Top 10 Stephen King Movie Adaptations

by Eric Melin on May 17, 2011

in Top 10s

Today’s Top 10 list comes from sitegoer Brian Tousey, who teaches a film course in Los Angeles, and writes a film-based blog called Maximum Tenderness. If you’d like to contribute a Top 10 list to Scene-Stealers, just email me at Here’s Brian:

The problem with most movies based on Stephen King novels is that it is so easy to focus on the monsters, ghosts, or whatever and forget about the characters. And don’t get me wrong – King can and usually does write some fairly broad stereotypes in his books. But he always tries to place these supernatural events smack-dab in the middle of recognizable America. And that means characters that are believable.

Translating these characters to the big screen isn’t easy. According to Wikipedia, 45 movies have been made from his material. Most of them are crazy bad. Even when King himself was given the reins to adapt his own material, he biffed and delivered “Maximum Overdrive” (from Night Shift’s “Trucks”). I have picked the 10 best movies based on Stephen King novels, novellas, and short stories. 10. Out of 45. Still, each of these is worth your time, but they all have one thing in common: You want the characters in them to do well in their face-offs against haunted hotels, crazy stalkers, and evil prison wardens. Oh, some spoilers in a few of these descriptions.

10. Cat’s Eye (1985)

Most people would probably choose “Creepshow” as their filmed King anthology of choice. I’ve always preferred “Cat’s Eye” – three short films directed by Lewis Teague, based on stuff from Night Shift and elsewhere. I don’t know anyone who saw this at the theater; “Cat’s Eye” is one of those movies that everyone seemed to see on HBO. The advertised star of the movie is Drew Barrymore (who was on a real Stephen King kick in the mid-80s, what with this and “Firestarter”), and her short is the one that people seem to remember most. I get that – a killer troll attacking Drew Barrymore was probably a nice hook for audience at the time. But I like the other two shorts better, especially “Quitters, Inc.” starring James Woods as a guy trying very unorthodox methods to quit smoking. This was great for a couple of reasons; one, you get Woods at his twitchy best (which is pretty goddamn twitchy), and that it accomplishes what Stephen King does in his best stories: take a fairly common and mundane concept (in this case, quitting smoking) and then inject it with his demented sensibilities. Put it this way- Is a drag off a cigarette worth having to watch your loved ones being electrocuted? Oh, it’s called “Cat’s Eye” because there is a cat that is the connecting thread between all three stories.

9. Christine (1983)

Was this the last time that having  John Carpenter’s name above the title actually meant something? Damn, I miss “good” John Carpenter. Christine was the first King novel I ever read, and one of my favorites. What I remember most is the relationship between the narrator, Dennis (John “Cougar from Top Gun” Stockton) and his memories of his dork friend, Arnie (Keith Gordon). At first, being possessed by a 1958 Plymouth seems like a plus – Arnie’s acne clears, he begins to date a future Baywatch star (Alexandra Paul), and he gets to listen to an endless loop of George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers. Eventually, shit goes real bad for Arnie, but you kinda expect that in a book/movie about a supernatural killer car. But what makes this movie stand out is that King (and Carpenter) take the time to make Dennis and Arnie into characters you don’t want to see eviscerated by a haunted car. Seems simple, but an ingredient that most King adaptors forget.

8. The Mist (2007)

A good rule of thumb is that if you see Frank Darabont’s name attached to a Stephen King adaptation, you are in fairly good hands. “The Mist” was his third time at bat for Mr. King, and the first time the story had nothing to do with being incarcerated. It comes from the short story of the same name from the anthology Skeleton Crew. As horrific as the stuff going on outside the grocery store was, the most compelling stuff was the interaction between the people inside. Is there a more vile character recently than Marcia Gay Harden’s religious zealot, Mrs. Carmody? She belongs on a short list of Characters You Want to “The Green Mile.” When the little guy who played Capote in the non-Philip Seymour Hoffman Capote movie (Toby Jones) blows her away, there is a sense of satisfaction that no slaying of tentacled beasts can accomplish. This is the genius of Stephen King – throwing a bunch of monsters at your characters is always good, but adding danger from the characters themselves raises the stakes and turns the story into something special. Also, this has what may be the bleakest ending of any movie ever.

7. Misery (1990)

I do love me this book. The movie is pretty good, too, although I never imagined James Caan as Paul Sheldon. Paul needs to be fairly meek and passive at the outset of the story so as to make his transformation into someone who can match a psychopath blow for blow in the climax as jaw-dropping as possible. I don’t really get “meek and passive” from Caan, although he does give it his best. You know who does crush it, though? Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, perhaps the best casting of any King character ever. The book and movie is basically a two-person show (it could even be a play), and Bates carries the whole enterprise across the finish line. Seriously, she is the reason to see this movie; as Wilkes, she moves from comic naivete (“Cockadoodie!”) to hysterical violence to quiet menace. After she smashes his ankle with a sledgehammer in the movie’s most infamous scene, she quietly states, “God, I love you.” That line delivery is scarier than a thousand CGI monsters, don’t you think? And man, that hobbling scene… sweet Jesus. I’m not sure which is a more effective wince-inducer: this scene or “American History X”‘s curbing scene. We’ll call it a dead heat.

