35 Stephen King movies, ranked from best to worst

In anticipation of It and The Dark Tower, we rate the prolific horror author's many adaptations, including some you likely didn't know existed


It’s a good time to be Stephen King. After a relatively fallow period, the pastiche success of Netflix’s Stranger Things brought the horror author back into vogue – and now his work is set to splash across the big screen once again, with all-star adaptations of It and The Dark Tower coming from Warner and Sony, respectively.

If you’ve been jonesing for a revisit of King’s cinematic catalogue, here’s a rundown of the adaptations from best to worst. (Caveat: I left out most of the material King wrote directly for the screen, like Creepshow and the miniseries projects Golden Years and Storm Of The Century, because otherwise we’d be here all week.)

Shall we?

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Hey, it’s the most-played movie on TBS for a reason. Frank Darabont’s sensitive prison picture – starring Morgan Freeman as wise, patient jailbird Red and Tim Robbins as even-more-patient convict Andy Dufresne – captures the observant, humanist aspects of King’s prose in a way few other films ever did, building powerful drama out of its heroes’ decades of incarceration. Nominated for a bunch of Oscars, it cemented King’s reputation as an author of substance just as he slid into one of the worst periods of his life.

Available to watch: TMN GO, iTunes, Google Play

2. The Dead Zone (1983)

King’s novel, about a schoolteacher-turned-psychic who concludes he must assassinate a presidential candidate to save the world, came back into the zeitgeist last year when people started noticing that Donald Trump’s empty rhetoric sounded a lot like that of King’s fictional Greg Stillson. (Which, fair.) David Cronenberg’s wintry adaptation condenses King’s sprawling novel into a simple, sad tale of an unassuming man doomed by fate, and gives Christopher Walken one of the finest roles of his eccentric career. Never seen it? You really should.

Available to watch: Google Play

3. Stand By Me (1986)

Based on King’s novella The Body, Rob Reiner’s period drama – in which an impulsive trip to see a dead body leads four friends on a fraught journey of self-discovery – has a knockout cast of young actors (among them River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland), a melancholy soul and a 50s soundtrack that resonated with boomers. Now, of course, you can’t watch it without thinking of all the elements the Duffer Brothers borrowed for Stranger Things… but that doesn’t diminish it in the least.

Available to watch: Crackle, Amazon, iTunes

4. Cujo (1983)

King’s 1981 novel about a mother and son trapped in their car by a rabid St. Bernard was unique at the time for its total lack of supernatural elements: It’s just a gripping siege story with a relentless pace and a grim ending. Lewis Teague’s movie treats the source material as the pulp thriller that it is, establishing the threat with one hell of a jump scare and letting Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro sweat it out for the rest of the picture. The screenplay softens the novel’s ending a tad, but I suspect audiences were grateful for it.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

5. Misery (1990)

Four years after Stand By Me, Rob Reiner returned to King territory for this cat-and-mouse thriller about an author (James Caan) held hostage after a car wreck by his number one fan (Kathy Bates), a psychotic nurse determined to torture him into writing the best book of his life. William Goldman’s screenplay is an actor’s showcase – and Bates won an Oscar for her performance as the fearsome Annie Wilkes – while still honouring the author’s mixture of gallows humour and slow-boiling tension.

Available to watch: TMN GO, iTunes, Google Play

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Sissy Spacek in Carrie

6. Carrie (1976)

Noted stylist Brian De Palma takes King’s first novel – written as a collage of diary entries, journalism and official reports – and turns it into a raw, painful study of a bullied teenager (Sissy Spacek, justly Oscar-nominated) whose telekinetic powers offer her the opportunity to wreak terrible vengeance on her tormentors. De Palma’s Hitchcockian affectations have dated a little (or a lot, depending on who you ask), as have the production’s hair and wardrobe choices, but the story and the performances still pack a hell of a punch.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

7. The Shining (1980)

Yes, Jack Nicholson goes way over the top as a frustrated author who moves his family to the empty, super-creepy Overlook Hotel and almost immediately loses his mind. But Stanley Kubrick makes the Overlook an environment where insanity is not only understandable but inevitable that family was doomed the moment the movie started. King was so disappointed by Stanley Kubrick’s chilly take on the author’s most personal novel that he wrote his own adaptation a decade later… but that one was forgotten, while Kubrick’s is still very much around.

