Our Top Ten List of Stephen King Film Adaptations!

Contents hide
1 Introduction
1.4 10. Misery (1990) – dir. Rob Reiner
1.5 9. Doctor Sleep (2019) – dir. Mike Flanagan
1.6 8. The Mist (2007) – dir. Frank Darabont
3 “Stephen King’s own script was terrible…It was not only bad as a script, it was the kind of script that his fans would have torn me apart for doing…It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant slasher script. The Castle Rock Killer in the middle of the movie becomes the lead, and it was, ‘Let’s show lots of his victims.’”
3.4 6. Creepshow (1982) – dir. George Romero
3.5 5. Stand By Me (1986) – dir. Rob Reiner
3.6 4. It (2017) – dir. Andy Muschietti
3.7 3. Carrie (1976) – dir. Brian De Palma
3.8 2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont
4 “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve”
4.2 1. The Shining (1980) – dir. Stanley Kubrick

Our Top Ten List of Stephen King Film Adaptations! – Cinema Scholars


In the literary world for almost fifty years, Stephen King has carved out the title of ‘King of Horror’ with regard to his prolific output of modern horror classics. Starting in 1974 with the all-time supernatural masterwork, Carrie, King has had his foot on the gas pedal of the macabre. The author has been going strong ever since. King has been at the top of Best-Seller lists throughout the world for almost half a century now. As such, numerous works of his have been adapted for the big screen, with varying levels of success.
Not counting TV movies and mini-series, King has had over forty films adapted from his writings. The author has also stepped out of the comforts of his horror universe, frequently diving into multiple genres. A few of those attempts make this list. Uniquely original in his twisted and often paranoid vision, King has created works that the literary world has simply never seen before. From killer clowns and possessed cars to haunted hotels and rabid dogs, Stephen King has created characters that have stood the test of time.
Making a King adaptation that is not only financially successful but a critical hit is a challenge. Some of his greatest novels have made for poor adaptations. Getting a director that understands King’s vision is essential. The adaptations by Stanley Kubrick, Frank Darabont, and Brian De Palma were evidence of this. While the list of King novels that have been successfully adapted is greater than ten, we’ve decided to give you a list of the best of the best. Cinema Scholars presents our list of the ten best Stephen King adaptations, in order from ‘worst’ to first.
Stephen King on the set of “Creepshow” (1982)

10. Misery (1990) – dir. Rob Reiner

While not a prerequisite to gain entry to this list, Oscar hardware certainly doesn’t hurt. Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) won Kathy Bates a deserved Academy Award for Best Actress. Her portrayal of psychotic and delusional nurse Annie Wilkes is absolutely terrifying. An incredibly isolating film, Misery basically only features two characters, locked away in a remote cabin together. James Caan co-stars as novelist Paul Sheldon. Rescued from a car crash by Annie, she nurses the hobbled Paul back to health. When it’s discovered that the insane Annie is Paul’s “number one fan,” things quickly take a turn for the worse.
Misery, while not a faithful adaptation of King’s source material, delivered on a great premise. Reiner’s capable direction ramps up the tension as Paul repeatedly tries to placate the increasingly paranoid and angered Annie. Bedridden and unable to walk, the callbacks to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) are there. Reiner takes full advantage of having two veteran stage actors for what is essentially a film that takes place on a confined stage. Misery very much acts and behaves like an off-Broadway performance.
Misery is the only film adaptation of a Stephen King novel to win an Academy Award. That’s an impressive feat. King also stated that the film is one of his top ten favorite film adaptations of his work. Additionally, Bates is near or at the top of all-time great King villains. She delivers a towering performance. The one flaw of the film may be that it’s too commercial. King’s novel was deeply personal, delivering harrowing meditations on writing and the creative process. That is completely cut from Reiner’s film and for King fans, it’s sorely missed. Still, Misery is fantastically directed and acted and a worthy entry into our top ten list.
Misery is currently available to stream on Prime Video, iTunes, as well as Vudu.
Rob Reiner, Kathy Bates, and James Caan on the set of “Misery” (1990)

