Last Monday, 13.5 million people watched the first episode of Under the Dome, making CBS’s thirteen-episode miniseries based on Stephen King’s 2009 novel the highest-rated scripted summer debut in six years. Of course, King’s output has been big business ever since the first television adaptation of one of his works aired in 1979, and each successive decade has even put its own spin on the author’s output — anthology series one-offs in the eighties, multi-part movies and miniseries of the nineties, and remakes and made-for-TV stories of the aughts. Dome also presented Vulture with the perfect opportunity to follow up on last spring’s ranking of all 62 Stephen King books; to come up with this definitive second countdown, we spent countless hours watching and rewatching the many episodes, shows, movies, and miniseries produced from his novels and stories, as well as a few things he wrote directly for the small screen. Go crazy in the comments below.
At the time of its release, Stephen King described 1986’s Maximum Overdrive — adapted from his short story “Trucks” — as a “moron movie.” That wasn’t necessarily an insult coming from King, who wrote and directed the film; the B-movie horror and sci-fi flicks he watched and loved in his youth had given him an understanding of the joy to be had in the dumb stuff. USA Network’s 1997 adaptation of “Trucks,” though, is sub-dumb. Starring Timothy Busfield and a musical score that at several points sounds like the work of an intermediate piano student who’d just bought his first keytar, this two-hour movie about trucks that come to life and attack humans should make us all apologize to Maximum Overdrive for having ever called it such terrible names (at least that cheesefest had the good humor to give one of its trucks a memorable Green Goblin face). The King-like lesson to be learned here? There is always something worse.
26. The Outer Limits, “The Revelations of Becka Paulson”
One of the complaints frequently lodged against King’s TV work is that it’s not scary enough. This is true, but network standards have often been to blame; think of the half-dozen King miniseries of the nineties and what they might have looked like were they produced today. Of course, given King’s love of dark comedy, sometimes the work isn’t intended to be scary, and this 1997 episode of Showtime’s The Outer Limits revival falls into that camp. Based on a short story that was eventually incorporated into the novel The Tommyknockers, “The Revelations” stars Catherine O’Hara as a housewife who gains odd powers after she accidentally shoots herself in the head. Directed by Wings’ Steven Weber (who would later that year headline ABC’s six-hour remake of The Shining), the episode proves that the language and situational humor of some of King’s lighter stories don’t always translate well to the screen.
25. Quicksilver Highway, “Chattery Teeth”
Mick Garris is King’s go-to TV collaborator. (“I sometimes joke that we’re in danger of becoming the Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond of the horror genre,” King has said of his multiple team-ups with the director.) A former Universal Pictures publicist who first worked with King on the terrible 1992 theatrical release Sleepwalkers, Garris went on to helm TV adaptations of The Shining, Desperation, and The Stand. “Chattery Teeth” — which aired on Fox in 1997, the same year as the two previous items on this list (what happened in ’97?!) — served as one half of the backdoor pilot for a scuttled horror anthology called Quicksilver Highway; the story, from King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, concerns a traveling salesman who has bad luck with a hitchhiker and is saved by a pair of wind-up novelty teeth purchased at a roadside store. Sadly, the adaptation is another one-note story extended far past the limits of its conceit. Add in Fox’s questionable decision to frame the stories with set pieces starring Christopher Lloyd as a Rod Serling stand-in who travels America’s back roads in search of eerie stories, all while wearing a wig, a black muumuu, and a choker, and the inadvertent comedy becomes too much to bear.
24. Monsters, “The Moving Finger”
A good subset of King’s short fiction involves average Joes and Janes tossed into outlandish situations — explorations of how a regular person would respond when confronted with something unbelievable. Said person grapples with said crazy thing through internal monologue or (a King favorite) dialogue with oneself, and the suspense comes from the cascading character responses — shock, denial, realization, acceptance, action. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to translate much of that to screen (and woe to the fool who tries to adapt Gerald’s Game, essentially a one-person novel in which a woman is handcuffed to a bed). Fittingly, this 1990 episode of the Monsters — watch the hardy-har-har opening credits here — served as the anthology show’s final entry. It stars Tom Noonan as a man who discovers a finger growing out of his bathroom sink. And that’s pretty much all there is to say about that.
