So many of Stephen King’s books have been adapted for film or television that it’s possible to be very familiar with his body of work even if you’ve never read a word of it. (We do not recommend this course of action.) Just this year, four of King’s books are hitting the big screen by way of the recent Pet Sematary remake, IT: Chapter Two, The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, and In the Tall Grass. On television and streaming services, we can expect new seasons of Mr. Mercedes and the King-inspired Castle Rock.
Book lovers everywhere know that not all adaptations are created equal, of course (let alone are they often equal to the book). The star of Doctor Sleep, Ewan McGregor, recently made a point of reassuring fans that the movie would be faithful to the novel, an act he may have felt was necessary due to the fact that so, so many King adaptations stray widely from the source material. Which adaptation is the most faithful? Which is the least?
Here’s our ranking of every King film and TV adaptation, based not strictly on quality, but on faithfulness to the source material—starting with those that stray furthest from the page.
Dishonorable Mention: The Lawnmower Man
Easily the least faithful quote-unquote Stephen King adaptation is this 1992 film, which shares a title and absolutely nothing else with King’s bizarre short story included in 1978’s Night Shift. The producers simply had the rights to the title and used it to trick folks into watching a rather convoluted thriller steeped in the early 1990s virtual reality craze. The movie is a good bit of cheesy fun, but it is nothing like the story, which features zero computers and 100 percent more bizarre grass-eating servants of Pan. Fun fact: King sued to get his name taken off the film.
The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower series is sprawling, gloriously messy epic, the bulk of the story spread across eight novels that took King decades to write. The film adaptation is alike in exactly one way—it’s also very messy, but not in a good way. To be fair, the movie was never intended to faithfully adapt the 1.3 million words of King’s novels; it was explicitly envisioned as a whole new interpretation, kicking off a film series and TV series that would expand infinitely into the universe of the books. If the intentions were good (not to mention the cast—Mathew McConaughey and Idras Elba facing off as the Man in Black and Roland, the last gunslinger, almost make the film worth watching on their own), the end result is so vastly different from the source material it’s less an adaptation and more a script that was walked briskly through a room where a copy of The Waste Lands was sitting on a shelf.
The Running Man
The original novel, the last of the infamous “Bachman Books” King published under a pseudonym, is much darker and grittier than the satirical and often broadly silly Arnold Schwarzenegger film. The entire basic premise is altered for the screen, turning a desperate man volunteering for a horrifying reality show in a bid to save his family into a railroaded cop fighting for his life in a grim future in which the TV show serves as an entertaining method of live execution. The cartoonish way the dystopia is portrayed negates every theme of the book, which doesn’t make it unentertaining.
Pet Sematary (2019)
The newest version of one of King’s scariest, most effective novels takes a lot of liberties with the source material. A lot. We’ll skip the heavy spoilers, as it’s still a relatively recent release, but in the broad strokes: the ending is entirely different, the roles of two primary characters have been flipped, one other character is much changed from both the book and the 1989 film, and the inclusion of a creepy cult of kids wearing animal masks is a massive extrapolation from a stray comment in the novel. While we personally found the new ending to be terrifying, there’s no doubt it has nothing to do with the book.
The original story upon this one is based—”Gramma,” a Lovecraftian tale about man and his possibly evil grandma published in the collection Skeleton Crew—is short and basically has two characters, offering up pretty straightforward scares. Jason Blum took that framework and added… everything. To say this movie is “loosely” based on the original story is a monumental understatement; new characters, the addition of an imaginary friend, and an extended escape sequence, all of it adding up to a film that is arguably its own thing, with which has very little to do with the source material. Which might explain why it went straight to on-demand after a lengthy period on Blumhouse’s shelf.
