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 ten Stephen King films that are even better than the films they were based on, alongside ten 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.
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; indeed, 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 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.
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 – Carrie
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 (although few could have predicted what a tidal wave of King adaptations would follow in its wake).
However, whilst Carrie is in itself an iconic novel, director Brian De Palma’s film adaptation is just better all-round.
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.
Carrie 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 – It
Director Andy Muschietti’s 2017 film It, and its 2019 sequel It Chapter Two, proved hugely popular with 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).
The recent films may be entertaining, but their visuals are somewhat lacking, and they lack the authenticity of King’s novel.
The core idea of the shape-shifting It, embodying the greatest fears of its victims, should be terrifying – but, a few moments aside, it all comes off a bit goofy on screen.
The results feel like pale imitation of King’s work, more of a re-imagining of the plot than any great collaborative effort.
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.
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).
As well as coming up with the new title (taken from the iconic Ben E. King song featured in the film), director Reiner also realised the movie needed to really centre on Wil Wheaton’s character of Gordie, unlike in the novella which had focused on all four boys equally.
On top of this, 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
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.
While director Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation is entertaining enough as a simple low-rent horror movie, it doesn’t have anything like the same raw, harrowing, mournful edge.
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.
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 version 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, the 2019 Netflix adaptation of the 2012 novella co-written by King and his son, the also successful horror author Joe Hill.
This film adaptation from director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) definitely doesn’t rank among the great King movies: The Guardian described it as “easily forgettable,” an assessment with which many viewers would concur.
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.
The movie, directed by Starsky & Hutch actor Paul Michael Glaser, has been ‘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.
It’s not a film you can 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 of The Dark Tower was also some time coming, spending over a decade in development hell before it finally got made – and sadly, 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. The impeccably cast leading men inspired confidence that the film would really do justice to the books.
The problem is, 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 is largely down to 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.
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.
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 Carpenter’s other horror hits.
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.
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 a surprising position for the filmmaker to take, given the level of graphic violence in much of his work).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of the story: four buddies holidaying in a cabin in the woods encounter deadly alien parasites that infect people then explode out of their bottoms. Yes, really.
Nonetheless, this ridiculous concept was apparently promising enough to green-light a $68 million film adaptation from the usually reliable director Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with legendary screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride).
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.
King 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.
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).
There were undoubtedly problems with the source material from the get-go. The basic idea of all mobile phone users becoming zombies had a certain novelty value 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: though filmed in 2014, it didn’t reach screens until 2016, and then on a low-key release direct to video on demand.