Available to watch: TMN GO, iTunes, Google Play

8. The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont, who’s adapted King off and on throughout his career, crafts a note-perfect movie out of King’s novella about a handful of people trapped in a supermarket by an inexplicable dimensional event that unleashes horrific monsters into their little Maine town.  Everything’s dead-on, from Thomas Jane’s slightly bland hero to Marcia Gay Harden’s wild-eyed antagonist, and the creature design is just tactile enough to give you the willies. If it wasn’t for that goddamn ending, which totally sells out King’s faith in his characters for a cheesy nihilistic beat, this would be an all-time classic.

9. Christine (1983)

Horror auteur John Carpenter turns King’s best-seller about a haunted 1957 Plymouth Fury that possesses its nerdy new owner into a decent if unexceptional thriller… which, after three decades of increasingly shabby King adaptations, now feels pretty solid. Yeah, Keith Gordon, Alexandra Paul and John Stockwell seem a little white-bread when compared to the character work being thrown down by Roberts Blossom and Harry Dean Stanton, but Carpenter’s thrumming score, Donald M. Morgan’s gorgeous visual aesthetic and Roy Arbogast’s amazing practical car effects more than make up for it. Check it out. You’ve missed a good one.

Available to watch: Crackle, iTunes, Google Play

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Salem’s Lot

10. Salem’s Lot (1979)

King’s version of Peyton Place – in which an unassuming Maine town is overrun by vampires – was weirdly perfect for a TV miniseries in the late 70s, its expansive cast offering plenty of roles for mid-range television actors like David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, Geoffrey Lewis, Ed Flanders, Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard (!) – but James Mason happily steals the picture as the nefarious attorney Straker. It’s hard to explain how weird it was to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper directing prime time horror, though it really pays off in the implacable sense of evil gathering just outside the frame in every scene.

Available to watch: Google Play

11. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

Another early King short story – this one about a teacher tormented by the revenants of his childhood bullies – gets inflated to feature length (for TV), but this one turned out surprisingly well. Yeah, the bullies are silly 50s-greaser stereotypes, but Tim Matheson and Brooke Adams deliver thoughtful, sympathetic performances as an ordinary couple trying to cope with supernatural menace that’s intruded into their lives. (And Adams knows her way around a King narrative, having co-starred in The Dead Zone a decade earlier.)

Available to watch: iTunes

12. Pet Sematary (1989)

This is one of those stories that definitely works better on the page – a breathless mixture of parental anxiety and cheap zombie scares built on a very creaky foundation of manifest destiny stereotypes – but Mary Lambert’s agitated direction at least sells the big moments. (Poor Fred Gwynne.)

Available to watch: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play

13. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy focus on the more melodramatic aspects of King’s novel about a surly housekeeper who may or may not have killed her employer (and may or may not have offed her abusive husband decades earlier), but Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh elevate every scene with a terrific mother-daughter act.

Available to watch: Google Play

14. Apt Pupil (1998)

After The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer used his newfound juice to adapt King’s novella about a disturbed teenager (Brad Renfro) who finds a Nazi war criminal (Ian McKellen) living in his quiet little town and blackmails the old man into sharing stories of the good old days. It’s a little slow, and the studio insisted Singer drop King’s merciless ending, but McKellen’s disturbingly good at finding the magnetism inside his withered old villain.

Available to watch: iTunes

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Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man

15. The Running Man (1987)

This supremely cheesy adaptation of King’s pseudonymous novel about a dystopian near-future where convicted criminals are forced to be the bait in televised manhunts throws out everything but the concept, and turns the “manhunt” part into an extreme-sports competition in which a cheerful Richard Dawson forces Arnold Schwarzenegger to fight for his life. Three decades ago, it was a ridiculous satire of American TV trends. Now, it doesn’t go far enough.

