Stephen King is a state of mind. The author has written nearly 60 novels, a half-dozen non-fiction books and hundreds of short stories. In doing so, he’s built his own multiverse, one that dates back to 1974’s Carrie all the way to this summer’s The Outsider. That’s a rich well to draw from, and Castle Rock – the new Hulu series from Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason – is wise to not limit itself to an adaptation of just one of those texts. Instead we get a show inspired by Stephen King’s entire world – and that just might make it the best possible onscreen version of a Stephen King story.
The series takes place in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, with at least one character recognizable from his works in Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Castle Rock’s former sheriff, whom Constant Readers will remember from The Dark Half, Four Past Midnight’s “The Sun Dog,” Needful Things and casual mentions in Bag of Bones and Gerald’s Game. But many of the other characters peopling this world are new to us: Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand, André Holland’s Henry Deaver, Terry O’Quinn’s Dale Lacy, Sissy Spacek’s Ruth Deaver and Jane Levy’s Jackie all seem like archetypal King characters (the psychic, the tortured but good-hearted attorney, the warden with a dark secret, the grieving widow, the smart-ass neighbor), but they can’t claim any specific King book as their origin.
And we’re given an extra-dose of Kingism through the casting of actors we know from other King adaptations: Spacek made her name as Carrie White in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, while Castle Rock’s Bill Skarsgard gained fans as Pennywise in last year’s It. King diehards might even remember that Lynskey starred, early in her career, as Rachel Wheaton in the 2002 King miniseries Rose Red. With a population of recognizable faces playing familiar characters, Castle Rock managed to put us in a King frame of mind by the time we saw the first trailer.
With every adaptation of a beloved property, there’s risk of disappointment. Favorite characters don’t look or act or sound the way they do in our minds. Budgetary constraints test the limits of our imagination. Runtime constraints make plot omissions necessary. Arguably the best Stephen King adaptation, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, famously left the author cold. Inarguably the worst Stephen King adaptation, Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, disappointed generations of fans who had been waiting for a version of King’s fantasy epic to hit the small or big screen for decades. Even those adaptations that land squarely in the middle of this scale – for instance, Hulu’s last King attempt, 11.22.63, based on a later and thus less iconic King novel – are primed to piss off somebody. (This particular somebody, for instance. I was never going to give the miniseries a shot the moment they announced James Franco as Jake Epping, because James Franco is not my Jake Epping.) You can’t make everybody happy with a King adaptation, because everyone loves something different about his work.
Therein lies the wisdom of Castle Rock’s loosey-goosey approach: we get the atmosphere of a King story – the quaint yet ominous small-town spookiness, the depths and heights of humanity challenged by a supernatural crisis of some sort, not to mention the easter eggs pointing to Cujo, The Shining, Dolores Claiborne and more in every episode – but none of the baggage that comes with adapting someone’s favorite book. Fan biases are diminished, expectations are moderate, minds are open. We’re able to enjoy Castle Rock as its own thing, instead of a lesser version of something we love. It’s the perfect solution for Constant Readers with very strong opinions about their favorite writer. We can enjoy all of the best parts of a Stephen King book without growing irate when a favorite passage is cut for time – or when, as just a for-instance, a director decides that what Dark Tower fans need to see most after thirty-five years of waiting is The Man in Black in a damn apron.
Of course, there could be a dark side to the open-endedness of Castle Rock’s game plan. The series shares a producer with LOST in J.J. Abrams, and there’s every chance that the compelling mystery that’s been developed in the four episodes I’ve seen will peter out in an unsatisfying conclusion. But at least it’ll be given that chance. Fans aren’t closing their minds to the possibility of this series based solely on a casting decision that doesn’t suit their pre-conceived ideas. We’re ready to love Castle Rock, and the first four episodes don’t disappoint.