by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 24, 2020

A genuinely great Stephen King adaptation is a tricky thing to pull off. A would-be adapter is generally obliged to preserve the elements that have made King the long-reigning master of American pop horror: colorful but authentic characters, heightened yet relatable situations, and a facility for distilling universal anxieties into vivid, pulp-gothic premises. Faithful translation of the writer’s prose into a cinematic form will only take a feature film or television series so far, however. For evidence, look no further than King’s own adaptation of The Shining for a 1997 ABC miniseries, a cheesy, literal-minded interpretation that was swiftly forgotten. There’s no magic recipe for translating the author’s work, and memorable King-derived cinema has been crafted in both the auteurist and crowd-pleasing varieties – see, for example, Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), and The Dead Zone (1983) for the former, and Stand by Me (1986), Misery (1990), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) for the latter. That said, slavish reverence is rarely a part of the formula. Successful adapters always seem to zero in on those aspects of a King work that fascinate them – whether a character, scenario, or even a theme – and then shed as little or as much of the source material as is necessary to breathe cinematic life into it.

It’s easy to discern what attracted novelist and screenwriter Richard Price to King’s 2018 book The Outsider. Like several of Price’s own works – which include Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life, and screenplays for Ransom (1996) and The Wire (2002-08) – the novel is absorbed with criminality, community, and the shifting nature of truth and justice. In some ways, The Outsider represents a murky, inside-out version of Price’s previous brainchild for HBO, the limited-series crime drama The Night Of (2016), co-written with Steve Zallian. Whereas the latter show closely observed the slow-crawl process and calamitous fallout of a (seemingly) open-and-shut homicide case, The Outsider presents a crime that is filled with impenetrable contradictions from the outset. While it has some similarities to King’s more grounded 2014 detective novel Mr. Mercedes in terms of plot and tone, The Outsider adds a critical element of the supernatural. Indeed, the defining attribute of The Outsider is its meticulous depiction of the usual crime-thriller characters – police detectives, private investigators, defense attorneys, dubious suspects, and grieving relations – who are suddenly confronted with stark, undeniable evidence that monsters of the non-human sort actually exist.

To translate King’s novel to the screen, Price and HBO recruited an astonishing roster of talent. Fellow novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island) contributed scripts for two of the limited series’ 10 episodes, while the show’s directors include Kayrn Kusama (The Invitation), Charlotte Brändström (River’s Edge), and Jason Bateman (Ozark). Bateman also stars in a recurring role, joining a ridiculously deep acting bench that includes Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, and Paddy Considine. Although one can clearly distinguish Price’s fingerprints on the series, The Outsider also makes a persuasive case for episodic television as a critically collaborative medium, contrary to the conventional view of the showrunner as auteur. It is difficult to envision the series succeeding as resoundingly as it does without the cumulative contributions from its (ahem) murderer’s row of on-screen and off-screen creatives.

The Twilight Zone hook that distinguishes The Outsider from other crime dramas is undeniably a compelling one. In the town of Cherokee City, Ga., the mutilated remains of a young boy named Frank Peterson are discovered, to the community’s understandable shock and horror. An abundance of physical and eyewitness evidence points to local teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Bateman) as the perpetrator. Within days, local police detective Ralph Anderson (Mendelsohn) and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez) swoop in to arrest Terry in the middle of a Little League game. Terry’s distraught wife, Glory (Nicholson), reaches out to local defense attorney Howard Salomon (Camp), who swiftly directs private investigator Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) to find the holes in the police’s allegedly irrefutable evidence. Alec soon makes a fortuitous, if flabbergasting, discovery: At the time of little Frank’s death, Terry was attending a teacher’s conference 60 miles away, and there is incontrovertible video footage to prove it. Publicly, Ralph and his fellow investigators do not flinch when this revelation comes to light, but privately they are confounded by the logical absurdity that it introduces into their case. How can a man possibly be in two places at once?

The first episode of the series – which was written by Price and directed by Bateman – takes its time to reveal this logical conundrum, gradually twisting its bleak crime-drama components into something more vexing and otherworldly. Accordingly, it’s remarkable how quickly The Outsider gets its talons into the viewer. Before it betrays even a hint of the supernatural, the show is already suffused with a suffocating atmosphere of menace, sorrow, and dissolution. Bateman propulsively crosscuts between different subplots and timeframes over the series’ first hour, creating an ominous impression that something awful – more awful, even, than a slain child – is invisibly drawing the characters together. Although the series was filmed on location in Georgia, its grim ambience feels less Southern Gothic than “Pacific gloomy,” akin to that of Vancouver-shot crime series like Millennium (1996-99) and The Killing (2011-14). (Another telltale credit: The first episode’s cinematographer Igor Martinovic also shot the middle chapter of the brilliant, Yorkshire-set Red Riding crime trilogy.) Due praise also goes to composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans – Emmy-nominated this year for their work on Ozark (2017-) – whose eerie, relentless score creates the sensation of an unseen, predatory threat slithering closer and closer.