Available to watch: Google Play

16. The Stand (1994)

King’s most ambitious novel – in which the survivors of a global pandemic embark on a Tolkienesque quest to defeat pure evil – was made into a surprisingly decent TV miniseries by longtime pal Mick Garris, who holds the record for King collaborations. The video effects haven’t held up, but you can still enjoy it for the eerie tone – and for the knockout cast, which includes Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Matt Frewer, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Laura San Giacomo, Bill Fagerbakke and a meaner-than-usual Jamey Sheridan.

17. The Dark Half (1993)

A decade after directing King’s delightful comic-book pastiche Creepshow, George A. Romero tackled his novel about an author whose pseudonym develops a life of its own. Timothy Hutton is entirely convincing as hero Thad Beaumont but less so as his volatile doppelganger George Stark, and the big finale just doesn’t deliver.

18. Needful Things (1993)

The majority of King’s early stories take place in the fictional Maine hamlet of Castle Rock – a setting that becomes far less bucolic once the Devil himself (Max von Sydow) arrives to open a curiosity shop. Fraser C. Heston lacked the vision or the wit to properly convey the novel’s arch, apocalyptic tone, leaving King veterans Ed Harris (Creepshow) and Bonnie Bedelia (Salem’s Lot) with nothing to do but watch as everything goes to hell.

Available to watch: iTunes

19. Thinner (1996)

King’s dream version of this movie would have starred John Candy as Billy Halleck, the overweight lawyer cursed by an old woman to slowly wither away to nothing. Instead, director Tom Holland cast the lean, angular Robert John Burke and put him in a fat suit for the early scenes. It doesn’t work.

Available to watch: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play

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Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile

20. The Green Mile (1999)

A cracked Christian allegory about a death row prison guard who discovers that one of his charges can heal the sick, King’s serial novel – originally published in six chapters over as many months – became an unintentionally campy epic in the hands of writer/director Frank Darabont, who doubles down on self-seriousness and golden lighting. Tom Hanks gives it his best shot, but with three hours we’re left with plenty of time to think about how ridiculous the whole thing is.

Available to watch: TMN GO, iTunes, Google Play

21. Children Of The Corn (1984)

Snapped up in the first wave of King-movie mania, this short story about a young couple who stumble upon an ancient evil gets expanded into a long, increasingly silly chase picture with Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton crucified on cornstalks by weird, pasty children. Somehow this spawned seven sequels (including one starring a young Naomi Watts!) and a remake. They’re all terrible.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

22. Secret Window (2004)

Hot off the first Pirates Of The Caribbean, Johnny Depp could do anything he wanted – so he chose King’s tale of an author tormented by an angry stranger (John Turturro) demanding credit for his work. It’s a mirror-image riff on The Dark Half, with writer/director David Koepp encouraging Depp to goof around in front of the camera for an hour or so before the plot kicks in and everything gets really silly.

Available to watch: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play

23. 1408 (2007)

King’s short story about a professional skeptic (John Cusack) who checks into a hotel room associated with a truly distressing number of mysterious deaths could have made for a tight, taut short film. At feature length, though, it runs out of ideas well before the one-hour mark and winds up circling its silly twist for far too long. At least Samuel L. Jackson is having a ball as the most sinister desk clerk the job has ever seen.

24. Hearts In Atlantis (2001)

Fun fact: while this meandering drama bears the title of the collection from which it was adapted, it’s actually based on the short story Low Men In Yellow Coats. Anton Yelchin, in his first lead role, plays Bobby Garfield, a 60s kid whose friendship with a strange man (Anthony Hopkins) opens doorways Bobby didn’t even know existed – and winds up putting both of them in grave danger. Yelchin and Hopkins do their best to bring the material to life, but director Scott Hicks treats everything with frustrating delicacy.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

25. It (1990)

Yeah, yeah, I know, Tim Curry’s Pennywise creeped you out as a kid. But you were a kid, and you were watching a cheesy TV miniseries that came up short on virtually every other aspect of King’s decades-spanning novel about a group of adults reunited to face the monster they first battled as children. Andy Muschietti’s upcoming movie adaptation has to be better. It just has to.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

26. Cell (2016)

King’s big return to straight-up horror after a decade of more literary-minded fiction had a killer premise: a mysterious signal turns everyone who answers their cell phone into raging psychotics bent on murdering everyone who didn’t. And while it’s nice to see 1408’s John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson back together (and on the same side, this time), they’re let down by a cheap production that’s content to recycle zombie movie clichés rather than have a single new idea.

