The books of Stephen King, America’s most popular great author, have been adapted dozens of times for film and television. So many times, in fact, that it takes several weeks just to watch the limited series that bear his name. There are many minis, both adaptations of his books and original screenplays that he wrote. Some are both at once. I watched them all, and now not only am I a resident of Maine with psychic abilities, but I can rank all of TV’s Stephen King limited series, from the original Salem’s Lot to the brand new take on The Stand that’s currently streaming on CBS All Access.
Before I get to that, though, I must explain the methodology of what qualifies for the list and what doesn’t. This list will only include intentional limited-run shows. That means shows that ran for one season and were canceled are not included, so no The Outsideror Kingdom Hospital. And obviously it means no shows that ran for more than one season; my apologies to all the Domeheads out there. Castle Rockis excluded because although its two seasons told different stories, it still ran for two seasons. The short story anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes is OK, though, because it was always meant to be a limited run. That all makes sense, right? Great, let’s go.
Here are all 14 Stephen King limited series, ranked from worst to best.
14. The Langoliers (1995)
It’s not fair to pick on old shows for their lackluster special effects, but boy oh boy are the effects in The Langoliers bad. Even by 1995 standards, the titular interdimensional demons are terrible computer animation. They look like the Flying Toasters screensaver.
Unfortunately, nothing else works well in this two-part ABC adaptation of the novella from King’s Four Past Midnight collection, either. It’s a Twilight Zone-esque tale about a plane that flies through a wormhole and most of the passengers vanish, and the only survivors are people who were asleep when it happened. They attempt to make it back to their time and place before they too are eaten by monsters and erased from existence. It’s a fun premise, but the dialogue is cheesy, the plotting is sloppy, the shots lack energy, the time travel rules are impossible to follow, and the whole thing feels like it was made as cheaply as possible. The most interesting part is Bronson Pinchot’s unbearably hammy performance as Craig Toomey, a businessman who doesn’t care that he’s in an alternate dimension, he has to get to an important business meeting RIGHT NOW! He’s terrible, but he’s having fun, and that’s something to latch onto when the rest of the show is so listless.
13. The Tommyknockers (1993)
The Tommyknockers is considered one of Stephen King’s worst books, even by King himself, and it didn’t make for a good miniseries, either. This ABC two-parter adapts one of the only times King ever tried science fiction, and the low-budget, rushed production didn’t have the juice to make the overstuffed novel into a workable show.
The Tommyknockers is set in a typical Stephen King Maine town (that happened to be filmed in New Zealand, of all places) where weird stuff happens, only this time, instead of supernatural horror, it’s aliens. The titular body-snatchers are some green guys from outer space who exert psychic control over the residents of Haven after novelist Bobbi Anderson (Marg Helgenberger) uncovers a spaceship that glows chartreuse light buried in her backyard. Everyone in town falls under the sway of the invaders except Bobbi’s boyfriend, Jim Gardner (Jimmy Smits), an alcoholic poet whose mind is protected because he has a metal plate in his skull. The Tommyknockers has some fun ideas, like a side effect of Tommyknocker influence that makes everyone in town come up with crazy, complicated inventions to do simple tasks like crack eggs. The problem is it has too many ideas and not enough of anything else, like a story that makes sense, or good special effects, or scares.
The movie Needful Things came out the same year as this limited series, and while it’s not one of the better King adaptations, it tells a similar story about a town being destroyed by a malevolent interloper in a much more satisfying way. Honestly, I would rather see a Needful Things miniseries (the massive book was underserved by the movie) than the new Tommyknockers movie that James Wan was developing.
12. Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006)
This one is different than every other show on this list in that it’s an anthology series, with every episode an adaptation of a different King short story. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately this eight-episode TNT series doesn’t live up to the promise.
The episodes come down on the wrong side of campy. The silliness is best typified by “Battleground,” where Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt plays a hitman who battles a battalion of toy soldiers who are retaliating against him for assassinating a toy company CEO. The episode is entirely without dialogue. It was the first episode of the show to air. Choices were made.
It seems pretty difficult to adapt King’s horror shorts, because they often have a gimmick that can play as comedic, and the horror gets lost in translation from page to screen. But a short story anthology series is still a good idea, and someone (Hulu, I’m looking at you) should try it again with scarier stories, a bigger budget, and a straighter face.
