Stephen King’s first novel was published in 1974. The first movie based on said novel was released in 1976. As King became one of the most popular writers in history, his relationship with Hollywood played an important part, and it’s a beautiful and symbiotic pairing that has held strong for decades. It can certainly be said that there are some really bad Stephen King films, but the best of the best are some of the greatest features in the history of the medium.
It’s to celebrate those latter titles that this feature has been put together – though it can be said that limiting this list to a Top 20 has excluded some legitimately good titles including Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman, Zac Hilditch’s 1922 and Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man. I’ve also written about the best Stephen King TV projects of all time, but this is a discussion about the titles that made it to the big screen: below is my ranking of the 20 greatest Stephen King movies.
Tagline: “The Dolphin Hotel invites you to stay in any of its stunning rooms. Except one.”
Stephen King’s short story “1408” isn’t terribly cinematic – all of the action taking place in an office and then a hotel room – but director Mikael Håfström’s adaptation expands the material while staying true to what’s terrifying about it. John Cusack is haunting as a paranormal investigator who is perpetually emotionally reeling as a result of his child’s death, and terrific work is done in the cinematography, production design, and editing to make the titular room an effectively disturbing place for the audience to inhabit along with the protagonist.
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, and Tony Shalhoub
19. The Night Flier
Tagline: “Evil has a flight plan"
When people think “Stephen King” and “vampire story,” the first title to come to mind is Salem’s Lot, but not to be overlooked is “The Night Flier” and its adaptation from director Mark Pavia. Centering on a tabloid journalist (Miguel Ferrer) who will go to any length to get the story he’s hunting, it’s a pitch black tale with a cutthroat attitude, and it’s a darkness that’s fun to roll around in for 97 minutes. The changes from the source material, particularly the addition of Julie Entwisle's novice reporter Katherine Blair, work surprisingly well, and the ending has a wicked bite.
Cast: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwisle, Dan Monahan, and Michael H. Moss
18. Cat's Eye
Tagline: “Through the eye of the cat, a twisted tail of macabre suspense from the author of CARRIE, The SHINING and THE DEAD ZONE.”
Adapting Stephen King’s short stories as singular feature films doesn’t have the best legacy (there’s a reason 1408 and The Night Flier are the only examples of such projects on this list), but packaging a few stories together as part of an anthology is a horse of a different color. Director Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye, while not the best example, is still a great one. The third and final section of the movie, an original tale titled “General” is a “B” – centering on a cat’s battle with a troll that wants to harm a little girl (Drew Barrymore) – but “The Ledge” and “Quitters, Inc.” are both scary and funny successes respectively about a terribly dangerous bet and extreme measures taken to cease a nasty habit.
Cast: Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Alan King, Kenneth McMillan, Robert Hays, and Candy Clark
17. Needful Things
Tagline: “Buy now. Pay later.”
More than 30 years after its release, Needful Things remains one of the best books that Stephen King has written, and the 1991 movie that it inspired is an underappreciated gem – especially the extended TV cut, which allows the adaptation to better match the impressive scope of the novel. Ed Harris' Sheriff Alan Pangborn is the heart of the story – a lawful man watching the town around him sink into chaos – but the true delight in the film is the ensemble. Max von Sydow is deliciously sinister as Leland Gaunt, Bonnie Bedelia exudes a perfect sweetness as Polly Chalmers, and Amanda Plummer's Nettie Cobb, J.T. Walsh's Danforth "Buster" Keeton III and Valri Bromfield's Wilma Jerzyck are all terrific as Gaunt’s unknowing puppets.
Cast: Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia, J. T. Walsh, and Amanda Plummer
16. Pet Sematary (1989)
Tagline: “Sometimes dead is better”
We have not yet gotten a perfect adaptation of Pet Sematary – the most horrifying book in the Stephen King canon – but the 1989 film from director Mary Lambert is as close as we’ve seen. Writing the screenplay himself, King tightens up the material but doesn’t lose the powerful and emotional weight of the story, which centers on the unbearable pain that comes with the sudden loss of a child. Fred Gwynne delivers one of the best performances ever in a King adaptation playing Jud Crandall, and while some of the effects haven’t aged well, there are some sequences – like young Gage (Miko Hughes) assaulting Jud – that still pack a punch.