6. The Green Mile (1999)

I read these as the serialized chapters in which they were released, which was a pretty cool way to release a book, methinks. The movie was really good, too, although the common complaints are that a) its too long, and b) it isn’t “The Shawshank Redemption.” I can’t really argue with either point, except to say a) The Green Mile is one of the most character-driven of all Stephen King’s stories, and the longer running time is necessary to adequately get to know these Death Row prison guards, and b) how many movies are “The Shawshank Redemption”? This was Frank Darabont’s second King adaptation, and I do think it is a bit underrated because of his earlier accomplishments in terms of bringing a Stephen King prison story to the screen. But it’s a mistake to sleep on this one – Darabont does deliver the requisite King horror (you get both a pretty gruesome electrocution gone wrong and a pesky bladder infection), but the main crux of the movie is in the relationship between the prison guards, led by Tom Hanks’ Paul Edgecomb. What would you do if you came to believe that you just may have Jesus Christ in the body of a giant black convict in one of your Death Row cells? I like that this movie takes its time and lets us live on the Green Mile for a three hours or so. Listen, if for no other reason, you need to see this movie because it gives you what is probably the first and last time Michael Clarke Duncan will be Oscar nominated. Long live Mr. Jingles!

5. Carrie (1976)

As good as the climax of this is (prom + pig’s blood + unstable telekinetic= mayhem), the best parts of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of King’s first novel are watching the simple but potent cruelty of teenage girls. Damn, they are just vicious in this movie, and you can’t really blame Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) for losing her shit at the end. Yeah, I’d put the characters of Chris Hargeson (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (John Travolta) as two of King’s most nasty creations ever. Again, here we have a fairly common concept (teenage bullying) “King-ified” with the addition of telekinesis. But without the believable characters inhabiting the movie, that before-mentioned climax wouldn’t have remotely the same oomph. On a side note, the auditions for “Carrie” were happening simultaneously with those of “Star Wars,” with the actors for both movies auditioning for each. Some days I like to imagine a universe where John Travolta and William Katt are being chased through the Death Star by Stormtroopers, and Mark Hamill is dumping pig’s blood on Carrie Fisher’s head.

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

This is possibly my favorite Christopher Walken movie, mainly because he isn’t very “Walken-esque” for most of it. How many other movies attempt to have Walken play an average Joe? David Cronenberg directs, and like Walken, atypically underplays what could have been an over-the-top melodrama. This story, about a schoolteacher named Johnny Smith (Walken) who gains the ability to see the future after being in a coma, isn’t really all that scary. Instead, it is content to ask some big questions (“What would you do?” is a question you’ll ask after its over). I said it wasn’t that scary overall, but it does have one of the creepiest sequences in any horror movie ever. I’m looking at you, serial killer Frank Dodd. Only Cronenberg would envision lowering yourself onto a pair of open scissors while wearing a bright yellow rain slicker as a viable method of suicide.

3. The Shining (1980)

Of course. Stephen King hates this adaptation, but when you hand the wheel over to Stanley Kubrick, you have to expect that it will go in some “off the beaten path” directions. Yeah, it doesn’t really resemble the book all that much, and yeah, the whole conceit of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly going mad over the course of the story doesn’t work because Nicholson clearly plays him insane from the get-go. Also, I don’t think anyone imagined Shelly Duvall as Wendy Torrance when they read the book. Still, this movie is about as untouchable as a horror movie gets. I don’t need to say anything more, because you’ve seen it. You know. Like all of Kubrick’s movies, the director is the star of the movie, which is saying something when you are discussing one of Nicholson’s most iconic performances. I think that is the key to this filmed version of “The Shining” – you’ve got to let go of the source material and look at it as something original from the mind of Stanley Kubrick. For all the press the sinister twin girls and the blood elevator gets, for my money, the most creepy scene in the movie is the guy in the beaver costume fellating the butler. Just reading that last sentence lets you know you’re in Kubrick Country, doesn’t it?

2. Stand By Me (1986)

This classic is from Rob Reiner, the second-best adaptor of King novels (he also did “Misery”). This story comes from Different Seasons, and is one of the most un-”King like” movies of them all. I think that is something people forget about Stephen King – he’s a sucker for nostalgia. The theme of childhood friendship is evident throughout a lot of his work, from the misfits in It to Dennis and Arnie’s friendship that is the foundation of Christine. But “Stand By Me” is his best example of this theme, probably because he doesn’t feel the need to muddy the nostalgic water with ghosts and monsters. “Stand By Me” is all about character- a coming of age story about four friends who go on an adventure to see a dead body and learn a ‘lil something about themselves along the way. Sounds cheesy, and it is, but beautifully so. It is just about a perfect translation of that story (The Body), and a perfect little movie besides. I don’t know many people who don’t like this movie.

