The past couple of years have been so frequently horrifying that there’s something both fitting and oddly soothing about the fact that there’s rarely been a better time to be a Stephen King fan. Last year’s big-screen adaptation of It set box office records, while Netflix’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game proved to be one of the most successful original films the streaming giant has undertaken. King’s 56th and most recent novel, The Outsider, was just released in May, and it’s fantastic. And now we have Castle Rock, a smart and addictive dive into the vast expanses of King’s literary imagination that premieres on Hulu this Wednesday and brings no shortage of welcome chills to midsummer television. (The first three episodes will be released all at once; the rest will premiere weekly.)
Castle Rock isn’t really a King adaptation, strictly speaking, but rather is “based on characters and settings by Stephen King,” according to its opening credit sequence, which rolls over pages from King books including The Green Mile, It, Dolores Claiborne, and The Shining. (King is credited as an executive producer.) The most prominent of these settings is the town of Castle Rock, Maine, a fixture of King’s fictional world, along with the nearby Shawshank Penitentiary, another recurring location best known as the site of Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption—a film that, despite being a box-office flop on its initial release, is now probably the most widely beloved adaptation of King’s massive oeuvre.
Castle Rock opens in 1991, as a young boy who’s been missing for days is found standing in the middle of a frozen lake with no memory of how he got there. (This scene itself immediately evokes the beginning of King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, the first of his books to be set in Castle Rock.) We then jump ahead 27 years (an ominous interval in King’s work) to 2018, where bad things happen quickly. Shawshank’s outgoing warden (Terry O’Quinn) dies by suicide in gruesome fashion; shortly thereafter an unidentifiable, emaciated young man is found in a cage in the bowels of the prison, speaking only two words, “Henry Deaver,” which just happens to be the name of the boy found on the lake nearly three decades earlier. The adult Deaver (André Holland, of Moonlight and the terrific, underwatched The Knick), now working as a death penalty attorney in Texas, is tracked down by a whistleblowing prison guard and returns to the town, where he’s reunited with his dementia-afflicted mother (played by Sissy Spacek); her live-in boyfriend, grizzled ex-Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn); and an old neighbor named Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), who claims to be in possession of psychic abilities. From here, things only get weirder, as the mystery young man in the prison takes on an increasingly sinister air, Molly’s psychic “gifts” come to seem more like a curse, and Deaver’s own history with the town is revealed to be increasingly complex.
As King fans might have already gathered from the above paragraph, Castle Rock runs thick with allusion, starting with its casting. Spacek, of course, was the star of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie—the first cinematic adaptation of King’s work—while Shawshank’s mystery man is played by Bill Skarsgård, who played Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 2017 adaptation of It. Ex-Sheriff Pangborn, a part that Glenn knocks out of the park, is a recurring figure in several of King’s books, including Needful Things and The Dark Half. Fleeting references abound to Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Body, Children of the Corn, and many other novels and stories.
Castle Rock has already invited comparisons to Fargo, the FX anthology based on the work of the Coen brothers, and there are certainly similarities between the two. (Allison Tolman, who played Officer Molly Solverson in the first season of Fargo, even has a cameo in Castle Rock’s second episode.) But Castle Rock never feels as obsessively reverent as Fargo sometimes can; the Coen brothers are world-class filmmakers with a hyperdistinctive aesthetic sensibility, whereas filmic adaptations of King’s work have never really settled into a consistent groove. The vast majority of King adaptations simply haven’t been very good, and the ones that have succeeded have been hugely varied in tone and approach, from the fastidious auteurism of De Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which King famously hates), and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, to the bittersweet warmth of Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, to the pop-cultural nostalgia and Spielbergian undertones of Andy Muschietti’s It.
Castle Rock doesn’t really crib heavily from any of its cinematic predecessors, which is a smart decision. The show makes skillful use of its episodic medium, carefully pacing its storylines and building out its world while still making sure each hour is filtered through generous helpings of creepiness. If there’s an overarching televisual influence on Castle Rock, it’s probably Twin Peaks, not so much in terms of David Lynch’s inimitable style—although the fourth episode does feature a climactic sequence set to Roy Orbison’s “Crying”—but rather in the way the show renders an all-consuming vision of spooky small-town weirdness, some of which may be genuine evil, some of which may simply be claustrophobic paranoia or off-kilter red herrings.
Most impressively, Castle Rock understands that the heart of King’s work isn’t simply his imagination for terror, but also his remarkably generous eye and ear for crafting and developing characters. King’s genius for plot is so prodigious that adaptations of his work have tended to be distracted by his supernatural hooks: the graveyard where beloved pets come back from the dead; the curse that makes a man lose weight the more he eats; a shop that sells anything your heart desires, at a steep price. These are great ideas that, taken on their own, have made for far better movie pitches than actual movies.
The real secret of King’s skill as a storyteller is that he’s always been as interested in the natural world as in the supernatural. Many of his most indelible villains, in particular, aren’t actually monsters but rather “normal” people who’ve become corrupted in some form or another. In Castle Rock, for instance, Shawshank Penitentiary is run by a private corporation that employs abusive guards and, upon finding a young man wrongfully imprisoned in the institution’s bowels, keeps him locked up while attempting a cover-up and then tries to buy his silence with a coercive “settlement.” The more we learn about the taciturn prisoner, the more we suspect that the higher-ups will be met with a gruesome comeuppance, and it won’t be entirely undeserved. Similarly, there’s an insidious tinge of racism—a recurrent concern in King’s writing—in many of the townspeople’s dealings with Deaver. “Are you black?” a blind white woman asks him abruptly, and the implications of the question are chilling on several levels.
Castle Rock occasionally feels a bit too busy, which is perhaps to be expected given the wealth of material the show is working from. The show’s first season is 10 episodes long, and just through the first four episodes (all that have been made available to critics), it feels like the writers have already introduced several seasons’ worth of potential plotlines. But with the uniformly excellent cast it’s assembled and the extraordinary world it’s inherited, I’m optimistic that the show has ample room to breathe and grow. It’s usually a pejorative to describe a work as “haunted” by its influences, but in the case of Castle Rock, there’s no higher compliment.