Written at the height of what we’ll call King’s “Cocaine and Mania” phase (he admits to being so under the influence that he doesn’t remember writing a word of the thick tome), The Tommyknockers is a hot mess of a novel to begin with, but King did exercise some control by confining the story to a relatively small cast of characters in order to maximize the impact of its story of alien invasion and mind control. The mini-series adaptation? The producers obviously decided they needed more characters to stretch it out to its three hour runtime, and went nuts creating new ones. Then they changed the ending entirely. Sure, this is a novel that probably deserves changing, but the fact remains that it is a King adaptation in name only.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining may be the most infamous film adaptation of all time, considering the author has disavowed it at every opportunity and gone so far as to readapt his book himself for television in order to get it right. It’s an interesting example of how a film can follow a book in broad strokes and still be wildly different; while close enough on paper, Stanley Kubrick changed the fundamentals of King’s legendary haunted hotel tale. The basic plot and characters are there, but Kubrick aggressively reinterpreted the whole point of King’s novel, shifting away from the messy, supernaturally tinged but human-scale evil of the book (which served as a metaphor for the destructiveness of alcoholism) and into something far more lurid and over-the-top. King famously complained about every aspect of the film. While it’s hard to argue with his points—particular his assertion that while the character of Jack Torrance is supposed to be a familiar menace of the sort that might live next door to you, Jack Nicholson’s performance is that of a man who’s never lived next door to anyone—The Shining is remains a great film, but not a great adaptation.
Bag of Bones
This novel is a divisive one among King fans, in part because it’s a measured, mournful, and not particularly scary story about a man pining for his dead wife for about 75 percent of the page count, then suddenly lurches into a much more hectic and horrific final quarter. That obviously presented a challenge for the film adaptation (which aired as a two-night miniseries in the U.S. and as a full-length feature elsewhere); the makers—including King adaptation regular Mick Garris—chose to excise much of the early part of the novel to race straight toward the more exciting stuff. Other changes, like fundamentally altering the mechanism of the supernatural element, are less easily explained. The final result includes a showdown with a tree that simply does not work.
Oh, Needful Things. A fever-dream of a novel that tells a story of corruption and weakness by focusing on the moral strength and pure love of two central characters, the film is what you might imagine the film industry in Jordan Peele’s Tethered world might be: superficially similar, but wholly different in bad, bad ways. It places the focus on Max Von Sydow’s Leland Gaunt, proprietor of the titular shop, which offers the citizens of Castle Rock their hearts’ desires—at a price—to the deficit of every other character. It’s a choice that makes sense when you’ve got an actor the caliber of Max Von Sydow to portray your Satanic character, but it twists the film into something completely different from the grand, lurid novel it’s adapting.
When Stephen King adapts his own story and the result is almost unrecognizable, you know you’ve got problems. “Trucks” (included in Night Shift) isn’t precisely a masterpiece of King fiction, telling the story of machines becoming sentient and enslaving humanity over the course of, oh, a few hours, but the 1986 film based on it is 100 percent madness, expanded way beyond the parameters of a relatively brief story. At least it has a pretty great soundtrack from hard rock veterans AC/DC.
On the surface, Christine is a pretty faithful film, more or less following the plot of King’s novel and excising only the seemingly endless subplots about football and petty crime in order to focus on what the people want, i.e. evilcar murder and mayhem. One fundamental change moves the film’s much lower in this ranking: the explanation for Christine’s evil. In the novel it’s very clear that the car and its sad-sack owner, nerdy Arnie, are possessed by the spirit of the evil man who’d owned the car previously, Roland LeBay—essentially becoming LeBay as the story progresses. In the film, it’s made clear that Christine is simply an evil machine. Similarly to The Shining, this shift from King’s human-focused terror to a more existential threat completely changes the thrust of the story.
Children of the Corn
There are now so many entries in the Children of the Corn film universe it’s impossible to really judge them all. Looking just at the initial 1984 adaptation, you’ll find plenty of differences, perhaps justified by the original story’s brevity (if you stayed faithful to the text, you’d have about twenty minutes of film). The movie completely rewrites the main characters and introduces others who aren’t in the story, notably extending the plot. It’s actually a pretty good low-budget horror film, which explains the durability of the franchise—it’s just not overly faithful to the original.
