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Top 30 Stephen King Movies, Ranked

From haunted hotels to prison-yard blues, ‘Carrie’ to ‘Christine’ – the major adaptations of the iconic author’s work, from worst to best

In honor of 'The Dark Tower' and 'It' films, we rank the top 30 Stephen King movies, worst to best – from 'The Shining' to 'The Shawshank Redemption.'

Rex, Everett Collection (2)

Back in 1973, when Stephen King sold his first book Carrie to a publisher (the manuscript of which he’d originally thrown away, and was rescued by his wife Tabitha), the up-and-coming, already published author might have thought: I may actually be able to make it as a professional writer. He probably didn’t think: I will also eventually end up one of the big bestselling authors of the next few decades, a highly decorated man of letters, a brand-name – and a one-man cottage industry for the movies. So many of his now-canonical horror novels, as well as his non–spooky-story output, have been fodder for filmmakers far and wide; the phrase “a Stephen King movie” carries with it it’s own expectations, parameters and conventions. And with not one but two big films coming out in the next month – the long-awaited blockbuster take on The Dark Tower hitting theaters on Friday and a reimagining of the kids v. evil clown epic It coming on September 8th – the King movie remains a bankable category unto itself.

And like any genre, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Originally, we’d planned to do a comprehensive worst-to-best ranked list, but the “ugly” proved to be too much for us – the last 10 years alone seem to have brought a wave of adaptations that run from questionable to “Unclean! Unclean!” There’s rewatching The Mangler, and then there’s straight-up masochism. Life is really too short for Dolan’s Cadillac.

So we’ll leave those completist lists for other folks. Meanwhile, we’ve gathered 30 of the best-known, most notable Stephen King movies, and ranked them from worst to best. A few things to note: We’re not including TV shows, TV miniseries or TV movies, so a hearty “sorry” to Salem’s Lot, the best of the latter by a longshot. We’ve concentrated primarily on adaptations of his work, though there is one entry that fudges that notion a bit … but that we could not bear to leave out. And finally, we ranked these movies on a dual scale of the quality of the movie itself and how well it worked as an adaptation of King’s work. (Please keep this in mind when you get to No. 5. Don’t @ us, people.)

Get busy readin’ or get busy dyin’.

Mika Boorem (front), Anthony Hopkins

Everett Collection

24

‘Hearts in Atlantis’ (2001)

Perhaps the only thing that obsesses Stephen King more than horror is childhood, in all its lights and darks. There’s a little bit of supernatural but a lot more coming-of-age in Scott Hicks and William Goldman’s languorous adaptation of King novella Low Men in Yellow Coats. A young Anton Yelchin (R.I.P.) plays Bobby, a boy in 1960s suburbia caught between his distant mother (Hope Davis) and a mysterious older man (an avuncular Anthony Hopkins) who moves into the top floor of their house … and may have psychic powers. The movie sometimes veers into sentimentality, but strong performances from Yelchin, Davis and Hopkins keep it dreamily afloat. JS

Michael Constantine, Robert John Burke

Everett Collection

23

‘Thinner’ (1996)

Published under the nom de plume
Richard Bachman, King’s 1984 novel about an obese, corrupt lawyer who
gets a gypsy curse placed on him and starts to waste away is one of his
oddest works: a twisted comedy posing as a tense thriller. And maybe
this film adaptation really needed someone like David Cronenberg, who
could have gone to town with the absurdist body-horror aspect of the
story. Instead, director Tom Holland leans into its comic, morality
tale elements. (The cheapo effects make sure that the actual curse has little visual impact.) As the protagonist,
Robert John Burke goes from smug sleazebag in garish fat-suit to
obsessive vigilante who’s lost some weight. Somehow, the arch, silly tone keeps things moving along: It’s a goofy film, but
unlike many King adaptations, it seems to know it. That self-awareness
counts for something. BE

Johnny Depp

Everett Collection

22

‘Secret Window’ (2004)

If you’re a Stephen King character, writer’s block can be a beast – and Mort Rainey, the character at the center of King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, doesn’t fare much better than Jack Torrance. David Koepp’s film follows its short-story writer (played by an appealingly twitchy Johnny Depp) as he broods over his recent divorce in a cabin in the woods. When a menacing stranger (John Turturro) shows up claiming that Mort stole his story, the unraveling begins in earnest. It’s a tad predictable – though this slow-burn character study is satisfyingly ominous and surprisingly twisted. JS

