15 Stephen King Films Better Than The Books They Were Based On, And 15 That Were Worse
Stephen King is widely regarded as the King of Horror, but he has more than just one genre under his belt. From fantasy to supernatural fiction, King has published an incredible 61 novels, many of which have resulted in the production of film adaptations.
But whilst some of these films do not live up to the books they were based on, others are widely deemed even more successful than their literary counterparts. We’ve compiled a list of fifteen Stephen King films that are even better than the films they were based on, alongside fifteen that are dismal in comparison.
Better – The Shawshank Redemption
Stephen King is a master storyteller, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Shawshank Redemption. Still, as incredible as the original novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption may be, its onscreen counterpart is simply unbeatable.
Frank Darabont (who made his directorial debut here) translated King’s words into a film which, though met with a lukewarm response on release in 1994, is now held up as one of the greatest ever made.
“Simply marvellous entertainment” – Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
Tim Robbins gives a powerful performance as Andy Dufresne, the man who struggles against all odds to survive, and ultimately escape from Shawshank State Penitentiary. However, the film is really stolen by Morgan Freeman as Red, whose distinctive narration really makes the movie work; though Robbins gets top billing, it was Freeman who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the film.
Up to this point, many still thought of Stephen King as a low-class pulp writer; The Shawshank Redemption went some way to the author getting the critical re-assessment and praise which he deserved.
Worse – Gerald’s Game
We’ll start by prefacing this one with the admission that 2017’s Gerald’s Game is a pretty solid movie. Nonetheless, the 1992 novel is far grittier in its depiction of its troubling themes than Mike Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation.
In the movie, Carla Gugino takes on the demanding role of Jessie, whose ‘romantic’ weekend with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) goes horribly wrong when, during a sex game, Gerald drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed.
“Lifeless domestic melodrama” – Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly
Despite their differences, the core story of both the film and the book is the same, but the film version is also simplified, with – to single out one glaring difference – far fewer voices existing inside Jessie’s head.
The movie’s gritty veneer of realism ensures it is impressive as a standalone piece of work – but it can simply not compare to King’s graphic descriptions and ability to create thick tension and unease. Nonetheless, this was still a bold and admirable effort, particularly considering many in the film industry had long considered King’s novel unfilmable.
Better – It (2017)
After a long, arduous journey to the big screen (with director Cary Fukunaga initially being attached but walking over creative differences), the first part Andy Muschietti’s two-film adaptation of It proved hugely popular with critics audiences. But the adventures of the Losers Club were played out on-screen long before this, back in 1990 when Lawrence D Cohen produced a two-part mini-series based on the book.
Upwards of 1,000 pages in length with a story spanning decades and getting into some very sensitive areas, King’s 1986 novel was always going to be a challenge to adapt (hence the films left a whole lot out).
“A stunning effort that stands as one of the best films [of] 2017” – Andrew Pollard, Starburst
The first instalment took some fairly significant liberties with the source material; for instance, some purists might complain about the childhood portion of the story was moved forwards from the 50s to the 80s. However, none of this was necessarily to the detriment of the storytelling.
The very strong young cast all do a great job bringing King’s characters to life. Plus, we can all be grateful that the filmmakers had the good sense to complete omit that controversial part of King’s story involving the pre-teen characters.
Worse – It: Chapter 2
For fans of the first film, the two years we had to wait for the story’s conclusion were almost unbearable. With esteemed actors including Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy portraying our young heroes all grown up, expectations were high for an epic conclusion.
As such, it was a bit of an unpleasant surprise when 2019’s It: Chapter 2 turned out to be basically nothing more than another bog-standard Hollywood horror movie.
“There are big-bang scares, but they’re not real scares” – Mark Kermode, BBC
Far from being truly terrifying, most of the film’s confrontations with the sinister, shapeshifting Pennywise just come off a bit goofy. The film overall feels too tongue-in-cheek, particularly with a brief cameo from King himself. It’s also bewildering that the filmmakers decided to wink at the audience with a few not-very subtle nods to other horror movies – notably the most famous King adaptation of them all, The Shining.
When all’s said and done, It: Chapter 2 doesn’t do very much that the first film hadn’t already done better, and its conclusion is underwhelming in the extreme.
