Stephen King has a theory that he’s cursed, and the hex manifests itself in the form of film appearances. “He said, ‘Actually, you have to know that I’m a jinx,’” Andy Muschietti, the director of the It movies, told Vanity Fair when Chapter Two debuted. “Apparently all the movies that he was in with a cameo ultimately bombed. He wanted to warn me.”
In ranking the 20 best Stephen King movies of all time—though there have been plenty of memorable TV adaptations of King’s books, that’s another list for another day—that standard tends to bear out, with only a few exceptions. The really exceptional King adaptations may not feature a guest appearance from the author himself, but they share the trait of following the narrative of the book more faithfully. (Look no further than 2017’s The Dark Tower to see how completely rewriting King’s structure is a pathway to cinematic disaster.)
Another intriguing phenomenon of this list is how often filmmakers make repeat appearances. Directors Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, and Mike Flanagan and screenwriter William Goldman each grooved with King’s style in a way that led them back for more.
So here’s a rundown of the 20 best Stephen King movies ever—as ranked by V.F., at least. As it is with a certain demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury, your own mileage may vary depending on your mood.
20. Children of the Corn
Garish? No doubt. But this 1984 film set in an isolated Nebraska farm town remains an effective contribution to the pastoral-horror genre. It may not be as artful as The Wicker Man or Midsommar, but it cuts a similar path through the field. Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton are a couple on a road trip who stumble into a community that has been overtaken by a cult of children who sacrifice any and all adults to the pagan deity they worship. It’s especially chilling in the opening scenes, when John Franklin’s unsettling zealot, Isaac, casually watches his fellow children turn on their families. Most scary of all, it spawned countless low-rent sequels that have marred the original’s legacy.
19. Dolores Claiborne
Many critics would rank this 1995 melodrama from director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy much higher on the King quality index. But despite an impressive cast (Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, and even a baby-faced John C. Reilly), the performances veer too often into soap opera territory, and the Maine accents range from creaky at best to mouthful-of-novocaine mumbling at worst. King’s story of a working-class woman accused of two murders—perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly—is his version of Mildred Pierce. Bates single-handedly saves the movie with her powerhouse delivery as Dolores, a mother who sacrificed everything she had for her daughter—including parts of her own soul.
18. Apt Pupil
This is one of King’s most nihilistic stories, and director Bryan Singer’s adaptation plunges into that darkness with barely a glimpse back. Ian McKellen stars as a withered old man whom a neighbor boy (Brad Renfro) recognizes as a fugitive Nazi war criminal. Rather than turn him in, the boy becomes fascinated by his inhumanity and sadism. It’s the story of a child who captures a ferocious predator, and then proceeds to feed it. The film goes to a lurid place—and has its own troubling past—but it’s also about the allure of inhumanity, presaging the school-shooter phenomenon with a story about a damaged kid who first numbs himself and then seeks to unleash pain on others.
17. Maximum Overdrive
Scorn for this 1986 schlock-fest is shared by nearly everyone: critics, audiences, star Emilio Estevez, and King himself, who adapted his short story “Trucks” for this directorial debut (and then never got behind the camera again). King has noted that this movie came at the peak of his drug abuse (“I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what what I was doing,” he said). That explains a lot about this gonzo story of machines that become sentient and try to exterminate all humans. The less seriously you take this movie, the more entertaining it is—especially the opening act, which features a deadly steamroller, a merciless lawn mower, and a helpless ATM that can do nothing more malevolent than insult its customer. (“Honey,” says King in a cameo, “this machine just called me an asshole!”) The AC/DC soundtrack adds another layer of heavy metal madness. I’m not saying Maximum Overdrive is good; I am saying it’s so ludicrous it’s fun.
16. The Green Mile
Despite Frank Darabont’s sweeping filmmaking, dated racial tropes have diminished this best-picture Oscar nominee from 1999. Still, the late Michael Clarke Duncan breathes beautiful humanity and dimension into John Coffey, a man with mystical abilities who is wrongly sentenced to death row for a pair of unspeakable murders. Tom Hanks and his fellow guards are sympathetic to him and believe Coffey is innocent, but their passivity as his execution nears feels more infuriating than heartbreakingly inevitable. Darabont fared better in his first venture through a King prison saga. More on that later.
15. Hearts in Atlantis
This 2001 film from director Scott Hicks (Shine) and screenwriter William Goldman wisely strips King’s byzantine Dark Tower mythology from the novella Low Men in Yellow Coats to make Anthony Hopkins’s mysterious boarder merely a man with psychic abilities who is being pursued by government agents at the height of the Cold War, rather than an entity from that much broader and more complicated series. Hopkins strikes up a friendship with a young boy (the late Anton Yelchin) who yearns for a father figure, and this supernatural mystery transforms into a tale of outcasts and lonely people finding one another. Hearts in Atlantis is not a perfect film, but it has been unfortunately overlooked and forgotten.
