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. Based on novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, screenwriter and director Frank Darabont 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.
Tim Robbins gives a powerful performance as Andy Dufresne, the prisoner who struggles against all odds to survive, and ultimately escape. However, the film is 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.
Worse – Gerald’s Game
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.
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. Also, the blurring of fantasy and reality proves less effective on film than it does in prose form.
Better – It (2017)
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). However, the first part Andy Muschietti’s two-film adaptation was hugely popular with critics and audiences alike: grossing over $700 million worldwide, It proved the highest-earning horror movie of all time.
Not everyone was pleased that the first firm (focused on the childhood portion of the story) was moved forwards from the 50s to the 80s. However, none of this was to the detriment of the storytelling, and the very strong young cast all do a great job bringing King’s characters to life. And of course, Bill Skarsgård gave a genuinely blood-curdling performance as the evil clown Pennywise.
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.
Far from being truly terrifying, most of the sequel’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.
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. Set in 1959, the film centres on four young friends who learn that a local teen has been killed by a train, and head out in search of his corpse.
Stand by Me deserves praise for casting choices alone, 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. Not content with being one of the greatest King adaptations, it’s 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).
Worse – Pet Sematary (1989)
Stephen King has described his 1983 novel Pet Sematary as the book he was most afraid to publish, as it envisaged his own worst nightmare, and that of most parents: the sudden loss of a child. However, as it’s a horror story, the protagonists have the ability to bring the child back via a mystical animal graveyard. 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.
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. 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. Credit is also due to the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination – 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 claim 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.
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.
Better – The Running Man
Back when The Running Man was first released in 1987, many people were unaware that it was a Stephen King adaptation at all, because The Running Man was originally published in 1982 under the prolific author’s short-lived pseudonym Richard Bachman. Although King had been ‘outed’ once The Running Man hit screens, he insisted screen credit for the novel went to Bachman.
Whilst both the movie and the book have their merits, the film’s 80s flair ensures it is both quick-paced and engaging. It’s not especially true to the novel, and it’s not a film you can (or should) take too seriously, but it’s so much 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.
2017’s The Dark Tower casts Idris Elba as the noble gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey’s as his arch-nemesis The Man in Black. Despite this impeccable casting, the film gives a mere 95 minutes to the world King spent hundreds of pages exploring. Plus, it significantly tones down the content of the novels in favour of a PG-13 certificate.
Better – Misery
Misery holds up as one of Stephen 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 1987 novel reflected King’s own anxieties over the cult that had built around him in his early career, as it centres on a writer (played in the film by James Caan) who finds himself trapped in the home of a fanatical reader of his books.
With a script by esteemed screenwriter William Goldman, Misery proves a remarkably tense and claustrophobic shocker. Particular credit must of course go to Kathy Bates, who delivers an unforgettably terrifying performance as super-fan Annie 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
By the early 80s, Stephen King was such a guaranteed hitmaker that a film adaptation of his 1983 novel Christine made it to screens less than eight months after the book was published. Director John Carpenter called the shots, but by his own admission he felt no real personal connection to the material, and as such the end result is somewhat lacking in real feeling.
Put-upon high school outcast Arnie (Keith Gordon) finds a new lease of life through a beat-up 1958 Plymouth Fury which he sets about making as good as new, but it soon becomes apparent that the car contains a power that is taking him over. Christine certainly isn’t the worst King adaptation ever, but it lacks the punch of both King’s novel, and John Carpenter’s other horror hits like Halloween and The Thing.
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. King himself was impressed, telling Cronenberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam that they had “improved and intensified” his story.
Worse – The Lawnmower Man
There have been plenty of poor Stephen King adaptations, 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 which took its name – but almost nothing else – from King’s 1975 short story. A pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan stars as a scientist who designs a virtual reality program that helps Jeff Fahey’s intellectually challenged gardener develop his mental powers.
Beyond the fact that Fahey’s simpleton-turned-superhuman uses a lawnmower, the movie uses basically none of King’s story – yet it was promoted as 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.
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. John Cusack takes this role in the 2007 adaptation of King’s 1999 short story, playing a debunker alleged hauntings whose disbelief is challenged by a stay in room 1408 of a haunted New York hotel.