Better – Stand by Me
1994’s The Shawshank Redemption helped many realise there was more to King than blood and monsters – but those who had been paying attention learned this eight years earlier, thanks to Stand by Me.
Director Rob Reiner’s adaptation of King’s novella The Body deserves praise for casting choices alone, with the film starring some of the best young actors of the time: River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell, all ably supported by the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack.
“One of those treasures absolutely not to be missed” – Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times
Not content with being one of the greatest Stephen King adaptations, Stand by Me is also one of the best coming of age movies period, taking all who watch it back to the hazy days of youth (even if most of us didn’t grow up in 50s middle America). Director Reiner worked closely with his young stars to bring across their genuine innocence and humour on-screen: Wheaton has said since that Phoenix, Feldman, O’Connell and himself “basically were the characters we played.”
Thanks to all this – and the shadow of the sadly missed River Phoenix, who died only seven years after the film’s release – Stand by Me has a far greater emotional resonance than even King’s original novella can manage.
Worse – Pet Sematary (1989)
Stephen King has described his 1983 novel Pet Sematary as the book he was most afraid to publish. Considering the circumstances under which it was written, this is hardly surprising: King wrote the story after he took up residence at the University of Maine, renting a house adjacent to a road on which many dogs and cats were killed by cars.
Drawing on real-life experience, King proceeded to envisage his own worst nightmare, and that of most parents: the sudden loss of a child. King’s emotional ties to the story are obvious on the page, and as scary as the book is, it’s also etched with genuine poignancy.
“Buries [the] magic found in Stephen King’s novel” – Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune
Director Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation is passable enough as a simple low-rent horror movie, but it doesn’t have anything like the same raw, harrowing, mournful edge that the novel had. It just feels heavily watered-down by comparison.
Much the same can be said of the more recent 2019 Pet Sematary remake, from directorial duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Better – The Green Mile
After the success of The Shawshank Redemption, director and screenwriter Frank Darabont returned to King for his second feature. 1999’s The Green Mile was adapted from King’s 1996 novel of the same name, and while its prison setting inevitably draws comparison with The Shawshank Redemption, its supernatural aspects feel closer to classic King.
Tom Hanks stars as a hardened corrections officer on death row, whose world is rocked by a hulking yet simple-minded inmate (Michael Clarke Duncan) who possesses incredible healing powers.
“How many blockbusters deal with that kind of grief?” – Rob White, Sight and Sound
Stephen King executed the characters in The Green Mile to perfection, allowing the dialogue to flow and evil to become an abstract element; impossible to grasp and yet ever-present. The film adaptation stands tall as an extension of the book, remaining faithful to the original novel while adding cinematic elements that only add to the story’s merit.
Credit is also due to the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as John Coffey – and as we all know, it’s not too easy to steal a movie when you’re starring alongside Tom Hanks.
Worse – In the Tall Grass
One of the inherent problems with the easy marketability of King’s name is that filmmakers seem anxious to adapt as much as they can – even lesser works with less obvious cinematic potential. Such is the case with In the Tall Grass.
Not many people would argue that director Vincenzo Natali’s 2019 Netflix adaptation of the 2012 novella (co-written by King and his son, the also successful horror author Joe Hill) ranks among the best screen adaptations of King’s work.
” An overstuffed head-scratcher with clunky dialogue” – Benjamin Lee, The Guardian
The problems with the story do not originate in the writing itself, however, but rather are the result of a relatively short novel being dragged out into a full-length movie. What makes an exciting tale on paper becomes dull on screen. After all, just how can watching a group of individuals scurry around in a field of tall grass possibly provide two hours of entertainment? Answer: it can’t.
Thus far, Hill isn’t enjoying as much success with screen adaptations as his father: the 2012 movie of his novel Horns met a middling response, although his TV shows NOS4A2 and Locke & Key have fared better.
Better – The Running Man
A dystopian action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie version of The Running Man is not particularly true to the novel it was based on. The funny thing is, back when the film was first released in 1987, many people were unaware that it was a Stephen King adaptation at all.
This is because The Running Man was originally published in 1982 under the pen name Richard Bachman, which the prolific King adopted for some of his works at the time. Although King had been ‘outed’ once The Running Man hit screens, he insisted screen credit for the novel went to Richard Bachman.
