One of the most prolific and successful horror oeuvres of all time deserves a quality body of film work to match it, and Hollywood continues to frequently oblige. The books of Stephen King have been made into movies many times over the decades, and the pace of production shows no signs of slowing.
Writers are notoriously (and justly) critical of adaptations of their books, and the same has been true of King’s opinion of the legions of movies he inspired. But from a cinematic point of view, there are three distinct categories of Stephen King movies: a handful of truly exceptional films, a larger group of competent ones, and a few dozen completely forgettable efforts. This list focuses on the 10 best Stephen King adaptations to date.
10. Salem’s Lot (1979) – Tobe Hooper
Horror film veteran Tobe Hooper helmed this miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Clocking in at a little over three hours, the television format gave Hooper plenty of room to breathe and explore the source material, though a trimmed down version also offers audiences a shorter option of under two hours.
Longer film versions of King’s work often serve him better than short ones do, and Salem’s Lot is no exception. Vampires play a major role here, as a novelist finds that his hometown neighbors are being transformed into the creatures of the night. The writer returns home to combat the chilling turn of events, and his efforts are the focus of the plot. Featuring a fantastic performance by the great James Mason, Salem’s Lot pays appropriately great tribute to its source material.
9. Cujo (1983) – Lewis Teague
When the primary antagonist of a horror story is a snarling, rabid dog, it would seem an easy task to make an effectively scary movie of it. And, while Cujo isn’t regarded as an iconic classic of any kind, it does its job of terrifying its audience quite well. Through multiple variations on the theme of escaping the attacks of a mad and murderous canine, Cujo conveys the persistent dread of its narrative with dogged intensity.
A mother and son are the would-be victims of the killer canine Cujo, and the duo spend much of the film narrowly escaping the attacks of the rabid dog. Eventually, the two wind up imprisoned in their own car, with Cujo acting as warden from the outside. But Cujo isn’t their only problem – they’re also battling an intense heat wave and a lack of food and water. If intense, white-knuckle horror is your taste, it’s hard to find better examples than 1983’s Cujo.
8. Secret Window (2004) – Lewis Teague
Secret Window seems to fly under the radar more than most King adaptations, but it deserves more praise than it gets. This is a slow burn thriller that’s subtly but undoubtedly effective at conveying fear and tension to the viewer. The cast is small, but powerful – Johnny Depp and John Turturro face off in a remarkable psychological duel that constantly threatens to evolve into something even more sinister.
This film is based on King’s book Secret Garden, and it’s a fantastic analysis of the mental state of an isolated writer, delivered by someone who understands the profession. Johnny Depp plays the author, who has retreated to a quiet cabin in the woods to escape from his stress and writer’s block. But when a mysterious figure shows up, threatening the writer with accusations of plagiarism, his troubles really begin. The unwanted visitor’s tone becomes more and more menacing until the author begins to fear for his life. Secret Window’s excellent performances help to make it one of the best King adaptations.
7. Creepshow (1982) – George A. Romero
Creepshow is a unique entry in this list for two reasons: first, it’s the only anthology in the group; second, it’s the only film not based on a pre-existing Stephen King book. In fact, King wrote an original screenplay for Creepshow, which consists of five individual tales of horror. Overall, it’s a successful and refreshing variation in the King canon – a vision which he fulfilled with the able assistance of legendary director George A. Romero.
Creepshow is an unusual mixture of horror and comedy, with its five separate stories making this a unique and engaging film experience. The individual segments are titled “Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” “Something to Tide You Over,” “The Crate,” and “They’re Creeping Up on You!” The movie is filled with tributes to old horror comics, and it’s since achieved its own iconic status in horror cinema.
6. The Mist (2007) – Frank Darabont
Director Frank Darabont achieved legendary success through his adaptations of Stephen King novels, with The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile cementing his reputation as a skilled filmmaker. The artistic pairing proved magical for a third time with The Mist, a tale tinged with more outright horror than either of the previous two efforts.
The Mist adds of dash of science fiction to its horror, carefully shrouding the nature of the terror engulfing a small town. The setting is a supermarket, where locals have become trapped by a thick mist over the city. Visibility becomes dangerously low, and strange creatures are lurking in the darkness to attack anyone brave enough to venture out of the supermarket. The result is a wonderful film full of oppressive, atmospheric horror, which channels the trademark style of King’s novel in fine style.