Stephen King is a towering figure in modern day storytelling. Ever since his debut back in the 70s with “Carrie,” he was a voice to always pay attention to. With each successive year and a new story, he cemented his place in the pantheon of all-time great writers.
There may be some naysayers, because anyone whose work hits the pleasure centers of the mainstream is always gonna be looked down upon by the high and mighty literary types, but there’s very few with as strong a command of the written word as him, even in his worst/most drugged out works.
And almost immediately after “Carrie” was published, an adaptation was put in the works and a classic of 70’s cinema was born by the helping hand of Brian De Palma. Then more movies kept being made of his work, and they kept working.
King became a subgenre all his own in Hollywood. But right around the time he hit his career low point (the 90s), movies based on his work stopped working so well and the big business screeched to a halt. But as his career has been on a big upswing in the last decade or so, it only makes sense that his name would be a big boon for the movie business again. And it really has. King fever is full effect, with a handful of big budget adaptations already in the works and more sure to come.
Now that we are currently in the downswing between King adaptations, it seems like it would be as good a time as any to rank the 30 best Stephen King adaptations thus far.
There’s gonna be some caveats here. Sequels made that have nothing to do with the stories King wrote don’t count, so no neverending “Children of the Corn” crap or “Carrie” sequels. No TV work, so bye bye Tim Curry is the only good thing in this, or the really good “Storm of the Century.” If Stephen King didn’t actually write the story in novel form or write the screenplay, it doesn’t count. Also, not every movie has been seen in time for this piece, but the vast majority has and the major ones are most definitely represented here. So let’s get to it.
30. Cell (2016)
Well, it’s certainly a movie. At the very least, you can give it that. It fulfills the basic promise of being put onto a screen for the barest amount of time to qualify as a feature length motion picture. Otherwise, it’s a pretty worthless endeavor that can’t even qualify as a fun kind of bad like many bad King movies.
There’s no heat to the picture and it just limps along like many cheapo movies of the same ilk. It’s got stars that were cast for the quick filming schedule and a decent paycheck, a corner of the film business that John Cusack has made for himself.
To be fair, it’s based off a pretty uninspiring book from King. One with a decent enough premise that just wasn’t executed quite that well. So a movie had a good chance of running with the premise while doing its own thing with it. For a while, Eli Roth was attached to it and at the very least, Roth would have done something that got people talking. For better or worse, he gets people talking. This movie is just limp and lifeless and doesn’t even justify its own existence.
29. Dreamcatcher (2003)
This is another movie that just kind of shouldn’t have happened, as it was a notoriously bad King novel that only really existed because King needed to do something while he was high as a kite during recovery from the car accident that almost killed him.
It’s full of elements that are present in many of Kings work, like the wistful nostalgia and the distrust of the military and some crazy ass alien shenanigans. But due to the horrific accident he just went through and the painkillers that were keeping him sane(ish), the book we got was some jumbled up nonsense that added up to nothing other than the ramblings of a broken man.
The movie could have maybe done something with the work, as getting William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan on scripting duties should have helped out a bit. But the source may have been so broken and lacking in potential that Kasdan and company should have just stayed away. Because what they delivered is mind-bogglingly insane and unsuitable for screens.
It feels like a faithful translation of the feeling of reading the book, which is just pure confusion. This must feel like what going crazy is like. But honestly? It’s so insane and filled with straight-faced nonsense decisions that you can’t help but watch the damn thing out of sheer car crash-like curiosity.
28. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Mick Garris seems like a very pleasant man. He’s a very well-spoken, passionate presence in the horror community. But as a filmmaker, he’s pretty much crap. Like, he’s almost incompetent. His passion as a fan has seemingly never translated to the screen. And this movie is another example of that.
He’s actually done a good deal of Stephen King stories. For the most part, his King work has stuck to the small screen. Sadly, unsuspecting citizens wanting to see a movie the weekend it opened were beaten down with this barrage of campy nonsense.
It’s a movie built on a mythology that just doesn’t make any lick of sense. What the final product feels like is a series of sequences put together with no real thought to how they add up. There’s no connective tissue here, feeling completely disjointed. Almost as if there was three hours of material cut out to whittle it down to a watchable run time.
But even then, it’s a movie that looks cheap, has pretty terrible dialogue, and actors that could generously be said are giving “performances.” But then again, it’s just so committed to its insanity and silly premise that it is a movie that can be watched with a group of people and a few drinks and nobody would be upset about it.
27. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
This movie could very well be in the running for worst movie ever made. But unlike other King adaptations that just don’t work, this one can’t be blamed on anyone other than Stephen King. Because in the midst of a God-like coke bender that lasted almost half a decade, King had that white powder hubris to tackle a movie for the first time on his own.
Taking a short story of his about some unknown event that causes all machines to become sentient and decide to kill any human in sight, King stepped behind the camera for the first time.
Probably the best aspect of all that in hindsight is that King doesn’t remember making the movie. His mind was so riddled with drugs that an entire film production has escaped his memory. And film productions aren’t usually short enough, especially a movie with this kind of budget, to just forget so easily.
That coke-fueled incompetence is clear on screen, as it has this unjustified confidence that only a fiend can have. It doesn’t make any sense, despite some clearly added-in post-production title cards at the beginning and end to try and make some sense of it. The acting is all formless, the actors stranded thanks to the cocaine golem behind the camera.
The movie has a semi-competent look, but even then it kind of fumbles from time to time with King showing a clear lack of a grasp on the language of cinema. There’s also this weird tonal dissonance, as the movie is basically scored entirely to AC/DC songs but has a mean-spiritedness that betrays the inherent kiddie fun of those songs.
Killing kids is such a strong choice in cinema that you have to own that mean-spiritedness but it kind of doesn’t. It just adds up to a truly deranged experience that is the pinnacle of so bad it’s good King entries. In the end, it kind of makes sense that King is the one to do so.
26. The Mangler (1995)
Tobe Hooper is a man who has one of the greatest horror movies ever made under his belt (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”). He also made a pretty spooky TV movie that was based on a King story (“Salem’s Lot”). There’s still some debate about his input on “Poltergeist.” And his run at Cannon Studios with “Chainsaw 2,” “Lifeforce” and “Invaders from Mars” is some supremely silly but highly entertaining nonsense. But when one looks at his overall output as a filmmaker, it is much more weighted down to the bad side of the qualitative scale.
Many of his movies are so bad that one has to question if he’s ever seen a movie before or if he’s lost a bet. This is another one of those movies. It’s one of those King premises that only really works on the page because his command of writing is so strong that you don’t really think too deeply about how silly it is that a laundry press has come to life and is killing people on purpose.
In a film, it can’t help but be too silly to comprehend. But while Hooper may be so very incompetent many times throughout his career, one can’t say the guy isn’t passionate and ambitious in his work. He goes for it and that helps out here, crafting a movie that is at least memorable and daring in its attempts to make this work. Add in a supremely Robert Englund performance and some gruff Ted Levine work, and the movie has a little charm going for it. But rest assured, this is a pretty nonsense movie.
25. The Dark Tower (2017)
The Dark Tower series of books is King’s masterwork. It’s a sprawling, epic, wild and messy as hell ode to all that fuels King and it is his greatest achievement. There have been cries for it to be given the big screen treatment for a while now, especially in a post-”Lord of the Rings” / “Game of Thrones” world where some truly ambitious pieces of fantasy prose have been successfully adapted to the screen. And in this era of King’s pop culture resurgence, it really would be fitting.
It’s a damn shame that a movie or show hasn’t been made yet, as a really accurate adaptation of the series would be truly something special. We should consider ourselves lucky that a bland, lifeless and frankly disrespectful adaptation didn’t come out amidst all the truly successful adaptations.
Lucky that they didn’t cast a pretty pitch-perfect Roland Deschain and a solidly cast Man in Black and waste them in a barely functioning YA movie focusing on a horribly miscast Jake Chambers. Lucky that we didn’t get a movie that fundamentally misunderstands the series and its mythology, feeling completely detached from the source thanks to the unimaginably horrible writing style of one Akiva Goldsman.
It would have been a shame to have lived through that semi-competent late-night-on-TNT style “action” movie just a month before a barn-burning adaptation of “It” would come out. Thankfully no such movie exists, otherwise we’d have known about it, right?
24. Children of the Corn (1984)
The short story this is based on is a pretty solid little piece from King. It’s got his usual sense of mood and atmosphere, building up toward the twist that these little jerks are sacrificing adults to a pagan god in their corn fields. It may be a bit on the flimsy side to be given a completely accurate translation to the screen, but there are the seeds within to build something interesting. Especially in the heyday of King adaptations, where it seemed like everything made based off of his work would be a great movie.
But the thing about this movie is that it is so aggressively mediocre that you would assume it voted for Trump and hates women. This was probably the beginning of the end of consistently quality movies based on King’s works. After this movie, the next truly great movie was “Stand by Me” in 1986 and then “Misery” in 1990.