Max Von Sydow

Everett Collection

21

‘Needful Things’ (1993)

Never trust a curiosity shop that stocks precisely what every oddball in your community needs – especially when its owner happens to be a suspiciously urbane newcomer named Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow). That’s the lesson of this adaptation of King’s final “Castle Rock” novel, which plays like a more wholesome, less hysterical Twin Peaks. As a series of increasingly sinister pranks amp up existing animosities between locals, a big-city cop (Ed Harris) realizes the stranger is something far more terrifying than a kindly old gentleman. Von Sydow imbues his fiendish character with the perfect mix of charm, erudition and menace. Amid a strong cast of character actors, his is the only performance that shines … but that’s kind of the point. JB  

The Green Mile (1999)

Everett Collection

20

‘The Green Mile’ (1999)

A spiritual cousin to The Shawshank Redemption, this adaptation of King’s serialized prison novel focuses on Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), a guard who heads up a Louisiana correction facility’s Death Row. He’s our guide to the various personalities populating the joint, from outrageous (viva Sam Rockwell!) to outright sadistic (Doug Hutchison’s bastard of a screw). Then Edgecomb witnesses the unique healing powers of an illiterate inmate named John Coffey (Oscar-nominated Michael Clarke Duncan), and this straightforward story soon turns into a tale of magical realism. Helmed by Shawshank director Frank Daranbont – and famously criticized by Spike Lee for perpetuating the “magical Negro” stereotype – the movie lacks the melodramatic momentum of its convict–character-study predecessor. But as an examination of one man wrestling with moral decisions he makes, his faith in God and his place in the world, it hits the books marks with grace. AS

Everett McGill

Everett Collection

19

‘Silver Bullet’ (1985)

As far as lycanthrope movies go, this riff on King’s Cycle of the Werewolf – done by future Peak TV MVP Dan Attias – is no The Howling. But its tale of a small Maine town plagued by bark-at-the-moon beast on the loose is a solid B-movie, complete with flying decapitated heads and a young Corey Haim. The workman-like approach actually fits King’s prose and tone from the 127-page novella, as well as forcing everything to adhere to a forward momentum that amps up the tension. Which is not to say that the movie won’t pause for a showstopping hallucinogenic sequence in which the local reverend (played by Twin Peaks‘ Everett McGill) imagine his entire congregation suddenly turning into fanged, furry predators and causing chaos among the church pews. DF

Mills Watson being attacked by the rabid St.Bernard

Everett Collection

18

‘Cujo’ (1983)

A mother and her young son are held hostage in a hot, broken
car by a massive, rabid St. Bernard – but first, there’s a whole lot of domestic
drama to get through! The characters in Lewis Teague’s film version aren’t
quite as fleshed out as they are in King’s claustrophobic 1981 novel, nor are
their actions always understandable. Not to mention the fact that the film’s moody approach to the
story makes one miss the devil-may-care sleaziness of the book. (The author was
reportedly drinking himself silly during the period when he wrote it.) Despite
all that, this dog-eat-person tale works: The central set piece of Dee Wallace v. killer canine is wonderfully
tense and despairing – a
terrified mother trying to protect herself and her fragile young son in the
most surreal and terrifying of circumstances. BE

Richard Dawson, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Everett Collection

17

‘The Running Man’ (1987)

King published his 1982 dystopian thriller under
the pen name Richard Bachman; Paul Michael Glaser’s movie adaptation is
both the most Eighties artifact of all time and a scarily
relevant social satire. It’s set in 2017, when America has become a
totalitarian corporatocracy in which government and reality TV have become
hopelessly intertwined. (Sound familiar?) A young, super-jacked Arnold
Schwarzenegger is a captured rebel forced to participate in a
life-or-death reality competition – think The
Hunger Games,
but with synth music and chainsaws. But the most enduring
legacy of The Running Man isn’t
Ah-nold’s cheesy dialogue or the film’s gleeful violence. It’s the audience of cheering all-American
consumers all too happy to sacrifice freedom for escapist entertainment. JS

Fred Gwynne

Everett Collection

16

‘Pet Sematary’ (1989)

