Adapting Stephen King's Castle Rock: Hulu's 2018 Original Series Is A Stephen King Mixtape That Rocks

Bill Skarsgard in Castle Rock
(Image credit: Hulu)

Over the course of his writing career, Stephen King has written multiple on-going series and direct sequels to his own works… but those novels, novellas, and shorts are really just pockets in a much greater whole. One of the best things about being a Constant Reader is the fact that almost all of the author’s tales feature breadcrumbs that link the stories together as part of a larger canon, and you never really know what connections you’re going to stumble upon next.

Sometimes they come in the form of recognizable characters popping up (like Deputy Sheriff/Sheriff Norris Ridgewick appearing in Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Bag Of Bones and more); sometimes there are recurring settings (such as the notorious Maine towns of Castle Rock and Derry); and sometimes there are recurring elements of the supernatural (like the Deadlights from IT making a comeback in Later). And all that’s without getting into the overarching elements from The Dark Tower books.

Because the ownership of adaptation rights in Hollywood is so diffuse, this part of the Stephen King experience is often lost in translation when it comes to film and television. Instead of seeing full-on crossovers, fans have typically had to settle for simple winks and nods from writers and directors who really know what they are doing with the source material.

But then came along Castle Rock to do something new and awesome.

In February 2017 (months before the start of the King Hollywood renaissance that would begin in earnest with Andy Muschietti’s IT: Chapter One), it was reported that producer J.J. Abrams was getting back into the Stephen King game, following up 11.22.63 with a special new project developed for Hulu. Created by Sam Shaw and Dusty Thomason, Castle Rock wouldn’t be an adaptation of any specific book, but instead function like an amalgamation. Original stories set in the eponymous town would be written featuring familiar King characters – functioning like a mixtape.

Not only would Castle Rock feature familiar settings and stories, the ensemble cast was outfitted with adaptation veterans across its two seasons, including Carrie’s Sissy Spacek, IT’s Bill Skarsgård and Chosen Jacobs, Silver Bullet’s Terry O’Quinn, The Mist’s Frances Conroy, Mr. Mercedes’ Ann Cusack, 11.22.63’s Sarah Gadon, and The Shawshank Redemption’s Tim Robbins. Not just a mixtape, it’s a mixtape that was delivered as a perfume-scented Valentine’s Day gift to Constant Readers.

It didn’t last long, with Hulu officially canceling the show in November 2020, but it’s amazing unto itself that Castle Rock exists, and my appreciation for it has inspired a different approach for this week’s Adapting Stephen King.

Lizzy Caplan as Annie Wilkes in Castle Rock

(Image credit: Hulu)

The History Of Stephen King’s Castle Rock

Castle Rock is notorious and beloved among Constant Readers, and in that light it’s funny to note that it was merely a secondary setting the first time Stephen King wrote about it. The small Maine town with a population of about 2,000 was introduced in 1979’s The Dead Zone as the local sheriff, George Bannerman, recruited the help of psychic Johnny Smith to hunt down a serial killer dubbed the Castle Rock Strangler. Smith is successful in the book, pointing the finger at Deputy Sheriff Frank Dodd, and then the protagonist moves on as the plot takes him to Ridgeway, New Hampshire.

Johnny Smith didn’t spend much time in Castle Rock, but Stephen King felt compelled to return. Two years after The Dead Zone, the author wrote Cujo, and the book provided readers with the first true dive into the town while further developing what would become a dark reputation. The personal coming-of-age novella “The Body,” featured in the 1982 omnibus Different Seasons further added to the continuity, and King’s brain went back over and over again throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s – with the continuity including The Dark Half, the novella “The Sun Dog” from the collection Four Past Midnight, and the short stories “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” “Gramma,” and “Nona.”

By 1991, however, Stephen King’s feelings toward Castle Rock changed. As I explained in my column about Fraser C. Heston’s Needful Things, the author got too comfortable, and he was concerned about the potential onset of “bloat.” With Needful Things, publicized as “The Last Castle Rock Story,” he planned to literally burn the place to the ground.

It didn’t take, however. In 1993, Stephen King was preparing the collection Nightmares And Dreamscapes and reworked the short story “It Grows On You” to serve as an epilogue to Needful Things, and he continued to reference Castle Rock in his stories. In 2009, King finally made a full return with the short story “Premium Harmony” (eventually included in 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams), and since then he has made frequent trips back in books including Elevation, and the Gwendy trilogy (co-written with Richard Chizmar).

From the local bar the Mellow Tiger, to Nan’s Luncheonette, to the seedy junk shop the Emporium Galorium, Stephen King holds the whole of Castle Rock in his imagination, and it’s a perpetual pleasure to visit… even with all of its dark history.

Jane Levy and Andre Holland in Castle Rock

(Image credit: Hulu)

How Castle Rock Adapts The Works Of Stephen King

Not limited to just the stories in the King canon that are set in the titular town, Castle Rock features familiar faces and familiar places from a great number of Stephen King novels and stories – though obviously some titles are given more prominence than others. The individual seasons use some books a great deal, take bits and pieces from others, and casually reference a lot.

