Alternate titles for this blog post included "Can We All Just Chill the Fuck Out?" and "Settle the Fuck Down," but I correctly thought those might too condescending. So I settled for something bland and inoffensive. Good job, me!
I’m not one to judge a book by its cover. However, I have no problem judging the cover by its art (ahem), nor do I balk at judging the message the cover seems to be trying to convey. After all, whereas it might be true that a cover cannot ruin the book it is covering, it’s at least as true to say that a cover can on occasion do that book no favors.
With that in mind, let’s talk about Castle Rock, the super-secret anthology series for Hulu that is being developed by Bad Robot and Warner Bros.
I had not planned to talk about it here, but my “Stephen King” Google Alert is pinging about once an hour with news of this series, and the sense I get from folks who care about such things is that a general sense of large-scale excitement is afoot.
I don’t understand why. From my perspective, it’s based on almost literally nothing. I mean, look … I’m aware that it’s churlish to try and talk people out of their excitement for something. Man, this world sucks, so if you can squeeze some enjoyment out of it, more power to ya. I get that. And anyways, I don’t have any desire to actually try to talk somebody out of being excited for Castle Rock; I’m only interested in understanding why they are excited and I’m not. If that manages to come off as if I begrudge or even look down upon that excitement, then I apologize in advance and can only say in my defense that I don’t mean it that way.
Anyways, in this post's metaphor, the teaser and press release is the cover, and the series Castle Rock is the book. We know very little specific detail about that book. Here's what Hulu is saying:
"A psychological-horror series set in the Stephen King multiverse, Castle Rock combines the mythological scale and intimate character storytelling of King’s best-loved works, weaving an epic saga of darkness and light, played out on a few square miles of Maine woodland. The fictional Maine town of Castle Rock has figured prominently in King’s literary career: Cujo, The Dark Half, IT and Needful Things, as well as novella The Body and numerous short stories such as Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption are either set there or contain references to Castle Rock. Castle Rock is an original suspense/thriller — a first-of-its-kind reimagining that explores the themes and worlds uniting the entire King canon, while brushing up against some of his most iconic and beloved stories." (I pulled that quote, and the next, from this Hollywood Reporter story.) "It's described as an ongoing series, though sources tell THR that it's more of an anthology that will weave together characters and themes from King's novels featuring the mysterious town of Castle Rock. Each season, sources say, will follow a different set of characters and storylines while interjecting themes and specific characters from previous seasons."
That just sounds like fanfiction to me. I can probably read some yahoo's 1600-page manuscript of that right now, somewhere on the forums where stuff like that is posted.
The excitement I perceive among fandom seems to be based on the notion that this series is going to tie together multiple King stories and characters, and thereby present to the viewing audience (and the world at large) a King multiverse like the one that exists in his bibliography. For all I know, it will end up being exactly that.
But consider this: King himself has never really seen fit to do such a thing. Instead, he’s built his multiverse one brick at a time, and it is composed largely of individual pieces that have coalesced to form a whole. The individual pieces came first, and were seemingly by far the more important consideration; the fact that they were stacked in such a way as to form a whole seems to me to have been a secondary goal.
On the surface, Castle Rock would seem to be an inverse of that equation: this is a case of J.J. Abrams, Hulu, and whoever else is involved deciding that what they want to do is build a house using King-shaped bricks. They are likely then looking around to see what bricks they have on hand, and will fill in the gaps with whatever they can wedge in. This does not sound like a house in which one can expect to live safely.
(I may have overextended that metaphor. I was thinking about trying to wedge the Big Bad Wolf in there somewhere, FYI.)
Traditionally, it has proven to be difficult to achieve a well-balanced and successful adaptation of individual Stephen King books. Now, along comes an anthology series that seems like it might be trying to adapt (or quasi-adapt) multiple King books simultaneously, and also make those individual adaptations fit into a semi-cohesive whole.
And you’re asking me to be excited about that?
The last time Bad Robot, Warner Bros., and Hulu teamed up on a Stephen King adaptation, the result was 11.22.63, an eight-episode series that drained most of the life out of a terrific novel. Simultaneously rushed and overlong, that miniseries was – compared to the book – a failure on almost every level. So tell me again why I should be excited to see all these entities taking a second turn at bat, but with what seems on the face of things to be an exponentially more challenging task? You struck out the first time; this time you've blindfolded yourself and slicked down the bat's grip with baby oil. I am not confident you will put bat to ball, no, surely I am not. Call me crazy.