Although The Outsider is certainly more aesthetically striking than typical Peak TV offerings, what most distinguishes Price’s series is its willingness to slow down and spend time with characters who suddenly find themselves in extraordinary (and terrifying) circumstances. In this respect, the other King tale it most resembles is the writer’s underrated 2002 novel From a Buick 8, one of his most perfectly realized 21st-century works. Like that book, The Outsider upends the lives of a group of likeable characters – not only with loss and violence, but with something that lies outside their largely materialist understanding of the world. One of the pivotal alterations Price has made to the source material is to reconceive Ralph and his wife, Jeannie (Winningham), as grieving parents, with son Derek having died of cancer at a young age. When the viewer first meets him, Ralph already feels like a man whose soul has been shattered and hastily swept out of sight. His unresolved grief and his personal connection to Terry – the accused man coached his son years ago – at first inflame Ralph’s righteous anger. When he begins to discern the impossible outline of the entity that may actually be responsible for Frank’s murder (and others), Ralph’s stance shifts into one of indignant denial.

Ralph’s natural foil enters the story a couple of episodes later in the person of one Holly Gibney (Erivo), another private eye that Howard hires to follow an indistinct but tantalizing trail of evidence on the other side of the country. Ambiguously neurodivergent and blessed with an eidetic memory, Holly is a dogged investigator who often sees things other detectives might miss. It’s a credit to Erivo’s skill that she elevates Holly above the wearisome “detective on the spectrum” tropes she might otherwise personify, delivering a character who feels credible and charming, if frequently exasperating to those around her. (The character also appears in Mr. Mercedes and other King works, and although Holly is white in the books, The Outsider's writing and Erivo’s performance are such that this Black incarnation of the character works splendidly without diminishing Justine Lupe’s analogous turn in David E. Kelley’s Mr. Mercedes series.) Holly is meticulous and rational, but as Ralph discovers when they eventually meet, she is also open to the possibility of the supernatural when all other explanations have been eliminated. Ralph, meanwhile, spends much of the series struggling with the preposterous notion that the bogeyman might not only be real but also responsible for a child’s death in his own backyard.

Ralph and Holly embody a clear and persuasively argued dialectic, but what’s refreshing about the The Outsider is how unsatisfied the series is with facile reason vs. faith skirmishes. Indeed, Holly’s worldview is an uncharacteristically sophisticated one in which the so-called supernatural simply operates according to predictable physical laws that have not yet been discovered by contemporary science. Fittingly, The Outsider spends a great deal of time following the characters as they gradually ascertain the rules of their newly expanded paradigm. Like all good procedurals, it’s a series that is fascinated with logic, clues, and problem-solving, even (as in this case) when the suspect is a denizen from an Old World folktale or late-night creature feature. Despite the show’s formal artistry, there’s a methodical, down-to-earth quality to its depiction of police work that makes the presence of the supernatural feel that much uncannier. (The series is much closer to Mindhunter or Unbelievable than to any of the innumerable Law & Orders or CSIs.)

While The Outsider functions as both a supernatural thriller and a police procedural, it’s also a ruminative, heavy-hearted character drama, and a stellar one at that. Price and Co. often downshift the action, allowing the characters to simply sit and discuss what the hell is going on and what it all means. Far from resembling extraneous, audience-directed exposition, these scenes consistently feel like one is witnessing real people grapple with facts and experiences that seem impossible to reconcile with their understanding of the universe. At 10 one-hour episodes, The Outsider has an unhurried pace overall, but Price and his collaborators use this generous running time effectively. A less thoughtful series would have ended up going in circles, drawing out its mysteries just for the sake of doing so. The Outsider doesn’t repeat itself – it just decelerates frequently, allowing viewers to steep in its dense mood and get to know its fascinating characters.The series takes the time to follow several subplots that a different show would have excised: the ostracism of Glory’s family, Jeannie’s own unsettled grief, Ralph’s work-mandated psychotherapy, the awkward-cute romance between Holly and a security consultant (Derek Cecil), and an abrasive police detective’s (Marc Menchaca) slow mental and spiritual disintegration. Rather than contributing to a sense of bloat, these and other strands combine to form a textured and reflective story that unfolds in a world that feels strange, scary, and yet truly lived in.

King’s best tales are inevitably those where the mundane is drawn with a fine point – sharply outlined and densely detailed, the better to highlight the unreality of the nightmarish when it inevitably comes calling. The Outsider exemplifies this quality, and Price’s adaptation not only plays to this strength, it realizes it with terrific filmmaking and some master-class acting. (Mendelsohn in particular is doing career-best work, which is saying something.) Unquestionably, it’s a bleak, doleful series, one that unsparingly depicts the way that violence reverberates erratically through a community, spreading sorrow, enmity, and discord. Even horror enthusiasts may not be prepared for the vicious places that The Outsider eventually goes, if only because it does so without a trace of the black humor that so many tales of terror employ. (If anything, this adaptation amplifies the novel’s raw anguish, nudging it towards Pet Sematary territory.) For viewers eager to drink deeply of double-distilled Stephen King, served by a group of fantastically talented filmmakers and performers, The Outsider will hit the spot.

Rating: B+

Further Viewing: The Night of the Hunter (1955), Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), The Exorcist III (1990), The First Power (1990), Candyman (1992), Fallen (1998), The Pledge (2001), The Red Riding Trilogy (2009), Sinister (2012).

The Outsider is now available to stream from HBO and to purchase from other major online platforms.