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Michael Lombard, Miko Hughes, and Blaze Berdahl
15. The Mist (2008)
Tagline: “Fear Changes Everything”
Allow me to start with a suggestion: if you’re going to watch writer/director Frank Darabont’s The Mist, try and find the black-and-white cut, which is vastly superior to its color counterpart. Why? For one, it hides the flawed, 2008-era visual effects, but also it better amplifies the vibe of a 1950s monster movie. While Darabont’s other two King adaptations (more on them in a bit) put a focus on drama, his third and most recent features some of the most horrifying material ever featured in a King film – including the military police officer being eaten from the inside out by extradimensional spiders and the devastating final scene.
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, and Sam Witwer
14. Creepshow (1982)
Tagline: “The Most Fun You'll Ever Have BEING SCARED!”
Remember when I was saying that Cat’s Eye is a great Stephen King-centric anthology but not the best one? That’s because that distinct honor goes to director George A. Romero’s Creepshow. Aiming to capture the spirit of macabre EC Comics like Tales From The Crypt, the movie delivers a blend and major freak out moments. Anyone with any degree of entomophobia will freak out watching "They're Creeping Up on You!" and Leslie Nielsen’s turn as a psychotic cuckold in "Something to Tide You Over" is brilliant, but nothing beats King’s turn as the titular character in "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" – where he finds himself the first victim of a potentially apocalyptic alien invasion.
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Nye, E. G. Marshall, and Viveca Lindfors
13. Cujo (1983)
Tagline: “From Stephen King's novel comes a chilling tale of a quiet New England town and a horrible evil in the dead of Summer”
Through its first 40 minutes or so, director Lewis Teague’s Cujo plays like a drama centering on the conflict that develops when a wife and mother (Dee Wallace) cheats on her husband (Daniel Hugh-Kelly)… but that’s just the character-building appetizer that sets you up for the unrelenting and horrifying main course that is said mother and her young son being trapped in a broken down car by a rabid St. Bernard in the midst of a hot summer. Thanks to impressive filmmaking techniques and animal handling, it’s disturbing how real everything feels with the massive, out-of-control dog, and while its conclusion doesn’t deliver the gut punch shock that is in the novel, the adaptation works with its Hollywood ending.
Cast: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Ed Lauter, and Christopher Stone
12. The Dead Zone (1984)
Tagline: “In his mind, he has the power to see the future. In his hands, he has the power to change it.”
“If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you do it?” That’s a question that is oft-repeated when it comes to time travel in cinema, but Stephen King created a whole new angle to the idea with The Dead Zone, and director David Cronenberg’s adaptation is faithful to the work and tremendous. Like the novel, there is an episodic structure in the storytelling as Christopher Walken’s Johnny Smith goes from hunting a serial killer to saving the life of a child he’s tutoring to stopping the rise of a politician who is fated to destroy the world, and it’s executed with terrific escalating stakes and memorable performances (Walken and Martin Sheen’s dangerous Greg Stillston being the standouts). It changes a number of key details from the source material, but is still one of the best King adaptations ever.
Cast: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, and Martin Sheen
11. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Tagline: “Sometimes, an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend”
Based on a book that is wholly told from the perspective of a woman giving a statement during a police interrogation, Dolores Claiborne is not a story that screams “this needs a big screen adaptation!” (unlike most of Stephen King’s work), but that ultimately speaks to the exceptional job done by director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. The film juggles two murder mysteries and a non-linear narrative, and yet it still coalesces as one of the most gripping and emotional features in the history of King adaptations. Kathy Bates may be best known in association with King for her Oscar-winning performance in Misery (more on that in a bit), but she deserved a second nomination if not second trophy for her work in Dolores Claiborne.
Cast: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Strathairn, Judy Parfitt, John C. Reilly, Eric Bogosian, and Christopher Plummer
10. The Green Mile (1999)
Tagline: “Miracles happen in the most unexpected places.”
If a movie as spectacular as Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile is being ranked tenth on a list, you know you’re dealing with one hell of a legacy. Based on the serial novel of the same name, published in six volumes from March to August 1996, the big screen adaptation is one of the most powerful supernatural dramas that have been made based on Stephen King’s work – both in its ability to inspire fantastical wonder and break your heart.
