Stephen King’s work should be a natural fit for modern television. Virtually unlimited time allows for every nuance of his novels to be carefully expressed, and gone are the small screen’s former content restrictions, which gave R-rated movies the edge back when broadcast TV was the only option.
But even so, there is still no guarantee a project will succeed with King’s name on it. Just this year, “The Mist” premiered on SyFy and was canceled after one critically-derided season, while “It” has become America’s highest-grossing horror film of all time. There’s no one way to adapt Stephen King. There’s just a right way and a wrong way.
“Stephen’s very unobtrusive,” director Jack Bender said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “When he trusts somebody, [he] lets them take his project. I know he’s had many projects that he wasn’t satisfied with and many that he was.”
Bender is working on a project that seems to have gotten it right. Not only is the Audience Network original series “Mr. Mercedes” receiving strong reviews, but King himself issued his approval clearly and definitively.
“Contractually, [King] wasn’t necessarily going to be an executive producer on this until he [saw it].” Bender said. “He has the right to be [an EP] or not be [an EP], and when he saw the pilot, he said, ‘My God.’ He loved it from the beginning and fell in love with it more and more with each episode. He said, ‘Can I be an executive producer? I love this.’ And we said, ‘What do you mean, ‘Can you? Of course!'”
So what’s the trick? How did Bender, writers David E. Kelly and Dennis Lehane, along with stars Brendan Gleeson and Mary-Louise Parker, succeed where so many others have failed? Fittingly, King’s mystery remains somewhat indefinable, but three of his collaborators did their best to explain how “Mr. Mercedes” earned the only stamp of approval that matters: King’s.
1. Find the Monster Inside, Not the Monsters Outside
While working on “Lost,” Bender struck up a friendship with King that continued during his time on “Under the Dome.” Though they had discussed finding another project together after the CBS drama ended, “Mr. Mercedes” popped up out of the blue.
“One day in the mail, much to my surprise, came this very thick package which was this unpublished Stephen King book called ‘Mr. Mercedes,'” Bender said.
Bender “read it and loved it,” particularly as a project to adapt into a TV show.
“What I loved about it for a series was that Stephen was writing about the monster inside the people, not the monster outside the people,” Bender said. “Even though the plot is the obstacle course that all the characters have to live or die through, and that’s what drives the story, it’s really a character piece. And Stephen writes such exceptionally deep, quirky, funny, sick, human characters that I just wanted to spend time with those people.”
He wasn’t alone. Bender’s first thought to play the lead role of retired police detective Bill Hodges was Brendan Gleeson. Despite first being told “Brendan doesn’t do series,” the producers persisted, and King’s work was the difference maker — even though the three-time Golden Globe nominee isn’t a King devotee by any means.
“I went backwards into it,” Gleeson said. “The script was really good, [then] I read the book, obviously, and then I read the other two books. It was after I read the third book that I said, ‘Okay, this is something that I really want to do.’ The third book is really good.”
“I’m not a great man for the supernatural, horror-type stuff; it’s not a genre that I’m drawn to particularly,” Gleeson said.
Co-star Mary-Louise Parker isn’t a die-hard fan, either.
“I have such respect for Stephen King,” Parker said. “He is the master of his genre. He really is. I don’t generally read horror or see horror movies. Normally, I wouldn’t even be able to finish a script like that because I can’t get it out of my head. [But] for some reason, there’s something in the way that he constructs things that hooks you. He disturbs you just enough so that you are intrigued without feeling violated.”
2. Strike the Right Tone
That balance between disturbed and violated is essential to capturing the allure of King’s novels. What is left to the imagination on the page has to shown on screen — or at least visually implied — and that can be a big part of the challenge in adapting King’s work.
“I knew I wanted to find a look and a tone for the show that was distinctive but not overwhelmingly stylized,” Bender said. “[I didn’t want] to overwhelm the characters because I knew I wanted this to be a real; a true look at these people.”