Directed by Mikael Håfström, 1408 is a simple yet sturdy supernatural thriller. Helping things significantly are the above-average central performances from Cusack and the always-reliable Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the hotel’s manager.
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 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.
The results are 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. Despite the presence of two such horror legends, The Mangler is a mess – yet it proved successful enough to spawn a direct-to-video sequel.
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. The story 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. However, The Mist’s real monsters are other people.
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 townsfolk against one another. The movie really has the edge over the book in its unforgettably nightmarish conclusion, rewritten by Darabont into something even bleaker 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 medication is hard to deny when we consider the premise: four buddies holidaying in a cabin in the woods encounter deadly alien parasites that infect people then explode out of their bottoms.
Somehow, this ridiculous concept inspired enough confidence to green-light a $68 million film adaptation from the usually reliable director Lawrence Kasdan. 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. However, 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.
Worse – Cell
When 1408 actors John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson reunited in an adaptation of King’s 2006 novel Cell, things didn’t go quite so well. 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).
Despite the novelty of the virus-via-cellphone, Cell is ultimately a run-of-the-mill end of the world story which King has done before, and better (The Stand, anyone?). 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. Small wonder it sat on the shelf for two years before going direct to DVD in 2016.
Better – Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s breakthrough novel Carrie is one of the most iconic horror films of all time and has had a significant impact on pop culture. King’s book had been published only two years earlier, and few could have predicted what a tidal wave of big screen King adaptations would follow in its wake.
In the title role as the troubled teen outcast who develops telekinetic powers, Sissy Spacek gives one of the most remarkable performances ever seen in the horror genre. Small wonder she landed a Best Actress Oscar nomination, whilst Piper Laurie was also nominated in Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Carrie’s tyranical mother.
Worse – Carrie (2013)
The early 21st century saw Hollywood hellbent on remaking any 70s/80s horror film of note, so a new take on Carrie was inevitable. Technically, the 2013 film starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore is the third adaptation of King’s novel, following on from the lacklustre TV movie of 2002 (as well as 1999’s lamentable The Rage: Carrie 2).
Hopes were high that this new Carrie would prove worthwhile, and in fairness there are aspects that work. When all’s said and done though, director Kimberly Peirce’s film suffers from the same problem as so many other remakes: it just recreates what has already been done and struggles to find a personality of its own.
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, director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation of King’s 2010 novella of the same name from his 2010 anthology Full Dark, No Stars.
Making his third appearance in a King adaptation, Thomas 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, an adaptation of his short story Trucks, in which all the machines in the world suddenly become sentient and violently turn on humanity.
These cataclysmic events are played out from the perspective of the inhabitants of a remote truck stop diner. Despite a good cast including Emilio Estevez, King has 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
In 2013, Stephen King surprised many by publishing a belated follow-up to The Shining in the form of Doctor Sleep, which was adapted for the big screen six years later by director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game). Ewan McGregor portrays 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
The original short story Graveyard Shift was one of Stephen King’s first published works back in 1970, and it’s a fun but basic tale of killer rats underneath an old mill. This 1990 adaptation isn’t one of the best-remembered King movies, and there’s a good reason for this: it’s a very slight and forgettable film without much going for it.
As with many other movies based on King’s short stories, Graveyard Shift struggles to stretch out its 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.
Better – Cat’s Eye
This particular entry on our list is a little different, as it isn’t a direct adaptation of one specific 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, with an interesting connecting thread: all three tales are shown from the perspective of a cat.
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, is Quitters Inc, which stars a typically unhinged James Woods as a man trying to give up smoking.
Worse – Riding the Bullet
Stephen King’s 2000 novella Riding the Bullet is notable for being the world’s first mass-market e-book, but otherwise it isn’t one of the author’s standout works. Likewise, there’s not much to be said for 2004 screen adaptation from frequent King adapter Mick Garris (director of the 90s TV adaptations of The Stand and The Shining).
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.
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 pre-existing Stephen King short stories, but Creepshow is also the first movie made from a screenplay written by King himself.
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.
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.
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.