It’s full of memorable performances – from Tom Hanks’ even-keeled supervisor Paul Edgecombe, to Doug Hutchison's hateful turn as the petulant, sadistic Percy Wetmore. However, the late Michael Clarke Duncan delivers one of the greatest ever turns in a King film as gentle giant John Coffey, perfectly embodying the character from the book that breaks your heart in every rewatch of the film.
Cast: Tom Hanks, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn
9. Gerald's Game (2017)
Tagline: “Some games you play, some you survive.”
Mike Flanagan really had no choice but to make a brilliant film adapting Gerald’s Game. After all, it was a project that Stephen King long considered making himself as a possible redemption after 1986’s notorious Maximum Overdrive (not a title on this list). Thankfully, Flanagan not only lived up to the challenge of the job, but ended up producing what is one of the best King adaptations of all time.
It’s not what one would call an exceptionally cinematic story knowing the logline, as almost all of the action is restricted to a bedroom in an isolated house where a woman is left handcuffed to the bed with no escape… but that’s just part of the magic of the film. Carla Gugino delivers a brilliant performance as protagonist Jessie Burlingame, as she makes every second captivating. The movie additionally has some of the best scares in modern King history thanks to Jessie’s incredibly gory method of escape, the hunger of a stray dog that wanders into the vacation home, and the terror of the Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken).
Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel
8. Carrie (1976)
Tagline: “If you've got a taste for terror... take Carrie to the prom.”
This list may not exist if not for Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It only took a grand total of 20 months for Stephen King’s first published novel to go from arriving in bookstores to being adapted for the big screen and play in theaters around the country. That short time span started a cinematic legacy that continues to grow every year.
Carrie remains one of the most iconic and influential horror movies ever made (it often feels like a reference pops up in every film or TV show that involves a prom), and no matter how many times one watches it, the performances by Sissy Spacek (as the titular Carrie White) and Piper Laurie (as her psychotic mother, Margaret) are riveting and staggering in their power.
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, William Katt, John Travolta, P. J. Soles, and Piper Laurie
7. Christine (1983)
Tagline: “Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan.”
By 1983, Stephen King was such a hot commodity in Hollywood that his books were getting adaptations even before they were published – which explains how the legendary John Carpenter delivered the classic Christine to theaters just eight months after the novel it’s based on first hit store shelves. That turnaround speed only makes the film’s accomplishments that much more impressive.
The movie has a self-awareness about the inherent humor in the concept of a homicidal car, but nonetheless it unfolds some surprisingly scary scenes and possesses deep themes to chew on about adolescence and the relationships that change one’s life at that time. It’s not just one of the all-time great Stephen King movies, but one of the all-time great coming-of-age movies.
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, and Harry Dean Stanton
6. IT Chapter One (2017)
Tagline: “You'll float too.”
When it was first published in 1986, Stephen King’s IT was a capstone novel that brought together all of the best elements of the author’s writing – but it was also a book so long that for years it frustrated filmmakers trying to develop an adaptation for cinemas. The 1990 miniseries made by director Tommy Lee Wallace is wonderful in its own way, but in 2017, Andy Muschietti successfully broke the code by cutting the source material in half.
And while IT Chapter Two doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor, that’s partially because the first movie establishes a terrifically high bar. One couldn’t ask for a better big screen Losers’ Club than Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, and Jack Dylan Grazer, and Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise will haunt nightmares for many decades to come.
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Bill Skarsgård
5. Doctor Sleep (2019)
Tagline: “Dare to go back.”
In a way, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep feels like a book that was written not to be adapted – specifically because he wrote it very much as a sequel to his version of The Shining and not Stanley Kubrick’s. Dick Hallorann remained alive (not struck in the back with an axe), and the Overlook Hotel remained destroyed following the boiler explosion (not left standing following a chase through a hedge maze). In a sense, it’s a novel designed to be as hard to adapt as possible... which makes Mike Flanagan’s 2019 film all the more miraculous.
