King’s Constant Readers are the most rabid, opinionated, harshest critics and/or advocates of adaptations of his work. I’m no exception! Here are my selections for the top 10 film adaptations of Stephen King's books in the last 20 years.
1408 (2007-Mikael Hafstrom)
I just watched this movie for the first time. John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in a Stephen King adaptation? How did I miss this when it first came out? The likely answer is that the trailer scared me and I was too chicken to watch it. Regardless, I loved it! Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a skeptical paranormal expert who writes books about his experiences staying overnight in popular haunted hotels and buildings.
Room 1408 at The Dolphin Hotel proves to be everything it’s rumored to be. Samuel L. Jackson does an excellent job as the hotel’s manager trying to convince Mike not to stay the night.
As in most horror movies, the setup and initial scares are the most unsettling. About an hour into it, everything begins to derail, and the horrific events become a little repetitive, to the point of being almost ridiculous. Toward the end, it straightens itself out again, tapering off into realistic horrors like those in the beginning. This is really a one-man show, Cusack being the only actor leading the entire movie, and he does a great job. I’m glad I watched it for this article—it made the cut. You can find the short story in the collection, Everything’s Eventual.
Lisey’s Story (2021-Appletv+)
Based on the novel of the same title, the AppleTV+ original series Lisey’s Story is written by the man himself, and it shows. It aired in June of 2021, dropping a new installment once a week for a total of eight episodes. I watched it with my husband, which is always the true test because together we represent both people who are obsessive Constant Readers, and people who haven’t read the book (He loved it too!).
I loved everything about this mini-series. The acting was impeccable. Clive Owen and Julianne Moore as Scott and Lisey Landon were perfect. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Allen as Lisey’s sisters gave so much authenticity to their roles—they felt like a real family. But it’s actor Dane DeHaan as Jim Dooley who steals the limelight anytime he’s on screen; one of the scariest “villains” in any King adaptation, in my opinion. Episode four, “Jim Dandy”, was especially brutal. I’ll never look at a yo-yo the same again. Scott Landon’s flashbacks to his childhood living with his little brother and mentally ill, abusive father were also extremely difficult—but with King behind the screenplay and Pablo Larrain behind the camera, every. single. scene. is a masterclass in controlled tension and beautiful darkness. I hesitate to make big statements, but Lisey’s Story and Doctor Sleep are my favorite King adaptations right now (subject to change on a whim). And make sure to read the novel, it’s severely underrated. One of my favorites.
Doctor Sleep (2019- Mike Flanagan)
I saw Doctor Sleep twice at the theater and again when it was available to rent. Mike Flanagan is able to do something magical with our beloved dark and horror fiction when he translates it onto the screen. For Doctor Sleep, he blends together the written words and heart of King’s book, the visuals of Kubrick, and his own vision to make one, seamless work.
Just as I’ll never forgive King for Baseball Boy (and that scene is entirely King’s fault) I also now blame Flanagan for destroying me, emotionally, because of Baseball Boy. My heart still hurts. The True Knot is truly the worst—preying on children for their ability to ‘shine’. Rebecca Ferguson embodied the role of Rose the Hat perfectly. In contrast to Ferguson’s beautiful, quiet evil and power was the strength and courage of her enemy, Abra Stone played by Kyleigh Curran. Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance convincingly as the addict turned advocate/hero. The soundtrack deserves special mention because one of the best scenes is Danny and Abra traveling to the Overlook Hotel: The car ascending the winding, dark road with the heavy, ominous score. This movie is pure gold.
The Outsider (2020-HBO)
Watching this show with my family at a beach house in Oregon at the beginning of 2020 is a special memory for me because it was before the pandemic. Some of the last truly pandemic-free memories I’ll ever have. King’s book, The Outsider, is one of my favorite books that he’s released in the last few years; the perfect balance of crime-thriller drama, police procedural, and supernatural horror.
Related: 12 Terrifying Books for Fans of Stephen King’s The Outsider
The standout performances in this show were from Ben Mendelsohn (I recognized him immediately as Orson Krennic from Rogue One, but he’s a big deal in Australia) who played detective Ralph Anderson, and Cynthia Erivo who played Holly Gibney. I’m telling you, her portrayal of Gibney quite literally stole the show for me. I heard King is writing a book with Gibney as the main character and I’m hoping that Erivo could jump back into that role.
My whole family of all ages enjoyed watching this together—it was compelling, a little scary, and emotional. Just like the King novel. It made this Constant Reader so happy to be able to experience the magic of King’s storytelling with the people I love the most.
IT (2017-Andy Muschietti)
This was my most anticipated adaptation ever. And I mean EVER. IT is my favorite King book, so the expectations were as high as they could be. As soon as clips and photos and trailers started dropping for the film, the hype was real. I could literally feel the buzz of the collective Constant Readers worldwide as we waited for the movie’s release. Finally, it came and everyone made the mad rush to the theaters. I will never forget how that experience felt. There was one scene with Pennywise where my daughter and I stared at each other in fear, and I whispered, “Holy sh*t.”