11. Bag of Bones (2011)
This A&E two-parter arrived at a between-time, too late for King’s ’90s-to-mid-’00s broadcast TV run but before the prestige reboot of King adaptations that came a few years later. The final King miniseries directed by frequent King collaborator Mick Garris, it’s the last of the short episode run, thriftily made, old-style King limited series adaptations, and there’s a reason for why they took a break after this one. Bag of Bones feels uninspired, like it’s trying to do something that used to work but doesn’t anymore.
Pierce Brosnan stars as Mike Noonan, an author reeling from the tragic death of his wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish). He’s suffering from writer’s block, and travels to their summer cabin on Dark Score Lake in Maine. He gets involved trying to help a local widow, Mattie Devore (Melissa George), win a custody battle against her father-in-law. Mattie killed her husband when he tried to drown their daughter, and her father-in-law seems to have his own sinister motives for why he wants Kyra (Caitlin Carmichael). Mike also has dreams that are visions and feels Jo’s presence in the house, as well as the presence of Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose), a singer who died in 1939. Together, Mike and Mattie attempt to unravel the mysteries of why Jo was keeping secrets from Mike when she died, what happened to Sara Tidwell, and why men who live around Dark Score Lake have an alarming tendency to murder their daughters.
The novel Bag of Bones isn’t one of King’s most memorable, and it doesn’t get elevated in this curiously campy piece. Brosnan goes very broad in a way that doesn’t befit such a haunted character. His performance is just one of many odd choices, from the pop-punk soundtrack to the plodding pace. Worst of all is the climactic act of racialized, sexualized violence, which would have been rightly condemned on Twitter had this show been made even one year later than it was. Overall, the heaviness of the subject matter clashes with the campy tone and makes Bag of Bones untenably discordant.
10. Golden Years (1991)
Golden Years is the first TV show Stephen King wrote, and is not as accomplished as some of the ones he would do later, like The Stand or Storm of the Century. It’s kind of an obscure curiosity from a moment in the early ’90s when networks were trying to find the next Twin Peaks. Golden Years, which ran for seven episodes on CBS in the summer of 1991, was conceived as a slightly off-kilter and campy drama in the tonal vein of David Lynch’s sensational series. It told a closed-ended story over the course of a single season but had the potential to come back for another season if it was successful. It was not successful.
Golden Years is about Harlan Williams (Keith Szarabajka), a 70-year-old janitor at a government laboratory who gets exposed to a top-secret chemical during an explosion and starts rapidly Benjamin Buttoning. An agent tasked with containing the fallout (Felicity Huffman in one of her earliest roles) takes mercy on Harlan and his wife Gina (Frances Sternhagen) and helps them go on the run away from Jude Andrews (R. D. Call), a blue-collar, Chicago-style assassin who used to be her partner.
It’s a light sci-fi romp that’s entertaining enough to hold one’s attention but not enough to leave much of a lasting impression. The old age makeup on Szarabajka is surprisingly good, Bill Raymond gives a fun, over-the-top performance as the evil, shouty doctor running the lab, and there are supporting appearances by impossibly young character actors Stephen Root and Margo Martindale. But overall, it feels like King experimenting with a form and a genre he hadn’t mastered.
9. Rose Red (2002)
The second ABC miniseries with an original script by King directed by Craig Baxley is not as good as their first collaboration, Storm of the Century, but it’s still a strong piece of entertainment that uses the immortal framework of Shirley Jackson’s novella The Haunting of Hill House to tell a classic haunted house story.
The plot is essentially a retelling of the Hill House story, heavily influenced by the 1963 film adaptation The Haunting, with a lot more King trademark psychic stuff. Nancy Travis plays a psychology professor whose research explores the paranormal. She assembles a team of diversely gifted psychics to spend a weekend with her in a dormant haunted house known as Rose Red in an attempt to draw the spirits out. Her plan, of course, works too well, thanks to the presence of a powerful psychic teenager with autism named Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown) and Steve Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar), a descendent of the woman who built the house who has a strong psychic connection to the spirits that reside in Rose Red. As they start getting picked off, they have to fight to survive.
Rose Red is precariously balanced on the line between being an homage to a classic and being overly derivative of that classic. It ends up working because it’s a lot of fun, with a great hammy jerk performance by Matt Ross (“Save the warnings for someone who’s not broke!”) and some really effective scares. Plus the production design on the constantly changing house is really impressive.
8. It (1990)
It’s not as good as you remember. Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is excellent nightmare fuel, but other than him, most of this 1990 ABC two-parter is pretty middle-of-the-pack. In 2020, the acting doesn’t hold up. It feels dated. Watching Richard Thomas and Harry Anderson exaggerate their line readings is like watching basketball without the three-point line.
