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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’.


‘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


‘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


‘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


‘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 


‘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


‘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


‘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


‘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


‘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 


‘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


‘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


‘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