23. Sometimes They Come Back
A child of the fifties, King has a particular affinity for the greaser as villain. It worked wonderfully in two of his best movie adaptations — Stand by Me and It — and terribly in this 1991 TV version of a story from his collection Night Shift. Tim Matheson plays a high school teacher who moves back to his hometown with his wife and young son. Who is in one of his classes? Why, it’s those three teens who died long ago after killing his older brother and have returned to finish him off. Full of schmaltzy voice-over and gauzy-filtered flashbacks scenes laden with treacly music, Sometimes is rife with forced sentimentality.
22. Tales From the Darkside, “Word Processor of the Gods”
Owner of the creepiest opening-credits music of eighties TV alongside Unsolved Mysteries, Tales From the Darkside was a horror anthology series created by Night of the Living Dead director George Romero in the wake of Creepshow, the film that he and King did together. Two pieces of King’s writing were made into Darkside episodes (and another made it into the eventual Darkside movie). The first, “Word Processor of the Gods,” adapted from a story collected in Skeleton Crew, is about a writer who inherits a mysterious word processor that can make real anything he types and vanish anything he deletes; the writer uses it to get rid of his overweight harridan of a wife and their loud, junk-food-eating son. The cheaply made episode (it feels like a basement porn movie without the sex) consists mostly of shots of actor Bruce Davison and cutaways to the mysterious word-processor screen and its infernal buttons, resulting in a half-hour of TV that’s neither scary nor funny nor particularly interesting.
“Can-tah. Can-tak. Can de Lach! Tak ah Wan!” Variations on these lines are repeated several times in Desperation, directed by Mick Garris from a King script. And as Harrison Ford famously said about George Lucas’s screenplay for Star Wars, “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” Same goes for Desperation. Here, a cop in a small desert town pulls over an assortment of passers-by and tosses them in jail. Then things get bloody. As played by the hulking Ron Perleman, made to look even bigger by five-too-many low angle camera shots, evil cop Collie Entragian is a superb and frightening villain. Unfortunately, he disappears before half the film is over and we are left with a plot that requires a young boy to talk over and over again about the grace and will of God. (One of the last lines of the film is “God is love,” which may be true, but Jesus Christ!) Indeed, much of this three-hour movie, which aired on ABC in May 2006, is given over to characters talking or observing. When Tom Skerritt — as a King-like author — brings about an explosion with the one-liner, “I hate critics,” it feels like a knowingly preemptive strike.
20. Rose Red
King wears his influences on his sleeves. It’s why his characters so often say, out of the blue, some variation of the line, “It reminded me of a story I read in high school … ” It’s also why he has so often riffed on older genre classics. Rose Red, an ABC miniseries from 2002, is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House mixed with Robert Wise’s film version of the same crossed with Richard Matheson’s Hell House. Nancy Travis plays a university professor who assembles a team of psychics to explore the haunted Seattle mansion of the title. The building — like the one in Mark Z. Danielewski’s utterly frightening meta-horror novel House of Leaves — has a tendency to grow bigger and shift its internal architecture on its own. Though the series starts off strong, with an initially compelling and ragtag group of characters and an appropriately Northwestern gray vibe, it dissipates over its six-hour running time. (Rose Red is only two hours shorter than The Stand!) How many times can one story have its characters foolishly choose to run through foggy woods? So many times. And Matt Ross’s performance as Emery Waterman is a drag on the movie. As a squeaky-voiced mama’s boy, his primary acting choice seems to have involved making his character the loudest mouth-breather ever. There is also a stereotypically King-ish psychic child. Overly long and indulgent.
