10 great Stephen King adaptations

Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma are among the master directors who’ve tried their hand at bringing Stephen King stories to the screen.

1 September 2017

By Lou Thomas

It (2017)

The Stephen King film season took place at BFI Southbank in September and October 2017.

Given the richness of character and incident in Stephen King’s work, it’s no surprise that his writing enthuses filmmakers as much as the public. With 350 million books sold, King clearly has his admirers. The King canon is a well that refuses to run dry. By summer 2017, the author has published 54 novels and almost 200 short stories, yielding more than 100 film and TV adaptations.

In 2017 alone, seven different adaptations of King’s work are at various stages of production, including a film adaptation of The Dark Tower series that left critics and box office unmoved, a TV series of The Mist and a Netflix take on Gerald’s Game. There’s also a big-screen version of King’s blockbuster 1986 novel It. Director Andy Muschietti’s terrifying epic is Stranger Things meets A Nightmare on Elm Street, combining the warmth and wit of the former with the heart-stopping visceral scares of the latter.

There are trademark King themes across his work. Many King stories are about small-town life in Maine and the horror that lies beneath it. King is adept at vividly describing cruelty done by and to children, abusive familial relationships and the savage, unknowable side of animals. Most of his work is horror, though this often bleeds into the supernatural and science fiction. Within his tales of blood, menace and death, characters are more than stereotypes. They live, breathe and are fallible just like us.

Here are 10 of the finest screen versions.

Carrie (1976)

Director: Brian De Palma

Carrie (1976)

Carrie was the first screen adaptation of King’s work, based on the fourth novel he wrote but the first to get published. While it’s true that the first isn’t always the best, it’s important to break down the door. In this case, director Brian De Palma doesn’t so much smash the door in as burn down the whole house (and gym), figuratively and literally. Sissy Spacek is tremendous as the naive, telekinetic girl raised by an abusive, religious fanatic mother, played by Piper Laurie. Both actresses deserved their Oscar nominations, while Nancy Allen and John Travolta also have fun sleazing it up in bit parts as bullying teens.

There have since been Broadway and off-Broadway adaptations, a sequel, a TV movie and a 2013 remake starring Chloë Grace Moretz, but the original Carrie is superior to all and a real career highlight for everyone involved.

Salem’s Lot (1979)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Salem’s Lot (1979)

In this TV adaptation of King’s second published novel, Starsky & Hutch’s David Soul plays writer Ben Mears, who returns to the eponymous Maine town he grew up in to investigate an evil house on the outskirts, only to run into its latest resident, sinister antique store owner Richard Straker (James Mason in chilling form).

The late Tobe Hooper helped invent modern cinema horror with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and he fills this miniseries with deeply unsettling scenes. A horrifying Nosferatu murdering townsfolk is one thing; repeated images of dead, floating children incessantly scratching at upstairs bedroom windows are trickier to forget. King would later reuse the weird antique shop schtick for his 1991 novel Needful Things, which made it to the big screen a couple of years later, with Charlton Heston’s son Fraser at the helm.

The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980)

King famously hated the liberties that Stanley Kubrick took with his haunted-hotel chiller, but that scarcely diminishes the impact of this classic adaptation. On repeat viewings, the murderous anger of recovering alcoholic janitor Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) remains just as frightening. An aspiring writer, Torrance goes insane during his ill-fated tenure as the winter custodian of The Overlook Hotel, Colorado. Nicholson has rarely been better as he edges from millpond calm to explosively apoplectic, while his terrified wife (Shelley Duvall) and psychic young son (Danny Lloyd) take the smart option to cower and hide. Woozy steadicam invention and the terrors of room 237 are the icing on the disturbing cabin-fever cake.

The Dead Zone (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg

The Dead Zone (1983)

In David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of The Dead Zone, teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a five-year coma to discover he’s gained psychic powers but lost the woman he loves. So far, so King. But with Cronenberg calling the shots, Walken on typically intense form and Herbert Lom as a doctor with his own aching past, classy chills are a given. Things get increasingly dark as Smith helps a cop find a murderer of young women.

King’s signature emotional pressure points are present and correct, with loss, regret and love jammed in amid the terror. There is also something delicious about seeing Martin Sheen playing dangerous senate candidate Greg Stillson almost two decades before he played President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006).

