Everyone remembers the first Stephen King book they ever read (for me, it was Pet Sematary). And just as memorable is the first King adaptation they ever saw (mine was a WAY too young viewing of The Shining). Hollywood has been adapting King’s work for the big and little screens since the mid-’70s, with varying results. Thankfully, we’ve got you covered, and in honor of the remake of King’s own Pet Sematary and the upcoming It: Chapter Two, we’re looking at the 13 best King adaptations you should seek out.
1. Carrie (1976)
Carrie boasts the distinction of being the first Stephen King movie adaptation, based on the 1974 novel of the same name. The film follows teenager Carrie White, who is bullied by the girls at her school, as well as her overly religious mother, eventually getting her revenge on everybody with the aid of telekinetic powers. Brian de Palma tackled the feature first, with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie securing Oscar nominations as the bullied teen and her mother, respectively. Spacek beautifully conveys Carrie’s loneliness, while Laurie is the ultimate mother from hell. Despite some of de Palma’s dated elements, the movie tackles sex-shaming head-on, especially in Carrie’s mother’s antipathy towards sex. The novel was adapted for television in 2002, with Patricia Clarkson playing the Laurie role, as well as in 2013 with Kimberly Pierce being the first female director to examine King’s telekinetic character. Pierce’s version starred Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mom.
2. The Shining (1980)
Upon its release in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining was the most prestigious examination of King’s work. The film and novel both detail the life of the Torrance family as they spend the winter inside the Overlook Hotel. Suffice it to say the Torrances have the worst vacation ever. Kubrick heavily changed King’s original text, to the point that King has been publicly vocal over the years about how much he dislikes Kubrick’s adaptation. But it’s hard not to be thrilled and chilled by what Kubrick does as a piece of art all on its own. He condenses the story to its basic elements and creates one of the most effective horror films ever. So much of what lingers in the pop culture consciousness about The Shining comes from Kubrick’s film: Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeere’s Johnny,” the horrors of room 237, whatever the hell is going on with that dude in the bear costume, the wave of blood in the hotel room, the twins. King was able to do his own version, this time for television, in 1997, but can anything really compare to what we got in 1980?
3. Creepshow (1982)
Creepshow’s inclusion might be a bit of a cheat considering two out of the five anthology stories are based on King’s work. The film draws parallels to the E.C. Comics of King’s youth, telling five frightening tales of horror. For the purposes of this list, let’s look at the two King himself adapted. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is based off King’s 1976 short story “Weeds,” while “The Crate” is a short story from ‘79. “The Crate” edges out “Jordy Verrill” for the win, following what happens to a college janitor when he discovers a mysterious crate might contain an actual abominable snowman. “Jordy Verrill” is a silly short, starring King himself, as he becomes entwined (literally) with alien vegetation. King works well when adapting his shorts and each of these stories perfectly conveys Creepshow’s horror/comedy aesthetic that would eventually transition to television shows like Tales From the Crypt.
4. Christine (1983)
Based on the 1983 novel of the same name, Christine is about the special relationship that develops between a boy and his car. It doesn’t help that said car is a jealous, possessed creature bent on murder and destruction. The John Carpenter-directed feature wasn’t a major success upon release but has amassed a huge cult following in the ensuing decades. The film itself is a mess of fun, looking at toxic masculinity before it was in vogue, the differing concepts of what makes a man, and how we end up being defined by our possessions. Complex for a movie about a killer car, right? The film has a litany of distinctive sequences, from Christine’s birth to the tune of “Bad to the Bone,” to her attempt to kill a girl in a drive-in via seatbelt. Christine is as hokey as it is brilliant.
5. Children Of The Corn (1984)
A large number of King’s films look at the horrors of becoming an adult, but Children of the Corn, based on King’s 1977 short story, looks at that in reverse. Vicky and Burt (a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton) end up stranded in the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska only to discover that the children there have done away with the adults, sacrificing them to He Who Walks Behind The Rows, a terrifying demigod creature that lurks in the vast cornfields of Gatlin. Children of the Corn owes its life to the Twilight Zone-episode “It’s a Good Life,” wherein a young boy has ultimate power and uses it to keep the adults in line. But for King, Vicky and Burt’s journey is about the horror that comes from having children at all; one day they might usurp and do away with you. As Isaac and Malachai, respectively, John Franklin and Courtney Gains organize the slaughter and they’re utterly terrifying. The ending, being in 1984, does attempt to give the couple a fairy-tale ending, complete with domesticity included, but it’s hard not to watch the movie as a cautionary tale against procreation.
6. Stand By Me (1986)
This Rob Reiner-directed adaptation of Stephen King’s 1982 novella, The Body, shows the benefits of veering away from the source material. It’s not to say The Body is bad, but it can read as rather cold and impersonal. Reiner does a complete 180-degree turn, evolving the story into an intimate tale of adolescence and becoming, seen through the eyes of a group of boyhood friends who set off to find the dead body of a kid rumored to have been hit by a train. Stand By Me became an ‘80s classic with its emphasis on small-town life set in the ‘50s and friendship. River Phoenix became a star off his performance as bad boy, Chris, and the melancholy ending left us all dreaming of the days of our youth. (It also has the best vomit scene in the history of cinema, but that’s a separate list.)
