Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard
When Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, on April 5, 1974, the New England author unknowingly caused a rift in genre storytelling and filmmaking that has yet to zip back up. Since then, he’s published nearly 100 works and sold over 350 million copies, all of which have spawned countless films, miniseries, and television shows.
Some have been great, some have been awful, some shouldn’t even be allowed to use the original title. When you have an oeuvre that deep and licensing that expansive, it’s understandable why quantity would triumph over quality. Still, when filmmakers do connect with King’s work, it often conjures up something iconic and masterful.
“I love the movies, and when I go to see a movie that’s been made from one of my books, I know that it isn’t going to be exactly like my novel because a lot of other people have interpreted it,” King previously stated. “But I also know it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year, or a year and a half of my life working on it.”
That’s the allure of his many adaptations. Even at their worst, they all work off ideas that were at one time unique and exciting enough to compel him to write 400 or 1,500 pages about them. Having said that, we’re probably never going to revisit the bottom of this barrel ever again, which is why this feature should come in handy for you.
As for those Dollar Baby shorts, well, you’re on your own there.
80. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
In the history of loose Stephen King adaptations, The Lawnmower Man has got to be the loosest. Taking only the most basic element of King’s story (a man who mows lawns) and shoehorning in King tropes of creepy religious imagery and abusive fathers, The Lawnmower Man is actually based on the script Cyber God, written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimmel Everett. A sci-fi take on Frankenstein, the film features some very cool and (at the time) state of the art special effects that takes the audience into the world of virtual reality. New Line eventually relented and removed King’s name from the film. For the purposes of this list, though, it answers the question: “When is a Stephen King adaption not a Stephen King adaptation?”
King’s Consensus: Well, the film strayed so far from the source material that King went on to sue the filmmakers to remove his name from the title. Despite two court rulings in his favor, New Line still released the home video version as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. On King’s own site, the film remains unlisted among adaptations based on his work. In sum, he hates it.
79. Trucks TV Movie (1997)
Maximum Overdrive is an absurd, over-the-top adaptation of “Trucks”, a subdued Night Shift story that’s both ambiguous and despairing. It’s considered one of the worst Stephen King adaptations of all time, so it’s telling that the story’s other film adaptation is even lower on this list. Trucks is a TV movie from 1997 starring Timothy Busfield that’s almost more absurd than Maximum Overdrive in conception—holistic mumbo-jumbo attempts to explain away the living cars—but not nearly as violent, silly, or stupid. Really, this thing is an absolute snorefest; the best part is a tonally inconsistent sequence where some dude on the street is slowly, painstakingly killed by a tiny RC monster truck. I never thought I’d say this, but I really wish a coked-out King directed this one, too.
78. The Mist TV Series (2017)
On paper, it seemed like a good idea: King’s Skeleton Crew novella “The Mist” is a story ripe for serial television, chock full of memorable characters that must try and survive an impossible situation that is literally shrouded in mystery. It’s like The Walking Dead, what with all the dread and savage humanity, only with far more possibilities because anything can happen in the mist. Spike TV fumbled big time, though, as showrunner Christian Torpe took all the menace and characterization of Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation and funneled it through cheap CGI scares and insufferable archetypes. Now, more often than not, the worst of the King adaptations are saved by a capable cast or carried to the finish line by concept alone, but both lack so much imagination here that you find yourselves wishing for a bullet like Thomas Jane in the original. Woof.
King’s Consensus: “THE MIST TV series premieres on Spike, June 22nd. You might want to mark it on your calendar. It’s really good.” –Twitter, June 2017
77. A Good Marriage (2014)
Full Dark, No Stars, King’s 2010 short story collection, deals with themes of vengeance, and while A Good Marriage isn’t exactly one of its better stories, it still has all the trappings of a decent flick. So, when it was announced that there would be a film with Joan Allen and Stephen Lang on board, intrigue settled in. Unfortunately, this film turned out to be a by-the-numbers Lifetime special, complete with one poorly fleshed-out family, awkward sexual tension, and a great collection of coins! The direction is sophomoric, and some of the interplay between Anthony LaPaglia and Allen is downright cringeworthy. This is also Stephen King’s first screenplay in 25 years, and it shows. In the end, you’re better off divorcing yourself from A Good Marriage.
