There are few authors as prolific as Stephen King. Having published 54 novels, over 200 short stories and a handful of non-fiction (we particularly recommend On Writing to every serious reader or aspiring author), his literary output is almost evenly matched by the number of feature films and TV mini-series based on his works.
In case you haven’t yet sampled his oeuvre, we’ve curated a brief list of the most unmissable movie adaptations, plus a few great King novels that should’ve stayed on the shelves. As his newest book, The Outsider, just hit shelves this May, let’s hope that even more successful adaptations of his work are on the way. And be sure to catch the film version of the King story “1922” on Netflix, or pick up the book it’s featured in, Full Dark, No Stars, at Half Price Books stores and HPB.com!
SUPERIOR STEPHEN KING CINEMA
Carrie made Stephen King’s name as a writer, but the (original) film is more than equal to the novel. In the deft hands of director Brian De Palma, the 1976 movie captured the visceral horror of being an outcast teenage girl so adeptly, all the telekinetic stuff feels almost like a creepy afterthought. Complete with a classically lousy mother/daughter relationship and a jump scare ending for the ages, Carrie holds up as a classic over 40 years later. Just avoid the 1999 sequel or 2013 remake.
Both an excellent coming-of-age movie and a really scary horror flick, the newest adaptation of King’s killer clown story was such a huge smash we can look forward to It: Chapter Two on the big screen in 2019. As the original novel weighed in at a hefty 1,138 pages, there’s plenty left to tell about Pennywise, the Dancing Clown.
Actress Kathy Bates shines as the obsessed fan of a romance novelist played by James Caan. Although the book is also considered one of King’s best, it is Bates’ over-the-top performance that helped the film of Misery become the only King adaptation to win an Oscar.
The author may have been unhappy with Stanley Kubrick’s take on his masterpiece of terror, but this super-spooky flick continues to terrorize each new person who views it. Who could forget the creepy twins, the elevator pouring blood or “Here’s Johnny?” Cutting out unfilmable elements like the book’s living topiary animals keeps this classic way more believable, even with the supernatural subtext.
In contrast to The Shining, King loved, loved, loved Rob Reiner’s adaptation of his short story “The Body”—he was even moved to tears upon watching it because “it was so autobiographical.” Retitled Stand by Me, the 1986 movie helped launch the careers of Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman, and it remains a sweet cult classic and authentic portrait of adolescence.
THE BOOK WAS (WAY) BETTER
King thought the film adaptation of his story about a pyromaniac telekinetic child was “flavorless.” With the source material delving into the military-industrial complex and corrupt right-wing politicians, the thriller novel is far more vivid than the movie, which has little more than peak Drew Barrymore cuteness to recommend it.
Maximum Overdrive deserves a spot on the list because King himself directed the terrible screen adaptation. Drawn from the writer’s short story “Trucks” (found in the Night Shift compilation), the film explores what happens when the world’s machines try and take over humanity. The original source material is at least a creepy little tale of technophobia, whereas the movie is…well, the less said, the better.
With subject material so dark the author initially buried it away in a drawer, one would think Pet Sematary would be primed to be a movie classic. One would be wrong. More hokey than horrific to modern eyes, it fails to inspire the same sense of dread you’ll find on the pages. Hey, at least The Ramones gave us the Sematary theme song!
Although initially considered totally terrifying when it aired as a 1979 miniseries, the story of vampires taking over a small Maine town is a lot cheesier upon rewatching. The 2004 remake picked up the pace, but we feel that the source material needs a full-on filmic reboot with the special effects it deserves.
An apocalyptic plague page-turner, The Stand was begging for a director to do it justice. The 1994 miniseries starring Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinise fell flat, but Hollywood’s tendency to recycle ideas mean fans can hopefully look forward to another adaptation from The Fault in Our Stars’ director Josh Boone.