Stephen King is the well-known author of many novels in the contemporary horror, science fiction, suspense, and fantasy genres. With fifty published novels, several non-fiction works as well as hundreds of short stories and comic books, King is one of the premier authors of his generation. Fans of his writings are given the added pleasure of seeing many of those novels come to the small and big screen. Everyone who reads King has at least one favorite; that one (or more) horror story making hands cover eyes and breaths hold until a scream emits without warning.
There are so many movies, miniseries, and made-for-television adaptations of King’s work; it is difficult to narrow it down to a top ten list. However, it is definitely worth a try so here it goes. Here is my top ten adapted to screen stories by Stephen King:
10. Firestarter (1984)
Drew Barrymore goes from innocence in E.T. to a girl who can start fires with her mind. Number ten on the list, the horror movie Firestarter was directed by Mark L. Lester and stars a host of well-known actors including Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Freddie Jones, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Heather Locklear, Louise Fletcher, and Art Carney.
Keith and Locklear’s characters play students who participate in a college experiment focusing on telekinetic ability. They marry and have a daughter, Charlie who turns out to be pyrokinetic and of course the government is quite interested in the girl.
The film doesn’t quite get off the ground despite the strong acting performances by Barrymore and Keith. It didn’t do well at the box office, barely making back the budget, but it continues to be repeated now and again on cable television. Most King fans were disappointed in the movie version, believing the movie barely followed the book’s storyline. Keith and Barrymore’s performances earn it a spot on this list.
Firestarter (Original Theatrical Trailer)
9. Pet Sematery (1989)
A cat? Really? Why do we have to have an evil cat? This heart thumping horror movie was directed by Mary Lambert and stars:
- Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed
- Denise Crosby as Rachel Creed
- Blaze berdahl as Ellie Creed
- Miko Hughes as Gage Creed
- Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall
In this movie, Stephen King made a cameo appearance as a minister. In the Pet Sematary we learn the place is a lot creepier than it has any right to be. The Creed family moves from Chicago to a small rural town in Maine. The Creeds find their new house perfect—well almost perfect. They don’t like the 18-wheelers rumbling past and there is a mysterious cemetery in the woods behind the house.
When the young Ellie Creed’s cat dies, Louis learns the cemetery, misspelled Sematary is a special burial ground able to bring the dead back to life. He sees this first hand when the family cat gets buried there and returns; though it has changed—drastically. When Louis’ son dies in a terrible accident, Louis decides to bury his son in the Sematary, despite warnings that the ones who come back are never the same as when they left, The consequences are harrowing and deadly, for the entire Creed family and their neighbors. The ending is for sure a hide your eyes behind your hand thriller scene. Don’t turn the lights out.
Pet Sematary - Trailer
8. Cujo (1983)
Just when you thought you were over Old Yeller…can you ever trust your pet dog again? Though somewhat predictable, this movie was scary because it used something cuddly and familiar (aren’t those always the most scary?) and turned it into a monster. The movie was directed by Lewis Teague and stars:
- Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton
- Danny Pintauro as Tad Trenton
- Daniel Hugh-Kelly as Vic Trenton
- Christopher Stone as Steve Kemp
- Ed Lauter as Joe Camber
- Kaiulani Lee as Charity Camber
- Billy Jacoby as Brett Camber
- Mills Watson as Gary Pervier
- Jerry Hardin as Masen
- Daddy as Cujo
Dee Wallace does an admirable job as the mother who is trapped inside a broken down car with her young son. The two are alone stuck in the car at a neighbor’s with a rabid dog waiting for them to get out of the car. Cujo is first seen in the movie as the lovable companion of Brett, but once bitten by a rabid bat, he kills Joe and neighbor, Gary.
As Donna and son, Tad begin to succumb to the heat inside the car, Cujo starts to attack. Can Donna save her son and herself? Just when you think they have escaped into the house, Cujo makes a comeback.
The movie got mixed reviews with many claiming it was too predictable and not one of the better adaptations of King’s work. It had modest success at the box office, but still shows up on cable television now and again.
