The Best Stephen King TV Shows And Miniseries, Ranked
The legacy of Stephen King adaptations began with a movie (specifically Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 1976), but it was soon after that theatrical release that the history of King projects began on the small screen. Tobe Hooper's Salem’s Lot miniseries, based on the novel of the same name, premiered on CBS in 1979, and in the decades since then we have seen dozens of King-related projects. Adaptations have been made as miniseries, on-going shows, and TV movies, and the legendary author has also penned a few original teleplays.
There is a lot of amazing stuff in the canon – but what qualifies as the best of the best? I’ve previously ranked the greatest Stephen King films of all time, but now it’s time to do the same for his television work. Hard cuts had to be made, including Kingdom Hospital, The Langoliers, and the 2004 Shining miniseries, but let’s begin with the adaptation that haunted the dreams of millennials during their childhood…
10. It (1990)
Tim Curry. If you need any justification for calling the 1990 IT miniseries one of the best small screen Stephen King adaptations, that name alone fits the bill. When the actor was first approached about the project, he was reticent to sign on, as he had his fill of prosthetics and heavy makeup in the making of Ridley Scott’s Legend, but he was convinced to take part, and now his turn as Pennywise The Dancing Clown is regarded as a treasured moment of horror history.
The legacy of the Tommy Lee Wallace-directed IT is tarnished by its conclusion, featuring an underwhelming confrontation with a fake-looking giant spider, but everything before that point is beloved for a reason. Both the kid and adult iterations of The Losers Club are wonderful and well-cast, and it’s impressive how faithful to the book it manages to be given the restrictions and censorship of network television at the time. It’s also an important part of Stephen King adaptation history, as it opened the author’s eyes to the immense potential of TV miniseries, which in turn led to the creation of…
9. The Stand (1994)
Stephen King and George A. Romero spent years unsuccessfully trying to figure out a way to turn the apocalyptic epic The Stand into a movie, but everything changed in the 1990s. King couldn’t sell the idea of adapting the novel as two films (a strategy that would be used decades later for Andy Muschietti’s IT), and there was no way the scope of the story could fit into a single feature – but it was recognized that a miniseries’ runtime real estate would be perfect. Writing the teleplays himself, the author reteamed with director Mick Garris (with whom he worked on 1992’s Sleepwalkers), and what they created for ABC is an impressive achievement for 1990s television.
Budget restraints are apparent in the finished work, but Stephen King does a brilliant job translating the full breadth of the journey from the book, and there are some wonderful and memorable performances, the standouts being Gary Sinise, Bill Fagerbakke, Ruby Dee, and Matt Frewer.
8. The Outsider (2020)
Miniseries were a revelation for Stephen King adaptations around the turn of the century, but the modern golden age of television now allows for whole novels to be made as full seasons of TV shows – and The Outsider is an excellent example of just how great that evolution is. The HBO series premiered just a year-and-a-half after the book that it’s based on was published, and the excitement about the material that speed indicates is apparent in the work. It’s a fantastic and eerie translation of a dark detective story that shows that King very much still has the capacity to horrify.
Developed by Richard Price, The Outsider unfolds as a slow burn mystery at the start – questioning how a child killer could leave excessive amounts of DNA at a crime scene while also having an airtight alibi – but it turns into an intense nail-biter when the protagonists start to realize that what they are dealing with comes from the realm of the supernatural.
7. Castle Rock (2018-2019)
Created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, Hulu’s Castle Rock is a love letter to the works of Stephen King, but that’s not why it’s ranked in this feature. It’s because it’s a love letter that very much understands the vibe and purpose of King’s work, and it uses that understanding to create two thrilling and exciting seasons of television.
If you’re a Stephen King fan, watching Castle Rock is a delightful Easter egg hunt that will see fans smile at references to Jack Torrance and scenes set in the bar known as The Mellow Tiger, but there is also a pair of compelling narratives that play out in each season that most definitely encourage binge watching. The cast is full of Stephen King adaptation veterans who deliver standout performances, including Sissy Spacek, Tim Robbins, and Bill Skarsgård, and by the time you get to the end of Season 2 there is most definitely an intense regret that Season 3 never got made.
6. Lisey's Story (2021)
Given the fact that Stephen King has called Lisey’s Story his favorite novel that he has written, it’s far from surprising that the author took it upon himself to adapt it – and in doing so, he created the best miniseries that he himself has made in his long career. Teaming up with director Pablo Larraín and working with a brilliant cast including Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Allen, Clive Owen, and Dane DeHaan, the eight episode streaming series for Apple TV+ is a haunting, shocking, and emotional examination of death, mourning, and memory.