19. Golden Years
This eight-hour CBS miniseries – King’s first original work for the small screen – involves an elderly janitor who, after getting caught in an explosion at the government lab he works at, begins to grow younger. He then finds himself pursued by a secret government agency called the Shop. (Also the main baddie in the novel Firestarter.) With interesting performances by Frances Sternhagen and Felicity Huffman, the show nonetheless throws all its eggs in the thriller basket and regularly fails to deliver.
18. Tales From the Darkside: “Sorry, Right Number”
King’s first original TV screenplay, “Sorry, Right Number” is, as the title indicates, a take on the famous Agnes Moorehead radio play “Sorry, Wrong Number.” (It was later adapted into a Barbara Stanwyck film.) Originally broadcast in November 1987, it finds the wife of a horror novelist (naturally) disturbed over a panicked phone call she receives out of the blue. She can’t identify the caller, but they sound so familiar. With a great twist ending, “Sorry, Right Number” is a tight piece of TV work, one of the best of King’s mostly terrible anthology show stories. According to Stephen Jones’s book Creepshows, “the story had first been submitted to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s disappointing half-hour anthology series Amazing Stories, but had been rejected by Spielberg because, according to King, ‘they were looking for Amazing Stories that were a little more upbeat.’”
17. The Langoliers
More often than not, if there’s a child actor in a King TV adaptation, he or she is going to bring the whole thing down. This four-hour 1995 ABC miniseries has a young blind girl who happens to have (surprise!) psychic powers. She alternates between hysterical and eerily calm. As does Bronson Pinchot, who chose to play only either lung-scorching rage or slack-mouthed catatonia. A group of airplane passengers awake mid-flight to discover that everyone else on the plane has vanished. It’s a fantastic setup, and indeed the first hour is its best, spooky and understated. But if you remember this movie at all, you probably remember Pinchot screaming or the title creatures — world-eating balls of teeth that resemble nothing so much as ugly Pac-Men. King’s ABC miniseries, as pricey as they were, often suffered from laughable climactic special effects. The Langoliers wasn’t the first instance and it wouldn’t be the last.
16. Children of the Corn
So many sequels have been made to the 1984 horror movie Children of the Corn that they practically comprise their own mini direct-to-video cottage industry. (2011 saw the release of Children of the Corn VIII: Genesis.) This adaptation of the original short story aired on Syfy in 2009. Set in 1975, it finds a Vietnam vet and his wife driving cross country, trying to outrun their failing marriage. They argue often. Then, while passing through the corn fields of Nebraska, they encounter a religious cult run by children who consider sinful adults to be enemies worthy of death. There’s something inherently funny about scenes of Amish-garbed teenagers running with sharp farm implements, screaming at the top of their lungs as if they were in a battle scene from Braveheart. This film can’t escape the cheesiness of moments like that. Nor can it avoid an inherent script flaw — we spend much of the first half observing the arguments of a couple that we know little about and have no attachment to. Still, there is an effective simplicity to the film’s scares — it uses silence as well as any Syfy movie has any right to. This version’s child preacher has got nothing on the original, though. Not even close.
15. The Tommyknockers
One could say that this four-hour movie that aired in May 1993 suffered from too-high expectations, following three years after the successful and frightening It. Part of the reason for this movie’s poor reception (Tom Shales called it “howlingly awful” in the Washington Post) was likely due to the fact that the sci-fi novel it was based on is far from scary. Another reason for the poor reception is because it is howlingly awful. One day, a writer in a small Maine town stumbles across a mysterious object buried on her property. She begins to dig it up and an alien presence takes over almost everyone in town except for her boyfriend, an alcoholic poet. Stuffed with overused King tropes (writers, a small town, telepathy, a typewriter typing the same thing over and over again, a main character sacrificing themselves at story’s end), The Tommyknockers plays like Invasion of the Body Snatchers–lite. Yet, on account of the performance of Jimmy Smits, it’s hard to completely dismiss. As the self-loathing alcoholic poet, he invests the role with a palpable sense of anguish. Which is appropriate given that King admitted, in his memoir On Writing, that the sell-your-soul-to-aliens conceit of the novel “was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with.” Smits makes the movie watchable.
14. The X-Files: “Chinga”
King had initially wanted to write an episode of the dark thriller Millennium, but ended up working instead on a story for creator Chris Carter’s other show, then in its fifth season. A take on the classic evil doll trope (see the Twilight Zone’s “Talking Tina” episode, etc.), “Chinga” finds Scully on her own as she takes a long-needed vacation in Maine. She can’t escape her job, though, as she crosses paths with a young girl and her deadly toy doll. There’s a bit of fan service in the episode — Mulder back in Washington watching what first appears to be a porn video, Scully taking a bubble bath — but in the end, it’s no more than an above average Monster of the Week treatment. Owing to rewrites, “Chinga” (which basically means fuck in Spanish) ended up being more X-Files than Stephen King. According to Kim Manners, the episode’s director, “I was very excited to be able to direct a Stephen King piece, and when it was all said and done, there was very little Stephen King left in it. The nuts and bolts were his, but that was really one of Chris’ scripts.”
13. Bag of Bones
At one point in this 2011 A&E miniseries, a bell starts to ring even though no one is touching it. At another moment, a door closes shut even though no one has touched it. That’s what we’re dealing with here. As directed by King regular Mick Garris, Bag of Bones relies heavily on cheap and lazy frights — a raccoon jumps out at just the reight moment; a man kisses a beautiful woman who turns into a corpse only to wake up from his dream and then kiss another woman who then turns into a corpse! It’s a shame, too, because Pierce Brosnan, who plays a writer who retreats to a cabin by a Maine lake following the death of his wife, does very fine work here. But it’s laughable how many of the scare moments feel phoned in, likely by a phone that is disconnected. Seriously, though, it would be okay if there were never another King adaptation that featured a portentous yet homey phrase repeated over and over again or a shot of a typewriter/screen/manuscript with the same words written on line after line.
The Colorado Kid is one of King’s oddest books, a thin mystery that takes place entirely as a conversation between two Maine newspaper men and a young female intern. This Syfy series, now entering its fourth season, is loosely inspired by Colorado Kid (though its hard to see how.) In it, FBI agent Audrey Parker arrives at the titular Maine town, and discovers that it is a locus of people with supernatural powers. Essentially a procedural show that often plays as a weaker version of The X-Files, the main character arc is just wackadoo enough to make it worth returning to.
11. Stephen King’s The Shining
Is it hubris for a novelist to want to do a new movie version of his work if he was unsatisfied with the first attempt? Normally, the answer would be no — an author is free to do with his own work whatever he likes. But when it’s Stephen King remaking The Shining, there’s a bit of “fuck you, Stanley Kubrick” to the whole enterprise. King had long been dissatisfied with the liberties Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson had taken in the 1980 big-screen version. (Let’s not re-litigate that film in this space.) So when the opportunity came to shoot a version more loyal to the original novel, a version in which Jack Torrance is flawed and troubled but ultimately heroic, as opposed to insane from the get-go, King took it. Behind the camera was King stalwart Mick Garris who, alongside the author and screenwriter, restored much of the novel’s original story line. In this version, which aired in three,two-hour parts on ABC in 1997, Jack’s ax is replaced by a croquet mallet; cook Dick Halloran makes it out alive; the climax is fiery, not frosty; and instead of a hedge maze, we get menacing CGI hedge animals that look simply ridiculous. Still, there are many who take issue with Kubrick’s version and prefer this one — Rebecca De Mornay plays Wendy Torrance as a strong, primary character, the opposite of Shelley Duvall’s sniveling pushover. The whole thing is played as more of a tragedy than a horror story. Pick the version you want.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie version of Stephen King’s first novel remains one of the best King screen adaptations. Yet there’s something so primary and American about the story — budding sexuality, high school bullying, religious fundamentalism — that it can probably be remade every couple of decades with no loss of power or impact. This fall, Julianne Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz will star in a new big-screen version directed by Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce. This 2002 adaptation, which aired on NBC, was written by Bryan Fuller, a man who knows his way around dark subject matter, having created the shows Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and this year’s Hannibal. Emilie de Ravin (Lost’s Claire) is appropriately bitchy as the high school queen bee, Patricia Clarkson does a more frigid, less campy take on Carrie’s mother, and Angela Bettis comes closer to the homely-looking, beaten-down Carrie White of King’s original conception. Not as stylized as De Palma’s and not as expensive as this fall’s version is likely to be, Carrie nonetheless gets right to the core of the story.