9. Doctor Sleep (2019) – dir. Mike Flanagan

It wasn’t supposed to work. How could it work? A sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic horror classic, The Shining (1980), Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep received overwhelmingly positive reviews, to the delight of millions. It takes a certain type of director to properly unlock what King is painting on the written page and Mike Flanagan is one of those directors. Fittingly born in Salem, Massachusetts, Flanagan had an impressive resume, directing the inventive and genuinely scary films Oculus (2013) and Before I Wake (2016), before teaming up with King in 2017 to direct the psychological horror/thriller, Gerald’s Game.
Stephen King wrote Doctor Sleep as a way to take back control of the Shining story that he had created forty years earlier. As had become known over the decades, King had great disdain and animosity towards Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. King’s sequel novel and Flanagan’s adaptation amputate all of the mystery and spooky lore of Kubrick’s 1980 film, creating a much more traditional and visceral piece of horror. The result is a solid entry into the King film canon. Ewan McGregor is solid as a grown up and tormented Danny Torrance, and Rebecca Ferguson is also fantastic as the seductive and frightening, Rose the Hat.
King has publicly stated the pressure and risk that he went through with regard to writing a sequel to one of his most beloved properties. The pressure on Flanagan was doubly so, as he had to film in the shadow of one of the greatest directors in cinema history, Stanley Kubrick. This makes the end product all the more remarkable as Flanagan delivers a terrifying and visually stunning film. Doctor Sleep runs long. At three hours, the director’s cut can be a bit of a slog to get through in one sitting, but that’s because Flanagan dives deep into King’s characters. At the center of which is the tortured and abused soul of Danny Torrance.
Doctor Sleep is currently available to stream on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, and HBO Max.
Mike Flanagan on the meticulously rebuilt set of the Overlook Hotel during the production of “Doctor Sleep” (2019)

8. The Mist (2007) – dir. Frank Darabont

Of all the directors that have collaborated with Stephen King, it is perhaps Frank Darabont who has the highest batting average. Certainly in the eyes of King himself. Starting in 1994, Darabont and King would work together three times. All three productions were solid to exceptional, with one of their three films together being an absolute classic. The final collaboration between the pair was the bleak and dark ‘monster movie’ The Mist (2007). This was based on a King short story that was part of his fantastic collection, Skeleton Crew, released in 1985.
The premise of The Mist is basic if familiar. A group of people is trapped in a grocery store when a strange fog envelops the entire city. Lurking within the fog are horrific and deadly prehistoric-like creatures that mutilate anyone who tries to venture outside. Both King and Darabont are clearly calling on the early works of fellow horror legend, and longtime King friend/collaborator, George Romero. The paranoia, distrust, and fear in The Mist are at the center of its premise. This survival tale has a fantastic cast including Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden, who steals the film with her over-the-top performance.
Perhaps the one thing people remember and talk about the most with regard to Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist is the brutal ending, which was changed from the original novella. In the years since its release, Darabont’s film has become a cult classic. Additionally, his black-and-white director’s cut is of particular interest to the die-hard fans of the film. This may not be the best collaboration between King and Darabont. However, it’s still a brutal horror film that is definitely not for the squeamish. As for that ending? It was Darabont himself who insisted on changing it, with King’s blessing of course. King spoke to CinemaBlend in 2017 about the change:

“When Frank was interested in The Mist, one of the things that he insisted on was that it would have some kind of an ending, which the story doesn’t have — it just sort of peters off into nothing, where these people are stuck in the mist, and they’re out of gas, and the monsters are around, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. When Frank said that he wanted to do the ending that he was going to do, I was totally down with that. I thought that was terrific. And it was so anti-Hollywood — anti-everything, really! It was nihilistic. I liked that. So I said you go ahead and do it”

The Mist is currently available to stream on Netflix, Prime Video, iTunes, and Vudu.
Thomas Jane in a scene from “The Mist” (2007)

7. The Dead Zone (1983) – dir. David Cronenberg

The pairing of Stephen King and body-horror legend David Cronenberg is another glorious meeting of the sick and twisted minds. It’s a pairing that really only comes along once or twice in a lifetime. Cronenberg is very much a cerebral and insulated director which, on paper, one would think might not be the best fit for the works of Stephen King. Also, The Dead Zone (1983) was supremely mainstream compared to what Cronenberg was used to working on. Cronenberg would later say of King’s original screenplay for the film:

“Stephen King’s own script was terrible…It was not only bad as a script, it was the kind of script that his fans would have torn me apart for doing…It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant slasher script. The Castle Rock Killer in the middle of the movie becomes the lead, and it was, ‘Let’s show lots of his victims.’”

