With more than 50 movie and TV versions of his books and short stories released since “Carrie” premiered in 1976, Stephen King has been adapted for the screen more times than any other living author. And with Warner Bros.’s “It” about to invade theaters, his list of film credits is only getting longer. To help you plan a terrifying movie marathon, here are the top 15 Stephen King adaptations, along with 10 that are so bad it’s scary.
The Best: 15. Salem’s Lot (1979)
King’s first foray into television was originally proposed as a feature film, but shaping the book’s multiple subplots into a workable screenplay proved nearly impossible. Instead, producer Richard Kobritz suggested that the miniseries format might fit the material better. Directed by “Texas Chain Saw” mastermind Tobe Hooper, the two-part series raised the bar in terms of bringing horror to TV screens. Though much of it seems dated today, the image of a toothy young boy scratching at his friend’s bedroom window still manages to chill the blood.
The Best: 14. Storm of the Century (1999)
The ‘90s were a golden age for bringing King’s work to network TV, and this chilling three-part miniseries was the best of the bunch. Set during a raging blizzard, “Storm of the Century” combines the eerie tension of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a classic Faustian tale about a stranger who forces the residents of a small island to make a nightmarish sacrifice. As the demonic visitor whose arrival sets the horror in motion, actor Colm Feore is simply mesmerizing. Dubbed a “novel for television,” King wrote the original teleplay expressly for the small screen.
The Best: 13. The Green Mile
The second of director Frank Darabont’s pair of prison-set King adaptations, “The Green Mile” often feels like an entire season’s worth of a TV series crammed into one three-hour feature film. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Handsomely produced and spiritually uplifting, the film is aided immeasurably by the presence of Michael Clarke Duncan, who earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for his role as the supernaturally endowed prisoner John Coffey.
The Best: 12. 1408 (2007)
A cynical author who specializes in debunking haunted locations gets more than he bargained for when he enters an evil hotel room in this mind-bending thriller based on a King short story. Combining the psychological scares of Robert Wise’s classic “The Haunting” with the modern jolts of “The Conjuring” series, “1408” offers something for every horror fan. As the skeptical writer whose worst fears come roaring to life, John Cusack grounds the creepy tale with honest emotion. His incremental descent into madness is depicted perfectly by Swedish director Mikael Håfström’s clever visuals.
The Best: 11. The Mist (2007)
An old-fashioned monster movie set in and around a supermarket, “The Mist” delivers expertly crafted jump scares while simultaneously burrowing its way beneath the audience’s skin. Once again, King proves what a master he is at depicting ordinary people pushed to unimaginable limits when the supernatural (in this case, a military experiment gone wrong) invades their mundane surroundings. Loaded with enough ghastly creatures and graphic dismemberments to fill a dozen issues of Fangoria Magazine, “The Mist” is a gory gift to hardcore horror fans. Though the novella it’s based on ends with a handful of survivors venturing out to an uncertain future, writer/director Frank Darabont wraps up the film with an emotionally devastating climax.
The Best: 10. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a psychotic nurse who dishes out literary criticism with a sledgehammer in the second of Rob Reiner’s two King adaptations. Structured as an escalating cat and mouse game between an injured writer and his number one fan, “Misery” trims several of the book’s elaborately gory sequences, concentrating for the most part on the psychological effects of confinement and torture. Yet despite the bravura acting and crackling script (by legendary novelist and screenwriter William Goldman), it’s the unbearable hobbling scene that lingers in the mind long after the final credits roll.
The Best: 9. Stand By Me (1986)
Recalling the autobiographical work of Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury, King’s heartfelt tale of four boys on a journey of self discovery is more than just a nostalgic period piece. It’s a profoundly moving look at the bonds of adolescent friendship. Sensitively directed by Rob Reiner, and featuring a wonderful ensemble of young actors, “Stand by Me” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In keeping with King’s penchant for gross-out humor, the film contains a hilariously disgusting interlude set at a blueberry pie eating contest that’s guaranteed to make your inner 12-year old cackle with glee.
The Best: 8. Cujo (1983)
Favorite ‘80s movie mom Dee Wallace delivers a shattering performance in this brutal adaptation of King’s angriest novel. Playing a desperate mother struggling to protect her son from the foaming jaws of a rabid St. Bernard, Wallace pulls out all the stops in an emotional and physical tour de force. Equally impressive is young Danny Pintauro (only 7 years old at the time of filming), whose hysterical fits of terror appear shockingly genuine. Director Lewis Teague, cinematographer Jan de Bont, and composer Charles Bernstein turn each vicious canine attack into a pulverizing symphony of horror.