If you think we’re just now entering the Reboot End Times, consider this: this 2002 made-for-TV version of King’s debut is the first of three Carrie adaptations on this list, and the least faithful. Intended as a backdoor pilot for a potential TV series, this adaptation falters despite a strong pedigree in Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller. Despite reinterpreting one key character, it hues fairly close to the novel for a while before coming up with a new ending in which Carrie walks away from destroying her hometown and… moves to Florida? I mean, if a psychotic teen girl with mental powers and a tendency for violence was going to move somewhere, it would be the Sunshine State, but that’s still quite the departure from the original’s bloody prom queen crowning.
This is one of the all-time most disturbing King stories, in large part because it does not rely on ghosts or monsters for its chills, but on the very real possibility that the good-looking, charming kid at school and the gentle, amiable old man down the street are actually raging sociopaths. What makes this film unfaithful isn’t the specific plot points, which are basically there, but the handling of the character of Dussander, a hiding Nazi war criminal, and the ending. In the book, Dussander is a complex portrait of a man who’s both victim and monster; he literally stinks of death and rot. In the film he’s played by Ian McKellan, and he’s altogether charming and handsome in spite of himself, while teenager Todd, who becomes his protege, is a horrifying monster in the guise of a valedictorian. The ostensibly darker ending is also a needless change that lessens the impact of the story.
Often considered one of the more successful King adaptations, 1408 accurately recreates the spirit of the haunted hotel room story while more or less changing all the details in the first half. Which is odd, because King’s descriptions of the evil room’s torture tactics are pretty cool, and would work just as well. The film’s choices are also scary enough, so it’s a wash—until the ending, which goes way, way beyond the ending of the story and ventures into all-new territory.
Made during the height of the Johnny Depp As Leading Man era, Secret Window follows King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden—about a successful author who finds the lines between fiction and reality are becoming blurrier—book pretty closely for most of its running time, then discards the thematic resonance of its ending, placing it gently in the trash to deliver instead a bleaker and darker denouement, arguably turning a thoughtful, creepy story of a man literally fighting his baser impulses into a much flimsier story of a Crazy Man Who Kills Folk. To be fair, Depp sells it, and the ending works within the framework of the story. It’s just not the story King wrote.
Cell is widely regarded as one of the worst adaptations of a King novel, but that’s not only because it differs from the source—a tense thriller about a singal broadcast over cell phones that turns people into mindless zombie-like creatures. It’s one of those occasional odd movies with big name actors (John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, among others) that looks cheap. Worse, it seems like everyone involved was pretty bored with it during production. It also commits the most grievous sin a horror movie can commit (SPOILERS!): the fake-out “it was all a dream ending,” showing the protagonist defeat the evil monster only to reveal it was all an Owl Creek Bridge delusion. Not only is that terribly cliché storytelling these days, it’s also not at all how King’s novel ends.
The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone is one of King’s most effective novels, in part because he makes a few interesting structural choices to tell it. The film was produced at the height of the first wave of King Mania, when it seemed like Hollywood was going to start adapting his grocery lists, and it’s pretty strong as a film thanks to David Cronenberg’s direction, Christopher Walken’s ideosyncratic lead performance, and Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay—even if it does throw away about half of King’s book. The end result is clean and polished, but lacking much of what made the novel more than an extended Twilight Zone episode. All adaptations have to make cuts, of course, but this one cut out the book’s bleeding heart.
Cujo has always been a bit of an outlier for King, and an oddball book by any gauge. Basically an extended short story about a Very Good Boy who contracts rabies and goes slowly insane, trapping a mother and son in their car during a heatwave, the novel can be read as an exploration of addiction and alcoholism. It also employs a distinct hint of the supernatural. The film excises the supernatural stuff, changes the ending in a major way, and makes no attempt to offer Cujo’s perspective—a key element of the book that made the “monster” a tragic figure.
