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‘Castle Rock’ Is and Isn’t a Stephen King Story

The new Hulu vehicle shows where television’s interaction with existing intellectual property is heading

Hulu/Ringer illustration

Castle Rock is more of a Stephen King–flavored product than a Stephen King property. It doesn’t always feel that way, thanks to the efforts of a strong cast and the experienced hands of cocreators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who met working on the short-lived and shamefully overlooked WGN drama Manhattan. (Thomason is also the coauthor of 2004 airport read staple–work of Dan Brown–core The Rule of Four, which has little to do with Castle Rock but brings me enough joy that I’m sharing it here.) But as with many products of our current moment when IP is everything, Castle Rock’s quality often seems more incidental than intentional.

Hulu’s latest high-profile drama is not a Stephen King adaptation—god knows there’s no shortage of those. Rather, it’s an anthology series set in the Stephen King Cinematic Universe, which isn’t exactly a thing yet. The show takes its name from the fictional Maine town that, like Derry or Jerusalem’s Lot, serves as the setting for multiple King works, notably The Dead Zone and the novella that would become the basis for The Shawshank Redemption. Castle Rock tells an original story, about an orphan named Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who left town and became a death row defense attorney after being blamed for his adoptive father’s mysterious death. But its location, and even some of its characters, come straight from King, who gave executive producer J.J. Abrams his blessing to mix and match his concepts. The occupants are new, but the structure they’re occupying is old. The effect is, in true King fashion, faintly uncanny, like a haunted house from any number of his horror yarns.

The “anthology” part of the Castle Rock concept helped secure an extremely deep bench for its first volume. The actors do the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to selling Castle Rock as something more than King karaoke. Holland, in his first major role since Moonlight, imbues Henry with all the feigned confidence and barely hidden vulnerability of someone rejected by their entire community; the black sheep forced to return to the small town they once fled is an age-old cliché, but Holland makes Henry’s wounds feel fresh. Melanie Lynskey plays Molly Strand, Henry’s childhood neighbor who appears to possess telepathic abilities she can’t control, while Terry O’Quinn inhabits Dale Lacy, the former warden of Shawshank. (In a near-parody of modernization, the iconic, fortress-like camp is now a for-profit enterprise, making Castle Rock closer to Orange Is the New Black than Under the Dome.) Sissy Spacek, Frances Conroy, and The Leftovers Scott Glenn round out the ensemble—big names for a show to slot into its fifth or sixth billing.

But the seasonal anthology format also means that Henry’s quest to understand his father’s death, Warden Lacy’s recent suicide, and whatever connects the two is meant to be just one story among many: the common factor between seasons will not be the characters, but King’s spectral presence in the background. Castle Rock aims to gradually open up King’s world beyond the mere near-bottomless well of adaptation-ready narratives it already is into an actually bottomless well of King-adjacent stories for Abrams and Hulu to keep expounding on until they choose not to. The finite, if massive, quantity of King works to adapt would no longer be an impediment; if the show strikes a chord, it could make Stephen King bigger than Stephen King.

To be fair to the parties involved, the culture is already awash in Stephen King riffs and homages. Why shouldn’t King himself, or at least his designated proxies, get in on the game Stranger Things is currently dominating? Besides, Castle Rock is merely the first in a wave of similarly ambitious projects to make it to the screen. Last year, Amazon made waves by acquiring the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic Lord of the Rings franchise and announcing plans for a TV series in a deal that all told could end up costing the company well into 10 figures. But rather than a literal adaptation in the vein of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, the show will apparently follow a younger version of the human warrior Aragorn, elaborating on Tolkien’s original yarn and extending it into the past. And while the still-untitled series may not be an anthology, Amazon already owns the rights to all things Middle Earth. The company may as well make the most of it by continuing to draw from it with more, as-yet-hypothetical future projects.

Not to be outdone, HBO, too, is in the process of gradually uncoupling a proven source of captivating stories from its original storyteller. With Game of Thrones, the premium cable giant essentially captured lightning in a bottle, turning a dense, deliberately unadaptable sprawl into a compelling series with mass appeal. It did so in part by working closely with A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, who wrote multiple episodes. But as Game of Thrones heads toward its conclusion, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, having run out of books to work from, have strayed further and further from Martin’s style. HBO then upped the ante by developing competing prequels, all of which will be set in Martin’s heavily mythologized world but executed without his supervision or input.

In a way, these enterprises are a logical extension of our cultural gatekeepers’ current fixation on pre-existing intellectual property. What’s true for a global economy is also true for the small sector of it devoted to entertainment: tethering your fate to a non-renewable resource begs the question of what to do when that resource runs out. And just as half-measures like hybrids are an easier fix than converting the entire planet to solar power, it’s simpler to respond to a shortage of IP by simply widening the definition of what IP can be, then proceeding to generate some of your own.

When it comes to Castle Rock itself, however, the final product of such an effort can ring a little hollow, like a remastered greatest hits album when a new smash is what the listener truly craves. The opening credits pore over the annotated pages of actual Stephen King novels, and as that visual implies, the show is packed with Easter eggs to reward die-hard King fans who comb through it with similar dedication to the unseen annotator. As only a casual fan, I’ll leave such decoding to the actual King experts, though some allusions are too blatant to miss: Glenn’s character is an older version of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, memorably portrayed by Ed Harris in Needful Things. Other tidbits are less references than winking fourth-wall breaks; Castle Rock’s otherworldly creature, a nameless, mostly mute grown man imprisoned by Warden Lacy underground since childhood, is played by Bill Skarsgard, best known as Pennywise the Clown from last year’s It. Castle Rock is a chock-full blender, and at times it’s proud to show that off.

But while I found myself engrossed enough at the end of the four episodes provided to critics that I’ll tune in to find out what happens next, I can’t help but crave something a little more substantial than an extrapolation of an extrapolation. Perhaps that’s because I have one eye on the accelerating mission creep of blockbuster TV, determined to supply its own fuel. If Castle Rock already rings a little unsatisfying, how is Hot(ter) Aragorn going to read? Uneasiness is certainly what Castle Rock is aiming for—just probably not the kind it ultimately inspires.