“A brainless, breathless thrill” – Ian Nathan, Empire
Directed by Starsky & Hutch actor Paul Michael Glaser, the big screen take on The Running Man has been heavily ‘Hollywood-ised’, making it far brighter than the gritty, dull reality of the book. Whilst both the movie and the book have their merits, the film’s 80s flair ensures it is both quick-paced and engaging, with Schwarzenegger as watchable as ever.
Obviously it’s not a film you can (or should) take too seriously, but it’s a great deal of fun – and it features some of Schwarzenegger’s best ever one-liners.
Worse – The Dark Tower
For many of King’s most devoted fans, the author’s real masterwork is The Dark Tower, his epic eight-book fantasy series written over the course of more than 30 years. The movie adaptation was also some time coming, spending over a decade in development hell before it finally got made – but sadly, once it finally hit screens, the results were distinctly underwhelming.
Director Nikolaj Arcel’s 2017 movie The Dark Tower is less of a retelling of the novels, and more an expansion on them, compiling elements from King’s book series, keeping some aspects and abandoning others. The characters remain largely the same, with Idris Elba starring as Roland, the gunslinger charged with beating Matthew McConaughey’s The Man in Black and making it to the mysterious Dark Tower.
“Not even bad enough to be fun” – Elena Lazic, Little White Lies
The impeccably cast leading men inspired confidence that the film would really do justice to the books. Unfortunately, the film seems in a hurry to solve in a mere 95 minutes the mysteries which King spent hundreds of pages exploring. Plus, it significantly tones down the content of the novels in favour of a largely family-friendly PG-13 certificate.
Though the film’s poor performance scuppered any chance of sequels, an apparently more faithful small screen adaptation of The Dark Tower is currently in the works (although it hit a setback when its initial home, Amazon, passed on the project).
Better – Misery
It’s curious to think that Stephen King had originally planned to publish this 1987 novel under his now-retired pseudonym Richard Bachman, as years later Misery holds up as one of King’s most iconic works. This has a lot to do with Rob Reiner’s 1990 film adaptation – which is, to date, the only movie based on Stephen King’s work to receive an Academy Award.
The novel reflected King’s own anxieties over the cult that had built around him in his early career, as it centres on a writer who finds himself trapped in the home of a fanatical reader of his books.
“Popular movie-making… doesn’t get much better than this” – Richard Schickel, Time Magazine
Casting James Caan as novelist Paul Sheldon and Kathy Bates as nurse and obsessive fan Annie Wilkes, director Reiner (working from a script by William Goldman) crafts a remarkably tense and claustrophobic shocker. Particular credit must of course go to Bates, who delivers an unforgettably terrifying performance, and won the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.
King approved as well, and has said on record that he considers Misery one of the best films based on his work.
Worse – Christine
After 1982’s The Thing (a recognised horror classic today, but a flop on release), director John Carpenter badly needed a hit – and at that time, a Stephen King adaptation was the surest path to that. So it was that Carpenter signed on to film an adaptation of King’s 1983 novel Christine – which made it to screens less than eight months after the book was published.
Christine is close in spirit to Carrie, but this time the story centres on a male high school outcast named Arnie, who finds strength not through burgeoning psychic powers but through an unnatural link to his new car: a beat-up 1958 Plymouth Fury which he sets about making as good as new.
“Pretty shop-worn” – Variety
As Arnie fixes up the car (named Christine by its creepy previous owner), his confidence and popularity increase – but it soon becomes apparent that the mysteriously haunted vehicle is doing him, and those close to him, more harm than good.
While Carpenter’s film is a perfectly efficient piece of entertainment, the filmmaker has admitted his heart was never really in the project, and it shows in the end result. Christine certainly isn’t the worst King adaptation ever, but it lacks the emotional punch of the novel, and pales in comparison to the director’s other horror hits (including Halloween and The Fog).
Better – The Dead Zone
Of the early rush of Stephen King adaptations, one that really stands out from the crowd is this 1983 film from director David Cronenberg. Based on King’s 1979 novel of the same name, The Dead Zone stars Christopher Walken as a teacher who falls into a coma after a car accident – but later awakens to find he has developed psychic powers.
Of all the major horror directors to emerge in the 70s, Cronenberg is surely the most cerebral, and he lends that intelligence to this take on a story which might otherwise have come off a little schlocky.