This 1985 anthology film adapts two King stories included in Night Shift: The Ledge and Quitters, Inc.. While the latter is pretty faithful, right down to the button on the ending, the former is very different. The story, about a man who is forced into a bet as to whether he can make his way around the five-inch ledge outside a penthouse apartment, is laser-focused on the protagonist’s point-of-view as he endures a true life-or-death struggle. While the basic story and ending remain the same, the antagonist in the film is a lot more active and involved; his fate is also made explicit, where in the story it is only implied. Also, there’s a cat, for some reason.
Sometimes They Come Back
Both the short story (another from Night Shift) and its TV-movie adaptation are firmly in the forgettable of King’s oeuvre, but the film actually slightly improves on the original by making some vital changes to the story. On the page, the punks who kill the protagonist’s brother and later haunt him do so for apparently no reason at all—jerks in life, jerks in the afterlife, it seems. The film makes Jim directly responsible for their deaths, thus making their haunting and murder spree, focused on the adult Jim, a little more sensible. The film also tweaks Jim’s summoning of a demon that looks like his brother into simply being his brother’s ghost, which works better. Can we fault an adaptation for fixing issues with the original? Such is the struggle of this sort of ranking.
This short story from Skeleton Crew was adapted as part of Creepshow 2, and pretty faithfully—except for the ending. Telling the tale of four young folks who become trapped on a raft in the middle of a lake infested with a human-eating monster that resembles an oil slick, the story ends on a bleak but contemplative note as the lone survivor tries to find beauty in his inevitable death. The film naturally wants a bit more action, so it has him successfully swim for shore in a desperate race, only to be killed when the creature becomes a wave that engulfs him. The story’s ending is better.
The Cat from Hell
Adapted as one of the segments of Tales from the Darkside, this straightforward (well as these things go) story of a man convinced a black cat is trying to kill him—an act of supernatural revenge for the man’s testing of experimental drugs on thousands of cats—once again features an altered ending. In the story, the hitman hired to kill the cat dies horribly, and his boss’s death is implied. In the film it’s the reverse. Quality-wise it’s a wash.
Another Night Shift tale that transitioned to the screen, this is one of King’s earliest published stories, certainly one of his oddest. The tale of a… possessed piece of industrial laundry equipment is not what literary scientists would call “good,” but it certainly is memorable. However, the film adaptation—by celebrated horror director Tobe Hooper, and a spawner of two sequels—is pretty faithful, right down to the twist where the heroes think they’ve defeated the demon only to realize they’ve only made it stronger. The film adds a whole additional bit of story after the ending—understandable, since the story doesn’t offer much by way of satisfying resolution.
The television adaptation of this story, made for the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot, is pretty faithful—the script was written by famed sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, in fact. Even so, it someone removes all the subtlety on the page and turns it into something pretty bland. Instead of the psychological trickery King gets up to—keeping the reader guessing as to whether protagonist’s George’s gross and terrifying grandmother is actually a witch—the TV take gives her glowing red eyes, dispelling any uncertainty. Otherwise, though, it sticks very close to the original—unlike the 2014 Blumhouse film adaptation mentioned earlier.
If you prefer to pretend that the 1994 television adaptation of The Stand never happened, we understand—though honestly it’s not bad. This adaptation is the Schrödinger’s Cat of faithful King adaptations, however, because first you have to choose which version of the novel to compare it to in the first place—the original 1978 edition or the massive unabridged 1990 “definitive” version. Either way, the eight-hour mini-series makes a lot of changes to the story, eliminating dozens of characters and sequences, and combining others. While this is perfectly understandable, a truly faithful television adaptation of the unabridged version (which clocks in at over 1,000 pages) would still be on the air today; it’s forgivable that this one is only faithful in the broad strokes. It will be interesting to see if the currently percolating revision, coming to CBS All Access streaming platform in 2020 from writer/director Josh Boone (who proved he can at least bring a straightforward book to the screen with panache with The Fault in Our Stars) manages to better it.