Flanagan took on the task of not only mending a connection between the two intentionally disparate works, but following up one of the most beloved movies of all time. What he created is astonishing. It digs deep into powerful themes about alcoholism and coping with trauma, but is also a grin-inducing horror story that has Rebecca Ferguson playing one of the all-time great Stephen King villains. It’s gorgeous and disturbing in equal measure, and it's remarkable that it even exists.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, and Cliff Curtis
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Tagline: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”
There was a very real possibility that Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption was going to be totally overlooked by general audiences. Despite all of the impressive talent involved, it was a bomb at the box office, and while it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, it walked away from the ceremony with zero trophies. Thankfully, the film ended up being a phenomenon on home video, and as a result, it is now properly recognized as the spectacular cinematic achievement that it is.
Shawshank Redemption and the novella it’s based on don’t feature a lot of the hallmarks that audiences look for in a Stephen King story, but that just makes it a demonstration of the author’s incredible range. There are few films in history that are able to be as compelling in exploration of hope as a commanding theme, as it gorgeously illustrates the power of the human spirit through Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne without ever feeling cloying or emotionally manipulative. It’s an honest and beautiful piece of cinematic art, and its power is reflected in its pop culture impact.
Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, and James Whitmore
3. Stand By Me (1986)
Tagline: “For some, it's the last real taste of innocence, and the first real taste of life. But for everyone, it's the time that memories are made of.”
It’s ironic that one of the most intimate and personal stories that Stephen King has ever written was turned into a movie that wasn’t initially marketed as being a King adaptation – the fear being that the writer’s reputation in the horror genre would give people the wrong impression of what it was. Thankfully, time has rectified this lacking association, and now Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, based on the novella “The Body” from the collection Different Seasons, is widely and properly recognized as one of the greatest King movies ever made.
From the expressed love of cherry-flavored Pez, to the trestle run, to the horrifying leeches in the pond, to the dramatic final showdown, Stand By Me is a film wholly constructed of iconic cinema, as audiences the world over have seen themselves in the adventure of Gordie Lachance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio. Few coming of age movies are as beautifully faithful to the universal experiences depicted in the movie, which is an astonishing thing when you consider that over 60 years have passed since the story’s 1959 setting.
Cast: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland
2. Misery (1990)
Tagline: “Paul Sheldon used to write for a living. Now, he's writing to stay alive.”
To date, only one actor from a Stephen King movie has ever won an Academy Award – and while that number is unfortunately low, the reality is that it was given to the right performance. Kathy Bates’ turn as psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s Misery is one of the most spectacular villain turns in cinema history, and it’s the rapidly beating heart of a true masterpiece.
Rob Reiner clearly made a special connection with Stephen King in the making of Stand By Me, and Misery is his second perfect adaptation of the writer’s work – even with the significant alterations that it makes to the source material. It’s a masterclass in big screen tension, the camerawork ever heightening the claustrophobia experienced by wheelchair-bound writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) while trapped in Annie Wilkes’ house, and it's a stunning work analyzing the ever-fraught relationship between an artist and their audience.
Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Frances Sternhagen, Richard Farnsworth, and Lauren Bacall
1. The Shining (1980)
Tagline: “Iconic terror from the No 1 bestselling writer.”
Ranking Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as the greatest Stephen King movie is understandably a somewhat controversial stance to make. The author has never been shy about his disappointment in the way that the 1980 adaptation handled his third novel, and when you put the two works side-by-side, it’s hard to argue against any of the points he makes. While sharing the same DNA, Kubrick’s take is noticeably a different beast than the King book – but it’s also one of the best films of all time, and that counts for quite a lot.
Where does one even start lauding the unique accomplishments of The Shining? The genius tracking shots through the halls of the Overlook Hotel? The palpitation-inducing performance by Jack Nicholson as ever-madder Jack Torrance? The genius production design overflowing with eye-popping and memorable patterns and shapes? The haunting score by Wendy Carlos? All of it coalesces as a journey of psychological horror that only gets more intense and majestic with every rewatch, and every minute in its runtime is perfection.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd
This list of the best Stephen King movies certainly isn’t definitive – partially because it’s wholly subjective (surely you have your own rankings that differ from mine), but also because filmmakers will likely never stop bringing the author’s work to the big screen.
Our upcoming Stephen King Movies & TV feature is designed for you to keep track of all of the various King-related projects that are in the works, and my Adapting Stephen King column provides Constant Readers with an in-depth look at the long history of the author’s books being brought to the big and small screens. And if you’re a physical media collector, check out my Ultimate Stephen King Collection guide.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.