There’s a reason why Stephen King is revered as the godfather of modern horror. Having penned classic after classic, King has helped shape storytelling in every medium, from text to screen to even audio. The past few years have proven particularly fruitful as far as onscreen adaptations go, so it seems fair that we take a look at how they all stack up.
Some rules before we begin: To keep this list reasonable, we’re going to cut it off at five years, which seems like a reasonable enough timeline. We’re only looking at movies, because comparing something like Castle Rock (which is merely based on the King-verse) or Mr. Mercedes to a feature film feels like cheating (or at least hard to compare ... and way more work). We're also not going to count Mercy (2014), as it's only very, very loosely based on King's short story "Gramma," or Lifetime's Big Driver (2014), given that it's a TV film and, let's be honest, really not worth talking about.
That leaves us with seven films in the past five years. Later this year, we’ll get a Doctor Sleep adaptation and the highly anticipated sequel to 2017’s It, It: Chapter Two. But for now, here’s how these the latest King adaptations rank.
Honestly, a Cell adaptation would have felt dated even when King’s novel first came out back in 2006. For those of you who don’t know the tale behind this 2016 John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson team-up, Cell tells the story of a world overtaken by “the pulse,” a signal sent out over cell phones that turns their users into mindless killers (aka a wildly heavyhanded warning about the ubiquitousness of technology in our daily lives).
Part cliche zombie thriller, part “what the hell am I watching?” Cell absolutely falls at the bottom of the list.
The Dark Tower (2017)
King’s Dark Tower series is his magnum opus, a passion project-turned-defining collection that simultaneously alienated many fans while drawing in a new type of King reader. The 2017 movie based on the first book in that series was highly anticipated... and even more highly disappointing.
Idris Elba (perhaps the only good thing about the film) plays the Gunslinger, who viewers are introduced to in extreme detail as the film goes on to tell rather than show us everything about this world. Clearly, the hope here was to launch a series with The Dark Tower acting as a sort of base. The problem is that nothing could possibly stand on this base. Rumor has it that Matthew McConaughey also starred in this movie.
A Good Marriage (2014)
This is another case in which the original writing far outdoes the adaptation. A wife discovers that her husband of 25 years is a sadomasochistic killer, though the scares in the film are so overdone that they feel contrived. We’ve seen it all before — the cat-and-mouse chase, the totally predictable plot. King’s original story is imbued with far more humor (no matter how dark), and its absence is obvious in the adaptation.
Netflix’s adaptation of King’s novella 1922, originally published as a part of his Full Dark, No Stars collection in 2010, is more obsessed with atmosphere than any of the other movies on this list. Thomas Jane’s turn as Wilfred James is its saving grace, though even watching him slowly unravel over the guilt of killing his wife isn’t enough to keep me from wanting to nod off.
In this case, the slow burn is sometimes just too slow. But if that’s what you’re looking for, 1922 delivers in spades.
Pet Sematary (2019)
The 2019 Pet Sematary differentiates itself from the 1989 adaptation by changing up a couple of plot points from King’s original 1983 novel. Critics and audiences disagree on whether or not those changeups add anything to the narrative, but one thing’s for sure: The dead should absolutely stay dead.
This adaptation definitely leans more into the atmosphere of King’s novel, and the idea that grief and loss are all-consuming. Critics liked this adaptation better, but that doesn’t make it perfect. Maybe it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie next time 'round.
Gerald's Game (2017)
Of the two King adaptations that Netflix put out in 2017 (the other being 1922), Gerald’s Game absolutely takes the prize. Based on King’s 1992 novel of the same name, Gerald’s Game follows Jesse (Carla Gugino) after her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) dies as he’s enacting a rape fantasy on her, leaving her handcuffed to the bed in the middle of nowhere without food or water.
Gugino is hard to look away from as she slowly spirals into madness, hallucinating as she attempts to break free. A true psychological thriller in every way.
There’s a reason why the world was so enthralled with the latest It adaptation, earning it the top spot on this list. As one of King’s most revered novels and having last been adapted as an entertaining but not-so-thrilling TV special in the '90s, It was due for an update.
That’s just what audiences got in 2017 with It: Chapter One, which gave us the Pennywise the world needed and a charming collection of kids to cheer on. Oh, and let’s not forget the hype for It: Chapter Two, which premieres in theaters on Sept. 6.
Welcome to the Losers Club, asshole.