Riding the Bullet
Edging solidly into the “mostly faithful” section of our list, Riding the Bullet adds a lot of embellishment to a marginal King novella (the most notable thing about it is that it was King’s first ebook publication, back when ebooks were new and seemed destined to turn paper books into objects of curiosity; it was later included in the anthology Everything’s Eventual). The story is still focused on a guy named Alan who goes to visit his mother after learning she’s very ill, meets a terrifying specter while hitchhiking, and makes a cowardly choice when faced with death. The film changes the ending from the morally and existentially complex one King crafted into something a lot more standard to bad horror films.
The universe sometimes seems destined to shamble along until every single King story has been adapted, whether it should be or not. “Chattery Teeth” is one that probably could’ve remained on the page—it’s about a set of possibly demonic windup toy teeth, which is at least on par with an industrial laundry machine when it comes to weird things to become possessed. But! As one part of the anthology film Quicksilver Highway (directed by regular King adapter Mick Garris), this version is pretty faithful to the original story, although the film cuts off the ending to return to the film’s framing narrative (Christopher Lloyd as a traveling salesman telling scary stories to randos) to deliver a cheap scare. Technically, it doesn’t change the story’s actual ending, though, it only omits it.
“The Night Flier”
“The Night Flier” is an interesting story about an investigative reporter chasing down a serial killer striking small airports; the killer turns out to be a real vampire. The film follows the story closely enough, but chooses to add a character in a rival reporter, and twists the ending—the vampire frames the reporter for the grisly murders—and favors something far more gruesome and explicit. It’s not a bad adaptation at all, and you would be forgiven for wishing the sequel—written but never financed—had been made.
Known to King fans as “the one with all the rats,” this early Night Shift short story, published in 1970, is typical of King’s early work—it’s a bit ragged, taking inspiration from the pre-fame King’s experiences trying to pay his bills, and focuses on an unexpected source of terror—in this case a rotting textile mill whose rat population has been allowed to mutate, cut off from the world. The film isn’t great, but it sticks close to the story, with some added embellishments to make the villain more villain-y and the main rat more cinematic; it’s main diversion is allowing the main character to survive.
This short story was adapted for Creepshow and is thankfully pretty faithful, considering how simple and direct it is. The story—about a deadly creature brought back from an arctic expedition in the 19th century and released to kill a few people 150 years later—gets a few tweaks, but the only real deviation is the hint that the creature escapes its final fate, whereas the story was more concerned with the amorality of its human characters. The crate prop has actually become one of those traveling Easter Eggs, showing up in episodes of The Walking Dead and other horror films as a treat for those who recognize its significance.
The Dark Half
The main difference between the film and the novel is the ending; King leaves it unclear whether George Stark is simply a split personality of author Thad Beaumont’s or an independent malevolent force, while the film goes the easier and dumber route of having Stark take actual physical form … before being torn apart by a flock of sparrows, which, okay, is a lot. Up until that point though, bnoth film and story follow the same plot and hit the same beats.
Hearts in Atlantis
This is a weird one; the source material is one chunk of a novel-in-stories, with shared characters and settings but largely standalone plots. The film adapts two of them, Low Men in Yellow Coats and Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, which recount the friendship between a young boy and the strange, supernaturally gifted lodger who comes to stay in his mother’s spare room. However, on the page, the man’s life story connects explicitly to the Dark Tower universe; the film understandably removes all the references to those novels and substitutes shadowy government agents for the novel’s inter-dimensional monsters in rain coats. Despite that, the movie follows the on-the-page narrative pretty closely—even as it robs it of its raison d’etre. (It’s also worth noting that the title is entirely arbitrary to the film; the story from which it comes is about a college kid who develops an addiction to playing cards with friends amid the turmoil of the anti-Vietnam War movement.)
Cycle of the Werewolf
Adapted as 1985’s Silver Bullet by King himself, this is a pretty close parallel to the novella. There are some changes, but they’re mostly in the brutality of the deaths (punched up a bit for the screen) and some non-crucial details, like the precise way the hero, wheelchair-bound Marty, discover’s the identity of the werewolf who’s been slaughtering people once a month in his town. They are pretty small changes, all things considered. The real surprise is how good Gary Busey is in it. Seriously.
