No contemporary author has seen his work made into more movies and TV shows than Stephen King (and many more, like The Dark Tower, are in the works). The fact that he’s astonishingly prolific is certainly a contributing factor—as is the fact his works, horror and otherwise, tend to feel cinematic even on the page. But which of these many, many adaptations reigns supreme?
A disclaimer: This list does not contain every single short film that has been adapted from a King story. (We’ll make that list when we have access to all of them—and months of sleepless nights to spare.) What we have here is a ranking of every single feature film or TV series that was adapted from a King work, excluding any original screenplays (sorry, Sleepwalkers, Rose Red, and Storm of the Century superfans) and in-name-only sequels (though the Naomi Watts-starring Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering does have its merits).
A made-for-TV movie from director Mick Garris (a frequent helmer of King adaptations) about a flamboyant weirdo named Quicksilver (Christopher Lloyd) who rambles around telling scary stories to anyone who will listen. A hitchhiking couple get King’s “Chattery Teeth,” about a man whose horrific encounter with a set of wind-up teeth is actually a blessing in disguise. The other tale is based on a short story by Clive Barker, which makes for a lot of authorial star power... but precious few chills.
Miguel Ferrer plays a sleazy reporter on the trail of the biggest scoop of his life: a serial killer who may or may not be a vampire who zips his private plane around between gory crime scenes. The New York Times was unkind, saying the film wasn’t “top-drawer or even second-drawer Stephen King.” It fits quite nicely into the third drawer, however.
A fat, sleazy lawyer begins to waste away after being cursed by a vengeful gypsy. An unpleasant movie about unpleasant people, with a li’l bit of racism to boot.
Cell phones make everyone who uses them turn into rabid killers, a concept that was much fresher in 2006, when King wrote the novel upon which it’s based, than in 2016, when the movie came out. Cell is a significantly less successful John Cusack/Samuel L. Jackson/King combo platter than 1408, which is a few notches further down this list.
A basement-dwelling monster massacres textile-mill workers who are unlucky enough to work you-know-which hours. When even Brad Dourif (as a drawling, eccentric exterminator) and a giant rat-bat special effect can’t save the movie ... that’s pretty bleak.
Mick Garris directs Jonathan Jackson, David Arquette, and Barbara Hershey in this adaptation of King’s first e-book. It’s about a hitchhiker who takes a strange ride on the way to visit his dying mother... and you’d be much better off reading the story than watching the movie.
A rape revenge tale that stars Maria Bello as a mystery writer who suffers a horrible attack, then turns vigilante. It aired on the Lifetime channel, but had an unusually good supporting cast: Ann Dowd, Joan Jett, and Olympia Dukakis. But it also had a weirdly off-putting tone of black humor, which is frankly icky.
With Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist (the latter under the watchful eye of Steven Spielberg), and actors Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund and Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs), this adaptation must’ve seemed like a slam dunk on paper. But this is a movie about a laundry press that’s been possessed by a murderous demon, which is ultimately more silly than scary.
Another one from Mick Garris, who is no Stanley Kubrick, starring Jake Weber, who is no Jack Nicholson. This six-hour TV remake was touted for being more faithful to King’s book; King, who famously disliked Kubrick’s version, wrote the teleplay this time around. But how do you compete with a pre-existing masterpiece? And why would you want to try?
Max von Sydow plays the proprietor of Castle Rock, Maine’s new antique shop, whose wondrous wares have special powers—but at what price? Even a great cast (besides von Sydow, it stars Ed Harris and Amanda Plummer) can’t save this one, whose biggest problem isn’t that it’s mean-spirited (which it totally is), but it’s repetitive, too.
In 1986, Stephen King made his directorial debut with this Emilio Estevez-starring movie about killer trucks. It was also his directorial swan song. This is not a coincidence, though the film has something of a cult following in spite of itself. “Trucks,” the King short story that spawned this curiosity, also got a re-do as source material, in the form of 1997 made-for-TV movie Trucks. (You can skip that, too.)