“Frightening, and finally deeply moving” – Adam Nayman, The Ringer
In adapting King’s novel with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, Cronenberg streamlined the narrative, trimming a lot of extraneous detail: Boam is on record as saying he considered King’s novel “longer than it needed to be.” Interestingly, Cronenberg also rejected a script for The Dead Zone written by King himself which the director considered “needlessly brutal.”
Perhaps even more surprisingly, King ultimately agreed with Cronenberg and Boam’s choices, telling them they had “improved and intensified the power of the narrative” in making their edits.
Worse – The Lawnmower Man
There have been plenty of Stephen King movies that turned out subpar – but only once did the author actually sue the makers of a film based on his work. That film was The Lawnmower Man, the 1992 sci-fi horror from director Brett Leonard, which took its name – but not a great deal else – from King’s 1975 short story.
Designed to cash in on the excitement and controversy surrounding virtual reality technology, the film casts a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan as a scientist who designs a VR program that helps Jeff Fahey’s intellectually challenged gardener develop his mental powers, first becoming a respectable intellectual, but eventually evolving into a being of god-like power.
“Melodramatic plot, bad acting, (cheesy) special effects” – Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel
Given that VR wasn’t exactly a thing back in the 70s when King wrote the short story, it’s readily apparent that the filmmakers took some significant liberties with his work – but the real stinger was that they chose to initially release the film under the title Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. King took umbrage at this, given what scant resemblance the film bore to the story he wrote, so he filed a lawsuit against studio New Line Cinema demanding they remove his name from the title.
Though King’s suit was successful, New Line for some reason failed to comply, releasing the film on home video with the author’s name still attached – which resulted in more legal repercussions, as the studio was ruled in contempt of court. All these years later, however, The Lawnmower Man is generally found to be in contempt of quality filmmaking practices, not least because of its over-reliance on painfully dated CGI.
Better – 1408
Stephen King has long been a believer in drawing on personal experience in his work, which should explain why so many of his central protagonists are world-weary writers. Sometimes, this can lend his stories (and their adaptations) a tiresome air of been-there, done-that. Happily, 1408 avoids this pitfall, and proves to be engrossing entertainment.
The 2007 film, based on the 1999 short story, casts John Cusack in the surrogate Stephen King role as a sceptical author who writes books debunking alleged hauntings. But of course, when Cusack’s Mike Enslin ventures on his latest investigation and books in at the supposedly haunted room 1408 in a New York hotel, our hero’s disbelief is challenged.
“Frightening and disturbing” – Phillip French, The Observer
Directed by Mikael Håfström, 1408 is a simple yet sturdy supernatural thriller; one among many which came in the wake of 1999’s The Sixth Sense. It might play a familiar tune, but it does so with panache.
Helping things significantly are the above-average central performances from Cusack and the always-reliable Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the hotel’s manager. The actors would later reunite on another Stephen King adaptation – although, as we’ll see later, things didn’t work out so well the second time.
Worse – The Mangler
Once again, we see that a story which may be perfectly passable in a short prose form might not always work when stretched out to feature-length. This is amply demonstrated by The Mangler, the 1995 adaptation of King’s 1978 short story (from the anthology Night Shift), centred on… ahem… a haunted industrial laundry press.
Straight away it’s hard not to smirk at the premise, but the film doesn’t do itself any favours, turning out laughably melodramatic whilst seeming to take itself far too seriously. This proved somewhat heartbreaking for serious horror fans, as The Mangler is directed by legendary genre master Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist) and stars iconic Nightmare on Elm Street actor Robert Englund.
“It’s about a homicidal laundry machine. You do the math” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic.com
We’d be forgiven for anticipating that, when two such masters of their craft took on a story by the most famous modern horror writer of them all, the results would be remarkable – yet there’s no avoiding the sense that everyone was just there to get paid.
Worse yet is how The Mangler massively embellishes King’s simple story, adding all kinds of weird stuff about demonology and Faustian pacts; this despite the fact that our principal antagonist is a guy who runs a laundry service.
Better – The Mist
Director Frank Darabont took on King for a third, and to date final time with his 2007 adaptation of the author’s 1980 novella The Mist – and the results were, once again, exemplary. Considering how closely Darabont’s name is associated with King, it’s perhaps surprising it took him that long to take on one of the author’s signature horror stories, but it was worth the wait.
