lawyer from the suburbs, runs over an old Gypsy woman with his car after being distracted by his wife giving him oral sex. Two of Billy’s friends, high up in the criminal law food chain, help him avoid prosecution. The woman’s father puts a curse on Billy by touching his face. The curse causes a distinctly overweight Billy to lose weight no matter what he eats. His rapid loss of weight occurs as his two friends also find their bodies degenerating after being cursed by the old man. One of them commits suicide. Billy soon realises he won’t stop losing weight until he is nothing more than a skeleton so must set out to find the old man in order to reverse the curse.

Thinner is rampant with King’s black humour alongside some genuinely creepy moments. It was universally panned by critics on its release and still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. But it’s a fun thriller with a great premise and ultra cool performance from bad-boy Joe Mantegna.

9. The Dark Half (George A. Romero, 1993)

the dark half, romero, stephen king,

George A. Romero was brought in to adapt Stephen King’s hugely enjoyable novel The Dark Half about a writer’s pseudonym who takes on a life of his own and tries to murder the real writer. Stephen King wrote several stories as Richard Bachman (including The Running Man) so he plays on the idea of a pseudonym becoming an entity of its own and trying to gain the respectability of the real man. It’s King poking fun at himself with his usual black humour – the authors literary respectability versus the allure of pulp horror fiction.

Writer Thad Beaumont has made a living writing under the name George Stark but decides to end his association with the name and finds the alter-ego taking on a human form in order to defend his role in Thad’s creative ventures. Thad must try to protect his family and himself from the murderous Stark as actor Timothy Hutton brings both characters to life.

8. Silver Bullet (Daniel Attias, 1985)

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Silver Bullet is based on Stephen King’s novella Cycle Of The Werewolf. It sees wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw noticing there may be a rather mythical reason why violent, bloody murders have been occurring in his little home town of Tarker’s Mills. Through some particularly annoying voice-over exposition by his sister (certainly a King trait we could have done without, but it’s a minor problem at best), we get to see an interesting werewolf story that neatly combines King’s dark humour that seeks out the raw side of the human psyche, with a reasonably inventive play on the werewolf myth. It does this through some, albeit flimsy, moralistic issues, and the creature’s superhuman strength pitted against the youthful yet physically disabled child. One of the film’s most appealing aspects is how director Daniel Attias combines King’s community togetherness and the story’s idea of martial law, with a John Carpenter-style siege mentality that sees the locals taking matters into their own hands.

For sure, Silver Bullet doesn’t take itself seriously and King’s humour is at times exceptionally funny, particularly because Attias delivers it with such subtlety. When the locals go hunting for the werewolf it’s as if both the writer and director are just having fun with the conventions of the genre without resorting to cliche. There’s a distinct sense of the film trying to be subversively funny through its subtle humour and its light homage, and one scene stands out in particular. When the local’s go hunting, they find themselves in the woods. One of them, wielding a baseball bat with the words ‘The Peace Maker’ written on it, gets caught by the beast and disappears into the darkness, clearly trying to hit the animal with his weapon. Next thing we see is the werewolf with the bat in its hand beating the hell out of him. The film propels itself above mediocrity with its quite odd sense of humour that is delivered with the straightest of faces – for instance, outside of broad comedy, where else would you see a super-powered wheelchair being chased by a car?

7. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)

christine, top 10 stephen king films,

Many renowned directors have worked with Stephen King’s novels as source material for their movies and not many in the horror genre come as well respected as John Carpenter. Carpenter drew Christine as his attempt at adapting a King novel for the big screen, a story about a 1958 Plymouth Fury motorcar which takes on a murderous life of its own. Years later, when the car is bought by typical high school teenager Arnie Cunningham, the car and the boy begin a curious friendship. Arnie becomes obsessed by the car which causes rifts between himself and his family and friends. But the car seems to do him some good – Arnie develops a confidence he didn’t have before, and it helps him get back at the school bullies but it isn’t long before he is totally consumed by the power it gives him.

With Carpenter in the director’s chair this Stephen King adaptation is darker than most. It features a great soundtrack and, while similar in set-up to the equally teen angst ridden Carrie, throws a neat spin on it. Christine isn’t one of King’s finest novels so its testament to Carpenter’s skill as a cinematic storyteller that the film version of Christine is so enjoyable.

6. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)

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David Cronenberg takes on the reigns to bring Stephen King’s fine novel The Dead Zone to the screen. He moves the film to the wintry cold days and nights of the Canadian suburbs to act as New England, a perfect backdrop for the bleak existence of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken).

Smith has been in a coma after a serious car accident. He awakens to find that he has no broken bones or injuries of any kind but soon discovers it is because he’s been in his coma state for five years. His beloved girlfriend has married and had a child. As Smith tries to acclimatise himself back into normal life he finds that he has developed a gift that allows him to see into people’s past, present and future. When a chance encounter with US Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) shows Smith that the man will become President of the United States, and consequently order a nuclear strike against Russia and bring about full scale nuclear war, he decides he must assassinate Stillson to avert worldwide disaster.

It’s a great story and one of King’s brilliant early novels. It always read like it would make a great film and thankfully Cronenberg delivers. This is one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films and benefits from a strong central performance from Christopher Walken.

5. Stephen King’s It (1990)

stephen king's it, top stephen king movies,

Stephen King’s quite brilliant novel It showed the horror maestro at his best, balancing childhood innocence and adventure with nightmarish horror cooked up from the depths of their own imaginations. Turning a thousand-plus page paperback into a two, or as it turns out, three hour film was always going to be a difficult task, yet with the finished article it is clear the filmmakers brought in to do it weren’t far off making a perfect adaptation.

The story, for the first half, is told in flashback and we begin in the present day. A young girl is found mutilated and the police have no leads even though, as we find out, there have been other murders of young children in the area. Mike, a forty-something librarian living in Derry, where the murders are taking place, begins to suspect that Pennywise may have returned. Pennywise, the dancing clown, had taken children thirty years earlier when Mike and his friends were still young. They made a pact all those years ago to fight the clown, but swore that if It ever returned they would all come back to Derry to fight the monster again. When Mike find’s a photograph of a boy who was killed thirty years earlier, he knows it is time to call on his friends to meet their promise. Via phone calls to each of the six friends, we begin to find out the true horrors they all faced thirty years earlier.

4. Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

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Rob Reiner knows how to adapt a Stephen King story for the big screen. He’s done it twice, and on both occasions the writer himself has approved with glowing appreciation. That is something of a feat, given that King rarely praises the work of filmmakers who adapt his books, reserving positive reviews for only a handful. Incidentally, one of King’s favourites is The Shawshank Redemption which doesn’t appear in our list.

However, King delights in Reiner’s cinematic adaptation of Misery. The novel is one of King’s best, mixing a wry, self-referential humour with murderous thrills that works as perfectly on the screen as it does on the page.

James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a successful writer who has made a name for himself with the romantic stories of Misery Chastain. But he’s become bored of the character and kills her off in what he decides will be her last outing on the page. Retiring to his favoured cabin in Silver Creek, Colorado to write a new novel, he finds himself stuck in a snow storm and crashes his car. He is found by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, who brings him to her home unconscious. When he awakes, she explains that he has two broken legs and due to the snow he can’t be transported to hospital until the weather improves. She also tells him she is his number one fan.

As Sheldon is nursed slowly back to the health, Wilkes buys his brand new Misery novel and begins reading. When she finds out that he has killed Misery at the end of the book, it sends her into a rage. She tells him that no one will come to his aid and forces him to write a new novel, this time bringing Misery back to life. As Sheldon begins to write the novel from his bedridden prison he begins to peace together Wilkes’ character by secretly leaving his room when she’s in the town. He discovers she was once convicted of murdering babies and knows that unless he builds his strength and fights to save his life, he won’t leave Wilkes’ home alive.

Misery is a brilliant thriller. Kathy Bates gives one of her best performances as the psychotic Annie Wilkes, and the film features one of the most devastatingly effective scenes in any Stephen King adaptation (when Wilkes breaks Sheldon’s ankles with a sledgehammer to prevent him from escaping).

3. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

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Brian De Palma would make a similar film about telekinesis after Carrie but, and although The Fury is effective, it isn’t as good as Carrie. Indeed, Carrie is one of De Palma’s finest films, just as it is one of King’s best novels. In fact, Carrie was King’s debut, and what a great debut it was.

The film tells the story of Carrie White. Carrie is a loner – she has no friends and is incessantly bullied at school. At home she is under the heavy hand of her domineering and passionately religious mother who punishes Carrie for having her first period. Amidst her troublesome existence, Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers and that she can move and manipulate objects without touching them.

