How Castle Rock Will Expand the Stephen King Universe

Stephen King's twisted town of horrors has come to life as a TV series on Hulu's Castle Rock.

The name Castle Rock can refer to many things: Towns in the states of Colorado and Washington. The moniker of a production company founded in 1987 by filmmaker Rob Reiner. Even the name of a mountain fort in the classic novel Lord of the Flies. To fans of Stephen King, Castle Rock is the fictional Maine town that has been the setting of a number of the writer’s novels and short stories, including The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, “The Body,” “The Sun Dog,” and many others, not to mention countless references in his other tales. It’s a small town, much like other villages in King’s home state of Maine, but it’s a place where awful things seem to happen on a regular basis, not all of them easily explained by the laws of man or nature. 

Castle Rock is now also the setting of a new TV series by the same name, which debuts July 25 on Hulu. Created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan) and produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, the show will tell an original story with new characters over its initial 10-episode season, but will also “brush up against” characters and events drawn from King canon. 

Shaw recalls that he and Thomason initially conceived of a Castle Rock-type show that was not set in Castle Rock, since they did not at the time have the rights. “At some point recently, I dug up this old email where I’m essentially laying out the parameters of the pitch for Castle Rock, always assuming that never in our wildest imaginations would we get the actual keys to the city and be able to set this show in the actual world of Stephen King,” he says. “Amazingly, here we are, and it’s sort of a dream as a writer to be able to play in that sandbox.”

The show stars Andre Holland (American Horror Story: Roanoke) as Henry Deaver, a death row attorney who grew up in Castle Rock. Henry left the town years ago, after a mysterious, unexplained incident when he was a child in which he went missing for days while his father turned up dead. In the show’s pilot, Henry returns to the town after receiving a strange, cryptic summons that has something to do with a feral, unidentified inmate (Bill Skarsgård) who is discovered in a cage deep within the bowels of Shawshank Penitentiary. 

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Of course, Shawshank is well-known not just to diehard King fans but to the general public, thanks to The Shawshank Redemption, the beloved 1994 film based on King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (the prison has cameoed in other King works as well). But Shaw is quick to stress that, despite the instant recognition of that setting, he and Thomason have developed a wholly new narrative for their show. 

“I can imagine a Stephen King show that could feel a lot like ‘The Avengers of Stephen King’ — it’s Carrie, Danny Torrance, and Cujo and they’re riding around in Christine fighting demons,” Shaw says. “But what felt really exciting to us is adapting Stephen King as a genre, and the entirety of the Stephen King library rather than any one work. We were both big fans of [the TV show] Fargo and thought the approach that Fargo takes to the library of the Coen brothers is so fascinating and a brilliant way of re-interpreting that material.”

Thomason takes the Fargo analogy a step further, suggesting that, if Castle Rock runs for more than one season, it will start fresh each year with a new story and characters. “The basic idea is that it is an anthology in the sense that we’re going to tell a new story that gives you a different lens into Castle Rock and into Stephen King each season,” he elaborates. “Each story will stand alone, but that we will be circling back to characters whose stories intersect with the new stories.”

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Shaw says that Castle Rock will feature a plethora of Easter eggs for King’s constant readers. “There are people who will recognize Shawshank or who may prick up their ears when they hear a dog barking on our show,” he says. “And there are people who may have read Needful Things so they’ll know who Alan Pangborn is (Castle Rock’s former sheriff, played in the series by Scott Glenn). Then there are people who will find a whole bunch of really arcane, super-insidery Easter eggs and cross-references and setups and payoffs that we’ve spring-loaded into the storytelling that I hope will reward the PhD-level Stephen King fans as well.”

