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Best Stephen King Adaptations Across Movies and TV, Ranked by Metacritic

From 'Carrie' to 'It,' the highest-rated Stephen King adaptations cross both film and television. Discover the best, ranked by Metascore.
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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From left to right: 'It' (1990), 'Salem's Lot' (1979), 'Carrie' (1976)

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With more than 60 novels published (and more on the way), in addition to more than 10 collections of short stories and a handful of nonfiction titles, Stephen King is one of the most prolific and influential authors of the 20th century. 

It should come as no surprise then that his bibliography has also contributed to dozens of films and television series through the years, from straight adaptations (The Shining, Cujo), to being the jumping off point to expand the world, characters, and/or themes of a particular story (Cat's Eye, Under The Dome). 

King's very first published novel, Carrie, was also the first title of his that received the adaptation treatment — to a feature film that was released a little more than two years after the novel was released. While many of the earliest adaptations translated his words for the silver screen, the sheer verbosity of his writing often required more than the usual two-hour runtime to tell the complete story. The Stand, for example, which consists of more than 1,100 pages in the uncut version of the 1978 novel, was first adapted into a four-part limited series in 1994, but then redone as a nine-episode limited series in 2020. The latter version also included some brand new scenes for the character of Frannie (played by Odessa Young) that King penned.

But The Stand is far from the only King title to be adapted more than once. His wide-spread fanbase ensures a built-in audience for new adaptations, even if a previous one is considered a classic. Newer generations of filmmakers who have been inspired by his work are also often itching to put their spin on it. Kimberly Peirce directed a 2013 version of Carrie, for example, and Andy Muschietti directed the 21st century two-part feature film version of It. And although King's 1980 novel Firestarter was previously adapted into a 1984 feature film, it's getting another one in 2022. Salem's Lot, King's 1975 novel about vampires, is also getting a new film adaptation in 2022, despite being adapted a few times already.

Here, Metacritic highlights the best adaptations of King's work across film and television, ranked by Metascore. And spoiler alert: two titles tie for position No. 10.


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Sissy Spacek in 'Carrie'

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Carrie (1976)

Metascore: 85
Best for: Fans of coming-of-age dramas with a supernatural twist, cautionary tales about bullying, and dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 98 minutes

Only two years after King published Carrie, Brian De Palma directed a feature film adaptation of it from a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen. The film's titular character (played by Sissy Spacek) is a telekinetic teenager who is bullied by everyone in her life, from her religious mother (Piper Laurie) to the other students in her school. There is a reason the most famous image from the movie is Carrie, in a prom dress, doused in blood: It is both the culmination of a revenge plot her classmates take out against her, as well as the moment the trauma she has lived with for so long boils over and kicks her powers into high gear. Both Spacek and Laurie were nominated for Oscars for their performances. This film spawned a sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, and the source material was so popular it was adapted into two other versions, a 2002 TV movie from writer Bryan Fuller and director David Carson, and the aforementioned 2013 feature starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role.

"A teasing, terrifying, lyrical shocker." — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker


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'Salem's Lot,' 1979

Courtesy of YouTube

Salem's Lot (1979)

Metascore: 82
Best for: Fans of period dramas and vampires
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 183 minutes

The 1979 two-part series based on King's 1975 novel hails from writer Paul Monash and director Tobe Hooper, starring David Soul as Ben Mears, an author who wants to write about the creepy old Marsten House, only to get sucked into a run of vampirism in town. The miniseries was nominated for three Emmy Awards. Almost a decade later, this series released a sequel, titled A Return to Salem's Lot. In 2004, a new two-part television adaptation was released, this time starring Rob Lowe as Ben and set in present day, and in 2021, Chapelwaite, based on both King's 1978 short story Jerusalem's Lot and the full novel, premiered. Themes from Salem's Lot were also incorporated in the second season of Castle Rock, which combined characters and phenomena from many King works.