7. IT (1990)
Who’s afraid of clowns? Movies are rarely as good as the book if compared without considering the limitations of film. It the book is a whopping 1104 pages so there is a lot to cover for a movie. Perhaps this is why instead of taking it to the big screen; It was adapted into a two-part “miniseries” for television. While this would definitely make it more towards the number one end if the list was for books; the movie version sits here at number eight. Having said that; clowns will never look the same after watching this one and no one could play the clown better than Tim Curry.
Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, the miniseries stars:
- Jonathan Brandis / Richard Thomas as Bill Denbrough
- Brandon Crane / John Ritter as Ben Hanscom
- Adam Faraizl / Dennis Christopher as Eddie Kaspbrak
- Emily Perkins / Annette O’Toole as Beverly Marsh
- Marlon Taylor / Tim Reid as Mike Hanlon
- Seth Green / Harry Anderson as Richie Tozier
- Ben Heller / Richard Masur as Stanley Uris
- Tim Curry as Pennywise
The story takes place in two time frames. In 1960 a group of social outcasts are tormented by a shape-shifting demon. It appears as a clown, feeds on the fears of children and kills them. The group defeats the evil clown, but 30 years later, it resurfaces and they must defeat it once and for all as adults.
The miniseries got mixed to positive reviews. The performances of Tim Curry and the young actors playing the twelve-year olds were highly praised.
Stephen King's IT Trailer (1990)
6. Stand by Me (1986)
Can we say emotional roller coaster? If I weren't mixing all genres, this one would be further towards the number one. This was a great “coming of age” story based on King’s novella, The Body. The movie was directed by Rob Reiner and stars a host of young actors:
- Wil Wheaton as Gordie Lachance (age 12)
- The late River Phoenix as Chris Chambers
- Jerry O'Connell as Vern Tessio
- Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp
- John Cusack as Denny Lachance
- Kiefer Sutherland as "Ace" Merrill
- Bradley Gregg as "Eyeball" Chambers
- Casey Siemaszko as Billy Tessio
- Gary Riley as Charlie Hogan
The plot revolves around four friends. Narrated by Gordie who tells the story of Labor Day Weekend in 1959 when he and his pals, Chris, Vern and Teddy embark on a journey to find the body of a boy who had gone missing. Vern had overheard his older brother talking to a friend about finding the body and Vern convinces the others they need to find the body and become local heroes. The remainder of the movie follows the boys on their journey as they learn about life and their relationships.
Much of the movie was filmed in various locations in Oregon and much of the soundtrack was comprised of classic 1950s hits including the title theme. The movie was a big success and Stephen King indicated this movie was the first successful adaptation to film of any of his works. The young actors give wonderful performances and in an interview in 2011 Wil Wheaton credits the success of the movie to director Reiner’s casting of the boys:
“Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played. I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive, and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us, Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since, and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.”
Stand By Me (trailer)
5. The Shining (1980)
“Here’s Johnny!” The number five scary and disturbing Stephen King movie is the psychological horror movie, The Shining. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the movie stars:
- Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
- Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance
- Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance
- Scatman Carothers as Dick Hallorann
Jack takes his family to an isolated hotel where they will be the caretakers through the winter. The son, Danny sees visions of the hotel’s past through a telepathic gift known as “The Shining.” Jack is working on a writing project when he slowly begins to go insane which is blamed on cabin fever caused by a massive snow storm and former guests of the ghosts in the hotel. One of the ghosts, a waiter, convinces Jack he must “correct” the family and this tips Jack into complete insanity.
Jack attempts to kill his wife, Wendy and Danny. Wendy is able to get to safety in a bathroom, but Jack starts chopping through the door with an axe. Sticking his head through he yells the infamous “here’s Johnny,” but Wendy slashes him with a knife and Danny escapes out the bathroom window. Jack pursues Danny into a maze. Does Jack catch Danny and kill him and Wendy?
Initially, the film was not well received at the box office. It slowly gained momentum and eventually made a profit for Warner Bros. Of the last nine films made by Kubrick at the time, this film was the only one ignored by both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. Though film critic, the late Roger Ebert, didn’t review the movie for his show, in print he wasn’t fond it. However, years later, he praised the movie calling it “cold and frightening.”
