At any given time there’s an estimated thousand Stephen King adaptation projects in development at any given moment in Hollywood, and yet Castle Rock still stands out for its interesting premise and gripping execution. The show, created by Dustin Thomasan and Sam Shaw, is an original narrative but it all takes place within a Stephen King Universe. Most notably, the pilot, which we were able to see at Comic Con, mostly took place within the Shawshank prison from The Shawshank Redemption. A character even says to the new warden, “you can even see the bullet hole [where the warden shot himself].” Yet, whether or not you’re a King completionist, Castle Rock offers a well shot and well acted mystery while being a little too underwritten at times, mostly by design.
The story focuses around the character of Henry Deaver (Andre Holland; American Horror Story, The Knick) who went missing when he was a boy and was found after his adoptive father had died trying to look for him. Deaver is a lawyer who specializes in clients that are facing execution. Deaver is forced to return home when he gets a call from Shawshank prison about a man who was found in the tunnels underneath the facility (no mention of Andy Dufresne here). That man, played by recent King player Bill Skarsgard (Pennnywise in IT) references Deaver’s character by name, after being mostly silent about who he is at all.
Being a Stephen King-inspired project produced by JJ, the pilot showcases a lot of atmosphere and mystery. The former is handled with a type of airiness and dread that fits King’s work like a glove. Based off of production design and cinematography alone, Castle Rock is a home run in making a world feel like it’s God is a prolific, creepster. The mystery of the whole thing, on the other hand, is hit or miss. At times it feels appropriate, and seems to veil hidden revelations that are going to shake us to our core. In its lesser successful moments it feels like another JJ show, being obtuse and obfuscating to the point where some of the stakes are watered down. We aren’t sure whether to sympathize with Skarsgard’s prisoner character, or to fear him. The same goes with Scott Glenn’s Alan Pangborn character. Fortunately, Andre Holland hits it out of the park, as does his adopted mother Ruth, played by King’s most iconic actress – Sissy Spacek of Carrie. With two anchors like these it won’t be hard to get invested in the world.
At the SDCC panel following the pilot screening, screenwriters Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomasan weren’t as coy with their Stephen King influences. Neither was the cast. Jane Levy, who didn’t show up in the pilot, wasn’t afraid to let everyone know – in front of the telekinetic high schooler herself – that Carrie inspired her in a big way. Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomasan both discussed The Stand as huge influences, and Dustin seemed to enjoy the idea that like The Stand, “we wanted to start in one place and end up in a totally different place” and while they’re being very gracious to JJ’s way of mystery box storytelling, they “ spent a lot of time in the writers room breaking down what makes a Stephen King story a Stephen King story,” so no matter what you think JJ has done to genre, you can rest assured that there’s going to be just as much King in there as well.