As one of the best and most prolific horror writers of our time, it is little wonder that there are so many Stephen King adaptations out there. Recently, we took a look at some of the author’s best movies but in this post, we are going to focus on the TV series that have been based on his work.
From bloodthirsty vampires to demonic clowns, here are our picks for the best of Stephen King on the small screen.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot really is the stuff of nightmares, for this writer at least. After seeing this two-part miniseries as a kid, I had recurring nightmares for months afterwards because of Barlow, the fang-toothed menace that appeared without warning on my parent’s TV screen. He was a terrifying sight to behold and is just one of the reasons why this adaptation is incredibly scary.
The protagonist of this horror tale is Ben Mears (David Soul) who discovers the people of his home town are being turned into vampires. He does what he can to put an end to this evil epidemic with the help of some of the locals, including young Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), who finds out that his best friend has become a sharp-toothed vamp when he sees him floating outside of his bedroom window.
Directed by Tobe Hooper, this was one of the earliest adaptations of King’s work and it still ranks as one of the best. A feature film adaptation is on the way and is currently due for release sometime in 2023. Here’s hoping I don’t have nightmares after seeing that one!
The Stand (1994)
King’s original work of apocalyptic fiction was over 800 pages long so it must have been a struggle to fit his epic tome into a 4-part miniseries. Somehow, director Mick Garris managed this incredible feat, partly thanks to the contribution of King himself who wrote the teleplay for this gripping piece of televised terror.
The series is set in a plague-ravaged future where the remaining survivors of the deadly disease have banded into two groups. One of these groups is led by Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), a malevolent being that has the ability to influence others to carry out his wicked schemes.
As this is a good against evil tale, Flagg (who later appeared in The Dark Tower series of novels) has to deal with a group of characters that aren’t under his will and this sets the scene for a final stand-off that will determine the future of the world.
Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, and Molly Ringwald are among those who are fighting on the side of good and they all turn in memorable performances. The Stand was adapted again in 2020 for CBS but despite the talented playing of Whoopi Goldberg (Mother Abigail) and Alexander Skarsgård (Randall Flagg), the series paled in comparison to this earlier adaptation.
Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019)
Stephen King is primarily known for his works of horror but he has occasionally branched out into other genres, such as crime fiction, as was the case with the trilogy of novels that this series is based on.
Running for three seasons (with an adaptation of each book), Mr. Mercedes tells the story of Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), a retired police detective who runs his own private detective agency.
One of his cases revolves around Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), the Mr. Mercedes of the title, who first comes to the attention of the grizzled old PI after he drives a Mercedes into a crowded group of people, killing several of them in the process.
This psychopath is present throughout all three seasons, even though he didn’t have a part to play in the second of King’s book series. While this isn’t a traditional horror tale, there are still elements of the supernatural as Brady is able to connect to other people through his mind, even when lying in a coma. This is a gripping series that ends on a happier note than King’s trilogy.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (2006)
Stephen King frequently writes short stories outside of his longer works of fiction and many of them have been published together. Nightmares & Dreamscapes was one such collection and in the series of the same name, these short stories were brought to the screen.
As with King’s published short fiction, some of the episodes in the series are better than others. Highlights include ‘Battleground,’ wherein an assassin (William Hurt) is forced to take on an army of toy soldiers, and ‘The Road Virus Heads North,’ in which a horror writer (Tom Berenger) buys a horrific-looking painting that later takes on a life of its own.’
If you’re looking for other adaptations of King’s short stories, you should also check out Cat’s Eye, the 1985 anthology movie that featured James Woods and a young Drew Barrymore within the starry cast.
The Outsider (2020)
In HBO’s adaptation of King’s 2018 novel, Ben Mendelson takes on the role of the small-town detective who has to take on a shape-shifting creature while investigating a not-so straightforward murder case. Jason Bateman also stars in this thriller, as the kindly football coach who is arrested for the murder of a young boy that he is adamant he didn’t commit.
If you’re a fan of such crime stories as True Detective and the aforementioned Mr. Mercedes, you will probably like this one. All the ingredients are here for an intoxicating mystery tale and there are splashes of the supernatural thrown in too.
There are perhaps one too many episodes – there is a little bit of padding here – but thanks to the talented cast which also includes Paddy Considine and Cynthia Erivo, there is enough here to keep you watching.
