This year brings more Stephen King movies and shows than ever before. Which adaptations have been the all-time best and worst?
Would you believe me if I told you there have been more adaptations of Stephen King’s stories and novels than King books themselves? It’s true. By the end of 2017, King’s book count — novels, short story collections and nonfiction — will stand at 71. The number of King adaptations — feature films, TV series, miniseries, made-for-TV movies — will reach 93, and two more are currently scheduled to add to that total next year.
Adaptations of the iconic novelist’s work have been a part of our culture for almost as long as his books. Carrie, King’s debut novel, was made into a film just two years after its 1974 release. Ever since, Stephen King movies and shows have rolled out almost every year, and quite often more than one arrives each year.
Why have King’s stories been so attractive to movie and television studios? His writing possesses a cinematic quality, and his inventiveness begs to be realized on screens after it dances across minds. Of equal significance, King’s fiction cannot be placed in a box. From horror to suspense to thriller to mystery to character-driven drama, King is a jack of all trades, allowing his work to be adapted frequently for widely disparate audiences.
King has been an important figure in the entertainment industry for more than 40 years, but 2017 marks his most bountiful year for adaptations. In 2017 alone, a total of eight King adaptations will have been released across cinema and television screens, including feature films The Dark Tower and It, and TV series Castle Rock and Mr. Mercedes.
Still, with such a wide body of adapted work, some have risen far above others, and some have been nothing short of disastrous. Here are, in my opinion, the best and worst Stephen King adaptations to date. (Be sure to weigh in with your own list below.)
1. Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is not only the best Stephen King movie of all time but one of the greatest achievements in modern cinema. Centered around Andy Dufresne, a man who swears his innocence after being convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, Shawshank Redemption is a brilliant prison story elevated by phenomenal performances by Robbins and Freeman. Ellis “Red” Redding (Freeman) serves as the narrator, guiding us through Andy’s (Robbins) decades-long stint in prison in expert form, and together these two men cultivate a lasting friendship built from the pits of sorrow, remorse and longing. Although Shawshank didn’t perform well at the box office, it has aged as one of the most revered movies of the last quarter century.
2. It (2017)
The second adaptation of King’s best horror novel, It, is the most impressive Stephen King adaptation in nearly two decades. This pitch-perfect look inside the small, dreary town of Derry, as it is confounded by missing persons reports and the eponymous clown wreaking havoc, thrives from stellar performances and expert pacing. Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown delivers an absolutely chilling performance, but its the seven child actors who ultimately steal the show. The bond they form throughout the film makes all viewers feel part of The Losers Club. Beyond its well-implemented scares, It manages to deliver a surprising amount of comedic levity and more than a handful of touching moments. It absolutely knocks it out of the park. Part two can’t come soon enough.
3. Stand By Me (1986)
Adapted from the novella The Box, the 1986 film Stand By Me is a classic coming-of-age story starring four talented young actors: Will Wheaton, the late River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. Playing out in an extended flashback, Wheaton’s character Gordie Lachance recalls an incident in the woods with his three childhood friends after reading an article about a missing boy. The quartet, acting as amateur investigators, had searched for the missing boy in the woods of their small town. Stand By Me tells that tale of young friendship in the face of crisis, and how such a harrowing event shaped them as they matured. Upon release, Stand By Me grossed more than six times its production cost at the box office.
4. The Green Mile (1999)
Adapted from King’s serial novel of the same name, The Green Mile is the second-best King movie that is primarily set inside a prison. Starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile infuses realism with fantasy. Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) presides over death row inmate John Coffey (Duncan). Accused of the rape and murder of two girls, while awaiting his execution, John begins to perform miracles with his supernatural powers. The Green Mile is an experiment in the lengths to which empathy and compassion can reach. With a startling revelation at the end, The Green Mile is one of the most thought-provoking King adaptations ever produced. It’s a perfect blend of melancholy and hope, one that delivers on all cylinders.
5. The Shining (1980)
Many of King’s adaptations deal with the crumbling of the human mind, but few do it as well as Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. Jack Torrance takes a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel for the winter and brings his family along with him. He hopes the isolated setting will help him get some writing done, but instead his mind begins to unravel inside the haunted hotel. Widely considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time, The Shining is haunting, suspenseful and wildly entertaining. Don’t tell Stephen King that, though. The author is widely known to have a negative opinion of Kubrick’s film, so much so that he worked hard to get a new, three-part adaptation on television screens in 1997. While the miniseries was good, Kubrick’s The Shining outshines it in every respect.
