This article was updated on 5th February 2021 to include the most recent adaptations of Stephen King’s work.
There’s a new movie based on a Stephen King book out, Pet Sematary, based on his classic and scariest novel. King has stated it’s the one he thinks is scariest and one he hid in a drawer for three years, releasing it only when a contract issue meant he owed a third book before a deadline. King has a lot of film adaptations, and considering he is to writing stories what Hugh Hefner was to looking at knockers (quite good, I assume) we’re going to run down every movie based on a King work.
A little admin: no TV movies, straight-to-video sequels, miniseries things like that. We’re talking proper released movies — and the Netflix ones. Let’s begin, the King movies, from worst to best.
45. MAXMIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)
Stephen King directs the worst adaptation of his own work that involves killer trucks. King states he was off his face during this period and notes he has zero idea how to direct a movie. Luckily in the thirty three years since the movie he’s decided to stick to writing and not directing. Though the trailer does feature a deranged looking King promising he’ll “scare the shit out of you”. False advertising.
44. THE NIGHT FLIER (1997)
A less than savage attack on tabloid reporting this film was mired in release issues, getting theatrical releases in some territories and TV ones elsewhere. What helps is that Miguel Ferrer was a great character actor and commits to the bit, even if this barely raises a jump in it’s 90 minute running time.
43. NO SMOKING (2007)
An Indian adaptation of a novella by King, No Smoking is a twisty confusing neo-noir, crime thriller that forgets to include any thrills and becomes a confusing mess. Still, the prospect of other Indian King adaptations sounds appealing – Indian Shawshank anyone?
42. GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990)
A dumb monster movie that doubles down on dumb with little joy, Graveyard Shift boasts a fun hammy turn from Brad Dourif (Chucky, Wormtongue, Billy Bibbit) but never goes either full scary or full stupid. Frank Welker voices the creatures and the whole thing looks like a student film sadly.
41. A GOOD MARRIAGE (2014)
Considering the central premise concerns a married couple – Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia – in turmoil since LaPaglia is keeping a dark secret, and that Stephen Lang has a supporting turn in it, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film would be a little more urgent. But despite talent both Allen and LaPaglia don’t have chemistry, the central conceit lacks horror, and the whole thing has the air of a cheap TV movie.
40. MERCY (2014)
Two kids – Chandler “CARRROLLL” Riggs and Joel Courtney – go to help their grandmother with mystical powers. There’s not much else to say, it’s dumb, boring and isn’t even funny how not good it is. Shirley Knight is the titular grandmother, and looks like she’s having fun, good for her.
39. CAT’S EYE (1985)
A three part anthology film that features a cat wandering through the stories, it’s not awful but it is largely forgettable despite a decent cast. Everything was written by King, with two adaptations and the third story being an original story. Cats are creepy so there’s that.
38. SILVER BULLET (1985)
Based on King’s novel Cycle of the Werewolf, Silver Bullet came out around the time of Werewolf movies – An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Teen Wolf – but hasn’t stood the test of time. The suit looks kinda lame, but Gary Busey is on fire in his role.
37. RIDING THE BULLET (2004)
A 98 minute movie that feels like it’s a lot longer, despite a good turn from David Arquette, Mick Garris directs this film (he’s a frequent King adaptor) with all the excitement of a person watching the clock. Nothing even kicks into gear, it’s not very scary, and when it ends you’ll forget it began.
36. THE MANGLER (1995)
From Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist), comes this middling horror film that at least sees Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) and Robert Englund (Freddy Kruger) on screen together, but not much else is to it’s credit. Hooper has a decent enough style and the film is kind of fun in a silly way.
35. HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (2001)
Based on the novella Low Men in Yellow Coats from the collection hearts in Atlantis, and vaguely connected to The Dark Tower series, this touching mystery drama follows an enigmatic Anthony Hopkins and his relationship with Anton Yelchin. It doesn’t have an urgent pace and lacks some kind of menace, but the pacing and the emotion call to mind The Green Mile, and Hopkins and Yeltsin give brilliant performances.
34. CREEPSHOW / CREEPSHOW 2 (1982 / 1987)
Two anthology films and a collaboration between King and George A Romero, these films work when the stories are decent. None more so than the one involving a room filled with cockroaches which is literally skin crawling. Apart from that, it’s down to a matter of how much you enjoy anthology films.
33. THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)
Based on an novella which sees an average Joe hire the evil god Pan to cut his grass, this out there Tron rip-off instead has Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan and some random crap about cyberspace. King hates it, and it’s weirder than a story about a god running a gardening business.
32. FIRESTARTER (1984)
Drew Barrymore is a firestarter, she can do magic fire stuff and the government wants to use her for it’s bad deeds. This is kind of over-the-top and a little girl starting fires with her mind seems somewhat Carrie-like, but even so, Barrymore is good and George C Scott makes acting look annoyingly easy. It’s a fun watch, but certainly dated. It screams out for a modern take.
31. THE DARK TOWER (2017)
Messy, muddled, wasteful. King’s legendary fantasy opus gets the movie treatment in this slog of a film. Wasting Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, the film doesn’t know what it wants to be except a collection of moments and stuff. It flopped, the series is dead, and maybe it’s time for HBO to pick it up and fill that Game of Thrones void we know is coming.
Read our review of The Dark Tower.
30. DREAMCATCHER (2003)
There is no criticism of this film better than just summarising the plot: four boring friends with no chemistry (Jason Lee, Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant and Damian Lewis) meet up in a snowy cabin where bumble invading aliens trap Lewis in a library within his own brain, they then invade more bumholes until their disabled friend Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) shows up, and the army lead by a scary eyebrows Morgan Freeman come to blow the bum-worm creatures into oblivion. All this directed by the man who wrote The Force Awakens and directed The Big Chill.
29. CELL (2016)
Mobile phones make you brainless zombies. Mr King you sir really have your finger on the pulse. King’s epic apocalypse novel is given a poor movie with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (1408 reunion!) along with Isabelle Fuhrman and Stacy Keach are also in the cast but poor pacing, clearly low budget and a villain that doesn’t have any menace stop this film from really hitting where it needs to. Plus, Cusack is too old for his role.
28. IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)
Vincenzo “Splice” Natali directs this adaptation of a collaboration between King and his son author Joe Hill. The tall grass of the title is a refence to an unending loop of fields that never lets anyone get to where they want to go, and sends those inside slowly mad as the day takes its toll. Patrick Wilson is particularly effective, but the film’s slow pace may prove somewhat trying for people looking for simple thrills.
27. PET SEMATARY (1989)
Penned by King himself and he appears in cameo form, this so-so adaptation is remembered fondly for it’s mad directing thanks to Mary Lambert and supporting role from Hermann Munster himself Fred Gwynne as kindly neighbour Jud. It’s he who delivers the immortal line “sometimes dead is better”. But the film lacks scares, chills and the hammy acting stop this form hitting where it needs to.
26. THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
King’s original novel, published under the Richard Bachman name, is one of building tension, a count down into a dystopian nightmare. The film by Paul Michael Glaser is a full on 80s beefcake party in which Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays a convict who partakes in a deadly bloodsport called The Running Man. There are some vague potshots at the Reagan administration, and Jesse Venture, Maria Conceit Alonso and Yaphet Kotto are game for a laugh, but only Richard Dawson comes across as being in on the dumbness. That said the film features of the better Arnie lines – “I live to see you eat that contract, but I hope you leave enough room for my fist because I’m going to ram it into your stomach and break your goddamn spine!”
25. CUJO (1983)
Cujo is a basic story, a great big St Bernard dog gets bitten by a bat with rabies and goes bat-bit crazy. The film is a mix of a real dog, and people in suits, and it kind of shows, but if you buy into the story, then a mother and son trapped in a car during the heat will be an engaging and thrilling ride. If not, you’re dealing with softcore furry porn.
24. 1922 (2017)
Thomas Jane anchors this moderate horror drama about a murder and passion. The rest of the film is a lot like slow rot, it takes over slowly before you know it it’s corroded everything. Atmosphere, and tension are the order of the day, and if you have the patience, it’ll reward you.
23. PET SEMATARY (2019)
Suitably dark, this new take on the grimmest of King’s novels gets the casting right with John Lithgow as kindly neighbour Judd, and a nice flipping of the novel’s tragic midpoint but fumbles elsewhere. As the film grows darker and darker the film loses its sense of purpose and the mounting dread gives way to underdeveloped ideas, even a usually great Jason Clarke fails to register as Louis isn’t given enough to start with to make him likeable. Yet, the film is still atmospheric and those who love the book will enjoy its grim take.
Read our review of Pet Sematary.
