The Best and Worst Stephen King Adaptations

Losing myself in one of Stephen King’s books has always been one of my favourite pastimes. Whether it is one of his classic short stories from Night Shift , or the epic adventure that is The Dark Tower series, I feel the visual and cinematic style that Mr King writes with makes it even more enjoyable as a fan of film, as I easily picture the horrifying characters and delightful images in my mind. It is no surprise then, that so many of his ideas and stories have been translated to the big and small screen. The source material for these adaptations can be everything from an entire novel, to a tiny seed of an idea caught in the wings of a short story, which can occasionally flower into something really special.

His mainstream prestige aside, King’s famous ability to project images and ideas directly into the mind of the reader, is arguably one of the main reasons that his novels and short stories have been used as the basis for so many films and mini-series. I can hold my hands up and say I have not seen them all, but looking down the list of just under 150 to date, I was reminded just how many have been adapted over his long history of storytelling. Often, the movies that have got it right detract themselves intentionally from some key elements of the story, sometimes avoiding potential banana skins. Others have gone all out to be as true to the book as possible, which can either work tremendously well, or get lost in translation.

As there is such an insurmountable list of films, some of which we all know too well, I have tried to throw a few curve balls in there as to my picks. After all, it is always an interesting surprise to find one of your favourite films was originally just a few pages in a Stephen King short story collection. But watch out for those movies that completely tore the original story apart and did it not even the slightest bit of justice. Not that King can wash his hands of all of these, as you will see. Enjoy, and as always please comment with your ideas.

The Best: The Shining (1980)

Adapted from :The Shining (1977)

Rotten rating: 92% / Directed by: Stanley Kubrick / Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd

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Kubrick is one of only a handful of directors to have tackled different genres of film successfully, and his stylistic vision of Jack’s descent into madness is one that has and will live long in film memory. Instead of simply transposing the script and characters from book to film like so many other adaptations, Kubrick focused more on imagery to create a vision, one of loneliness and fear. After his stark portrayal of a patient in One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Jack Nicholson was a natural choice to capture the twisted and tortured mind of the character so pivotal to the success of the film.

As with his 2001: Space Odyssey , the lack of dialogue at crucial moments enhances the viewers other senses, so that when we see those lift doors opening, or turn the corner to see those those twin girls standing motionless in the corridor, we are pulled into a world uncannily similar to the one created so vividly in King’s book. A masterpiece of horror, and many people’s first choice, and mine, for best Stephen King adaptation.

The Worst: Thinner (1996)

Adapted from: Thinner (1984)

Rotten rating: 16% / Directed by: Tom Holland / Starring: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna and lucinda Jenny

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Adapted from a novel published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman, Thinner is a story that describes a curse placed on an unsuspecting obese lawyer. The book wasn’t great to begin with, but the film was even more devoid of structure and characters. At times, the film feels closer to Big Momma’s House than it does with the original novel, laughably lacking any real suspense or more importantly, horror.

It does have its moments (the gypsy lifting her skirt being one of them), but as with all King adaptations, it is not enough to simply repeat the plot, as there is so much more to it. The morals and lessons learnt in the film are as shallow as a puddle. For me, it does not do enough to translate the atmosphere of regret and hopelessness found in the original text. Ironically the film is, what its title suggests, much too thin, and needed a smarter way of portraying the evils of greed.

The Best: Dead Zone (1983)

Adapted from: The Dead Zone (1979)

Rotten rating: 90% / Directed by: David Cronenberg / Starring: Christopher Walken,Tom Skerrit and Martin Sheen

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As with Kubrick’s The Shining , Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone proves that the really great directors, despite the popularity and success of a novel, are not afraid to stamp their own identity onto the adaptation. Walken is outrageously good as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to find he has powers of foresight just through the touch of a person’s hand. It all comes together so well, and the vision sequences are both striking and horrifying, pulling you out of your seat and into the mind of Smith.

There is an overriding and ominous tone to the film, of the ilk of Omen , which combines with Walken’s haunted expression to suggest an unseen threat that hides behind the screen. An atmosphere is generated by the bitter cold and dark setting, which mixes with the jovial, political tropes that juxtapose it so well. It is perhaps slightly lacking the insight of internal dialogue so easily portrayed in a novel, which would help the viewer understand how the power of foresight can change the morals of Smith. But any film that has Walken shouting, “the ice…is gonna break!”, has to up there as one of the best adaptations.

The Worst: Needful Things (1993)

Adapted from: Needful Things (1991)

Rotten rating: 27% / Directed by: Fraser Clarke Heston / Starring: Max Von Sydow, Ed Harris and Bonnie Bedelia

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I really wanted this film to be great, and when I saw Von Sydow and Harris were playing the two main roles I thought it just might happen. But whereas King’s novels pivots around and explores the psychology of the town-folk, and straddles the line between the supernatural and mere manipulation, Heston’s film simply moves its way through the actions without implementing the necessary symbolism that King so delicately suggests in his novel.

