10 Best Stephen King Horror Movie Adaptations

Which is your favourite adaptation of King's work?

The Shining
The Shining

We can’t have a month celebrating horror without a list dedicated to the most prolific horror writer of them all: Stephen King. The man has written some of the most memorable horror books to date, and some of them have been competently translated to film. This is no easy task, considering how many of said films have disappointed over the years – the recent Pet Sematary and In the Tall Grass come to mind.

This list will unfortunately not include some films, despite how excellent they are, since it revolves mainly around his horror offerings, so films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me don’t exactly qualify. Nonetheless, they are still plenty of great options to check out this Halloween, if you’re searching for that Stephen King adaptation you had yet to see. Here are the 10 best Stephen King horror movie adaptations, in no particular order.

 

The Best Stephen King Horror Movie Adaptations

1. Carrie (1976)

Carrie 1976
Carrie (1976)

Director: Brian De Palma

Carrie was King’s debut novel, the book that changed his life, so it makes sense that the movie adaptation is the first one on our list.

There may be two other adaptations of Carrie, but neither one fails to live up to De Palma’s version. We all know the story of Carrie: Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is bullied at school and faces abuse from her fanatically pious mother (Piper Laurie) at home. When strange occurrences start happening around Carrie, she begins to suspect that she has supernatural powers, which culminates in the most horrifying prom scenes to date.

Spacek does great work as the titular Carrie, and we veer between sympathizing with her and feeling absolutely terrified. It is a twist in the Cinderella tale, where Carrie gets asked to prom by the popular boy at school, only for her night to take a turn when she realises that it isn’t a happy ending that awaits. Incredibly unsettling and undeniably brutal, Carrie’s murderous rage is quite the spectacle, yet what will stick with you is Carrie’s loneliness and isolation.

 

2. The Shining (1980)

The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick

I debated whether or not this entry belonged on this list. On one hand, it’s a great horror flick, and Kubrick delivers a chilling journey. However, it also deviates quite a fair bit from the source material that is King’s text. King himself didn’t like the film, mainly due to the changes in Jack Torrance’s arc. In Kubrick’s version, he’s starts off a crazy man who just gets crazier, while King wrote Torrance to be a character struggling with his sanity. Love, loss and tragedy are essential components to The Shining, which is missing from Kubrick’s adaptation of it.

Still, we can’t ignore the artistry of the film, where Kubrick makes unconventional choices that serves to elevate his film. So much of the film takes place in broad daylight instead of the usual nighttime setting, and there is greater emphasis on wide shots to highlight the spaciousness (and therefore emptiness) of the Outlook hotel as opposed to tighter close-ups. He takes his time to build an atmosphere of unease, which intensifies to a hair-raising finale, giving us some of the most iconic horror moments in film history.

 

3. The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg

After Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakes up from a five year coma, he is crushed to discover that his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) has moved on. It isn’t just the setting and people around Johnny that has changed, Johnny’s changed too. His physical body is suffering the effects of having been in a coma for all these years (Cronenberg’s exploration of body horror here is subtler compared to his other efforts), and he is now blessed (or cursed) with powers. With just a touch, he is able to see the lives of people around him – their past, their secrets, even their future.

The Dead Zone is distinguished by hidden motives and desires, the things we try to hide from the view of others. However, just like Johnny, we only get a glimpse into this withheld world, to see a hint of the truth, yet never get a measure of the full picture. After shaking the hand of aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny sees the danger presented by the candidate’s rise and resolves to kill him. King’s novel draws more of a parallel between the two compared to the book (since it has the time and space to), but the film does a competent job of capturing the essence of its source material.

 

4. Christine (1983)

Christine
Christine

Director: John Carpenter

Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) develops an unhealthy obsession with his new car, which he named Christine. After bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) defaces Christine, Christine fixes itself and begins taking out Buddy and his friends. Now faced with a car gone rogue, Arnie, along with his girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul), decides that he has no choice but to destroy Christine. The film is as much about high school and fitting in (a common theme in King’s works), as it is about a murderous car.

While Christine does suffer in comparison to the other King adaptations at that time (i.e the previous three films on this list), it’s an entertaining film, with committed performances from the cast and some decent effects.

 

5. Misery (1990)

Misery

Director: Rob Reiner

It’s hard to imagine director Rob Reiner, famous for When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, taking on a source text like Misery. Reiner also directed Stand By Me, but that isn’t a horror in the way Misery is. As Reiner proves, a competent director can tackle numerous genres and hit them out of the park, and that’s what he does here with Misery.

After a serious car accident, writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie brings him to her remote cabin to recover, and things take a dark turn when she discovers that Paul is killing off her favourite character from his novels. Bates is magnificent as Annie, both intimidating and kind, before it becomes clear to us that she’s stark, raving mad. She was so fantastic she received an Oscar for her performance.

King intended Misery to be an allegory about his own struggles with drug addiction, and how Annie is a manifestation of that in the film. With the advent of social media, Misery’s ideas about the writer’s relationship with his readers feel relevant and frightening, with so many receiving death threats for handling characters and the text in the way fans disagree with. It also offers great insight into the author’s push and pull relationship with his art.