Again, let me specify that in no way am I suggesting that Abrams and his showrunners (Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason of the late Manhattan) are incapable of doing it. There’s no reason why it can’t work, as a hypothetical thing; there’s just not much reason, in my eyes, to assume that it WILL work, as an actual thing. I hear Manhattan was good. But if David Simon (The Wire), David Milch (Deadwood), and David Chase (The Sopranos) were all teaming up on it, I'd still be a little skeptical. And those might be three of the best television shows in the history of American tv. It's gonna take more than dudes from Manhattan teaming up with Bad Robot to convince me this will work.
So, my fellow King fans, I ask you: why are so many of you so jazzed about this? What is it about the idea that characters from, say, Needful Things might somehow “brush up against” some new story that makes you feel as if that’s the use to which those characters ought to be put? Let’s say that they are somehow combined with characters from Dreamcatcher and then they all end up in ‘salem’s Lot (a thing not directly implied by the teaser, but not ruled out either): is that what you’ve been missing as a King fan? Danny Torrance meeting the Night Flier?
That’s the allure of fanfiction, of course: take your toys, make ‘em all fight each other or kiss each other or drive Tonka trucks together or what have you, and then sit back, satisfied. I get the appeal of playing with your toys in that manner. I don’t get the appeal of watching somebody else play with their toys in that manner, and that’s what fanfiction seems like to me: a thing best enjoyed from the standpoint of being the one in charge, and a waste of time otherwise.
The argument for it, I guess, is that if the person playing with the toys is REALLY good at it, it can take on a life of its own. I’d argue that that’s what Stranger Things is, and if you don't think Hulu is hoping for their own Stranger Things here, well, you think dissimilarly to how I think. I thoroughly enjoyed Stranger Things, so I’m inclined to admit that if Shaw and Thomason bring a similar level of acumen to these proceedings as the Duffers did to Stranger Things, then this could – COULD, mind you – be cool.
However, tying together all of these disparate Kingian threads is a tall order, so whoever is in charge of the tying is going to have to be a rare talent. A rare talent is, by literal definition, RARE, i.e., unlikely. Stephen King is a rare talent; that’s how he was able to achieve what he achieved with his multiverse. The odds of Shaw and Thomason measuring up to him don’t strike me as great. One more time: tell me again why this is something that should excite me? Guys, I’d love to be there with you, fist-pumping and grinning and whatnot. I’m just not sold.
The way I see it, one of the following things seems likely to be the result as far as the actual content of the series is concerned:
Scenario #1: The story for the first season will be almost wholly an original one. Abrams posed the question, “What is the hoax in the forest?” in making the announcement.
Doesn’t sound like any existing King story to me, so something original seems likely. (Possibly the upcoming Castle Rock story penned by King and Richard Chizmar could serve as the basis, but until we know more about it, let’s leave that possibility off the table.)
In this scenario, the King-ian hook would likely be nothing more than a vague thing, probably just a setting inside Castle Rock itself. You’ll see somebody reading Paul Sheldon books on occasion, or a main character will have been a recent inmate of Shawshank State Prison, or something like that. The results could be good or they could be bad or they could be mediocre, but regardless, this will be a case of somebody writing their own stories and then calling them “Stephen King” by mere association. “Stephen King” then becomes a franchise; at this point, he is almost literally that Big Mac and fries he once said he was.
Scenario #2: In this scenario, the story for the first season will draw a moderate amount of inspiration from an existing King work (or multiple existing King works). So maybe it’s set in the eighties, and Ace Merrill and Reginald “Pop” Merrill show up. Maybe George Bannerman is the sheriff and it takes place before Cujo. In the second season, maybe George Bannerman hires Alan Pangborn to be his deputy, and they have to solve a case that takes them to Jerusalem’s Lot, where they encounter a vampire who calls himself Dwight Renfield. Danny Torrance – who is a big fan of novelist Paul Sheldon – is also there for some reason, on vacation with his “Uncle” Dick. Pennywise – on vacation from Derry – shows up and wrecks everyone’s shit; or, worse, it’s a creature similar to but distinct from Pennywise. Bongo the Clown or some such nonsense.
Would these be positive developments? They could be, I guess; but they could just as easily not be, and if I'm betting one way or the other, I'm betting on "not."