“Nope, nothing wrong here!” That catchphrase from a breakfast cereal commercial keeps appearing throughout King’s novel, and it’s prominent in the 1983 movie as well—a cautionary mantra about seemingly idyllic domestic life that is actually rotting from within. How does that fit into the story of a rabid dog on a rampage? Cujo himself is a tragic figure, a “good boy” driven to destruction by an illness beyond his control. The characters in this novel and film fall prey to him in turn, and it’s all a metaphor for various unspoken toxicities—addiction, infidelity, neglect; pick your poison—that have been too long ignored.
13. The Dark Half
George A. Romero’s 1993 film is a fusion of body horror and psychological terror. It stars Timothy Hutton as a meek literary author whose unhinged crime-penning pseudonym (also Hutton) manifests into reality and tries to take his place—violently, if necessary. King’s take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has a few logic holes, but once you buy into the magical notion of a fictional persona coming to life, the exploration of self-destructive impulsiveness vs. over-restrictive timidity is both entertaining and intriguing. We all have those sides to ourselves, and they are in constant battle; King and Romero just made that fight literal.
There’s a love story here, but it’s an unrelentingly destructive one. And it’s between a young man and his car. John Carpenter does a decent job of steering straight into the psychosexual subtext of King’s story. When geeky teen Arnie (Keith Gordon) becomes enchanted by a dilapidated ’58 Plymouth Fury, he begins to change, becoming more confident but also more aggressive. Much of the supernatural horror comes from the demonic vehicle hunting down his enemies, like the bullies who sexually humiliate Arnie and then defile his ride. (The magical “rebuilding” sequence is simple but still effective.) Christine also lashes out at Arnie’s best friend, Dennis, and his new girlfriend, Leigh, seeking to keep the young man for herself. Carpenter gets that this is a story about possession, in all its forms.
11. Doctor Sleep
King himself acknowledged the risk of writing a sequel to a book as beloved as The Shining, and the pressure was twofold on filmmaker Mike Flanagan, who also had to work in the immense shadow of Stanley Kubrick. That Flanagan succeeded so beautifully is a miracle—and he did it by focusing not on the horror of the Overlook Hotel, but on the damaged soul of Danny Torrance himself (now played by Ewan McGregor).
10. Gerald’s Game
Mike Flanagan again directed a King adaptation that many considered unfilmable. So much of King’s novel takes place inside the head of its protagonist, Jessie (played by Carla Gugino), whose husband, the eponymous Gerald, has handcuffed her to a bed in their remote cabin as part of a sex game. Then he drops dead from a heart attack, leaving her stranded with no hope of outside rescue. Jessie’s survival becomes a harrowing struggle, and Flanagan’s 2017 film manages to bring us into her thoughts while keeping us trapped in the room beside her. The journey into her memories reveals even darker moments from her past, making this not just a tale of claustrophobic terror, but an emotionally shattering story of survival at all costs.
King’s first published novel was also the first major movie adapted from his works, and director Brian De Palma’s 1976 teen horror extravaganza helped elevate the young author’s profile immeasurably—a year before his third book, The Shining, was even released. De Palma’s surreal direction fuses well with Sissy Spacek’s upsetting and empathetic performance. The monster of this story is actually its hero: Carrie is a meek girl who is brutalized by her mother at home while also being relentlessly tormented at school. When her singular moment of joy is splashed with pig’s blood in a sickening prank, her abusers learn that they’ve been kicking around a time bomb. Carrie is a vengeful story of karmic comeuppance. Most bullies get away with it—but this time, everyone pays the price.
8. The Dead Zone
Human beings—most of us, anyway—are hardwired to suss out a predator. That’s one reason this 1979 King novel and 1983 David Cronenberg film have resonated so strongly over the past five years. (Even Stephen King thinks we’ve been living in a Stephen King novel.) Christopher Walken stars as a man with psychic powers who can see that a blowhard populist politician (Martin Sheen) will bring chaos and destruction with him to the White House. He also knows—knows for certain—that this will lead to the end of the world. But what can he do? Who will listen? Can no one else see this? Can no one help? King once again uses the supernatural to explore real-world fears, and Cronenberg elegantly brings that inescapable anxiety to the screen.
7. The Mist
King himself has expressed envy over filmmaker Darabont’s addition of a different ending to his novella, and that final sequence is the gut punch that makes people either love or hate this 2007 sci-fi horror film. An unnatural fog rolls in, bringing voracious otherworldly fiends with it while a group of survivors hole up inside a grocery store and decide how to react. Gradually, they succumb to their ugliest impulses. Marcia Gay Harden steals the movie as a Bible-thumper who turns neighbor against neighbor, while Thomas Jane is a father trying to bolster feelings of strength and resilience. What happens when hope is lost? The answer is far more unsettling than the creatures lurking in the vapor.
