Few authors have received as many film and television adaptations as Stephen King. I wouldn’t call myself a King expert, but I’ve read a decent amount of his books, at least most of the well-known releases. Looking at the movies, one glaring omission for me so far is The Green Mile. The three-hour-plus running time is the predominant factor. Putting together this list was fairly easy. There is a strong group of choices that stand out from the extensive pack. The main question was the honorable mentions, which were a bit trickier. I should note that Carrie and Misery were removed because I’ve only seen the major scenes, not the entire films. It wasn’t fair to include them based on incomplete viewings. Also, I considered both movies and TV to give a complete look at the subject. Let’s get to the picks!
Honorable Mentions: The Mist (2007), Storm of the Century (1999)
Both an old-school horror film and a grisly monster movie, The Mist is most unique for its nihilistic ending, which is a serious punch in the gut. It also maintains a claustrophobic tension as the small-town residents are trapped in a local grocery store. When Marcia Gay Harden’s crazed religious zealot starts taking over, you know this isn’t going to end well. Storm of the Century is an underrated morality tale where Colm Feore’s demonic force Andre Linoge pins the townsfolk in a corner. The opening of this four-hour miniseries is effectively creepy and introduces Linoge with just the right aplomb. The revelation from this show is Feore, who dominates the screen and is a brilliant villain.
5. Stand by Me (1986)
Adapted from the King short story “The Body”, this nostalgic coming-of-age tale depicts four 12-year-old buddies as they share a life-changing adventure. Strolling down the railroad tracks in search of a dead body, they encounter a series of obstacles along the way. It’s a charming film that sneaks up on you and is more powerful than you might expect. There are some classic scenes, including a dangerous encounter with an incoming train and the arrival of some nasty leeches. River Phoenix and Kiefer Sutherland stand out in early roles, and Wil Wheaton is well-cast as the King surrogate.
4. The Dead Zone (1983)
I watched this surprising and understated movie while preparing for a David Cronenberg podcast, and it’s a unique part of both his and King’s career. Although there are supernatural elements, it’s primarily a character piece focusing on Christopher Walken’s Johnny Smith. Clocking in at a brisk 103 minutes, the thriller does its job and doesn’t waste time on unnecessary scenes. Martin Sheen is chilling as a crazed politician who may bring about the end of the world. Smith’s psychic ability allows him to see tragic events before they happen, but it’s also a curse that makes him a sad loner. Walken’s rarely been so interesting on screen, and Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay never lets him down.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
2. The Stand (1994)
This epic novel is nearly 1,500 pages, so even a TV miniseries had to make some serious cuts. Airing on network television, this six-hour adaptation employs an excellent cast to deliver a surprisingly faithful adaptation. There are some limits on the effects, but it’s actually more expansive than you might expect. Gary Sinise is the ideal moral center as Stu Redman, the regular guy who’s one of the few survivors of the apocalypse. Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Ossie Davis, and an excellent Ruby Dee shine as the heroes facing the evil Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) and his minions. The long form of television is definitely the right place for King’s characters, and it leads to a gripping and emotional story.
1. The Shining (1980)
Although it drastically changes King’s source material, Stanley Kubrick's film is stunning and one of the great horror films of all time. It’s filled with unforgettable imagery, particularly the blood rushing down the hotel corridors and the utterly creepy twins. This is an example where Jack Nicholson’s mania works perfectly to show Jack Torrance’s mental destruction. Shelly Duvall is completely overmatched, but that’s the point since it matches how the characters interact. Amazingly, Kubrick was nominated for a Worst Director Razzie, which is just ridiculous to consider. It’s a divisive film for King fans, but The Shining remains a frightening and remarkable piece of cinema.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.
Next week, I'll stay in the '50s and take a ride with George Lucas in American Graffiti.