Author Joe Hill’s third novel, NOS4A2, is the decades-spanning story of a battle of wills between a young woman named Vic McQueen and a supernatural being called Charlie Manx. Vic has psychic abilities that allow her to find lost things, while Manx is a psychic vampire who feeds off the children that he imprisons in a nightmarish netherworld known as Christmasland. Hill has also written a graphic novel called Wraith that acts as a prequel of sorts to the book.
Almost since he broke out in the publishing world with his first collection, 2005’s 20th Century Ghosts, Hill’s stories have attracted the interest of filmmakers and producers. While it didn’t hurt that his dad was Stephen King, Hill had already established himself as a top horror and dark fantasy writer before his family background came to light. His first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, was snapped up by Warner Bros. Pictures six months before it was published (although it’s been trapped in development hell for a while), and his second novel, Horns, was made into a 2014 film starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe.
But NOS4A2 is the first of his books to get adapted on a larger scale, as a 10-episode series for AMC, home of The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and so many others. Showrunner Jami O’Brien has cast Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Manx and Australian actress Ashleigh Cummings as Vic, while the first two episodes are directed by Kari Skogland, whose next project is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for Marvel and Disney+.
In addition to NOS4A2 premiering this weekend, Hill himself has worked on a screenplay for his fourth novel, The Fireman, and will finally see an adaptation of his award-winning comic book series, Locke & Key, emerge on Netflix (with Lost’s Carlton Cuse as showrunner) after two previous attempts at Fox and Hulu didn’t make it. Den of Geek spoke about all this and more with Hill via phone earlier this week.
Den of Geek: When you write, do you see things in, for lack of a better word, cinematic terms?
Joe Hill: Yeah, I mean, I do think that the stories have a little bit of a televisual sort of feel to them. And that that might be one of the reasons why they catch attention from film and TV people. You also gotta remember that I was a comic writer before I was a novelist. And so the idea of trying to find that big, fat, juicy high concept and then present it in a way that’s pacey and visually striking, sort of goes back to my roots in the comic business.
People who buy comics, buy comics to look, not to read. And they want something unbelievable in every issue, that’s like this exciting concept to sort of run through their imagination for a little while. And so that carried over into the short stories and novels, and might be some of the reason why producers or whatever look at the stories and say, “Oh, this could be fun if we put it on a screen.”
When you see the adaptation coming to fruition, whether you’re on the set or being shown footage, is there sort of a moment of adjustment, where make the leap from what you see in your head to what they’re putting on the screen?
I’ve had it sort of both ways. When I walked on the set of NOS4A2, they took me out to see the covered bridge — the heroine, Vic McQueen, she has this supernatural power to create this impossible bridge that crosses the distance between lost and found. She can ride across this bridge, and whatever she’s looking for is always on the other side, whether it’s a lost bracelet or a missing child. That bridge was a crucial image for me when I began writing the book. The whole book sort of hung on the idea of this bridge. I based it on a covered bridge that actually crossed the Penobscot River in Bangor, Maine, and it was this decrepit, frightening little covered bridge. My friends and I used to dare each other to ride our bicycles across it. It was so rickety it shook, or seemed to shake, as you were riding across it, and you could see through the gaps between the floorboards to the Penobscot River rushing below.
When I got to the set of NOS4A2, and I saw the bridge, I had this startling moment when I kind of felt like I was stepping into one of my own memories. It also felt a little like I was stepping into the place in the book. So in that sense, there was this thing that they had created for the TV show that perfectly matched what I had conceived. And so that was great. When they cast a show, you know, they may go in unexpected directions. But that doesn’t bother me. I always think that’s fun. I’m always interested to see what the creators will say, who they’ll settle on to execute to a certain role, to inhabit a certain character. You hope that they will make fresh, inventive choices. That’s where a lot of the fun is.
How involved were you overall in the show?
At this point, it’s almost two years ago that I first saw Jami O’Brien’s terrific script for the first episode. And I just thought it was a real emotional grindhouse of a piece of work, and that she really nailed it, she captured so much of Vic McQueen’s raw courage, and her compassion for other people, and her questing imagination. And I loved her presentation of Charlie Manx, his old-fashioned wit and his archaic and sort of savage morality, and his rationalizations for some of his really terrible acts. I just felt almost from the first pages that I was in really safe hands.