The Best: 7. Christine (1983)
Beautifully shot and brilliantly scored, John Carpenter’s stylish adaptation of King’s haunted car novel captures the author’s fondness for kitschy Americana better than any other film on this list. Though it was only a modest success at the box office, over time “Christine” has gained a sizable cult following, thanks in large part to its indelible automotive set pieces. If the sight of a candy apple red Plymouth Fury forcing itself (or more accurately herself) down a too-narrow alleyway to reach a screaming victim doesn’t capture your imagination, you’re probably dead.
The Best: 6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
It’s easy to see why this Oscar nominated adaptation of King’s novella is considered a modern classic by so many. Between Frank Darabont’s sterling direction, Thomas Newman’s moving score, and the flawless performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, everything about “The Shawshank Redemption” coalesces into a satisfying experience. Though the film stumbled at the box office during its initial release, home video and cable TV broadcasts redeemed its glorious reputation.
The Best: 5. Creepshow (1982)
The first of two cinematic collaborations between King and George A. Romero, “Creepshow” is a fiendishly funny tribute to the horror comics of their youth. Consisting of five short stories, each more gruesome than the last, this loving homage to “Tales from the Crypt” manages the difficult task of making Leslie Nielsen scary. In the most outrageous episode of the bunch, King himself portrays a dimwitted bumpkin who slowly transforms into a walking mound of kudzu. But it’s a segment titled “The Crate,” in which Hal Holbrook discovers a ravenous ape-like creature hidden on a college campus, which remains the film’s terrifying highlight.
The Best: 4. 11.22.63 (2016)
Of the dozens of King adaptations that have been made for television since 1979, none approaches the complexity, ambition and emotional impact of this splendid time travel thriller. Drawing on his natural charm and charisma, James Franco is at his absolute best portraying an ordinary man who discovers a mysterious portal back to the year 1960. Deliberately paced like an epic novel, the eight-episode Hulu series does a marvelous job of establishing the rules of time travel, before twisting them into a nightmare scenario of alternate realities and dystopian futures.
The Best: 3. The Dead Zone (1983)
1983 was a banner year for King films, with “Cujo,” “Christine,” and David Cronenberg’s powerful adaptation of “The Dead Zone” hitting theaters within weeks of each other. In a role that accentuates his otherworldly qualities, Christopher Walken is unforgettable playing a schoolteacher who wakes from a five-year coma with the gift – or arguably curse – of psychic precognition. Shot in the bleak Ontario winter, Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin brilliantly capture the novel’s undertone of icy dread.
The Best: 2. The Shining (1980)
Though it takes many liberties with the source novel, Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing masterpiece about a haunted hotel remains a towering achievement in the modern horror genre. Depicting the effects of long-term isolation on an already fragile mind, the film’s nightmarish set pieces – including a grotesque rendezvous in room 237 – have made it a perennial favorite at Halloween. In 1997, King penned a three-part TV miniseries remake in an effort to correct the flaws he felt were present in the feature version. He needn’t have bothered. While the television adaptation is fine, Kubrick’s film will never be topped.
Warner Bros/Hawk Films/Kobal/REX
The Best: 1. Carrie (1976)
Like a fairytale passed down for countless generations, King’s deceptively simple story about a lonely, mistreated teenage girl who unleashes her inner rage during the senior prom is so elemental and universal, it feels as though it’s been part of our collective consciousness forever. Miraculously, Brian De Palma’s dazzling film version only heightened the novel’s inherent strength. In the very first Stephen King adaptation, Oscar nominees Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie capture every tragic nuance of Carrie and Margaret White, while up-and-comers like John Travolta, Amy Irving and Nancy Allen shine in colorful supporting roles. But it’s De Palma’s unsurpassed mastery of the medium that pushes “Carrie” to the top of the list. From the languidly erotic locker room title sequence to the electrifying final jolt, “Carrie” is in a class by itself.
The Worst: 10. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009)
A generic revenge thriller based on a featherweight King short story, “Dolan’s Cadillac” tells the tale of a grief-stricken schoolteacher who schemes to bury a vicious mobster alive in his car on a deserted highway to Las Vegas. Though the thin material might have made for a decent episode of “Law and Order,” it can’t support a feature-length treatment. The casting doesn’t help matters, either. As the vengeance-seeking everyman, Wes Bentley never seems particularly relatable in any way, and Christian Slater, playing a Tony Soprano-like crime boss, doesn’t have the physical stature needed to convey the character’s menace.
The Worst: 9. Children of the Corn (1984)
The first genuinely lousy King movie, “Children of the Corn” has its admirers, but for the most part it’s notable for spawning an inexplicable number of bargain basement sequels, prequels and remakes. No fewer than eight spinoffs have been released since the boring original wormed its way into theaters on the heels of classics like “Christine,” “Cujo” and “The Dead Zone.” The trouble is that none of the kids playing the murderous offspring can act. They mouth their corny dialogue and hit their marks, but they’re about as chilling as an ear of corn. Speaking of which, when we finally get to see the demonic entity referred to portentously throughout the film as He Who Walks Behind the Rows, it’s nothing more than an animated frowny face.
