8 Stephen King Movie Adaptations That Changed the Book Ending

Stephen King and a furry friend.
Stephen King and a furry friend. / Buddy Mays/GettyImages

In addition to being one of the bestselling authors of all time, Stephen King might be the most-adapted. Beginning with 1976’s Carrie, the Brian de Palma-directed film version of his 1974 debut novel, King has seen dozens of his novels, novellas, and short stories translated for the screen. And while Carrie had high fidelity to the source material right down to the blood-soaked prom night, not all filmmakers opt to go with King’s written finish. Take a look at eight movies that opted to end things differently—but beware of spoilers (and some nasty twists) ahead.

1. Cujo (1983)

Cujo, King’s 1981 page-turner about a rabid Saint Bernard, was written at the height of the author’s addiction problem, which King has said resulted in him not even remembering writing the novel. Perhaps that made the movie a fresh experience for him. In the book, Donna Trenton and son Tad are trapped in a car with the titular canine prowling outside, eager to devour both of them. In the film, the two survive Cujo’s rampage. In the novel, King takes the bold step of having poor Tad succumb to dehydration while trapped in the car.

King seemed fine with the change, noting that the ending to the book resulted in an avalanche of hate mail. “I was very, very active in getting that changed,” Dee Wallace, who played Donna Trenton, told Den of Geek in 2007. “Actually, Stephen King wrote us and said ‘Thank God you changed the end, I never got more hate mail than when I killed the boy at the end of Cujo.’ And at least you have the three-quarters of the people who come to see this movie that haven’t read the book. You cannot ask a theatre audience to go through and invest all this love and then pulling for this little boy to be saved and then rip that away from them, in a movie. And obviously it doesn’t work in the book.”

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” from 1982’s Different Seasons collection took some time to catch on. Initially a box office disappointment, it won audiences over thanks to home video and plenty of cable airings, but it’s possible King’s original ending might have left them cold.

In Shawshank, an accountant named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of killing his wife. Andy occupies his time by befriending Red (Morgan Freeman) and plotting his escape. After years of effort, he manages to dig his way out.

In the novella, Red is released after being paroled and sets out to find Andy, who has given Red hints as to his whereabouts. In the film, Darabont is more explicit, with the two characters reuniting onscreen. The change came after studio executives at Warner Bros. encouraged the director to leave King’s more ambiguous ending—which Darabont had originally intended to use—behind.

“The original script ended with Red on the bus, uncertain but hopeful about the future, that’s the way the [King] story ended,” Darabont said at a 2014 anniversary screening. “[Studio executives told me], ‘After two-plus hours of hell, you might owe them that reunion.’”

3. The Stand (2020-2021)

The Stand (1978), King’s longest book to date (the unexpurgated 1990 version runs almost 1200 pages), is potent enough to act as a blunt force object. So is the prose: Following a pandemic that leaves most of the world dead, a band of survivors crosses the country to confront Randall Flagg, a demonic entity who wants to rule what’s left.

The 1994 limited series adaptation on ABC was largely faithful to King’s work, but the 2020-2021 version that streamed on CBS All Access (now Paramount+) was a bit different. While it didn’t radically alter the ending, it took a few narrative steps forward.

In the novel, after Flagg is vanquished thanks to a nuclear warhead, survivor Stu Redman returns home to his love, Frannie, and their baby. In the 2020-2021 series, Frannie (Odessa Young) suffers an accident caused by a resurrected Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), who makes her an offer: He’ll spare Stu (James Marsden) and their child if she agrees to host his malevolent spirit inside of her. She declines, but all is not lost: A force for good—possibly a reincarnated Mother Abigail—heals her, leaving Stu’s family intact. King approved of this new coda. In fact, he wrote the new ending.

4. The Shining (1980)

King was no great fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel. He was against the casting of star Jack Nicholson because of his well-known, Oscar-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and felt it tipped off the audience, so to speak, about his character's eventual descent into madness. But perhaps the biggest change comes at the climax. In the book, Jack Torrance exerts enough control over the Overlook Hotel to allow his son Danny to escape. Once Danny and his mother Wendy are safe, the hotel’s boiler explodes, killing Jack and decimating the grounds.

Kubrick was concerned an explosion would be too pat. Instead, he conceived of an ending where Jack freezes to death outside after pursuing Danny in a topiary maze and later appears in a photograph taken at the hotel in 1921.

Kubrick also revised his own climax: Originally, he had a scene of Danny and Wendy in a hospital to reassure the audience they were all right. A ball rolls onscreen—one seen in the hotel—that hints that perhaps they’re not. While the scene was included at critic screenings, Kubrick trimmed it out of the film just before its release. You won’t see it in any Blu-ray extras or on YouTube, though. Kubrick, who did not want his film reedited, destroyed extraneous material from the film.

5. Doctor Sleep (2019)

King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining had to confront the author’s ending to the first book, which destroyed the Overlook. A now-adult Danny Torrance, who is still afflicted with “the Shining,” can’t return to the hotel; instead, he faces off against psychic nemesis Rose the Hat at her group’s camp site, which is on the hotel’s grounds. His dead father, Jack, manifests to help him ward her off.

But the Overlook property proved so iconic that director Mike Flanagan opted to abide by the continuity of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film when adapting the sequel. In the 2019 film, the hotel is still standing, which means Danny (Ewan McGregor) can make his last stand within its haunted hallways against Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Jack Torrance isn’t a Jedi-like apparition, but he does appear near the end as the hotel’s bartender to strike up a conversation with Danny. In the film, he’s played by Henry Thomas of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial fame.

6. It Chapter Two (2019)

Published in 1986, It—the story of Pennywise, a demonic force who takes the shape of a clown to terrorize children in Derry, Maine, every 27 years—is often thought of as King’s ultimate achievement. The novel was adapted into a 1990 television miniseries and two films (released in 2017 and 2019, respectively) that split the book in half.

In the book’s finale, It takes the final form of a giant spider, while the now-adult members of the Losers Club reflect on their childhood memories before facing it again. The 2019 film does away with the spider—though Pennywise does shape-shift into an arachnid-like creature, it’s not his true form—and passes up on an uncomfortable flashback of the friends having an underage sexual awakening, which is in the original book.

7. Children of the Corn (1984)

King’s short story, which was culled from 1978’s Night Shift collection, is a potent lesson in juvenile delinquency: Kids rule a rural Nebraska town with bloody consequences for any adults who happen to pass through. That means trouble for traveling couple Burt and Vicky (played by Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton in the 1984 film adaptation).

In the short story, the child cult butchers Vicky and removes her eyeballs, then her body is presented as a sacrifice to the cult's evil figurehead, He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Burt is also killed. In the film, the couple manages to escape—eyeballs intact.

8. The Mist (2007)

The most infamous example of reworking King’s vision comes at the conclusion of 2007’s The Mist, another Frank Darabont-directed adaptation taken from 1985’s Skeleton Crew novella. In The Mist, artist David (Thomas Jane), his son Billy, and others are trapped in a grocery store, an enveloping mist obscuring a menagerie of monsters outside.

At the end of the novella, David and a few survivors are able to make a break for it, and there’s some optimism that hope lies somewhere in the fog. But in the film, Darabont adds a healthy dose of cruelty: Fearing they won’t make it after their car runs out of gas, David opts to shoot his son and the others before they die horrible deaths. Moments later, a military convoy appears out of the mist. If he had waited, David would have found salvation. It’s the opposite of Cujo’s change, and proof that the big screen isn’t always a safe harbor for the author’s ill-fated characters.