The author of over 60 books and almost 200 short stories, Stephen King has proven time and again since the early 70s that no novelist scares the crap out of us quite like him. And for almost as long as he's been writing them down, producers and directors have been eagerly snapping up the rights to convert his stories to the big screen. According to IMDB King has been credited with more than 200 adaptations of his stories to film or television. Some are masterpieces with multiple Academy Award Nominations, others are B movie flops that lurk in the dark, rarely traveled corners of Netflix. But all of them have had that distinct flavor that King brings to each and every one of his stories that truly makes him America's most beloved boogeyman.
With the upcoming miniseries on Hulu, 11/22/63, based on one of my all-time favorite King novels of the same name, I've decided to compile the list of what I've found to be the ten very best film adaptation's of King's work.
Full disclosure before we begin, I don't live and die by the Tomatometer. This is a purely subjective and highly biased list, and my views do not necessarily line up with those of the critics.
#10 - The Mist
Out of all King's stories, in both print and film, The Mist reveals the most influence of one of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the few writers that has contributed more to the horror genre than King. The movie predominately follows a group of locals from a small New England town that find themselves trapped in a grocery store as an alien mist rolls in and brings with it a horde of strange and violent creatures. In true Lovecraftian fashion, The Mist conveys a feeling of madness in the face of near inconceivable horror, and the utter insignificance of human life in the face of larger and more terrifying worlds.
Now, the film snob in me feels the need to disclose a preface about The Mist. It is not a good movie. At least not in the technical sense. The acting--with the exception of Marcia Gay Harden--is bad, the dialogue is worse, and the overall effect makes for some fairly cringeworthy performances. But the atmosphere! With the possible exception of Pet Sematary, have I seen a movie that so accurately captures the chill that steals up your spine when you're reading a really great Stephen King novel alone in the middle of the night. The mist is as ominous and creepy on screen as it was in King's original novel. The monsters are absolutely horrifying and the film is utterly merciless to its characters. And while I plant my feet firmly in the camp of practical effects, for the budget that it had The Mist did a decent job of bringing its menagerie of computer generated horrors to life. Then of course there's the ending...
The film's ending is even more soul-crushing than King's, and this is a novella that implicitly went the apocalyptic route. I defy you to come out of this movie feeling anything but a horrific bleakness down to your very bones.
Sharp-eyed Dark Tower fans are also in for a treat during the film's opening, where you can see Thomas Jane's character painting a portrait of Roland Deschain. This in particular was a nice touch, showing a high degree of respect and awareness of the source material. Though it's never overtly explained in the novella, those of us familiar with the Dark Tower series know that the Mist creatures actually came not from another world, as the film and novella both imply, but from Todash, the space that exists between the worlds and a concept explored during the Dark Tower books.
#9 - Cujo
The revenge of every dog that's ever been locked in a hot car, Cujo is the first movie where you'll actually find yourself rooting for the family pooch to bite a bullet. Supposedly inspired by an actual encounter that King had with a St. Bernard, Cujo follows the story of a family dog that, after contracting rabies from a bat, goes rabid and starts killing anyone that pisses it off. The movie has what I find to be a rather ironic flavor when a woman and boy find themselves trapped inside of a hot car like caged animals, while Cujo himself prowls outside trying to get at them.
A product of the 80s, Cujo recalls the influence of the slasher-pulp phenomenon wherein sexual promiscuity is both condemned and sensationalized, where adultery inevitably leads to bloody and precarious situations. The film doesn't have quite have the arrhythmia-inducing fear of Pet Sematary or The Shining, but it does squeeze a remarkable amount of story from a comparatively simple scenario. This is something that's always impressed me about both the film and the book. Overall I give Cujo a bump over The Mist because it manages to do more with less, having been filmed in the days before CGI became the go to tool for lazy directors.
8 - IT
Ah IT, the movie that single-handedly closed more clown colleges than the Great Recession. Now, technically this is a two episode miniseries, not a movie, and it never got a theatrical release. However, it was shot as a movie, and that's how it's sold and packaged today . . . and more importantly, no top ten Stephen King list of any kind can be called complete without a contribution from IT.