King’s first published novel has been adapted several times, including this made-for-TV version starring Angela Bettis as the telekinetic girl and Patricia Clarkson as her mother. It was intended as a pilot for a TV series that thankfully never happened... so Carrie survives at the end. Problematic.
A curiosity cabinet of a cast—Gary Busey, Corey Haim, Everett “Big Ed from Twin Peaks” McGill, and Megan “Anne of Green Gables” Follows—stars in this monster movie based on King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. It’s corny, it’s very 1980s, but it’s honestly kind of fun, too.
Under the Dome, which was developed by TV and comics writer Brian K. Vaughan (Lost, Saga), would have been amazing as a mini-series about a town that suddenly finds itself sealed off from the world. The first season was good. The second and especially the third, however, got progressively more ridiculous.
The late Anton Yelchin had one of his first child-star roles in this drama, playing a kid who befriends a mysterious man (Anthony Hopkins) who rents a room in his mother’s house. It’s beautifully shot and has some nice themes about friendship, but it’s also kinda zzzzzz.
Pierce Brosnan stars in this miniseries adaptation of King’s tale of a novelist with writer’s block (so, entering foreign territory, Steve). After the death of his wife, he decamps to his lake house, where he becomes enmeshed in an old mystery that is still impacting the community, with ghostly consequences. Unfortunately, the ghosts don’t offer up too many frights.
The only non-English-language King adaptation—unless there are ones that Imdb doesn’t know about—hails from India and draws its story from “Quitters, Inc.,” which was also incorporated into Cat’s Eye. It’s about a man who’s willing to do anything to quit smoking, until he realizes how intense “anything” really is. Local critics hated it and audiences gave it a pass.
Mick Garris directs this tale of a Nevada sheriff (Ron Perlman) who kills and/or imprisons anyone that happens through his town—the result of his being possessed by an ancient evil spirit that’s been lurking in a nearby abandoned mine. The spirit eventually possesses other characters, and ends up in a buzzard. Yep, a buzzard.
A high school teacher returns to his hometown, where his brother was killed by bullies years before—and it seems like the bullies, who are all supposedly also dead, have come back for round two. This adaptation is pretty lukewarm, but it did spawn two creatively-named sequels: Sometimes They Come Back ... Again, and Sometimes They Come Back ... for More.
Revenge is a dish best served by a giant hole in the ground when Wes Bentley traps ruthless gangster Christian Slater in his own car. A cunning plan, but not necessarily the most fascinating thing to watch.
Peter Cornwell (The Haunting in Connecticut) directed this Blumhouse Productions release—respectable horror cred that still delivered an unmemorable end product. The short story it’s adapted from, “Gramma,” about a little boy who gets roped into looking after his bedridden-yet-still-terrifying grandmother, is way scarier—as is the New Twilight Zone episode (scripted by Harlan Ellison) that’s also based on it.
Stephen King actually sued to have his name removed from the title, since the film only shares one scene with his short story. That said, the 1992 movie—about a simpleton (Jeff Fahey) who becomes a test subject for an ambitious scientist (Pierce Brosnan)—was one of the first to use virtual reality as a horror-movie plot device. So it has that going for it, which is nice.
An eight-part anthology series made for TNT, with episodes based on King’s short stories; it boasts a strong cast (William Hurt, William H. Macy) and a format that suits the material. “Battleground”—in which Hurt’s assassin character is targeted for some beyond-the-grave payback by his latest victim, a toymaker—is a particular standout.
In this anthology film, George A. Romero adapts King’s story “Cat from Hell.” A hitman (David Johansen) is hired to kill a cat, thinking it will be an easy gig ... until he meets the kitty in question, and realizes how outmatched he is.
A two-part miniseries following 10 people who are the only remaining passengers on a flight between LA and Boston—everyone else having simply vanished into thin air. Including the pilots. A decent thriller/mystery, with the added bonus of monsters (that’s what the title refers to) and the casting of Bronson “Balki Bartokomous” Pinchot as one of the survivors.
Object-flinging, pig blood-bathing Carrie White gets another shot at revenge, this time with Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore filling the daughter and mother roles. It wasn’t terrible, just, you know, blatantly unnecessary.
