With 11.22.63 airing only once a week on Hulu, you might need to venture elsewhere to get your Stephen King fix. But, where to go? Stephen King adaptations veer from what I’ll politely refer to as “not good” all the way to “sublime example of the filmmaking process.”
Below are my ten favorites. These aren’t necessarily his best, but they’re my go-to movie versions.
His first novel, and the first adaptation of his work, is also one of Stephen King’s most timeless works. It seems to work in any time and any setting, which is probably why it not only has a decades-too-late sequel, but two remakes. But if you’re going to see any version of the story, start with this one, the 1970s classic directed by Brian De Palma. It’s oh, so disco chic and some of the directorial choices and flourishes are… interesting, but nonetheless it’s gripping stuff. Sissy Spacek is the absolute best choice for the titular character Carrie White who just wants to be liked, but unleashes a hell-storm of violence like an X-Men character, way before the days when “Columbine” was a part of our everyday vernacular.
Stephen King’s It is generally what I refer to as a flawed masterpiece. The ending isn’t perfect, and is oft-criticized as being “That ending with the giant spider!” which is accurate. It’s easy to remember what the movie got wrong, because it got a lot wrong, but it also nailed the hell out of Pennywise as a visual representation of fear itself. Tim Curry is the best possible choice for the role and he doesn’t just chew scenery, he makes a meal out of it. And it works beautifully. The scene where Pennywise confronts poor, young Georgie is horror as poetry… it’s pitch perfect in execution.
8. Pet Sematary
The weirdest thing to me about Pet Sematary is that it was a huge hit. It cost about $12 million to make and raked in over $55 million at the box office. Not to mention the additional revenue it brought in as a best-seller on home video. People ate it up! And it’s a huge bummer! Generally speaking, audiences hate it in movies when kids die and when animals die. Well, Pet Sematary kills off a cat and a little kid (twice; technically he dies twice), and it’s graphic as all hell—you see a bloody child’s shoe flipping through the air in slow motion. It’s a horror movie for serious horror fans. If you have a strong stomach, you’re in for a treat. If you’re not into depression mixed with gore, check out something else instead.
7. The Green Mile
A lot of accusations have been lobbed at The Green Mile: That it’s treacle, that it’s kinda-sorta the grandfather of the “magical negro” character prevalent in a string of films throughout the early 2000’s. And maybe it does tug at the heart strings a little liberally, and maybe it could be argued that a story about a wrongly-convicted black man in that era should have to deal more with race than the problems of white people, but it’s still a fantastic piece of storytelling. Stephen King has a gift for horror, but he’s also a dramatist, and the way the story stacks up in order to come tumbling down at the ending is absolutely masterful. It’s not as good as its spiritual predecessor (The Shawshank Redemption), but it’s good in its own right. The “dry sponge” electrocution scene is straight from a nightmare.
6. The Dead Zone
Christopher Walken, a lot of people forget, is capable of a great performance. Before he retired into self-parody (to be fair, he is really good at self-parody), he could give nuanced performances that hinged on relatability and madness. Here, in The Dead Zone as Johnny Smith, he awakens from a coma with his whole life changed: The love of his life has moved on while he was sleeping and he now has the psychic ability to see how people will die. I love that Stephen King and David Cronenberg teaming up wasn’t some soaked-in-gore psychotic fever dream; instead it’s a quiet, subdued little film that’s bittersweet. It’s an underrated little gem and worth a look if you haven’t seen it in a while.
5. Dolores Claiborne
Part murder mystery, and part family drama, Dolores Claiborne is like Stephen King’s forgotten masterpiece. I was watching an old movie the other night and there was a trailer for Dolores Claiborne on it and what struck me as interesting is that the ad made no reference to being a work based on Stephen King. It was being touted as a prestige film, one to expect to see nominated for awards (it was, but subbed at the Oscars). King’s done a lot of non-horror before and since, but this is one of his most unique adaptations, and one of his very best. The score by Danny Elfman is amazing, too.
4. Stand by Me
Even though it’s nowhere within the realm of horror, or even especially a twisted drama, there’s something deeply unsettling about Stand by Me. It’s the callousness, the awfulness, the reprehensible highs and lows everyday people are capable of. Most of Stand by Me is a terrifically funny movie, a true-to-life movie about what it’s like to be a young boy, but there’s this undercurrent of sadness to it that makes it feel like such a wonderfully personal story. The journey that the four boys (River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) ends with, in a way, them rejecting their childhood. Their innocence is shattered by the end of the movie, and it’s long before they ever find the corpse.
Kathy Bates is so good in Misery it’s hard to see her in anything else. She’s terrific elsewhere (Dolores Claiborne, obviously) and she’s a very, very good actress, but she’s so good in Misery that it’s a pleasant miracle she hasn’t been typecast forever since as a psychopath. Because the character Annie Wilkes is so much more than that. She’s not just a crazy woman willing to hobble her favorite writer to keep him prisoner in her own home, she’s the crazy woman who somehow feels guilty about it and decides the only way to make up for it is with a murder-suicide pact, with rain-soaked hair and hollow, sad eyes. That she was an Oscar for her performance was sort of a no-brainer. She’s a classic villain, ranking somewhere between Hannibal Lector and Frankenstein’s Monster.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
A movie has to earn its moments where the music swells and the camera cranes up and you’re expected to be overwhelmed with emotions. If you just throw it out there, you look like a presumptuous ass. The Shawshank Redemption earns its ending. The decades-long journey we embark on with Andy and Red has an ending that teeters on excellent and ridiculous, and one misstep could have sent it careening toward Cheesetown, but director Frank Darabont pulls it off. The Shawshank redemption isn’t just one of Stephen King’s very best stories adapted into films, it’s one of the best films ever made. Everything about it, and everything that makes it what it is, is top notch. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is uniformly excellent, but here it’s something else… somehow he breathes life into the sets and makes Shawshank a real place, and we, the viewer, are sentenced there for a short period of time to experience Andy’s sentence along with him. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking.
1. The Shining
Stephen King famously still hates The Shining—the original Stanley Kubrick directed version—and while I’m sure he has his reasons, I adore it. Even though the film is nothing like the book in terms of actual story and plot, in terms of thematics, emotion and metaphor, it couldn’t have gotten a better adaptation. You don’t watch a movie like The Shining. You feel it. You experience it with dread washing over you. You see Jack Nicholson staring out that window with madness coursing through his veins, and you don’t just see it, you let him peer right into your soul. That’s how you experience something like The Shining. The book and the film are separate, equally-terrific works. I don’t prefer one over the other, and in fact I’m glad both exist because I can love and appreciate either work, and they’re both terrifying on a spiritual level… I can’t imagine a worse fate than having my sanity robbed from me, but on top of that to be doomed to it again and again for an eternity? Shivers.
Honorable Mentions (and not just random movies, movies I actually enjoy): Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, Children of the Corn, Storm of the Century, The Tommyknockers, Thinner, Apt Pupil, The Night Flier and the 90s Outer Limits episode “The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson” which is very, very loosely based on an occurrence within The Tommyknockers, but it’s really, really good.