The show follows a group of seven friends who call themselves the Losers Club, since they’re the freaks and weirdos of the town of Derry, Maine, as they battle a murderous supernatural entity they just call “It,” first as children, then as adults when it comes back. It’s about friendship and growing up and facing one’s fears.
It was a big hit when it aired and laid a successful foundation not only for subsequent Stephen King TV adaptations but also for future televised horror as a whole. It helped the looked-down-upon genre enter the mainstream in a big way, and the show is remembered fondly/frightfully by the legions of ’90s kids who watched it on VHS. But it’s more influential than it is good. You probably remember Pennywise’s teeth, but you don’t remember Richard Thomas’ long ponytail.
7. Salem’s Lot (2004)
TNT returned to Salem’s Lot for this two-parter. Like the new version of The Stand vs. the 1994 version of The Stand, this miniseries changes a lot about King’s novel in comparison to the earlier, more faithful adaptation. It’s not as good as Salem’s Lot 1979, but much closer in quality than you might expect.
This version tells the same story as the novel and the 1979 limited series, about a writer returning to his small Maine town as it suffers an epidemic of vampirism and teaming up with some locals to fight the monsters. Some of the changes the new Salem’s Lot makes are great, especially an expanded part for the flawed priest Father Callahan (the great James Cromwell), who is one of King’s greatest characters and was mostly removed in the original adaptation, but some are ill-advised, like casting Andre Braugher as Rob Lowe’s former middle school teacher despite Braugher being just two years older than Lowe. In fact, Lowe probably wasn’t the best choice to play Ben Mears, as his performance is weirdly amateurish in its failure to communicate emotion. But the weak lead performance is propped up by a great supporting cast, including Braugher, Cromwell, and a scenery-chewing Donald Sutherland as vampire’s assistant Richard Straker, as well as a strong script by Peter Filardi that has some intelligent dialogue and well-deployed changes from the source material.
6. The Stand (2020)
Doing The Stand on a streaming service in 2020 offers many advantages that weren’t available to the producers of the 1994 version. The new one has TV-MA content that the ABC edition couldn’t, vastly better special effects, and more natural acting that serves the story better than heightened mid-’90s TV acting. It also frees up the creative team led by Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell to try a new story structure that the very faithful and linear 1994 adaptation couldn’t. The Stand delivers on the technological improvements, but the new structure, which relies heavily on Lost-style rapid flashbacks and flashforwards, takes some getting used to, especially for fans of the novel.
The Stand is the story of a man-made pandemic that wipes out over 99 percent of the world’s population. The American survivors band together in two groups, the good guys rallying around Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) in Boulder, and the bad guys under Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) in Las Vegas. It follows a sprawling cast’s individual journeys through the apocalypse into the rebuilding process. They were certain people living prescribed lives before, and they grow and change into different people in the new world.
The biggest problem with the new structure is that it makes those journeys feel less earned, as we don’t see the gradual progression of a character. The show jumps around so much that it can be hard to follow at times. It’s a bold change, and a necessary one to differentiate this version of The Stand from the previous limited series and the novel. But the changes show that Stephen King really got it right the first time.
This is not to say that The Stand 2020 is bad, because it isn’t. It gets better as it goes on, with strong performances across the ensemble and a really impressive scope that the lower-budget 1994 version couldn’t match. It has a more diverse cast, adds back some characters that were sadly cut from the earlier adaptation, and has much better villains. Julie Lawry (Katherine McNamara), Lloyd Henreid (Nat Wolff), the Trashcan Man (Ezra Miller — it takes a while for him to show up, but he’s amazing when he does), and especially Alexander Skarsgård as a very seductive and menacing Randall Flagg are all perfectly realized.
5. The Shining (1997)
Stephen King famously doesn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Even after all these years, he still thinks Kubrick didn’t do right by one of his most personal novels, recently telling the New York Times, “I don’t like the arc that Jack Nicholson runs as Jack Torrance. Because it isn’t really an arc — it’s a flat line. He’s crazy from the jump.” King’s own adaptation is much closer to the spirit of his novel, which is non-metaphorically about a man in the grips of alcoholism.
