While King as an author writes across a broad spectrum of horror styles, the new television series leans deeply into King’s signature style, where the everyday becomes subtly disturbing and postcard America serves as a facade for subcutaneous menace.
“Stephen King is a writer who kind of does it all, and part of what we wanted to do in this show was to deliver on the kind of psychological suspense, the creepiness, and at times, the hopefully grab you by the throat scare,” Thomason says.
“So the early episodes really were building the road of Castle Rock, and starting to understand who lives here and who has stayed, and who comes back, and who tries to escape. I think that hopefully, some of the horrors of being an everyday human, are also kind of on the page through the characters.”
The series brings the town of Castle Rock, the setting of such King stories as Cujo, The Dead Zone and Needful Things, into a sort of manufactured “present”, moving the clock gently forward on several elements of source material.
“What we were always intent on doing form the beginning was not telling a kind of like picket fence, old school, beginning,” Thomason says.
“We wanted to look at what a town like that is now, a town that had basically been thinned out in its population to closed-down store fronts, the mill that had been closed down, and now basically the main business of the town is incarceration.
“That’s how we get to [the prison] Shawshank and you understand that there’s a weird relationship between the prison and the town,” Thomason adds.
Shaw notes that both he and Thomason, like many King fans, “came to those books when we were teenagers or when we were at a very tender age [so] they’re sort of shot through with this high of nostalgia. So I associate them with the heyday of some of the great classic books of the ’80s and early ’90s.
“But King was always a really contemporary writer at the time, so part of what was fun and interesting about the challenge of making the show was to try to tell a contemporary Stephen King story, trying to imagine what Shawshank might look like in 2018, or what it would look like to tell a story about the privatisation of a prison, and what the economic pressures on a prison are once a big corporation swallows it up?”
The first season of the show is structured around a mystery which runs the course of 10 one-hour episodes, beginning with a discovery in the basement of Shawshank prison. It stars Andre Holland as attorney Henry Deaver, Melanie Lynskey as realtor Molly Strand, Bill Skarsgard as “the kid”, Jane Levy as aspiring writer Jackie Torrance and Sissy Spacek as longtime town resident Ruth Deaver.
While King does not work on the series day to day, the producers sought his approval over a raft of creative decisions.
“We’re lifelong fans ourselves, and so would never have done the show without his full blessing,” Thomason says. “Every choice that we made, every character of his that we used, the story that we are using in our first season, he was involved in approving and giving his blessing.”
In particular the producers sought his approval when characters in his canon “were taken in maybe unexpected directions”, Thomason says. “Things, characters that he had written about for many years, we really wanted to make sure that we had his full support.”
The series sidesteps potential pitfalls in adapting King novels for the screen because rather than draw heavily from a single work, it cherry-picks character and plot points, and tonal points, from many.
“There have been a thousand Stephen King adaptations, and so inevitably when you’re talking about a library like that, there are some complexities when it comes to directly adapting the stories,” Shaw says.
“But I think we didn’t run into that problem nearly in the way that you might think because we were telling an original story,” Shaw adds. “So I think everything that we were touching, we were sort of writing this song in the key of Stephen King rather than directly telling the story of The Dark Tower, or whatever sort of great book existed before.”
It also attempts to strike the peculiarly King-esque tone of straddling the earthly and the otherworldly.
“The premise, at least in the first hour or so, is pretty wild and outlandish, but not overtly paranormal,” Thomason says. “And then the story gets progressively weirder and more disturbing as it goes.
“The thing we love about Stephen King is that you sort of embark on the journey and you think that you’re reading one kind of a story, and by the time you arrive at the end, you have lost all of your bearings and you’re off in some completely bizarro alternate place you wouldn’t have anticipated,” he says.
WHAT Castle Rock
WHEN Foxtel on Demand
Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age