IT takes us to the often referenced fictional town of Derry, Maine, where a group of six outcasts come together--first as children, and then years later as adults--to confront an ancient terror dwelling in the sewers beneath their town and feeding on children. They eventually come face to face with Pennywise, the shape-shifting clown that has as long and bloody a history as Derry itself.
IT is one of the polarized movies that has as much going for it as it has factors against it. Though the film fails to capture the wistful longing for childhood and days gone by that made King's novel so brilliant, the horror elements are still very strong. That being said, unlike The Mist, IT dials back some of the more brutal parts in the novel (and thankfully does not include THAT scene from the novel . . . you know the one). But what really saves IT as a horror movie for many fans is the brilliant performance of the legendary Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, as well as a very creepy musical score by Richard Bellis. Nightmare fuel at its finest...
7 - The Running Man
With the explosive popularity of the dystopian future genre in recent years, I'm always surprised at just how few people are aware of this movie. We know all the tropes now; the apocalyptic society, the corrupt the government, the gladiatorial games, etc. Well, before The Hunger Games and Divergent, even before Battle Royale.
Really more of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie than what we think of as a Stephen King flick, this isn't what you'd expect after watching the other films on this list. King himself even called it terrible, but I think that it's misunderstood. The Running Man is actually much deeper than you'd suspect for an 80s action movie. It has a quasi-Marxist kind of feel, with a lot of anti-capitalist undertones that reveal the evils that can result from the corporatization of art in the blockbuster and the exploitative privatization of the prison industry.
If you like the over the top action, Arnie one-liners, and skin tight leotards that made the 80s awesome, then this might just be the movie for you. Still not convinced? Well, what if Arnold were to say, pleeeeeeease...
6 - Pet Sematary
Seeing this movie is the reason why I shriek at cats as a grown man. Stephen King has written about child murder, necrophilia, and self-cannibalism, but in over forty years of traumatizing fans all over the world, there was only one book that he thought was too disturbing for publication. That book was Pet Sematary, and while the movie isn't quite as creepy and horrific as the novel, it is still one of the most terrifyingly disturbing films of its decade.
Pet Sematary is King's contemporary answer to W.W. Jacobs's The Monkey's Paw. If I were to sum up the story in six words, they are "be careful what you wish for." I won't write too much about the plot, because to describe the premise somewhat spoils the movie here, but in the broadest terms it examines overall the themes of life and death, and how we deal with the inevitability of either dying or living long enough to lose the ones we love. I'll admit a personal bias here, this was one of the first horror movies I've ever seen, and to this day it remains one of my personal favorites in the genre. Pet Sematary may be old, but it's as terrifying now as it was the day it his theaters back in 1989.
Pet Sematary is so awesome, even The Ramones paid tribute to it:
5 - The Shining
Directed by the late, great Stanley Kubrick, The Shining is far and away the most iconic movie on this list. It is also the movie that King himself has most vocally disavowed out of all the adaptations of his work (a list which includes eight Children of the Corn sequels). With respect to Mr. King, I don't think any can deny that The Shining is a fantastic movie, and a masterstroke by one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of American cinema.
The Shining follows the story of the Torrance family; mother Wendy and son Danny, as they follow father Jack, a frustrated playwright acting as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel during a stormy Colorado winter. As the winter snows rise and seal the Torrance family in, Jack faces demons both internal and external in what has become the quintessential standard that all haunted house strive for.
I confess that I had some difficulty in placing in this one. While The Shining, like most Kubrick films, is very visually poetic and exhibits one of the all time greatest performances by Jack Nicholson; it guts a lot of the spirit of what makes King's original novel so great. The book recalls to me a quote by William Faulkner: "The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself." Though there is the overlying external threat of the Overlook Hotel, the real meat of King's book is the internal struggles of the Torrance family. Jack's struggle with alcoholism, Wendy trying to hold her family together while shielding her son from his abusive father, and Danny's attempts to reconcile the father that he loves with his premonitions of the coming danger. Kubrick's film loses most of this. In the movie Jack is crazy and intimidating from the beginning, Wendy does nothing but scream, etc. King describes the book and movie as hot and cold respectively, matching up rather poetically with the ultimate fate of the Overlook. In technical terms The Shining is a better movie than the next listing, but as a Stephen King movie it falls short of...