This is one of the most successful adaptations of a King book, capturing the magnetic voice of its titular narrator with a great performance by Kathy Bates. It’s faithful to the book in the broad strokes—the story is essentially the same, as are the big reveals and secrets—but the film opts to turn the focus away from Dolores exclusively to focus on her relationship with Selena, her estranged daughter, elevating Selena to a major character in the process. It’s a smart decision, but it does pull it away from the book somewhat.
A Good Marriage
This was always a great premise in search of a story; based on the true story of the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, it tells of a woman who discovers her husband has been a savage serial killer for decades, and then goes to savage lengths herself to protect herself and her kids from the man she thought she knew. Somehow the story never popped off the page, and the film—adapted by King himself, and very remaining close to the book—suffers the same fate. Maybe this is one he should have chopped and twisted.
King’s overt homage to Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado is a tidy little revenge story about a girl who buries a crime boss alive in his Cadillac after the crime boss murders his wife. It’s one of those stories where the mechanics of the protagonist’s revenge is the whole point. The film is a pretty faithful if low-energy production that adds a minor and unnecessary extra twist at the very end, when the protagonist learns that the crime boss was about to be arrested and ruined, making his gruesome revenge unnecessary.
This is a pretty straightforward adaptation of King’s revenge story, following a mystery writer who uses her skills at plotting (and some imagined characters from her novels) to track down and exact revenge on her rapist. The script adapts it pretty much beat for beat, with just one altered detail of consequence; on the page, the sympathetic bartender, Betsy (played by Joan Jett!), gravely agrees to keep the writer’s revenge murders secret out of shared experience in the story; in the film she’s actively cheerleading the murders at the end. It’s a seemingly small edit, but the tonal shift is striking.
Netflix’s adaptation of King’s novella, starring Thomas Jane as a desperate farmer who murders his wife for financial survival and lives to regret it hard, hews very close to the text right up until the end. Plagued by rats apparently possessed by the vengeful ghost of wife, Wilfred James flees to a seedy hotel room where the ghosts track him down; while both versions end with Wilfred getting what he deserves, King leaves it ambiguous whether the haunting was real or not. The film lands heavily on the side of “yup, they were.”
Filmed as part of Creepshow (retitled as “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and starring Stephen King himself in the title role, an act of arrogance he’s probably still regretting), the segment is very true to the story with a few embellishments, plus a final stinger that isn’t in the original. It’s one of those stories, though, where there’s really only one place for the premise to go, so it’s not terribly surprising to see it so high on this list.
The second film made from King’s story of sentient machines keeps the original name and is actually much more faithful an adaptation than the King-directed Maximum Overdrive. It adds some set up before getting the characters to the truck stop, and takes some liberties with the origins of the evil machines and how the folks deal with their situation, but follows the basic outline closely enough. That doesn’t mean you should watch it, though. We can’t stress this enough: You should not.
How can a film about a girl who can start fires with her brain be dull? Well, in 1984, director Mark L. Lester and young star Drew Barrymore decided to find out. But somehow magically sucking the charm from every character and the tension from every plot twist isn’t exactly the same as deviating from the story—which Firestarter does not, remaining faithful to the original novel’s plot about a shadowy government agency that manipulates children with telekinetic abilities.
The ending. Holy spitballs, the ending. As quality adaptations go, The Mist is a pretty good one, if far from perfect—it employs a there’s a major shift in focus and tone for a few of the villainous characters, but mostly the story of small-town residents trapped in a grocery store while supernatural horrors cavort in the world around them proceeds along the same lines as the original novella … until the ending, which is so dramatically different it really does spin the original text into oblivion. That said, King himself has gone on record admitting he thinks it’s an improvement over his own, which is certainly saying something.
