The 20 Best Films Adapted from Stephen King’s Works
Every profound story contains an effective back story, and Stephen King’s narratives are exceptional. The prolific “master storyteller” provides just enough information to allow the readers to sink their teeth into the scenario. Though many literary scholars may disagree, King is comparable to nineteenth existentialists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky or Franz Kafka, and is aptly admired by countless adorned fans because of his intense and real depiction of fear and the human condition.
Renowned film critic, Roger Ebert, had evidently grown to admire the author, primarily because “King has been responsible for the movies ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ ‘The Green Mile,’ ‘The Dead Zone,’ ‘Misery,’ ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘Christine,’ ‘Hearts in Atlantis,’ ‘Stand by Me,’ ’Carrie’ and ’Secret Window’ ” Roger Ebert’s short list doesn’t entirely cover the vast amount of feature-length films from which Stephen King’s literature was, and continues to be, adapted.
Notwithstanding some mentionable films such as Hearts in Atlantis, Dolores Claiborne, and Apt Pupil, the below entries are by no means exhaustive either. The list does, however, encompass a variety of King’s most recognized—as well as unfamiliar—novels, novellas, and short stories, which were directed by some of the most celebrated, as well as some lesser known directors, and include incredibly talented (and obscure) actors and actresses.
Obviously, it is insanity for people to believe that any type of literature—especially a 300 + page novel—can be perfectly translated onto the big screen. It is also difficult to imagine how a director can manage to adapt a twenty page short story into a feature-length, 120 minute film. The below films translate, onto screen, only an inkling of Stephen King’s writing style, language, characters, and background/setting, while some entries investigate the relevance of the original back story distinctly described in King’s works.
Critics acknowledge that some directors mentioned in the foregoing films have accomplished the objectives of the next-to-perfect adaptations, while others have missed the mark altogether. Despite any misgivings, many scholars and critics (even King himself in his On Writing memoirs) associate the primary characters of King’s works to the author himself, who struggles with every day fears of being human.
Thus, the following films include some main characters who live (or have lived) in or around Maine, and are gifted—but conflicted—children; or intelligent, yet alcoholic, chain-smoking adults—usually writers, professors, or both. Like any illustrious film, antagonists are rejoiced, and King’s thrives on the cream of the crop: religious zealots or evil devil-worshippers—no middle ground for the master storyteller.
Therefore, each character—animate or otherwise—fulfills his or her heroic and villainous role with (for the most part) genteel and vulgar poise.
20. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009), dir. Jeff Beesly
What more can any Stephen King fan ask for than a revenge flick, starring Christian Slater, which contains a Cadillac, human trafficking, mobsters, guns, and desperate witnesses—all located in the middle of the Nevada Desert.
Dolan’s Cadillac doesn’t take place in Maine—Nevada is one of King’s another favorite locales. Nevertheless, Christian Slater, who isn’t a stranger to King’s cinema (Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), plays the “King of Nowhere” mobster Jimmy Dolan who threatens the two hardly recognizable saps—husband, Robinson (West Bentley) and wife, Elizabeth (Emanuelle Vaugler)—to shush up or die if they peep anything about his human trafficking (and supposed murders) in the desert.
Dolan isn’t sympathetic to their innocence and murders the witness, Elizabeth. Robinson, exhausted and vengeful, makes it his mission to “take matters into his own hands.” He follows Dolan’s Cadillac through the desert in hopes to bury the Cadillac Kingand he does so in the end.
A King fan might request less Christian Slater and other sniveling characters who really would have had no chance in a King adaptation had it been 10 or 15 years ago. Yet, Dolan’s Cadillac, a film adapted by director Jeff Beesly—located in King’s short story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), which was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, made the cut. Why? Did it win any awards? No, but the answers are “buried” in the visual and special effects, led by Michael Clement and company.
A great King adaptation always translates the appropriate gore and fear onto screen. Despite the drawn-out drama and thrill-filled moments, the various “dead bodies” found “scattered” (or strategically placed) throughout the film fulfill this challenge. Their clothes not only reveal the time left in the desert air, but their skin discloses their decay.