Available to watch: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play

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Drew Barrymore in Firestarter

27. Firestarter (1984)

Drew Barrymore was barely eight years old (and fresh off E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) when Dino de Laurentiis cast her as the lead of his big-studio adaptation of King’s best-seller about a pyrokinetic little girl pursued by a ruthless government assassin. While she’s fine, the movie around her is simply awful, wasting the talents and time of everyone from George C. Scott and Louise Fletcher to David Keith and Freddie Jones. At least the Tangerine Dream score can lull you to sleep.

Available to watch: iTunes

28. The Mangler (1995)

King’s short story is a fun little nothing about an industrial laundry machine possessed by a demon. Tobe Hooper’s movie invents a backstory for both the demon and the laundry company, neither of which is terribly interesting, and lets Robert Englund ham it up as an evil sweatshop owner. Ted Levine plays it appealingly straight as a cop investigating the nefariousness, but he’s fighting a losing battle against a terrible, terrible script and Hooper’s half-asleep direction. Some idiots made a sequel, The Mangler Reborn, a decade later. It’s bad too.

29. Cat’s Eye (1985)

After the debacle of Firestarter, producer Dino de Laurentiis brought Drew Barrymore to this very loosely associated anthology about a cat that witnesses evil, or something. King adapts his short stories Quitters, Inc. and The Ledge for the first two segments, then closes with an original tale that finds Barrymore cheering on the feline hero as it tries to save her from a murderous goblin or something. The 80s were weird.

Available to watch: iTunes

30. Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (1985)

Any movie that can be described as “Corey Haim and Gary Busey fight a creepy werewolf priest” should be a lot more fun than what Daniel Attias delivered, from King’s own screenplay. Honestly, Bernie Wrightson’s robust illustrations for King’s source novel Cycle Of The Werewolf were scarier than anything in this clunker.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

31. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

King’s sole directorial effort – an adaptation of his short story Trucks in which all machines turn on humans, not just the big rigs – is a mess of dopey ideas, unmodulated performances and undercooked stunt sequences. Yes, the AC/DC soundtrack rocks. And that’s the only thing anybody remembers about Maximum Overdrive.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

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Damian Lewis in Dreamcatcher

32. Dreamcatcher (2003)

There are some who believe that Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of King’s craziest novel – an anything-goes freakout about four friends whose heartfelt reunion just happens to take place in the midst of an invasion of extraterrestrial “shit weasels” that possess people by burrowing into their bottoms – is a secret masterpiece. Those people are deeply, deeply wrong.

Available to watch: Google Play

33. The Lawnmower Man (1992)

With its clunky CG sequences and its cracked plot about a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who turns a dim handyman (Jeff Fahey) into a super-intelligent AI menace through virtual reality, Brett Leonard’s dopey thriller deviates so completely from King’s short story that King sued the production to get them to stop using his name in the marketing. In fairness, both the story and the movie have a scene where a guy shows up to mow somebody’s lawn, so they’re like totally the same thing. 

34. The Tommyknockers (1993)

There’s a fever dream quality to King’s novel about a small town that falls under the sway of an alien spaceship that this two-part TV event misses completely. Lawrence D. Cohen (who’d previously adapted Carrie and It for the screen) treats the book like profoundly important literature, which is totally the wrong way to go. He also drops the book’s most baroque moments, including the full-tilt bananas ending. Why even bother?

35. Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is a sketch of a story, really just a few ideas about a factory worker who discovers the rat problem in the basement is a lot bigger than he thought. (Like, Godzilla big.) It’s got a nice setup-and-punchline rhythm and a couple of blue-collar moments that ring true. But that’s all it is. As a movie, it’s a big old bag of who-cares, as a series of bland, sweaty actors march into the basement to get eaten by a monster that seems even less invested than its human co-stars. C’mon, admit it: you didn’t even know this one exists.

Available to watch: iTunes, Google Play

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