The 25 best Stephen King adaptations, ranked! From Salem's Lot to Doctor Sleep

Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Stephen King has caused many a sleepless night over the last 40 years – and thanks to the numerous adaptations of his literary works, book lovers haven't been the only ones spooked silly.

Ever since the success of Carrie in 1976, the cinematic rights to the author's novels have been snapped up left and right by hungry studios, eager to turn his tales of horror into hit blockbusters and TV series. But which are considered the best takes on his material?

The Boogeyman was the latest King movie to creep into cinemas, though it admittedly received lukewarm reviews. Starring Yellowjackets' Sophie Thatcher and Chris Messina, it centers on high school student Sadie and her younger sister Sawyer, who are struggling to reconnect with their therapist father following the death of their mother. One day, a man (David Dastmalchian), who claims to be a patient of their dad's, comes knocking at their house and when the girls let him in, they inadvertently unleash a terrifying entity into their home.

With spooky season well under way, we've looked back at the bounty of works that have been inspired by the author's novels. Whether you care for killer clown fare or tearjerker period dramas, there's plenty to choose from among the best Stephen King adaptations...

25. Cujo (1983)

The movie: Arguably the King adaptation most frequently checked in pop culture, Cujo tells the tale of a rabid St. Bernard who is left alone to slowly succumb to a viciouse disease. Strung up in a dusty yard on a hot day, exacerbating the matter tenfold, things turn sour when a young mother (Dee Wallace Stone) and her child drive onto the lot only to have their car break down. They quickly become the object of Cujo’s attention. 

What it got right: Cojo is often rather unfairly maligned from the get-go because of its more “straight” aspirations. There’s no supernatural beast, as this is about a mistreated dog left unchecked that eventually turns monstrous – an allegory for King’s own experiences with addiction. The claustrophobia of the scenario, being captive in a baking hot car with a slobbering beast at your door, is truly frightening.

24. 1408 (2008)

The movie: Mike Enslin (John Cusack) spends his life debunking supposed paranormal occurrences, so he isn’t particularly fazed when he rocks up to his next assignment. The supposedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel may sound like just another tourist trap, but when the manager – a superb Samuel L. Jackson – dubs it “fucking evil”, Enslin begins to consider whether the rumours are true.

What it got right: In 2008, King's influence over the big screen was waning. But director Mikael Håfström reminds us how it should be done, stuffing 1408 full of atmosphere and grisly discoveries. The ending may be a letdown, but this is an effective jumper with a handful of decent twists and turns.

23. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

The movie: Nabbing its name from a collection of novellas, Hearts in Atlantis adapts the story Low Men in Yellow Coats, which – as King completists will know – has a direct connection to his Dark Tower mythology. Although, you wouldn’t know it based on this film that eschews the sly winks of connectivity for a standalone tale surrounding the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), who moves into town, and changes the lives of young Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his mother forever.

What it got right: The casting of Anthony Hopkins adds an extra layer of mystery (and inherent menace) to a character that could have been twee in the hands of a lesser talent. Emotionally complex and moving, this is one of the more low-key King adaptations – that doesn’t boast a mess of blood and guts – and it's all the better for it.

22. Cat's Eye (1985)

The movie: Cat’s Eye wraps a loose story – that of a mangy, stray cat – around its trio of tales to form a snug anthology of oddities. Two are based on stories from King’s Night Shift collection – Quitters Inc., which stars James Woods as a guy who signs up with a shady firm to help him stop smoking, and The Ledge, which will do nothing to quash your fear of heights. The third, The General, is an original script that’s a blast as it features Drew Barrymore, a troll, and the aforementioned kitty. 

What it got right: The choice to tackle some of King’s best stories in the form of shorter vignettes is, well, genius. Cat’s Eye is a lot of fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite it being one of the best Stephen King movies, it would also be worth investigating the idea of a TV anthology series based on these succinct bites. 

21. Castle Rock (2018 - 2019)

Bill Skarsgård in Castle Rock

(Image credit: Hulu)

The show: Starring horror faves like Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek, and It's Bill Skarsgård, Castle Rock loosely takes place in King's story-telling multiverse, bringing together a bunch of his stories, locations, and characters. Season 1 took inspiration from Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Shining, as it follows Henry Deaver (André Holland), a death-row attorney who is forced to return to his hometown when it's discovered that its recently deceased prison warden was keeping a mysterious, unnamed man captive.

Season 2 sees Lizzy Caplan play a younger version of Kathy Burke's Annie Wilkes from Misery, as she sets up home in Maine while on the run with her daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher).

What it got right: Castle Rock essentially offers up the best of both worlds; an original show that's accessible to newbies, yet boasts links to King's works for fans to enjoy. Its setting, perhaps its biggest nod to the author, is creepy and atmospheric, while its anthology approach keeps things fresh much like the TV take on Fargo did. Back in August 2018, King even gave the show his seal of approval, tweeting: "CASTLE ROCK is really good, each episode better than the last. But put all that Easter egg stuff aside and just enjoy it on its own terms. The cast is incandescent and they support a story worth telling."

20. Christine (1983)

The movie: Based on a doorstopper of a book, Christine is a favourite among fans despite its lukewarm critical reception. Like the novel, the movie follows uber-nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), who isn’t exactly popular, living vicariously through his jock best friend Dennis (John Stockwell). But after Arnie eyes up a dilapidated ‘58 Plymouth tagged Christine, which may have a few secrets hiding under the hood, his life takes an interesting turn.

What it got right: There's a pulpy charm to John Carpenter's haunted vehicle pic, with the auteur's characteristic focus on, er, characters keeping the engine purring nicely. Carpenter's score is also another streamlined beauty. The best film about a haunted car you're ever likely to see. Take that, Transformers.

19. Firestarter (1984)

The movie: A shady organisation offers college students serious cash to participate in experiments where they are dosed with a hallucinogen. Andy and Vicky (David Keith and Heather Locklear) meet during these sessions and it’s only afterwards they realise they’ve acquired skills: he can change people’s will and she can read minds. Once their young daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) turns 9, she exhibits pyro-kinetic abilities: she can start fires with her mind. Once “The Shop” – the agency behind the experiments – realises, they’ll do anything to capture her...

What it got right: Casting Barrymore, hot off E.T., as the young Charlie is a masterstroke and it’s largely her performance that makes this early ‘80s thriller worth a watch. A mish-mash of King’s tried-and-tested subjects – telekinetic ability in young women, paranoia, and shady government projects – Firestarter’s a blast. 

18. Salem's Lot (1979)

The miniseries: The small town of Salem's Lot may look quaint on the surface, but beneath lies an ancient evil in the form of an old vampire desperate to take over. When novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns home, he quickly discovers the new antique store owners are hiding something. Yes, corpses. It’s up to Mears and a young horror fanatic to stop the vampire that's laying siege to their town.

What it got right: With Tobe Hooper behind the camera, Salem's Lot has a potent mood and a great protagonist in Mears, who transforms slowly from bookish author to all-out vampire slayer. Genuinely chilling in places – especially that window scene. Plus, you’ve got to give King credit for calling a vampire Kurt Barlow.

Continue to Page 2 for more of the best Stephen King adaptations

Gem Seddon

Gem Seddon is GamesRadar+'s west coast Entertainment News Reporter, working to keep all of you updated on all of the latest and greatest movies and shows on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Outside of entertainment journalism, Gem can frequently be found writing about the alternative health and wellness industry, and obsessing over all things Aliens and Terminator on Twitter. 

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