One of the girls who joined the bullies to tease Carrie feels guilty and persuades her popular boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom. Initially guarded, Carrie is eventually excited by the prospect. But some of the other bullies decide to use Carrie’s appearance at the prom to humiliate her. Their actions lead to one of the most frightening and effecting horror film endings ever.

Carrie is blessed with a great story and a strong central performance from Sissy Spacek with wonderful support from Piper Laurie as her mother. De Palma is also perfectly suited to King’s material – the female sexuality and voyeurism the director has flirted with in other films is evidence here, as is the director’s penchant for Hitchcockian thrills and sophisticated editing and filming techniques.

2. Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)

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Gordon Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) are four friends living in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon. They’re brought close by circumstance, and they’re brought even closer by their turbulent and indifferent backgrounds. Another day hanging out in their tree house seems imminent, however, when Vern eventually is allowed into the tree house after forgetting the secret knock, he tells them he knows where they can find a dead body. Totally intrigued, they decide to look for this body laying miles away. Packing their belongings, they set off along the railway track not really knowing why they are going, not knowing what will happen on the way, and certainly not knowing what they’re going to do when they get there.

There aren’t many directors that can claim to have made an adaptation of a Stephen King story, of which the writer actually likes, however in this case King is pretty much smiling from ear to ear with glee over the production. The man himself say’s the film is probably the best film based on his work ever made, but puts it down to the very human aspect of which the film gains its driving force. It is this aspect that writer’s Gideon and Evans tap into most, concentrating on building strong, multi-layered characteristics for the four boys, each having their own traits and quirks.

Reiner explains that to get the four leads to give such good performances all he needed to do was give them a pointer or two and then start rolling the camera. The four actors give such effortless displays in bringing their respective roles to the screen. Partly due to Reiner’s background in acting, helping him get in touch with their needs, and partly due to allowing the boys to be themselves, allows the group to create a wonderful rapport as they almost perfectly bring the characters to life.

1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

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One of the few examples of a film being better than the book, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of cinema. The fact it surpasses the source text is reason enough for Stephen King’s displeasure with Kubrick’s vision, one of many film adaptations he doesn’t like.

Kubrick strips the novel of much of its exposition and focuses the story on young child Danny (Danny Lloyd) and the deteriorating psyche of his father Jack (Jack Nicholson). The Torrance family move into the Overlook Hotel when father Jack takes a job as caretaker. Throughout the winter months the hotel will lie dormant with only the family as occupants. Danny appears to have a psychic ability and begins seeing the ghosts of two young children who may have been murdered in the hotel. As Danny learns more about his surroundings, father Jack’s mental state worsens as he is consumed by a supernatural evil present in the hotel. When Jack’s intentions become dangerous, Danny and mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) must battle to stay alive.

The Shining is the best film based on a Stephen King novel ever made. It may differ from the source text more so than any other film on this list but that’s part of the film’s appeal. It is Kubrick’s vision of the story which gives the film an added dimension – it is a story that is cinematic at its core, not literary, and it takes on a theatrical life of its own. Jack Nicholson’s performance pushes the film to even greater highs but ultimately the film is a masterpiece not because of King but because of Kubrick. That should however take little away from King’s concept, another brilliant idea, making for a thoroughly immersive horror story. But thankfully, Kubrick adds to it, making sure the novel emerges on screen in the best possible way.

Written and Compiled by Daniel Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Fitz Reply

    The Dead Zone doesn’t really get the acclaim it deserves. Nice acknowledgement.

  2. Andrew Robinson Reply

    No space for THE MIST? That’s one of my favs for sure…

    Not sure if The Green Mile or Shawshank Redemption count either.

    But ye, great list… there’re still a few of these I haven’t seen yet.

  3. CS Reply

    I would have included Shawshank Redemption and The Mist to the list instead of Christine and Silver Bullet. Besides that, I pretty much agree with the selections on the list. The Shining would have been my choice for the top spot as well.

  4. Novroz Reply

    Kyaaa…Stephen King!!! My number one author! I am trying to read ALL his books and watch ALL his adaptations (unfortunately I am still far behind your list). I haven’t seen half of them.