The Worst: 8. Dreamcatcher (2003)
Lawrence Kasdan’s unintentionally campy version of King’s convoluted sci-fi novel tries to cram as many ludicrous plot points from the book into its running time as possible, and the result is a gargantuan mess. None of the actors seem to be performing in the same film, and events just sort of happen randomly as though the script was being improvised on the fly. Playing a mentally handicapped character who might be a giant alien worm, actor Donnie Wahlberg delivers his embarrassing lines in a Tarzan-like broken English. Factor in Morgan Freeman’s gravity-defying eyebrows and you’ve got the “Showgirls” of King adaptations.
Doanne Gregory/Warner Bros/Kobal
The Worst: 7. Bag of Bones (2011)
Like the overlong and overly familiar novel it’s based on, this TV miniseries version of “Bag of Bones” contains all the requisite elements we’ve come to expect from middling King adaptations. An author with writer’s block? Check. A ghostly presence communicating from beyond the grave? Check. Pierce Brosnan punching a haunted tree during a typhoon? Um… that’s actually a new one. The problem is that not one scene in this greatest hits package is remotely frightening, or particularly interesting. Mick Garris, who’s built a career out of directing sloppy King projects, once again shows how not to do it.
Headline/Nice Guy Prods./Sennet
The Worst: 6. The Tommyknockers (1993)
King’s TV track record took a severe blow with this laughable adaptation of his dreary 1987 novel about a UFO buried beneath a small town. The author’s self-confessed alcoholism and drug use were in full bloom while writing the flabby doorstop-size book, and the derivative plotting filtered its way into the miniseries, too. When we finally meet the aliens, they’re among the most awkward, top-heavy creatures in the entire King canon. Worse yet, every time director John Power attempts to visualize the supernatural effects of the UFO, his solution is to bathe the actors in a comical green light. Not even SCTV’s Count Floyd would find “The Tommyknockers” scary.
The Worst: 5. The Dark Tower (2017)
Inspired by King’s beloved fantasy saga, this muddled mixture of drab CGI effects, poorly paced action, and impenetrable storytelling left both longtime fans and curious newcomers severely disappointed. Despite playing one of the author’s most diabolical villains, Matthew McConaughey seems less frightening in “The Dark Tower” than he does in those Lincoln car ads he’s constantly appearing in. As the deadly gunslinger on a heroic quest to save the universe, Idris Elba manages to skate by with most of his dignity intact, but the whole affair feels like much ado about nothing. And that’s a shame, since several of the novels in the series rank high among King’s best work.
I Kitshoff/Sony Pictures/Kobal/R
The Worst: 4. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
This sci-fi version of King’s surreal short short story about a bizarre landscaper with a taste for freshly cut grass deviated so far from the source material that the author sued to have his name removed from the credits. The truth is, King’s original short story never quite worked on the page, either. Instead of depicting a chubby man eating yard waste (that’s pretty much the extent of the literary version), the producers of this cash-in reimagined it as a virtual reality thriller about a scientist who turns his feeble-minded gardener into a high-tech demigod. Loaded with not-so-special effects in service of a routine Frankenstein narrative, the film somehow generated a sequel and two official video games.
The Worst: 3. The Mangler (1995)
Having directed the outstanding 1979 television version of “Salem’s Lot,” Tobe Hooper returned 16 years later to helm this atrocious adaptation of King’s short story about a haunted laundry folding machine. Since the material it’s based on didn’t have much meat on its bones to begin with, Hooper tossed in a bunch of ugly subplots, and cast a vamping Robert Englund as the laundry’s physically deformed owner. Nothing about this depressing exercise in cheap gore works well, and yet King’s name in the credits helped it generate two even worse sequels.
Distant Horizon/Allied Film/Koba
The Worst: 2. Cell (2016)
Nine years after co-starring together in the superb King adaptation “1408,” John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson re-teamed for this amateurish dud about a cell phone signal that turns listeners into mindless zombies. Bereft of insight, originality and scares, the book it’s based on is easily one of the author’s weakest efforts, yet the movie version is much worse. Resembling a SyFy Channel rip-off of itself, “Cell” is a call you’d be wise to avoid.
The Worst: 1. The Mist – TV Series (2017)
Against all conceivable odds, the glacially paced TV version of “The Mist” manages to take a can’t-miss concept and utterly botch it. Instead of characters that we truly care about, we’re given an assortment of dull, unlikable placeholders. Instead of a claustrophobic setting, the series bounces around between a half-dozen forgettable locations. And instead of a bestiary filled with grisly creatures just waiting to unfurl their flesh-eating tentacles, we’re treated to silly phantoms (some on horseback?) that exist primarily in the characters’ foggy minds. A tasteless date rape subplot is the last straw in this misguided disaster.