Keys to the King-dom

February 13, 2019
We take a deep dive into Stephen King’s connected universe.

Everyone knows who Stephen King is. How could you not? The 71-year-old resident of Bangor, Maine, is responsible for some 58 novels (most of them bestsellers) and hundreds of short stories, essays, poems, screenplays and comic books. The staggeringly prolific storyteller has had an indelible impact on popular culture, with books ranging from straight horror (The Shining, It), to apocalyptic tales (The Stand, Cell), to thrillers (Misery, Gerald’s Game), time travel stories (11/22/63), epic fantasy (The Dark Tower series) and even heartwarming dramas (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body). It’s no surprise then that King’s enduring impact on the literary scene has spilled over into television and movies, although the results have been… inconsistent, shall we say.

King’s works are often too dense, or internally focused, to be successfully adapted, causing the rise of a genre twist on Newton’s Third Law, which we’ll call “King’s First Law”. For every genre classic like The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986) or Misery (1990) you have an equal and opposite number of lame ducks like Needful Things (1993), Dreamcatcher (2003) and the staggeringly inept The Dark Tower (2017). That latter flick’s sins are especially egregious, actually, and not limited to wasting a perfectly good Idris Elba. See, in Stephen King’s books there’s an overarching meta story that links a large number of the stories in ways both subtle and blunt. The fictitious town of Castle Rock, for instance, is the location of The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Elevation and numerous short stories and novellas. Digging deeper, often characters from one novel will interact with others. Jake Epping, the protagonist from 11/22/63, travels back in time to the 1950s and visits the fictitious town of Derry, Maine, where he meets Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh – two of the main characters from It. Randall Flagg, the big bad from The Stand, is also the “man in black” who gives heroic Roland such a rough time in The Dark Tower series. Digging further into the master’s works, all of his books are – to some degree – linked by the dark tower itself, which is a kind of metaphysical lynchpin for all of reality, time and existence.

Such lofty, and it bears emphasising super weird, concepts are generally left on the cutting room floor in the case of cinema and TV, although not entirely. Over the years King obsessives have managed to get their references in. 2001’s Hearts in Atlantis is a strange, heartwarming tale about a psychic kid (a classic King trope) and his relationship with an elderly stranger, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Ted is on the run from the sinister “Low Men” who are characters directly involved with the dark tower, acolytes of the villainous Crimson King. Fast forward to 2017 and director Mike Flannagan’s excellent Gerald’s Game adaptation not only manages to somehow make King’s least cinematic work sing on screen, it also contains some heavy duty references. Jessie (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to a bed while her dead husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) rots on the floor. During her ordeal, incapacitated for days on end, she hallucinates a woman who murdered her husband by throwing him down a well. This is a reference to King’s Dolores Claiborne, a companion novel to Gerald’s Game and a 1995 film starring Kathy Bates. Later, in reply to Jessie telling her dead husband she’s “going to die”, Gerald says, “all things die. All things serve the beam.” This is a reference to The Dark Tower’s complicated mythology, and an oft repeated phrase from those stories.

2017’s The Dark Tower movie also features a number of references, including a Pennywise nod (the name of the evil clown from It), a visual callback to the Overlook Hotel (the haunted joint from The Shining), a book of Misery’s Child by Paul Sheldon (from Misery), a poster of Rita Hayworth (the same one used in The Shawshank Redemption), plus a toy 1958 red Plymouth Fury (the same make and model as the possessed car from Christine). As pleasing as these Easter eggs are for King dorks, it was all in service of an adaptation that simply wasn’t very good.

However, the following year King fans and those who appreciate tense, layered longform televisual storytelling struck gold with the Bad Robot produced Castle Rock. The series isn’t based on any particular Stephen King story, but is set in the oft used town of Castle Rock and features cameos and references from all manner of familiar characters, including Scott Glenn playing Alan Pangborn; a role previously played by Ed Harris in Needful Things and Michael Rooker in George Romero’s 1993 The Dark Half adaptation. The story also features characters like Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy) who is the cousin of young Danny Torrance (the psychic kid from The Shining) and seems to have a strange connection to the Overlook hotel.

As well as the numerous references, nods and Easter eggs, Castle Rock also features a staggeringly good cast including Sissy Spacek (who played Carrie White in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie) and Bill Skarsgård (who memorably played Pennywise in Andy Muschietti’s 2017 It and upcoming It: Chapter Two). Castle Rock proves the sheer versatility and adaptability of King’s worlds, and gives “constant readers” (King’s name for his superfans) hope that the really weird stuff, like Todash Space – the place from whence all monsters come – will manifest onto our screens one day. It seems likely that it will because, as we now know, all things serve the Beam.

Castle Rock: Season One is out now on 4K Ultra-HD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital

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