President John F Kennedy was assassinated on the 22nd of November 1963, and it’s no coincidence that King’s book and this adaptation use that date as the basis for the story’s title. James Franco stars as Jake, an English teacher, who finds a way to travel back in time to the 1960s. This gives him the opportunity to prevent the assassination of the president while creating a new life for himself in this time period.
Does Jake stop Lee Harvey Oswald before he fires that fatal bullet? Well, that would be telling but as is common in many time travel stories, Jake’s mission is made harder by time itself, which refuses to be altered, despite the intrepid teacher’s attempts to change the course of history.
There are no time travel devices in this one – instead, Jake discovers a time portal at the back of a diner – but you don’t have to worry about the logic of it all. Stephen King certainly didn’t when he wrote his novel. He was more concerned about the race against time aspect of the plot as Jake strives to stop the assassination, as well as the romance that forms the heart of this story which threatens to muddle up Jake’s plans in the past.
The Dead Zone (2002)
King’s novel was given a movie adaptation in 1983, with Christopher Walken starring as the man who, after waking up from a coma, discovers that he now has psychic abilities (a common King trope). The movie is a good one and is directly inspired by the original work of fiction. The TV series goes its own path, which is what you might expect from a show that managed to last for 6 seasons before it was cancelled.
While it might seem odd to include this here due to the fact that it veers away from King’s story, it still hinges on the same basic conceit. Johnny (Anthony Michael Hall), the central figure of the series, still retains the power of the novel’s protagonist.
After touching people or objects, he can get an insight into the past or the future, and this gives him the opportunity to change lives for the better.
In the book and the movie, Johnny found himself on a quest to take down a man who would later become President and threaten the world with nuclear extinction. There is none of that in the series as Johnny’s gifts are largely used to help the local police force solve a series of crimes. Despite this vast difference, the series was still entertaining and it managed to stay relatively fresh throughout its 80 episodes.
Castle Rock (2018)
Castle Rock is a fictional town that appears in many of King’s novels, including Cujo, Needful Things, and The Dark Half. JJ Abrams’ series isn’t based on just one book, therefore, but many of them, as various characters from King’s novels are featured or given a mention during the 2-season run.
Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) is a key character in the series, and you will remember him as the Sheriff who featured in several of King’s novels. You will also recognise Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) from Misery who is less sinister here than she was in the movie.
Several actors who are familiar from the movie adaptations of King’s work also make an appearance even though they play different roles in the series. Sissy Spacek (Carrie) is one familiar face, as is Bill Skarsgard (IT), who doesn’t don his clown make-up in this one.
Sadly, Castle Rock was cancelled after two seasons. This is a shame as this is one show that had the potential to run for a long time, thanks to the wealth of material that King provided with his original stories.
Lisey’s Story (2021)
Julianne Moore stars as Lisa “Lisey” Landon, the widow of a famous horror author (Clive Owen) whose life is shaken up by a dangerous stalker (Dane DeHaan), a disturbed individual who is obsessed with her husband’s work.
On the surface, this has much in common with Misery, which also featured a crazed fan of a famous novelist, but this often foregoes the thriller aspects for supernatural plot points involving an alternate dimension.
The critical response for this one was mixed and our review was less than favourable. This is partly because some episodes were better than others but with its strong cast and the overall quality of the production, Pablo Larrain’s limited series is still better than a lot of King’s televised adaptations.
You will need to have patience if you watch this one as it’s a bit of a slow-burner but your time won’t be wasted if you manage to stick with it.
The recent IT movies are superior to this early adaptation of King’s epic novel but this two-parter still stands as one of the best TV adaptations of the author’s work, largely thanks to Tim Curry who managed to terrify television audiences with his iconic portrayal of Pennywise, the demonic shape-shifter.
He isn’t the only actor that is worthy of mention here as both the younger and older members of the cast turn in excellent performances. The late Jonathan Brandis (The Neverending Story 2) lights up the screen as the 12-year old Bill Denborough, for example, and Richard Thomas (The Waltons) is equally as good as the older version of the character.
As with the bigger-budgeted movie adaptations of King’s story, IT veers away from some of the nastier aspects of King’s novel. However, it still hones pretty closely to the author’s writing in other respects, especially in the way in which it manages to evoke the sense of childhood nostalgia within the first part of the tale.
And there we have it, our picks for our 10 favourite Stephen King TV adaptations!
What do you think of our list? Have we included your favourites? Or have we missed any must-watch movies (or TV shows)? We love to hear from you so do feel free to let us know in the comments below!