King’s Consensus: “Frankly, I thought It would make a terrific suspense movie.” –Fox News interview, September 2014
76. The Mangler (1995)
Tobe Hooper directing. Robert Englund starring. A Stephen King story. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s break it down: We have a director in Hooper well past his Texas Chainsaw prime. We get an Englund performance that is so cartoonish, it makes his take on the titular character in Freddy’s Dead seem as restrained as Gunnar Björnstrand in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. To top it off: the short story in which its based (about a haunted laundromat presser) is kinda lame! A bad supporting cast, a laughable “twist” ending, and some howlingly bad CGI and you get a mangled mess of a movie.
King’s Consensus: “Tobe Hooper, who directed it, is something of a genius…The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves that beyond doubt. But when genius goes wrong, brother, watch out. The film version of ‘The Mangler’ is energetic and colorful, but it’s also a mess with Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund stalking through it for reasons which remain unclear to me even now. … The movie’s visuals are surreal and the sets are eye-popping, but somewhere along the way (maybe in the copious amounts of steam generated by the film’s mechanical star), the story got lost.” —Stephen King Goes to the Movies, 2009
75. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009)
Christian Slater has saved many films in his life, but Dolan’s Cadillac is not one of them. Jeff Beesley’s 2009 adaptation of King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes short story is a sleazy genre affair that suffers from garish overacting and a total lack of self-awareness. Essentially, it’s a would-be hard-boiled revenge story, only its tires go flat right out of the gate without a spare in sight. Think back to the premise of James O’Barr’s The Crow, strip out the gothic overtones,replace them with some desert raunch from a flu-rattled Joe Carnahan, and, well, there you are. Had Beesley gone for a lead with a little more chutzpah than Wes Bentley, this might have fared differently, but as it is, Dolan’s Cadillac is a predictable waste of time.
74. “Chattery Teeth” from Quicksilver Highway (1997)
The King half of this made-for-TV anthology movie — the other half belongs to Clive Barker — isn’t much to write home about (and to be fair, neither is the Barker half). It’s oddly shot with performances that range from wooden to deeply silly, and frequent King interpreter Mick Garris takes every opportunity to say “THIS IS SPOOKY” that he possibly can (wait for the vulture shot — it’s not 10 minutes long, but it feels it.) Still, you can’t call a movie where a malevolent hitchhiker gets brought down by a pair of chattering toy teeth dull, so it has that going for it.
73. The Langoliers (1995)
King’s stories had found a new place to flourish in the ‘90s: television. After the success of ABC miniseries adaptations of IT and The Stand, things were looking up for TV King to wear the crown for the rest of the decade. Then The Langoliers happened. Unrecognizably directed by Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night), this adaptation from King’s Four Past Midnight has a cast that looks ready to bail ASAP. The lone exception is Bronson Pinchot, who looks thrilled to abandon his Balky persona. Bad, bad “Langoliers” special effects and one of the worst freeze-frame endings of all time contribute to this entry landing near the bottom of our list.
72. Cell (2016)
King often receives hell for his endings, but rarely does he fumble on the half-yard line. Such is the case with Cell, his 2006 zombie homage that essentially finds the author answering a call from one of his own deadly constructs about 150 pages into the story. Because what follows an incredibly strong start — one of his best, if we’re being fair to the author — is a frustrating downward spiral of logic and plotting. Naturally, that chaos extended to Tod Williams’ 2016 film adaptation as King returned to write the screenplay, rewriting the ending yet retaining all the annoying quirks that plagued the source material. What’s worse, the film reeks of VOD cheese, so much so that you start wondering if 1408 co-stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson might be better off answering one of the phones themselves. We all should.
71. Desperation TV Movie (2006)
With Desperation, director Mick Garris returns to the King universe once again with another stellar cast, this time made up of Ron Pearlman, Tom Skerritt, Annabeth Gish, Henry Thomas. Sadly, not one of them can save this strange story: An ancient evil, Tak, is unleashed on the small town of Desperation after miners accidentally disturb its lair in an old mine dug by Chinese immigrants 150 years prior. At times, it feels like Garris is trying to make a propaganda film about believing in God, only the message gets crushed under the weight of a story despite its two hour and 10 min runtime. Originally shot in 2004, the story was to be released as a two-part miniseries, but was burned off in 06’ in one fell swoop against American Idol. Needless to say, King was not thrilled. Maybe we can undo the wrongs of this film with an adaptation of its sister book, The Regulators? Eh, probably not.