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this movie. It is perfect in so many different ways. Characters? Two of the best, in Andy DuFresne and his prison pal, Red. Their relationship spans decades, and Tim Robbins (Andy) and Morgan Freeman (Red) really make you feel it. Plot? I don’t know about you, but there is a huge sense of satisfaction in watching Red make it to that beach in Mexico to find Andy serenely working on an old boat. The machinations of the plot that gets him there all unfold like clockwork. Frank Darabont (again) didn’t try to hide the old-fashioned trappings of the plot; instead, he embraced them and reaped the universal adulation this movie had garnered in the years since its release. “Shawshank” came out the same year as “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump,” and while it was nominated for Best Picture alongside those movies, I think it was overshadowed and underrated then. Not now, though. If anything, I think if asked, most people will tell you this was the best movie of that year. No doubt, it is a great movie, King or no. (One note- this novella, called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, is also from Different Seasons. They adapted two more novellas from it as well – The Body (aka “Stand By Me”) and Apt Pupil. It’s a really good book, one you should pick up).

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Trey Hock May 17, 2011 at 7:22 am

Brian, nicely done. I do think it’s interesting that there are only seven directors here, and Rob Reiner and Frank Darabont are responsible for half the list. I’m glad Cat’s Eye made it and you are absolutely right that “Quitters, Inc.” is the best of the the three shorts.


2 Alan Rapp May 17, 2011 at 8:32 am

“And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this movie.”

Now you know someone. And knowing is half the battle.


3 Reed May 17, 2011 at 9:01 am

But Alan, you had to assume that it would be #1 on this list before you clicked over in the first place, right?

Great list, Brian. I’ll have to check out the Dead Zone and the others I haven’t seen on here. The only one I would quibble with is Carrie, but that’s because something about Brian DePalma movies always piss me off. Like petting a cat backwards. Actually, that’s not exactly right. It’s not “something” abotu BDP films, it’s “many, many things” about his films that piss me off.


4 Dan May 17, 2011 at 9:02 am

Excellent list. The Shawshank Redemption is definitely loved by so many but my favorite would have to be The Shining. My top 10 Stephen King films list is here:


5 Will Dawson May 17, 2011 at 10:01 am

What, no love for Cujo?! And I’m sick of Shawshank being no. 1 on everyone’s movie list. It’s a great movie and all but I don’t believe its the greatest movie of all time. Anyway, love the inclusion of Stand By Me!


6 reymac May 17, 2011 at 10:12 am

Misery @ number seven? But “I’m your number one fan!” Thanks for the education.


7 Jez May 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I never really understood the love for Shawshank. I just thought it was really depressing. It’s the kind of thing that back in the 70s would have been a kitchen sink drama/soap opera simmilar to Colditz.

I think the Academy hit the nail on the head in the sense that although they love awarding depressing dramas Shawshank crossed the line.

Funny Oscar fact

We now live in a world where The “Anti Catholic” Golden Compas wins an Oscar but The “Depressing” Shawshank Redemption doesn’t.
In other words The Golden Compass 1, Shawshank Redemption 0

Maybe Shawshank would have won an oscar if Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins had talking polar bears helping them escape.


8 Xavier Robertson May 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Nothing on the list comes close to the shining for me even Shawshank which definitely comes in at number 2 for me.


9 Jon B May 20, 2011 at 12:47 am

where the heck is Maximum Overdrive? One of the greatest scenes ever is when that pop machine starts attacking the coach and kids. Pure Gold.


10 nathan e June 17, 2011 at 11:00 am

The Dead Zone is one of my all time favorite movies and initially I was bummed to see it only at number 4. Until I kept going and couldn’t argue against any of the top 3. Great list.


11 Sierra July 16, 2011 at 12:46 am

These are great reviews and I agree with each one, although I might change the order around a bit (I liked “Christine” better than “The Mist”). I’m a huge King fan and I’m glad that you pointed out how “Stand By Me” and “Shawshank Redemption” are both from Different Seasons; I absolutely loved every story in that book. Apt Pupil really stuck with me – especially the scene when the protagonist first kills a drunk, to the cat in the oven, to the old man putting on his Nazi uniform. The somewhat slow-paced start of The Breathing Method serves to build more tension than I would have ever expected from a story about a pregnant woman. The ending with the baby being born, through blood and rain and on cold concrete, by a decapitated mother convulsing horribly through her delivery.


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