6. Pet Sematary
Mary Lambert’s 1989 film, with a screenplay adapted by King himself, gorgeously captures the allure of old folktales, lost artifacts in the woods, and the abiding sadness of growing up and learning how many loved ones you lose along the way. It starts with the death of a cat, a sad but altogether common loss. Then it confronts the death of a child, which is shattering in a way that never heals. Pet Sematary is often considered King’s most disturbing story, but that’s actually because it’s one of his most sorrowful, and this version explores that even more successfully than the admirable 2019 remake. The horror story-line is symbolic of the destructive spiral that follows inescapable grief: What we can’t get over will gradually destroy us. Some wooden acting mars the film—but not from Fred Gwynne, who brings grandfatherly warmth to the role of an old neighbor who can’t help but share the secrets of the burial ground that brings things back to life. You can’t call him a wise old man, though. Someone wise would have let the secret die with him.
Let’s cheat and give this spot to two films, 2017’s It and 2019’s It: Chapter Two—both adapted from King’s epic 1986 novel about a group of young “losers” who join forces to fight back against a shapeshifting evil that feeds on fear. Andy Muschietti blends the halcyon joys of friendship and freewheeling adventure with the uglier aspects of growing up: teasing, abuse, bigotry, bullying. The heroes are all marginalized and vulnerable in one way or another, but together they realize they are powerful and indomitable. King’s story is a Freudian nightmare, and Pennywise in all his (its?) forms is a stand-in for the everything that leaves an indelible scar. That’s why the grown-up side of the story is so vital: That which does not kill us may make us stronger, but that doesn’t mean it ever goes away. Bill Skarsgård’s shrill and remorseless Pennywise is pain personified: laughing at you, feeding on you, and, if you let him, gleefully tearing you apart.
Where to Watch It:
Where to Watch It: Chapter Two:
4. The Shining
On a list of the best horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film would be competing with The Exorcist for the number one slot. But on a list of the best King adaptations, this movie strays just far enough from the novel to hold it back a few notches. That said, it’s obviously an exquisite film, and whatever liberties Kubrick took are justified. His adaptation is disturbing in ways that defy description: the creepy twins butchered in the hall, the rotting woman from the bathtub, Jack Nicholson’s crazed father hunting down his family with an ax. Kubrick unnecessarily dissed the book, and King has subsequently disparaged the movie. But together they created something timeless. Anyone who has ever lived in fear of an out-of-control parent knows they also created something heartbreakingly true.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, the corny, overly chipper nurse who rescues a man from a car accident who happens to be her all-time favorite romance novelist (James Caan.) She keeps him like a pet, then turns violent when she learns that his latest novel kills off her favorite character. She demands a command performance, forcing him to write a new book that reverses that outcome, and she uses abject torture to break through any resistance or writer’s block. Rob Reiner isn’t known for vicious material like this, and his discomfort comes through in the adaptation, which only enhances it. Adapted by Goldman, this 1990 movie is deeply disturbed by itself, and it accurately predicted today’s increasingly combative relationship between fans and creators. Annie Wilkes is the embodiment of toxic fandom. Bates reveals her entitlement, her ruthlessness, and her neediness to show us what it would be like if we were held captive in the comments section.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” That’s the philosophy at play in this drama about two men (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) who become friends while trying to survive within the walls of a brutal and corrupt prison. Darabont’s 1994 film is about finding not just a way to endure in times of hardship, but a reason to do so. What happiness can be found within the margins? How and when should we resist? The movie was a box office bomb, adapted from one of King’s lesser-known novellas—but home video and endless cable TV showings have made both into modern classics, brimming with hope in even the harshest and most unfair of circumstances.
1. Stand by Me
This short tale about four friends who look for the body of a missing boy is like a summation of everything King believes. It’s about growing up, loyalty, loss, hardship, abuse, and even the notion of storytelling itself. It’s heartwarming. It’s frightening. It manages to remain somber and moving even while indulging King’s prankster gross-out side (Gordie’s pie-eating revenge tale is both revolting and hilarious). King has explored all of these notions in other books, but never as elegantly or beautifully as he did in The Body, the novella on which Stand by Me is based. Director Reiner embraces all of those aspects, which is what makes this 1986 film feel so true and heartfelt. He also had perfect casting: Wil Wheaton as the introspective narrator, River Phoenix as the brave one, Jerry O’Connell as the funny one, and Corey Feldman as the broken one. The film is about growing up, and standing up. It’s about being brave, and kind, and fearless, but also silly and reckless. And ultimately, it’s about the pain of letting go—of having the people you love pulled away against your will by time and circumstance, no matter how hard you may try to hold on to them.
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