Right up to the last moments, the effectively chilling mid-80s adaptation of one of the leanest and meanest of the so-called “Bachman Books” is taken almost word-for-word from the novel, cashing in on a delightfully simple, horrifying premise—a selfish, obese man escapes justice when he hits an old woman with his car, and is cursed to grow increasingly thinner no matter how much he eats. Where the novel ends on a bleak and despairing note, the film adds a final button that is kind of incredible in its meanness; critics knocked the adaptation for a lack of likable characters, and they’re not wrong.
Carrie (1976, 2013)
While the more recent Carrie takes a more liberties updating the setting, both it and its 1976 predecessor hue pretty closely to King’s near-perfect novel, and thank goodness (we have the debacle of the 2002 version to show us how badly wrong you can go doing anything else). Of course, this is a bit depressing as a story about awful parents, horrific bullying, and mental health issues among teenagers written in 1975 is still completely on point almost 45 years later. Note: we are not equating the newer version with the de Palma take in terms of cinematic effectiveness.
It: Chapter One (2017)
Both adaptations of It have been more or less faithful to the book, with, of course, one huge exception—that being a extremely creepy, off-putting climactic (er…) moment involving the Losers Club’s defeat of Pennywise (if you’ve read the book, you definitely know what we’re referencing). Aside from wisely skipping that bit of 1980s-era King weirdness, the most recent film—which adapts only half the massive novel—earns points for giving itself room to breathe, but loses a few on the faithfulness scale by updating the setting from the 1950s to the 1980s, which in turn changes how Pennywise terrifies the kids—the old-school 1950s monsters in the book no longer quite carrying the same resonance. Chapter One also manages to transform Beverly, who in the novel is a fierce, damaged girl who takes action and has agency (even if it gets her into trouble), into a kidnapping victim who is rescued with a kiss, so, like, a hundred points off for that.
While it has its moments, the 1990 television miniseries is glacially paced and suffers from some dull performances and a reduced budget. But it has one incredible asset: the great Tim Curry, who rises far above the script and his fellow actors to make Pennywise absolutely terrifying despite the unimpressive (even for the time) special effects. Despite all of the above, it ranks above the far more cinematic 2017 version on this list for remaining more faithful to the original material, hewing more closely to the novels’ layered-flashback structure and retaining the original 1950s/1980s timeframe.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Director Mary Lambert’s original adaptation of King’s story about a cursed plot of land that causes pets (and other things) buried on it to rise from the dead remains close to the book (certainly closer than the 2019 remake), with the major exception of the elimination Wendigo, the native American demon that powers the “sematary” and lures people there with the promise of reanimated dead loved ones. Less over-the-top bonkers than the remake, this one makes do with the twists and scares King laid down on the page, to good effect.
Desperation is the “mirror book” to The Regulators; the two novels are set in linked parallel universes (one of them also revived King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym, years after “his” untimely “death”). The film adaptation of the former removes a minor character, but is almost entirely faithful otherwise in terms of plot points and characters. It loses a few spots because it excises much of King’s philosophical exploration in favor of a focus on action, but it’s still very much the same story.
Now we’re getting to the films that are basically torn from the pages of their source books. Are there minor changes between the book and this 1990 Rob Reiner film? Sure. But they are the sort of unavoidable changes inherent to any adaptation. The one major difference made in bringing the story of a successful genre writer, Paul Sheldon, injured in an accident and then rescued and held captive by an obsessive fan, is a very minor one. As a way of distracting his captor during an escape attempt, Paul at one point burns the manuscript Annie Wilkes has forced him to write. In the book, he’s faking, having set a stack of blank paper ablaze. In the film, it’s actually the real thing, which is arguably a better, more dramatic choice. Otherwise, the film tracks almost perfectly with the book—which makes sense, as its one of King’s more thoughtfully-constructed novels—and is otherwise essential for its Oscar-winning turn by Kathy Bates as Paul’s “number one fan.”
