Stephen King, the undisputed ruler of the horror genre, is no stranger to having his books turned into movies. His debut novel, Carrie, was released as a film only two years after its initial publication in 1974 and the trend has continued unabated ever since, with countless King stories adapted for screen over the years.
As fans of the author will know, these efforts were more often misses than hits. There are some notable exceptions, like 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, but these just go to prove the general rule – King movies are often terrible. Or, rather, were terrible. Things have changed of late, and recently we’ve seen some excellent movies and TV series based on King’s work. With many more set for release in the coming years, there’s good reason for fans to get excited, and what better way to do so than by looking back at the top 10 King screen adaptations of the last decade.
1. Carrie (2013)
Since Carrie was King’s first novel and the first to become a movie, there’s no better place to start than the excellent 2013 remake. The story, in essence, is about retribution as Carrie White ultimately uses her telekinetic powers to exact brutal revenge on those who wronged her. There’s so much more going on here though, as the lead character, expertly played by Chloe Grace Moretz, evokes strong feelings of pity despite her homicidal actions at the end. Julianne Moore rounds out a strong cast with her portrayal of Carrie’s mother, proving that the strength of King’s story lies always in its characters.
Throughout the girl’s troubled teenage years we’re given a heartbreaking portrayal that’s both relatable and all too easy to believe. True, Carrie’s telekinesis is fictional but her struggles with bullying at school, abuse and mental illness at home, and a general longing to fit in are all too real and relatable. Kimberly Pierce, one of the few prominent female directors in Hollywood, proves her worth with the depth of subtlety and nuance she packs into every scene. But make no mistake, this is a horror story through and through, and the blood-soaked final scenes leave no doubt that this is vintage King.
2. Mr. Mercedes (2017)
In his 62nd novel, King went in a new direction, leaving the supernatural behind and opting rather for a straightforward detective story. Mr. Mercedes features no fanciful elements, just strong characters, an engaging plot, and a viscerally shocking opening scene. These elements come through strongly in the popular 2017 TV series, possibly because this kind of character-driven investigative plot is perfectly suited to episodic storytelling.
After Brady Hartsfield murders several people by driving a Mercedes sedan into a crowd of job seekers one cold morning and disappears without a trace, detective Bill Hodges is unable to solve the case. Later, in retirement, he’s taunted by the killer in a series of messages and picks up the hunt once more, this time without the burden of a badge. Starting with a bang as it does is a risky move as everything that follows could come across as anticlimactic, but Mr. Mercedes is spared this fate by its colorful cast of characters and a plot that moves along briskly, engaging the viewer as it does. The story might be fairly standard, bordering on predictable, but for purposes of pure entertainment, it performs admirably.
3. 1922 (2017)
Stephen King’s 2010 collection of four short stories, entitled Full Dark, No Stars, was popularly received by fans. Not too surprisingly, three of these stories have been subject to screen adaptations and, of those, 1922 is the best of the bunch. Released as a Netflix exclusive and backed up by an impressive 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating, the departure from the contemporary setting, not something King does too often, works well in narrowing the focus of the plot to the most critical aspect – the main character’s descent into insanity.
In a very Poe-like way, the story begins with Wilfred James holed up in a hotel, the threat of rats in the walls, and his own guilty conscience, driving him to recount his grizzly tale of spousal murder and how the deadly dead cost him his unwitting accomplice – his son. The story unfolds as more of a slow-burn psychological thriller but the strong character development sees the viewer quickly invested in the plot, and there are more than enough hair-raising moments to remind one that Stephen King knows exactly how to mesmerize and terrorize as he spins a yarn, be it in book or movie form.
4. Pet Sematary (2019)
Pet Sematary, one of King’s more shocking stories, deals with the issue of death and resurrection. The book was made into a movie in 1989 and, even though the author wrote the screenplay, the effort was thoroughly forgettable. The story was brought back to life in a 2019 reboot and this time, it’s a vast improvement. “Sometimes dead is better,” claims one of the characters in the story, but this is not one of those times. Like things buried in the titular pet sematary, the movie has come back from the grave changed, but these changes are mostly for the better.
That’s not to say the movie was popularly received, nor that it’ll go down as a horror classic. It shines only in comparison to the previous attempt and as a faithful adaptation of an excellent novel that goes all out in its efforts to terrify. While part of this impact is lost in the movie, some clever foreshadowing and one or two heart-stopping moments stand out, as does John Lithgow’s convincing performance as Judd Crandall, the old neighbor who sets all the chaos in motion. King claims his stories are like fast food – nothing fancy but they fill a need. The same could be said for this movie. Its sole objective is to entertain and in that, it succeeds beyond doubt.
5. In the Tall Grass (2019)
In the Tall Grass is a collaborative novella written by Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill. Horror fiction connoisseurs will know that Hill tends to up the ante when it comes to the fright factor and his stories are some of the scariest around. Writing as he does in the shadow of his illustrious father, he seems to go out of his way to differentiate his approach and the effective colliding of two unique styles is likely what attracted seasoned director, Vincenzo Natali, to this project.
Following a brother and sister who get lured into a field of tall grass in the middle of nowhere on a cross country road trip, the movie starts strongly with Natali expertly using his signature visual-poetry style to add a deep sense of foreboding and tense expectation to proceedings. From there, it deteriorates somewhat into the expected thrills and spills of the genre as the movie follows the general arc of the novella, getting decidedly weirder as it progresses. Any structural flaws here, though, are not the fault of the film but rather can be attributed to the story being an experimental collaboration that perhaps signals the passing of the baton from one King to another.