In 1997, King reconvened with his frequent collaborator Mick Garris to make a three-part limited series for ABC, one that’s tellingly stylized as Stephen King’s The Shining (up yours, Kubrick!). Steven Weber plays Jack Torrance, a writer trying very hard to maintain his sobriety after some very serious incidents of alcohol-fueled rage have put him on the verge of losing his family. He gets hired to be the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, which gets completely cut off from the world during the winter. He brings his loving but fed-up wife Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay) and their 7-year-old son Danny (Courtland Mead) with him. Danny has psychic powers that connect him to the hotel, which has its own powers, and things go bad, because the hotel itself is evil. It wants Danny, and it’s going to get to him through Jack by driving him crazy — and to drink.
The extended runtime allows for more psychological drama, and Jack Torrance’s arc is definitely better defined than it is in the movie. But it’s not fair to actually compare Stephen King’s The Shining to Stanley Kubrick’s, since Kubrick’s is a masterpiece and this one is good for a mid-’90s broadcast miniseries. It’s the best-made of King’s ABC shows, and won Emmys for its very scary makeup and sound editing. It was filmed at the actual hotel, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., that inspired The Shining. The performances and the script are strong. If Kubrick’s The Shining didn’t exist, this would do as a definitive adaptation, but it’s very hard for this Shining to exist in the shadow of true greatness. It’s going to be a challenge for the upcoming HBO Max prequel series Overlook as well.
4. The Stand (1994)
This 1994 ABC miniseries is a marvel of efficiency. King, who wrote the script, distilled his longest novel into a tight four-episode, six-hours-without-commercials series that not only keeps all of the important plot points, but manages to hold on to a lot of the important character pieces, too. The growth experienced by characters like Larry Underwood and Frannie Goldsmith feels earned despite taking place over the course of minutes instead of dozens and dozens of pages. King and director Mick Garris did an impressive job of preserving the spirit of the apocalyptic epic despite working in the very constrictive format of broadcast miniseries. From a story standpoint, The Stand works remarkably well, keeping track of a vast number of characters and moving along at a brisk pace. Nothing that didn’t make it in from the book feels like a tragic loss.
Not everything else works so well. The budget seems to have been curiously allocated. There are dozens of locations, and the show was filmed all over the country, but some of the sets look chintzy. There’s a riot in New York City that takes place during the day with about 30 extras. And it was all filmed on cheap film that makes it look like, well, a budget miniseries from the mid ’90s. And while most of the performances, like Gary Sinise as Stu Redmond, are engaging, arguably the most important one doesn’t work at all. Plain-faced Jamey Sheridan just isn’t seductive or menacing as Randall Flagg. I mean, he has a mullet, for crying out loud. Alexander Skarsgård is light-years better. But a weak Flagg doesn’t cancel out the unforgettable eeriness of the first episode’s opening credits, where a handheld camera glides over dozens of dead bodies in an abandoned military base while “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays. That scene alone would give it a slight edge over the 2020 version, even if the series as a whole weren’t the better-written one.
3. 11.22.63 (2016)
The current era of prestige Stephen King adaptations began with this Hulu limited series based on King’s slightly grammatically different 2011 novel 11/22/63. Andy Muschietti’s It kicked the renaissance into overdrive in 2017, but a year and a half earlier, 11.22.63 started it. The time travel thriller remains one of the best of the present wave of adaptations, including movies and TV. It’s also unique as the only limited series adaptation of a non-horror King tale so far.
Stephen King was 16 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and like every other American who remembers the events of that day, he has maintained a fascination with it, learning about all the conspiracy theories and imagining what would have happened if the president hadn’t been killed. But unlike most Americans, King wrote a novel about it, and that novel got picked up by superproducer J.J. Abrams, who used his clout to get it made into a big-budget, eight-part (previous King miniseries tended to top out at four) limited series.
A tired-looking James Franco stars as Jake Epping, a recently divorced, underachieving high school English teacher from Lisbon, Maine, who gets drafted by his friend Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) to travel back to 1960 through a portal in Al’s diner and prevent the JFK assassination, which would theoretically then prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and all kinds of other terrible events. He’s supposed to monitor the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to see if Oswald acted alone, and then stop him and whoever else may have been working with him. But things of course don’t go according to plan, as Epping gets intimately involved in the early ’60s lives of school librarian Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) and erratic bartender Bill Turcotte (George MacKay). A lot of things are trying to stop him from carrying out his mission, including the past itself, which doesn’t want to be changed.