The recent Netflix adaptation of one of King’s most overlooked, low-key novels, about a woman who is left tied to a bed by her husband, who dies during a sex game gone awry, is an almost word-for-word, scene-for-scene translation. It helps that the story is very contained, taking place mainly in a single room, and mainly inside one person’s head. There are very few supernatural elements in it, which makes it easy to keep the narrative tight and offers few reasons to make fundamental changes to the plot. It’s a pretty cracking small-scale thriller, too—enough so that it won director Mike Flanagan a shot at directing something a bit more in the classic King vein with this year’s Doctor Sleep.
Stand By Me
The main difference between King’s novella The Body and the film Stand by Me (another stellar Rob Reiner page-to-screen translation) is one of editing; the film removes a lot of stuff in order to streamline the story of four friends who wander into the woods in search of a rumored dead body and do a lot of growing up along the way, into movie length. The one major change the film makes is in the ultimate fate’s of the four friends: in the story, Vern, Chris and Teddy all die young, and Gordie is the only one left alive. In the film, everyone but Chris gets to live. While some might argue that this changes the ultimate message of the thing, its relegation to an epilogue argues otherwise.
Okay, Dreamcatcher is not a good novel, and it did not make for a good movie. King himself has more or less disavowed the book, noting that he wrote it as a form of therapy while recovering from nearly dying after being hit by a van, and that he was on a lot of painkillers at the time. But since this isn’t a list of the best King adaptations, but the most accurate, here we are: because Dreamcatcher is pretty darn faithful to its insane source material, making only some minor changes to character names and the specific physical condition of one character. They even took some of King’s weirdest writing and stuck it right into the screenplay, which means you get to hear a lot of creative profanity spoken out loud by a professional actor. All in all, it’s fitting that the movie is so beholden to the book, considering the screenwriter, William Goldman, penned Misery—a much better movie taken from a much better book.
The Shining (1997)
Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining so much, he made his own—albeit for TV—writing the screenplay and choosing as director his pal Mick Garris, who also helmed The Stand, Riding the Bullet, Desperation, and Bag of Bones, not to mention Sleepwalkers, an original script by King but not based on one of his books or stories). Unfortunately for King, this miniseries, which is entirely his baby (he was also by all accounts involved in every aspect of the production) is not very good. One reason it’s not very good is its near-perfect fidelity to King’s novel: because King was determined to cram just about every word of the book onto the screen, it’s the most faithful adaptation you can imagine, but this results in a viewing experience that is akin to someone reading the book to you in a low monotone. Yet because The Shining is anything but a turgid novel, it’s somehow both incredibly faithful to the book—and not faithful at all.
The Green Mile
There’s really just one glaring difference between the story-as-written and the film starring Tom Hanks, and it’s the removal of a minor character who has little impact on the plot. Otherwise, the film version of this touching, tragic, ultimately uplifting story of a wrongly convicted death row inmate gifted with magical healing powers is a master class in boiling a novel (or technically a series of novellas) down to a screenplay—even if the resulting film is more than three hours long. As with all successful King adaptations, the film—written and directed by Frank Darabont, who we’ll be mentioning again soon—manages to not only recreate the details of the plot and characters, but also maintains the elegiac tone of the original, conveying a sense of dark wonder that elevates the story beyond its supernatural trappings. And as the gentle giant of a convicted murderer, Oscar nominee Michael Clark Duncan simply is John Coffey as King wrote him.
The Shawshank Redemption
Unquestionably the most faithful Stephen King adaptation, director Frank Darabont’s beloved The Shawshank Redemption is also the best (for years it sat atop the Internet Movie Database at the number one film of all time, as voted on by the site’s legion of users). True, there are some minor and superficial changes in the film version of the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, most notably the decision to make narrator Red a black man (played by Morgan Freeman); he’s Irish in the story. Also, the movie provides a most satisfying cinematic ending for its chief villain, the prison’s soulless warden. But you can’t blame Darabont for wanting to see such an odious man get what he deserves. In terms of overall plot and tone, it’s one of the most faithful adaptations not just of a King story, but of any novel ever. Maybe that’s why it’s so darn good.
What’s your favorite Stephen King adaptation?