As in the novella, The Mist centres on the citizens of a small town in Maine who find themselves trapped in a supermarket when the streets outside are enveloped in an otherworldly mist filled with monsters.
“A horror movie of real conviction” – Paul Clinton, CNN
The Mist is in large part a good old-fashioned creature feature, sporting wonderfully creepy monster designs – but, as it’s King, the real source of horror is other human beings, rather than any supernatural threat. Thomas Jane powerfully heads up a strong cast, although the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Harden as a fanatical religious woman who turns the trapped townspeople against one another.
Still, where the movie really has the edge over the book is in its unforgettably nightmarish conclusion, rewritten by Darabont into something even more bleak and despairing than anything King himself dreamed up.
Worse – Dreamcatcher
There can’t be many who would class Stephen King’s 2001 novel Dreamcatcher as one of his best; certainly not the author, who has admitted to not liking the book, which he wrote whilst heavily medicated following his 1999 car accident. The influence of King’s medication is hard to deny when we consider the premise.
Dreamcatcher centres on four buddies holidaying in a cabin in the woods encounter deadly alien parasites that infect people then explode out of their bottoms. Yes, really. Somehow, this ridiculous concept was apparently promising enough to green-light a $68 million film adaptation from the usually reliable director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado), who co-wrote the script with legendary screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride).
“Unspeakably bad” – Christy Lemire, Associated Press
Dreamcatcher assembles a decent cast, including Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant and Damian Lewis as the old friends, and trustworthy King movie veteran Morgan Freeman (armed with a formidable set of eyebrows) as the commander of a secret military unit out to destroy the aliens.
Kasdan tries his best to make a passable sci-fi thriller, but you can practically see the cast struggling to come to terms with the sheer absurdity of it all. Sadly, Dreamcatcher isn’t even daft enough to work in a so-bad-it’s-good way; when it’s not being patently silly, it’s just boringly over-familiar, replaying tropes we’ve seen time and again from Stephen King and the screen adaptations of his work.
Better – The Shining
Okay, we’re going there. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining is one of the most talked-about horror movies ever made, and has long been divisive among King fans. The author himself famously despises the movie due to its treatment of the characters he created, and the omission of vast swathes of the original story. However, we’re going to pick a side and declare that when all is said and done, we honestly think the film is better than the book.
It’s understandable that the author and many of his readers would be unhappy with how unfaithful Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is to the original text – but watch any Kubrick movie, and it’s clear the director is more interested in evoking powerful feelings than in telling stories in a conventional way.
“A bonafide classic” – Scott Wampler, Birth.Movies.Death
In boiling the plot of The Shining down to its bare essentials (guy goes crazy in haunted hotel), the movie focuses first and foremost on building tension to an almost unbearable level – and, as most viewers will attest, it’s very successful in doing so.
King may have stated on the record that he much prefers the 1997 TV mini-series adaptation of The Shining (for which he himself wrote the script) – but it’s fair to say his bias might be affecting his judgement there.
Worse – Cell
One might have assumed that having the stars of 2007’s well-received 1408 reunite on another Stephen King adaptation would mean a surefire hit. However, when John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson acted alongside one another again in a movie based on King’s 2006 novel Cell, things didn’t go quite so swimmingly.
Directed by Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2), the 2016 film attempts to realise King’s vision of a world in which a mysterious signal is sent out to every cellular phone in the world – turning all who hear it into deranged zombies (think 28 Days Later rather than Dawn of the Dead).
“The slapdash quality to the plotting is matched by the inept film-making” – Wendy Ide, The Observer
The basic idea of all mobile phone users becoming zombies had a certain novelty value back when Cell was first published, and the proliferation of mobile phone technology was still relatively new. However, once you get beyond that it’s ultimately a rather run-of-the-mill end of the world story, the likes of which King has done before, and better (The Stand, anyone?). So if the Cell movie really wanted to make the concept work, it needed to really approach the story with some gusto – which it singularly fails to do.
It’s clear everyone involved with Cell knew they had a stinker on their hands, given how long it spent gathering dust on the shelf. After all, the film was shot in 2014, but didn’t reach screens until 2016, and then in the form of a low-key video-on-demand release.
Better – Carrie (1976)
Carrie (the 1976 version, that is) is one of the most iconic horror films of all time and has had a significant impact on pop culture. The 1974 novel of the same name was King’s first published book, so it was only fitting that it be the first to make the screen.
