With over 65 novels and novellas and over 200 short stories under his belt, Stephen King’s literary universe has been a treasure trove for filmmakers for decades, weaving a rich tapestry of horror, emotion, and supernatural intrigue. In the cinematic medium, his works have found new life, captivating audiences with their ability to translate King’s masterful storytelling onto the big screen.
King’s works have inspired upward of 50 films since the mid-70s, starting with “Carrie” and culminating most recently with “The Boogeyman” and “Salem’s Lot.” Quick aside: If you’re wondering about “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines,” King had nothing to do with the movie aside from the screenplay’s inspiration, which the author complimented as “a fine story” on an X post.
From spine-chilling horror to poignant coming-of-age tales, the best King movie adaptations include classics that we all know and love, whether those stories take place within the chilling corridors of the Overlook Hotel, along the train tracks in search of a lost friend, or beneath the surface of a seemingly ordinary town.
As someone with a bookshelf lined with King’s written work, it’s always interesting to watch a film that he inspired — whether it stayed true to the respective book or took its liberties. So, while this isn’t a ranking of all those movies, here’s a ranked list of what I (and the general public) would consider the top 11.
1. ‘The Shining’ (1980)
Much to King’s dismay, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is by far the best cinematic adaptation of his work. Kubrick captures the descent into madness (fitting for his infamous directing style), and the movie features acclaimed performances from Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance, but for King, the casting was a mistake.
In the book, Jack is more of a victim to the hotel, and Wendy is stronger and more independent, probably not someone who runs down a hallway like a rag doll. Sorry, Stephen — even though it deviates from the book, “The Shining” is a film I rewatch every year.
2. ‘It’ (2017)
Directed by Andrés Muschietti, a self-proclaimed fan of King, “It” is one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time. And, although King wasn’t brought on set to consult on the film, the author thought Muschietti’s interpretation of the story was “fabulous.”
The film seamlessly captures the intricate nuances of King’s storytelling, balancing the supernatural with the deeply human. The film’s fusion of psychological horror and a palpable sense of dread pays homage to King’s ability to elicit terror from both reality and imagination.
3. ‘It Chapter Two’ (2019)
In “It Chapter Two,” the Losers’ Club returns to Derry as adults. The film offers audiences exceptional performances and nightmarish visuals that capture the essence of King’s original work.
While we get to see the return of characters like Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and see the kids all grown-up, one of my favorite parts of the movie is toward the end when we get to see a familiar face — King himself. I’m not talking about a cameo that’s short-but-sweet like a Stan Lee cameo, or groan-inducing like an M. Night Shyamalan cameo — this one’s a perfect one-scene nod to the author who created the story and a scene King enjoyed being a part of.
4. ‘Carrie’ (1976)
Let’s take a moment to revel in the film that started it all: the 1976 adaptation of “Carrie.” The film captures the horror of the novel at an exceptional level: The imagery of a prom queen drenched head to toe in blood is as iconic as it is disturbing, and Sissy Spacek’s performance as Carrie is completely enthralling as the audience transitions from feeling sorry for her to being afraid of her.
King was a fan of Brian De Palma’s movie and enjoyed his more satirical lens on the story, especially since King’s telling of the book’s events was more straightforward and humorless. His thoughts on the ill-received 2013 remake? He thought Lindsay Lohan would’ve been a great casting choice for Carrie White.
5. ‘Doctor Sleep’ (2019)
A sequel to “The Shining,” “Doctor Sleep” slips into the intricacies of Danny (Ewan McGregor) and his supernatural gifts. Now an adult, he grapples with the trauma of his haunted past and the burden of his psychic abilities as he and another psychic confront a sinister cult.
If it was up to King, I’m sure he would switch “Doctor Sleep” with “The Shining” in this list (or remove the latter entirely). This is a film that King and fans of Kubrick’s film all love, and that’s because of how director Mike Flanagan was able to stay true to King’s sequel novel and meld it with what Kubrick did in “The Shining.”
6. ‘The Green Mile’ (1999)
If this was a completely biased ranking based solely on my own preferences, “The Green Mile” would be at the very top. It was the first movie to ever make me cry (and as a Pisces, that’s saying a lot), and features an absolutely incredible cast, including Michael Clarke Duncan, Tom Hanks, and Bonnie Hunt.
It was a relief to learn that King was also a big fan of Frank Darabont’s film adaptation, even if the author teased the director for making the story softer and more sentimental.
7. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)
“The Shawshank Redemption,” an adaptation of King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” has earned serious acclaim and garnered a huge fan base over the years, and one of those fans is none other than King himself.
Once again, Darabont directed a film adaptation that captured the themes and points that were present in King’s storytelling — and this one was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
8. ‘Stand by Me’ (1986)
“Stand by Me” is an absolute favorite among cinephiles and King fans alike. It still resonates with audiences today, long after its 1986 release, thanks to its embodiment of nostalgia and its heart-achingly beautiful coming-of-age storyline.
Apparently, King approached director Rob Reiner after a private screening and praised him for the film’s artistry and accuracy — especially since the book is autobiographical (aside from the hunt for the body device).
9. ‘Misery’ (1990)
Speaking of an incredible cast, the casting of Kathy Bates as Annie and James Caan as Paul in Rob Reiner’s film “Misery” is pitch-perfect, and King agrees. The author has even declared it as one of his top 10 adaptations in his book, “Stephen King Goes to the Movies.”
Reiner’s adaptation skillfully translates King’s exploration of the dark recesses of obsession and the fine line between admiration and madness onto the big screen — all of which is enhanced by the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the characters.
10. ‘Pet Sematary’ (1989)
Set in the eerie confines of a small town with a sinister burial ground hidden deep in the woods, the chilling film adaptation of King’s “Pet Sematary” revolves around Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and his family, who discover the unsettling secret of the burial ground’s ability to bring the dead back to life.
It’s a classic storyline that King helped adapt into the 1989 film’s screenplay — though that didn’t save the movie from receiving mixed opinions on King’s end. While the remake didn’t make it onto this list, it’s worth noting that King enjoyed what the 2019 film accomplished.
11. ‘Children of the Corn’ (1984)
The narrative of “Children of the Corn” unfolds in a seemingly idyllic rural town, where the tranquillity is shattered by a chilling manifestation of revenge from the younger residents. The original movie launched a series of eight additional films, but if you want to go off King’s thoughts, you can stop at the original.
Although King shared that he enjoyed the first movie directed by Fritz Kiersch, he was unimpressed with the rest of the franchise. After looking at ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, the original seems to be the only one worth watching.