With the Gingerbread Girl and In the Tall Grass getting back to back adaptation announcements, and Castle Rock dropping on Hulu in July, there are no signs of the recent King renaissance slowing down any time soon. The prolific author has written novels, short story collections, non-fiction novels, collaborations, and more for decades, with an extensive bibliography that also doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. This means that there’s also an extensive selection of made-for-TV movies, TV series, and theatrical releases that have already adapted his works, making a list of the best a difficult task. Even narrowing down the field to theatrical releases only, and eliminating the non-horror works like the Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me still leaves a lengthy list of great (and not so great) King horror features. With It: Chapter Two and so many more stories on the way, here are the best Stephen King theatrical adaptations so far:
A modest box office success upon release in 1983, Cujo ranks among King’s favorite adaptations. Dee Wallace gives a tour de force performance as Donna Trenton, the mother tasked with protecting her son from a rabid St. Bernard. That they’re stranded in a broken-down car with no water in sweltering conditions further elevates their situation from horrific to dire. Danny Pintauro also gives a fantastic performance as the traumatized and scared Tad Trenton, and he was only 7 years old at the time. Claustrophobic and harrowing, this adaptation alleviates a little of the tension by rewriting the novel’s bleak ending in favor of a more optimistic one.
Taking the box office by storm, and subsequently becoming a best seller on home release, this King story was adapted for screen by the author himself and directed by Mary Lambert. It was thanks to Lambert’s vision and direction that provided one of horror’s most enduring of nightmarish characters; Zelda Goldman. Lambert also went to bat to cast young Miko Hughes as Gage Creed when the executives wanted a more economical choice of twin actors. The result is an adaptation that manages to break hearts and elicit chills, as the unsuspecting Creed family moves next door to a “pet sematary” and Micmac burial ground. It doesn’t take long before they discover that sometimes dead is better. For those that feel this is one that could use an update, a remake is soon on the way.
For hardcore King enthusiasts, this entry might be a tough pill to swallow. There’s a lot that the screenplay by Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, and Chase Palmer omits from the 1,138-page novel, and a lot that it changes altogether. But King himself has praised the film, citing what really matters most; the characters. Updating the setting from late ‘50s to late ‘80s Derry, Maine, the band of outcasts known as the Losers Club still come together to battle the various evil forms of It, with more notable inclusions from the novel than the 1990 made-for-TV film. Bill Skarsgard manages the impossible in making his take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown instantly memorable, but it’s the cast behind the Loser’s Club that makes this adaptation so completely compelling. Kind was right, it’s the characters that are important.
The novel of the same name was released in April 1983, and the film adaptation arrived in theaters in December that same year, helmed by master of horror John Carpenter fresh off box office disappointment The Thing. Carpenter brought his style and vision to King’s source material, giving that haunted Plymouth Fury much more personality. The car also was evil from the day it was built, versus King’s story where the car was possessed by its previous owner. Cinematic and atmospheric, Christine was elevated from a concept that shouldn’t have worked to an enduring classic still influencing modern horror films today, like The Strangers: Prey at Night.
One of the most definitive horror anthology films of all time, Creepshow is unique in that only two of the five segments were based on previously published short stories. The rest were written specifically for the film by King. Directed by George A. Romero, the anthology is an homage to the horror comics of the ‘50s, and Tom Savini was hired to help design effects to give it that comic book feel. Between “Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” “Something to Tide You Over,” “The Crate,” and “They’re Creeping Up on You,” it’s also the rare anthology without a single weak link among the segments, all tethered by a fun wraparound that sees a young boy (played by King’s son Joe) retaliate against his abusive father with the help of The Creep.
A film that King has also named high in his ranking of favorite adaptations, it’s easy to see why. This oppressive thriller that sees Annie Wilkes terrorize her favorite author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), caught in her clutches earned numerous accolades for Kathy Bates as the iconic Annie. Director Rob Reiner keeps things small and hyper-focused on the number one fan Annie Wilkes, and her determination to get her way. Whether you’ve seen this mean thriller (though still not as mean as the novel), you’re still likely very familiar with the infamous scene involving Annie, her bedridden captive Paul, and a sledgehammer.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont, this adaptation is a downer. Adapted from a novella, it makes a few changes, though none as major as swapping the open ending filled with hope for a definitive downtrodden shocker of an ending. Inspired by the work of Ray Harryhausen and the classic film Night of the Living Dead, The Mist manages to make its humans just as monstrous as the deadly, Lovecraftian creatures that lurk in the mist. Ballsy, emotional, and intense, Darabont took hold of King’s novella and made it his own, delivering one of horror’s most memorable films in the last 15 years.
The Dead Zone
Directed by David Cronenberg, and produced by Debra Hill (Halloween), this adaptation is one of the best all-time Stephen King film adaptations. Starring Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, the poor teacher that gets into a car accident and wakes from a coma 5 years later with a new psychic ability, the Dead Zone gets increasingly tragic and dark as Jeffrey Boam’s three-episodic narrative progresses. This Cronenberg film may be light on his trademark body horror, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of his usual horrific imagery, especially as Smith is plagued by nightmarish possibilities of the future. This is one adaptation that King felt improved upon his original work.
Opting for a more psychological descent into terror over the supernatural elements of King’s source novel, the author famously hated Kubrick’s vision of what’s now considered a masterpiece. Even despite the departure from the overt hauntings of the Overlook Hotel from the novel, Kubrick delivered long-lasting nightmarish imagery thanks to his surreal journey of Jack Torrance, played by scene-chewing Jack Nicholson. Gushing blood, creepy twins, the horror of room 237, and unnerving Steadicam shots meant an enduring horror classic that would terrify generations to come.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the very first King adaptation was based on King’s very first published novel, and boy did it set the path ablaze for all adaptations that would follow. A box office success, it’s also one of the few horror movies to earn multiple Academy Award nominations. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deserved their nominations for Best Actress and Besting Supporting Actress as Carrie and Margaret White. Brian De Palma set the standard with his stylized take and the cast’s unforgettable, star-making performances. Laurie is petrifying as the petrifying religious fanatic Margaret, and Spacek is heartbreaking as Carrie. There’s really not a weak link among the cast. That killer ending ranks high among cinematic conclusions, and no one saw that final jump scare coming. King’s novel is among his best, but De Palma’s film also had a measured hand in the legacy that would see Carrie earn multiple remakes, a sequel, and stage productions.