    From the one I have seen, my list will be:
    1. The Green Mile
    2. Shawshank Redemption
    3. Thinner (the movie that makes me fall in love with SK)
    4. Misery
    5. The Mist.
    6. Stand By Me
    I have seen more than this but I like making top5 than top10 🙂

    I’m looking forward for the adaptation on Under The Dome. I love the book so much and hoping they won’t change a lot of things in it.

    The Shining will not be in my Top5 because it changes A LOT of things from the books. I know I am alone in this dislike toward The Shining – movie because I love the book so much. I like Jack Nicholson’s act very much, if it isn’t because of him I would have turn it off before it ended.

  5. Thomas Reply

    nice list, it is very hard to find the few gems amidst these huge pile of carelessly produced rubbish coming under the “based on a story by Stephen King” headline.
    Films I really like:
    Stand By Me
    Carrie
    Shawshank Redemption
    Green Mile
    The Shining
    Dead Zone

    Films I have a soft spot for despite their apparent rubbishness:
    Christine (probably childhood nostalgia, as it was my first encounter with King’s work).
    Pet Semetary (first movie I ever saw in a drive-in)
    Misery
    Salem’s Lot
    Apt Pupil
    Creepshow
    Cat’s Eye
    Maximum Overdrive – great first-time director, kind of the Catcher in the Rye among directorial achievements 😉

  6. Dan Reply

    @Novroz: I see your point regarding The Shining. It does change things but I’ve always thought it was for the better. The Shining is Kubrick’s vision of the King’s story – King hates the movie, that’s why he wanted that more faithful TV movie made. With some of King’s books I think the director’s could have gone a similar route to Kubrick – I love It but the second half could have done with tightening. Rob Reiner found a happy medium with Stand By Me and Misery – great stand alone films that are faithful to the book without including absolutely everything from the page.

  7. Novroz Reply

    Yeah I know how King felt. Someone told me about it in my rant over the movie. I believe I have seen the TV series before reading the book.

    The movie that I think changed for the best is The Mist…the ending is better than the book. And it didn’t change more than the ending.

  8. Dan Reply

    It’s interesting there’s a lot of love for The Mist. I’m not a fan of the film myself – couldn’t stand the ending.

  9. Andy Reply

    My top ten:

    1 – The Shining (1980)
    2 – Stand By Me
    3 – The Shawshank Redemption
    4 – The Dead Zone (1983)
    5 – Carrie
    6 – The Mist
    7 – Misery
    8 – Christine
    9 – Apt Pupil
    10 – The Running Man

  10. Dan Reply

    Great list Andy! Nice to see we agree on quite a few. Have to say I’m fond of The Running Man too but didn’t think it merited a place on my top 10.

  11. CES Reply

    Instead of The Shining with jack nicholson, I liked the one with three discs that’s EXACTLY like the book. (just about), and my number one wouldve been Dreamcatcher, that movie rules ALL, even though they messed up the end. I think the movie ending was better, actually, I was disappointed in the book.

  12. Neal Damiano Reply

    I always liked “Sometimes They Come Back” and “Creepshow 1” But they were not highly publicised like his other films. “Misery” is excellent but my favorite is “The Dead Zone” which I feel should be higher on the list than 6 definitely rank higher than “It”.

  13. Dan Grant Reply

    Can’t believe I never saw this one before. Stephen King is without a doubt, the greatest writer to ever live, imho. As Dan (I assume it was Dan who wrote this) said in his opening, IT is one brilliant book filled with rich and familiar characters. I had read King books before IT, but once I read IT, I realized that King had his hooks in me. I can pick it up and open it to any page and love it just as much as the first time I read it back in my teens.

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t think Christine was all that well written. I loved it and I love that the Fury makes an appearance in IT as he helps break the bad guy out of the insane asylum. I think it was Belch.

    Nice list of course. And of course you will get a lot of differing opinions. I too am a big fan of the Mist and of the ending.

    Here is my top 10:

    1) Stand By Me
    2) Shawshank Redemption
    3) The Shining
    4) Cujo
    5) Christine
    6) Silver Bullet
    7) The Dead Zone
    8) Green Mile
    9) Misery
    10) IT (my favourite book but because it’s so hard to interpret what he writes, the adaptation could have been better)

    I like almost all of King’s films. But making a top 10 is tough when there is so much to choose from. Even a TV film like The Langoliers is good.

    Great topic Dan.

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