While capturing what’s tremendous about the book, Stephen King builds on the text in impressive ways – most notably with enhancements to antagonist Jim Dooley (DeHaan) that make him an even greater terror than he is in the novel. Thanks to Larraín’s work, his collaboration with cinematographer Darius Khondji, and contributions from all departments, Lisey’s Story also has the distinction of being one of the most beautiful King adaptations.
5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes (2006)
If there’s any Stephen King show that I wish could have gone on indefinitely, it’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes – but alas, the series only lasted for one eight-episode season. It’s sad, because the series demonstrated the remarkable potential in an anthology series solely based on King’s short stories, and produced a number of terrific adaptations.
I think it’s fitting that Nightmares & Dreamscapes occupies the middle spot of this list given that there is definitely a wide range when it comes to quality overall, but when it’s good, it’s great. The episodes based on “Battleground,” “Umney’s Last Case” “Autopsy Room Four” and “The End Of The Whole Mess” are all superlative interpretations of their respective source materials, and are as good or better than what’s in classic feature anthologies including Creepshow and Cat’s Eye.
4. Salem's Lot (1979)
As noted earlier, Tobe Hooper’s two-episode miniseries Salem’s Lot was the first Stephen King adaptation made directly for television, but that legacy has less to do with its ranking here than the fact that it holds up surprisingly well. The Nosferatu-take on ancient vampire Kurt Barlow may not be book-accurate, but it is iconic – and that’s in spite of the fact that he only shows up in a few scenes. And the terror hardly stops there, with the visage of Ronnie Scribner’s Ralphie Glick floating in a bedroom window tattooed on the minds of many Constant Readers.
A superb acting ensemble including Bonnie Bedelia, David Soul, James Mason, Kenneth McMillan, and the late Lance Kerwin bring to life Stephen King’s memorable cast of characters from the novel, and despite the limitations of television as a medium in the 1970s, it’s still able to remain faithful to the terror of the book.
3. 11.22.63 (2016)
As indicated by sections above, the streaming era has been great for Stephen King adaptations – both for streaming and features. On the movie side, the best to be made to date by a subscription service is Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game, and when it comes to episodic content, the crown goes to Bridget Carpenter’s 11.22.63 on Hulu.
Those who have read the book will miss the wonderful qualities of the story that make it a tribute to the teaching profession, but the miniseries certainly keeps to the core of the book – which is a gripping tale about time travel and trying to change history by stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It creates marvelous moments of fear and sweetness in its eight episode run covering the full breadth of the novel, and what the show does as far as expanding the role of Bill Turcotte (as portrayed by George MacKay) is one of the best major changes we’ve seen in any modern Stephen King adaptation.
2. Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019)
Between 2014 and 2016, Stephen King did a head-first dive into the world of detective fiction with the Bill Hodges trilogy: the tale of a retired cop on the hunt for a psychotic mass murderer. One year after it ended, the series got the best possible adaptation that it could have gotten. Developed by David E. Kelley, Mr. Mercedes covered each of the three novels in its three seasons airing on Audience, and while it does end up getting pretty far away from the source material by the end, its fundamental excellence is in its ensemble of characters.
Brendan Gleeson was an inspired and perfect choice for the role of Bill Hodges, and Harry Treadaway is a truly scary sonofabitch as homicidal maniac Brady Hartsfield, but it’s Justine Lupe’s Holly Gibney that makes Mr. Mercedes special. Amazing as Cynthia Erivo is in The Outsider, Lupe’s version is the far more book-accurate interpretation of the character, and it’s simply impossible not to fall for the sweet and strange detective over the course of the show.
1. Storm Of The Century (1999)
The best Stephen King TV project isn’t an adaptation; it’s an original creation. In 1999, the author collaborated with director Craig R. Baxley on Storm Of The Century – a three-episode miniseries written directly for television that aired on ABC – and it is nothing short of phenomenal. As the villainous/demonic André Linoge, Colm Feore plays one of the scariest antagonists that King has ever imagined, and the escalation in the story is genius.
It feels like things are horrible enough when the fictional Little Tall Island gets hit by a dangerous blizzard and Linoge is discovered at the scene of a vicious murder, but things only get worse after the locals take shelter in the town hall and the villain is incarcerated. The magic that Linoge weaves from his jail cell is gruesome and shocking… but that’s nothing compared to the offer he makes to everyone to make him go away. All of it leads to one of the best endings that Stephen King has ever written – which is a big reason why Storm Of The Century sits at #1 in this ranking.
For more Stephen King related reading, check out our Upcoming Stephen King Movies and TV guide to learn about all of the projects that are presently in developments (and perhaps could end up changing the ranking in this feature). For more about the long history between the King and Hollywood, check out my Adapting Stephen King column.