My introduction to Stephen King books were The Shining (1977) and The Stand (1978), both of which I love to this day and both of which I first read when I was in high school. My introduction to filmed adaptations of Stephen King’s books were Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) both of which I saw on TV sometime when I was in high school. I’m old. I graduated from high school in 1981, so those first viewings were a long time ago.
I read Misery (1987) in the late 1980s. The next Stephen King adaptations that affected me were the film version of Misery (1990) and the television miniseries version of The Stand (1994), both of which I first saw on TV. I’ve read a lot of other King stories and seen other King films / TV productions, but those are the ones I most like and remember. I wonder if it matters that I’ve never seen a King adaptation on the big screen; I don’t mean on a big TV, but in a movie theatre. Probably not because size doesn’t matter when it comes to scary stuff.
In my humble and aged opinion, King is at his best when the main ingredient in his writing is the psychology of human personalities and behavior. His best characters are complex humans that feel familiar yet extreme, with (any) combination of beliefs and issues: religious, addictions, madness, family, etc. All of my favorite King stories rely heavily on the psychology of the characters and how they interact with each other, their circumstances and supernatural / horror elements. Castle Rock, which premiered in 2018 and is still currently airing, joins my list of King favorites for that very reason.
For the one person out there living under a rock: Castle Rock is a streaming series based on the works of Stephen King, including characters and elements from It, Dolores Claiborne, Needful Things, ‘Salem’s Lot, Dreamcatcher, Night Shift, The Green Mile, Misery, Hearts in Atlantis, The Shining, The Mangler, Four Past Midnight, Different Seasons, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, The Dark Half and The Night Flier. The series is a collaboration between J.J. Abrams and King (both are executive producers), and written by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (also executive producers), that “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” (as the press release goes). I thoroughly enjoy some of Abrams’ work, most notably such TV series he co-created as Lost and Fringe and his Star Wars films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Castle Rock combines King’s focus on the psychology of human personalities and behavior with Abrams’ character-driven complications brought on by existence in alternate realities. What a great mashup!
I had Castle Rock on my to-watchlist for a long time before I actually watched it. In fact, it was long after the second season came out in October 2019 that, a few nights ago, I decided to finally watch the first season. Then I went right into S2 for a Castle Rock marathon. I really enjoyed both seasons — faithful in atmosphere to the work of both King and Abrams. Since I haven’t read every single thing King has written, I’m not the best person to detail every single reference the series makes to his works, but suffice to say “the hits just keep coming” in a really fun and entertaining convolution of characters and situations. It is fan-fiction at its best. (Here are a couple of links for a complete list of Castle Rock’s references to King’s other works.)
The first season stars André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Tim Robbins and Terry O’Quinn, and they are all well-cast. Lynskey and Skarsgård are standouts, the former’s character drawing us into the supernatural elements of the story and Skarsgård’s performance relying almost solely on physical acting. He has few lines. The camera loves the eerie planes of his bone structure. His eyes are haunting and we constantly wonder whether they are expressing sadness or evil. Is this guy a good victim or an evil demon of some sort? Skarsgård hunches his body, one shoulder higher than the other, and seems so durn scary. Why is that? Why do we “see” this tall thin “boy” as menacing simply because one shoulder is higher than the other? I don’t know, but we do.
Spacek, who famously played Carrie in the original Carrie film, is pretty amazing in memorable scenes and episodes. She portrays Ruth Deaver, a lifelong Castle Rock resident. Through her struggles with dementia, we come to understand some of the secrets and twists regarding Season One’s storylines about various characters and also about the town’s present and its dark past. I especially enjoyed references and elements that reflect King’s stories, like the inclusion of Shawshank Prison (The Shawshank Redemption) and Jack Torrance (The Shining).
Season Two focuses on characters from King’s novel Misery, combined with elements from King’s novel, ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) — especially its Marsten House. Lizzy Caplan stars as Annie Wilkes; Caplan is a little too wide-eyed and screechy for me to believe she turns into the film version of Misery’s perfectly cast Kathy Bates. But overall Caplan does a pretty good job portraying Annie, a character who is completely insane and totally unlikeable, yet somehow most of the time we’re rooting for her. There are some truly creepy aspects to Annie’s character, not the least of which that she sees everything and everybody as either good or bad. In Annie’s simplistic worldview, nothing is in the middle. This is, of course, what makes her so dangerous. We also get to experience the obsessive element of her personality through her obsessions with first her father and then her daughter, Joy. I’ll not give spoilers, but Season Two of Castle Rock and Caplan’s Annie certainly give us plenty of fodder for the Kathy Bates film version of Annie and her obsession with author Paul Sheldon.
One of King’s strengths as a writer is his ability to create characters that are believable despite their particular insanity. We understand these characters because we can imagine them existing in real life. Sometimes we can put ourselves in their places and wonder what we would do, or become, if the same thing happened to us. The world did that with Carrie: We could easily imagine being Carrie because, like her, some of us were bullied and tormented in high school. Some of us wished we were telekinetic and could get revenge on our tormentors. Some of us were the tormentors; imagine if our victims could have done to us what Carrie did to hers! We similarly identified with Jack Torrance in The Shining; his descent into madness was so terrifying because we could understand his selfishness, which led to his insanity that manifested as psychotic murderous reactions to isolation and (annoying) family. Who among us has not selfishly wanted to be left alone to “work” or just have some escape, some peace and quiet, from the endless minutiae of family life? King takes that universal human feeling and pushes it down a slippery slope, adding in some bizarre location-specific supernatural shit, and as we watched Jack Torrance mentally disintegrate, we asked ourselves what we would become if it happened to us. Like I said, King’s best characters are familiar. They’re oh-so recognizable, aren’t they? Familiar yet extreme.
In Castle Rock Season Two, the character of Annie Wilkes, which long ago terrified us in book and film form, is given a backstory that both compels and alienates us. We understand and fear her but also can’t help but sympathize with her at least a little bit while simultaneously being horrified by her actions. We know that “there but for the grace of God,” right? Familiar but extreme. Castle Rock gives us so many characters that we identify with on some level; it is chock-full of the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature. That’s scary enough, right? The series doubles down on the scary by adding in elements of alternate realities and supernatural shenanigans. Season Two builds upon Season One, growing our interest and our fears, and leaves us wanting more. Good thing a Season Three is in the works!