Audiences are in the midst of a Stephen King renaissance the likes of which hasn’t been seen since his heyday of the 1980s. Some are excited about The Dark Tower and the hotly anticipated IT adaptation, but the biggest surprise is the massive presence King has in the television landscape.
The Mist is currently airing on Spike, the Mr. Mercedes series is right around the corner in August, and Hulu is teaming with JJ Abrams to bring Castle Rock to viewers next year. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Stephen King has been an enormous presence on television. Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, King’s TV movies were a staple of popular viewing, and while some of them don’t stand the test of time, there are many that are still entertaining today.
This is a list of all the TV movie adaptations of Stephen King’s work, ranked from worst to best.
(NOTE: This does not include TV series’ such as Haven, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, The Dead Zone, Kingdom Hospital, Under the Dome, 11.22.63, or Golden Years.)
19. Firestarter 2: Rekindled (2002)
Starting in the “unnecessary sequels” department, this sequel to a sleeper movie from the 1980s is the very definition of useless. How does a movie screw up with a cast that includes Malcolm McDowell, Dennis Hopper, and Wet Hot American Summer’s Marguerite Moreau? By hiring the director of From Justin to Kelly to bring it to the screen.
The film doesn’t do justice to the original story, the original film, or any of its cast, and if it had never existed, I don’t know that the world would be any different.
18. Trucks (1997)
Moving from “unnecessary sequels” to “unnecessary remakes,” Trucks is director Chris Thomson’s attempt to do Maximum Overdrive. The problem is, what made King’s directorial debut so fun was the cheeseball aspects, the over-the-top dumbness and intentional exploitation feel.
It’s not that there’s nothing entertaining about the remake, but if you can’t top or match the original, then there’s no reason for a film like this to exist except to cash in on King’s name. It’s heartbreaking to watch the very talented Timothy Busfield try to make it through this movie with his dignity.
17. Children of the Corn (2009)
We expect most Syfy original movies to be bad; in fact, that’s what their biggest fans tend to like about them. But when the movie is bad, but it’s based on a good story which has already been brought to screen once very effectively, it just becomes upsetting.
Viewers get the same story they got from the 1984 version, but without the great performances from Linda Hamilton and an intense young Courtney Gains. The director, Donald P. Borchers, was primarily a producer, and this was only his third directing gig. As of this writing, it was also his last directing gig.
16. Quicksilver Highway (1997)
Though the pedigree is good, with this anthology boasting stories from both Stephen King and Clive Barker, and it was directed by longtime King acolyte Mick Garris, this is a “movie” that feels more like episodes of a TV show cobbled together (similar to John Carpenter’s Body Bags).
It has fun performances from Christopher Lloyd and Matt Frewer, and nearly every role in the film is filled with a recognizable character actor, but the movie is not particularly scary. Most people who like it usually end up citing it as a guilty pleasure… never a good sign regarding a film’s quality.
15. The Tommyknockers (1993)
In 1993, TV had already had the hit of Stephen King’s IT, and so the writer of that film was brought back to script the two-part The Tommyknockers. Lightning didn’t strike twice.
The premise is interesting: the influence of a downed UFO is causing people in a small town to start mutating and creating curious and complicated machines. A premise like that has lots of possibility, but the film doesn’t deliver on much of it. The cast, from Jimmy Smits to Marg Helgenberger to Traci Lords, try their best to elevate the material, but the direction by John Power feels stilted, low-budget, and oddly set-bound.
14. Salem’s Lot (2004)
The cast: Rob Lowe, Andre Braugher, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, Rutger Hauer. The director: Mikael Saloman, who also directed episodes of Nightmares & Dreamscapes. How did this go wrong?
Somehow it did, and this remake feels seedy but not fun. It touches on the more salacious aspects of the book that the original couldn’t, but the film still feels surprisingly flat. It can at least be credited with being truer to the source material than the original movie, but the sense of creeping menace in the original story and the first TV movie is nowhere to be found here.
13. The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003)
It’s strange to talk about a spinoff/prequel film before addressing its originator, but this film stems from Rose Red, the uber-haunted house film which told a modern-day story that was woven around the home of the long-deceased Rimbauer family.