Remember that brief period when Joan Allen was in every movie? Here, she’s a wife who figures out (after 25 years) that her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) is a serial killer. Interesting idea—apparently inspired by the equally unsuspecting real-life family of the BTK Killer—but the execution is just so-so.
Bryan Singer directs his future X-Men star Ian McKellan as a different kind of villain: a Nazi war criminal who’s been living under an assumed name in Southern California for decades. The late Brad Renfro plays the neighborhood kid who becomes a little too fascinated with the man’s evil past. Highly unpleasant subject matter, and difficult to watch at times—which was certainly the intention.
This two-part miniseries stars Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger as a couple who discover a strange object buried in their Maine village—which soon begins to impact the town in alarming ways, including inspiring some rather fantastic inventions. Creative visual elements make this tale—surprise, it’s all thanks to aliens!—especially entertaining.
Syfy’s TV show was nominally based on King’s The Colorado Kid; it’s about an FBI agent who’s dispatched to a small town to check out its many alleged supernatural happenings. It ran for five seasons, ending in 2015, and was noted for often sneaking references to other King books into its storylines.
Hulu’s eight-part adaptation, produced by J.J. Abrams, sent James Franco’s English teacher character back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. Conspiracy theorists might not appreciate its conclusions—and Franco haters won’t want to bother—but it still offers a plenty entertaining “what if?” scenario.
A skeptical horror author (John Cusack) checks into a supposedly haunted hotel room, though the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) warns him against it. We soon learn why, when the guest is subjected to a night of hallucinations and psychological torture. Well, he asked for it.
Soon to be a TV show on Spike, King’s novella of a mysterious mist that envelops a town was first a feature film by Frank Darabont. In a departure from King’s work, the film features a heart-wrenchingly ironic ending which is so impactful, it’s what most people remember about this adaptation.
In this TV series, Anthony Michael Hall plays the reluctant psychic which Christopher Walken had in the original movie. It ran for six seasons and is a good example of how a stand-alone movie can be expanded and made into the basis of a satisfying TV series. (Take note, The Mist.)
Johnny Depp plays a writer who starts losing his marbles when his wife leaves him, and really goes off the deep end when he starts getting unwanted visits from a man (John Turturro) who claims he’s stolen a story from him. The twist is obvious, but this was one of the last films Depp made before getting sucked completely into the realm of Tim Burton/Jack Sparrow/over-the-top theatricality, and it’s a reminder of what he was once capable of doing without layers of wacky stage make-up.
King’s second book, about a writer who realizes his hometown is being overtaken by vampires, has been adapted twice for TV miniseries. In 1979, Tobe Hooper directed David “Hutch” Soul and James Mason; in 2004, two years before he made Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Mikael Salomon directed Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland in the same roles. Both adaptations have their merits and were well-received, and in fact are shockingly equal. But if I had to pick, the older version is the slightly better of the two.
Evil aliens with the ability to body-swap crash a woodsy getaway for a pack of friends (including Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant), who then run afoul of the wacky military commander (Morgan Freeman) who happens to be in the area. This movie is all “are you really you?” second-guessing and snowbound chase scenes, and it’s mostly nuts. The good kind of nuts, though.
Mick Garris strikes again, this time with a big-budget, four-part miniseries about the survivors of a devastating superflu outbreak that has maybe the biggest cast of any King adaptation to date. Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Jamey Sheridan, and Rob Lowe have the big roles, but there are cameos galore, including King luminaries Kathy Bates and Ed Harris.
Once upon a time, horror anthology films were all the rage, and Cat’s Eye is one of the genre’s most memorable. It’s composed of three King stories, including one that was written especially for the film, all connected by the wanderings of a cat. Young Drew Barrymore, three years post-E.T. and one year pre-Firestarter, is a standout in the final segment, “General,” in which the crafty feline saves the girl from a menacing troll.