One of King’s scariest novels becomes one of the scarier movies made from one of his works. Director Mary Lambert’s take on this creepy
story (a variation on the horror classic “The Monkey’s Paw”) follows a mourning
father trying to use an ancient Indian burial ground to resurrect loved ones
from the grave. It doesn’t quite have the pathos of the book; King’s original is not
only terrifying, it’s also impossibly sad. (That coda is devastating.) But the movie is still a ruthlessly
effective chiller – filled with jump scares and things that go bump in the
night. Sometimes they do come back. BE

Drew Barrymore, Candy Clark, Robert Hays

REX

15

‘Cat’s Eye’ (1985)

Because the author’s long, winding novels are often hard to translate into two hour movies, it’s too bad more filmmakers haven’t gone the anthology route, adapting multiple pieces of his short fiction to the big screen. The King-penned 1985 triptych is a good model to work from, adding one original story to two adaptations of Night Shift pieces – one with James Woods as a guy who signs up for a cruel smoking cure, and another with Robert Hays as a desperate man forced to circumnavigate a narrow ledge on a skyscraper. (The third features the Firestarter herself, Drew Barrymore, a feline and a killer troll.) It’s terse, tense and way more fun than some of the more ambitious takes on his work. NM

Drew Barrymore

REX

14

‘Firestarter’ (1984)

King’s hot (literally) bestseller gets a violent, mournful screen version, with
Drew Barrymore – immediately following her baby-faced breakout in E.T. – as a pyrokinetic tyke on the run from shadow agency “the Shop,” whose experiments unleashed her conflagratory
powers. Featuring many of the author’s favorite tropes (telepathic
minors, secret government agents, stressed families, financial
desperation), this impressively dark tragedy doesn’t have the
cinematic eloquence of his best adaptations. But its no-frills
storytelling, as well as the obligatory exploding
cinderblocks and blazing henchmen, are surprisingly effective. And
Barrymore’s tortured, terrified performance is heartbreaking. SG

Brad Renfro

Everett Collection

13

‘Apt Pupil’ (1998)

A high school student/burgeoning psychopath develops an interest in an older German neighbor after discovering his past as a Nazi war criminal. Based on King’s much-bloodier Different Seasons entry of the same name – director Bryan Singer cut out the shooting spree and additional murders that originally appeared in the novella – the film pits Kurt Dussander (a German-accented Ian McKellen), an ex-S.S. officer who settled in Southern California after WWII, against Todd Bowden, a devilish teen (Brad Renfro) suspiciously curious about the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and his followers. Bartered tales of concentration camp horrors ensue, and the movie nails the perverse bond between an aging monster and a young, impressionable monster-to-be. AS 

Timothy Hutton

Everett Collection

12

‘The Dark Half’ (1993)

After he tries to exorcise the pen name under which he’s
written some of his schlockier, more popular books, a writer’s dark side
manifests itself in person – in the form of the deranged, unborn twin. The late, great George Romero’s film of
King’s surprisingly personal tale was, sadly, not a hit. But horror legend was still the ideal director for this material, thanks to his ability to
balance comedy, suspense and character. The result is one of the more moving
of King adaptations, as Timothy Hutton’s tortured family-man scribe does battle
with his scarred-up, bourbon-swilling doppelgänger (also played by Hutton),
while resisting the temptation to simply give into his demons. It’s vastly underrated. BE

Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh,

Everett Collection

11

‘Dolores Claiborne’ (1995)

After winning her Misery
Oscar, Kathy Bates returns to the author’s world in an even richer
role as a put-upon maid accused of murdering her senile millionairess
boss. The news spurs the return of her estranged, brittle daughter
(Jennifer Jason Leigh); as the investigation
proceeds, flashbacks reveal the dark secrets of their forlorn lives in a
depressingly masculine world. Taylor Hackford’s elegant expressionistic
direction showcases this beautifully crafted feminist nightmare, which doubles as a sterling example of the author eschewing supernatural scares for the horror of everyday existence – and a great case study for how to turn such material into a first-rate character-based thriller. SG

Ted Danson, Gaylen Ross,

Everett Collection

10

‘Creepshow’ (1982)

