The Best Stephen King Film Adaptations

Stephen King

Stephen King | Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Author Stephen King has had unbelievable success in having his work translated to the big screen. Although King has sometimes been criticized over the years for his sentimentality and a knack for convention, there’s no doubt his work has been remarkable in making the leap to a film world that has proven anything but straightforward.

You only have to take a glance at the list of King adaptations to see just how successful and prolific the author’s work is on the silver screen. Along with 2013’s Carrie reboot, his 2009 novel, Under the Dome, was successfully turned into a record-breaking drama on CBS. Additionally, an adaptation of It is currently garnering positive buzz from audiences and critics alike.

For now, here’s a list of the top five Stephen King film adaptations.

5. Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976) | Red Bank Films

Starting off this list is the first film ever adapted from King’s novels: Carrie. Directed by Brian De Palma and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, the now-iconic adaption of Carrie was released in 1976, only two years after King’s novel was published.

Like the newest adaptation, De Palma’s Carrie revolves around Carrie White, a teenage outcast who suffers abuse at the hands of her religious mother and classmates. But when Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers and gradually hones her abilities, a prank at prom causes her to exact revenge on those that have hurt her.

King was only 26 when Carrie was optioned by De Palma, and he was paid $2,600 for the rights. With a budget of around $1.8 million, the film was one of the biggest hits of 1976 and went on to gross $33.8 million. The film drew glowing reviews from critics and became one of the few horror films at the time to be rewarded with Oscar nominations (Spacek was nominated for Best Actress, and Laurie was nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

In recent years, the film has continued to rank as one of the greatest horror movies of all time; director Quentin Tarantino has named the film among his favorites as recently as 2008. The consistent critical acclaim the film has received has led many to wonder why a second adaptation was necessary in the first place. In 2013, a second adaptation was made starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore

4. Misery (1990)


Misery | Castle Rock Entertainment

Considering that King’s writing has dealt with everything from an inter-dimensional predatory life form that takes the form of a sadistic clown to otherworldly monsters, it’s impressive that one of the scariest King creations is a middle-aged nurse named Anne Wilkes.

Based on King’s 1987 novel of the same name, the 1990 psychological thriller Misery tells the story of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who is caught in a blizzard and later injured when his car goes off the road. Sheldon is then rescued by his No. 1 fan — Anne Wilkes (Kathy Bates) — who takes care of him at her remote home, helping him recover from his broken legs and dislocated shoulders that make it impossible to get get out of bed. However, Sheldon soon finds out that Anne has no intention of letting him leave: She forces him to write a new novel in which his most popular character, Misery Chastain, comes back to life.

Directed by Rob Reiner, Misery opened to nearly universal critical acclaim in 1990. Bates would later go on to win both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress, while her turn as Wilkes placed the character at No. 17 on AFI’s list of the top 50 villains in the past 100 years. The scene in which Wilkes takes a sledgehammer to Sheldon’s ankles will forever be burned into the memories of moviegoers who were able to keep their eyes open.

3. Stand By Me (1986)

Stand By Me (1986)

Stand By Me (1986) | Columbia Pictures Corporation

To many movie fans, Stand By Me remains the most iconic coming-of-age story ever put to film. Directed by Rob Reiner, the film is also notable for featuring impressive performances by its young lead actors: Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and River Phoenix. For Phoenix, who would later die from a drug overdose at 23, Stand By Me and his small list of other critically acclaimed roles positioned him to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars before his untimely death.

Based on King’s novella The Body, Stand By Me takes place in Castle Rock, Oregon, over Labor Day weekend in 1959. After one of the four boys overhears his brother talking about a dead body in the woods, the quartet goes on an adventure to find the body as the pressures of the adult world bear down on each member of the group in different ways.

Stand By Me has garnered universal critical acclaim in the years since its release, and it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1986 Academy Awards. The film has notably left a sizable pop culture imprint, with references in all manners of entertainment, including an episode in The Simpsons in which Homer discovers a dead body.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shawshank redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) | Castle Rock Entertainment

The Shawshank Redemption is easily the most popular of all of King’s film adaptations. Written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on King’s novella titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the film has consistently placed above both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II at No. 1 on IMDB’s Top 250 chart  a good general measurement of popular sentiment among movie fans.

Featuring strong performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker who spends almost two decades in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover despite his claims of innocence. The film chronicles both his struggles and triumphs throughout his time at Shawshank as he attempts to bring dignity and respect to the prisoners who call it home.

Although The Shawshank Redemption now firmly holds a spot in movie history, the film was not always the success it is today. Despite highly favorable reviews from critics and a slew of Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), and Best Adapted Screenplay — the film’s box office performance of $28 million barely recouped the film’s budget, leading the film to be labeled a financial disappointment at the time of release. However, The Shawshank Redemption experienced an impressive resurgence on home video. Cable television, VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray have consistency lead to the film being one of the highest performers at home.

1. The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson

The Shining (1980) |Warner Bros.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining not only ranks as one of the best film adaptations of King’s work but is also consistently named as one of the best horror films of all time. Hypnotic, foreboding, and genuinely frightening, The Shining continues to scare audiences more than 30 years since its debut in 1980.

Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, along with an impressive performance by a young Danny Lloyd, The Shining tells the story of a writer, Jack Torrance (Nicholson), who takes a job as caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel with his family. But when a snowstorm traps the family, Jack’s precarious grasp of reality starts to slip, and his son, who possesses psychic abilities, begins to see visions of a terrifying future.

The Shining has experienced one of the more interesting film journeys in the 33 years since it hit movie screens. Critical response to the film at the time of its release was lukewarm at best, missing all the major award nominations except for a pair from the Razzies in the categories of Worst Director and Worst Actress (Duvall).

Of course, over time, critics would almost unanimously turn around and hail the movie as not only one of the best horror films ever, but also one of the best films of all time. More recent analyses of the film have looked to its atypical structure, which had much slower pacing than most horror films at the time, and in recent years, the film’s slow pacing has become one of the film’s most celebrated features due to its hypnotic qualities.

The Shining Twins

Scene from The Shining | Warner Bros.

While moviegoer response to The Shining has followed a somewhat similar pattern to critical reception over the years, the film’s box office take was ultimately successful for Warner Bros. Although it got off to a slow start, the film’s box office gradually grew as word of mouth spread, leading to a total box office gross of $44 million versus a $19 million budget.

Also notable is King’s vocal distaste for the film, despite the The Shining’s status as a classic in recent years. King said soon after the film’s release:

“Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. … Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”

Along with King’s distaste for Kubrick’s minimizing of the book’s supernatural elements, he also pointed out that The Shining’s main themes, the disintegration of family and the dangers of alcoholism, were ignored. However, in recent years, King’s opinions on the film seem to have calmed, and according to Mark Browning, a critic of King’s work, King’s issues with Kubrick’s adaptation might have been rooted in the fact that Kubrick and King worked at different ends of the creative spectrum — while Kubrick “thinks too much and feels too little,” King “feels too much and thinks too little.”

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