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The best Stephen King adaptations and where to watch them

To call Stephen King one of the most prolific authors of his time would be a gross understatement. The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Carrie, The Stand, Misery, The Shining — the list goes on. King’s mark on the medium of cinema is just as iconic, dating as far back as his work on George Romero’s Creepshow to innumerable adaptations of his books courtesy of the likes of Brian De Palma, Frank Darabont, John Carpenter, and more.

In honor of Firestarter, the latest adaptation of King’s 1980 sci-fi thriller by director Keith Thomas, premiering in theaters and on Peacock this weekend, we’ve pulled together a list of some of our favorite Stephen King movies and where you can stream or rent them from home … outside of some of the more super-famous adaptations like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (available to watch on HBO Max). We’re gonna go ahead and guess you know about that one.

Here are the 11 of our favorite and most thrilling Stephen King adaptations you can watch at home this weekend.


Carrie (1976)

Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

True horror is going through puberty without a support system (or any warning of what’s about to happen to your body).

Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation brings to life anxieties both natural (being bullied as a teen with a terror of a mother) and supernatural (having uncontrollable super powers as a high schooler). Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are unforgettable in the lead roles, and the climactic prom night sequence is one of the most infamous scenes in the history of American horror movies. —Pete Volk

Carrie is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Christine

A car engulfed in flames in Christine.

Image: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Christine is Stephen King’s infamous story about a car with a thirst for blood and a penchant for mind control. Arnie (Keith Gordon), a high schooler with a lack of confidence, sees a beaten-up Plymouth Fury sitting off the side of the road and is instantly smitten. Despite his friend’s warning, Arnie buys the car and spends his every waking hour fixing it up before it slowly takes over his life — and then starts taking out everyone around Arnie so it’s the only thing he can pay attention to.

It’s a simple premise that could have gone off the rails easily, which is exactly why horror legend John Carpenter was the perfect choice to direct. Carpenter turns the car into a slasher villain with dreadfully eerie shots of headlights closing in on rearview mirrors like it’s stalking prey. Even more impressive is that Carpenter’s effects, like the car slowly rebuilding itself after being destroyed, still look outstanding today. Christine is one of those stories that’s right on the borderline of silly and scary that King’s so good at, and Carpenter’s adaptation is one of the few that grasps that tone perfectly and brings it to the big screen. —Austen Goslin

Christine is available to stream on Netflix.

The Dark Half

Timothy Hutton staring in the mirror at a bleeding scar on his face in The Dark Half.

Image: MGM Home Entertainment

A classic “twin absorbed in the womb” horror story, George Romero’s The Dark Half is a movie about duality and split personalities, both literal and figurative, through an author (Timothy Hutton) who writes capital-L Literature under his real name and best-selling pulp novels under a pseudonym. When his secret is discovered by a wannabe blackmailer, he decides to go public with it himself, bringing out his “dark half,” who is more of a sadistic, black-clad second personality than some mere pseudonym.

Highlighted by Hutton’s barely contained dual performance and strong character actors in supporting roles (like Glenn Colerider’s eager photographer, who wants to make a photo book of teddy bears in coffins), The Dark Half is an enjoyable pairing of King’s unnerving story with Romero’s love for gory practical effects. (One of the opening scenes is an unsettling brain surgery sequence reminiscent of both The Exorcist and Malignant, and there’s plenty in here from Hitchcock’s The Birds). While this doesn’t reach the high heights of some of the other adaptations (or Romero’s other movies), the opportunity to watch a Stephen King adaptation by George Romero is too good to pass up. —PV

The Dark Half is available to stream on HBO Max.

The Dead Zone

Christopher Walken as the psychic Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone

Photo: Paramount Pictures

David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s sci-thriller The Dead Zone is a tour de force of memorable performances, frightfully memorable imagery, and skillfully jarring editing. Starring Christopher Walken, the film follows the story of schoolteacher Johnny Smith who, following a near-fatal accident, wakes from a five-year coma with the ability to glimpse a person’s past and future simply by touching them. After crossing paths with a rising Senate candidate (Martin Sheen) with sinister ambitions, Johnny is plagued with apocalyptic visions that compel him to save the future — at any cost.

As a director Cronenberg feels uniquely suited for tackling this material, taking King’s original and infusing it with the macabre visuals and existential melancholy that would go on to be his signature. Walken is terrific here as Smith, a man haunted not only by the moral and psychological burdens of his abilities, but by the ghost of a life now denied to him. —Toussaint Egan

The Dead Zone is available to stream on HBO Max.

Doctor Sleep

Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance peaking through a broken door in Doctor Sleep.

Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Doctor Sleep is one of the latest Stephen King books on this list, and not one of the best, which made it the perfect target for an outstanding adaptation. The story follows an adult Danny Torrance, now going by Dan. He’s put the Overlook’s past behind him along with his own powers, but eventually finds a need for them again when a marauding band of psychic vampires starts tracking down a kid who Shines even brighter than Danny did.

Where the movie finds its absolute best ground, though, is in Dan’s struggles with alcoholism in his slightly younger days, and the way that his own struggles re-contextualize how he saw Jack right up until the end. Mike Flanagan’s adaptation (especially his director’s cut) improves on its source material in every way and, by bringing Danny and Jack closer together, even manages to do the impossible: bridging King’s version of The Shining with Stanley Kubrick’s classic film. —AG

Doctor Sleep is available to stream on HBO Max. The director’s cut is available to purchase digitally on Amazon and the Google Play store.

Gerald’s Game

Carla Gugino as Jessie Burlingame handcuffed between two bedposts in Gerald’s Game.