This movie tells their story, with healthy doses of rituals, strange sexual proclivities, creepiness, creakiness, and period drama on a television budget. This film isn’t a bad film, it just pales in comparison to its originator and to other films of a similar stripe like The Turn of the Screw.
12. Carrie (2002)
Coming three years after the ill-conceived sequel The Rage: Carrie 2 and a decade before the studio remake, 2002’s Carrie is a story of missed opportunity. The fantastic Angela Bettis plays Carrie in a film written by American Gods’ Bryan Fuller, and you can feel a good movie trying to escape from what ended up on the screen.
Fuller has said as much himself, hoping to revisit it someday for a new cut closer to what he originally intended. What exists now, however, is an okay film with an excellent cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Emilie de Ravin, and Katharine Isabelle. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to one day see the version Bryan Fuller still has in his head.
11. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
The film has an interesting premise: a school teacher moves back to his childhood home where he witnessed bullies kill his younger brother. They later died in a train accident, and now they’ve returned for revenge. The film has an excellent horror pedigree, directed by Tom McLoughlin of Friday the 13th Part VI fame, and one of the stars is A Nightmare on Elm Street 2’s Robert Rusler.
For a TV movie, the production is surprisingly good, with location photography in Kansas City bringing a nice sense of realism to the otherworldly proceedings. Don’t let the middling direct-to-DVD sequels deter you from seeking out the entertaining original.
10. Big Driver (2014)
Director Mikael Salomon fared better with Big Driver than he did with Salem’s Lot, and the result is a fun, pulpy revenge thriller. A reworking of the rape revenge story with a mystery writer as the lead (King often creates writer protagonists for his work), Maria Bello is a force to be reckoned with as the writer investigating the mystery of her own assault.
With an interesting supporting cast including Olympia Dukakis, Joan Jett (?!), and the brilliant Ann Dowd, the film fits into the template of Lifetime’s standard fare but ups the ante with its darker subject matter. The film is a fun, retro thriller scripted by Richard Christian Matheson, son of the famed I Am Legend author.
9. Bag of Bones (2011)
In 2011, A&E got into the Stephen King game, and the results were mixed. The location shooting in Nova Scotia lent the film some beautiful imagery, and the lead cast is uniformly excellent with Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George as standouts. However, the filmic story leaves many of the most compelling parts of the book out, and instead focuses on the spooky elements without bringing much of anything new to the table.
Matt Frewer pops up in this film as well, and may be one of the patron saints of Stephen King TV movies. This film, while competent, came at the end of King’s dominance on the small screen, and it was the last King adaptation he worked on.
8. The Shining (1997)
High on the successes of other TV adaptations, Stephen King and Mick Garris flew too close to the sun with this adaptation of King’s novel which had already been adapted by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. That’s not to say there’s nothing good about this movie, but it will always be the OTHER The Shining.
A three-part series that would have been better served at two, the film still boasts a few great things, from Rebecca DeMornay’s excellent and sympathetic performance to Melvin Van Peebles as Dick Halloran to the living topiary animals and John terrorizing the family with an oversized croquet mallet (a moment both terrifying and surreally hilarious). The film is full of cameos from Sam Raimi, Frank Darabont, David J. Schow, and King himself, and though you may only watch it once, it’s still worth seeing.
7. Desperation (2006)
Though not a perfect film by any means, Desperation has a fascinating origin and some great performances from brilliant character actors. Based on a King novel that was released in conjunction with its “mirror” book The Regulators (written by his deceased pseudonym, Richard Bachman), the movie was originally intended as a two-part mini-series before being condensed into a single three-hour film.
The film contains one of Ron Perlman’s great over-the-top villain roles two years before appearing on Sons of Anarchy, and Matt Frewer shows up (again!) along with other familiar faces like Tom Skerritt, Steve Weber, and Henry Thomas. Aired against American Idol, the film did not fare well, and it was five years before King’s next TV movie, Bag of Bones.
6. The Langoliers (1995)
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The effects are laughable now. Some of the acting is painful to watch. Bronson Pinchot wins the award for Character You Most Want To Slap. And it LOOKS like a TV movie from 1995.
