This Stephen King article contains major spoilers.
Stephen King, the master of horror and one of America’s most important writers, has enjoyed a very successful career, thanks to his prolific pen and the many adaptations his tales have inspired, whether it be in the movies or on TV. While for many fans, King means creepy novels like IT or ‘Salem’s Lot and sprawling epics like The Dark Tower series and The Stand, others have flocked around the stuff based on his work. And for good reason: has any other modern writer inspired as many cinematic classics? King might even be the best-adapted writer in literary history. At least it’s easy for a nerd to think so.
I had a tough time coming up with this list and ranking the films accordingly for a simple reason: fans of Stephen King films all come looking for different things. Some people are searching for the next gorefest while others want to be creeped out on a deeper level. And there are the people that prefer the more serious movies, some of which have made it onto this list of Stephen King movies.
My own tastes would put Dreamcatcher, 1408, and even the first part of the IT TV film on this list were it longer, but I tried to judge the movies I felt had truly left their mark on moviegoers and the movie industry. You can let me know how well I did in the comments.
So without further ado, here is Den of Geek‘s list of top 12 films based on the work of Stephen King:
15. The Running Man
1987 | Directed by Paul Michael Glaser
It’s impossible to ignore a King adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially one as zany as this dystopian sci-fi thriller about modern day gladiator games presented as a game show. Schwarzenegger plays the the completely cheesy Ben Richards, a former helicopter pilot framed for a crime that lands him in a labor camp, which he quickly escapes. While on the run he falls in with a group of freedom fighters trying to take down the totalitarian government that now rules America. Eventually, Richards is captured again and forced into the popular televised snuff show called “The Running Man,” where prisoners try to outrun bloodthirsty mercenaries for a chance at getting pardoned for their crimes. Think Escape from New York but way campier and with Schwarzenegger in a terrible “futuristic” costume.
Paul Michael Glaser directs the heck out of the action scenes, which vary from hilariously outlandish to absolutely edge-of-your-seat riveting. There’s plenty of murder, bad dialogue, and a bit of accidental humor. Some might call it junk food but I call it a delicious four-course meal. And as far as this movie’s legacy goes, it sort of predicted our modern society’s current obsession with reality TV…not to mention the gross wealth inequality rampant in our biggest cities.
14. Secret Window
2004 | Directed by David Koepp
King loves writing about writers. There’s The Shining, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, and he even included himself as a character in his Dark Tower series. And then there’s the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” which was adapted into the David Koepp film starring Johnny Depp. While The Dark Half might be a more famous example of a writer suffering from multiple personalities, it’s Secret Window that delivers the better psychological thriller.
Depp is Mort Rainey, a writer who’s just gone through a divorce and is suffering from writer’s block. To complicate things, a violent man named John Shooter (John Turturro) shows up at Rainey’s cabin to accuse him of plagiarism. Shooter goes through great lengths to punish the eccentric Rainey, who quickly unravels as he learns that he might have more in common with Shooter than meets the eye.
13. The Mist
2007 | Directed by Frank Darabont
Like Creepshow, The Mist taps into a more classic era of horror, only this time it’s more Rod Serling than Crypt Keeper. But don’t worry, The Mist is still plenty gruesome. Frank Darabont directed the movie based on King’s 1980 novella. You’re actually going to find that Mr. Darabont is on this list quite a bit…
Thomas Jane stars as David Drayton, an artist who is trapped in a supermarket with the residents of a small town in Maine (always Maine!) and his son, as a mysterious mist envelops the world around them. Little do they know that this mist brings with it a terrifying threat from another dimension. A very hungry threat. Not everyone survives this tense monster movie that also begs the question, “How far will people go to survive?”
12. The Dead Zone
1983 | Directed by David Cronenberg
The Dead Zone might be David Cronenberg at his most restrained. The king of body horror delivers an emotional tale about a man named Johnny Smith who, after a fateful car accident and waking up from a coma, discovers he has the ability to see the past, present, and future of anyone he touches. There are, of course, consequences to this cruel power: Johnny often sees how these people or their loved ones are going to die, something that haunts the increasingly reclusive man.
Christopher Walken delivers a career-defining performance as the tortured Johnny Smith, who at first wants nothing to do with his power, but eventually takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means dying in the process. Martin Sheen’s villainous Senator Greg Stillson is also a sight to see, especially during an election year!
