Carrie on screaming: the 20 best Stephen King movies
His works have been adapted by Rob Reiner, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. And we’re soon to see more adaptations on screen
Stephen King is not the most-adapted author in history. It just feels that way. The International Movie Database lists a staggering 238 credits, but that takes in shorts, television episodes and sequels. Even with those boosts, he can’t compete with the 1,292 screen credits for William Shakespeare. But we can say with some confidence that he is the most-adapted living author.
This is all the more impressive when you note that the momentum took a while to gather. By 1982, eight years after the publication of King’s first novel, we’d seen just two cinema adaptations: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Salem’s Lot was adapted for an effective TV series in 1979. The Stand, his bullet-stopping postapocalyptic saga, was too sprawling to accommodate cinematic exploitation. Despite his unstoppable pace – he sometimes published three novels in one year – the material wasn’t quite there yet. From 1983 on, however, King proved unavoidable in cinemas.
There were more than a few VHS-friendly shockers. Sequels of Children of the Corn seemed to go on for ever. But King also delivered high-end pictures that received fine reviews and Oscar nominations: Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me. His status as American treasure was becoming hard to deny.
King’s reputation had, by 2003, risen sufficiently for him to be awarded the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. (Others winners include Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.) The honour acknowledged a constructor of plots to rival Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins or H Rider Haggard. Although there is inevitable dross in such an enormous oeuvre, few other novelists exhibit quite such a gift for propulsive narrative. He is also hugely gifted at defining character in clean, broad strokes. These are the things that movies require.
The pace of adaptation slowed a little in recent years, but we are about to enjoy the busiest period of onscreen Kingiana in the author’s career. Next week, Idris Elba appears in an oddly defined continuation of the author’s The Dark Tower sequence. In September, Andrés Muschietti’s It, the first part in a bifurcated adaptation of King’s 1986 epic, will occupy movie screens. Brendan Gleeson is currently appearing in a TV adaptation of his detective thriller Mr Mercedes. Hulu is finishing Castle Rock, a series bringing together characters from interconnected stories set in that fictional, titular town.
So the time is right to rank the best King movies. A top 20 seems about right. Get beyond that and you find yourself trying to care whether Maximum Overdrive is worse than Silver Bullet. This way, we begin with questionable material and work towards near-masterpieces.
20: Dreamcatcher (2003)
Lawrence Kasdan adapts yet another King plot about a group of New England pals who, after sharing a sinister experience in childhood, grow up in differently troubled ways. Early menace is effective. Then it turns into the barmiest alien invasion film this side of Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Watch half of it.
19: Firestarter (1984)
Whatever shall we do with Drew Barrymore? An early answer was to cast her as the firestarting heroine of King’s 1980 novel. Sadly, the young star proved to be miscast in a film that worked too hard at honouring the book’s outer narrative vegetation. It does feature a decent score from Tangerine Dream.
18: Secret Window (2004)
If King isn’t telling us about gangs of kids then he’s telling us about troubled novelists. Like Dreamcatcher, Secret Window begins well before spinning into back-of-an-envelope nonsense. A still-viable Johnny Depp plays a blocked writer seeking to placate a rival who accuses him of plagiarism. Blocked? Is this supposed to be autobiographical? We should be so blocked.
17: The Dark Half (1993)
Another writer with problems. The late George Romero almost made sense of King’s novel concerning a literary novelist threatened by the physical manifestation of a pseudonym he uses for popular fiction. Imagine John Banville having a bust-up with Benjamin Black. Timothy Hutton is a strong lead, but, as in the novel, the internal logic never clicks together.
16: Children of the Corn (1984)
Based on an early short story, Fritz Kiersch’s film comes across as a US take on The Wicker Man: ritual murder to aid the harvest. That translation had been carried off rather better in the 1978 TV version of Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home. But Children of the Corn, a hit on video, still offers good cheap thrills for people who (quite sensibly) hate the countryside.
15: Cujo (1983)
In his early years, King was much at home to the high-concept horror. Kid starts fires. Car is possessed. Those sorts of things. There didn’t seem to be much potential in “rabid St Bernard threatens family”, but the book cracked along and Lewis Teague’s film held enough back for an impressive final conflagration.
14: Christine (1983)
King is of an American generation that requires no encouragement to drone on about classic cars like the middle eight of a minor Bruce Springsteen song. Anyway, the great John Carpenter – in between The Thing and Starman – had great fun with the story of (see 15 above) a possessed car. It’s a Plymouth Fury, apparently.