So I didn’t get underfoot too much. Jami and I talked a lot about voice. When I write a book, or when I write a short story, the thing that I care most about is accurately capturing the way a character talks because I feel like if you can figure out how a character talks, you can figure out everything else you need to know about them. And so we would talk about, how does Charlie Manx speak to other people?
I felt like, you want to find those moments when a character’s way of expressing themselves perfectly captures who they are as a person. So we talked about voice a little bit. But mostly I tried to stay out of her way. She had it under control.
In the end, whether you’re watching an adaptation of your own work or someone else’s, is it ultimately about capturing the tone and flavor and the broad structure of the story, than say, the minute details of the plot and every single character?
It’s interesting. I did some work on The Fireman for Fox, which they’re looking at as a film. The Fireman, briefly, is a story about civilization collapsing in the face of a plague that kills people by way of spontaneous combustion. And in the center of the book, the heroine takes refuge in a place called Camp Wyndham, where we see sort of the best of what humans can do when they come together as a community. But we also see the worst of how a community can behave. We see how a community can be turned into a mob and made to hate and destroy anyone who is outside the cult.
In the book, that section takes about 450 pages. So when I worked on the script, I think one of the big puzzles to solve was, what does the 35 page version of that look like? Because it can’t be the same. You want to somehow capture all those things, but you have to do the thumbnail sketch of it. Because in a movie, you just don’t have the real estate for 450 pages of plots and subplots and suspicions and a dozen different characters. You can’t have a dozen characters, because we don’t have time to get to know all of them in just a half an hour, 45 minutes, in the middle section of a film. What you can have is maybe four characters or five at most. And you have to play their moments very carefully to make sure that you tell the story in a zippy, fun, exciting way that works on the screen.
This is all a very long way of saying, I don’t think any one element of plot matters that much. What really matters is capturing the true essence of the characters and then presenting the story in the most suspenseful, engaging and emotionally satisfying way as you can. Even if that diverges pretty radically in places from what was in the book.
We’re also in a time now where we have all these options, with cable and streaming, to tell really expansive stories. But this first season of NOS4A2 tackles roughly the first half of the book.
A little less than the first half. When Jami read the book, she sort of correctly saw that there was a breakpoint where the story shifts into a different gear. Her feeling was, really, in some ways, NOS4A2 is two or maybe three stories that could be full seasons. She found one of these breakpoints and so yeah, season one is a totally self-contained, totally satisfying story. But it is not the full book.
Do you think there’s enough material that could be expanded on if the show kept going past the book?
Yeah, the world of Charlie Manx and Vic McQueen is pretty large, and it’s full of people with these reality-bending gifts. Some of them are good, like Maggie Leigh, and some of them are as bad, or worse, than Charlie Manx. So there’s a lot to explore there. NOS4A2‘s also a long book that takes place over, I want to say, a decade and a half, or two decades, something like that. It’s got a fairly epic scope to it. But then there’s also the graphic novel, called Wraith, which tells a whole different story set in the world of Christmasland, which is this unsettling, nightmarish, fantasyland that Charlie leaves children in.
So the story in Wraith is almost like its own sort of three-episode standalone thing right there if AMC wanted to tell it. Wraith also tells a lot of Charlie’s backstory, and how he became the man he is. And I think that’s kind of interesting as well. Some of that is there in the first season, but there’s a lot more of it to explore.
Let’s talk quickly about some other projects in the time we have left. You mentioned The Fireman, so Fox is still developing that as a feature film.
Yep. Still looking pretty good, even with Disney, the House of Mouse, having just snapped up Fox. I still think we got a shot.
You have a short story collection coming out this fall called Full Throttle. Is there also a new novel in the works?
I got about 150 pages of something.
And finally, Locke & Key is the adaptation that refuses to die. Netflix is producing it after two previous tries at other outlets.
It’s finally going to happen. Netflix has got a full series order in, I’ve already seen the first four episodes, and I think they’re knocking it out of the park. It looks great. Carlton Cuse is producing it, and I would never, ever bet against that guy. He’s got a terrific sense of pace and he really knows how to tell a story. So I’m excited about how people are going to respond to it. I think they’re going to like it.
NOS4A2 premieres this Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye