Stephen King is among history’s most frequently adapted writers, up there with Charles Dickens, the Brothers Grimm, and William Shakespeare for inspiring the most successful page-to-picture creations. From Rob Reiner and David Cronenberg to Mike Flanagan and Andy Muschietti, genre filmmakers have clamored to take on King’s words for decades.
There’s no shortage of material to go around, of course. Horror’s reigning titan of literary terror has written more than 60 books and 200 short stories: many of them rooted in King’s signature strangeness and the believable humanity that turned 2017’s “It” into a global sensation. King has teamed up with his son Joe Hill to produce even more cinematic fodder in recent years. The pair’s “In the Tall Grass” novella became a Netflix movie in 2019, and Hill enjoyed his own success with Scott Derrickson’s 2022 “The Black Phone” adaptation.
Almost all of King’s titles boast the imaginative nightmares for which the author is renowned: a perverse pull for audiences that for good or bad is now tried and true. King has found reasonable success in adapting his own work; see the screenplays for George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” (1982) and Mary Lambert’s “Pet Sematary” (1989). But these days, he mainly contributes to Hollywood through carefully crafted books and snide little tweets.
Outspoken as ever, King regularly takes to social media to share his thoughts on politics and the state of pop culture. The Maine-born writer slips in his film opinions from time to time, typically reacting to onscreen interpretations of his work but occasionally taking aim at whatever he’s seen latest. King has brutally picked apart the merits of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” even calling Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” a “benchmark of awfulness.” They’re harsh words, sure. But does the “if you can’t say something nice” adage really apply to the guy who dreamed up “Misery”?
Listed in no particular order, here are 16 films that Stephen King has disliked or given a bad review. These include the author’s criticisms of King adaptations, from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” to Mark L. Lester’s “Firestarter” and Brett Leonard’s “The Lawnmower Man.”
Kicking off a (particularly pointed) Twitter thread, King asked his followers which movies they had walked out of mid-showing. His answer? “I have walked out of only one movie as an adult: ‘Transformers.’”
Michael Bay’s 2007 take on the popular Hasbro toy line was an unquestionable success at the box office, appealing to a wide range of ages thanks to its PG-13 rating. It was heavily praised for its then groundbreaking visual effects, but remains unpopular among critics who argue its characters and storyline were underdeveloped — and remained thin for much of the franchise. Bay hasn’t spoken out against his first “Transformers” outing. However, the filmmaker admitted he “made too many of them” in a March 2022 interview with Unilad.
“Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003)
Yes, you read that right: Stephen King took serious issue with “Kill Bill.” He disliked it so much the horror author reviewed it for Entertainment Weekly in February 2007, calling it “tepid” and “a film that doesn’t matter.”
“You probably saw some good reviews of it, possibly even in this magazine,” King wrote. “Steve says don’t you believe it. Steve says you should remember that movie critics see movies free. Also, they don’t have to pay the babysitter or spring ten bucks for the parking. They’re thus apt to rhapsodize over narcissistic stuff like ‘Kill Bill,’ which announces itself as Quentin Tarantino’s Fourth Film, ain’t we la-di-da.”
King goes on to criticize Tarantino’s use of over-the-top violence, rockstar director “vanities,” and Uma Thurman: “stuck playing a woman who’s a label instead of a human being.”
Speaking with Entertainment Tonight, Tarantino responded to King’s review and said, “Stephen King took a dig at me for starting off ‘Kill Bill’ with ‘Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film,’ you know, ‘la-di-da!’ I can imagine someone taking a cynical view like that. But to me, I meant it, and not in some airy-fairy way. This is my fourth movie and I haven’t done anything in a long time. It’s telling you who I am today, and the fifth will tell you something else.”
“Mars Attacks!” (1996)
To make his point about “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” King compared Tarantino’s kung fu epic to a number of other films. He most notably drew contrast with Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” a film he regards as technically masterful and hugely important to the history of cinema. On the other end of the spectrum, King described two movies as the “benchmark of awfulness.” First up? Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!”
Infused with the questionable sensibilities of Ed Wood and more B movie auteurs, this 1996 sci-fi horror comedy is on par with “Killer Klowns from Outerspace.” Its at once notoriously despised and contemporarily beloved for its intense camp. (Audiences still returning to the film tend to be more positive.)