1981 | Directed by Lewis Teague
Never has a Ford Pinto known more terror than in Cujo, the story of a mom and son who are terrorized by a rabid dog. Unlike many of King’s creations on this list, Cujo takes a more realistic direction, however unlikely the situation. Luckily for us, King’s fictional universe has a cruel sense of humor where rabid bats bite the noses of gentle St. Bernards and turn them into giant, people-eating monsters.
It’s the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a Ford Pinto that really does it for me, the heat beating down on the dehydrated boy while the mom frantically tries to get her car running. (It’s a piece of junk.) At the end of the day, the movie gives us a thrilling tale of a mother’s determination to save her son. Dee Wallace stars and gives a killer performance in this one. You might recognize her from other horror classics such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling. She’s also in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
10. Doctor Sleep
2019 | Directed by Mike Flanagan
Doctor Sleep is director Mike Flanagan’s second King adaptation and his most ambitious to date. A continuation of both King’s original novel and the beloved movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, Flanagan manages to tell a story that’s faithful to the writer’s sequel novel through the visual language created by the director. The result is a movie that will please fans of both the books and the Kubrick classic.
Ewan McGregor stars as Dan Torrance, now a terribly scarred grownup whose struggles with alcoholism lead him down some very familiar territory. Fortunately, he’s eventually able to get clean and befriends Abra Stone, a little girl with a very powerful Shine who is being hunted by a cult of energy vampires known as the True Knot. As the story unfolds, Dan finds himself becoming a mentor to young Abra while facing off with the ghosts of his past. The final act sees the duo return to the Overlook Hotel for one last showdown with the True Knot’s vile leader, Rose the Hat, as well as the evil spirits of the hotel itself. You won’t see the twist ending coming!
1982 | Directed by George A. Romero
George A. Romero’s 1982 horror anthology film is such a delight to watch. Born out of King’s love for the old EC and DC horror stories from comic series such as Tales from the Crypt and House of Secrets, the film dishes out delicious moments of body horror and black comedy, as the many colorful characters find themselves in increasingly ridiculous situations that include seaweed monsters and killer corpses. This is just such good trash.
Creepshow is made up of five stories, all from the mind and pen of King. Among the standouts are “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill,” which stars King himself as a farmer who encounters a dangerous alien organism when a meteorite crashes onto his land, and “They’re Creeping on You,” about a germophone who is tormented by cockroaches. But my favorite is “Something to Tide You Over,” starring the late and great Leslie Nielsen as a wealthy psychopath who decides to punish his wife and her lover in an extremely gruesome way. And yes, the title of that story is a pun.
8. Stand By Me
1986 | Directed by Rob Reiner
Based on King’s novella “The Body,” Stand By Me is unlike anything moviegoers had expected from the writer in 1986. It’s not a horror film or even a thriller. It’s a story about a group of small-town boys who, while looking for a distraction from their troubled lives, decide to search for the body of a boy reportedly struck and killed by a passing train.
Stand By Me, like later film Hearts in Atlantis, does a good job of capturing boyhood at the middle of the century, showing us small-town characters with big imaginations trying to escape suburbia. The film was also responsible for the late River Phoenix’s rising star in the ’80s.
1976 | Directed by Brian De Palma
The thing about Carrie is that there’s nothing quite like it, both in terms of the novel and the movie. Released only two years after King’s novel, Brian De Palma’s adaptation earned both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie Oscar nominations, and rightfully so. Their performances, that of a mentally unstable, fanatical mother raising a troubled teen girl, are the strength of this film. You fill with dread every time Laurie’s Margaret turns her attention to the weak Carrie (Spacek), who is terribly ostracized at school and punished for her sins by her mother.
This solid example of psychological torture porn never relents. From the opening scene in the girl’s locker room to Carrie’s climactic confrontation with her mother, nothing good ever really happens to the young teen we’re all rooting for. And if you’ve already seen this one, please do yourself a favor and read the novel!
6. The Green Mile
1999 | Directed by Frank Darabont
I told you Darabont would be back. He’s made a career out of adapting King’s books, and it’s definitely gone well for him. The Green Mile earned Darabont his second run at the Academy Awards, with an emotional tale as good as his first prison movie (more on that in just a moment). Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan star in this supernatural crime drama.
Hanks plays prison officer Paul Edgecomb, who’s in charge of death row at a prison. The story chronicles the many inmates, both the sadistic and the less villainous, as well as the guards that watch them on a daily basis. Duncan’s John Coffey is like no other inmate Paul has ever met, though, and what starts as the story of a man on the way to his death for his crimes becomes a year in Paul’s life that will forever change him.
