You could start a sizable bar fight, or a raging Twitter flame war, with a single question: What’s the best Stephen King movie?
This week’s opening of “The Dark Tower,” based on King’s much-loved series of novels, reopens the discussion about how King’s stories have fares on the big screen. Considering how King has gravitated toward long-form TV in recent years (such as CBS’s “Under the Dome” or Hulu’s “11.22.63”), many of the best King movies go back a few decades.
Fans of King’s books may gauge the movies differently than people (like me) who know the movies but not the source material. So I’m fully prepared for people to disagree with my countdown of the seven best movies based on Stephen King’s writing.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
No supernatural shocks in this murder mystery, about a reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returning home to Maine when her mother, the title character (Kathy Bates), is accused of killing the rich woman (Judy Parfitt) for whom Dolores works. Director Taylor Hackford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) captures King’s disturbing Maine settings better than any filmmaker has, in a Gothic potboiler where the past and present collide in revealing and unnerving ways.
6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
So good, and so different from the rest of King’s macabre canon, that some people forget it’s one of his. Tim Robbins stars as a banker wrongfully imprisoned for murder, trying to survive a brutal guard (Clancy Brown), sadistic rapists, and a duplicitous warden (Bob Gunton). Director Frank Darabont (who later adapted King’s “The Green Mile”) mines from King’s short story a riveting escape yarn, as well as a moving drama about resilience and redemption. The movie also established Morgan Freeman as the actor everyone wants to narrate their movies.
5. Carrie (1976)
King’s first book, and the first movie adapted from a King work, was a game-changer in the horror realm. Director Brian de Palma brought flair and flash to the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the shy teen with telekinetic powers who turns the tables on her school’s bullies, delivering a masterpiece of bloody terror.
4. Stand By Me (1986)
Four 12-year-old friends (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) hear that a dead body is lying in the woods, so they decide to go see for themselves. What follows in director Rob Reiner’s adaptation is a big-hearted memory piece about friendship and growing up, where the kids are outrunning trains and the expectations of their parents.
3. The Shining (1980)
King reportedly hated what Stanley Kubrick did to his book, so much so that the author himself penned the teleplay for a 1997 TV miniseries. But Kubrick’s chilling depiction of a writer (Jack Nicholson) who brings his family to a mountain hotel, and slowly goes mad from cabin fever and a demonic presence, remains an iconic horror drama. It also has generated so many fan theories — from the hotel’s impossible architecture to the link to Kubrick’s role in faking the Apollo moon landing — that filmmaker Rodney Ascher compiled them into a documentary, “Room 237” (2012).
2. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her terrifying depiction of Annie Wilkes, who nurses author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) after his car crashes near her snowbound home — and goes nuts when she learns he’s the creator of her favorite romance character, and has killed the heroine off in his just-completed book. Rob Reiner, working with King’s words again, turns up the tension with Hitchcock-like precision to a conclusion that’s literally shattering.
1. The Dead Zone (1983)
Of all the directors who have adapted King’s works, David Cronenberg most successfully grafted his own thematic style onto King’s. Johnny (Christopher Walken) wakes from a five-year coma to find his life has changed, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) has gotten married, and that he has the power to see the future of anyone he touches. When Johnny shakes hands with an aspiring Senate candidate (Martin Sheen), he sees the candidate as a mad president, setting off a nuclear apocalypse. This masterpiece fits both in King’s macabre mindset and Cronenberg’s disturbing repertoire (“Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” etc.).