“It was a bomb in America,” Burton said in 2021 anniversary retrospective for Inverse. “It was the first movie I did where it was more successful internationally. It seemed to be much more well-received and more ‘got,’ in a way, by other countries.”
“Mommie Dearest” (1981)
Another of King’s benchmarks for awfulness is “Mommie Dearest”: an indisputably terrible 1981 drama that’s since gained a cult following for its unintended comedic charms, akin to Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” (albeit with fewer technical issues).
It’s directed by the late Academy Award nominee Frank Perry, and chronicles the sordid personal life of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina, who first alleged her mother’s abuse in a memoir of the same name. Winner of Worst Picture at that year’s Razzies — the second ever — “Mommie Dearest” is best known for Faye Dunaway’s extreme portrayal of Joan. The “Network” actress reportedly blamed the flop for her subsequent decline in castings.
“The Godfather: Part III” (1990)
“Mars Attacks!” and “Mommie Dearest” may be King’s touchstones for mediocre movie-making, but it was “The Godfather: Part III” that drew most of his ire in the aforementioned “Kill Bill” analysis. He first praised Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13”: a low-budget project filmed in just nine days that properly launched the director’s career.
“Many years later, Coppola spent at least a thousand times what he spent on ‘Dementia 13’ to make the last of the ‘Godfather’ movies,” King wrote of the contrast between the projects. “The film is opulent, incoherent, and boring. ‘The Godfather Part III’ is a movie that doesn’t matter. The difference? One has heart, soul, and the crazy enthusiasm of youth. The other is the work of a talented man who has either used all his talent up or is saving what’s left for another day.”
“The Dark Tower” (2017)
Kate Erbland called the first adaptation attempt for King’s eight-book magnum opus a “disaster of a film,” giving 2017’s “The Dark Tower” a dismal D+ in her review for IndieWire. The Nikolaj Arcel-directed film, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, had heaps of problems. But for King (via Entertainment Weekly), it boils down to its PG-13 rating — a decision he said “lost a lot of the toughness” in his gunslinging sci-fi source material — and the overstuffed nature of fitting 4,000 pages into a tidy running time.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, people are going to be really puzzled by this,’ and they were,” King said of the script, which begins roughly halfway through the books. “So there was some of that problem, too.” Horror heavyweight Mike Flanagan will attempt an adaptation next in a TV series in development at Netflix.
“The Shining” (1980)
“The Shining” is easily King’s most famous adaptation disappointment, in no small part because Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Overlook Hotel is widely regarded as a masterpiece — and by default, remains the best known telling of King’s story. The author has complained about everything from Jack Nicholson’s performance to the misogynistic tweaks made to the character of Wendy Torrance (played by Shelley Duvall under infamously bad working conditions).
“I think ‘The Shining’ is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it,” King once told Deadline. “In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favorable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much.”
Asked broadly about filmmakers’ varying takes on his work by American Film Magazine in 1986 (via Slash Film), King called out the Drew Barrymore-starring commercial success “Firestarter.”
“‘Firestarter’ is one of the worst of the bunch, even though in terms of story it’s very close to the original,” King said. “But it’s flavorless; it’s like cafeteria mashed potatoes. There are things that happen in terms of special effects in that movie that make no sense to me whatsoever. Why this kid’s hair blows every time she starts fires is totally beyond my understanding. I never got a satisfactory answer when I saw the rough cut. By that time, (producer Dino De Laurentis) was regularly asking me for input. Sometimes he’d take it.”
King continued to complain about lead David Keith (“My wife said that he has stupid eyes…”) and noted that Martin Sheen had repeated his performance from “The Dead Zone,” perhaps unwittingly. “That’s all there is; it’s the same character exactly,” he said.
The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)
Speaking with The Guardian in 2013 (aka the afterglow of the Twilight craze), King took swings at three of his literary contemporaries. He first critiqued Stephenie Meyer’s ability to craft a fantasy world rooted in human emotion.
“I read ‘Twilight’ and didn’t feel any urge to go on with her,” King said of the seminal Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson work. He continued, arguing the love story should’ve been deeper before describing the film as “tweenager porn.” (Intriguing words from the man behind the infamous “It” orgy, to be sure.)