One scene in particular is a “trafficked” woman, dead with green and gray color, visibly cut and bruised, but eyes open—dead and black—her dilapidated index finger signaling Robinson to keep his mouth shut. [Unfortunately, for the viewer who has yet to watch this film, the following is a “spoiler alert.”]
The final scene ignites fear in the viewer, as well as Dolan—he is buried alive in his own car. In exact Stephen King fashion, the scene is performed without haste—the director requires the viewer to feel the fear, the angst, the pain as Robinson clumps dirt onto the roof of the vehicle—Dolan is scratching, pleading, as we see his dreadful eyes disappear through the sun roof of his beloved Cadillac.
19. Fire Starter (1984) dir. Mark Lester
In his epic 1980 novel, Firestarter, Stephen King reignites his talent for telekinetic characters (see Carrie and The Dead Zone) with college-kids-turned-science-experiments, Andy (David Keith) and Vicky (Heather Locklear), who develop telekinesis and miraculously birth a baby daughter, Charlie (Drew Barrymore). Charlie, however, retains a significantly more dangerous gift—pyrokinesis.
Drew Barrymore was only nine years old when she starred in Mark Lester’s adaptation of the horror thriller, Firestarter. After winning the hearts of every American in ET (1982), Barrymore attempts to mark her territory in her second big-screen film as one “cool” kid who can turn up the heat by a simple glance.
When her parents first discovered her gift, Charlie was only two years old, she set some toys on fire. Her parents, who were supposedly incapable of having children after participating in the science experiment, teach Charlie how to tame her gift, so she can be a “normal” child.
However, the intrusion of “The Shop”—a team of scientists who initially tested Andy and Vicky—threatens the supernatural family’s normalcy when they attempt to foreclose on their creation. Charlie is forced to use her gift to defeat the monsters who challenge their existence.
So this film sounds extraordinarily appealing. How can anyone really forget the scenes in which Charlie captivates her enemies by focusing her eyes and igniting flames in mid-air? Her chubby cheeks turn red and her hair flies back, as a forceful special effect, but the tense music and outrageous acting (primarily by Martin Sheen, the head scientist) exaggerates the atmosphere.
Even George C. Scott was cast as precarious “Indian” with an appalling pony-tail. Though the film-makers had high hopes, unfortunately problems and flaws, according to some critics, existed, blowing out the flame of the film, so to speak.
According to Roger Ebert, the film’s major issue is the “lack of strong points to the story”; all present are: the premise of pyro-kid who can start fires; big, bad government agency people are out to get the kid and her father; others want to hurt, maim, and kill the girl, too, but an actual convincing story, according to Ebert, is missing.
If Ebert’s review isn’t enough, and the nominations (only two, according to IMDb) don’t shock a person, perhaps the Rotten Tomatoes “tomatometer” of only 39% will. Despite this film being the “fifth Stephen King adaptation of the year”, others were apathetic about the “drawn-out” dialogue, awful acting, and going-nowhere story. Simply put, film goers were largely unimpressed by the pyro-technics of this film, and it fizzled at the box-office.
18. Maximum Overdrive (1986), dir. Stephen King
Stephen King adapts his own short story “Trucks,” also extracted from his 1978 Night Shift series, into the more powerful sounding Maximum Overdrive. After a UFO strikes a po’ dunk town in Middle America—which includes a truck stop and a diner, on a random dirt road—an evil set of anthropomorphic vehicles assume control and begin killing any person who cross their paths.
Just after his “brat-pack” performance as the “the athlete” in The Breakfast Club (1985), Emilio Estevez plays a former ex-con-turned-restaurant cook (Robinson) and ring leader of the few humans fighting for their lives against the inanimate objects. Most of the individuals are innocent residents and weary travelers searching for a little R&R, yet the film is another allegory (see Christine) that no matter how far people go to “get away from it all,” “machines” will attempt to conquer human existence.