The show is kept short of greatness due to some underdeveloped supporting characters and abrupt narrative transitions, but it has a lot of stuff that works really well. Writer and executive producer Bridget Carpenter oversaw a brilliant choice to break it up into honest-to-God TV episodes rather than go the “eight-hour movie” route that always leads to flabbiness, so every episode feels distinct and propulsive. There’s a lot of great tension (Josh Duhamel gives an intimidating guest performance as the violent father of Epping’s friend), and impressive performances from MacKay and Daniel Webber, who nails Lee Harvey Oswald’s peculiar voice and finds real pathos in the alienated character.
2. Salem’s Lot (1979)
The very first TV adaptation of a Stephen King book — and only the second adaptation ever, after Brian De Palma’s Carrie — set a high standard for King adaptations that is still almost never bested. The two-part vampire tale is a classic not only among King adaptations but among vampire movies in general, and created the template for televised King adaptations for the next 35 years.
The story, which came from King’s second published novel, has many of the elements that became King signatures: a small town overrun by very bad supernatural things, a writer as a main character, the loss of innocence. It follows Ben Mears (David Soul, hot off Starsky & Hutch), a slick author who returns to his rural Maine hometown to work on a book about the Marsten House, an abandoned mansion rumored to be haunted, which Mears knows is no rumor. Mears is not the only one interested in the Marsten House, though, which is being rented by mysterious newcomers to town, a man named Straker (James Mason) and his unseen associate Barlow, who it turns out is a horrifying, Nosferatu-esque vampire. As the plague of vampirism spreads throughout the town, it falls to Mears, his former teacher Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), and local kid Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) to stop Straker and Barlow.
The miniseries, which was produced by Warner Bros. and aired on CBS in November 1979, was directed by Tobe Hooper, who a few years earlier had etched his name in horror history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Salem’s Lot is totally different from that seminal slasher, demonstrating how versatile a filmmaker Hooper was. Airing on broadcast TV meant Salem’s Lot couldn’t be too terrifying, so Hooper imbued it with a thick fog of spooky atmosphere instead. That fog is literal in the show’s most memorable scene, where a floating, undead boy scratches at his brother’s window, asking to be let in. (The float effect was created by putting the actors on a boom crane instead of using wires, which made it even more uncanny.)
1. Storm of the Century (1999)
ABC’s 1999 three-parter Storm of the Century is another original script written by King himself. The author described it in the introduction to the published paperback version of the screenplay as a “novel for television,” which sounds like it could be a pretentious designation, but in this case is impressively accurate. More than any other King miniseries, even ones he adapted from his own books, Storm of the Century feels like a Stephen King novel.
Part of why it feels like that is because there’s no novel to compare it to, and part of it is because it’s so very King-y. Like so many other King tales, it’s about a small Maine town (an isolated island off the coast called Little Tall Island) under siege by a malevolent supernatural entity (an ancient demon named Andre Linoge [Colm Feore]) that uses psychic powers to divide and kill the town’s residents. He appears just before a blizzard cuts the island off from the mainland, and turns the island into a colony of pain as he pressures the townspeople into giving him what he wants. Linoge is like It‘s Pennywise and Needful Things‘ Leland Gaunt, while town constable Mike Anderson (Tim Daly, whose Wings co-star Steven Weber also starred in a King miniseries two years earlier) is an upstanding hero like Salem’s Lot‘s Ben Mears or The Stand‘s Stu Redmond. Even deeper than character or plot similarities, though, the vibe feels like a King novel in a way that sometimes gets lost in translation from page to screen. It’s felt most clearly in some of King’s signature dialogue quirks. There’s the use of a phrase that doesn’t exist anywhere else that King treats like something everyone knows (in Storm of the Century, the term “fairy saddle” is used to refer to a birthmark on a character’s nose, which is not what a “fairy saddle” refers to outside of King’s brain; it generally refers to a tuft of fur on a corgi’s back), and funny/scary lines of catchphrase-like dialogue that burrow into your head: “Born in sin, come on in,” and, especially, “Give me what I want, and I’ll go away.”
It’s the latter line, repeated over and over by Linoge, that’s the key to why Storm of the Century is so memorable. Feore’s delivery is placid, which makes Linoge even more inscrutable and chilling. Feore is basically doing a Hannibal Lecter impression, with a fey, slightly amused demeanor like a kid who stomps on an anthill and watches the ants scurry, and though it’s not a particularly unique or deep performance, it’s hard to forget. Underplayed menace has a way of getting under your skin. A well-developed sense of place and a glum ending also add to Storm of the Century‘s effectiveness. It’s cohesive in a way that’s rare and satisfying. King himself agrees. He recently said it’s his favorite of all his TV projects.