The 20 Best Stephen King Adaptations, Ranked

Much of the master of horror's fiction has been adapted multiple times over, but some films and TV series stand apart from the pack.
ILLUSTRATOR SARAH KIM

When we think of Stephen King, we think of high schools haunted by psychic forces, immortal creatures that live in the sewers, empty hotel hallways that echo with disembodied voices, and ragtag groups of outcasts who are bonded by facing incomprehensible horrors together. Ever since he started publishing in the seventies, King’s stories have resonated with generations of readers. His ability to depict ordinary experiences and elevate them into disturbing, sometimes supernatural, but always heartfelt tales has made him one of the most revered American writers alive. When King first began publishing his stories, it was a necessity, both as a way to fulfill his inner need to tell stories and also to make a living.

Everything changed when his first novel, Carrie, was adapted into a film by Brian De Palma. Carrie brought King’s storytelling onto the big screen, stunning viewers and ringing in a lengthy tradition of King adaptations that still bring in huge audiences today. After writing more than 60 novels and 200 short stories, King’s work continues to be adapted regularly. His creations continue to haunt us and define the genre of horror. Ask anyone their favorite scary movie and you might hear ITCarrie, or The Shining. Here, we’re revisiting all of King’s best adaptations here to guide you on your own exploration through the hallmarks of horror.

Castle Rock

It’s hard to imagine a TV series better suited for Stephen King fans. The world of Castle Rock is like a King playground—a melting pot of the horror master’s stories. It takes his tropes, his settings, his characters, and his themes, then remixes them into a familiar yet entirely new narrative. It’s a scavenger hunt for King obsessives in every scene, and can equally be enjoyed by anyone who doesn’t consider themselves an expert of his multiverse. Here the mind-bending horror sci-fi of Castle Rock is at once an homage, an adaptation, and entirely new. Every single episode has a surprise in store.—Matt Miller

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Children of the Corn

Okay, so this isn’t exactly King’s most complicated work, nor is it technically a very good movie. But some late October nights call for trashy, scary good fun, and this story of a hapless couple whose road trip leads them into a community ruled by bloodthirsty, corn-god worshipping children is exactly that. And if its status as a campy ‘80s classic isn’t enough for you, it also stars Terminator’s always magnetic Linda Hamilton. —Gabrielle Bruney

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1408

Stephen King’s short story “1408” was already a greatest-hits album of Kingsian action: it centers on an author who investigates haunted house houses. There’s a particularly spooky one at a hotel in New York City, Room 1408... and whoops! He gets trapped. The film doesn’t work quite as well as the story, but it features aughts John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, both in top form—which is half the battle. Additional reading: Check out King’s memoir/writing bible On Writing, which uses “1408” as an example of how he edits his stories. —Brady Langmann

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1922

1922 might be one of the best—and even most underrated—adaptations in the recent Stephen Kingaissance. Released straight to Netflix, 1922 adapts King’s novella of the same name, which follows Wilfred James (about as unreliable a narrator as you can get), who hatches a plan with his 14-year-old son to kill his wife. Thomas Jane plays “Wilf” to moody, grumbling perfection, and Neal McDonaugh as his son, Henry, does horror-movie-hissy-fit pretty damn well. A chilling tale of isolation, regret, and karma, director Zak Hilditch nails the paranoid tone of King’s work—murderous rats and all. —Brady Langmann

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Creepshow

Pairing King with Night of the Living Dead auteur George Romero for an E.C. Comics-inspired anthology was a stroke of genius, as borne out by this stellar 1982 horror compilation. King himself has a good (and goofy) time taking center-screen for a vignette about a farmer who comes down with an alien fungal infection, although the real highlights are segments involving an adulterous Ted Danson and a jealous Leslie Nielsen, and an ancient crate that may be housing a monster that Hal Holbrook can use to rid himself of obnoxious Adrienne Barbeau. Alternately amusing and ominous, this collection has ably stood the terrifying test of time. —Nick Schager

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Pet Sematary

This eighties adaptation of King’s novel divided audiences. It served up heaps of gore, camp, and wild scares, but at its heart lies a tale of grief and how it can take the human spirit to extremes. A happy family moves to a new home right off of a highway frequented by eighteen wheelers with a pet cemetery in the backyard. Just as they begin to settle in, their youngest son is killed by a passing truck. Completely unhinged with grief, the father decides to seek solace in the cemetery that promises to resurrect the dead. The film spirals deep into dread, and yet all of the horrors that are unleashed feel as inevitable as the pull of grief. —Sirena He

