For the extensive number of amazing Stephen King novels that have been released over the years, there seems to be a disturbing array of absolutely awful adaptations that have made their way into theaters. Whether it’s because the vivid mind of King cannot always be adequately put into the visual medium, writers and directors don’t always understand King and just want to cash in on his popularity, or King himself approves the adaptations but doesn’t always know what a good movie makes, we might need a Stephen King oversight committee to ensure that some of his adaptations are actually watchable.
Regardless of the many, many misses, King adaptations keep coming at us like Pennywise ⏤ or, more accurately, like Cujo, since they aren’t lurking in the shadows but rather right there in our faces, advertised, promoted, and even boasted as great movies from the mind of the master of horror yet often falling short.
More often than not, King fans eagerly await their favorite books becoming big-screen adaptations only to have their hopes dashed when said films quite literally crash and burn (we’re looking at you, Firestarter and Dark Tower). It’s at the point that today’s audiences are more afraid of the films being disappointments than they are of the films themselves.
While we do admit that there are some Stephen King treasures out there, here are the 10 worst King movies to be released since 1990. We’re not going to hit on the minor movies, but rather the more highly anticipated and well-known ones. On with the horror show!
10. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Let’s start with the idea of basing a movie on King’s work as a spinoff of The Dark Tower, which was spun into three short stories and two novellas, and loosely use the source material to make an entire movie about it. In Hearts in Atlantis, an older man with special psychic powers (always hard to translate to film) is being chased by figures who want to control him when he meets a young boy who has a chance to save him. The boy doesn’t, because of their friendship, and it’s his mom who eventually gets him caught.
We do get Anthony Hopkins yelling out that he wouldn’t have missed their time together “for all the world,” but like so much of Hearts in Atlantis, it just doesn’t feel like it fits in the movie even if the book was able to pull it off. Sure, Roger Ebert liked it, but even his synopsis pinpoints why the movie falls flat.
“A movie like this is kind of a conjuring act. Like a lot of Stephen King’s recent work, it is not a horror story so much as an everyday story with horror lurking in the margins. It’s not a genre movie, in other words, but the story of characters we believe in and care about. Anton Yelchin is not just a cute kid but a smart and wary one, and Mika Boorem is not just the girl down the street but the kind of soul who inspires the best in others. And Anthony Hopkins finds just the tired, truthful note for Ted Brautigan ⏤ who knows the worst about men and fears for his future, but still has enough faith to believe it will do a kid good to read the right books.”
9. Secret Window (2004)
The book is eerie, featuring some of the best buildup and anticipation/anxiety-inducing exposition in King’s repertoire, but the film is…not. 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, and in this case it just feels cheap overall. Secret Window is probably not a story that needed to be turned into a movie, but then again, that’s the case for most of the films on this list.
There’s plagiarism and infidelity at its core pushing the storyline forward, but none of it makes the audience care even a little bit about the characters involved (except the poor dead dog). Depp’s character especially is supposed to be unraveling in a way that captivates our attention and imagination, but it’s just kooky and (spoiler) big reveal that he is, in fact, just delusional and going crazy, having invented a friend/adversary in his mind, but despite Depp going in on the theme, the movie never hooks you to care what actually happens.
8. Firestarter (2022)
As it turns out, both the original Firestarter and the remake were completely unnecessary. How does one make a bad adaptation and then do it all over again years later? The world may never know.
The main characters in the updated version, portrayed by Ryan Kiera Armstrong (daughter) and Zac Efron (father), 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. This trope has been done over and over in the decades since, and there’s no real chemistry in the current film, which feels the studio that made it saw Stranger Things and said, “Yeah, let’s do something like that!”
7. Dreamcatcher (2003)
Morgan Freeman is here to save the movie! Just kidding, there’s no saving it. This AV Club review says it all, pointing out how this movie is actually a bunch of King storylines wrapped up into one poorly wrapped package. Dreamcatcher is supposed to be gross and cringey, and it is, but not in the way that someone coming to see it would hope for. It’s kind of an attack on Americana, but also supposed to have some humor in there as well as some saving grace. AV Club’s Scott Tobias had this to say of the film:
“Perhaps due to the talent of everyone involved, Dreamcatcher moves with an oddly exhilarating awfulness that sets it apart from more run-of-the-mill horror films, which lack the imagination and budget to be so thoroughly misconceived.”