But there’s a lot to like in this film. Unfairly maligned as B-grade King, this film is actually a compelling time-travel mystery and a rumination on time and relationships. The good performances from David Morse, Dean Stockwell, and Frankie Faison are enough to carry the film, and the central conceit of the story is fantastic.
Directed by Fright Night’s Tom Holland (who also appears on-screen), the film deserves a second look from viewers who are seeking an interesting premise and can look past the limitations of mid-90s television stylistics and budget.
5. IT (1990)
Most viewers remember this as the best that Stephen King TV movies have to offer, and on some levels, that is true. The central performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise is riveting, and the unique structure of the film (one childhood flashback P.O.V. per act of the first episode) is clever and unexpected.
However, the effects in some sequences are questionable, and some of the smaller roles reek of local Canadian day players. The script, even with four hours, still leaves vital and beloved elements on the cutting room floor, and the reimagined ending is ludicrous and poorly executed.
However, this film was a huge ratings success, and IT was the film that made the rest of King’s TV movie adaptations a reality. So for the sake of Curry’s performance and the existence of the rest of the movies on this list, we owe it thanks.
4. Salem’s Lot (1979)
This is the one that started it all. Though Carrie was the first Stephen King movie in 1976, the first TV movie was Salem’s Lot, airing on CBS. TV movies were a bigger deal at the time, and they spared no expense for this one, with the budget clocking in somewhere around four million dollars for the two parts.
Directed by Tobe Hooper five years after exploding onto the scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film also boasts a turn from classic British actor James Mason and a rare dramatic performance from Fred Willard. The vampire is a clear homage to Nosferatu, and the sequences of child vampires tapping at the window is still haunting today.
3. The Stand (1994)
What an enormous undertaking! The book from which this mini-series derives is a gigantic story, perhaps King’s biggest, and it was a daunting task to make it a TV reality. By and large, director Mick Garris succeeded, creating a story of good and evil, of disease and apocalypse, that still had a suitably personal narrative at its center.
An enormous lead cast that includes Gary Sinise, Ruby Dee, Matt Frewer, Rob Lowe, Ray Walston, and many many others, the scope of the story benefits from the four-episode running time to let the characters meet and interact naturally. With a script by King himself, the film loses a lot of the book but thankfully keeps much of what made it distinct and unique. It is a big investment, and the ending isn’t as graceful as it could have been, but it’s worth seeking out for fans of King and epic tales of good versus evil.
2. Rose Red (2002)
The road to Rose Red’s creation was a long and winding one. Originally intended as a collaboration between King and Steven Spielberg, it was shelved after they disagreed on the direction of it. King bought back the rights, and many years later, he rewrote it as a mini-series.
While some of the cast performances are histrionic or downright melodramatic (including lead performer Nancy Travis), it’s great to see Jimmy Simpson, Kevin Tighe, Julian Sands, Matt Ross, and Emily Deschanel turn in excellent supporting performances. The set design is immaculate and detailed, and director Craig R. Baxley steps into the directing chair, ably serving the role Garris had on so many other TV movies. This was sadly the last film for David Dukes, who died during filming; his role was truncated and the script was rewritten.
1. Storm of the Century (1999)
Like Rose Red, which came three years later, Storm of the Century was the rare Stephen King TV mini-series not based on an existing written property. The story revolves around a horrible storm that imprisons islanders in the Northeast with a murderer. He is supernatural in origin, and he tells the townsfolk that they have to give him what he wants, or else he’ll slowly drive the town to insanity and murder.
An evocative winter setting, a claustrophobic premise, and one of the most memorable villain turns from Colm Feore make this a must-see for King fans and fans of long-form horror storytelling. The film is peopled with great supporting players, from Becky Ann Baker to Casey Siemaszko to the always brilliant Jeffrey DeMunn. Baxley, who later directed Rose Red, acquits himself nicely here, and the ultimate reveal of the stranger’s identity fits wonderfully with what King has slowly revealed throughout the film. Well worth seeing, from the slow burn opening to the dark, heartbreaking revelation in the final act.
Given the rise in attention and popularity of King’s work, we’re bound to be getting more King television in the near future. What are you hoping will pop up on the small screen next?
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