 

6. The Mist (2007)

The Mist best horror movies
The Mist

Director: Frank Darabont

Director Frank Darabont is well versed with adapting King’s texts; after all, he directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The Mist isn’t as iconic as the other two, but it is the most obvious horror among the three, so it deserves a place on this list. After a powerful storm damages their Maine home, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head into town to gather food and supplies, before a mist engulfs the town, with David and other town folk stuck in the store.

The film does great work in showing how people would react in a crisis, especially one they envision to be on the level of Armageddon. Would you give in to the terror of the abyss, or keep your head and save the ones you love? The most memorable thing about The Mist is the way it ends, in such a ballsy, gut-wrenching way that it sticks with you years later.

 

7. IT (2017)

Pennywise Clown 2017 IT
IT (2017)

Director: Andy Muschietti

This might be a controversial choice, given Tim Curry’s fantastic performance as Pennywise in the 1990 version, but this modern adaptation of IT is just better overall. Bill Skarsgård did an incredible job as Pennywise, bringing his own vision for the character and knocking it out of the park. The child actors are all great – they have good chemistry together, and Muschetti brings both the horror of childhood traumas and the softer, innocent part of being young to this adaptation.

While I appreciate it more as a coming of age film, the scares are competent, with one notable stand-out – anyone who has seen the film will know which one I mean. The sequel didn’t quite hit the mark, but this first part is delightful, and remains one of the more faithful adaptations of King’s work.

 

8. 1922 (2017)

1922-netflix-original
1922

Director: Zak Hilditch

Is Thomas Jane the go-to man for King adaptations? It appears so, since this is the second King adaptation he’s been a part of, the first being The Mist, though he is less hero here and more lesser man.

1922 is adapted from King’s novella of the same name, that was part of his horror collection Full Dark, No Stars. Wilfred James (Jane) is unhappily married to Arlette (Molly Parker). When she inherits some property, the two have different ideas of what they should do with it. Wilfred then conspires with his teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid) to kill her.

The intent is as ugly as they come, with a father trying to get his son to help him murder his mother. The story’s focus is on the gnawing guilt that sits within a person after committing murder, as we bear witness to Wilfred’s torment, set against an unrelenting landscape. While the material does feel a bit stretched thin, considering how the original text is novella, it’s still a credible King adaptation.

 

9. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Gerald's Game Review
Gerald’s Game

Director: Mike Flanagan

You wouldn’t think that a film about a woman handcuffed to a bed with no escape since her husband died in the midst of their kinky sex would work, especially since we remain with Jessie (Carla Gugino) on the bed for nearly the whole duration of the film, yet it does. Compared to novels like Carrie and IT, Gerald’s Game is one of King’s lesser known works – well, not anymore, but it was at the time the movie was released.

Jessie and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) have rented a remote lake cottage for a romantic weekend, hoping to reignite their stale marriage. Gerald has fantasies, and it becomes clear that these fantasies are much darker than what Jessie had in mind. But she’s shackled to the bed, and he isn’t. However, before he can do anything, he dies of a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed. The tension is compounded with the addition of a stray dog and the Moonlight man, who may or may not exist. Jessie has to find within herself the strength to escape, and not succumb to the fate Gerald left her vulnerable to.

The recent Megan Fox movie Till Death attempted to rehash the ideas and themes in Gerald’s Game, but it just isn’t as good. This is Gugino at her best, and it was great to see her team up again with Flanagan for The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan has done great work in the horror genre – both in TV and film – and Gerald’s Game is definitely one of the standouts in his filmography.

 

10. Doctor Sleep (2019)

Doctor Sleep

Director: Mike Flanagan

Do I have a bias for Flanagan, given that he has appeared twice on this list? Perhaps, but you’ve got to admit that the man has an excellent track record. Be it TV or film, he hasn’t stumbled, and such consistency is a rare thing in the film business, particularly for horror auteurs – I mean, even well known horror directors have their off days.

Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining that focuses on Jack’s son Dan, played by Ewan McGregor. A recovering alcohol, Dan works in a hospice, and uses his psychic powers to help patients die a comfortable death, earning him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”. However, he remains traumatized by the events that occurred at the Overlook Hotel when he was a child – no surprises there.

His hope for a peaceful existence becomes a fool’s errand when he meets Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a teen who shares his extrasensory gift of the “shine”. Because of these gifts, they have to work together to fend off members of the True Knot, a cult whose members try to feed off the shine of innocents to become immortal. McGregor’s Dan faces off with the cult’s malevolent leader Rose played by Rebecca Ferguson, and both actors deliver committed performances.

Flanagan had the tall task of making sure that his vision of Doctor Sleep would be compatible with Kubrick’s The Shining, and he did such a great job that even Stephen King himself was impressed. He enjoyed it so much that the movie actually helped redeem The Shining in his eyes. So yeah, it isn’t bias — Flanagan is just that good.

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