Cronenberg was blessed with having a solid cast across the board to work with. Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, and Colleen Dewhurst are all fantastic in supporting roles. Martin Sheen is particularly delightful as a sociopathic and evil politician bent on starting World War III. However, it’s Christopher Walken who carries the film on his shoulders. His performance as a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to learn he gained psychic abilities is flawless. It’s since been spoofed, by Walken, in the ensuing decades on Saturday Night Live as his hilarious ‘Trivial Psychic’ character.
The Dead Zone is unjustly overshadowed by other big-name Stephen King adaptations, many of which are on this list. However, Christopher Walken’s iconic and scene-stealing performance allows this film to be in the conversation. The film is also another stellar effort from visionary director David Cronenberg, who is at the peak of his powers here. The film also has legs almost forty years after its release, The Dead Zone, with its political undertones, remains just as relevant as it did back in the 1980s.
The Dead Zone is currently available to stream on HBO Max, Prime Video, iTunes, and Vudu.
Christopher Walken and David Cronenberg on the set of “The Dead Zone” (1983)

6. Creepshow (1982) – dir. George Romero

Horror master George A. Romero, who was in his zombie prime, collaborated with Stephen King in the early 1980s. To horror fans, this was the equivalent of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg collaborating to create Indiana Jones. While Creepshow (1982) is uneven at times, its standout moments, of which there are many, rank near the very top of both director and writers’ long list of accomplishments. King’s screenwriting debut, the anthology film features five self-contained short stories that were originally created to pay homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950s.
A murdered father who comes back, literally, from the grave for his Father’s Day cake. A meteorite that crashes to earth, causing extraterrestrial plant growth. A murderous and revenge-minded millionaire who plots against his wife and her lover. A professor discovers – and uses to his advantage – a human-eating creature locked in a crate. A cruel and wealthy business mogul with a bad case of mysophobia who must confront his greatest fear. All the stories in Creepshow have the perfect blend of humor and gore. A reflection of the film’s writer and director.
Creepshow is bookended by inventive live-action sequences with animated comic panel transitions between each feature that advertise real X-Ray vision glasses and voodoo dolls. The film, while modern in terms of its violence, is a love song to the pulp films and comics of the 1950s. The icing on the bloody cake is the opening and closing live-action sequences, featuring a boy (King’s actual young son) yelled at by his father for reading that “horror crap.” Seeing a monster outside his window in the epilogue, the boy gets his horrific revenge for having his comic books taken from him. Classic Stephen King and a must for all horror fans.
Creepshow is currently available to stream on Prime Video, iTunes, as well as Vudu.
A laughing Leslie Nielsen in a scene from “Creepshow” (1982)