9. The Twilight Zone: “Gramma”
Given the fact that nothing much actually happens in this half-hour piece from 1986, it’s amazing how effective the episode is. King wrote this story, collected in Skeleton Crew, after recalling the fear he experienced as a child having to deal with his ailing grandmother. Here, young actor Barret Oliver (Bastian in The Neverending Story) plays a boy left alone with his invalid grandmother. When he goes to bring her a cup of tea, he discovers some famously evil books beneath her floorboards. The script was written by famed sci-fi writer/curmudgeon Harlan Ellison, and he does wonders with so little. Every child experiences a moment or two where they are scared of a relative or elderly person, and this episode brings that truth to its emotional and metaphorical endpoint.
8. Salem’s Lot — 1979
Several versions exist of this first TV adaptation of King’s work. There is the four-hour miniseries that aired on CBS in November 1979, as well as a three-hour and a two-hour version. The cast is solid: Starsky and Hutch’s David Soul plays a writer who returns home after years away only to discover that a vampire has hit town at the same time. Bonnie Bedelia plays his love interest, James Mason plays the vampire’s human familiar, and Fred Willard plays the town real estate king. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, Salem’s Lot looks incredibly quaint by today’s standards, but the few scares are still effective — a young vampire boy floating outside a window, nails scratching on the glass; the vampire’s Nosferatu-like makeup, Fred Willard in red silk boxer shorts. It’s slow-going, but Salem’s Lot is a classical horror film in spades
7. Nightmares and Dreamscapes
An eight-episode anthology series that ran on TNT in 2006, Nightmares and Dreamscapes proved that there’s more than one way to slice the King. Taking stories from three collections – Everything’s Eventual, Night Shift, and the title one – the series delivered a couple of stinkers, one very fine episode, and a bona fide masterpiece. The very fine one (“The End of the Whole Mess”) stars Henry Thomas and Ron Livingston as two brothers who devise a method to rid the world of violence and aggression; naturally, there are unintended consequences. It’s a clever recounting of the end of the world that’s partially told documentary-style. The story of the masterpiece, “Battleground,” sounds absurd: A hit man arrives home after his latest job to discover that he has fallen under attack from tiny green army men toys. But the execution is fantastic. Written by Richard Christian Matheson (son of the recently deceased author), directed by Brian Henson (son of Jim), and starring William Hurt, it’s an hour-long episode containing no dialogue. Verdict: Thrilling and fun and suspenseful.
6. Kingdom Hospital
A Maine hospital is built on the remains of an old mill where dozens of children died in a fire. Half ghost story, half medical drama, there’s nothing that’s not weird about this thirteen-episode ABC series from 2004. It’s almost like it goes out of its way to bring the weirdness. A sampling: two people with Down’s syndrome who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, a creepy German security guard, regular earthquakes on account of the hospital being built on a fault line, a talking supernatural anteater, occasional moments when doctors break out into song. Stephen King developed the series, based on Lars von Trier’s Danish haunted hospital miniseries The Kingdom, and wrote half its episodes. The two-hour pilot includes a car accident that almost exactly matches the circumstances of the one that almost killed King in 1999. Kingdom Hospital is incredibly offbeat and, most important, never boring or predictable.