Stand by Me (1986)

Director: Rob Reiner

Stand by Me (1986)

Four 12-year-old lads go to find the dead body of a missing boy in the wilderness outside their small town and learn about life and themselves in the process. A simple, tight premise executed with warmth and wit, this fine adaptation of novella The Body moved King to remark “That’s the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written,” at a private screening for the author.

Every character is fleshed out enough to lead his own film, with River Phoenix the standout as mischief-making Chris Chambers. Richard Dreyfuss’s wry narration as a grown-up version of protagonist Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) is used intelligently, and Kiefer Sutherland has his best young role as delinquent ‘Ace’ Merrill.

The Running Man (1987)

Director: Paul Michael Glaser

The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man is a very loose adaptation of a dystopian sci-fi novel that King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym in just one week. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot jailed after being wrongly convicted of a massacre during a food riot. After escaping prison, Richards is captured and thrown into the eponymous gladiatorial game show, where he is pursued by a series of stalkers.

Adapted by Commando (1985) and Die Hard (1988) scribe Steven E. de Souza, The Running Man is overblown, ridiculous and immense fun,with entertaining action scenes, cheesy one-liners and hilarious costumes. Erstwhile real-life game show host Richard Dawson is a scream as a fictitious one, Damon Killian, and Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood pops up in a role only slightly less silly than his 1989 BRIT Awards presenter gig.

Misery (1990)

Director: Rob Reiner

Misery (1990)

In which Rob Reiner returns to King’s work with a far darker tale than Stand by Me. Misery is a sinister, allegorical tale of obsession and addiction with two completely different performances at its core. James Caan is Paul Sheldon, a mild-mannered novelist who crashes his car in a Colorado blizzard and is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes (an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates), his biggest fan. Annie doesn’t take kindly to Paul killing off his most popular character, Misery Chastain, and Paul’s bedridden convalescence takes a turn for the worse…

Written partly to exorcise King’s alcohol and drug addiction, and partly as a tribute to fans who moaned about his fantasy epic The Eyes of the Dragon, the original novel is a more brutal affair, but the cinematic Misery is a stranger experience, particularly when Bates is at her most unhinged.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Director: Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Adapted by Frank Darabont from novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the script for this much-loved prison drama initially attracted the attention of Rob Reiner. Following the success of Stand by Me, Reiner offered a rumoured $3m to make the film as a vehicle for Tom Cruise. But Darabont stuck to his guns and directed his script himself, with Reiner magnanimously sticking with the project as Darabont’s mentor.

The tale of wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne (an excellent Tim Robbins) flopped at the box office but became the most rented film of 1995, a cable TV mainstay and a regular fixture at the top of favourite film polls. Undeniably powerful and occasionally heartbreaking, The Shawshank Redemption’s messages about making the most of your life and sticking by your friends are to be savoured. Morgan Freeman’s finest career performance – as Red, “the only guilty man in Shawshank” – is another reason for the movie’s beloved status.

The Green Mile (1999)

Director: Frank Darabont

The Green Mile (1999)

To some, Darabont’s second crack of the whip at a King prison drama is even more remarkable than The Shawshank Redemption. In the film adaptation of the serial novel, Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, a prison officer in charge of death row during the Great Depression. Edgecomb’s grim vocation is given an unexpectedly life-affirming twist when John Coffey, a black convict with supernatural powers, is taken into his charge. Coffey has been sentenced to death after being convicted of raping and murdering two white girls. But is he guilty?

Michael Clarke Duncan puts in a tender, moving portrayal as Coffey, alongside dependable work from Hanks, while sterling support comes from a malicious Sam Rockwell, a fraught James Cromwell and a spiteful Doug Hutchison. It could be claimed that Harry Dean Stanton steals the film in his small role, but that’s true for everything he’s in. It’s not flashy or fashionable, but The Green Mile has the biggest of hearts.

The Mist (2007)

Director: Frank Darabont

The Mist (2007)

When a dense mist rolls into Bridgton, Maine after a severe thunderstorm, locals are alarmed to find savage Lovecraftian monsters living in it. Survivors huddle in a supermarket where painter David Drayton (Thomas Jane) contends with worried locals and the fanatical Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), as well as the unspeakable creatures hellbent on killing everyone inside.

Frank Darabont’s third King adaptation is a cruel, unsparing beast. Agonising tension combines winningly with deaths that remain as gory whether you’re watching them in colour or in the director’s preferred black-and-white version. To Darabont’s credit, he added a pitiless new ending to the story, which King heartily endorsed.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free