13: Apt Pupil (1998)
Three of the four tales in King’s collection Different Seasons have been adapted, and two – The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me – have generated much-loved classics. Apt Pupil is a more slippery customer. Bryan Singer directs Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen in the tale of a student who may be living near a Nazi. A tense chamber piece.
12: Green Mile (1999)
After the success of The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont went bonkers with another prison drama based on another Stephen King story. He actually improves on the puzzling novel: Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan spar beautifully as warder and death-row inmate. The final emotional payoff is earned. But, at 189 minutes, The Green Mile is (ahem) criminally overlong.
11: The Running Man (1987)
A decade before the reality TV boom, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as the contestant in a show that has professional killers track down and annihilate “runners”. There is something of Death Race 2000 and Rollerball in the dystopian scenario, but director Paul Michael Glaser – yes, Starsky himself – finds plenty of entertaining angles in the story. Undervalued.
10: 1408 (2007)
A cracking horror that didn’t make the impact it deserved. John Cusack is a sceptical writer on the paranormal who checks into a hotel room that has a reputation for propelling its guests towards gory oblivion. Worlds of terror open up before the story finds an ending that almost, just about, nearly makes sense. And it features the spookiest ever use of The Carpenters.
9: Creepshow (1982)
A delightfully entertaining anthology film from George Romero in the style of 1960s portmanteaux such as The House That Dripped Blood. The framing section finds King’s own son – who grew into the author Joe Hill – playing a kid obsessed with an imaginary horror comic called Creepshow. Nostalgic, funny and sometimes properly disturbing.
8: The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont again returned to King for an alien siege movie – with shades of HP Lovecraft – that gained huge praise for the impressive bleakness of its ending. Although much altered from the source 1980 novella, The Mist demonstrates the author’s greatest strengths. A fantastic scenario allows everyday, human dramas to play out at a gripping pace.
7: The Dead Zone (1983)
Neither David Cronenberg nor Stephen King was the phenomenon he would become when the Canadian director delivered this peculiar, insidious drama about a psychic who learns that a presidential candidate is fated to bring about nuclear holocaust. Cronenberg casts with great wit. Christopher Walken is the troubled lead. Already playing against type, Martin Sheen plays the potential despot.
6: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Might we tentatively suggest that, contrary to what voters at IMDb have been saying for the past decade, Frank Darabont’s take on a story from Different Seasons isn’t quite the greatest movie ever made? We will compensate by confirming that the prison drama is an elegantly constructed celebration of friendship in a warm, old-fashioned style. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins remain two of cinema’s greatest pals.
5: Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Speaking of old-fashioned, Taylor Hackford’s wonderful adaptation of a little-discussed King novel is the closest thing to a classic Warner Brothers “women’s picture” that we saw in the 1990s. It’s even named for its heroine, like Mildred Pearce or Stella Dallas. Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh complement each other as a warring mother and daughter.
4: Stand By Me (1986)
King’s story offered the neatest example of a recurring strain – the one mined by Stranger Things – without the supernatural element that usually nudges us into genre territory. Four boys set off on a hike to find a body and, along the way, encounter truths about adulthood. At the time, King argued that Rob Reiner’s drama “was the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written”.
3: Misery (1990)
Rob Reiner again. Kathy Bates, who plays the obsessed fan of James Caan’s historical novelist, is still the only actor to win an Oscar for a performance in a Stephen King adaptation. By golly she deserved it. Packed full of wonderful twists, the tight, disciplined film now looks to point towards crazed fandom of the internet age. “He didn’t get out of the cockadoodle car!”
2: The Shining (1980)
Ah yes. Stephen King and The Shining. After many decades, the author still hasn’t quite forgiven Stanley Kubrick for daring, as Hitchcock did all the time, to monkey around with his source material. The film may be a free adaptation of the novel concerning a haunted hotel, but it remains one of the richest films in Kubrick’s career. The sense of place is overpowering. The tracking shots are numbing. No wonder deluded cultists still analyse it to death.
1: Carrie (1976)
After all that, we return to the first adaptation of a King book (and an adaptation of King’s first book). Brian De Palma is very far from a feminist film-maker – some of the less well-clothed scenes here are, um, problematic – but he ended up making a film that sits at the heart of any conversation about female representation in 1970s cinema. Sissy Spacek (then 25) was incandescent as the troubled, telekinetic teenager who, shortly after her first period, launches revenge on the surrounding bullies. The final, enormously satisfying split-screen apocalypse has never been satisfactorily aped or parodied. It also inspired an awful remake and a catastrophic Broadway musical.