It just goes to show that while Morgan Freeman might be God, he can’t save everyone ⏤ or everything.
6. Thinner (1996)
Fans of King were ready for this one to really freak them out, at least until they realized that a story about a man doing a gypsy wrong and getting cursed for it is cool in book form and not so much visually. Somehow the movie is short, and, ahem, thin on storylines, yet it could still be cut in half.
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, putting the main character Billy Halleck (played by Robert John Burke) in a moral dilemma that, again, the audience has no reason to care about (sensing a theme here?). Billy thinks his wife is cheating on him, and after she eats a slice of the pie and dies, he is relieved. It is then revealed (gasp!) that his daughter ate some, too, but then the suspected adulterer arrives and Billy invites him in for pie with a slight smile, even though he was just distraught that his daughter is going to die from the pie. Some of King’s films are worth of 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 if it will be his mother or himself who 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. 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 is secretly a murderer. His wife finds out. But it’s his alter ego who does the murdering and the husband can still assure his wife that he won’t hurt her. He probably won’t stop all the damn murdering, though, because plot. The characters need to keep up appearances, and they’re in love, and they raised some great children into adults, so they continue on with the good marriage until things unravel ⏤ at which point the movie does, too.
3. Cell (2016)
Somehow this film is about cell phones infecting people through their ears, but it feels like it should be set about 10 years earlier.
Again, we get the promise of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson and a zombie storyline only to experience a major letdown. 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. One character, Sally (Catherine Dyer) becomes infected and for some reason can now spread the transmission via her mouth. Eventually, Cusack’s Clay Riddell saves the day! Except, it’s an illusion and he’s actually infected and circling a cell tower like the others infected. None of this is pulled of well, leaving you even more disappointed with the ending than the rest of the movie.
Cusack and Jackson had just teamed up for a pretty good King adaptation nearly a decade prior ⏤ 2007’s 1408 ⏤ so the chemistry could have been there. Then again, 10 years is a long time, and it’s not like that movie was great because of chemistry. There’s really no reason to ever revisit this. If you feel compelled to do so, watch The Cell instead.
2. 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. Though technically “werecats,” the main duo of son Charles Brady (Brian Krause) and mom Mary (Alice Krige) are energy vampires and feed off of virgin women (why is it never virgin men?). The werecats/cat-people/energy vampires’ weakness? Cats! Regular ol’ cats! Outstanding!
The visuals are about the only interesting thing about this film, and even those are, well, just look at that image above. The ending unfolds as the mom, wanting to save her dying son, continues going after the same virgin girl, Tanya (Mädchen Amick), needing to kill law enforcement officers to get to her rather than just finding an easy-to-catch and not heavily protected virgin basically anywhere else. If you’re super into seeing some cats save the day, then woof, is this is the film for you.
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 bad with the high-quality talent involved, namely Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. The expansive epic book series actually includes eight books (one is an after-the-fact that fills in a storyline) and is King at his best, with descriptive imagery and worlds other than these the main characters have to traverse over a very long period of time. Even time itself tends to bend and fold and somehow, he keeps readers in captivated suspense, considering the original, The Gunslinger, came out in 1982 and the seventh book, The Dark Tower, was released 22 years later in 2004.
Of course, the wait for what was supposed to be an epic film adaptation was not worth it. With so much source material and beautiful scenes to play with, somehow the end result was bland and drab, not really hitting on any of the gold lurking in the holster. The premise of the Dark Tower saga finally making it to the screen after many failed attempts, with the film being touted by King himself to be good, is a mess in truncating the seven books largely into one by bits and pieces, changing the Jake character way too much, and not making Elba’s Gunslinger anywhere near badass enough ⏤ or McConaughey’s Man in Black haunting enough.
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 future adaptations of the Master of Horror’s work pull us in instead of scaring us away.