The main plot of Castle Rock Season 1 is wholly original – with lawyer Henry Deaver (André Holland) returning to his hometown to represent a mysterious Kid (Bill Skarsgård) kept captive in a cage – but Shawshank Prison, a major setting for the show, is familiar to anyone who has read “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” or seen writer/director Frank Darabont’s beloved adaptation. The show also features Scott Glenn and Jeffrey Pierce as new big screen versions of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who was previously played by Michael Rooker in George A. Romero’s The Dark Half and by Ed Harris in Fraser C. Heston’s Needful Things.

Season 2 leans a bit more on Stephen King’s work, with half of the show’s main arc operating as an origin story for Annie Wilkes (Lizzie Caplan) and a prequel to Misery. Castle Rock invents a backstory that sees the mentally unwell nurse on the run from the police in her youth with her daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher) – who is eventually revealed to actually be her half-sister. Their nomadic lifestyle takes them to Castle Rock, Maine, and it’s geographically established that the town is right next to Jerusalem’s Lot a.k.a. the setting of Salem’s Lot.

There are no vampires on the show, but the horrible home known as Marsten House becomes a key setting. Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks) – the character from “The Body” and Needful Things – makes the address a base of operations when his body is possessed by a leader of the cult that founded Castle Rock and he works to bring back his flock.

Castle Rock Season 2 is additionally the first live-action work to partially adapt “The Sun Dog.” The key antagonist from that story, Pop Merrill (Tim Robbins), is a principal player in the plot, and, just like in the source material, he is a vicious businessman who owns the Emporium Galorium. Referring the source material, he’s introduced fixing a Polaroid camera, and even snaps off a photo, though we don’t see what’s printed (so we don’t know if there’s a dangerous dog just waiting to attack).

The Shining and The Dark Tower series are books that also have significant impact on the Hulu series – though to less of an extent than those mentioned above. In Season 1, Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand has psychic gifts that are akin to Danny Torrance’s shine, and while that word isn’t specifically used, Molly does notably try to dull her power by wearing dark sunglasses. Additionally, Molly’s realty company employs Diane “Jackie” Torrance, who identifies herself as Jack Torrance’s niece, at one point kills a man with an axe (to protect Henry), and ends Season 1 planning to make a trip to the Overlook Hotel.

There are a number of Dark Tower connections, but the biggest is the overarching plot of Season 1. It’s revealed that there is a cliff overlooking Castle Lake that emits an audible hum and functions as a doorway between different realities. This multiversal rift is called “The Schisma,” but Constant Readers will remember Roland Deschain’s word for it: a “Thinny.”

All of that is obviously a lot… and yet it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg thanks to a wide variety of nods and Easter eggs that can be found in Castle Rock’s 20 episode run. From talk of a notorious killer dog (Cujo), to a botched state execution (The Green Mile), to a red 1958 Plymouth Fury in Castle Rock’s 400th Anniversary Parade (Christine), to Molly Strand revealing that she lives in Frank Dodd’s old house (The Dead Zone), both direct references and allusions are everywhere.

Tim Robbins as Pop Merrill in Castle Rock

(Image credit: Hulu)

Is It Worthy Of The King?

I have some gripes with Castle Rock. I’m not a fan of Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot being turned into geographical neighbors (especially because it ends up creating a continuity error between Season 1 and Season 2), and I can’t honestly say that I recognize either Alan Pangborn or Pop Merrill from their on-the-page counterparts. Things like that bug me when I rewatch the show – but they are ultimately rendered as minor quibbles in the shadow of my appreciation for the series’ existence and philosophy.

Castle Rock is a tribute not only to the genius that is Stephen King, but the author’s special and monumental impact on popular culture. Carrie, The Shining, “The Body”/Stand By Me, Cujo and so many more are literary and cinematic touchstones, and Sam Shaw and Dusty Thomason use them as pillars for the foundation of a twisty, cool, and atmospheric streaming series. Its remarkable ability to capture the essence of King is strong enough to perfectly blend the established characters with the original ones, and while details from the books aren’t always faithfully translated to the screen in specific terms, the spirit of the source material is ubiquitous and constant.

If I personally had the ability to resurrect any cancelled Stephen King series, my first choice would be the 2006 anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, but Castle Rock would be my backup pick. There are enough King stories and books for the show to work with that it could go on for more than a decade without issue… and I’d also really love to get some closure regarding the true nature of Bill Skarsgård’s The Kid/Henry Deaver.

Joy (Elise Fisher) and friends in Castle Rock

(Image credit: Hulu)

How To Watch Castle Rock

Castle Rock was made as a Hulu original, but it’s not exclusively available on the streaming service – just like 11.22.63. You can be watching the show right now if you have a Hulu subscription, but there are other options. You can purchase full seasons or individual episodes digitally via Amazon (opens in new tab), Google Play, Apple (opens in new tab), and Vudu (opens in new tab). For those of you building the Ultimate Stephen King collection, Season 1 was given a 4K release (opens in new tab) in 2019, and Season 2 came out on Blu-ray (opens in new tab) in 2020.

Adapting Stephen King will be going back to the CinemaBlend Television section for next week’s feature, as it will be time to take a long look at Mr. Mercedes Season 2 – which is based on the 2016 novel End Of Watch. Look for it on the site Wednesday, and click through the banners below to discover all of my previous columns.

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Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.