Hard to say until we find out for sure, but until then, what exactly is it in the history of King adaptations that makes you feel excitement is a more sensible stance to take than apprehension? King himself rarely saw fit to mix and match stories in that manner; when he did, it was typically on a small scale and was designed to augment character, not plot. So why should we trust somebody else to do it on his behalf and not fuck it up? Odds are, they’d turn in something that was mediocre at best. Either way, again, in this scenario, King once again looks like a Big Mac and fries. Lemme get a Coke with that, please; make it a large.
Scenario #3: In this scenario, the first season adapts an existing King story; Cujo, for example. But it does so in an open-ended way that can somehow lead to a second season that adapts, say, Dreamcatcher. The seasons are distinct but related. Of the three scenarios, this is the one that would interest me the most, but it also the one which seems most likely not to happen. That “hoax in the woods” thing would seem to rule it out, at least as regards the first season.
One useful way to think about all of this is to consider what the production CAN do, in a legal sense. After all, in order to adapt a story for the screen, or for any narrative medium, one must be in possession of the rights to do so. It is likely, for example, that no characters from The Dark Tower will be able to make an appearance, because the rights to those novels are currently owned by Sony.
However, Warner Bros. DOES seemingly still own the rights to It, so could Pennywise make an appearance? Sure, or Mike Hanlon, Ben Hanscom, Beverly Marsh, etc. Warner Bros. owns The Shining, so a trip to the Overlook could happen. And so forth. But anything Warner Bros. doesn’t legally have the right to use is off the table, for the most part. (They could probably get away with the sort of oblique references Haven made, or the evocations Stranger Things used.)
So what properties are owned by Warner Bros.? Here’s the list of King properties I know to have been released by – and, presumably, still owned by – Warner Bros.:
- Cat's Eye
- Creepshow (just the first one, though)
- Dolores Claiborne
- The Green Mile
- Hearts In Atlantis (presumably including the entire novel, not just "Low Men In Yellow Coats")
- Nightmares & Dreamscapes (no idea which stories apart from the ones in the miniseries, though)
- The Night Flier (via Warner Bros. owning New Line)
- Salem's Lot
- The Shawshank Redemption
- The Shining
Some of those are obviously mentioned in the teaser for Castle Rock, including ones which have nothing to do with the town of Castle Rock. In fact, unless I am mistaken, NONE of those are set in Castle Rock.
But the teaser also mentions a few things which, so far as I know, would be outside Warner’s control (and therefore, presumably, unavailable to both Hulu and Bad Robot). Rather than list them, let's just run down a lit of each of the entities mentioned in the teaser. Hopefully I got 'em all:
- Leland Gaunt -- Gaunt comes from Needful Things, which has already been adapted once, by MGM. I assume they still own the rights; they put out a Blu-ray a few years back, in association with 20tth Century Fox.
- Nettie Cobb -- also from Needful Things
- Selena St. George -- from Dolores Claiborne, which is owned by Warner Bros.
- 'salem's Lot -- I'm opting to not italicize that, because for all I know, they're referring not to the novel, but to the town; a key difference. In any case, Warner Bros. owns the rights to that one.
- the Losers Club -- this is from It, which is a Warner property.
- "The Mangler" -- hey, I missed this one in making that list of WB-owned properties! I guess I could just go back and add it, but nah. Anyways, "The Mangler" is owned by New Line.
- Andy Dufresne -- one of the two lead characters in The Shawshank Redemption, which is owned by Warner Bros. I have two things to say about this. First, nobody anywhere wants to see any element of The Shawshank Redemption be remade. So hands off the Andy Dufresne, please. Second, the name of the novella is "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." No "the."
- Beaver Clarendon -- one of the central figures in Dreamcatcher, which is owned by Warner Bros.
- Duddits Cavell -- see above. One of the worst characters in all of King's fiction. NOBODY wants to see more adventures featuring Duddits.
