Stephen King’s mind has been the genesis point for well over 50 films (four of which came out last year alone) and almost 30 TV shows and miniseries. That kind of output is bound to produce some gold and some pyrite. Unfortunately, for every “Shawshank Redemption” or “Misery,” there’s a “Running Man” or “Dreamcatcher.” To put it politely, the results have been mixed.
Part of that is because King’s work is equally mixed. He has a tendency to undue verbosity and bizarre Deus Ex Machina in the guise of existential eucatastrophe. His writing often exhibits sophomoric obsessions with pornographic sex scenes. Worse, the novels tend to be over long by several hundred unnecessary pages. But despite being a deeply flawed writer he’s always managed to strike a cord with the general populace, as evidenced by his ubiquitous place in pop culture. The reason for his staying power is originality mixed with the simple and most deeply satisfying aspect of traditional storytelling: confrontation with and overcoming evil.
So far it’s unclear how the latest bit of Stephen’s media kingdom, a Hulu series titled “Castle Rock,” connects to these most powerful themes. The first three episodes dropped July 25. But after three hours of storytelling, there are lots of questions but no answers.
This show isn’t an adaptation of a single King work, nor is it a pastiche or anthology. It’s an original story about one of the three fictional towns that make up his horrific version of New England, the other two being Derry (where “It” is set) and Jerusalem’s Lot (aka Salem’s Lot). The third town, Castle Rock, is itself home to many iconic King stories such as “The Dead Zone” and “Cujo.” And the show references these and numerous other pieces of his fictional universe. Shawshank State Prison is featured prominently. But ultimately the show “Castle Rock” is about the town itself, beleaguered for decades by unexplainable evils.
Thus far there isn’t really a main character. The town is being layered with a rich ensemble of strong actors like Scott Glen and Sissy Spacek to fill out the background. The foreground is slowly being defined around three primary players: Melanie Lynskey’s shy psychic Molly, Andre Holland’s mysterious lawyer Henry, and Bill Skarsgård’s nebulously named “Shawshank Prisoner.” But none of these characters has been remotely well defined. A story arc hasn’t even really emerged.
Skarsgård’s character is clearly at the center of whatever is going on in the mysterious Castle Rock. The closest thing to an inciting incident is the suicide of the Shawshank warden early on in the first episode. When his replacement shows up, she discovers that the old warden had sectioned off an entire wing of the prison, and no one seems to know why. Two guards are sent to reopen and examine the sealed off wing, where they discover Skarsgård locked in a cage. The only thing he says is “Henry Deaver.” This is the mysterious lawyer played by Holland. The mention of this name is met with concern — the lawyer’s past relationship to the town of Castle Rock is clearly controversial in some regard.
Of far more concern is who or what Skarsgård’s character is. Why was he locked away from the world? This would be potentially boring if not for the casting of Skarsgård. His unforgettable and stark face seems made for visual storytelling. He masterfully portrayed Pennywise the chthonic clown in last years adaptation of King’s most iconic novel, “It.” Here he doesn’t do any of the terrifying manic things that made him a horrifically delightful villain. Instead of inducing fear, he generates pathos. His eyes are not sad so much as disturbed. Skarsgård convinces the viewer that this poor soul has a tragic past.
Whatever skeletons this town is keeping hidden in its closets, Skarsgård’s character is somehow at the center of all of it. And this is why the show is intriguing. Not much has happened, but the promise of more is tantalizing. It’s also not clear what kind of story this will be. It could potentially be a horror story, which would seem likely. Aside from the town being plagued by an evil force causing awful things to occur on a regular basis, it’s tonally much closer to “The Shawshank Redemption.” There’s a sense of the past hanging over the characters, more than a looming climatic confrontation with evil.
Many fans coming to this show looking for typical King horrors may be disappointed. Skarsgård’s character does not seem menacing in terms of personality, but it’s already been implied that he can kill people with his mind, possibly in a similar vein to Carrie. In other words it’s very possible that this show will turn out to be loaded with horrific content. But so little has been established that the show feels like it could go in any direction.
Everything about the production is excellent. The acting and direction are essentially perfect. The score, by the incomparable Thomas Newman, is excellent. But despite being intriguing and well produced, it regrettably does feel like the show might not really be going anywhere. I would like to say it’s too early to judge, because in a sense it is. But it’s not a good sign that after three episodes, it seems this narrative may have hit a snag.
This is essential viewing for King fans, but there’s not enough horror to draw in most other genre aficionados. Of course all that could change with the next episode.