Overview: Stephen King’s The Outsider novel was understandably a book that created much excitement, and that was before it came out. Whatever peoples’ views on him are (some are huge fans of his early work and not so much later stuff) the guy has repeatedly written best-sellers. So, there’s bound to be a big build-up and a massive marketing campaign, too. When the book finally hit in 2018 it was the inevitable hit it promised to be.
Fast forward to January 2020 and a small screen version came out on HBO. Quite a quick turn around for a scripted show. Some books can take years to become a film or a TV show; some never do. But now we have both to discuss, compare and contrast, let’s have a good look at both and then see which one reigns supreme, and why that is . . .
With many years’ experience as a writer, Stephen King knows how to get things moving. The story begins with an arrest, of Terry Maitland. Action, to give the backdrop to the story. Despite the strong “show don’t tell” that’s heard in every Creative Writing class ever, and is advice given to write good stories, the audience is told in simple terms what’s happened. In short, a boy has been killed, in a brutal manner. Immediately you want to know why, what led to it, and crucially, who did it. That last part’s the crux, and what drives everything . . .
Traditionally Stephen King is placed into the horror genre. The genre itself is varied, and complex. Just as the same thing doesn’t always happen in Sci-fi, neither does it happen in Horror. Really, King writes about the human condition, and the struggle between dark and light in us all. This time around, he’s chosen to use more of a mystery-based style. This really shows that he’s developed as a Writer, and can tell stories in different ways. There’s no denying that for a long time this book keeps you guessing, and what really matters when this happens is the pay-off when the truth is finally revealed. Readers have invested hours in leading up to the twist, or the show of truth. It has to be good, has to earn the time readers have invested.
Choosing a villain or a monster is a tough task for a writer. Any writer. When you’ve got millions of readers all expecting that’s probably a damn sight tougher. Fortunately, King has a mammoth database in his literary behemoth of a brain to rely on. What he chooses is incredible, and in many ways so simple, too. The way he shows its terror is through the characters he creates, and their responses to what’s happening. In many ways, each character in the book is a separate facet of humanity and representative of an individual aspect. They are all fully realised and fleshed out, and their conditions and quirks jump out from the page. Perhaps no more so than Holly Gibney.
By the end of the book what’s come to pass is a revelation, in more ways than one. A riveting sense of suspense and a trail of irreversible devastation coalesce, and that’s what makes the book work. It’s easy to see why the book did so well, and it only adds to the sizeable back-catalog of chart-toppers people have come to expect. You can pick up this book and never have read any of King’s other work and still get a decent ride and be thrilled, horrified, and at times terrified, too. Overall, it’s a well -balanced novel that combines a well-managed plot with a set of characters that all have their own journey; it’s Holly Gibney though, that stands out by some distance as the best of these, and one that you really root for.
There are always some changes to the book; after all, the show is an adaptation, not a carbon copy. Certain aspects work better by being given more focus in the visual medium. The setting looks very similar to the world drawn in the book, it’s everyday Suburbia, and that’s what makes King’s work so chilling. He embeds the surreal in the normal. HBO got this right, absolutely. The fact that it could be anywhere and that what happens could have happened to anyone is important.
Characters. Without them, a story can’t happen; especially so on the screen. Abstract ideas don’t work well on mainstream TV, which is why they aren’t much seen. The people who this story centres on are well-cast, generally. It’s odd that as a rule, you have either a definite image of exactly what you are expecting when you see a book-character for the first time or at least some idea. Often it takes seeing the on-screen version for you to think “no. No way”. Given, it’s harder to shake when you have a definite idea in your head (I did). So, taking these characters on their own (on-screen) terms is the fairest way to see them. They do capture much of the central traits of the book’s depictions of these people. Really though, most of the show’s excitement is about the lead-up to the discovery of the “big-bad”.
Choosing ten parts was a good choice by the show-runners. They could build up and give only slight glimpses of what was really going on. Their visual depiction of King’s creation is impressive and they managed to make it chilling, too. They paced their version of the story really well, and that was combined by some wonderful performances. Again, the starring role goes to Holly Gibney, played by Cynthia Erivo. She gave the show an elevated sense of significance. She did what every show-stealer does, and absolutely commanded the screen when she was on it. Unlike others though, her character does this by being interesting and unpredictable, at the same time as showing she is deeply vulnerable. Not an easy balance to achieve.
The rest of the cast did well, with Paddy Considine’s Claude Bolton also standing out as a wonderful depiction. His American accent is flawless and he shows that he really is among the very best actors working today. This character gets more of a role in the show than he does in the book, and the way that’s managed is clever. There’s not so much a re-write as a re-focusing on one part, and that being more central to things, towards the final episodes of the show. The writers are very much showing they have read and re-read the source material.
Overall, the show is well worth a watch and certainly not time wasted. You get similar effects as the book, in that you want to tune in to see what’s going to happen, but you also want to find out how character arcs will play out. It’s here that many shows fall down, and prove not to be able to juggle multiple sequences and ensure that the main plot doesn’t suffer as a result of it. This one doesn’t. Other writers could learn a lot about how to manage a number of strong characters in a relatively short-arc. They’re all altered by the end, and to find out how you’ll have to watch.
And the Winner is . . .
The book. Not by the clear miles and miles that this is usually the case of. It may be that the written word is simply a better way to tell tales of terror; likely though, that the many years of experience of Stephen King is responsible for the book simply being better. What the book offer is multiple aspects into the human soul, via a range of characters that are relatable. It’s the way they are drawn that really makes them stick out as superior to the screen adaptation. King manages somehow to show you their individual psyches and how they are formed. He lets you into their most intimate space: their minds. Each character is so well planned and thought out that King knows how they dream. It’s plausible and tangible in the descriptions. That’s something that only comes with experience. And yes, again it’s Holly Gibney that takes the starring role, despite her not appearing until quite far in. That’s when you know you’ve created something special, a certain someone who can steal the minds and the hearts of readers. Her character is quite different from her screen counterpart, and somewhat more subtly fleshed out. She’s the best of them and is fast becoming a fan-favorite. The screen just doesn’t capture her in the deeply sensitive and nuanced way the book does. It can’t, as King has drawn her only as he can.
The monster makes a powerful presence on-screen, as is carefully worked. The show did a pretty-incredible version of taking the essence of King’s work and putting it in the minds of viewers, and for that they deserve credit; they can’t be seen to fail, as only King and perhaps a few others writing today can truly capture and embed fear and human darkness on an instinctive and primal level. The being that causes terror lingers in the mind and truly belongs to the realm of the written word, as that’s where all his legacy stems from stories. Myths, fables, and legends told to children as warnings. King gives these imaginings a reality via his terrible and charismatic imagination; it;’s his daring to say what if . . . that is a spell cast in his writing that just can’t be replicated in the same way on screen. They gave it their best shot though, and at least were left with a show that stands out from so many others (that alone is high praise when you consider how many shows are available these days, and as a result how much has the capacity to be almost instantly forgettable).
With King’s most recent short-story collection, If It Bleeds (released on 21st April 2020) containing a stand-alone story from The Outsider (yes it does have the brilliant and delicately dazzling Holly Gibney in it!), it will be interesting to see if HBO pick that up and use the same cast to adapt that for a screenplay. The title of the collection is synonymous with the main story “If It Bleeds”. If HBO does choose to, then based on their success with the adaptation of King’s best-selling novel the signs are that it will be a success; as for whether that will surpass the short story it’s based on remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait and see . . .