However, whilst Carrie is in itself an iconic novel, director Brian De Palma’s film adaptation is just better all-round – and few could have predicted what a tidal wave of big screen King adaptations would follow in its wake.
“A horror classic” – Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
Carrie, brought to life on the silver screen by Sissy Spacek, has something that every bullied teen across the world dreams of possessing: telekinetic powers. The troubled young woman uses these to her advantage, and while the sheer horror of it is somewhat lost in words, it becomes bold on-screen.
The novel just doesn’t pack the same punch – and neither do 1999 sequel The Rage: Carrie 2, the 2002 TV movie starring Angela Bettis, or the 2013 remake with Chloë Grace Moretz.
Worse – Carrie (2013)
In the past two decades, Hollywood has seemed hellbent on remaking just about any horror film of note from the 70s and 80s. It was inevitable, then, that a new take on Carrie would happen eventually – and so it did in 2013 (although technically this was the third adaptation of King’s novel, following on from the TV movie of 2002.)
Hopes were high that this new take could prove worthwhile, not least thanks to the above-average casting, with Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role and Julianne Moore as her domineering mother.
“Could have been so much better” – Britt Hayes, Birth.Movies.Death
In fairness, there were aspects of the remake that worked, particularly in its portrayal of how school bullying is different (in some ways even worse) in the age of social media. When all’s said and done though, the 2013 Carrie suffers from the same problem as so many other remakes: it struggles to do much other than blandly recreate what has already been done.
It may have been a modest box office success, but most critics and King fans agree that this particular version of Carrie paled in comparison to both the novel and the earlier film, and that both the text and all the talented performers involved deserved better.
Better – 1922
2017 was a big year for Stephen King movies: in cinemas we had It, and on Netflix we had Gerald’s Game. However, let’s not forget that same year Netflix brought us another above-average King adaptation in 1922.
Directed by Zak Hilditch, 1922 is based on King’s 2010 novella of the same name from his 2010 anthology Full Dark, No Stars. The film sees The Mist and Dreamcatcher’s Thomas Jane make his third appearance in a King adaptation.
“(A) winningly bleak little tale” – Rebecca Hawkes, Daily Telegraph
Jane gives one of his most haunting performances as troubled farmer Wilfred James, who is driven to madness when his wife declares she wants to sell their land.
It’s a compelling, chilling piece of filmmaking which brilliantly conveys the spirit of King’s prose.
Worse – Maximum Overdrive
Few movies based on the writing of Stephen King are quite so notorious as the one film directed by the author himself. In 1986, Stephen King stepped behind the camera for the first, and to date last time, to call the shots on Maximum Overdrive, starring Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle and future Lisa Simpson actress Yeardley Smith.
The film was a feature length adaptation of his short story Trucks (featured in the collection Night Shift), which sees all the machines in the world suddenly become sentient, and violently turn on humanity.
“Maximum tedium” – James Sanford, Kalamazoo Gazette
These cataclysmic events are played out from the perspective of the inhabitants of a remote truck stop diner, who are surrounded by marauding trucks – most notably one with the head of Spider-Man villain the Green Goblin on the hood.
The whole premise is so mind-blowingly weird, it’s hard to imagine any filmmaker being able to make it work, let alone one so totally inexperienced as King, who’s long since admitted he was completely out of his depth as director. Maximum Overdrive works well enough as a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure, but it’s small wonder that King hasn’t directed another movie since.
Better – Doctor Sleep
As divisive a film as Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining may be, for many years most fans and critics agreed that it wasn’t something that could ever have a successful remake or sequel. As far as the remake goes, The Shining was indeed adapted for the screen a second time as a TV mini-series which is loyal to the novel, but doesn’t come close to Kubrick’s level of artistry.
Then in 2013, King surprised many by publishing a belated follow-up to his novel in the form of Doctor Sleep, which was adapted for the big screen six years later by director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game).
“Satisfyingly chock-full of dread” – K. Austin Collins, Vanity Fair
Ewan McGregor takes the lead in Doctor Sleep as the now-grown Danny Torrance, who is still quite literally haunted by the ghosts of his past as an adult. The film plays the difficult balancing of act of working as a standalone film, as well as a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film – despite the inherent contradictions there, given how much of the novel was jettisoned by the film.
