Watching a book: How The Outsider nails the Stephen King adaptation game

On the heels of the arrival of The Outsider on NEON, Jean Sergent explores how screen adaptations of Stephen King’s work are able to take on a life of their own. 

Stephen King, the 72 year old horror author from Portland, has a better work ethic than you or I and that’s just science. The man has published over 60 novels, 200-plus short stories, has worked under three additional pen names, and is sitting on crates of unpublished and uncollected work – the likes of which we’ll never see, because Stephen King will probably never die. That’s not science, but it is thematically relevant to his oeuvre.

It’s not just the sheer quantity of content that old mate produces, it’s the quality as well. Not only is his readership enormous and constantly growing as Gen X parents start sneaking copies of The Shining onto their teenage children’s bookshelves, but his viewership is even more vast. King’s novels and short stories have been transformed into cinema and television since director Brian Da Palma kicked it off with the brilliant Carrie in 1976. 

Not all King adaptations are created equal. Yet in the 46 years between Carrie and the new HBO limited series The Outsider which is streaming on Neon, some adaptations – such as Carrie, Misery, The Shining (Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation, not the 1997 mini-series) – have been sublime works of art in their own right. There’s so much available material from the King bibliography that filmmakers and television executives can’t help but keep returning to it, like prospectors to a goldfield. 

The Outsider, the show, comes hot on the heels of the 2018 publication of the original novel. As a novel and as a TV series, The Outsider blends classic King motifs of supernatural forces and the mundanities of suburbia. The story revolves around the deaths of children, and taps into a specific part of the American psyche that has ripples around the world – the fear that our kids are not safe in our communities. King is also dealing with the contentious issue of false convictions and imprisonments, which resonates in an era where true crime is at peak popularity. 

Ben Mendehlson plays Detective Ralph Anderson in The Outsider.

The Outsider sees the return of a character from King’s Bill Hodges trilogy: Holly Gibney. Holly is a private investigator who stands out from other characters in her willingness to accept the inexplicable; she embodies the rules of King’s worlds that the audience learns to accept. Holly Gibney is both investigator and audience proxy, navigating those rules on our behalf. 

Developing a returning character is a terrific hook for a writer that expands the possibilities of the adaptation of their work. A private eye popping up in disconnected stories gives the audience a throughline. Holly Gibney is a Miss Marple or a Dr Gideon Fell – an investigator who goes to the cases – rather than a Sherlock Holmes, to whom the cases come.

In the HBO adaptation, Holly Gibney is played with quiet precision by the phenomenal Cynthia Erivo. Casting an African American actress in this role isn’t in itself a modernising influence, except that her presence throws into stark relief the treatment of and assumptions made about black people in white colonialist society. The other black characters in The Outsider are either very old, very young, or very much in prison. King navigates black representation in his novels in quite a tense way, although it usually succeeds in being a commentary on racist white society.

Successful adaptations particularly depend on how closely the film or television programme sticks to the original plot of the book. While a film can condense a storyline or work from a more thematic interpretation, the length of a limited series means there is an expectation that more details will make the leap from page to screen. To return to The Shining as an example, the 1997 series was much more faithful to King’s novel than the 1980 film, but the difference in narrative impact was palpable. 

An adaptation can exist in the world in its own right, and not take away from the longer story or richer narrative of the novel. However, the brooding intensity of The Outsider certainly feels like you’re watching the book, and that’s a good thing. It has a haunting, meditative quality that confuses and thrills as you navigate the world with the characters. 

Stephen King will never die, which means we have much more to look forward to when it comes to innovations in adapting his novels. With each new novel comes the possibility of multiple ways to enjoy the story, each complementary and satisfying on their own. With six other confirmed adaptations in pre-production, we won’t have to wait long.

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