JJ Abrams is behind this revamp of the Stephen King multi-verse, but don’t let that put you off; for once, we’re talking about stories with a beginning, a middle, and, controversially for Abrams, an end. King himself has an executive producer credit here, and is presumably right behind the imaginative re-deployment of familiar characters and settings featured here.
As the title suggests, Castle Rock itself is one of the Maine attractions; when King’s purple-patch from the mid seventies to the mid nineties is analysed, it’s remarkable how thoroughly he explored this American backwater. King had a gift for horror, for sure, but he also had a gift for padding, or at least creating enough of a floor-show to distract while the monsters are kept off-stage. In novels like Salem’s Lot or Needful Things, it’s the scope of events, the variety of characters, and the compelling soap-opera interactions that keep one reading until the gruesome finales. King’s work was ideal fodder for tv mini-series (Salem’s Lot, The Stand) but US tv restrictions muffled the violent shocks that King’s prose admirably conveyed.
Castle Rock, the series, plays the hits, for sure, but the notes are not quite in the same order, and that elevates the series beyond pastiche or imitation. We return with Tim Robbins to the Shawshank jail, but his character has a different motivation. Sissy Spacek returns too, but her character is very different from her iconic Carrie. And Bill Skarsgard returns, but shorn of the make-up of Pennywise, as a young boy kept in a cage by the prison-warder of Shawshank, and who provides the key to series one and two. The first series of Castle Rock is something of a slow burn, but things jump up a notch with series two, which focuses on an uprising in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, and also brings back Misery’s Annie Wilkes, superbly played by Lizzy Caplan.
Castle Rock draws on King’s writing, but not slavishly, and that’s a good thing; watching it reminds you what was great about King’s writing, but translates it successfully and without compromise to television. There’s no way such dark themes and apocalyptic visions would have been made for television in another era; for fans and casual views alike, Castle Rock nails the Stephen King style better than It, Pet Sematary or various other King revivals.