70. “Gramma” from The Twilight Zone (1986)
Here’s one for the history books: On Valentine’s Day 1986, “Gramma” entered The Twilight Zone canon. Yes, King managed to slip into the revival of Rod Serling’s iconic television series, but so did Barret Oliver, who trades in his attic retreat, The Never-Ending Story, and “MOON CHILD!” for Castle Rock, the Necronomicon, and a Cthulhu chanting “Gramma!” Originally published in Weirdbook magazine and later recollected for Skeleton Crew, this story follows a young boy left behind to care of his dying grandma, who may or may not be a witch! Told mostly through voiceovers, something Oliver killed in The Never-Ending Story, one would think we’re in safe hands. However, director Brad Mayford rushes through a script that hemorrhages too much story in too little time. Harlan Ellison, who is responsible for Strange Wine, one of King’s favorite horror novels, does a poor job adapting this eerie tale, but one wonders what could have been with a little more time to flesh this monster out.
69. “The Moving Finger” from Monsters (1991)
The great Tom Noonan, of all people, stars in this adaptation of the memorable Nightmares & Dreamscapes short story that finds an everyday man grappling with the horrifically long finger poking out of his bathroom sink. This goofy, schlocky adaptation aired as the final episode of the early ‘90s anthology horror series Monsters and Noonan’s excessive mugging is outdone only by the short’s Looney Tunes score, which would sound a lot better underscoring the adventures of Elmer Fudd than this would-be horror tale. Sure, the tone is jaunty, but without an adequate peek into the mind of Noonan’s character it’s impossible to grasp the stakes or underlying horror of the actual situation. One watch and you’ll be happy to flush this one from your mind.
68. Children of the Corn (1984)
While Stephen King adaptations really didn’t lean into prestige territory until the ‘90s (outside of The Shining, that is, but King still hates that one), Christine, Carrie, and The Dead Zone were certainly top shelf affairs. Children Of The Corn, meanwhile, is a gleefully low-rent King adaption—from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, no less—which is fitting for a short story that premiered in Penthouse magazine. Featuring creepy kids and creepier religious imagery, Corn is an effective piece of schlock that provides a few good jump scares and a wonderfully over the top opening with the kids disposing of the adults in a variety of ways, including a deli style meat slicer.
King’s Consensus: “My feeling for most of these things is like a guy who sends his daughter off to college. You hope she’ll do well. You hope that she won’t fall in with the wrong people. You hope she won’t be raped at a fraternity party, which is really close to what happened to Children of the Corn, in a metaphoric sense.” —USA Today, May 1995
67. Graveyard Shift (1990)
1990 gave us three Stephen King adaptations, and while Misery walked away with an Oscar, only one gave us a gigantic rat. That would be Graveyard Shift, which, despite being released by Paramount, feels less like a major studio release and more like a Full Moon production. The simple tale concerns a team of workers tasked with cleaning out the basement of a textile mill, and removing the kingdom of rats that have taken over. And if an abundance of average-size rodents weren’t enough to get your skin crawling, there’s the queen, who’s not pleased with the presence of the exterminators—including Brad Dourif, whose chewing more scenery than the rats. Misery may get the accolades, but Graveyard Shift is infinitely more fun, with its combination of factory-town melodrama and quality Jawsploitation.
King’s Consensus: “I spent that day knocking out a story called ‘Graveyard Shift.’ I remember being very happy and very absorbed – having the time of my life, in fact. The story was gruesome, fast and fun. (It later became a film which was gruesome and fast, but unfortunately not much fun.)” –Introduction in a 1999 reprinting of Carrie
66. Under the Dome TV Series (2013-2015)
King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a pulpy genre affair with a capital G. It’s a ridiculous, asinine premise — the idea that a magical dome encapsulates a small Maine town — that’s about as on-the-nose as a high schooler making a metaphor about ant farms and the tiers of social class. But, King flipped the medium to his advantage, finding a nice line between humor and horror, and the lengthy book was a total page turner, thriving with addicting heroes and villains that you wanted to see win or lose. The CBS series, however, failed to capture that magic, lacking any self-awareness and doubling down on the kind of cheap drama that the network continues to sell for a dime a dozen today. To his credit, Dean Norris actually offers an OK turn as “Big Jim” Rennie, but it’s hard to thrive in a bubble of mediocrity, and that’s sadly all you’ll find under this dome.
