Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie McGee in Stephen King's Firestarter
Photo via Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures

The 10 worst Stephen King movies that are literally dreadful

When spectacular source material goes horror-bly wrong...

For the extensive number of fantastic Stephen King novels that have been released over the last half a century, there is an equal number of absolutely awful movie adaptations that have somehow completed the journey from pre-production to theatrical debut. Whether it’s because King’s disturbingly vivid mind challenges the visual medium, whether writers and directors don’t fully comprehend his work and simply want to capitalize on his popularity, or King himself approves of the adaptations but fails to find that balance between page and screen. Either way, a Stephen King oversight committee is needed to ensure that some of his adaptations are actually watchable. Allow us to be that committee for you. 

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Now, don’t get us wrong. There are some gems out there. The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie (the 1976 version, please God not the 2013 one), and Stand By Me to name just a few. But the list of dreadful King movies inches dangerously close to outnumbering their praised competitors with every passing year. At this point, audiences are more afraid of the movie being bad than the actual movie itself.

So, without further ado, here are the 10 worst King movies released post-1990. We are not going to address the minor ones, but rather the more highly anticipated and well-known movies. On with the horror show!

10. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

Where Stand By Me was able to home in on the beating heart of its literary counterpart, Hearts in Atlantis missed the mark by a green mile. In the film, which was based on King’s novella of the same name, Anthony Hopkins plays Ted Brautigan, a misunderstood older man with extraordinary psychic powers (always difficult to translate to film) who is being chased by figures who want to control him. Upon meeting 11-year-old Bobby Garfield, a friendship blooms and Bobby discovers he can save Ted. However, things are ultimately put in peril when Bobby’s mother tips off Ted’s assailants and winds up captured.

The over-acted, often corny scenes somehow countered the film’s lackadaisical pace and unresolved conclusion. All in all, Hearts In Atlantis was a miss, which was a shame because it had Anthony freaking Hopkins in it for goodness’ sake.

9. Secret Window (2004)

The novella (Secret Window, Secret Garden) is eerie, featuring some of the best buildup and anticipation/anxiety-inducing exposition in King’s repertoire. The was so much potential here, but alas, the film is…not good. Johnny Depp and John Turturro, both capable of pulling off plenty of on-screen crazy, almost get the audience there just by Depp being Depp, but in the end, the film is a dud. Conventions like the inner monologuing don’t work here the way they can in novel form, thus making the film feel cheap. Secret Window is probably not a story that needed to be turned into a movie, but then again, that’s the case for a good number of the films on this list.

Plagiarism and infidelity are two core themes that push the storyline forward, but neither of them gives way to even an ounce of empathy from the audience, and we’re left ambivalent about the characters (except the poor dead dog). Depp’s character in particular missed the mark. He is supposed to be unraveling in a way that captivates our attention and imagination, but it’s just kooky, and (spoiler) the film’s big reveal is that he is, in fact, just delusional and going crazy.  The movie just never hooks you enough to care about all the craziness unraveling.

8. Dreamcatcher (2003)

Dreamcatcher just goes to show that not everything in King’s mind can or should be translated into a movie. Not even Morgan Freeman could save this film. An alien invasion, childhood trauma, and friendship are at the heart of this film, but due to an overabundance of special effects, a hopscotching plot, and the inability to do what King does so well in his novels, which is getting inside the head of a free-falling mind, the movie winds up resembling something close to roadkill; only vaguely resembling its novel counterpart. 

7. Firestarter (2022)

As it turns out, both the original 1984 Firestarter and the remake were completely unnecessary. How does one make a bad adaptation and then do it all over again years later, yet worse? The world may never know.

The main characters in the 2022 version, father-daughter duo Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and Andy McGee (Zac Efron) are bonded by their special powers, which have been brought on by an experimental drug. The original novel pulls the reader into their world of trying to get a grasp of their powers (telekinesis and firestarting, respectively) while the powers-that-be want to ultimately capture them. It’s a tried and true trope, but the chemistry from the characters that propelled the books is completely missing in the film. In fact, it feels a little like the studio saw Stranger Things and said “Yeah, let’s do something like that!” which shouldn’t feel like the case at all since Firestarter came out over three decades earlier. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Firestarter has a 10 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the second worst-reviewed movie in King history.

6. Thinner (1996)

Again, so much potential here. Fans of King were ready for this one to really freak them out, but somehow (no really, we don’t know how — the entire plot was ripe for the picking) Thinner was… thin on storylines. A story about a man doing a gypsy wrong and getting cursed for it played out well in King’s novel, but on screen, it withered away right before our eyes. 

In the end, eating a pie will lift the curse (and also kill you), but if someone else eats the pie, the curse is lifted and that person dies. Confused? You’re not alone. The moral dilemma the main character Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) finds himself in does nothing to pluck at our heartstrings. The audience has no reason to care (sensing a theme here?). In the end, some of King’s films are worth the indulgence, but unfortunately, Thinner is not one of them.

