As a creator, Stephen King has had one of the most prolific careers of his generation, to say nothing of his contributions to genre as a whole. His books have sold more than 350 million copies and been adapted into movies, TV shows, and television miniseries. For the most part, where there’s a Stephen King book, an adaptation will likely follow — though over the years, the success of King adaptations has varied somewhat. With even more on-screen versions of King’s works to come, like the release of IT: Chapter Two in September 2019 and a new Pet Sematary feature-length film, it’s understandable that fans want to be a little discerning about which adaptations of King’s books will be able to live up to the source material, especially those who saw last year’s The Dark Tower. Fortunately, Hulu’s upcoming series Castle Rock, set in the fictional titular Maine town, is just King-adjacent enough to adapt all the spooky, surreal horror of his writing without leaning too heavily on every attribute.
Castle Rock was originally intended to be a “Stephen King knockoff” show before the author gave his approval to the project, but once King signed off it was clear co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason wanted to have fun sneaking in fun nods throughout the show. Eagle-eyed fans will be able to spot some of the more obvious Easter eggs from King’s iconic stories in the opening credits alone. Within the shredded paper and news clippings that make up the Castle Rock title sequence, you can spot references to such novels as Cujo, IT, The Shining and more. As the story begins, we learn that the town of Castle Rock (first mentioned in The Dead Zone) sits adjacent to Shawshank State Penitentiary, which appears in King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Many of the show’s important characters play out some of the series' most gripping moments using Shawshank as their backdrop, from the feral prisoner found beneath its foundation known only as “The Kid” (IT’s Bill Skarsgard) to former Castle Rock resident Henry Deaver (American Horror Story’s Andre Holland), who later takes it upon himself to be the young man’s attorney after returning to his old hometown.Castle Rock still makes for a thoroughly gripping viewing experience even if you’re not well-versed in the works of Stephen King, but the show’s most intriguing mysteries are a result of one of King’s most gut-punching story devices: the power of a place, and what happens to the people who never truly escape it. By all appearances, Castle Rock looks like any other town ravaged by time and outside opportunity. A once successful area has deteriorated into an industrial wasteland, with the only remaining source of significant employment being Shawshank itself. Residents feel equal parts defeated and on edge, resigned yet tense. King’s IT drew back the curtain on the dark underbelly of a Maine town called Derry, and Castle Rock hints that its neighbor casts an equally malevolent spell on all who still live there. An early montage of murders, suicides and other violent crimes makes you wonder why anyone would want to live in Castle Rock, let alone stay, and in the first episode, at least one character meets a demise of his own choosing, giving even more credence to the possibility that something sinister is at work.
Yet there are those who have persisted against the odds, like local real estate agent Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), who has a vision of her own to revitalize the town to its true potential; Alan Pangborn (Daredevil's Scott Glenn), the now-retired sheriff still keeping a watchful eye on the community; and Henry Deaver’s mother Ruth (Carrie’s Sissy Spacek), who struggles with dementia but remains resolved in her decision to stay right where she is. Her failing mental health is one of the issues Henry has to contend with after going back to the place where he grew up, risking public scorn and contempt, and early on we discover why his return to Castle Rock is met with such hostility. He’s been linked to the suspicious death of his father — an incident he has no real memory of — ever since he was a young boy, but his decision to show up in town after a long absence reinvigorates his own desire to solve the mystery behind what happened to his father, and why he himself has been blamed for it all these years.
After watching the first four episodes of the series, it’s safe to say that Castle Rock is not try-hard horror. It’s a show that builds itself around its mood and atmosphere rather than relying on gotcha jump scares to drive home the thrills — but when they happen, you sit up and take notice. The town itself has a particularly gloomy palette, with many flashback scenes cast in the blue-black shadows of a chilling Maine winter while others set in the present are rendered drab and gray, almost as if to emphasize the barrenness of the landscape. Shawshank is appropriately dark and dismal, with the kind of conditions that would undoubtedly make anyone go feral, and as we quickly see from “The Kid,” being cooped up in a cage for who knows how long definitely has repercussions for those who try to cover up the treatment of the imprisoned.
Out of all the King adaptations currently out there, Castle Rock is one worth watching — not only for those who are huge fans of the author but also for those who want to be entertained and enthralled in equal measure by a quality genre adaptation. With an evenly paced story, complex characters, and many compelling mysteries to try and unravel, it’s practically guaranteed that you’ll be on pins and needles waiting for the next episode to drop by the time the end credits roll. There’s something about this town, after all; no one can stay away for too long.
Castle Rock premieres July 25 on Hulu.