7. Pet Sematary (1989)
Stephen King’s 1983 book of the same name was said to utterly frighten him, mainly because it dealt with the death of a child. The novel and film both tell the story of the Creed family, who move to a new house adjacent to both a pet cemetery and a Native American burial ground. When the Creed’s young son, Gage, is killed, family patriarch Louis (played by Dale Midkiff in the film) resolves to bring him back by burying his son’s body in the “sour” Indian graveyard. Pet Sematary got a bum rap upon release, with many criticizing the finished product. Yet the movie itself is haunting and uncompromising, from how director Mary Lambert shoots Gage’s death to the reveal of Zelda, the deformed sister of Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby). To this day, Zelda is one of the most terrifying characters I’ve ever seen and the remake has a high bar to cross. And let’s never forget the rockin’ Ramones theme song during the end credits.
8. Misery (1990)
Rob Reiner returned a few years later to direct another Stephen King adaptation that was as far from Stand By Me as you could get. King’s 1987 novel, Misery, tells the tale of author Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan in the movie version). When Paul gets into a car accident, he’s found and cared for by his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). But Annie is unhinged and obsessed and what begins as her nursing him back to health turns into imprisonment. See, Annie has issues with Paul’s writing and becomes fixated on having him write new endings for his novels to please her. For anyone who’s a writer, Misery is their horror story and it’s said that King based on the novel on his own encounters with determined fans. It was meta-commentary on entitled and obsessed fandom before that became a regular topic of conversation. Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance as Annie Wilkes will stick in your memory forever. When she pulls out that sledgehammer…let’s just say it leaves an impression if you’ve watched the movie. Caan and Bates are fire together. You’ll never want to hear anyone refer themselves as your biggest fan ever again.
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption marked a turning point for King adaptations. Where films like The Shining had received critical acclaim, the majority of his adaptations weren’t taken seriously and award nominations weren’t exactly pouring in – until 1994. Based on King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the story focuses on the friendship between two men (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) who bond while serving time in Shawshank prison. Nominated for seven Oscars, the film was directed by Frank Darabont who, like Rob Reiner, would become one of King’s de facto directors. Freeman and Robbins are utterly amazing in a movie rich with history and intimacy. Its characters are memorable, the script beautifully penned, and the ending instills you with a sense of hope. There’s a reason it regularly lands on lists about the best films ever made.
10. The Green Mile (1999)
Let’s get this out of the way, The Green Mile is problematic. The story of a group of prison guards enchanted by an accused murderer set to be executed was always going to have issues. Upon release it was cited as employing the “mystical Negro” trope heavily – in that Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey is revealed to have magical powers that, coupled with his simple-mindedness, inspires the white characters around him. But narrative aside, you can’t deny how compelling the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance is, enough to secure him an Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast is just as stellar, from Tom Hanks and David Morse to Sam Rockwell’s insane performance as murderer “Wild Bill’ Wharton. Take it as an actors’ showcase and that’s more than enough.
11. 1408 (2007)
By the late 2000s screenwriters were drawing heavily from King’s short story output and hearkening back to classic horror of the past. As with Creepshow and Children of the Corn, King’s work draws parallels to the likes of the Twilight Zone, and the ‘60s television show was a clear influence on 1408. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a paranormal debunker who vows to spend the night in the Dolphin Hotel’s supposedly haunted room 1408 to prove it’s a hoax, only to find it’s very, very real. What makes 1408 so effective is that it slowly layers on the fear and tension. At first, Mike is skeptical of what’s happening, and even as the scares manifest more strongly throughout the night there remains the lingering question of whether he’s imagining it or not. Is it truly a haunted room? Or is he just succumbing to madness? The best horror films leave some ambiguity and 1408 does just that.
12. The Mist (2007)
The last of the King adaptations directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist received both massive acclaim and a severe backlash upon release in 2007. The film follows a group of people who hole up in a grocery store after a mysterious mist envelops the town and brings with it a host of deadly and deformed creatures hidden in the mist – think tentacles, lots of Lovecraftian tentacles. The Mist works as both horror and social allegory, taking an unflinching look at how, when humanity falls apart, our baser instincts take over. The feature is a dark, cynical story about survival with an ending that left as many people angry as it did enamored. It was one of the bolder twists on a King adaptation, and for that reason alone The Mist is an unsung gem that deserves a second look.
13. It (2017)
Set for a sequel this year, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the sprawling 1986 novel left audiences screaming back in 2017. Set in the ’80s, group of outsider kids, self-named the Losers Club, must band together to stop an interdimensional being in the guise of an evil clown named Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgård) and I’m still not completely over it. Muschietti perfectly captures the things that frighten us, from the fear of clowns to creepy old ladies standing just out of frame. The child actors are on par with the cast from Stand By Me and the script condenses some of King’s…weirder storytelling devices. Personally, I can’t wait for the sequel – even though I know I’ll be terrified the entire time.
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