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Salem’s Lot

Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV mini-series deviates considerably from King’s sophomore novel, most strikingly with regards to its central vampire Kurt Barlow, who here is portrayed not as an aristocratic gentleman but, instead, as a bald, towering Nosferatu-style monster intent on setting up residence—and spreading his undead plague—in a small Maine town. Thanks to terrific make-up effects, that alteration works, and lends an old-world creepiness to Hooper’s effort, which is further bolstered by portentously sinister cinematography and a disquieting James Mason as Barlow’s human handler Richard Straker. It may be a bit dated, especially with regards to its sometimes sluggish pacing, but Hooper’s sturdy stewardship allows it to cast a dreadful spell. —Nick Schager

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Gerald’s Game

A fundamentally interior novel, Gerald’s Game seemed like a so-so candidate for a screen adaptation—until, that is, Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep) helmed this superb 2017 Netflix feature. Carla Gugino stars as an unhappily married woman who winds up trapped and handcuffed to her bed after her husband has a heart attack during a weekend getaway bedroom tryst. Her struggle to free herself while simultaneously battling memories of a horrifying past is brought to dynamic (and, in a few instances, gruesome) life by Flanagan. It’s the phenomenal Gugino, however, who carries the film as a scarred but defiant woman unwilling to succumb to the horrors of today or yesteryear. —Nick Schager

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The Dead Zone

David Cronenberg may be known for a distinctive brand of body horror, but he took a more psychological approach to his 1983 adaptation of King’s supernatural novel about a small-town schoolteacher (Christopher Walken) who, following an accident and a five-year coma, awakens with psychic abilities. More stunning still, he then discovers, courtesy of his second sight, that a promising U.S. Congressman (Martin Sheen) is destined to bring about global catastrophe. Walken’s subdued performance captures the alienation plaguing his protagonist as he tries to avert disaster through drastic means. Cold and haunting, the film contends that sometimes, having great power doesn’t make you any less powerless. —Nick Schager

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The Green Mile

This Tom Hanks-led adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is a moving, character-driven account of a death row supervisor’s encounter with an inmate who has supernatural abilities. This film may be three hours long, but its heartfelt drama and richly developed characters pull you in and transport you to their world. There will be no shortage of tears shed by the end of the film, but the takeaways are true to King’s usual themes of humanistic morality valuing the goodness and bravery in people. —Sirena He

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IT

Director Andy Muschietti took on the tremendous task of retelling Stephen King’s masterpiece, IT. In IT, a group of outcasts stand united in the face of an inconceivable ancient evil, but at its heart, this is a story about childhood trauma and how those memories can haunt us. This adaptation shines while focusing on the first half of the book and fleshing out the characters of the kids. The friendship that the adolescents portray on the big screen was built over a summer of bonding before filming began, and it makes the supernatural threat that they face feel breathtakingly real. But it’s not all dark—there’s a constant stream of hilarious, expletive-filled quips and ‘80s hits that transport you in time. The visual effects, set designs, and Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the iconic clown as a feral hungry beast are nightmares embodied. As if that wasn’t enough, the kids struggle with racism, abuse, and neglectful parents. It’s the pains of growing up that make this story universally relatable. —Sirena He

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Christine

John Hughes gets all the credit as the premier bard of high school, but between Carrie and Christine, Stephen King was behind two stories that best captured the pain and fury of the teen years. Too-often overlooked as King’s “evil car” novel, Christine is actually an examination of the freedoms and perils that come with the all-American rite of passage that is owning your first ride. And the film version, adapted by Halloween director John Carpenter, is an undeniable cult classic. —Gabrielle Bruney

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Dolores Claiborne

Kathy Bates’ role in Misery might be her most well known appearance in a Stephen King adaptation, but her role as the titular Dolores Claiborne might be her most emotionally complex and moving portrayal. Here Bates plays a toughened woman who stands accused of murdering her employer, all while a previous accusation of murdering her husband lingers over her reputation. This film deals with heart-wrenching issues of generational trauma, child abuse, and domestic violence. It’s grounded by Bates’ passionate performance as a woman who persists and survives through the unimaginable —Sirena He

