The cinematic and literary legacies of Stephen King very much go hand-in-hand. Adaptations of the author’s work have been getting made since novels he’s written started getting published, and by extension there are few creatives in history who have had comparable impacts on popular culture. Not counting TV movies, miniseries, or on-going shows, 48 films have been made based on King’s stories in the last 45 years – and while it’s a challenge to rank them all against each other given the diversity in the content, I’ve tried my level best.
Ranking only the 10 best Stephen King movies means excluding awesome titles like Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary, Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne, and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but that still leaves us with an impressive list of titles that have hit the big screen in the last five decades. I previously ranked what I consider to be the 10 greatest King adaptations of the last 10 years, but this feature takes the entire history into account.
10. The Green Mile
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 movie is one of the most powerful supernatural dramas that have been adapted from 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, but Michael Clarke Duncan delivers one of the greatest ever turns in a King film as gentle giant John Coffey.
9. Gerald’s Game
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 directing himself for possible redemption after 1986’s Maximum Overdrive. 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 an exceptionally cinematic story, 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. Carla Gugino delivers a brilliant performance as Jessie Burlingame, as she makes every second captivating, and the movie has some of the best scares in modern King movies thanks to Jessie’s incredibly gory method of escape and the terror of the Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken).
8. Carrie (1976)
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 playing in theaters around the country, and that time span started a cinematic legacy that continues to grow every year.
It 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.
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 hit store shelves. That turnaround speed only makes the film’s accomplishments that much more impressive, which is not a terrifically easy thing considering how phenomenal it is all by itself.
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.
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 the big screen. 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 Losers’ Club than Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, and Jack Dylan Grazer, and Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise will haunt nightmares for many decades to come.
5. Doctor Sleep
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 only serves to make Mike Flanagan’s 2019 film 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, and 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 I often can’t believe it actually exists.
4. The Shawshank Redemption
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 the year after its theatrical release, and as a result it is now properly recognized as the spectacular cinematic achievement that it is.
The film 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.
3. Stand By Me
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” 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 leaches 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 over 60 years have passed since the story’s 1959 setting.
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 a stunning work analyzing the ever-fraught relationship between artist and audience.
1. The Shining
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.
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 for the big screen. To keep track of all of the projects that are currently in development, you’ll find no better resource than our Upcoming Stephen King Movies & TV guide, and for a full deep dive into the long history that is merely just touched upon in this feature, check out my weekly Adapting Stephen King column.
NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
Your Daily Blend of Entertainment News
Thank you for signing up to CinemaBlend. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.