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From the moment Stephen King’s debut novel hit bookshelves in 1974, Hollywood has been eager to adapt the horror maestro’s works into blockbuster movies and hit television shows.
To date, the longtime Maine resident’s writing has served as the source material for more than 50 movies and 30 shows, with many of King’s film adaptations considered to be among the best horror movies of all time.
Even at 75 years old, the longtime Maine native is continuing to produce spine-tingling works at an admirable pace, with Hollywood eagerly waiting in the wings. This year saw the release of two new King movies (“Firestarter” and “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”), and more adaptations are in the works, including 2023’s “Salem’s Lot,” which was filmed in Massachusetts.
With decades of critical and commercial success under his belt, choosing the ten best Stephen King movies of all time is a difficult task. Too difficult, in fact. That’s why for all ten entries on this list, we included an honorable mention that would make for a nice double feature, which you can consider movies 11-20 in the King movie hierarchy.
Here are the best Stephen King movie adaptations of all time, and how to watch them on streaming platforms at home.
“The Running Man” is the only movie on this list adapted from a work written by King using his pen name Richard Bachman. It’s also funnier than anything else you’ll find on here, and bears only a passing resemblance to the 1982 novel it’s based on. Don’t let that stop you from watching this dystopian satire, though. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in fine form as a contestant on the world’s most popular game show, a “Deadliest Game”-style spectacle in which trained killers hunt the show’s contestants for sport. Arnold spouts catchphrases left and right, and game show host Richard Dawson (“Family Feud”) playing an absurd version of himself is a particular highlight.
You may also like: If you’re seeking another King project that is way funnier than you’d expect, check out George Romero’s 1982 horror anthology “Creepshow” (streaming on AMC+), which gave King his first screenplay credit.
How to watch: “The Running Man” is streaming on Paramount+.
The notion of clowns, bringers of cheer and merriment, being secretly terrifying has been around for centuries. But few have taken it to the level King did with his 1986 novel “It,” in which Pennywise the Clown (really a demonic entity taking the form of a clown) preys on the children of Derry, Maine. The 1990 TV miniseries starring Tim Curry was already a worthy adaptation, but in 2017 director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) found mainstream success with his big-screen version, which split the novel into two films. The first outing is the stronger of the two, as the chemistry of the child actors in the Losers Club (the Derry kids who vow to take down Pennywise) feels like a throwback to movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me,” the latter of which you’ll find later on this list.
You may also like: If you’re a fan of King movies from the last decade that are arguably better than their original adaptations, check out 2019’s “Pet Sematary” (streaming on TNT with valid cable subscription), in which Jason Clarke gives a compelling, grief-stricken performance in the midst of undead creatures.
Comedy fans of a certain age may remember Christopher Walken better for his “SNL” parody of this 1983 thriller than his actual performance in the film. But “The Dead Zone” (directed by body horror auteur David Cronenberg) is no laughing matter, as Walken reckons with his unwanted psychic powers and what obligation he has to attempt to change the course of history. Come for Walken’s aura of dread, stay to watch Martin Sheen playing a charismatic presidential candidate who couldn’t be farther from his portrayal of President Bartlett on “The West Wing.”
You may also like: If you want to watch another legendary horror director who adapted a King story the very same year, check out 1983’s “Christine” (streaming on AMC+) to see director John Carpenter’s (“Halloween,” “The Thing”) take on the car with a homicidal mind of its own.
How to watch: “The Dead Zone” is streaming on HBO Max.
Another relatively recent King adaptation, Salem native Mike Flanagan (“Midnight Mass”) helms this thriller in which a handcuffed woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino) must escape a remote lake house after her husband suffers a fatal heart attack. This already daunting task is made tougher when Jessie begins to hallucinate, unlocking memories of her controlling husband’s behavior and a traumatizing incident from her youth. Flanagan’s deft touch and Gugino’s gutsy performance makes “Gerald’s Game” stand out as a contemporary take on the survival horror genre.
You may also like: If you want to see Flanagan take a second crack at King, check out 2019’s “Doctor Sleep” (streaming on HBO Max), the long-awaited sequel to “The Shining” starring Ewan McGregor as an adult Danny Torrance.
How to watch: “Gerald’s Game” is streaming on Netflix.
Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”) has only directed four theatrically released movies in his career, three of which were King adaptations. The final of the trio was this 2007 creature feature, in which a group of townsfolk led by Thomas Jane (“The Punisher”) are trapped in a supermarket as an all-encompassing mist rolls in, bringing with it a horde of terrifying monsters. The breakdown of societal norms occurs long before death is imminent, splitting the group of supermarket survivors into rational thinkers and Bible thumpers seeking divine intervention. Winged locusts smashing through the glass? Pretty scary. A scripture-quoting Marcia Gay Harden demanding your child for a blood sacrifice? Terrifying.