"One of those stomach-churning, white-knuckle [stories] that masterfully sets us up, shakes us around and leaves us jumping at our own shadows." — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times


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From left to right: Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in 'The Shawshank Redemption'

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The Shawshank Redemption

Metascore: 80
Best for: Fans of friendship tales, characters who fight through unfair circumstances, and prison escapes
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 142 minutes

Frank Darabont wrote and directed this adaptation of King's 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. A notable departure from the supernatural horror with which King has become synonymous, this story instead looks at the horrors of false imprisonment when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of the murders of his wife and her boyfriend and sent to the titular prison. However, as terrible as Andy's situation and surroundings are, it is also a tale of friendship as he bonds with fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman), and of resilience, as he plans a lucrative escape. The film earned seven Oscar nominations in 1995, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Freeman, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Darabont. 

"The film keeps pulling you back with its sense of striving humanity slowly turning the tables against evil." — Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle


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Tim Curry as Pennywise in 'Stephen King's It'

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Stephen King's It 

Metascore: 79
Best for: Fans of coming-of-age dramas, supernatural allegories for child abuse, and killer clowns
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 187 minutes

Cohen was back adapting more of King's work in the late 1980s, with this adaptation of the 1986 novel, It, being co-written with Tommy Lee Wallace and released on TV in two parts in 1990. Wallace also directed the miniseries, which follows a group of adolescents who call themselves the Losers who investigate and try to take down Pennywise (Tim Curry), a sadistic creature disguising itself as a clown in order to hunt and eat children. The miniseries won an Emmy for music composition in 1991. But the 1,000+ page novel was so formative for readers across generations that it inspired additional adaptations years later, including a late 1990s Hindi-language series titled Woh, and a two-part feature film franchise, titled It and It Chapter Two, in 2017 and 2019, respectively. 

"This is a good, at times brilliant, always solid and well-done example of the horror/suspense genre." — Michael Hill, Baltimore Sun


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Carla Gugino in 'Gerald's Game'

Netflix

Gerald's Game

Metascore: 77
Best for: Fans of female-driven dramas, psychological thrillers, and heroines who strike back at their abusers
Where to watch: Netflix
Runtime: 103 minutes

Mike Flanagan directed this 2017 adaptation of King's 1992 novel for Netflix and cast Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as married couple Jessie and Gerald Burlingame, whose fates seem doomed by the titular sexual game. Gerald handcuffs her to the bed, which leaves her stuck when he has a heart attack and dies. Post-death, he taunts her in her mind, while she also suffers from flashbacks to childhood trauma and hallucinations, which build mental calluses so she can take extreme physical action to attempt to save herself.

"An arrestingly and sometimes excruciatingly suspenseful psychological thriller lightly garnished with horror-movie flourishes." — Joe Leydon, Variety


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From left to right: Kathy Bates and James Caan in 'Misery'

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Misery

Metascore: 75
Best for: Fans of stories of fandom-gone-wrong, psychological thrillers, and metaphors for the agony of writing
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 107 minutes

William Goldman adapted King's 1987 novel for a feature film directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan and Kathy Bates in 1990. Caan plays a famous novelist named Paul Sheldon who gets into a car accident and is nursed by Annie Wilkes (Bates), a die-hard fan who turns on him when he lets her read his latest work and learns he is killing off the main character. Thus turns his recuperation period into captivity as Annie becomes more and more violent towards him. Bates won an Oscar for her performance as Annie. Annie was later a protagonist in Castle Rock Season 2, though that story was more of her origin tale and did not recreate the events of her meeting Paul. Misery was also adapted into a Tamil film titled Julie Ganapathi in 2003 and turned into a few plays. The first, from writer Simon Moore, premiered in 1992 and was later revived in 2005, but Goldman also wrote one in 2012 that moved to Broadway in 2015 starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf. Misery also received stage adaptations in Finland and The Netherlands.

"Rob Reiner takes what might have been a static set-up, a couple of people talking in a room, and makes it harrowing." — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle


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'Stand By Me'

Courtesy of YouTube

Stand by Me

Metascore: 75
Best for: Fans of coming-of-age dramas and simple quests that lead to big emotional revelations
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu
Runtime: 89 minutes

Stand by Me is an adaptation of King's short story titled "The Body," which was published in Different Seasons, his 1982 collection of short stories. It is also the first King adaptation to be directed by Reiner. The story centers on four tween boys who spend a holiday weekend looking for the body of a missing boy one of their older brothers claims is dead. Their mental, emotional and physical toughness is tested on the trip, but what they go through bonds them together in a uniquely special way. Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell play the boys, with Richard Dreyfuss narrating the story as the adult version of Wheaton's character, Gordie. Writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1987 for the film.

