Three things in life are certain: death, taxes and Stephen King adaptations. The 72-year-old author has been having his work adapted for both the big and small screens pretty consistently since the 1970s, with plenty of hits and misses along the way. 1983’s The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken? Pretty good. 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, directed by King himself? Godawful. 1990’s Misery, starring Kathy Bates as deranged superfan Annie Wilkes? So fun! 2003’s Dreamcatcher, directed by Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan? Abysmal.
And on and on. You might not like every Stephen King adaptation out there, but you have to agree that there are a lot of them. And these past handful of years have seen another explosion, a Stephen Kingaissance, if you will. The two IT movies were huge hits. Gerald’s Game was excellently reviewed. Hulu’s Castle Rock is an entire show devoted to King’s mythology, and Doctor Sleep is still making waves. Sure, that Dark Tower movie in 2017 was dire, but bad King adaptations are part of the game.
And that brings us to The Outsider, HBO’s 10-episode adaptation of King’s 2018 novel of the same name. I’ve been watching since the beginning, and it is so, so good.
The Outsider is set in a small Georgia town (changed from Oklahoma in the book for some reason). One day, a young boy is found brutally murdered, and all signs point to teacher and little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) being the culprit.
But immediately, there are signs that something more is going on. Terry was almost too conspicuous after doing the deed, and soon it becomes clear that there’s another party involved, and it may not be, strictly speaking, human.
Enter the Outsider — el Cuco — a perpetually hooded figure the show has done an excellent job of maintaining an air of mystery around even as we learn more details about its motives and abilities. As the show goes on, more and more people come around to the idea that this thing exists, starting with private investigator Holly Gibney, played with almost disarming sincerity by Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo. Also slowly opening his eyes is Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), a police detective who is understandably reluctant to accept the reality of a shape-shifting cryptid who prays on human pain.
Anderson’s slow journey to true believer status has been one of the best things about the show, and it’s one enhanced by changes writer Richard Price made to the source material. In the series, Anderson and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) have lost a son, Derek. We see some flashbacks to their fractured lives right after his death, and it’s clear that Ralph has only managed to return to equilibrium by leaning on the solid true things in his life: that crimes can be solved, that murderers can be caught, that “dumb cop shit” like evidence and witnesses matter.
All of this falls apart in the face of el Cuco, something that can’t be rationally explained. The material with Ralph’s son gives his struggle to believe a resonance and dimension it didn’t have in the book, where Derek is just away at summer camp during the events of the story.
Price and his team find lots of great ways to expand the story so it comfortably fills out 10 episodes, like introducing the character of Andy (Derek Cecil), a security guard and former cop who befriends Holly during her investigation. From the start, Holly is a difficult character to connect to; the show portrays her as a kind of savant, someone with almost preternatural insight into her surroundings but who has trouble with the more mundane talks of daily life. Giving her a sounding board in Andy, with whom she’s now in a sweetly developing romantic relationship, gives us more insight into her. I am legitimately scared for both of them going into this Sunday’s finale, when the team will face down el Cuco (hopefully) once and for all.
In fact, I’m afraid for pretty much everyone at the cave. Anderson and Erivo are at the head of this cast, but pretty much all of the side characters have developed into believable people, from Terry Maitland’s grief-stricken wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) to early Cuco believer Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez) to attorney Howard Salomon (Bill Camp), who has an even harder time wrapping his head around the idea of the Outsider than Ralph. Quietly, slowly, The Outsider has built up a little family of monster hunters. There are no spare characters on this show. Everyone has their place, and everyone is at risk.
Another great change that Price and company make to the book is to introduce the supernatural element into the story early, in the first episode, when we see the Outsider hanging out around the Maitland household with his skin-crawling melting face. On the page, it takes much longer for anyone — including the readers — to realize that something truly horrific is happening, but this is a Stephen King story, so why hold back the other shoe? Pulling back the curtain on el Cuco relatively early gives the show more time to focus on characters coming to grips with the impossible, which is where the real meat of the show is.
There are a lot of Stephen King adaptations out there, and the best — like The Outsider — feel free to take liberties with King’s text. Some of the worst, like the 1997 miniseries version of The Shining written by King himself, treat the source material as sacred. Assuming The Outsider sticks the landing, I’d say it has the chance of being the best Stephen King adaptation since Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining, a movie that King himself famously dislikes but which had the courage to put its own spin on the base story, with spectacular results. Whatever King’s feelings about Kubrick’s film, it’s still the first thing a lot of people think of when they picture a Stephen King movie. It’s that iconic, and that good.
Credit also has to be given to the show’s directing team, who have all diligent in setting a mood of ever-growing dread. All the pieces are coming together. Just one left, and we could have a masterpiece on our hands.