Top 10 Stephen King film adaptations

Most Stephen King-based movies are rubbish. But some are genuine gems. Simon picks his choice of the best ten...

Everybody’s heard of him, and everybody’s been scared by him at some point. No, we’re not talking about Michael Jackson (too soon?). We’re talking about Stephen King.

One of the most prolific writers of the past 30 years, King has written more than 40 novels, many of which have been adapted for the big screen – for better and for worse. Ignoring the dross – The Lawnmower Man, Dreamcatcher, etc – here’s the best of his big screen adaptations.

10. 1408 (2007)

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1408 could have been an abject failure: a feature-length film based on a short story about a man in a hotel room who may or may not be losing his mind.

Instead, buoyed by the always watchable John Cusack, it’s a gripping and effective ghost story. Samuel L Jackson is surprisingly restrained as the haunted hotel’s manager, and though the story isn’t particularly original, it maintains an atmosphere of dread throughout. Focussing on psychological tension rather than gore, it’s a genuinely creepy, old-fashioned horror flick.

9. Christine (1983)

Sometimes you really have to wonder where King gets his ideas from. Christine has a ridiculous premise: an evil car with a mind of its own.

Somehow, some way it works. It’s deliciously-daft, particularly as Christine’s owner transforms from super-nerd to leather jacket-wearing Grease-reject, but it’s a lot of dumb fun. Suspend your disbelief and you’re in for a hell of a ride, courtesy of some solid direction from John Carpenter and a killer rock and roll soundtrack.

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8. Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary is one of those movies that make you want to slap the main characters. How can they possibly be so foolish?!

Capitalising on every parent’s worst nightmare, Pet Sematary is one of King’s scariest novels. The film boasts some genuinely scary scenes, and possibly the most frightening flashback sequence ever. It’s cheesy, dumb fun, but it raises some interesting questions about morality, death and how we deal with grief. It also has an ancient American Indian burial ground, a zombie cat, a murderous toddler, and a wicked ending. Sometimes dead is better.

7. The Dead Zone (1983)

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Long before he just played himself in every movie, Christopher Walken was Johnny Smith, a man who, upon waking up from a coma, finds that he’s been blessed/cursed with the ability to learn a person’s secrets by touching them.

One of David Cronenberg’s more mainstream efforts, The Dead Zone is a disturbing psychological thriller, with some big scares. Martin Sheen is a tad over-zealous as the presidential wannabe destined to trigger nuclear apocalypse, but Christopher Walken’s haunting performance steals the show.

6. Stand By Me (1986)

Stand By Me is a cultural touchstone, particularly for guys. An absolute classic, it’s a nostalgic, coming-of-age story, starring some uber-talented youngsters (including River Phoenix) coming of age themselves.

From King’s non-horror collection of novellas, Different Seasons, Stand By Me is that rare movie that’s moving and honest, without being too sappy. Okay, it’s a little melodramatic at times, but it’s an absorbing movie nonetheless.

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5. The Green Mile (1999)

Best known for horror, King is also a bit of a dab hand at slightly lighter fare. A drama, albeit with a supernatural bent, The Green Mile appeals to more than just the typical King fans.

Tom Hanks does his thing as a working-class Joe just-doing-his-job, and Michael Clarke Duncan is excellent as the gentle giant on death row. It’s overly long and sentimental, but it’s an absorbing experience, almost like a dark soap opera. With repeat screenings on television, it’s become something of a contemporary classic. However, some judicious editing wouldn’t go amiss.

4. Carrie (1976)

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From its disturbing opening to its shocking climax, Carrie is the benchmark against which every King adaptation is measured.

His first novel and subsequently the first film adaptation of his work, Carrie boasts a horrifying premise and director Brian De Palma at the absolute top of his game. Basically a revenge story, Carrie is at times dream-like, with the use of gauzy soft focus shots and dizzying tracking shots. The famous prom scene is now such a bona fide classic that even people who haven’t seen the movie know what happens. It also features an often-imitated but rarely bettered ending.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Like him or loathe him, you have to admit King knows how to spin a good yarn.

Another adaptation of one of his short stories, The Shawshank Redemption is a simple but engrossing story of hope and redemption (the clue is in the title), filled with memorable characters, dialogue, and imagery.

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In Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne the movie has a central character that audiences feel sympathetic towards, but it’s Morgan Freeman’s Red who quietly steals the show. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s all class.

2. Misery (1990)

Terrifying in its simplistic, yet realistic, premise, Misery is almost a perfect adaptation of one of King’s best novels.

James Caan is good, although he’s not the obvious choice to play a writer of romantic fiction, but Kathy Bates is on a whole other level. Fully deserving of the Oscar for Best Actress she received for her performance, Bates was born to play crazed fan Annie Wilkes, who takes Caan in after a car accident and forcibly confines him to his bed.

The film’s most infamous scene is different from the one King penned in the novel. It’s far more gruesome in the book, but the cinematic version is horrific, nonetheless. I defy you to not at least wince.

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1. The Shining (1980)

The Shining is the king of King adaptations and one of the best horror films of all time; it’s a true master class in horror.

Directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, The Shining is a hypnotic, deeply terrifying experience. With astonishing visual flair, heavy symbolism, and a deep, dark sense of foreboding, Kubrick weaves a spell-binding tale of isolation, madness and malevolent spirits.

Jack Nicholson does explosive psychotic like few others, and Shelley Duvall, though at times grating, deserves some kudos for her sheer terror. The late Scatman Crothers adds gravitas to proceedings, and young Danny Lloyd’s “Tony” voice is very creepy, indeed, particularly when he’s brandishing a large knife while chanting “redrum”.

To be fair, it’s not a straight adaptation of King’s source material, and the author himself famously hated the finished product. But even he would have to admit it’s a hell of a lot better than the made-for-TV adaptation he wrote for the screen in the 1990s.

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They don’t make them like this anymore: a horror movie that is both smart and terrifying. The Shining is among the rarest of cinematic adaptations in that it’s as good as, if not better than, the book it was based on.