Thursday, August 2, 2018

Stephen King X 2: The Outsider and Castle Rock

Author Stephen King.

Stephen King turned 70 almost a year ago but this most prolific of authors hasn’t slowed down one iota. In fact, he has two books out this year from Scribner, The Outsider, currently in bookstores, and Elevation, a short novel due out in October. He’s also maintained a high quality of output in recent years, from his Mr. Mercedes horror/mystery trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) to the sensational and incredibly visceral science-fiction novel Under the Dome, as well as his touching, thoughtful time travel tale 11/22/63 and Revival, his chilling examination of life after death.

The Outsider is quasi-police procedural and part horror, set in a fictional Oklahoma town called Flint City, and beginning with the arrest of respected teacher and beloved baseball coach Terry Maitland for the heinous rape and murderer of an eleven-year-old boy. Police detective Ralph Anderson is so sure of Maitland’s guilt that he arrests him publicly at a game; after all, he has eyewitnesses to Maitland’s picking up the boy and DNA evidence, too. And yet . . . how can Maitland also be seen on video asking writer Harlen Coben a question at a writer’s conference he was attending at the same time far away from the murder scene, and how can his fingerprints be on a book he looked at in the conference hotel gift shop?

This, of course, is where King excels; setting forth provocative scenarios that keep you turning the pages, aided by his uncanny gift for creating characters that are utterly believable. (He also brings back a beloved, delightful character from a previous work, whom I shall not identify.) The Outsider is perfectly timed for our suspicious, social-media-driven age, when an accused man is automatically presumed to be guilty and just as quickly transformed from admired figure to hateful villain. But King doesn’t ladle this on with obvious metaphors – he just situates his story in a town we can recognize, populated by people we can easily believe whose reactions we can easily understand. Unlike many of King’s novels (The Stand, It, Under the Dome), The Outsider is not centered around a group of disparate people facing a common threat, at least initially, so much it’s about how they solve a mystery – which means The Outsider takes its time getting to its climax. That also allows King a lot of leeway in shaping Detective Anderson’s supremely skeptical character. Uniquely, perhaps, among King’s protagonists, he is neither oblivious to the supernatural horror manifesting itself in the Maitland case nor prepared to fight it on its own terms. He simply can’t accept Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum,  “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” His rational mind won’t allow him to do so, despite increasingly overwhelming evidence that otherworldly realities are out there. This premise makes for a fascinating, provocative conundrum and an equally enticing character. I suspect he’ll return in future books. I certainly hope he does.

Where The Outsider falters somewhat is in its horror element. Simply put, although it’s always suspenseful, it’s not very scary. It also borrows a little too liberally from King’s superior novel Desperation (1996), which centered on a diverse group of travellers captured by a mysterious deputy on a deserted stretch of Nevada road. Still, The Outsider is an enjoyable read; it may be second-tier King but that’s still better than most.

I’ve long been an avid fan of Stephen King and have read most of his literary work, but the movie and TV adaptations of his writing that I have seen have usually left me cold. Yes, Brian De Palma’s take on Carrie was a masterpiece and I quite liked Frank Darabont’s faithful rendering of King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, released as The Shawshank Redemption. Rob Reiner did a good job of directing Misery. But most of the other film versions of King’s novels were either competent at best – Christine, The Dark Half – or flat -ut bad, such as Pet Sematary, Firestarter and Silver Bullet. (The less said about Maximum Overdrive, King’s directorial debut, the better.) Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella The Mist, still the most frightening thing he’s ever written, in my estimation, ought to have succeeded but it was too heavy-handed and cynical by half to work. (Hope is the note the story ended on, but it’s completely missing from the movie.)

Other adaptations pandered to their audiences: in Stand By Me, based on King’s novella The Body, Reiner excised the revenge taken on the younger boys by the bullies they outwitted in favour of a falsely upbeat conclusion. And the first half of the simplified film version of It refused to use the n-word, thus rendering a key scene ineffectual and puzzling and failing to display the racial animus directed at its African American character Mike Hanlon. No doubt the filmmakers deemed the younger demographic they were aiming for too sensitive to hearing racial epithets on screen. (The TV mini-series of It was, by comparison, merely undistinguished.) And, of course, there was Stanley Kubrick’s disastrous, self-indulgent adaptation of King’s The Shining, which didn't stick to the novel at all: an over-the-top Jack Nicholson played its protagonist, author Jack Torrance, as a loon from the get-go instead of letting the haunted hotel bring out the worst in him. That decision undermined everything King had been aiming for in his fine book. (The Outsider is being adapted into a ten-part mini-series scripted by the talented Richard Price, of Clockers, The Wire and The Night Of; it may fare better.)

André Holland and Sissy Spacek in Castle Rock.

In that light, the new Castle Rock TV series (Hulu, Global in Canada), which is executive-produced by King and takes place in Castle Rock, Maine, the setting of several of his novels and short stories, including the forthcoming Elevation, isn’t so much an adaptive misfire – it’s not based on anything specific by King – but just a deadly dull affair. I’ve watched the first three of the series’ ten episodes, enough to glean its many shortcomings and severe weaknesses.

The convoluted plot is set into motion when the retiring warden of Shawshank Prison (Terry O’Quinn) commits suicide, leaving his incoming successor to discover that for many years he has hidden away, in the bowels of the prison, a man with no identity or record. The warden coached that unknown prisoner to mention, upon discovery, one name, Henry Deaver (André Holland), a Texas-based criminal attorney -- who, as a child in Castle Rock, went missing for a while and is still suspected of killing his preacher father, who had gone looking for him.

The prisoner, played by Bill Skarsgård (the vicious clown Pennywise in the recent film version of It), may actually be the devil, but he’s not the only (ostensibly) disturbing presence in Castle Rock. Melanie Lynskey as a childhood friend of Henry, a drug addict who hears voices in her head, and Sissy Spacek as Henry’s dementia-afflicted mother are also significant figures in a mystery that Henry is determined to solve. I use that word lightly because I’m not sure too many viewers will care to follow Henry in his sleuthing as Holland, so good in the Steven Soderbergh period drama The Knick and in the penultimate section of Moonlight, seems so utterly disengaged from the material that the series can’t build up a compelling head of steam around his actions. The rest of the good cast is either wasted (O’Quinn; Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under as the warden’s blind widow; Scott Glenn as the retired cop who keeps Henry’s mother company, a similar role in many ways to his ex – cop in The Leftovers) or simply not given much of interestito do (Spacek, Lynskey, Skarsgård). And as horror tropes go, haunted places, scary visions, etc., Castle Rock is underwhelming at best.

It’s also a bit of a cheat as this TV incarnation of Castle Rock is labeled as a town with a dark soul, where bad things always happen. No dice: that’s actually King’s description of Derry, Maine, the setting of It, Dreamcatcher, and Insomnia, among others. By comparison, Castle Rock is just one of his settings, with no particularly nasty aspect ever accrued to it. (The show’s credits allude to It's taking place there, but it was a Derry-set novel through and through.)

Slickly produced, Castle Rock, created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, has been endorsed by King himself, but then the author is notoriously loathe to slam any of the maladroit adaptations of his oeuvre (aside from The Shining). But I’d say,Castle Rock is just more proof that Stephen King is best appreciated on the printed page.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019. He will be lecturing on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning July 25 at Prosserman JCC.

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