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The Mist

The Mist is Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation. Although not as widely acclaimed as the first two, The Mist stands out on its own. The film starts with a small Maine town being engulfed in a strange thick mist. A father and son are trapped inside of a grocery store with other residents while creatures of otherworldly atrocity lurk just beyond plated glass, slowly killing off any person who dares venture out. It’s hard to decide what’s more terrifying—the bloodthirsty monsters or the human beings who drop their facade of civility and violently turn against each other. This film might be most well-known for its ending, which offers a brutal nihilistic take on the destruction that giving into fear brings and the utter despair of losing hope. Its final minutes will linger with you for long after the credits roll. —Sirena He

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IT

With all due respect to Bill Skarsgård, Tim Curry delivers the definitive performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in ABC TV’s 1990 mini-series about a motley crew of kids who are beset by unspeakable evil in Derry, Maine—and then forced to confront it once again as adults. With over-the-top circus-entertainer gusto that’s underscored by pure, toothy menace, Curry images the monster as the demented flip-side of Bozo, all cheery excitement masking unnatural hunger. The rest of this small-screen effort ranges from solid (Richard Thomas as Bill) to deflating (the spider-y finale). Yet Curry’s turn— especially in the earlygoing—is downright unforgettable. —Nick Schager

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Misery

Making a ranking of Stephen King adaptations without recognizing Misery would be insane. Some of the horror writer’s most effective work is when he explores just how horrific humans can be, and you’d be taxed to find a character more terrifying than Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes. A nurse and megafan of a book series by author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), Annie rescues Paul after he has a car wreck after a snow storm. When he awakens, he realizes that Annie is way more than a “big fan.” Unhappy with where he’s taken her favorite book series, things go from helpful to potentially homicidal real quick. There’s a “hobbling” scene where Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s ankles that will make you rethink just how toxic stan culture can be. —Justin Kirkland

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Stand By Me

Stephen King proves he doesn’t just know how to inspire feelings of fright in people with his novella The Body. Stand By Me, an adaptation of that book, is a coming-of-age tale that rouses nostalgia even in people who have no memories of the ‘50s. This film evokes the simpler times of youth when your friends were your whole world and nobody could understand you like they did. Four boys on the cusp of young adulthood go to see the dead body of a neighborhood missing boy, which sounds like the makings of a spooky plot, but what the boys find along the way is a bond that remains in their hearts for the rest of their lives. River Phoenix gives a powerful performance as leader of the gang Chris Chambers, showing the vulnerability of a boy with a heart too big for his body. The background of gorgeous pastoral Oregon and a soundtrack of the greatest hits of the ‘50s make this film a classic. —Sirena He

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The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont’s 1994 cinematic expansion of King’s 1982 novella didn’t win any of the seven Oscars for which it was nominated, but time has been immensely kind to his The Shawshank Redemption, which remains among the most beloved of all King-based films. That’s in large part due to the fact that, far from a typical supernatural King tale, it’s a moving and inspiring drama about two men’s ordeal in—and attempts to escape—a Maine prison that’s led by arguably the finest performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman’s career. Rich in character detail, humor and hope, it finds uplifting light at the end of the dark tunnel. —Nick Schager

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The Shining

Is there any classic horror movie with more quotable lines than The Shining? "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." "Redrum." "Heeeeere's Johnny." This film remains the pinnacle of prestige horror. It is still regarded by the new era masters as a turning point in the genre—on the press tour for Us, new horror auteur Jordan Peele even dressed like Jack Torrance during an interview. Stanley Kubrick aims his masterful eye toward sweeping landscape shots, terrifying single point perspective hallways, and a hedge maze scene that might never be matched in cinema. Visually, this film has some of the most beautiful and terrifying images ever put to film. And, Jack Nicholson's command over facial expressions and unhinged emotional turns is the best of his entire career. —Matt Miller

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Carrie

Brian De Palma’s Carrie is a triumphant work of suspense and dread. From the moment the film begins, we’re entranced by the life of an awkward, quiet teenage girl named Carrie. We watch her be terrorized by her peers and punished by her mother. The horror you feel for most of the film is at the vile treatment that Carrie endures —being verbally and emotionally abused, being ostracized and pelted with tampons, and getting locked into closets. When the film dangles brief shimmers of happiness for Carrie and your dread reaches a climax is exactly the moment that things whip into a tornado of violence and destruction. But the scariest thing about this film isn’t the buckets of blood or the terrifying psychic abilities—it’s the ruin of the neglected, tormented young girl who didn’t have anyone to save her before it was too late. —Sirena He

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Sirena He
Sirena He is an editorial assistant and writer who focuses on media and culture. She is a lover of horror films and believes in the healing power of storytelling.
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