65. Mercy (2014)
There are two reasons that Blumhouse’s Mercy, an adaptation of the short story “Gramma”, ranks higher on our list than the Twilight Zone episode also made from that story. One: The movie has Shirley Knight in it, and even when she’s just OK she’s still good. Two: It’s occasionally very pretty to look at. But, please, if you must view one of the two, make it the other one. It’s shorter. There’s not enough meat in “Gramma” to fill a feature film, making this thing an overlong, paralyzingly dull “horror” movie without so much as a single jump scare to be found. Watch if, and only if, you can’t get enough of Carl from The Walking Dead.
64. Rose Red (2002)
Rose Red is so weird. King’s spin on classic haunted house tales like The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House tells the story of a group of people with psychic powers who spend the night in a notoriously haunted mansion. It features some great talent—burgeoning stars Matt Ross, Melanie Lynskey, and Jimmi Simpson, most notably—but the narrative is a goddamn mess. It literally seems at times like there’s missing scenes or reshoots that were never quite finished; the fate of Kevin Tighe’s Victor is so vague it’ll make you think you must’ve missed something (note: you didn’t). It also features the worst King cameo of all time, where he shows up as a goofy, winking pizza man in a scene that completely shatters what little hint of horror the film had cultivated up to that point.
63. Children of the Corn (2009)
Donald P. Borchers was a producer for the original Children of the Corn and, rightfully so, didn’t think it was a successful adaptation. So he set out to write and direct something that would be more faithful to King’s short story. To his credit, he mostly succeeds in this goal. But the film still makes the same fatal flaw of showing what led the children of Gatlin to kill all of the adults before the opening credits even roll. That kind of ruins the mystery. Since we’ve already figured everything out as an audience, there’s no suspense in watching bickering couple Burt and Vicky trying to do the same thing. That only makes the film’s other flaws — awkward performances from the child actors, a gratuitous sex scene, and costumes that look lifted from a community-theatre production of Oklahoma! — even more glaring. It would be nice to see a filmmaker adapt Children of the Corn with King’s original conceit in mind: the reader discovering what happened in Gatlin at the same time as the characters.
King’s Consensus: None. Although the filmmakers sent him the script in hopes of him being involved, his lawyers sent back a letter saying he wanted nothing to do with the new adaptation.
62. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
King took a stab at directing and failed. No time for jokes here. Maximum Overdrive is a relic from a time when video stores were in vogue. Great cover: Emilio Estevez with a gun and Green Goblin semi. Lil’ Justin is in. Older Justin is not. With fresh pairs of eyes and nostalgia washed away we’re left with a movie overloaded with AC/DC, bad direction, illogical storytelling, and the longest 98 minutes of your life. King’s short story “Trucks” is a good short story that has proven to be impossible to adapt into a full-length feature. I do like the first 10 minutes, but the rest? I’m hailing the next semi, evil or not, and getting out of dodge!
King’s Consensus: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003
61. Carrie (2013)
The only good thing about Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic is that it’s directed by a woman. It’s a story about women: Carrie, Margaret, Sue, and Chris are all spirited, frustrated, and broken in their own ways, so why not see what someone as talented as Peirce could bring to the material? Unfortunately, she doesn’t bring much. The result is shiny, superficial, and boring, and the casting of Chloë Grace Moretz as the titular character counts among its most fatal of flaws. Moretz is a fine actress, but nobody would mistake her for an outcast, no matter how much you give her the She’s All That treatment. The biggest problem, however? That it uses the material as a revenge narrative. It’s as if we’re supposed to be cheering for Carrie, to celebrate and cheer for this mass slaughter. Horrifying in all the wrong ways.
King’s Consensus: “I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake, as I have about The Stand and It. Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book. Piper Laurie really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing.” –Entertainment Weekly, May 2011