Stephen King is of course known as an all-time master of horror, but his works are always deeply emotional. There is an immense heart to his stories and when the adaptations are good enough, that can translate to the screen. Many fans are quick to criticize how few adaptations even manage to hold a candle to his literary work. Trust me, though, it doesn’t hit you how many great performances there are in Stephen King movies until you try to list them.
The good thing about an author as successful as King is that the film adaptations of his work tend to include top-tier talent. Some of the best actors in the world have tackled the works of Stephen King and handled the roles with the same dignity and respect as if they were doing Shakespeare.
Some of the choices on this list will be obvious. That’s probably unavoidable. Many have earned their recognition for just how good they are, while some still really haven’t. Both, I think, are interesting and worth examining.
Morgan Freeman as Red in The Shawshank Redemption
As much as I love Shawshank, I spent some time kind of dismissing Freeman’s character because he was mostly a narrator, rather than an actual part of the story on his own. But that’s just not true. Freeman deserved an Oscar for this movie for one scene in particular, and that’s the scene where Red goes back to court to appeal for parole for basically the hundredth time, and just tells them to do whatever the hell they’re going to do, because they’ve already made up their minds. That one scene shows us so much about what prison has really done to this guy, what he’s had to put up with and just how beaten down and exhausted he is. It’s a performance that will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Sissy Spaceck as Carrie White in Carrie
Spaceck actually was nominated for an Oscar for Carrie, along with Piper Laurie, who played her psychotic mother. Both performances are great, but Carrie is ultimately the more sympathetic and emotional. In fact, she’s one of the most sympathetic protagonists of any Stephen King book or film, even after forty years.
Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone
Christopher Walken is almost recognized more as a pop culture figure now than he is as an actor. But he’s given some great performances in his long career. And I honestly believe that The Dead Zone is the best example of Walken as an actor. This is a lead performance, a vulnerable performance, it’s so underrated and one of the best things Walken’s ever done. It will always be refreshing, every time that you see him used as a cultural meme, to go back and see what a truly compelling actor he can be.
Michael Clark Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile
This one’s so obvious. The performance is so strong and it’s a shame that Duncan never really got the chance to act on the same level he did in this film again in his career. He’s so sympathetic, so understated in this role. It’s really mesmerizing. Even if Duncan never got the chance to reach these heights again in his career, at least this performance will stand he test of time. It’s never going away.
John Cusack as Mike Enslin in 1408
Even knowing the overall story, I did not expect 1408 to be as emotional a performance as it actually was. But for the most part, this film is essentially one man trapped in one room. Cusack acted the hell out of this movie; it was one of his last great roles. As much as it’s a ghost story, it’s really about a man who’s in one room and can’t get out and basically has to come to grips with the loss of his child. As scary and innovative as the movie is, everything hinges on this performance. If Cusack doesn’t work in that role, the whole thing doesn’t work.
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery
Obviously she had to be on the list. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for this movie. This movie is basically a two character play—but one that’s still absolutely a film because it’s so well shot—and it completely hinges on performance. All of the tension is brought out through dialogue. Both are so good, but Annie is such a powerful, broken, obsessive, interesting character. One of the scariest and most realistic characters King ever conceived.
River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in Stand by Me
This doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as Misery or Shawshank Redemption, but River Phoenix genuinely delivers my favorite performance by a child actor in this film. It’s so vulnerable. This character has such a brilliant arc over the course of barely 90 minutes. Rob Reiner made a great choice by focusing on Chris’s character, allowing him to have that moment like the speech about the lunch money, all of that is set up to make the ending work as well as it does. This is a brilliant performance and it’s a shame we never got to see everything Phoenix had to give as an actor.