Frank Darabont directs Tom Hanks, Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan, and a terrifying Sam Rockwell in this tale of death row inmates (including one who most certainly has healing powers, and is also most certainly innocent) and their guards. Things get awfully heavy-handed at times, but magical mouse Mr. Jingles is awesome.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, in full 1980s hero mode, plays a man forced to compete in a fight-to-the-death game show in the barely-conceivable, far-flung year of 2017. If that weren’t enough, the cast also includes Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Mick Fleetwood.
Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton play a couple on a road trip who make an unexpected stop in Nebraska, discovering a kiddie cult that worships a demon lurking in the cornfields. It’s genuinely disturbing. Fun fact: Children of the Corn has spawned nine sequels, with a 10th one on the way next year.
A cautionary tale about not burying your dead kid in the haunted graveyard, because he’ll come back not quite himself. Featuring Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne as the neighbor who sort of innocently sets that very bad plan in motion.
George A. Romero helms these two anthology films, which each featured a mix of original and adapted King short stories, but are also a love letter to horror comic books. As such, it’s creepy and scary, but also hilarious. In the first one, King himself plays a redneck who gets a little too close to a meteorite that starts spewing aggressive alien plant life; in the second, a bunch of kids take a raft to the middle of a lake and then are surrounded by a blobular thing that won’t let them swim back to shore.
Since both movies were made by the same team with the same sensibility, there should be no surprise that they’re basically evenly ranked.
Drew Barrymore plays a pre-teen pyrokinetic on the run from the government forces who would like to use her powers for evil purposes. Netflix hit Stranger Things owes more than a passing debt to this conspiracy-driven tale.
Kathy Bates gives a stunning performance as an accused murderer with a very troubled past, which her grown daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has tried to distance herself from. A dark, haunting thriller with some seriously gothic elements.
John Carpenter directs King’s gory tale of the demonic Plymouth Fury that turns a nerdy high-schooler (Keith Gordon) into an evil stud, much to the horror of his friends and curious Detective Junkans (Harry Dean Stanton). This is nowhere near Carpenter’s best film, but it’s entertaining—and it foreshadows his own cinematic hat-tip to King’s career, In the Mouth of Madness.
Soon to be two major motion pictures, the It miniseries—with its unforgettable performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown—remains the gold standard for made-for-TV King adaptations. Need evidence? Look at that damn clown.
Another George A. Romero joint. This time, he directs Timothy Hutton as an author who’s suddenly terrorized by a physical manifestation of his pen name (also Hutton), who’s none too pleased about being retired. Three words: evil parasitic twin. In a nice bit of Hollywood echo-chamber action, Hutton also appears in Secret Window, based on the similar story Secret Window, Secret Garden, but as a presumably sane supporting character instead.
Forget killer clowns. Kids face real-life horrors—bullies, trains, angry dogs, leeches, dead bodies—in this nostalgia-fest from director Rob Reiner that was an instant coming-of-age-classic.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star in Frank Darabont’s other King-derived prison drama, which might be the most-broadcast movie of all time—seriously, think of how many times you’ve flipped around the channels and seen Andy Dufresne crawling through that repulsive sewer pipe to freedom. Shawshank is overly sentimental at times, but also has the ability to stir up some real emotions, no matter how often you watch it.
Let us enjoy this moment before the remake—which is titled C.U.J.O.: Canine Unit Joint Operations, and I wish I was kidding—comes out and casts this when-good-animals-go-bad classic in a whole new light. No robot canine, or anything really, in the do-over could possibly top Dee Wallace, who gives a fierce performance as a mother who must shield her son from a droolingly rabid dog-monster.
Kathy Bates won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, deranged superfan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in director Rob Reiner’s suspenseful adaptation.
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Walken as a man who emerges from a five-year coma with the gift of clairvoyance... or is it a curse? It’s mostly a curse, to be honest, but the movie is excellent.
Brian De Palma’s take on King’s publishing debut—the first film adapted from any King work—is both terrifying and weirdly poignant, thanks in no small part to iconic performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. The “gotcha” ending is still startling, and it became a hugely influential horror trope that’s still used today.
Stephen King didn’t care for it, but Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining is one of the greatest films ever made. Full stop. And it’s the greatest King adaptation there is.