6. Doctor Sleep (2019)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining, drew strong praise or harsh criticism depending on who you asked. Fans of the book and, famously, Stephen King himself, hated the movie because, while some license-taking is expected, Kubrick altered not just vital plot elements but the overall feel of the story as well. When King wrote a sequel in 2013, he must have had higher hopes for the film version, and, fortunately for him, Mike Flanagan picked up the project and delivered an excellent movie in 2019’s screen adaptation of Doctor Sleep.
Flanagan had the unenviable task of connecting the opposing visions of King and Kubrick in the direct sequel that follows a grown-up Danny Torrence as he battles his psychic abilities in a journey that takes him, inevitably, back to the scene of his childhood nightmare – The Overlook Hotel. That the place was destroyed in the novel but not in the movie of The Shining is one example of the kind of challenges Flanagan had in marrying the two in a single film, and he succeeds admirably, catering to both sets of fans and to horror lovers in general. Add in some strong acting by Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Fergusson, and you have one of the better King adaptations to ever grace the silver screen.
7. IT: Chapters 1 & 2 (2017 & 2019)
Yes, this is technically two for the price of one, but since the recent film translation of King’s classic horror novel is a single story, divided only for convenience, they can’t really be separated and so appear as one on this list. Given the formidable length of the book, a single movie could never work, which is why the previous attempt to televise the tale took the form of a miniseries back in 1990. Needless to say, it wasn’t spectacular, although it did bring the terrifying form of Pennywise, the murderous clown, to a whole new generation. And now, thanks to Andres Muschietti’s efforts, we have a screen version that does the chilling tale justice at last.
If you’ve read the book you’ll know that its allure is far more than just that of a scary story. Within, we find an engaging account of the enduring bond of childhood friendship, of bullying, abuse, loss, unhealthy family dynamics, and banding together to defeat our demons with the power of love. This is less cheesy than it sounds when one of said demons is a literal shape-shifting monster. King often comes under fire for his weak endings, and the ending of IT is not just weak but also bizarrely obscene. Thankfully, the movie changes it, removing the elements of underage intercourse and going for a more traditional conclusion that even the author agrees is a vast improvement.
8. Gerald’s Game (2017)
We’ve already discussed Mike Flanagan’s excellent work on Doctor Sleep and here we find proof that that movie wasn’t the first time he worked wonders with a King story that wasn’t exactly film-friendly. Gerald’s Game, considered one of King’s least successful novels, was never a likely candidate for a movie version. The majority of the story takes place in a single room, with the protagonist handcuffed to a bed, and most of the plot unfolding by way of internal dialogue, visions, and flashbacks. But, a lifelong King fan and having long ago pledged to attempt the project, Flanagan brings all his talent to bear on this excellent 2017 movie.
The director knows exactly what confines he’s operating within when it comes to the plot and, rather than change key elements as many others would’ve done, he seeks to amplify the feel of isolation and confinement of the novel with some excellent cinematic effects. Here again, King’s inability to finish off a story to the satisfaction of the reader is evident, as many feel Gerald’s Game unravels in the final third. But, committed to a faithful remake as he was, Flanagan boldly sticks to the script and pulls it off excellently, making Gerald’s Game not just an excellent movie, but a fitting tribute to the source material, just as it was intended.
9. The Outsider (2020)
Following the success of the Bill Hodges trilogy (of which Mr. Mercedes was the first installment) King used some of the same characters in The Outsider, released in 2018. Naturally, it was picked up by HBO and made into a series two years later. While Mr. Mercedes is a pure detective story, The Outsider blends elements of crime and horror fantasy in a more traditional King way, and the series received widespread acclaim, despite being terminated after only one season.
The plot involves a mysterious, shape-shifting creature that commits gruesome murders disguised as innocent civilians, leaving the poor individuals to deal with the aftermath. Terry Maitland, played excellently by Jason Bateman, is one such, and his efforts to clear his name lead him ultimately to a confrontation with the horrific creature. Along the way, he enlists the aid of Holly Gibney, the very woman who spectacularly stopped Mr. Mercedes in his tracks. Each episode is fresh and engaging and rockets along to a satisfying conclusion. As season one concluded the events of the story, no follow-up was planned. The recent release of King’s short story If It Bleeds, a direct sequel to the Outsider, gives us hope that a second season may now be possible.
10. The Stand (2020)
King fans would’ve been delighted to hear of the recent miniseries based on the author’s epic 1978 novel. Not because it deals with a pandemic (although it does) nor because the previous televised effort in 1994 was terrible (although it was) but simply because The Stand is a deeply engaging story packed with memorable characters, making it a prime candidate for a TV series adaptation. Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell obliged and, aided by an excellent cast and King himself as a consultant, the result is every bit as engaging as fans had hoped.
By fans, however, I mean fans of the book. As long as the novel is, a nine-part miniseries was always going to leave aspects out, and the only letdown here is that the story wasn’t extended into multiple seasons. Character progression is a crucial aspect of the novel, as is the linear plot. The producers of the series opted for a rather confusing past/present shift reminiscent of Lost, which is exactly how anyone not familiar with the book must have felt during the first few episodes of The Stand. These complaints, however, are minor. Even the uninitiated will be drawn in and the diverse array of characters and constant intrigue make this an excellent screen adaptation of one of Stephen King’s finest books.