4 - Misery
My personal favorite of this list, Misery was created from one of Stephen King's literal nightmares. According to King himself he thought of this story after he had a dream on a plane of being held captive by a woman who called herself "his number one fan." When he landed and checked into the hotel he stayed up and wrote the first three chapters at the desk that belonged to Rudyard Kipling. According to a hotel employee it was the very desk that Kipling died at, so you just know there's all kinds of spooky mojo working with this one.
Misery follows the story of Paul Sheldon, a writer who is saved from a car wreck by a deranged fan that winds up holding him hostage so she can force him to write the next installment of her favorite book series. If you've thought about doing this to George R.R. Martin then don't worry, you're not alone. If you've seriously considered it then you should seek immediate therapy.
Directed by Rob Reiner with fantastic performances by Kathy bates and James Caan, Misery is one of those movies that manages to get just about everything right. Really, I have nothing bad to say about the movie. Creepy and funny in all the right places, it's a film that does everything it sets out to and then some.
3 - Stand by Me
Also directed by Rob Reiner, Stand by Me is the most iconic coming of age movie you'll ever see. The inspiration for both The Sandlot and The Goonies, Stand by Me has all the heart of either of those movies, but with the kind of issues about life and death and growing up that makes it real in a way that adults of every generation can connect with. It will make you smile, it will make you laugh, and it will make you cry, both for the friendships of the four protagonists, and for your own lost childhood.
Following the story of four children from a small Maine town that go on a quest to find a dead body, Stand by Me is about friendship and the enduring power that our childhood bonds hold over us for years into our adult lives. Originally titled The Body, this novella was what made King's reputation for writing children years before IT was published. This movie is a classic that transcends time and will remain a classic for generations.
2 - The Shawshank Redemption
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn't already been said? The Shawshank Redemption is, without illusions of idolatry, a perfect movie. Proof positive that King can write uplifting stories as well as he does horror, The Shawshank Redemption was robbed of the Academy Award for Best Picture by what can only be described as a freak twist of fate, having hit theaters the same year as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. Chronicling the twenty year story of a man wrongly convicted of murder, The Shawshank Redemption is nothing less than the ultimate triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming despair. Andy Dufresne summed up the message of this movie clearly enough, "get busy living, or get busy dying."
Narrated by the legendary Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption also tells the story of the enduring power of friendship and the light that it can provide in even the darkest of circumstances. The bond that Andy and Red share is as beautiful as anything you'll see between two characters. I defy anyone reading this to watch The Shawshank Redemption and not feel elated by the final shot of the film. I'll say it again, the acting, the musical score, the cinematography, everything about this movie is perfect.
1 - The Green Mile
I anticipate getting some flak for my choice here. Nine out of ten people will argue that between The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Shawshank is the better film. And if I were making a list of the top the top ten prison movies of all time, then Shawshank would certainly be miles ahead of The Green Mile. In speaking of Stephen King movies, however, not just those based on his works but those which most exemplify the overarching tones that King has developed over his four decades as a published author, The Green Mile is the only movie I could imagine taking the top spot.
The Green Mile tells the story of John Coffey, a black man wrongly convicted of murder in the Jim Crow South, as seen through the eyes of the Paul Edgecombe, the supervisor of the death row prison where Coffey is being held pending execution. The story also has a supernatural element, as Edgecombe discovers that his new gold-hearted inmate has the power to heal people with his hands. Coffey's story is very much that of another popular figure with the initials JC; that of a man taking the pain of the world unto himself, and suffering for the sins of others
The Green Mile exhibits all of the greatest qualities that we have come to expect from Stephen King. It's horrific and heartbreaking, and somber right to its soul. The ending in particular is what solidifies this movie in my heart forever as one of the most emotionally evocative movies around. Without spoiling anything, it reminds me somewhat of the ending to The Dark Tower. A feeling of wearisome resignation as a good man pays a high price for his sins. But not without a bit of hope that he might one day rest. That bit of hope is important. It recalls the final line of King's favorite Robert Frost poem: "And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."