Unfortunately, the film and its director were sorely critiqued. According to a review from the aptly named “Basement Rejects,” the movie just “wasn’t that scary” and “was released to immense criticism and bombed at the box office. The soundtrack featured music by AC/DC from their Who Made Who album.
The movie was nominated for Golden Razzies for Worst Director (King) and Worst Actor (Estevez).” Despite its overrated eighties evaluations, released only a few years after the world was introduced to The Terminator (1984), Maximum Overdrive is a film that reminds humans of how far technology has advanced—and will stop at nothing.
As usual King, analyzes a human’s most basic fears, rips them from his/her brain, and elevates those fears into another dimension—forcing viewers to question everything, stay home, and feel even less safe than ever before.
17. Cujo (1983), dir. Lewis Teague
America’s favorite dog? I think so. How could anyone forget this King classic about a rabid St. Bernard that terrorizes any human who crosses its path? (Except King, who sorrowfully admits—in his own memoir—to hardly remembering writing the “good parts” of the novel— see On Writing.)
Director Lewis Teague, who is no stranger to adapting Stephen King’s works [Cat’s Eye [1985)] translates, onto screen, a viewer’s worst fears about dog mauling in what can only be described as “B” movie by today’s standards. Roger Ebert wasn’t too impressed, dubbing it the “dreadful Cujo” in comparison to The Dead Zone, which was also adapted in 1983.
Nevertheless, the film—especially the above still—has been referenced in other forms of media (see Friends Season 8, episode 12 “The One Where Joey Dates Rachel”) and is a terrifying, magical reminder of how important a Vet is to man’s best friend.
16. Children of the Corn (1984), dir. Fritz Kiersch
What’s so evil about a bunch of farm kids who emerge from a Nebraskan corn stalk? Throw in some Bible verses plus children called Isaac and Malachai , and passer bys should think twice about stopping for fuel.
Isaac is a twelve-year old preacher of a group of children who live in another fictional po’ dunk town concocted from Stephen King’s dark imagination. All of the adults seem to be dead on the farm from which Isaac preaches, and when one child attempts to escape the constraints of this sinister Issac, another evil boy, Malachai, murders the poor soul. The boy is found dead on the side of the road, and when an out-of-town couple finds him, they discover more than they ever cared to bargain for.
“Children of the Corn”— written by Stephen King and located in his 1978 collection, Night Shift, as well as ‘Cults: An Anthology of Secret Societies, Sects and the Supernatural”—is one of the pioneering stories in which evil children preaching Christianity doesn’t quite mix.
Although several sequels spawned from the first devilish segment, the film was blatantly ousted by critics. Apparently, America just wasn’t ready to face the mighty, yet fearful, thought: Are we all God’s children? Or are some children born and bred evil?
15. 1408 (2007), dir. Michael Håfström
1408 is a horror film adapted from the same title, located in Stephen King’s short story collection Everything’s Eventual (2002). John Cusack, an 80s “brat pack” member, plays a more seriously disturbing role akin to that in The Grifters (1990) and what later viewers will recognize in The Raven (2012).
Cusack is a prominent“ ghost story” writer—the first film listed herein about a writer—Mike Enslin, who “debunks” paranormal myths. In order to receive his authorial inspiration, he insists on rooming in one of New York’s most notoriously haunted hotel rooms of the infamous “Dolphin.” The hotel’s manager (played by the ever-clever and persuasive Samuel l. Jackson) aims to dissuade Enslin from his task, to no avail.
1408 is said to be “ranked as one of the best Stephen King adaptations since The Shining.” The film has a similar numerical significance of The Shining, but probably not as memorable. The familiar story line would seem to strike a chord with King fans, mostly because of the preclusion of blood and gore, but the film fared decent in the box office—winning four (fairly known) awards for best actor and best horror/thriller (IMDB, Amazon).
Håfström [Escape Plan (2013)] attempts to align with King’s story, using cigarettes as a prop to allow time to pass quickly, and focuses deeply into the character’s imagination by way of excellent acting, unnerving effects, and a suspenseful musical score.