If anyone was skeptical of Bill Skarsgard’s ability to fill Tim Curry’s shoes as the demon-clown, they were convinced at that moment. All of the actors playing the kids from the Loser’s Club did an exceptional job. Maybe my only complaint was how Mike Hanlon’s character was in a diminished role, but the way Jaeden Martell played Bill Denbrough more than compensated for this lack. He embodied the role perfectly. Finn Wolfhard’s (Stranger Things) Richie Tozier was another standout. For the entire duration of this film, I was in blissed-out, King-fan heaven. It was everything I wanted it to be and more.
I didn’t choose Part 2, however, because I felt like there were some missteps with the adult actors in their Loser’s Club roles, and the epic scope of the climax got away from the director. Some of the CGI was bad—the restaurant scene, in the beginning, was cringe. Just my opinion, sorry losers.
Gerald’s Game (2017- Mike Flanagan/Netflix)
A couple is driving in a car and right away we pick up on the tension between them. The man reaches over and puts his hand in the woman’s lap and slides her dress aside a little so that his fingers are touching the exposed skin of her inner thigh. Awkwardly, she smiles as she grabs his hand up off her thigh and holds it.
It says so much without saying a word.
When I read Gerald’s Game in high school, maybe in 1993 or ‘94, the whole ‘handcuffs the wife to the bed’ part felt very risqué for me—is married life this kinky? I think I was more scandalized by the couple’s sex life than I was about anything else, and it’s really all I took away from my first reading experience.
So I read the book again and watched the movie back when this first dropped on Netflix in 2017. Thinking back on the experience for both, I was pretty sure I enjoyed them, but my memory wasn’t strong. Also, having watched so much of Mike Flanagan’s work since 2017 (Bly Manor, Hill House, Midnight Mass, and Doctor Sleep), I felt like I needed a refresher.
For this article, I needed my ‘right now’ insight, so I re-watched it. I’m so glad I did. I came away with an entirely fresh perspective both on the integrity of this adaptation to the source material, and on the deep, complex emotion Flanagan drills into his work. Carla Gugino as Jessie Burlingame shines.
The Mist (2007 movie)
I watched this movie for the first time in order to see if it was worthy to be included in my personal list of top 10 Stephen King adaptations in the last 20 years. For those who have read the novella—which can be found in the collection, Skeleton Crew—you know that this creature feature is more about the people reacting to a common threat than it is about the actual monsters hidden in the mist.
Because this movie was made in 2007, the special effects are dated—but if you watch it in black and white (a tip I picked up on social media) the lack of color is a bit more forgiving.
There are some memorable scenes and standout performances. Thomas Jane plays the wholesome, protective father role well but he was definitely upstaged by a few supporting characters. Toby Jones as the store manager, Ollie Weeks with a likable personality, and Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) as the villainous, religious zealot who never shuts up. Fans of The Walking Dead will recognize several cast members. The most polarizing aspect of this film is the ending. Some Constant Readers feel like the deviation was needlessly devastating and bleak (me). Others support the fact that not all horror has to have a happy ending. If you’ve never watched this one, it’s enjoyable enough to give it ago and see where you land, but I do recommend reading (or re-reading) the novella first.
1922 (2017-Zak Hilditch/Netflix)
For some reason, 1922, one of King’s novellas from Full Dark, No Stars, really stuck with me. It was fresh in my mind when I watched this adaptation in 2017 and I didn’t finish it. For this article, I went back to it and watched the whole thing—the novella a little less fresh in my mind; I ended up enjoying it more. No question this story is one of King’s darkest. A woman owns land adjacent to the property her husband owns, which has been in his family for generations. She wants to sell her share and move, but her husband and son conspire together to murder her in order to keep her land and home in the family.
Watching the husband scheme and plot his wife’s eventual murder with his son, and then the actual murder scene is one of the most brutal things I’ve seen in a while. It disturbed me greatly.
I felt like this was a fairly loyal adaptation of the source material. It’s ten years after Thomas Jane’s lead role in The Mist and his return to the screen for another King adaptation is just as successful, if not more. He does an excellent job playing a man who did what he felt was necessary, but who then lives to regret his decision because of the slow, methodical way he is haunted by his wife’s death. The ending is extremely satisfying. It’s my opinion that everything King would want his audience to feel as they engage with this story—either reading it or watching it—was translated perfectly through this film.
The Green Mile (1999-Frank Darabont)
I decided to include The Green Mile from 1999 as part of the last 20 years because it’s my article and I can do what I want. This is another Darabont-directed adaptation. Tom Hanks plays the death row prison guard who experiences some supernatural events after John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) shows up convicted of murdering two little girls. This story is alive with colorful, memorable characters and the movie captures the spirit of King’s storytelling effortlessly. One of the best ensemble casts where every, single actor is wholly invested in their roles.
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For me, this is tied with Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption in their ability to translate the heart and emotion of King’s work to the screen.
N. (graphic novel video series 2017)
You can watch it HERE.
The novella, N. is one of King’s scariest and a personal favorite. It can be found in the collection, Just After Sunset. A story within a story, a woman is deeply disturbed by the events surrounding her brother’s suicide. She writes to a friend about how her brother, a psychiatrist, was seeing this patient who suffered from an extreme case of OCD caused by strong delusions of grandeur.
The tale descends into cosmic horror.
The exciting thing is I didn’t know there was a graphic novel, dramatization video series on YouTube. I told a friend about this article I was writing about great King adaptations in the last 20 years and they told me about this one—now it has made this list and you get to enjoy it if you didn’t already know about it.