6. Misery (1990)
Annie Wilkes has a slight obsession with Paul Sheldon’s Regency book series, so when she finds him unconscious on the side of the road, she takes him home to nurse him back to health. King often writes obsessive characters, but Misery’s Annie Wilkes, as portrayed by Kathy Bates, takes it to dizzying extremes. Sheldon, played by James Caan, rewards Annie by letting her read the latest and presumed-last entry in the Regency series. Irrationally unhappy with Sheldon’s attempts to abandon the series, she holds him hostage, forcing him to rewrite the book and continue the series to her liking. This 1990 tale of suspense and intrigue, adapted from a King novel of the same name, earns a spot in my top five largely because of Wilkes’ and Caan’s stellar performances. Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Misery. To this day, her Oscar is the only one awarded for a King adaptation.
1. Cat’s Eye (1985)
A 1985 anthology film comprised of two King stories and one original story, Cat’s Eye connects three short movies that have no bearings on each other whatsoever besides the presence of a tomcat. The first story concerns an organization that helps people quit smoking, while the second deals with a hackneyed and convoluted plot about gambling, divorce and the tomcat — for some reason. In the last, the cat is accused of killing his adoptive family’s pet bird. For reasons still unknown, Cat’s Eye attracted talents like Drew Barrymore and James Woods. Cat’s Eye failed as an anthology not only because the films shouldn’t have been connected but because each was poor standing on its own.
2. Children of the Corn (1984)
When the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, fails to produce crops one year, a 12-year-old boy beckons all the other children into the massive cornfields and convinces them to join a cult. The cult’s first and only order of business? To murder all the adults as human sacrifices because a foreboding entity claimed that was the only way to ensure a good season. Mind you, without adults the crop fields would likely not prosper anyway, but there was no room for logic in this poorly scripted and directed adaptation of King’s short story of the same name. Oddly, like many abysmal movies, Children of the Corn has gained a cult following since its 1984 release. Because of that following, a staggering eight sequels have been produced, along with a made-for-television remake for good(?) measure.
3. It (1990)
Perhaps it took 2017’s It to arrive, but upon watching the four-part miniseries again, it’s quite clear the prime-time two-night event that garnered 30 million pairs of eyeballs was initially graded on its ambitions, not its merits. Yes, Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise holds up in its own way, but the real heart of the story is supposed to come from The Losers Club, and the miniseries didn’t do enough to forge a lasting bond among its protagonists. We rooted for them because they were up against a vicious shapeshifting clown, but it’s hard to inject ourselves in their position as we recently did with the feature film. Add in the fact that the frights weren’t as well timed, and the humor came from Pennywise himself, and the miniseries now feels woefully unbalanced.
4. Dreamcatcher (2003)
The 2003 movie Dreamcatcher is one of the many puzzling examples of a star-studded cast creating such a forgetful movie. On a hunting trip four friends — portrayed by Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Thomas Jane and Jason Lee — come face-to-face with an invasion of deadly aliens. The invasion has something to do with the fact that they all gained telepathic powers when they were boys, but Dreamcatcher never does a great job of explaining that connection in a remotely poignant manner. Bland, predictable plot turns certainly didn’t help, but Dreamcatcher is one of King’s books that should’ve never been adapted in the first place.
5. Secret Window (2004)
Based on the novella Secret Window, the 2004 psychological thriller Secret Window had all the signs of being great leading up to its release. Written and directed by acclaimed screenwriter David Koepp and starring Johnny Depp, Secret Window sadly turned out to be a benign, rote flick that substituted increasing tension for prolonged moments of artificial suspense, largely occurring within Depp’s character’s cabin. Mort Rainey, an author, gets away from home after discovering his wife’s affair, only to be confronted by a man who accuses him of plagiarism. Much of the tale is about Mort’s writer’s block, caused by the external dilemmas in his life, but Secret Window fails to ever make us truly care about our protagonist. For that, in the end, nothing really mattered in Secret Window.
6. Needful Things (1993)
Needful Things was the first novel King wrote after recovering from his alcohol and drug addictions. In that regard, it’s no surprise that the 1993 adaptation was bleak, depressing and a wholly somber experience. A mysterious figure named Leland Gaunt arrives in Castle Rock, Maine, and opens shop as an antiques dealer. While Gaunt takes cash for items, he also requires the townsfolk to perform favors for him. Each favor is a prank of sorts that become increasingly sadistic as the story goes on, turning the sleepy town into a group of people hell-bent on wreaking havoc for Gaunt’s own “pleasure.” While the premise may sound intriguing, Gaunt’s motivations are entirely unclear. There’s no redemption, no saving grace, no reason for his acts, and the pawns he moves around his twisted game of life fail to redeem him from himself. We didn’t need this thing.
Of course, every Stephen King fan will have a different opinion of the many adaptations of his works over the last 43 years. Which do you think are the best and the worst Stephen King movies? Weigh in with a comment below.