You may also like: If you want to watch Jane lead another King adaptation, check out 2017’s “1922” (streaming on Netflix), in which Jane plays a farmer whose bloody sacrifice to maintain a grip on his land has disastrous consequences.
How to watch: “The Mist” is streaming on Netflix.
Based on the King novella “The Body” (from the four-part collection “Different Seasons”), “Stand By Me” stands the test of time as a coming-of-age film thanks to the chemistry of its adolescent leads (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell) and the steady hand of director Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally”). As the saying goes, “Stand By Me” isn’t about the destination (the site of a dead body), it’s about the journey. The friends experience brushes with death, confide their deepest fears, and invent campfire stories to entertain each other. The enduring appeal of the film is neatly summed up in the final moments by the fully grown narrator (Richard Dreyfuss): “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
You may also like: If you want to watch another tale from King’s “Different Seasons” adapted into a movie, check out 1998’s “Apt Pupil” (streaming on Amazon Prime Video), in which a teenage boy (Brad Renfro) discovers that his neighbor (Ian McKellen) is a Nazi war criminal fugitive, forming a twisted friendship.
It all started with “Carrie.” King’s debut novel in 1974 not only helped cement his career, the 1976 movie also represented a box office breakthrough for director Brian De Palma, who went on to direct “Scarface,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible,” among other successes. A Hitchcock obsessive, De Palma proved a worthy heir to the master of suspense, building hair-raising tension in the moments before meek oddball Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is doused in pig’s blood at her prom. After the unbearable buildup to that moment, the hell that breaks loose when Carrie’s telekinetic powers are unleashed is inevitable.
You may also like: If you want to watch another early King adaptation about a young girl with telekinetic powers, check out 1984’s “Firestarter” (streaming on AMC+), in which a post-“E.T” Drew Barrymore plays an 8-year-old girl whose mind-controlled pyrotechnics attract unwanted attention from the government.
The second Rob Reiner-directed film on this list, this 1990 horror-thriller is a dark, unsparing look at celebrity and fandom gone wrong. As the “No. 1 fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), Kathy Bates won a deserved Best Actress Oscar as nurse turned captor Annie Wilkes. In a world where it’s become en vogue for studios to cater to fans’ every whims and powerful stan culture influences societal discourse, it’s not so hard to believe that another Annie Wilkes is somewhere out there right now, posting a fan edit in the replies of your favorite pop star.
You may also like: If you want to watch another King adaptation starring Bates, check out 1995’s “Dolores Claiborne” (streaming on HBO Max), in which Bates plays a domestic servant accused of killing her frail, elderly employer.
How to watch: “Misery” is streaming on HBO Max.
The story of how “The Shawshank Redemption” came to be seen as a classic is similar to that of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Generally liked upon release but considered box office failures, both movies achieved classic status thanks to repeat airings on TV — “Wonderful Life” in the 1970s and 1980s, and “Shawshank” in the late ’90s on TNT. From there, “Shawshank” vaulted to the top of IMDb’s user-generated Top 250 movies of all time list, besting everything from “The Godfather” to “Citizen Kane.” “Shawshank” may not be the No. 1 greatest movie ever — or even the No. 1 movie on this list — but the film’s emotional uplift and powerhouse performances from Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins ensure that “Shawshank” will still be watched 50 years from now.
You may also like: If you want to watch another Darabont-directed King adaptation set in a prison, check out 1999’s “The Green Mile” (streaming on HBO Max), about a Great Depression-era prison guard (Tom Hanks) who befriends a death row convict (Michael Clarke Duncan) with extraordinary powers.
How to watch: “The Shawshank Redemption” is streaming on HBO Max.
It’s hard, on first glance, to understand why King hates the film adaptation of his novel “The Shining.” But if you read King’s work, you can see why he might not love what Stanley Kubrick did with his haunting, psychologically taxing take on the material. King wrote protagonist Jack Torrance as a worse version of himself, an author struggling with writer’s block who heads to a remote Colorado hotel for inspiration (all of which King did, in 1974). But where the book Torrance is a complex, albeit emotionally maladjusted figure, Kubrick’s Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a sociopath from the jump, barely acknowledging the humanity of his wife and son even before he loses his mind. Basically, Kubrick took Torrance (a nightmare version of King) and made him 100 times worse, a decision that audiences have been thankful for since 1980.
You may also like: If you became obsessed with Room 237 in the Overlook Hotel, check out 2007’s “1408” (streaming on AMC+), in which John Cusack plays a skeptical paranormal investigator who sets out to debunk the theory that Room 1408 at the Dolphin hotel in New York City is cursed.
How to watch: “The Shining” is streaming on HBO Max.
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