It’s technically not an out-and-out adaptation of one of King’s books – the author wrote most of this E.C. Comics homage for the screen, only later turning the collection into an incredible graphic novel with legendary artist Bernie Wrightson. But we’re including it nonetheless, as the movie could not be a purer distillation of the novelist’s horror-centric sensibilities. The writer teamed up with George A. Romero for this bloody valentine to William Gaines’ 1950s
gore-peddlers – “the epitome of horror,” he declares in Danse Macabre – and the quintet of delightfully ghoulish tales (two based
on King’s stories “Weeds” and “The Crate”) are a scream: undead patriarchs,
interstellar kudzu, sea-soaked zombie lovers, an ancient Antarctic
gorilla … even King himself as a hillbilly rube. Plus,
thanks to make-up wizard Tom Savini, this candy-colored nightmare
features some of the most indelible gross-out images of the Eighties.
Cockroach-infested corpse, anyone? SG

Everett Collection

9

‘The Mist’ (2007)

Writer-director Frank Darabont crafted the bleakest ending imaginable for King’s tale about a mysterious fog that descends over a small Maine town. Commercial artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son are among a group of locals stranded in a supermarket when the mist rolls in; soon, the barely glimpsed monsters concealed inside this unexplained meteorological phenomenon come a-knockin’. Skeptic Andre Braugher insists they have nothing to fear; religious zealot Marcia Gay Harden believes the end times are at hand. Then the squabbling turns violent after a predatory incursion, and a desperate escape attempt leads to unfathomable sorrow. In the years since its release, the movie has become a cult classic, and Darabont’s black-and-white director’s cut (available on Blu-ray) only heightens the dread-inducing mood. GM

Malcolm Danare

REX

8

‘Christine’ (1983)

King’s love of outsized characters and old-fashioned Americana make him a good match for Halloween/Escape from New York auteur John Carpenter, who oddly enough has only ever adapted one of the author’s books: This wild tale of a haunted car’s symbiotic relationship with a high-school nerd. The first hour of Christine is the director at his best, with his camera mapping out all the ways small towns can be both comforting and confining. He also brings as much of King’s colorfully profane dialogue and keen sense of character to the screen as he can, while always making sure the automotive horror runs neck-and-neck with scenes of teenage boys exploring their independence. Note to future filmmakers: This movie’s opening is the only acceptable way to use George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” in a movie. You will never top thisNM 

Linda Hamilton, Courtney Gaine

Everett Collection

7

‘Children of the Corn’ (1984)

Seven months before The Terminator hit theaters, Linda Hamilton was being terrorized by a completely different menacing force: A nightmarish cavalcade of creepily angelic tykes causing unspeakable horrors amidst the vast, empty stretches of the Midwest. An upwardly-mobile couple (Hamilton and Peter Horton) is en route to Seattle when they stop in a small Nebraska town, which just happens to be ruled by a murderous religious cult of glowering kids. Seizing elements of the zombie movie and the Western, Children of the Corn is a lean, brutally tense slasher film. But what’s most chilling is its deft weaponizing of American cultural tensions — between generations, economic classes, big cities vs. tiny rural communities, god-fearing conservatives vs. liberal atheists. Our heroes burn down the cornfield, but they can’t snuff out those still-lingering conflicts. (Or, for that matter, the ability to endlessly franchise a good idea for the home-video market.) TG

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), Right, and Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman)

REX

6

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)

This now-classic big-screen take on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (good call on shortening the title) was well-reviewed but barely seen during its original theatrical run; lots of frequent airings on cable, however, have turned it into one of the most beloved movies of the past quarter-century. Perhaps that’s because the decades-spacing story of an innocent convict (Tim Robbins) and a kind-hearted wheeler-dealer (Morgan Freeman) is as episodic and sprawling as what would become known as “prestige TV.” Or maybe its just that once audiences finally found Frank Darabont’s movie, they found it easy to relate to the central metaphor of imprisonment, which the movie beautifully translates (and expands upon) from King’s non-horror source material. Criminal or not, who hasn’t felt trapped? And who hasn’t dreamed of doing whatever it takes to feel free again? NM

REX

5

‘The Shining’ (1980)