5. Stand By Me (1986) – dir. Rob Reiner

Along with Frank Darabont, Rob Reiner may have the best track record when it comes to adapting the works of Stephen King. He appears for the second and final time on our list with the fantastic and much-beloved coming-of-age tale, Stand by Me (1986). Based on the novella from King’s fantastic 1982 book Different Seasons, the film features top-notch narration from Richard Dreyfuss as well as an incredible lineup of up-and-coming teen actors of the day. Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell are all fantastic in the film. However, it’s the towering performance by the late River Phoenix that is the driving force of Stand By Me.  
In Stand by Me, a group of friends hears of a rumor about a dead body being discovered near the town of Castle Rock, Oregon in September 1959. They band together to find ‘The Body’ (the name of the original novella) so that they can become famous in their small humdrum town. Trouble along the way ensues, which includes evading wild dogs, wild trains, and vicious bullies. They also learn about each other as well as the true nature of friendship. A simple plot and decidedly non-horror, the film rests on the shoulders of its four lead performances, along with Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack in strong supporting roles.
Stephen King has stated publicly that Stand by Me was the first truly successful adaptation of his material. Who can disagree? The movie is one of the best films of the 1980s and is imminently rewatchable. The fact that a non-horror story – written by the world’s greatest horror writer – might be his best adaptation, is incredible. With a fantastic narrative, stunning cinematography, and coming-of-age themes that will never go out of style, Stand by Me is a timeless classic. Stephen King continues to be able to deliver the horror with one hand while delivering an enduring message on the importance of friendship with the other.
Stand by Me is currently available to stream on Prime Video, iTunes, as well as Vudu.
Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and River Phoenix on the set of “Stand by Me” (1986)

4. It (2017) – dir. Andy Muschietti

The 1990 television mini-series adaptation of It was not bad. ‘It’ was good in fact, but the casting was…off. The film also lacked the punch, scares, and horror that Stephen King drove home in his 22nd novel released in 1986. A novel many fans say is the pinnacle of King’s career. In adapting this massive eleven hundred-page tome for the big screen, director Andy Muschietti knew that the film had to run long in order to properly develop the characters and create a meaningful backstory for all the players. The decision was made to split It (2017) into two chapters. the first of which is an absolute masterpiece and the highest-grossing horror film of all time.  
One of the running themes in It is dealing with our demons. It’s also about a demonic clown that eats children and lurks within the sewers of Derry, Maine. It’s here where The Losers’ Club is terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The seven outcast children are plagued and terrorized by the thing that lurks in the sewers and must bond together to fight this supernatural being. Tim Curry as Pennywise in the TV series is iconic. A little over the top, but still the best part of the series. However, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise takes the character to another level. His portrayal is so frightening, he seems alien-like. It’s an all-time performance.
As Stephen King is prone to do, the horror in It is rooted in psychological undertones. The entire premise is that your darkest fears are manifested and come to kill you. Add a demonic clown to the mix and the film is easily one of King’s most scary and unsettling. Muschietti’s direction is fantastic and makes it so the film doesn’t need to be bloody to be truly unnerving and horrifying, although there’s still plenty of blood too. Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, and Jack Dylan Grazer all deliver fantastic performances as the Losers. There’s a reason why this film grossed over $700 million.
IT is currently available to stream on Netflix, HBO Max, Prime Video, iTunes, and Vudu.
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in a scene from “It” (2017)

3. Carrie (1976) – dir. Brian De Palma

Legendary director Brian De Palma has the distinction of directing the very first Stephen King story, as adapted for the big screen. Over forty-five years later, Carrie (1976) still remains one of the very best King adaptations. A truly spectacular gothic/supernatural horror film, De Palma’s film is in the discussion for the best horror film of the 1970s. Carrie also serves up a deep dish of social commentary with regard to bullying and the profound effect it can have on the individual being bullied. Sadly, this loner/revenge tale has become more relevant in the ensuing decades. King’s first novel and first film adaptation certainly kickstarted his career.
When King wrote Carrie in 1974, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that this story of a shy, bullied sixteen-year-old girl with telekinetic powers would spawn a successful franchise that would last over four decades. Numerous remakes and adaptations on film, screen, and stage, have resulted in Carrie becoming a pop-culture landmark in the ensuing years. Sissy Spacek as the bullied and telekinetic teenager turns in an astonishing Oscar-nominated performance. Piper Laurie as Carrie’s religiously fanatical and unhinged mother also earns an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Carrie, much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is that rare breed of a horror film. Shockingly excessive amounts of blood and horror, combined with Oscar-worthy acting performances, a hall of fame director, and a taught and brilliant screenplay. Also, young John Travolta, Amy Irving, and Nancy Allen all turn in strong supporting performances. Carrie was a box-office success, grossing almost $34 million on a $2 million budget. Its climatic and exceedingly bloody prom scene – shot in a split screen format by De Palma – is one of the great scenes in the history of the genre and has cemented the film’s legacy as an enduring classic.
Carrie is currently available to stream on Prime Video, Shudder, iTunes, and Vudu.
Sissy Spacek and Brian De Palma on the set of “Carrie” (1977)