"The story unfolds with wit, pathos and sensitivity and completely free of emotional shortcuts." — Emma Cochrane, Empire


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From left to right: Jharrel Jerome and Brendan Gleeson in 'Mr. Mercedes'

Peacock

Mr. Mercedes

Metascore: 72
Best for: Fans of crime dramas, unexpected partnerships, and supernatural criminals
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Peacock, Starz, Vudu
Seasons: 3

Originally designed as a limited series, Mr. Mercedes ended up running for three seasons, just like there are three novels in this Bill Hodges series from King. The first book, which shares the title with this show, was published in 2014; the show first premiered three years later, in 2017. It stars Brendan Gleeson as Bill, a retired detective who has been taunted by telekinetic and tech-savvy killer Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) for years. The show also stars Holland Taylor, Justine Lupe, and Jharrel Jerome.

"A quality star vehicle fueled with enough poignancy to make it worth the ride." — Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly


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'Nightmares & Dreamscapes'

Courtesy of TNT and YouTube

Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King

Metascore: 71
Best for: Fans of standalone storytelling and character dramas with surreal twists
Where to watch:

, Google Play, Vudu
Seasons: 1

This 2006 eight-episode anthology series took short stories from three of King's collections: the titular one, which was published in 1993; 1978's Night Shift; and 2002's Everything's Eventual. The episodes range from centering on a hit man (William Hurt) who is targeted by anthropomorphic toys, to a writer (William H. Macy) who switches places with his lead character (who is also played by Macy), and a couple (Kim Delaney and Steven Weber, who also starred in the 1997 TV version of The Shining) who come face-to-face with many dead musicians.

"There's a Twilight Zone vibe to the stories and their TV treatment." — Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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Thomas Jane in '1922'

Netflix

1922

Metascore: 70
Best for: Fans of murder stories that have great psychological ramifications and morality tales
Where to watch: Netflix
Runtime: 102 minutes

First published as a novella in King's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars, 1922 was then adapted by writer/director Zak Hilditch for a 2017 Netflix film. Set in the titular year, it follows Wilfred "Wilf" James (Thomas Jane), a farmer who enlists his teenage son (Dylan Schmid) in the murder of his wife (Molly Parker). Although guilt weighs heavily on both men, it manifests itself differently in each, with Wilf drinking more and more —He is also literally haunted by the ghost of his wife and tormented by rats — while his son sets down a path of other crimes with his girlfriend (Kaitlyn Bernard).

"A decently made but unsurprising thriller." — William Bibbiani, IGN


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Drew Barrymore in 'Cat's Eye'

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Cat's Eye

Metascore: 70
Best for: Fans of character-driven dramas and protective animals
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Seasons: 1

A year after Drew Barrymore starred in Firestarter, she appeared in this three-episode series primarily based on stories from King's 1978 Night Shift. Two of the three episodes are taken directly from his short stories, "Quitters, Inc" and "The Ledge," respectively, with the third, titled "General," being an original story King wrote for this televised project. Decades later, it is still one of only a few occurrences of him adding new material to a literary work for an adaptation. "Quitter's, Inc" centers on a man (James Woods) who is trying to stop smoking, while "The Ledge" follows a gambler (Robert Hays) who is blackmailed into a dangerous bet by a crime boss (Kenneth McMillan). Although that all may sound simple, nothing with King's work ever is, and all three stories feature the presence of a stray, mystical cat that crosses these characters' lives as it searches for a young girl (Barrymore) who is asking for its help. In "General," the cat and that girl finally connect, and the danger she is in is revealed.

"A far more accomplished anthology than Creepshow ... but expect as many giggles as goose bumps." — David Ansen, Newsweek

Click here for the complete list of movies adapted from King's work and here for the complete list of TV.