- Mr. Gray -- again with the Dreamcatcher
- "The Night Flier" -- owned by New Line
- Father Callahan -- a minor character in 'salem's Lot, so Warner owns him; although Sony owns the majority of his story, presumably (by way of his appearance in the final three novels in the Dark Tower series)
- Hole-in-the-Wall -- a cabin from Dreamcatcher
- Needful Things -- a shop in Needful Things, which, as we've said, is an MGM property
- You Sew-and-Sew -- another shop in Needful Things
- Paul Sheldon -- the main character of Misery, which is a 20th Century Fox movie, and one I'd say they are unlikely to let go of anytime soon
- Ben Hanscom -- one of the Losers in It, which is a WB property (although the new remake is going to be a New Line film, for whatever difference that makes)
- Ronnie Malenfant -- an antagonist of sorts from the novella "Hearts In Atlantis" (which should not be confused with the movie Hearts In Atlantis, which itself was based on the novella "Low Men In Yellow Coats," which appeared -- alongside "Hearts In Atlantis" -- in the novel/collection Hearts In Atlantis). It is unclear whether Warner Bros. owns the film rights to the entirety of Hearts In Atlantis -- including "Hearts In Atlantis" -- or just to "Low Men In Yellow Coats." Making things more confusing, last September it was announced that Johannes Roberts was working on a movie version of "Hearts In Atlantis" called Hearts. No mention of Warner Bros. was made in that announcement.
- Nan's Luncheonette -- a diner in Needful Things
- Mr. Jingles -- a mouse in The Green Mile, which is owned by Warner
- Dick Hallorann -- a major character in The Shining and a minor character in It, both Warner Bros. properties
- John Hunton-- okay, I had to Google that one. He's from "The Mangler."
- Wilma Northrup -- Adrienne Barbeau's character in the Warner-owned Creepshow
- Little Tall Island -- a location from a few King tales, including Dolores Claiborne
- Shawshank State Prison -- duh
- Misery's Child -- a fictional novel within Misery, which, as we've established, is owned by Fox
- The Inside View -- a fictional newspaper in "The Night Flier" but also The Dead Zone, which is set partially in Castle Rock. But the television rights to The Dead Zone are owned by Lionsgate, and the film rights by Paramount. Or were. I'm only making an educated guess that they still are; these things do change hands sometimes. Also, isn't it just Inside View, not "the" Inside View?
- Mike Hanlon -- from It
- Beverly Marsh -- ditto
- Bogs Diamond -- one of the Sisters in "Shawshank"
- Joe St. George -- from Dolores Claiborne
- Annie Wilkes -- from Misery
- Richard Dees -- from "The Night Flier"
- the Marsten House -- from 'salem's Lot
- Juniper Hill Asylum -- it's mentioned in Needful Things and It visits it
- Brian Rusk -- from Needful Things
- Heywood -- a character from "Shawshank"
- Eduard Delacroix -- from The Green Mile
- John Coffey -- ditto; like the drink, only spelled different
- Kurt Barlow -- from 'salem's Lot
- "Low Men in Yellow Coats" -- the basis for the Warner-owned film Hearts In Atlantis
- Sheriff Alan Pangborn -- from both The Dark Half and Needful Things, both owned by MGM (although the former was an Orion release, Orion no longer exists)
- Fast Cars -- another fictional novel from Misery
- Green Mile -- no "the" is appended, so let's assume this is a reference to the floor itself, from The Green Mile
- Delbert Grady -- a minor character from The Shining
- Peter Riley -- a major character from the novella "Hearts In Atlantis"
- Jonesy -- a major character from Dreamcatcher
- Richard Bachman -- Richard Bachman, of course, is a pseudonym used by Stephen King himself on occasion; might Bachman be turned into a character on the show? I guess nobody owns the rights to that; probably not even Stephen King.
- Stan Uris -- from It
- George Denbrough -- from It
- Buster -- aka Danforth Keeton, from Needful Things
- Mark Petrie -- from 'salem's Lot
- Liza Garfield -- from "Low Men In Yellow Coats"
- Pennywise -- from It
- Henry Bowers -- ditto
- the Barrens -- ditto
- Horace M. Derwent -- from The Shining
- the Mellow Tiger -- from Needful Things
- Silver Creek -- another one I had to look up; it's from Misery
- Percy Wetmore -- from The Green Mile
- Danny Torrance -- from The Shining, obviously; but also from Doctor Sleep, the rights to which seem also to be owned by Warner Bros.
