As the saying goes, the best Stephen King adaptations are the ones that don’t really fit with the whole “King of Horror” vibe that King has cultivated over his monumental writing career. You can usually point to “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Stand By Me,” and “The Green Mile.” Of course, that theory often regrets to mention great adaptations of horror stories such as “Misery,” “The Shining,” “The Mist” and the recent film version of “It.” But the point stands that, in theory, trying to take the mental anguish and emotional toll from King’s pages and translate it onto the screen usually leads to a film or TV show lacking in both.
That was the expectation of many for Hulu’s “Castle Rock” series, which is based not on a specific King story but on the types of stories he often tells involving the fictional Maine town. The setting of “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” “The Dark Half,” and “Needful Things” is often deployed as a demonic place where someone is bound to come face-to-face with their worst nightmares. By building an entire TV show around that kind of town, you’re setting yourself up for the inevitable letdown by not being able to properly portray the kinds of terrors that come from the books.
However, show creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, with help from executive producers J.J. Abrams and King himself, have thrown a bit of a curveball with “Castle Rock” in that, to be quite frank, it’s not actually all that scary. At least not after three episodes. And though the show is still working out some of its kinks while building its version of the Castle Rock mythology from the ground up, it has the opportunity to be more of a spooky drama than the horror-thriller many expected.
First things first, kudos are due to the showrunners for not simply turning “Castle Rock” into a reference-fest. The fear heading in is that every conversation would be peppered with references to characters and events from other books. To be fair, that does happen sometimes, but at least so far, it happens in small, chewable doses that don’t distract from the unique plot at hand. It’s handy to know your Stephen King trivia for when someone mentions that time a rabid dog attacked some people or a character’s last name is revealed to be Torrance, but there’s never a time when you’ll feel like you have to had read any of those books to understand what’s happening.
As for the plot of “Castle Rock,” we meet Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), warden of Shawshank Prison, just before he commits suicide in a rather gruesome manner. In the wake of his death, prison guard Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher) discovers “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgård), a strange young man locked in a cage in a deserted area of the prison. The new warden (Ann Cusack) tries to keep a lid of this discovery but Zalewski blows the whistle to Henry Deaver (André Holland), a death row attorney in Texas whom The Kid mysterious mentions by name. Deaver grew up in Castle Rock and, as a child, disappeared after his adoptive father’s death and was presumed guilty by many. Deaver returns to his hometown and runs into Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), a local real estate agent who was his neighbor growing up and also happens to be an empath and mind-reader. This being a story that takes place in the Stephen King universe, well, that’s all just the beginning.
As noted, there isn’t really a lot of horror in “Castle Rock.” Perhaps that’s because the showrunners have identified that there often isn’t a lot of horror in Stephen King stories. There’s a lot of dread. Goodness, there is dread. And that seems to be where the show is focusing its efforts. It certainly could use a kick in the pants in that department as well, though. By the time you get to the third episode, the pieces are starting to come together and the plot kicks into motion, but it’s a bit of a slog to get there.
“Castle Rock’s” first season will span ten episodes and you get the feeling they’re going to stretch things out before letting hell break loose in the tenth one. Even then, based on what we know about these kinds of TV shows (and TV shows that J.J. Abrams is involved with), it’s likely they’re going to be holding back and playing the long game. That could get frustrating pretty quickly as the show needs to provide enough hooks to keep people watching and right now it’s promising payoffs that it may or may not be capable of delivering.
If there is a good reason to stick with “Castle Rock,” it’s the performances. Skarsgård has the market cornered on “general creepiness.” The face behind Pennywise in “It” doesn’t even have to do anything this time around. Simply by existing and shooting haunted glances in everyone’s direction, he’s the most disturbing and fascinating thing the show has to offer. They’ve also packed Castle Rock with a slew of great characters actors (O’Quinn, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Frances Conroy, and Charlie Tahan) who elevate their smaller parts and keep you wondering when they might become much more important.
Unlike Hulu’s award-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Castle Rock” isn’t going to be a watercooler show and it doesn’t really seem to want to be. There aren’t any shocking moments to be shared on social media. There aren’t many memorable scenes that linger with you as of yet. The few scenes played for legitimate scares don’t seem to land with that intention. But the general state of unease, coupled with mystery plot worth following, makes the show something worth investing in, at least for a season.
Like so many of Stephen King’s characters, we’ll try to keep the hope that our investments will pay off. We’ve been burned by shows like “Castle Rock” plenty of times before, and that might be the scariest thing about it.