2017 | Directed by Andy Muschietti
While the TV miniseries starring the inimitable Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown will always be near and dear to our hearts, it’s the 2017 film from Andy Muschietti that’s the better adaptation of King’s 1,138-page book. So far, only the first part of a two-part adaptation has dropped, but what we’ve already seen is far and beyond one of the best movies ever made based on King’s work. Part of that has to do with the fact that today’s technology allows for better visuals. Things like children floating in Pennywise’s lair and rivers of blood gushing from Beverly Marsh’s bathroom sink look properly spooky and real with the proper CGI.
But what makes IT especially good is its cast. The Losers’ Club is so enjoyable to watch in this movie that you almost wish there were more films starring this ragtag group of school-aged monster hunters. This movie has a lot of heart and plenty of scares. Plus Bill Skarsgard is a pretty good Pennywise. Not as good as Curry, though.
4. Gerald’s Game
2017 | Directed by Mike Flanagan
Gerald’s Game is the best King movie of the last decade. Mike Flanagan took a book that was seemingly unfilmable and turned it into a visual nightmare starring Carla Gugino, who gives a career-defining performance as Jessie Burlingame, a woman who finds herself in perhaps the most unusual and terrifying situation in any King story. After a kinky game with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) goes terribly wrong, Jessie is thrust into a fight for her life in a secluded cabin in the woods.
Hounded by a hungry dog who gets into the cabin, Jessie watches as her dead husband’s body is devoured bit by bit, all while being haunted by Gerald’s ghost and a ghastly serial killer who likes to eat the faces off male corpses. In order to survive, Jessie must face her own traumatic past to find the strength she needs to escape the ties that bind her both physically and spiritually. Throw in some amazing visuals of a scary eclipse that gives way to a surreal dreamscape and the movie’s darkest twist and you have the King masterpiece of the 2010s.
1990 | Directed by Rob Reiner
King saw the problems with fandom, experienced them, before the rest of the world really started to see the ugly side of such devotion. Misery is what happens when someone becomes obsessed with a celebrity and his work. After romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) drives his car off the road during a blizzard in Colorado, a seemingly prudish nurse named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) rescues the writer and takes him back to her home. At first, Annie seems nice enough, a good Samaritan who just happens to have rescued her favorite writer in the world, but Annie’s admiration for the novelist quickly grows disturbing, and what unfolds is a tale of true terror. It’s one that hits close to home for King, who’s been the victim of several stalkers throughout his career.
Bates steals the show, delivering the performance of her career. The terrifyingly unhinged Annie Wilkes is not only one of King’s greatest villains, but she’s also one of the greatest in the history of horror cinema. If you don’t like the monsters or find the supernatural stuff too kitschy, then Misery is the one for you.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
1994 | Directed by Frank Darabont
Darabont’s first of two prison films based on King’s work is also his best. Starring Tim Robbins as Andy and Morgan Freeman as Red, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of a man wrongfully imprisoned for his wife’s murder. While much of the early part of the movie chronicles Andy’s suffering as an innocent man in prison, another tale begins to take over, that of a corrupt prison system and how it changes the men trapped inside it. Robbins, Freeman, and Bob Gunton, who plays the ruthless Warden Samuel Norton, do some of their best work in this film, which was nominated for several Academy Awards in 1994, including Best Picture.
The Shawshank Redemption also stands out as being one of the most hopeful movies to come out of King’s work. For many fans of the movie, it was even news to them that it was based on a novella by King. But the idea that hope can push back the darkness was nothing new in his work by that point. The movie effectively brought another side of the writer to mainstream audiences.
1. The Shining
1980 | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Like most film critics, I can’t help but disagree with King about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This beautifully shot film is a classic haunted house tale about a family ripped apart by an alcoholic husband and father and the ghosts of a creepy hotel. The twists and turns of the hallways of the Overlook Hotel, the whispering ghosts, and past demons are too much for the Torrance family, who are the only people staying in the hotel during one fateful winter.
The Shining‘s greatest power is imagery. Many of the film’s most memorable shots have been engrained in movie fans’ minds. There’s the river of blood spilling out of the hotel’s elevator, the twins at the end of the hallway, and no one can forget Jack Nicholson’s manic “Here’s Johnny!” as he takes an ax to the door to get to his wife (Shelley Duvall). This is one of Nicholson’s greatest roles and among the best movies Kubrick made in his legendary career. King could do a lot worse.