Image: Netflix

Of Stephen King’s works, his 1992 novel Gerald’s Game was particularly hard to envision on screen; the protagonist, Jessie, is handcuffed to a bed for the majority of the story, and most of it takes place in her head. But with 2017’s Gerald’s Game, director Mike Flanagan successfully translated the novel to film by keeping Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), who dies almost immediately from a heart attack after handcuffing Jessie (Carla Gugino) to the bed, present in Jessie’s hallucinations. The fake Gerald taunts Jessie as she grows weaker from dehydration — and more desperate to escape.

Gerald’s Game is a slow burn of psychological horror that suits Flanagan’s style well. The story does retain some of King’s less palatable go-tos — childhood sexual abuse, in particular, which is arguably not very important to the plot — but also has one of King’s best endings, and Flanagan’s adaptation more than does it justice. It’s the kind of horror that doesn’t fully sink in until the very end, but when it hits, it hits. —Kallie Plagge

Gerald’s Game is available to stream on Netflix.

It (2017)

Pennywise the Clown leering menacingly in It (2017)

Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

The first half of Andy Muschietti’s two-film adaptation of Stephen King’s It plays just fine as a stand-alone horror film, and it’s arguably stronger as a solo project than the first half of a double feature. The kid crew of the first movie — seven small-town outcast kids who band together to fight back against a supernatural evil — do excellent character work and inject a lot of heart into what would otherwise just be a repetitive CGI fright-fest. There are some downright creepy monster moments in It, courtesy of Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise the clown. But the heavier threat comes from the mundane elements that hamper the kids, from an abusive dad to violent bullies. In both cases, a strong child cast and convincing bonding scenes give this project a heavy Stranger Things vibe — appropriate enough, since Stranger Things was inspired by King kid-bonding horror stories like Stand by Me in the first place. —Tasha Robinson

It: Chapter One is available to stream on HBO Max.

Misery

Kathy Bates as Annie in Misery.

Image: MGM

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has just finished his latest novel, a departure from his beloved romance series, when he crashes his car during a blizzard. Thankfully, he is saved by an experienced nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who brings him to her farmhouse and tends to his wounds. She also happens to be his biggest fan — which means she’s not at all happy to read his vulgar new book. And since nobody knows he’s here, she’s got plenty of time to convince him to return to romances while he lies helpless in her care.

Misery sees the reunion of director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off of The Princess Bride, for another flavorful meta-story about novels. But it’s truly Bates’ Oscar-winning performance that makes this contained thriller work. Annie is at turns sweet and sympathetic and terrifying and deranged; Bates’ intensity as she swings from hinged to unhinged makes her one of the most memorable and haunting villains in all of horror canon. —Jenna Stoeber

Misery is available to stream on Showtime.

Pet Sematary (1989)

A gray cat screaming in Pet Sematary.

Image: Warner Home Video

Not long after moving to a new house by a busy road, the Creed family’s beloved cat Church falls victim to traffic. Under the guidance of neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), patriarch Louis (Dale Midkiff) secretly buries Church in the sort-of eponymous pet cemetery behind their house. The next day, Church returns, but he’s not quite the same. And of course, pets aren’t the only thing that can be laid to rest there.

Pet Sematary is prime ’80s horror, dripping with blood and unflinching gore, and packed with ominous weirdo side characters; Gwynne’s folksy harbinger has been oft referenced or repeated, but it doesn’t get better than the original. It also suffers from the same vilification of rather generic Native American beliefs that suffuse King’s works, though to a lesser extent than the book.

Director Mary Lambert is probably best known for her music videos, directing classics like Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” and Madonna’s “Material Girl.” The effect can be seen in Pet Sematary, where not a frame is wasted in building the atmosphere and story, resulting in a tight and harrowing story of a man traveling the road of good intentions straight into hell. Pro tip: Stick around for the credits to listen to The Ramones’ absolute banger, “Pet Sematary,” written for this movie (and skip the 2019 adaptation altogether). —JS

Pete Sematary is available to stream on Netflix.

The Running Man

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards in a yellow jumpsuit seated in a futuristic seat in The Running Man.

Image: TriStar Pictures

One of the more action-oriented King stories and adaptations, The Running Man is distressingly relevant and prescient for something so over the top in its depiction of dystopia. Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a police officer who attempts to stop a police massacre of participants in a food riot. When he is framed for the massacre (through clever TV editing, no less), he ends up on the popular competition show The Running Man (hosted by a delightfully unhinged Richard Dawson), where prisoners escape American Gladiator-style mercenaries in order to try to win their freedom. The result is a fun 1980s sci-fi action movie with great guest appearances from sports luminaries like Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Professor Tanaka, and it’s also one of the better vehicles for Schwarzenegger’s particular flavor of movie stardom. —PV

The Running Man is available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon and Apple; $2.99 on Vudu

Salem’s Lot (1979)

A yellow-eyed vampire with pale skin baring his fangs in Salem’s Lot (1979).

Image: Warner Home Video

Salem’s Lot follows a writer, like many of King’s best works, who moves back to his childhood hometown to investigate an old house in the hopes of using it as inspiration for a novel. The house has recently been bought by a mysterious Austrian immigrant that no one has seen out during the daytime, and you can probably guess what kind of vampiric hauntings happen next. Directed by Tobe Hooper, who also directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this adaptation does an excellent job of translating all the creepiness of one of King’s best small towns. Of course, it’s also got terrific vampire design and makeup and a few of the best scares of any King adaptation. —AG

Salem’s Lot is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi.

https://www.polygon.com/what-to-watch/23056636/stephen-king-movies-best-adaptations-list

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