It’s easily a ringer for both the Top Two Haunted Hotel Movies and the Top Three Man-Being-Fellated-By-A-Gent-In-A-Bear-Costume Movies Ever Made. Why, you may ask, is The Shining not the No. 1 choice on this list? Because if you’re talking about adaptations of King’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s glorious, grandiose ghost story gets docked points for often feeling like a semi-superficial skim over the source material – the equivalent of merely passing a bottle of vermouth over a dry martini rather than pouring any in. The author has long gone on record as hating Kubrick’s take; as recently as 2014, he was still lamenting Jack Nicholson’s crazy-from-the-get-go performance and the film’s hermetic vibe: “The book is hot, and the movie is cold.” Whether you think the film improves on the novel is a matter of opinion (we think it does), and anyone who wants fidelity can check out the 1997 miniseries, topiary animals and all. But seen through the lens of “Stephen King movies,” it’s an interesting interpretation of the book’s familial dysfunction and writer’s block en extremis, and thus not a top-of-the-heap choice. It’ll just have to settle for being one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. DF

Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix

REX

4

‘Stand By Me’ (1986)

He’s a modern master of horror-lit – and yet two of the strongest big-screen adaptations of the genre’s most popular purveyor don’t even try to be scary. Just like The Shawshank Redemption, the plot of this coming-of-age classic originated in King’s eclectic (and excellent) 1982 collection Different Seasons, and eschews vampires, killer dogs, and haunted hotels in favor of a low-key, personal story about four small-town boys in the late 1950s, played by stars-to-be River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. As the kids take a dangerous hike to go look at a dead body, they share one last moment of camaraderie and bonding, before they get pulled apart by class differences and teenage angst. Rob Reiner gives it just the right touch of wistfulness and wonder, as well as somehow bringing the story’s anecdotal centerpiece – a pie-eating contest that ends in copious vomiting – to the screen with all its technicolor grossness intact. Kudos, sir. NM

Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen

Everett Collection

3

‘The Dead Zone’ (1983)

David Cronenberg is the man who made “body
horror” a thing; Stephen King’s tales of terror derive much of their power from down-to-earth Americana. An odd couple, to be sure. But the Canadian auteur brings out the best in the story of a New England
schoolteacher (professional weirdo Christopher Walken, pitch-perfect) who awakens from a five-year coma with the
ability to see the future of anyone he touches. Co-starring Martin Sheen
as a blustery, right-wing politician rising to power via blue-collar populism and ready to trigger World War III – imagine that! It’s cerebral but not chilly, complex but compelling – and as eerily prescient as its psychic protagonist.  STC

Everett Collection

2

‘Misery’ (1990)

Given that the writer takes defiant pride in penning books for fans and not critics, it’s more than a little ironic that his one Oscar-winning movie is about a reader who loves an author way too much. Kathy Bates took home the Best Actress prize for her alternately funny and terrifying performance as a rural nurse who saves the life of her favorite novelist (James Caan), then forces him to write a novel that indulges her fangirl whims. (King noted that the bestseller was both influenced by and written under the influence of some addictive substances. “Misery is a book about cocaine,” he claimed. “Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”) Rob Reiner not only captures the original’s comic and waking-nightmare elements; he also gave the world a film that ended up predicting the increasingly toxic artist/audience relationship that’s developed in the the age of the internet. And that “hobbling” scene? Hoo boy. NM

William Katt, Sissy Spacek

Everett Collection

1

‘Carrie’ (1976)

Brian De Palma’s film version of King’s first published novel
is a masterpiece that stands on its own – both deeply unsettling and one of the more compassionate horror flicks you’ll ever see. Could we even
call it horror? Before it gets there, the movie goes through everything else: coming-of-age story, family drama, high school movie, social allegory, vigilante
thriller. As the shy, repressed teenager tormented by her fellow students on
one side and her deranged, Bible-quoting mother (Piper Laurie) on the
other, Sissy Spacek is appropriately haunted and anxious – her intense performance
has the quality of an exposed nerve. We feel for this girl and understand the impossibility of escaping the emotional
prison that she lives in. 

Meanwhile, De Palma’s
stylization is both lush and forbidding: His swooping camera moves and sly editing
tricks mix sentimentality and suspense, so that, much like Carrie herself, we
never quite know where any given situation is headed. And the film
sustains its tense, hesitant tone for so long that by the time the climactic
prom night massacre arrives – resulting in one of the great shock-and-awe set pieces of all time – even those of us who’ve seen the movies a dozen times are on the edge of our
seats. The bestselling author’s literary debut got the inaugural cinema du King film it deserved. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  BE

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