Stephen King was not fond of the movie stating it was the only adaptation of his novels that he could "remember hating.” King was disappointed Kubrick didn’t film on location at the Stanley Hotel in Estee Park on which King based the Overlook Hotel from the novel. In King's 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, he listed the film among those he considered to have "contributed something of value to the [horror] genre" and mentioned it as one of his "personal favorites.”
King wanted either Jon Voight or Michael Moriarty to play the part of Jack, believing their ordinary look would be more dramatic when the character goes insane. Kubrick considered Robert De Niro, but didn’t think he could be psychotic enough; he also considered Robin Williams but thought he would be too psychotic for the part. Go figure.
Here's Johnny! - The Shining
4. The Green Mile (1999)
Any movie with the great Tom Hanks and the gentle giant Michael Clarke Duncan has to be a good movie, right? This movie was adapted from Stephen King’s book of the same name (1996). It was directed by Frank Darabont and stars:
- Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb
- The late Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey
- David Morse as Brutus 'Brutal' Howell
- Bonnie Hunt as Jan Edgecomb
- James Cromwell as Warden Hal Moores
The story is told in flashbacks by Paul who is a corrections officer during the Great Depression of the United States. John Coffey is an inmate on death row at the prison, convicted of rape and murder; but he has a special gift and Paul and the other guards’ lives are forever changed by this accused killer. You can’t help but like the giant of a man. Make sure to have a hanky handy at the end of the movie.
Tom Hanks and Michael Clark Duncan are incredible in this movie. The film was highly successful, nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Duncan, Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. King was pleased to learn Hanks was cast as Paul as he had envisioned Hanks in the role. Duncan was suggested for the role by Bruce Willis who had worked with him in Armageddon. Morse reportedly was in tears by the end of the script when he read it.
Clip from The Green Mile
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Justice eventually wins out. This movie was directed by Frank Darabont and stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. The movie is adapted from King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Tim Robbins plays banker, Andy Dufresne, who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to Shawshank Prison for two consecutive life terms.
Freeman plays Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding who befriends Andy in prison. Red is serving a life sentence and the two become friends, Andy uses his financial expertise to help the prison guards and the warden and in turn is protected from a gang who previously routinely assaulted Andy. Everything is not as it seems though and after finding out an inmate in another prison talked of murdering a couple in the same manner as allegedly Andy did, Andy tries to get the warden to investigate. Instead Andy is put in solitary confinement.
When Andy gets out of solitary, he tells Red he has a dream of living in the Mexican Pacific coastal town of Zihuatanejo. He further instructs Red if he should ever get out of prison, he is to visit a specific hayfield near Buxton to retrieve a package. The next day, it is discovered Andy is not in his cell. After serving forty years, Red is released and he remembers what Andy told him. He makes his way to the hayfield. What does he find?
Freeman was not original considered for the role of Red. Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford were considered for the role before Freeman’s name came up. The role was written as a middle-aged Irishman with greying red hair, sticking with the description in King’s novella; however, Darabont wanted Freeman because of his authoritative presence and demeanor.
The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Freeman. It also was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. Robbins and Freeman were nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a leading role at the inaugural Screen Actors Guild Awards in 1995. In addition, Darabont was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award in 1994 and cinematographer Roger Deakins won the American Society of Cinematographers award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography.
Clip from Shawshank Redemption
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2. Misery ((1990)
“I’m your number one fan.” Doesn't this bring a chill? This film was both a horror film and a psychological thriller. Directed by Rob Reiner; the movie stars:
- James Caan as Paul Sheldon
- Kathy Bates as Annie Wilikes
- Lauren Bacall as Marsha Sindell
- Richard Farnsworth as Buster
- Frances Sternhagen as Virginia
The movie starts with Paul leaving snowy Colorado and heading to Los Angeles with his new manuscript in tow. Paul is an author who has written a series featuring character Misery Chastain. In the latest novel he killed off Misery as he wants to write more serious novels. In the blizzard the car runs off the road, but Paul is saved by Annie who is delighted to tell him she is his “number one fan.”
