Stephen King might likely be our most adapted living American author. His “writer” credit at IMDB is sitting at a staggering 242 credits. Given the renewed interest in all things Stephen King of late, driven in part by the runaway box office success of “It,” it’s a safe bet that more King-inspired projects are on the not-too-distant horizon. The bounty and overall quality of Stephen King adaptations that have made their way to screens large and small lately make now the perfect time to count down our picks for the twelve best. Though the reputation of King adaptations overall can be a bit lacking, there were quite a few gems – “Christine” (1983), “Salem’s Lot” (1979), “11.22.63” (2016) – that had to be cut. When the figurative dust settled, here are the twelve we’re committing to. Have at it.
12. “Creepshow” (1982)
This 1982 collaboration between Stephen King and legendary director George Romero is a love letter to the classic EC-style horror anthology comics (titles like House of Secrets, Haunt of Fear, and Tales from the Crypt), from the framing narrative right down to the camera angles. It’s over the top and plays like a B-movie – and that’s the point. “Creepshow” was King’s first and arguably his best foray into screenwriting and featured largely original material. However, two of the vignettes (“Weeds” and “The Crate”) were based on short stories by King.
11. “The Green Mile” (1999)
Based on the 1996 serial novel of the same name, “The Green Mile” was written and directed by Frank Darabont, a director who seems to have a particularly steady hand with Stephen King adaptations. The film, which received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, featured the talents of Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of John Coffey, a man with supernatural gifts wrongfully convicted of murder.
10. “Dolores Claiborne” (1995)
Featuring a predictably brilliant performance from Kathy Bates in the title role, “Dolores Claiborne,” based on the novel of the same name, is an example of the breadth of Stephen King’s talent. This Taylor Hackford-directed adaptation eschews King’s normal horror trappings for a patient, affecting thriller that takes its times as it moves toward its shattering climax.
9. “Mr. Mercedes” (2017)
“Mr. Mercedes” got off to a great start over its first four episodes. I had the opportunity to screen the remaining six episodes and can thankfully say it proved a worthy adaptation of Stephen King’s Edgar Award-winning 2014 mystery novel. Anchored by a talented cast – particularly series leads Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway – “Mr. Mercedes” is nearly as quick-witted and engrossing as its source material.
8. “The Dead Zone” (1983)
“The Dead Zone” is one of the most underrated of Stephen King’s adaptations and Christopher Walken’s performance as Johnny Smith, a teacher who gains the ability to glimpse the future after awaking from a coma, is one of the actor’s best. Thanks in large part to David Cronenberg’s masterful direction, “The Dead Zone” is a taut and powerful thriller that holds up remarkably well.
7. “Gerald’s Game” (2017)
Gerald’s Game has long been thought of as one of the more difficult Stephen King tales to bring to the screen. Its premise – a woman is handcuffed to a bed and stranded alone in a cabin after a bit of bondage gone bad – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic treatment. Fortunately, the talented direction and writing of Mike Flanagan and what may be a career best performance from the underrated Carla Gugino make this one of the finest Stephen King adaptations in recent memory.
6. “It” (2017)
The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling novel is shattering box office records and with good reason. It is one of Stephen King’s most iconic novels and the culmination of much of his early writing. While this adaptation, which will unfold in two parts, takes more than a few liberties with the underlying narrative including updating the time period, director Andy Muschietti manages to faithfully capture the spirit and tone of the book. To quote myself: “The result is a film that couches its scares in a sepia-toned haze of summer breaks, adolescent friendships, and the secret places of childhood. This more than anything else is the key to why ‘It’ largely works.”
5. “Stand By Me” (1986)
There’s often a hint of autobiography in Stephen King’s work; it’s clear he draws heavily on his own experiences, whether working in a textile mill or being a writer or just plain, old childhood. It is that autobiographical note that lends “Stand By Me” its potent authenticity and magic. Based on a King novella called The Body and directed by Rob Reiner, “Stand by Me” is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale; it is also a poignant examination of friendship and the bittersweet loss that often accompanies growing up. The Body was featured in King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons.
4. “Misery” (1990)
Kathy Bates took home an Oscar for her iconic turn as Annie Wilkes. Bates proved absolutely captivating in her ability to switch from adulation to savagery to overwhelming depression in the space of a moment. Thanks to her performance, her chemistry with James Caan, and the steady direction of Rob Reiner – who clearly knows a thing or two about adapting Stephen King – “Misery” is a taut, economical thriller that more than does justice to the source material.
3. “The Shining” (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel – the author’s first hardback bestseller – is a masterful descent into pure madness anchored by an unforgettable performance from Jack Nicholson. The film hums with tension and unease. While it may be a stark departure from Stephen King’s novel, everything from Nicholson’s performance to the hotel’s bizarre geography and the unrelenting sense of dread that settles over the entire proceeding simply works.
2. “Carrie” (1976)
With superb and Oscar nominated performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie and Margaret White, as well as the skillful direction of Brian De Palma, “Carrie” remains one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel. De Palma wisely stripped King’s novel, already one of his leaner works, to its essence and this tale of a bullied and ostracized teenage girl builds with remarkable tension toward its shocking conclusion.
1. “Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
Choosing the top spot here was no easy task; indeed, I could quite possibly make a solid argument for any of the top five to claim this spot. However, at the end of the day Frank Darabont – I told you that name would come up again – captured lightning in a bottle with this adaptation of the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. From the director’s near-flawless direction to the performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman (not to mention Freeman’s iconic narration) and Thomas Newman’s rarely mentioned pitch-perfect score, everything comes together for a deeply satisfying and moving cinematic experience. The short story is featured alongside The Body in the collection Different Seasons.