“The Hunger Games” (2012)
In the same 2013 interview, King shared his distate for Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA series. The author likened Collins’ work to his own, noting the similarities between “The Hunger Games” and 1982’s “The Running Man.”
“I read ‘The Hunger Games’ and didn’t feel an urge to go on,” King said. “It’s not unlike ‘The Running Man,’ which is about a game where people are actually killed and people are watching: a satire on reality TV.”
Notably, King had previously complimented Collins’ work in a 2008 piece written for Entertainment Weekly. Some of his comments were cheekily disparaging (“Gale is smoldering. Says so right on page 14.”) But overall, the author praised Collins’ writing and said he was eager for new installments. Evidently, that enthusiasm did not last.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015)
Rounding out King’s comments on popular 2013 authors, the novelist told The Guardian he was not a fan of E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The film adaptation, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, was still in production at the time. But considering the faithful nature of the major movie franchise, it’s probably safe to say King hasn’t ever — and won’t ever — see it.
“I read ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ and felt no urge to go on,” King repeated, before expanding on his confusion about the book’s reputation in popular culture. “They call it ‘mommy porn,’ but it’s not really ‘mommy porn.’ It is highly charged, sexually driven fiction for women who are, say, between 18 and 25.”
“The Tommyknockers” (1993)
A critic true to his high standards, King has freely shared which of his own books he’s soured on over the years. Although it’s a miniseries (clocking in at just over three hours), 1993’s “The Tommyknockers” joins King’s list of vexing adaptations: written at the height of his battle with addiction.
“‘The Tommyknockers’ is an awful book,” King told Rolling Stone in 2014. “That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I’ve thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, ‘There’s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back.’ The book is about 700 pages long, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s probably a good 350-page novel in there.’” ABC’s TV adaptation was panned upon release.
Another of King’s self-disappointments is “Dreamcatcher”: the novel he wrote following a devastating accident that nearly lost the author his leg in 1999. (King was struck from behind by an out-of-control vehicle, which he later purchased and had destroyed reportedly out of concern that fans would want it.)
“I don’t like ‘Dreamcatcher’ very much,” King told Rolling Stone in the same 2014 interview discussing “The Tommyknockers.” “‘Dreamcatcher’ was written after the accident. I was using a lot of Oxycontin for pain. And I couldn’t work on a computer back then because it hurt too much to sit in that position. So I wrote the whole thing longhand. And I was pretty stoned when I wrote it, because of the Oxy, and that’s another book that shows the drugs at work.”
The work was soon adapted by director Lawrence Kasdan in a 2003 film starring Damian Lewis, Thomas Jane, Morgan Freeman, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, and more. It was ridiculed upon release and barely made back its budget at the box office.
“The Lawnmower Man” (1992)
Does Brett Leonard’s “The Lawnmower Man” even count as a King adaptation? The author didn’t think so, and neither did the judge who awarded him $2.5 million in damages as part of a 1993 settlement related to the film’s marketing. King argued the Pierce Brosnan-starring sci-fi horror was so derivative from his short story that the author should be allowed to pull his name from the title. Aside from an unauthorized home release of “Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man” by New Line — a spectacularly bad move that landed the studio in even more hot water — the 1992 sci-fi flick now bears only one (understated) credit for King.
“The Running Man” (1987)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Running Man” is another so-called adaptation that wildly deviates from King’s words. Yes, it still involves the central concept of disenfranchised people entering a “Most Dangerous Game”-style survival competition to better their lives in a dystopian future. But pretty much everything else about this action flick, from the plot points to the overly slick visual effects, is wrong for King’s intent. In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” (h/t SlashFilm), King specifically called out Schwarzenegger’s casting as a bizarre misstep. “Baby Driver” director Edgar Wright will attempt to adapt the material next.
“The Last House on the Left” (1972)
In a ranking of his favorite films from 2009 for Entertainment Weekly, King praised director Dennis Iliadis’s remake of “The Last House on the Left.” He soundly rejected the Wes Craven original in his commentary, describing the filmmaker’s controversial directorial debut as a “crapfest.” The 1972 rape revenge exploitation flick is notorious for its intense violence and cruel bursts of humor, as well as the alleged abuse faced by starring actress Sandra Peabody on set.