“There’s Always a Reasonable Explanation”
This Sunday, January 12th, HBO premieres the first two episodes of their 10-episode adaptation of The Outsider. Is it good? Absolutely. One of the best. Before I get into that, let me take a little step back.
With the advent of streaming services, the miniseries adaptation of novels has transformed into something different. Once upon a time, a book was granted four, six or eight commercial-interrupted hours for a television adaptation. Although it appeared over four nights, with a nominal two hours per installment, the 1994 adaptation of The Stand clocks in at just over six hours once all the ads are removed.
These days, we get roughly eight to ten solid hours for a novel adaptation, starting with 11/22/63 (Hulu) in 2016. Since then, we’ve had three 10-episode seasons adapting the Mr. Mercedes trilogy (Audience), and in the near future we’ll get similar-length versions of The Stand (CBS All Access) and Lisey’s Story (Apple TV+). I’m not including in this discussion “inspired-by” series, such as Haven, The Mist or Castle Rock, as well as several others that have been announced—those that take little bits of something from a King work and run wild with it for multiple seasons. I’m talking about straight adaptations of King novels.
This format also brings back serialized storytelling. Sure, you can wait until all the episodes are available and binge your way through them, but most people won’t be able to wait that long, which means you’ll get an hour a week for two months or so.
Having that many hours to adapt a book gives the writers the opportunity to explore a novel to its corners. It’s no longer necessary to combine characters or condense scenes, or to create periodic—and often artificial—suspense points leading up to commercials (although Hulu still does this because of its availability in commercial-supported and commercial-free formats).
It also gives the writers room to be creative on their own. In 11/22/63, for example, they solved the problem of having a main character who was mostly alone for most of the novel by promoting a minor character into a sounding board. The writers on Mr. Mercedes went even farther, concocting entire storylines and adding numerous characters that didn’t appear in the books.
All this is preamble! Getting back to The Outsider: I’ve seen the first six episodes (don’t worry—no spoilers!) and I have to say that it is hands-down the most faithful adaptation of a King novel in recent memory. Maybe ever. The production values are typically high, as one would expect from HBO, and the cast is uniformly excellent, but there’s more to it than that.
Watching The Outsider, I had the strange sense that someone had been spying inside my head. Things appear on the screen exactly as I imagined them when I was reading the novel. It’s eerie. In large part, of course, this is due to the fact that King is such a cinematically descriptive writer. However, not everyone who adapts one of his novels hews so closely to what King describes.
There are changes, of course, and some additions to the plot, but for the most part this is The Outsider as King wrote it. Events may be assembled in a slightly different order for dramatic effect, but they’re all there.
Let’s start with the cast. You’re going to see a lot of familiar faces, as well as impressive newcomers. The first two episodes focus on Terry Maitland, played by Jason Bateman (Ozarks), who also directs the two parts. He’s as everyman as you can get, but his world is turned upside and he and his wife (Julianne Nicholson—Storm of the Century) and their two young daughters are caught in an uncomfortable spotlight after an unspeakable crime rocks a small town.
The lead, though, is Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), who brings to life Detective Ralph Anderson (who will also appear in the forthcoming novella “If It Bleeds”). Anderson is the “man of science” in this story about faith vs. reason. The writers have given him an extra reason to be melancholy in this version of the story, although I won’t spoil that surprise. It’s an interesting choice, though, and an effective one that amplifies the emotion in certain scenes. His wife Jeannie is played by Mare Winningham, whose main association with King is as the narrator of audiobooks, including Lisey’s Story and “The Gingerbread Girl.” Jeannie Anderson is a little more willing to embrace the inexplicable, which causes understandable tension in their relationship.
One revelation is Marc Menchaca as Deputy Jack Hoskins, the lazy cop who gets tangled up in the Outsider’s net. In the book, Hoskins is pretty much an asshole through and through, but here he is given a little more pathos. You’ll feel sorry for his predicament even as you shake your head at his brutish behavior.
The most interesting casting is Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) as Holly Gibney, who is introduced in the series earlier than in the book and her presence is made known in the trailer, so I’m not giving anything away by telling you her character is in it. People who’ve been watching Mr. Mercedes will associate Holly with Justine Lupe. Both actors are nearly fifteen years younger than the version in King’s novels, who is forty-five when we first meet her in Mr. Mercedes, frumpy, scrawny, diffident and compulsive.
The two actresses have come up with different ways of depicting her quirky character. In this HBO series, Holly is definitely on the autism spectrum, but she also has savant qualities. She can, for example, estimate the height of a building to the nearest inch by glancing at it, but she doesn’t know how tall she is herself. Her problems in relating to other people are less debilitating but nonetheless present, and she is, for the most part, acutely aware of them. She knows when people are doing things to make her feel more comfortable, and she is grateful for that effort. She spends a lot of the story (in the first six episodes, at least) by herself, conducting her independent investigation and following clues that lead down a rabbit hole of seemingly impossible proportions.
This is probably due to the nature of intellectual property rights, but this Holly has a different background in The Outsider. No mention is made of Bill Hodges or her experiences with Brady Hartsfield, presumably because the cinematic rights to those characters are owned by the group adapting Mr. Mercedes. The main commonality with other versions of the character is that Holly is a true believer. She takes the Holmesian fallacy to an extreme: she isn’t willing to eliminate the seemingly impossible when trying to get to the truth.
The series is set in a small town in Georgia, and one quickly gets the sense of community. Everyone knows everyone else. In particular, everyone knows Terry Maitland, which makes the evidence against him particularly damning. No one has to identify him from a lineup of strangers. He’s so well known even the young kids can identify him by name.
The adaptation makes effective use of silence. Sometimes we see people talking without hearing their words. We don’t always need them—we understand what’s being said and we become more involved when we feel like we’re spying on a private exchange. The show also occasionally presents new scenes and characters without explanation or context, a kind of cinematic foreshadowing that can be disorienting until the pieces fall into place. It’s not a something you’d want to watch without paying full attention.
The interesting aspect of the story—both in the novel and here—is that it is a supernatural thriller told from the point of view of disbelief. This is the way you or I would react given the sudden interjection of something unbelievable into our lives. In many stories of this sort, the main characters come to accept the supernatural element far too quickly. Ralph Anderson is steadfast in his disbelief, even as the evidence builds. He knows how the world works, and it will be a challenge to his existence to have to embrace the sorts of things Holly wants him to believe. In fact, it his absolute belief in the credible world that makes The Outsider particularly gripping.
The story is also about how a serious crime—particularly a murder—infects the lives of everyone involved. This includes the family members of the victim, the family members of the accused (whether justly or unjustly), the people who investigate the crime and their family members as well. We all know, in the abstract sense, at least, how devastating it must be to be the parent of a school shooter or the offspring of a serial killer. The Outsider likes to linger on these victims—it feeds on their grief.
I highly recommend getting on board with The Outsider when it launches this weekend. You won’t be disappointed. This is the kind of adaptation fans are always clamoring for.
What does King think of the adaptation?
HBO’s adaptation of THE OUTSIDER blew my mind. It’s the perfect winter’s tale. Next month. Be there.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) December 22, 2019
I often end my previews or reviews with a commentary on Easter Eggs but, I have to say, I am growing less enchanted with their overwhelming prevalence in some adaptations. I was happy to discover that The Outsider eschews them completely. The closest thing to a cameo is a guy who looks a bit like Harlan Coben who appears in a scene that featured Coben in the novel. Don’t expect to see the number 19 or characters named Torrance or Saint Bernards or Plymouth Furies. This was true of the novel as well, which plays it straight without winks or nods. I liked that a lot.