Against all odds, it works brilliantly, resulting in a film that’s certain to please fans, yet never feels like it’s resorting to basic fan service.
Worse: Graveyard Shift
This 1990 adaptation of the short story of the same name (from the Night Shift collection) doesn’t rank among the best-remembered Stephen King movies. This is because, quite simply, it’s a very slight and forgettable film without very much going for it.
The original short story was one of King’s first published works back in 1970, and it’s a fun but basic tale of killer rats underneath an old mill.
“This travesty buries [King’s] reputation alive” – Time Out London
As with other movies based on King’s short stories, Graveyard Shift struggles to stretch out this basic set-up over a feature-length running time. It doesn’t help matters that in this instance the central monster – a giant man-eating rat – is brought to life via some rather silly-looking puppetry.
Still, if we’re being generous Graveyard Shift is harmless enough to be reasonably enjoyable, but once again it’s strictly a guilty pleasure.
Better – Cat’s Eye
This particular entry on our list is a little different, as it isn’t a direct adaptation of one Stephen King novel or story. Directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo), 1985’s Cat’s Eye is an anthology horror movie comprised of screen adaptations of three King stories.
This was a smart move which it’s surprising other filmmakers haven’t taken, because as we’ve seen, the main problem with a lot of movies based on King short stories is that they invariably pad things out with too much filler. By keeping each individual story distinct and relatively succinct, Cat’s Eye is a leaner, meaner movie which doesn’t outstay its welcome.
“One of [King’s] most effective films” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
The film It hinges on a clever connecting thread: a stray cat who bears witness to the stories as they unfold. We have adaptions of King’s stories General in which the central cat battles a troll which menaces young Drew Barrymore; and The Ledge, in which a blackmailed Robert Hays is forced to climb around a skyscraper window from the outside.
Perhaps most effective of them all, though, it Quitters Inc, which stars a typically unhinged James Woods as a man trying to give up smoking.
Worse – Riding the Bullet
The problem with Stephen King’s name having such marquee value is that it sometimes means stories with very little inherent cinematic potential wound up being put on film. This was very much the case with 2004’s Riding the Bullet, directed by frequent King adapter Mick Garris.
King’s 2000 novella is notable for being the world’s first mass-market e-book, but otherwise it isn’t one of the author’s standout works.
“So glum and flat-footed there’s no reason to care” – Kevin Crust, Los Angeles Times
The simple tale centres on a young hitchhiker who endures some chilling misadventures on his way home to visit his hospitalised mother. With much of what occurs taking place in the protagonist’s imagination, it’s a story that plays out fine on the page, but feels sluggish and uninvolving on screen.
Ultimately, Riding the Bullet is a film for King completists only – but they’re still likely to be left unsatisfied, no matter how many King-related Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in (most notably the presence of a red Plymouth Fury which closely resembles Christine).
Better – Creepshow
This monstrous romp from 1982 is one of our favourite horror movies of the decade – and, like Cat’s Eye, it stands apart from most King movies in that it’s an anthology film.
It should be stressed that only two of the five stories told in Creepshow were based on existing Stephen King short stories. However, Creepshow is notable in that it’s the first movie made from a screenplay written by King himself.
“(Made) with humor and affection… (and) an appreciation of the macabre” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Horror legend George A Romero directs the film with a ghoulish flair and dark sense of humour, evoking the spirit of the notorious EC horror comics of the 1950s. Creepshow is also notable for giving King one of his first acting roles, in the chapter based on the author’s short story Weeds. Happily, King applies himself pretty well here.
This wouldn’t be the last time director Romero brought King to the screen; he would go on to make The Dark Half 11 years later.
Worse – Dolan’s Cadillac
What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this Stephen King adaptation starring Christian Slater and Wes Bentley? Well, that’s hardly surprising, given that it limped out on a direct-to-DVD release in 2010 to absolutely no aplomb.
Don’t worry, though: we can assure you, if you’ve missed Dolan’s Cadillac, you really haven’t missed much of anything at all.
“A misfire” – Phillip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Adapted from the novella featured in King’s collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Dolan’s Cadillac is notable for being one of King’s more grounded tales; a crime story without much in the way of supernatural elements.
None of this is enough to keep it from being supremely dull viewing, which only succeeds in making you wonder just where it all went wrong for leading men Slater and Bentley.