There are some great moments, and Bedelia plays the role of vulnerability well. But the real disaster hits home at the end. All the residents of this sleepy town happen to be conveniently tearing each other to pieces in the middle of the street when Harris’ mediocre speech seems to be enough for them to realise the manipulation. Not only does this incorrectly undermine the intelligence of the characters, but proves that what is between the plot lines in King’s book, is what must be explored in order to translate a novel of this calibre onto the screen.

The Best: The Mist (2007)

Adapted from: The novella The Mist in Skeleton Crew (1985)

Rotten rating: 73% / Directed by: Frank Darabont / Starring: Thomas Jane, Laurie Holden and Toby Jones

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I have always loved short story and novella collections, especially from the master of horror. When I read The Mist, in his collection Skeleton Crew, detailing the story of a group taking shelter from a mysterious fog, it did not really stand out as a great story for cinema, as it felt very similar to several other siege scenarios that you would find in many horror stories. This similarity to what has come before may explain why Darabont’s excellent film is so modestly rated, despite its chillingly violent imagery and that unforgettable ending.

Not only does Darabont direct a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, but his writing intertwines superbly layered characters and dialogue that intelligently creates political microcosms within the space of a small supermarket. Marcia Gay Harden for example stands out as the quintessential religious nut, who drives a stake through reason and creates unwanted hysteria in such a cramped space. What Darabont does above all else, is to recognise that in Stephen King adaptations, it is inevitably the humans that become the real monsters to fear. 

The Worst: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Adapted from: Short story Trucks from the collection Night Shift (1978)

Rotten rating: 17% / Directed by: Stephen King / Starring: Emilio Estevez, Laura Harrington and Pat Hingle

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Despite this film being terrible, I have watched it several times, enjoyed the experience and will probably do it again. This might seem to make no sense, but when you consider the premise is a group of people under siege from demonic trucks, hiding out in a pit-stop cafe, it is easy to understand why. King’s directional début was a commendable, but ultimately poor attempt to expand on his short story Trucks , which, as a seed of an idea was very intriguing and I can understand why it was chosen.

As an 80s’ horror flick Maximum Overdrive is funny, exciting and displays a great use of imagery and sound throughout, including the infamous Green Goblin truck, and a kick-ass AC/DC soundtrack. But the lack of character development and the rushed cinematography, delivers the feel of a writer getting a bit carried away with the idea, instead of focusing on the needs of the cinema viewer. King even admitted he was “coked out of his mind” during much of the filming, but maybe knowing that just makes watching the film that little bit more interesting.

The Best: The Running Man (1987)

Adapted from: The Running Man (1982)

Rotten rating: 61% / Directed by: Paul Michael Glaser / Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso and Richard Dawson

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Based on another novel written under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman, this classic Schwarzenegger movie is another example of how taking the basic idea of a novel and stamping your own mark on it is normally much more effective than attempting to completely replicate the style of King’s writing. Saying that, it is a cheesy and slightly predictable guilty pleasure, which is probably remembered more for Arnie’s hyperbolic death-lines than any real presence of acting.

Co-written by Steven E. De Souza, who also wrote other classic 80s action films such as Commando and the first two Die Hard movies, The Running Man is loved for its mix of cheesy charm and dystopian science-fiction. I had to choose this film because despite its lack of real adherence to the literature, it proves that the art of adaptation is not as black and white as first seems. It is so crammed full of hilarity, shock and fun characters (including a great turn by Richard Dawson as Damon Killian), I think King would enjoy it as much as every other fan of science-fiction.

The Worst: Graveyard Shift (1990)

Adapted from: The short story Graveyard Shift from the collection Night Shift (1978)

Rotten rating: 13% / Directed by: Ralph S. Singleton / Starring: David Andrews, Kelly Wolf and Brad Dourif

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Another short story adaptation from King’s collection Night Shift . Set in a formerly abandoned textile mill, the story is set around the investigation and concern of mysterious deaths that occur during the “graveyard shift”, which runs parallel to the foreman’s determination to send the workers to their deaths. This is where the similarities to King’s original story ends, as too much focus is placed on the giant creature that lives in the tunnels, when King’s real intent was to explore the limits of fear and greed.

The highlight of the movie has to be Brad Dourif as the exterminator, and I never tire of seeing his pale and haunted expression on screen. But despite this, Graveyard Shift goes down as one of the worst King adaptations ever made and displays how easily such a simple idea can be mistranslated onto the big screen.

Honourable mentions

The Best: Misery (1990), Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Stand (1994), The Langoliers (1995), The Green Mile (1999), IT (1990), Stand by Me (1986).

The Worst: Sleepwalkers (1992), Cujo (1983), The Tommyknockers (1993), The Night Flier (1997), The Mangler (1995).

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4 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Stephen King Adaptations”

    1. It’s a good point Brian, it definitely is one of the best. I guess I was just trying to fit in some less obvious ones as well as the classics. Thanks for the comment!

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