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont

Widely regarded as a masterpiece and ranked at the top of IMDB’s Top 100 Films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is just that, both literally and figuratively, a tale of redemption. Based on another novella from Different Seasons, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption was a short story by King that Frank Darabont was desperate to option. A fan of King’s work, Darabont saw potential in the 96-page story, even if King didn’t. Darabont optioned the property from King for $5000. To the casual fan, the story of a New England banker serving a life sentence for double murder didn’t sound like your typical Stephen King fare, and it wasn’t.
The Shashank Redemption was the “little film that could’ as it starred two male leads, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, neither of which were bankable stars. Frank Darabont was a first-time director and the film was being released through a mid-tier studio, Castle Rock. Add to that the bad luck of opening in the Fall of 1994 opposite Quentin Tarantino’s iconic and critical smash Pulp Fiction. All of this added up to Darabont’s film being a commercial flop, earning only $16 million domestically against a $25 million budget. This was despite all the positive reviews.
Despite seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, The Shawshank Redemption got shut out. Still, this train ride to the top was just getting started. It was in the video rental market and on cable TV where the film would gain cult-like status and its legend would grow. Warner Brothers ordered an astonishing 300,000 VHS copies to video stores nationwide, essentially mass-feeding the film to audiences. The gamble paid off and the film became one of the top-selling VHS titles of 1995.
Ted Turner’s TNT network quickly snatched up the cable rights where the film would air relentlessly. Decades after its initial release, The Shawshank Redemption is still broadcast regularly all over the world. This prison story of friendship, perseverance and never losing hope is widely beloved on a global level. Its themes and beliefs, along with the outstanding acting performances by Robbins, Freeman, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore, and so many others, have led The Shawshank Redemption to be recognized as one of the most “beloved” films ever made. Stephen King never cashed that $5000 check. He framed it and gave it back to Darabont, with the note:

“In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve”

The Shawshank Redemption is currently available to stream on Prime Video, iTunes, and Vudu.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman playing checkers in a scene from “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

1. The Shining (1980) – dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stephen King may not love legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining (1980), but there is no denying that there is a reason this film tops the list. Kubrick’s masterpiece of visual one-point perspective filmmaking is all at the same time, horrifying, hilarious, cold, dramatic, and even mystical. In other words, like most Kubrick films. The story of Jack Torrance, struggling writer and winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, is one of the most frightening films ever committed to celluloid. As Jack’s son Danny has psychic premonitions that get progressively more sinister as the cabin fever sets in, the film catapults to another level.
The main thing The Shining has going for it, besides the all-time great performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, is Stanley Kubrick. Widely considered one of the greatest directors in film history, the auteur adds his special touch to King’s 1977 novel. A known authoritarian and stickler for details and shooting many, many takes, every single frame of The Shining looks like an obsessive work of art. That’s because that’s exactly what it is. It’s Kubrick going full-Kubrick with no one there to tell him no. The result is a film that is visually stunning while horrific. Simply put, no other horror film has ever looked like this, and likely never will.
While Kubrick’s vision of The Shining differs from King’s, you can’t take away what the director created. He saw Jack Torrance as psychologically damaged before he ever gets to the Overlook. This is the key difference between the novel and the film. In order to accomplish this, Kubrick needed an actor to convincingly portray someone disturbed right out of the gate. Enter Nicholson who turns in one of the great performances of his career. It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Nicholson playing the role of Jack Torrance. Kubrick’s stunning direction and visuals, the incredible soundtrack, and Nicholson’s iconic performance are why The Shining is one of the greatest horror films of all time, and why it tops this list.
The Shining is currently available to stream on Prime Video, HBO Max, iTunes, and Vudu.
Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick on the set of “The Shining” (1980)

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