5. The Dead Zone
It’s not often that a filmmaker as demented and capable as David Cronenberg decides to take on a Stephen King movie. Luckily, this 1983 adaptation came along before King had alienated the Hollywood in-crowd with the overwhelming amount of dreck he produced later in that decade, and The Dead Zone, starring Christopher Walken in one of his most sympathetic roles, remains one of the most mature feature adaptations of the lot. But its basic premise, about a man who emerges from a long coma to discover that he can see both the past and the future, held the promise of something much larger — larger like this procedural, which ran for six seasons on USA starting in 2002 and starred grown-up Brat Pack pipsqueak Anthony Michael Hall in the role Walken made famous and Young Indiana Jones himself, Sean Patrick Flannery, as an up-and-coming politician whose rise may or may not lead to the apocalypse. The first season teases out much of the book’s plot, mixing it along the way with unrelated Mystery of the Week episodes. Subsequent seasons deepened the story line, adding a mythology and a new set of characters. So, should an above-average procedural rank this high? On its own, maybe not. But in the context of so many overly devoted King adaptations, it qualifies as an inspired decision to take one of his most compelling story nuggets and build an entirely new world around it.
4. Salem’s Lot
First off, the cast of this four-hour miniseries, which ran in two parts on TNT in June 2004, is fantastic. Rob Lowe does arrogant well as writer Ben Mears; Rutger Hauer and Donald Sutherland play the vampire Barlow and his human counterpart Straker, respectively; and Andre Braugher surprises as a local schoolteacher scared out of his wits. And while none of the images have the staying power of the 1979 original (the floating Glick boy, his dead brother snapping upright out of his coffin), the story here is altogether better. It’s named Salem’s Lot for a reason — this is a story about a small town and its inhabitants, and we get to know everyone and experience them as a community before they all turn into creatures of the night. With sparingly (but wisely) used CGI and several genuinely shocking moments, Salem’s Lot is an unexpected success.
3. Storm of the Century
King writes well about small Maine cities and towns (he’s even invented a few – Derry, Castle Rock) and this story, written specifically for TV, is one of his best explorations of what it means for the members of a community to be tied to one another. This six-hour miniseries aired on ABC over three nights in February 1999 (one part was cruelly pit against George Clooney’s final ER episode as a cast member) and told the story of the residents of Little Tall Island and the mysterious visitor who comes to visit right as the titular blizzard hits. Whenever the film (directed by Craig R. Baxley, who would go on to direct Rose Red and Kingdom Hospital) shoots for straight scares, it fails pretty poorly — a repeated shot of the villain baring his fangs is laughable every time. Thankfully, most of the time is spent on character development, quiet suspense, and moral complexity — and the last hour, in which one man’s principles butt up against horrible reality — is a truly gut-wrenching one. “Island business is island business” indeed.
2. The Stand
Considered by many to be King’s best book, the sprawling apocalyptic novel could only have been done justice by a long TV treatment. This eight-hour major event miniseries aired on ABC in May 1994. With a screenplay by the author and directed by Mick Garris (drink!), it remains near the gold standard for King on TV, despite a sometimes laughably dated cast (e.g., Parker Lewis from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Dauber from Coach, Molly Ringwald). The end of “Part I,” when Stu has to leave the underground bunker past dozens of dead bodies, is far creepier than a similar scene from the pilot of The Walking Dead. The end of “Part III” (reminder: an explosion occurs) remains a shocking TV kicker. While it suffers from having been shot in the mid-nineties (the version on Netflix looks like crap), there is an epic feel to this production that matches the scope of the novel and continues to remain rare, especially on network TV.
The spider. Everyone always brings up the spider. Sure, the climax of this four-hour miniseries, which aired on ABC in November 1990, features our main characters — played by John Ritter, Henry Thomas, Annette O’ Toole, and Harry Anderson — attacking a giant, Harryhausen-esque stop-motion spider. But the three and a half hours that precede that moment are undeniably strong. The story of seven kids from Maine who defeat the monster plaguing their town only to have to return to beat it again decades later, It (like the source material and like Rob Reiner’s film version of Stand by Me) portrays the joy and misery of childhood in a way that feels fundamentally true. A heavy sense of melancholy pervades all four hours and the constant flashbacks between past and present are as seamless as they come. The adult actors never swing too hard, the child actors (including Jonathan Brandis and Seth Green) are spot-on, and the villain — Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown — is a nightmare come to life.