5. Riding the Bullet (2004)

In Riding the Bullet, paranormal activity follows a hippie who just wants to hitchhike across the country to visit his ailing mom, who just had a stroke. He almost winds up in a deadly car crash but escapes unscathed. A dead man, who happens to be a demon, winds up picking him up and riding along with him, ultimately making him choose whether his mother or himself dies. As interesting as this premise sounds, in no way does the movie make you feel invested in its characters. It also only made $134,711 at the box office, which is pretty hard to do for a movie that was released in theaters and promoted, so that should give you an indication of how much it didn’t resonate with moviegoers. If you’re never heard of this film before, it should now be obvious why.

4. A Good Marriage (2014)

Spoiler: It’s not good ⏤ the marriage or the movie. The husband, Bob Anderson (Anthony LaPaglia) is secretly a murderer and his wife Darcy (Joan Allen) finds out about it. But it is actually his alter ego who is the real murderer, not him. He tries everything in his power to assure his wife that she is safe from harm. He doesn’t stop all the murdering, though, because the characters keep up appearances, they are in love, they raised some great children into adults, and carry on with the so-called good marriage until things unravel ⏤ at which point the movie does, too.

3. Sleepwalkers (1992)

This film is scary if you’re a young teenager and easily creeped out by weird-looking cat-people and incest. Otherwise, meh-ow. Technically considered “werecats,” the main duo of son Charles Brady (Brian Krause) and mom Mary (Alice Krige) are energy vampires who feed off of virgin women (why is it never virgin men?). The werecats/cat-people/energy vampires’ weaknesses? Cats! Regular ol’ cats! Outstanding!

It’s clear as day King was enjoying a fresh round of drugs when he penned this novel, something he’s been very open about in the past. The story is ridiculous, the effects are of its time, and, oh yeah, did we mention the story is ridiculous? But hey, if cats are your thing, take a swipe at this. It definitely has that ‘so bad it’s good’ vibe, for some.

2. Cell (2016)

This film about cell phones infecting people through their ears feels about a decade behind schedule, and it is. Based on the 2006 King novel of the same name, Cell follows Clay Riddell (John Cusack) and Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) as they navigate a world beholden to zombie possession. The infected people in the movie are operating as a hive mind, and of course, our heroes need to find a way to get them separated from their trance. 

The film debuted with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 11 percent, which should tell you all you need to know. Despite having worked together nearly a decade prior in 1408, Cusack and Jackson just don’t seem to have their hearts in the game this time around, and it shows. The cinematography feels like something a decade behind schedule and the script is as disjointed as a zombie’s brain cells. If you truly want to watch this, have a bottle of tequila at the ready to help you through it.

1. The Dark Tower (2017)

We kept convincing ourselves — as we often do with King adaptations — that there was no way The Dark Tower could be a dud given the high-quality talent involved, namely Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. Yet that is exactly what happened. 

With a pitiful Rotten Tomatoes score of 15 percent, The Dark Tower failed in every aspect where its novel counterpart succeeded. King’s descriptive imagery, immersive world-building, and rich character somehow fell into the hands of a studio that couldn’t care less whether it produced an accurate adaptation. The Dark Tower is a mess namely because it truncated King’s seven books into one film through awfully-selected bits and pieces, changing the character of Jake too much, and not making Elba’s Gunslinger anywhere near as much of a baddie as he is in the novel. McConaughey’s Man in Black wasn’t nearly as haunting enough either. 

As King told Entertainment Weekly, it needed to be stranger, and also needed to be rated R:

“The real problem, as far as I’m concerned is, they went into this movie, and I think this was a studio edict pretty much: this is going to be a PG-13 movie. It’s going to be a tentpole movie. We want to make sure that we get people in there from the ages of, let’s say, 12 right on up to whatever the target age is. Let’s say 12 to 35. That’s what we want. So it has to be PG-13, and when they did that I think that they lost a lot of the toughness of it and it became something where people went to it and said, Well yeah, but it’s really not anything that we haven’t seen before. …

“When they actually made the movie I had doubts about it from the beginning, and expressed them, and didn’t really get too far. Sometimes when people have made up their mind, the creative team that’s actually going to go and shoot the movie, it’s a little bit like hitting your fist against hard rubber, you know? It doesn’t really hurt, but you don’t get anywhere. It just sort of bounces back. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, people are going to be really puzzled by this,’ and they were. So there was some of that problem, too.”

As we now know, The Dark Tower isn’t the only problem in King’s cinematic repertoire. All we can hope from here on out is that future filmmakers learn from their predecessors’ mistakes so that further adaptations of the Master of Horror’s prolific resume pull us in instead of scaring us away.


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Habeab Kurdi
You could say Habeab is bit like Roy Kent — here, there, every-f’ing-where. Immersed in journalism for 20 years now, he writes about life — from sports to profiles, beer to food, film, coffee, music, and more. Hailing from Austin, Texas, he now resides in the gorgeous seaside city of Gdynia, Poland. Not one to take things too seriously, other than his craft, BB has worked in brewing and serving beer, roasting and pouring coffee, and in Austin’s finest gin distillery among myriad other things. A graduate of the University of Texas, he once worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and Austin American-Statesman when newspapers were still a thing, then dabbled in social media and marketing. If there is water, he will swim there — from the freezing seas of Copenhagen and Gdynia, to the warm waters in Texas and Thailand.
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