There are also references to the King universe built into the casting. Sissy Spacek, who plays Henry’s adoptive mother in the show, is of course the grande dame of King movies for her unforgettable portrayal of the title role in Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie, the very first King-based film. Meanwhile, actress Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), who plays real estate agent Molly Strand on the series, starred in the 2002 King-scripted original miniseries Rose Red

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A self-described King “super fan,” Lynskey says about Castle Rock, “To be honest with you, when I got the pilot, just the title was so intriguing I got a little bit of chills through my body. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ But because I am such a fan of his work, adaptations are always terrifying. It’s always scary because you’re like, ‘Oh God, I hope that people get it right.’ So there is kind of an amazing sense of freedom to have it be inspired by him and sit in this town that I’m so familiar with, but not have to be beholden to getting a story right or making fans feel like we did something the right way.”

And then there is Bill Skarsgård, the Swedish-born actor who terrified millions around the world last fall as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the malevolent monster from the wildly successful film version of King’s epic novel It. Thomason acknowledges the marquee value of having both Skarsgård and Spacek appear on Castle Rock: “We felt grateful, not only because they occupy these special places in the King canon now, but also because they’re both just such phenomenal actors.”

Skarsgård himself admits that, while he was familiar with the town of Castle Rock’s standing in the King canon, he was at first hesitant about taking the job after completing It. “I wasn’t sure what the show was, really,” he says on the phone from Sweden. “Going into it, I was a little bit skeptical. But as soon as I read the script, and I met with Sam and Dusty, I realized this is a completely original story set in the universe that Stephen King created. My character in this story is something completely separate from It or Pennywise or a lot of Stephen King’s books.” 

Skarsgård admits that, due to the secrecy surrounding the show even during production, he didn’t get a full grasp of his eerie character until the show was well into shooting. “He’s discovered in the first episode and nobody knows sort of how he ended up in that cage, how long he’s been there, and part of the big mystery throughout the season is finding out how he got there, who he is, and what he’s done,” he says. “I didn’t know really where the show was going up until we had shot three or four episodes already.”

Although Lynskey appears briefly in the pilot, she also says that it will take a few episodes before viewers really get to know her character. “Episode three is a big Molly episode and you learn a lot about her history, which is pretty intense,” says Lynskey. “She’s a real estate agent trying to work in a town where nobody wants to move, which is such a strange, self-defeating job to put herself in. She has a sensitivity that I don’t know if I’m allowed to go into, a condition which is the number one thing that made me want to play her. It was really fascinating to me. She also has a kind of terrible coping mechanism to try and deal with that condition.”

Jane Levy (Don’t Breathe), doesn’t turn up in the first episode but describes her character, Jackie, as the “self-appointed historian of Castle Rock.” 

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“She loves Castle Rock,” Levy explains. “She’s a bit younger than the regulars you get to know in Castle Rock and I think that she’s death-obsessed. She has great morbid curiosity and she grew up learning all the stuff about this town that she’s from, but nothing exciting has happened in her life so far, until the return of Henry and Bill Skarsgård’s character. It’s the beginning of the best thing that’s ever happened to her, basically.”

It’s true that King, although perennially popular on bookshelves, seems to be going through a renaissance on both the big and small screens lately, giving Castle Rock the mandate of standing out from the sizable pack of King adaptations either already out in the world or on their way. “I think that it has really good writing,” says Levy when asked what could give Castle Rock an edge in the vast content landscape. “It’s maybe a little bit smarter than some of the other horror out there because it has really rich characters and storylines.” 

Shaw says a small town where everyone knows each other, with the place infested with secrets — some pretty nasty ones, in this case — is a template that is never short of storytelling possibilities. “I’ve always loved geography and place in fiction and in pop culture,” he says. “There is no literature of small towns or small suburbia that I don’t love, from Updike to Blue Velvet to Desperate Housewives. There’s something about the contradictions of a sense of order and community at battle with all of these subterranean human impulses and drives and transgressive behavior and darkness and crime. Something about that head-on collision is really, really exciting to me.”

For Thomason, the key to adapting King’s work comes down to the characters. “For us, Stephen King is as much a deep character writer as a horror writer,” he offers. “This isn’t just a horror show. This is a show that has the breadth of all of Stephen King’s work, from ‘The Body’ all the way to It… always with the undercurrent of character that drives so much of his work. When you come for the horror, you stay for the character. And that’s what we hope to do in Castle Rock.”