The best films based on Stephen King books

February 18, 2022

Stephen King is arguably the most recognisable author living today and has been hailed by The Rolling Stone as ‘The Horror Master’. In 2019, The Guardian wrote that King has a “gallery of characters that runs the gamut from killer clowns and demonic cars to psychotic fans and unhinged populist politicians.” King has written 63 novels, 120 short stories, 20 novellas, and five non-fiction books.

It’s not surprising then, that his work has been adapted into countless household films over the last decades. Here is our list of the best Stephen King movie adaptations, so if you want to explore the dark recesses of his genius mind on screen, you’ve got a good idea of where to start.

If you like the dark and twisted, check out our list of The Top Ten Most Disturbing Documentaries next.

The Green Mile (1999)

Directed by Frank Darabont

A prisoner is pointing up and is visually upset whilst a cop stands behind him

Cast: Tom Hanks, Dabbs Greer, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Clarke Duncan, Doug Hutchison

Plot: Paul, the head guard of a prison, meets an inmate, John, who has been accused of murdering two girls. His life changes drastically when he discovers that John has a special gift.

The Green Mile was Stephen King’s highest-grossing film, hitting an impressive $136.8 million in domestic ticket sales and $286.8 million worldwide. The film has been widely criticized for being a little on the long side, and this is perhaps due to the fact that Frank Darabont took just 8 weeks to adapt King’s novel into a screenplay. However, it has been argued that the lengths of the film (over 3 hours) are designed to illustrate the slow passage of time when awaiting the death penalty behind bars.

The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won multiple People’s Choice and Saturn Awards. The part of Warden Paul Edgecomb almost went to John Travolta, but he later turned down the part and it was given to Tom Hanks, a choice which delighted King and was a much better fit with his vision of Edgecomb.

The Shawshank Redemption (1984)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Two prisoners are sat in the yard smiling at each other

Cast: Tim Robbin, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows and James Whitmore

Plot: Andy Dufresne, a successful banker, is arrested for the murders of his wife and her lover, and is sentenced to life imprisonment at the Shawshank prison.

You couldn’t be blamed for having any idea that Stephen King had anything to do with Shawshank Redemption, and that’s because his name was largely kept out of the promotion.  This was because Castle Rock Entertainment wanted a more prestigious audience, and didn’t want the film to be associated with some of King’s previous film adaptations such as Cujo and Pet Sematary. In hindsight, King could actually have been a useful selling point, seeing as the film only made $16 million in its initial box office release compared with the $25 million it took to make it. The film did get a re-release internationally which brought it up to $58.3 in the lifetime box office. Even so, for a film this popular, that’s surprisingly bad.

Carrie (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma

A girl being crowned as prom queen

Cast: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen

Plot: On the day of her prom night, seventeen-year-old Carrie discovers that she possesses telekinetic powers. She puts her powers to use when she is humiliated after a prank.

Carrie was a first for both Stephen King and John Travolta, who had his debut movie role in this 70s horror flick. It was King’s first movie contract, and he was only paid $2,500 for the rights - but he’s not bitter, “I was fortunate to have that happen to my first book,” King said. In 1985, King said that De Palma had done a much more creative job with the story than he could ever do. But it seems in recent years that he’s somewhat changed his tune, saying in 2007 that it “hasn’t aged well”.

There have been three adaptations of Carrie since; 1988 musical and two more film adaptations in 2002 and 2013.

It (2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti

Six kids sit around a projector

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff

Plot: Seven helpless and bullied children are forced to face their worst nightmares when Pennywise, a shape-shifting clown, reappears. The clown, an ancient evil, torments children before feeding on them.

Of course, the 1986 adaptation of IT that came before this is favoured by many, but for a horror film in this day and age to both deeply scare audiences and impress critics is far rarer. There are two films in this more modern series of adaptations, IT and IT Chapter 2 but the first is far superior, as is often the case with horror sequels. It is worth mentioning though that IT Chapter 2 features the first-ever digital de-ageing in a horror movie, which is pretty cool.

One of the things that’s so great about IT is the sense of genuine fear. The child actors starring in IT were kept separate from Bill Skarsgård in his full clown makeup and costume until the cameras were rolling, making the terror captured in their scenes with him is rawer and more real.

'Misery' (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Kathy Bates is looking after an injured James Caan who is sat in a wheelchair

Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan

Plot: A best-selling novelist is on his way home after completing his latest book when he meets with a car accident. He is rescued by an obsessed fan, only to discover that he is her prisoner.

Kathy Bates won Best Actress at the 1991 Oscars for her role as Annie Wilkes in this nightmare-depicting film. She plays the ultimate fangirl, whose obsession drives her to abuse. King later disclosed that the story is about addiction, Annie being a human representation of cocaine - which King openly took plenty of while he was writing the novel. The film is a fascinating watch in hindsight, since the launch of the internet and social media, which have driven out celebrity obsessed-culture to new heights.

There have also been several prolific stage adaptations of the novel, but it’s the character of Annie Wilkes herself that keeps appearing in film and TV; She can be seen in the second season of Castle Rock, portrayed by Lizzy Caplan, and a parody of her can be seen un Good Eats Season 5.

The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

Plot: Jack and his family move into an isolated hotel with a violent past. Living in isolation, Jack begins to lose his sanity.

Stephen King actually wrote a draft for the screenplay of The Shining, but according to David Hughes, one of Stanley Kubrick's biographers, Kubrick never read it. Famously picky and assertive in his visions, Kubrick then took five years to make and edit the film, with filming itself taking around a year (the average is between 1 and 3 months). According to an interview King did with Playboy, he was "deeply disappointed" in the outcome and felt that several parts fell flat. Sometimes genius doesn’t recognise genius, it seems.

The cultural impact of The Shining was immeasurable, from Halloween costumes to catchphrases to conspiracy theories, including one that suggests that the film was Kubrick’s confession to helping fake the moon landing.