22. THE DARK HALF (1993)
George A Romero directs Timothy Hutton in a story about a man’s alter ego coming to life. King was inspired to write this after his own pen-name was outed as him, and the film never really gets to the requisite horror factor, but Romero has something to say and Michael Rooker is also in it, so even as a middle ground King movie it’s watchable.
21. CARRIE (2013)
Perhaps surprisingly low on the list considering the talent involved, the flaw with this film isn’t anything it does, but that it exists. The original Carrie is perhaps a perfect rendition of the story so anything else just seems pointless against it. Chloe Grace Moretz is good as Carrie White, and Julianne Moore goes for mental as her mother, but even the visual effects lack flair sadly.
20. 1408 (2007)
An enjoyable enough haunted house story but instead of a house it’s a hotel room. Writer John Cusack investigates hauntings and though sceptical comes to feel that something is going bump in the night in room 1408, Samuel L. Jackson gives good menace as the manager of the hotel who might be in on it, or just plain scared. It’s bumpy, and a little daft in places, but fun enough.
19. CHRISTINE (1983)
Carpenter and King team up for what could have been called Herbie Goes Fucking Mental, as a 58 Plymouth Fury – the Christine of the title – is bought by a nerdy guy and proceeds to off people who do him or the car itself wrong. It’s kind of silly, and too much thought on things will bring about possible nosebleeds and anger, but the car is gorgeous and the effects are great too.
18. CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
Probably best known for the name Malachai, and for the scene in which a kid screams Outlander into a deserted town, King’s version of the film would have been a history of the uprising of evil kids, and the story of Burt and Vicky, as the film is now it’s a violence lead horror movie. It’s fun, but nothing that lingers in the memory, except that Malachai and Damien are served for evil kids.
17. NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)
In the world’s worst town of Castle Rock a new shop opens, that has everything your heart desired but at an affordable price, so long as you play some pranks on the town’s folk. Ed Harris leads a cast that includes Bonnie Bedelia, J.T. Walsh, Amanda Plummer and W. Morgan Sheppard, though the star is Max Von Sydow as sinister shop owner Leland Gaunt who may or may not be some kind of evil. Campy and fun, von Sydow keeps the film afloat when it gets into unpleasant nasty territory.
16. IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)
Bigger, bolder, but also weaker than the film before it, Andy Muschietti’s epic follow up to mega-hit might fumble at times with an over-reliance of CGI over Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying Pennywise, but the chemistry between the Losers is as strong as ever. The inconsistent tone will charm some viewers while putting off others but Bill Hader and Jessica Chastain lift the film up high with their turns, and when he does show up Skarsgard is just as scary.
Read our review of IT: Chapter Two (2019)
15. THINNER (1996)
Horror meistro Tom Holland tells this bizarre story of Robert John Burke’s obese lawyer who, being called on his shitty attitude by a Native American man, is cursed to become thinner. Suddenly the heavy prosthetics that cover Burke start fading and he begins to waste away. The film is fun in a dumb way, and despite lacking any characters you can like (even Bethany Joy Lenz as Burke’s young daughter annoys), it passes the time well.
14. APT PUPIL (1998)
Coming from the collection Different Seasons which also features The Breathing Method (not yet made), Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Of them, Apt Pupil is the darkest story, focussing on Todd Boweden (Brad Renfro) as a young man who discovers his town houses a Nazi war criminal (Ian McKellen) who is hiding out. Bryan Singer directs one of his better works, and manages to pull together this dark story of obsession and corruption. Renfro and McKellen manage to keep us engaged.
13. SECRET WINDOW (2004)
Perhaps the best film directed by screenwriter extraordinaire David Koepp (that’s not high praise, great writer – terrible director), follows writer Johnny Depp who becomes the target of John Tuturro who is convinced Depp has stolen his short story. The film builds to perhaps an obvious end, but even so, the film is an enjoyable thriller. King has stated that the short story is based on an episode in his life where a man broke into his house with a “bomb” claiming that King had stolen his idea for a novel, which adds an extra dimension to the proceedings.
12. STAND BY ME (1986)
Based on the novella, The Body from Different Seasons, Rob Reiner’s coming of age story follows four kids on the hunt for a dead body in 50s America. Perhaps aided by a non-surprisingly good performance by River Phoenix, as well as good support from Keifer Sutherland, this is a classic tale of growing up, that has a sheen of Americana it’s impossible not to be entranced by.
11. DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)
An epic task fell on Mike Flanagan’s shoulders, adapting a book that itself was a sequel to a book that was popular but made into a vastly different and infinitely more popular film. Flanagan manages to marry the two elements well, paying tribute to both the film Kubrick made but honouring the novels that King wrote. His exploration of the horrors we inflict on ourselves and the juxtaposition against the horrors that outside forces can bring about is powerful and Ewan McGregor has rarely been better.
Read our review of Doctor Sleep (2019).
10. GERALD’S GAME (2017)
Mike Flanagan of Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House and Hush fame takes King’s “unfilmable” book and turns it into a taut tense survival story with one of the most squirm inducing moments of all time. Carla Gugino stars as Jessie who finds herself chained to a bed when a sex game with her husband Bruce Greenwood ends with him dead. For anyone who has ever dreamed of Gugino in a silk nightdress and handcuffs, this Netflix feature is not exactly what you’d hope.
9. DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995)
Taylor “Mr Helen Mirren” Hackford takes on this drama-thriller story that King stated by largely a tribute to his mother. The story of a mother-daughter relationship, Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh give some of their finest performances in a drama that has a slow burn, while the supporting cast includes Judy Parfitt, Christopher Plummer, David Strathiirn and John C Reilly.
8. THE DEAD ZONE (1983)
David Cronenberg directs this horror-thriller in which Christopher Walken plays the last person in the world you’d actually let teach children, who after an accident wakes up years later to find if he touches people he can see their future. Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom and Anthony Zerbe round of the cast, but it’s Martin Sheen as the villainous Greg Stillson that really steals the show. The concept is great and the film follows through on its promises.
7. IT (2017)
Taking the first half of the story, and giving the kids at the centre some genuine heart, It happens to be both bone-chilling and thrilling in equal measure. If Chapter 2 can match the sheer power of the first it’ll be a perfect rendition of King’s epic horror story, and Bill Skarsgard is terrifying.
Read our review of IT
6. CARRIE (1976)
Despite every sixteen year old girl in the film being played by middled aged women, oddly over-the-top nudity for the first two minutes and John Travolta, Brian de Palma’s adaptation of King’s first published novel is the Cinderella story on acid. Yes, there’s the end jumpscare, and the famous pig’s blood scene but Sissy Spacek makes us care for Carrie and Piper Laurie is so over the top as her mother it’s delicious.
5. THE MIST (2007)
Perhaps most famous for it’s downbeat gut punch ending, The Mist is the third of Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations but proves one of the best. Even before that ending we are treated to Thomas Jane in a supermarket with other survivors as paranoia sets in when a big mist descends on the town and nasty weird monsters begin lurking in them. With Marcia Gay Harden as the religious zealot claiming God is speaking to her this has tons of fun for all the King fans and yes, that ending will stay with you.
4. MISERY (1990)
Fans can be nightmares, just look at Rotten Tomatoes and see the vitriol with which people go for each other over fictional things, so when King wrote a book about an obsessive fan you know it was going to be good. Rob Reiner again directs a King adaptation, with James Caan as an author held hostage by his number one fan Kathy Bates and you better believe it gets grisly. You won’t want to walk after the hobbling scene and it makes you think just how nutty people can be.
3. THE GREEN MILE (1999)
Darabont tackles his second King prison story, the slow burning tale of Tom Hanks as a death row warden who along with his co-workers David Morse, Jeffrey DeMunn and Barry Pepper come to meet the huge but miraculous John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). The film takes it’s time telling it’s story, with no rush to get to it’s end, and when it does, if you aren’t moved, you’re probably dead. Plus, it’s supporting cast has Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Graham Greene, Sam Rockwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Jeter, Patricia Clarkson, Dabbs Greer and Gary Sinise.
2. THE SHINING (1980)
Even if King doesn’t like it, it’s hard not to like Stanley Kubrick’s insane adaptation of King’s book. Yes, it changes things, and there’s a billion different ways to read the subtext of the film. Yes, Shelley DuVall is either brilliant or grating, and Nicholson never really seems like he’s a normal guy (the man screams insane), but even so it’s shot perfectly, Scatman Crothers is great, and when Nicholson goes crazy, it’s duck and cover stuff.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Everyone’s favourite movie, Morgan Freeman’s legendary narration, the story of an innocent man who kept hope alive and tunnelled through shit. Darabont’s take on the novella is a perfect adaptation giving Tim Robbins his finest role, and providing the world with that great Thomas Newman score – plus, if you don’t cry when Freeman talks of hoping to see his friend again, you’re either dead or lying. Get busy living, or get busy dying.