The ratio took a big hit. Which is a shame that this movie was basically handed off to a nobody filmmaker to just crank out a piece of “content,” especially when you look at who made prior entries. Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, George Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter. Hell, even Lewis Teague made a decent little name for himself in the genre world as a solid jobber.
Which also basically means is that this movie is just fine. There’s nothing really special within, just that it’s fine. Nothing memorable or truly bad. Frankly it’s kind of a bore and doesn’t make for much of a watch, especially next to some of the truly bad movies in King’s name. How it got roughly 100 sequels is beyond me, as the name really shouldn’t matter to anybody.
23. Firestarter (1984)
Oh, the movie that could have been. The source material may not have been one of the best things King has ever produced, but it’s a pretty solid little read. What many of King’s movies need is a filmmaker who can really bite into the material. A filmmaker with some real talent beyond capturing pretty but empty imagery. So when I tell you that the original filmmaker here was going to be John Carpenter, you should be very upset that it didn’t happen.
Thanks to the financial and critical drubbing that “The Thing” took, it cost Carpenter the gig. And knowing that Carpenter was pretty close to making the movie, you can’t help but realize that the movie’s real Carpenter knockoff feel wasn’t an accident. Mark L. Lester rolled with what he had, and it was a movie that was basically started by Carpenter and one he would have to bring to the finish line.
This is another movie where it’s pretty mediocre, although this one has some pretty good stuff within it. Some elements that stand out. Old and obese as hell George C. Scott is always a welcome presence and he does standout work here.
Tangerine Dream delivers a solid, if Carpenter-y, score. And the special effects work is truly phenomenal. All that crazy fire work at the end is really something. Sadly, the movie itself just hums along on a decent if uninspired pace. This is probably the biggest what-if of the entire King stable, as it was so close to being special.
22. Carrie (2013)
“Carrie” being remade should have been a choice that was widely derided, since most remakes are immediately met with a smug eye roll in film circles. But this one wasn’t for two reasons. The first being that it was already given a delayed and stupid sequel in 1999 and was remade for TV in 2002 by a young-in-the-tooth Bryan Fuller, both being met with tepid at best reactions.
The second reason being that Brian De Palma’s version is still met with some resistance by some, being that he’s a filmmaker of a smutty variety tackling the story of a young woman blossoming. Which is a silly critique to throw at the movie on its face since King is, as of this writing, a man and has always been one. But getting Kimberly Pierce, who directed “Boys Don’t Cry,” was a pretty decent sign of a good movie coming to theaters. And it was.
But it sadly couldn’t really overcome the shadow of the original classic by De Palma, as it stayed so close to that movie that the movie’s writer was credited as a writer on the remake without actually having anything to do with the movie. So while the movie may not lack the thunder and auteurist flair of that movie, it does have something that makes it a worthwhile watch.
Pierce does utilize her female POV to bring an interesting dynamic to the Carrie/Margaret dynamic that is different enough from the De Palma entry to justify its existence. Add in the big ole climax that hews closer to King’s almost apocalyptic ending (while still not being as destructive and mean-spirited), it is a decent movie. It is just kind of hard to get over that screenwriting credit, as it shows how lacking in originality it is.
21. Cujo (1983)
This backstory of the source material ties back to the masterfully bad “Maximum Overdrive.” It’s like a sadder and more coked-out version of “Dreamcatcher.” King wrote this during the heyday of his cocaine usage. And much like “Maximum Overdrive,” King seriously doesn’t remember writing this book. Just another chunk of his life was taken from him due to his addiction.
But unlike “Maximum Overdrive,” the book at least felt like King. It was messy as hell and took some weird turns into the supernatural, with a kind of half-thought out tie in to “The Dead Zone.” But his writing was still very strong and the spine of the thing was pretty solid. He may not remember writing it, but he does regret that his coked-out self ended the book with the death of the little boy.
The movie rectifies that mistake, giving us a little catharsis after taking the audience through the ringer. It’s a tense little movie, one that manages to never overstay its welcome and do good work with keeping things fresh. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel completely here, but it does some stuff that improves upon the book. There’s still a thinness to the story and some pretzel logic to get us through the whole thing, with conveniences piling up.
The movie isn’t bad, per se. It’s got really good stuff here. But it just lacks that behind-the-scenes magic where they tailored the story to their sensibilities. Aside from some necessary changes in the transition to the screen, it doesn’t do much to be its own thing.