As the story unfolds, Annie keeps Paul captive and goes berserk when she reads his lasts manuscript where he kills Misery. She forces him to light the manuscript on fire and rewrite the story bringing Misery back to life. How will Paul escape the clutches of this psycho fan? It is chilling and nail biting to the end.
Originally King refused to sell the story because he didn’t like the adaptations of his novels to screen at that point. Eventually, after learning Reiner was involved, he agreed. (Reiner had directed Stand by Me and King was pleased with the movie translation). Reiner hired William Golden to write the screenplay.
Reiner and Goldman worked closely on the script and left out most of the “gore” from the book. Reiner explained he wanted the focus to be on the “chess game of the writer and his fan.” In the book, Annie cuts off Paul’s feet and though Goldman wanted to leave that scene in, Reiner opted for Annie breaking the ankles of Paul in the movie.
Originally, the role of Paul was offered to numerous other actors including William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman and Robert Redford.
The movie was well received and King made mention it is one of his top ten favorite adaptions of his novels.  The film got a “thumbs up” from Ebert. Bates won an Oscar for her performance as the psychotic Annie Wilkes as well as a Golden Globe.
Stephen King Misery Trailer
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1. Carrie (1976)
Pig blood—need I say more? No surprise this movie shows up as the top scary Stephen King movie. Who could ever forget that bucket of blood at the prom? This was the first of King’s novels to be adapted to the screen. This horror movie was directed by Brian De Palma and stars:
- Sissy Spacek as Carrie White
- Piper Laurie as Margaret White
- Amy Irving as Sue Snell
- William Katt as Tommy Ross
- John Travolta (in his first big screen film) as Billy Nolan
- Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen
- Betty Buckley as Miss Collins
Carrie is a socially awkward, friendless teenager with an unstable fundamentalist Christian mother. Carrie is tormented both by her mother and by kids at school, especially Chris Hargensen. In the early scenes of the movie we see evidence of Carrie’s telekinetic powers which crop up when she is upset. The torment escalates, but Sue feels guilty for teasing Carrie and talks her boyfriend, super-popular Tommy, to take Carrie to prom. Against her mother’s warnings, Carrie accepts. Cue the creepy music.
We all know what happens at the prom. The tormenting teens set Carrie up and she is doused with a bucket of pig’s blood. Carrie’s anger kicks into overdrive and her powers set the gym into destructive chaos. The kids are trapped in a burning gym; those who do manage to escape are killed in other ways. Carrie walks home, but instead of finding comfort from her mother, Margaret declares Carrie the spawn of the devil and stabs her in the back as she hugs her. But does Carrie die or does she get her revenge? (Wouldn't you think bullies nowadays would remember what Carrie does to her bullies?)
Originally De Palma wanted Amy Irving to play the part of Carrie, but art director, Jack Fisk, talk him into auditioning his wife, Sissy Spacek. Spacek read for all of the parts but she was determined to get the lead role so she rubbed Vaseline into her hair, left her face unwashed and wore a sailor dress her mother had made for her in the seventh grade which had the hem cut off and arrived for her screen test. Spacek also insisted on using her own hand in the final scene. De Palma didn’t want to because she would have to be buried, but he finally consented; however, he did make Spacek’s husband put in a box and bury her.
Carrie was widely received with positive reviews and various accolades followed, landing the movie on several “top lists” for the genre. Well-known movie critic, the late Roger Ebert gave Carrie a thumbs up and said the movie was an “absolutely spellbinding horror movie", as well as an "observant human portrait.”
Supernatural, fantasy or all-out terrifying, Stephen King has touched the emotions of readers and through adaptations, his audience grew. The movies, The Running Man (1987), Apt Pupil (1998), Thinner (1996), Needful Things (1993), The Tommy Knockers (1993, and The Stand (1994) as well as a host of others could be on this list. None will take the number one spot though—that will always belong to Carrie.