- Stuart Ullman -- from The Shining, and it's also worth mentioning that Warner Bros. has been trying to develop a prequel to that movie for several years
- Ben Mears -- from 'salem's Lot
- Vera Donovan -- from Dolores Claiborne
- Paul Edgecombe -- from The Green Mile
- Norris Ridgewick -- from Needful Things
- Derry, Maine -- from many King books, most notably It and the never-filmed Insomnia (the film rights to that may theoretically be owned by King himself, and therefore could be granted to Hulu)
- Jack Torrance -- from The Shining, natch
Those are all the ones I spied going frame by frame. If any others eluded me, let me know.
Also worth mentioning are a few of the titles the Hollywood Reporter mentioned, but which do not appear in this teaser:
- Cujo -- this was a Paramount release on Blu-ray, but a Warner Bros. release in theatres back in the day; so maybe there are rights issues here? I remember a few years back, a ludicrous remake (called C.U.J.O. and about robot dogs) was being bruited, but nothing ever came of it, mercifully
- The Dark Half -- other than Alan Pangborn, nothing from this was in the teaser, so far as I noticed.
- The Body -- this novella was the basis for Stand By Me, a Sony film.
To this, we will add a few King stories set in Castle Rock that have not been mentioned in association with this series:
- The Dead Zone -- as I said earlier, the rights to this seem to be entirely locked up by other companies
- "The Sun Dog" -- a novella from Four Past Midnight, there is no way to know what company, if any, owns the rights to it.
- and a trio of short stories, "Uncle Otto's Truck," "It Grows on You," and "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," none of which have ever been filmed and might theoretically be available for King to sell to Warner Bros.
With all that in mind, I'm not sure I see how Castle Rock can possibly include any elements from Misery. Actually, that's a lie; I do see how. Fox would have to sell (or rent) the rights to Warner Bros. and Hulu. At first glance, it would seem a similar thing would have to happen with MGM and Needful Things in order to get that one included. Such deals are occasionally struck between studios, of course; but it's something of a rarity. That's my perception, at any rate.
Admittedly, this is semi-informed speculation on my part. I likely have some of the details wrong. But there is an inescapable fact at the center of this: this show will not be able to use everything in King's body of work, and may not even be able to use all the things they mentioned in their own teaser. So already, the vision of a true King multiverse is compromised and degraded. Yet again I stress that this might not inherently be bad news. But, again, you’ll need to convince me of the degree to which it is inherently good news.
We just don’t know.
For my part, it seems wiser to squint, furrow my brown, fold my arms, and say, “Show me.” If, after that, I have cause to grin and clap the producers on the back, you can rest assured that grins and claps will follow, frequently and loudly. But, guys: Under the Dome, Haven, 11.22.63…? Have we forgotten so quickly?
I've not mentioned any of the lines of dialogue used in the teaser, so let's examine a few of those, and allow it to lead us into some speculation.
- "Keep the kids outside!"
- "I'm telling you, I saw something -- whatever killed Alice is going to kill you, too!"
- "They're going to find out about this!"
- "This door stays locked -- no one comes down here!"
- "It won't start ... the good news is, I live right down the street. That yellow house, right there...? Follow me."
- "I keep hearing..." (can't tell, but there's a whispered "redrum" soon after)
Apart from the "redrum," none of that rings any bells with me. But the "yellow house" bit comes when the name Annie Wilkes is on screen, so it's tempting to link them.
Some names/locations/titles are given more prominent placement than others in the teaser. Here are the ones which seemed to be favored:
|literally a different town|
|literally not in Castle Rock|
|literally in a different state|
|also literally in a different state|
Does any of this mean anything? Again, we just don't know.
But clearly, Bad Robot and Hulu want me to think it all means something, and the only thing I can come up with is that they are mashing all those things together. I just don't see it working. Sorry for the pessimism, but it's the simple truth, and my cynicism is emboldened when I reflect on the fact that the town of Castle Rock features in only one of the stories pictured above. (Wikipedia informs me that Red from Shawshank lived there before he went to prison, however, and also informs me that the town is mentioned in Doctor Sleep. Not sufficient.) Put those things together, and this all has the unmistakable odor of Dudes Making Shit Up.
So we're back to fanfiction.
Anyways, if I can circle back to my central metaphor, I’m hopeful that Castle Rock will be a good book; I’m hopeful it might even be a great one. But this cover does not inspire confidence in me. I’m going to need to pick the book up, read the back cover, and start turning the pages before I assume it deserves to be on the shelf alongside the ACTUAL King books.
I’ll give it a shot. But if you want me to be excited about it...?