Stephen King – a name synonymous with frightening fiction. Though primarily known for writing horror, he’s had an incredible impact on popular culture since he released his first novel in 1974. He is a regular fixture of the New York Times Best Seller list and has influenced generations of creatives in many different mediums. And one medium that certainly has a fascination with King is film.
Stephen King movie adaptations are currently experiencing a resurgence. With IT parts 1 and 2, Pet Sematary (2019), The Dark Tower, Geralds Game and 1922 proving that King’s name can still attract new talent and audiences. But this is no new thing. Film adaptations of King’s work have been a fixture of release schedules ever since the late 1970s.
So today I am going to look at what I consider to be the five best film adaptations of King’s work. But because there’s over four decades worth of material to choose from, to make things more interesting I will be picking only one film per decade. So let’s see which Stephen King adaptations manage to float above the rest.
1970s – Carrie (1976)
Although there aren’t many 70s Stephen King movies to choose from, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of King’s first novel is still a true classic. And deserves mention on any best adaptations list.
Carrie tells the tragic story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). A shy, introverted girl who is bullied at school and lives under the control of her religiously fanatic mother (Piper Laurie). One day, however, Carrie learns that she has telekinetic abilities. As she begins to discover more about herself her sympathetic classmate (Amy Irving) gets her a date for the school prom. But some of the girls want revenge on her for putting them in detention. Leading to a prom that no one will ever forget.
Carrie is iconic. The prom scene is permanently etched into our culture. But many often forget how good the rest of the movie is. All the performances are incredible. Sissy Spacek is, of course, the standout. She is incredibly sympathetic and easy to relate to as Carrie. But there are so many subtleties to the rest of the performances that make everyone feel real and not like caricatures, which many lesser quality King works often fail to do. Then there’s De Palma’s direction that wrings incredible suspense from every situation and makes everything flow so naturally. Topped off with beautiful visuals and a mesmeric score, you have a movie that set the bar high for all king adaptations to come.
1980s – The Shining (1980)
The 80s is where selecting a single film becomes difficult. Many 80s King adaptations including Stand By Me, Christine and Pet Sematary are remembered fondly. So some may disagree with this selection. Especially given King’s open dislike of this particular adaptation. But for the best 80s Stephen King movie, the honour has to go to The Shining.
The Torrance family are looking after the Overlook hotel for the winter. They have all the food they can eat, space for young Danny (Danny Lloyd) to play and a lot of time for Jack (Jack Nicholson) to work on writing his novel. But as isolation sets in ghostly apparitions start appearing, affecting Jack’s sanity. Eventually, Jack breaks down and decides to “correct” his family, chasing them through the hotel with an axe. With the winter snows closing the place off, can Danny and his mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) escape?
Like Carrie, I can say nothing about the Shining that hasn’t already been said. King purists will protest its deviations from the source material but for me, it does what good adaptations are supposed to do. Take what works about the source material and add a new distinct voice to it. And you can’t get more distinct than Stanley Kubrick. The film is a marvel of atmosphere. The lingering camera, some of the most disturbing images ever captured on film, the unnerving score, the cold lonely location and performances that feel just a little too real. It all goes together to create a haunting portrait of madness and generational guilt that lingers in your mind long after the credits have rolled.
1990s – The Shawshank Redemption
Again the 90s had several films that could have filled this spot. Including Green Mile, Misery or the IT mini-series. But I would be lying if I didn’t put The Shawshank Redemption in this spot on the list.
Red (Morgan Freeman) is a prisoner at Shawshank penitentiary. He’s spent a long time inside. But despite his placid nature, he’s never made parole. He seems to be ready to just run out the clock in Shawshank. But when he meets Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), he begins to rediscover what it means to feel human again. Only Andy doesn’t intend to stay inside. With the corrupt system poised against them will the two men ever be able to find a way to escape the harsh reality of Shawshank?
The Shawshank Redemption is not only a testament to King’s adeptness at writing in genres other than horror, but it’s also one of the most beloved movies of all time. It has held the number 1 position on IMDb’s top 250 films since 2008 and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a film that takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride. The story of escaping the prisons we make for ourselves is one that we can all relate to. All the actors are also fantastic. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman give career-best performances and manage to make you empathize with criminals of dubious moral fibre, Which is no small task. And when combined with Frank Darabont’s confident direction and incredible character interplay, the result is a genuine classic, that will enchant many generations to come.
2000s – The Mist
This is both Frank Darabont’s second appearance on this list and yet another no brainer for the time period. After Darabont’s success adapting Green Mile and Shawshank he proved himself yet again as possibly the best director to put King on the screen with The Mist.
The Mist concerns a family in a small Maine town. One day the town is engulfed by thic fog. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem but inside the fog are otherworldly creatures intent on killing all in their path. The family hold up in a supermarket with most of the town and what follows is a two-hour meditation on the nature of humanity in crisis.
The main reason why the Mist is so effective is because it keeps it simple. For most of the movie, we are trapped inside the supermarket with our main characters. And as the film progresses we slowly learn more about them and the situation. This intrigue coupled with the tension brought by the agendas of the other captives and the monsters outside helps keep the audience on the edge of their seat as the movie heads towards an ending that will play on your mind for a long time.
2010s – IT (2017)
As the 2000’s went on King film adaptations began to decrease. His stories became more the domain of TV shows. But in 2017 King came back in a big way with two Netflix original movies (Geralds Game & 1922) and two theatrical releases (IT & The Dark Tower). And of those releases, IT was definitely the most significant.
It concerns a group of friends called the losers club. Over the course of one summer, we follow Bill, Eddie, Richie, Ben, Stan, Mike and Bev as they form lasting friendships with one another and battle the dark forces that hide in their home town of Derry. All of which are linked to a child-snatching spectre. Which mostly manifests in the form of Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard).
IT accomplished a lot. Not only did it prove that a remake can in many ways improve on its predecessor. But it also proved to be a very fun movie in its own right. With fantastic performances from the child cast, inventive ideas and cinematography and an incredibly creepy turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise who managed to equal the iconic nature of Tim Curry’s performance from the 1990 mini-series. IT also managed to tap into the nostalgic magic that made properties like Stranger Things popular. And acted as both an affectionate tribute to and critique of people’s nostalgic memories for the 1980s; because of IT we can look forward to many more adaptations of King’s work on the big screen.
So ends our list of the top 5 Stephen King movie adaptations. As I said many times throughout this list, it was incredibly hard to narrow down my choices when there are so many good movies based on Stephen King’s books. So please let me know your opinions.
Do you agree with my choices? What are some of your favorite King films that I missed? Sometimes, other opinions are better.