From the deeply rooted, small-town malevolence of “It” to the creeping madness of “The Shining,” the evils conjured by master of macabre Stephen King speak to an America disturbed, a society turned inside out — along with its inhabitants — by the intrusion of an inescapable and unknowable outside force.
To audiences braving the boiling-point political atmosphere of 2017, that’s perhaps too familiar an idea for comfort, a fact that could inform the King properties on track to hit theaters this year, including a long-gestating take on “The Dark Tower,” a blockbuster adaptation of “It,” and the micro-budgeted “Gerald’s Game.” King’s current reign over pop culture, however, is far from confined to the big screen.
“The Mist,” premiering June 22 on Spike, aims to transform one of the author’s most well-known novellas into an ongoing series.
Set in fictional Bridgeville, Maine, it centers on a group of townspeople who struggle to maintain their moral centers after an ominous mist rolls in, harboring unknown terrors. While seeking refuge at a shopping mall and church, the civilians must grapple with threats from both outside and inside their impromptu sanctuaries, watching as the preestablished social order begins to crumble.
For showrunner Christian Torpe, such a premise held uncommon resonance after an election year in which fear — of outsiders, extremism, nuclear war, and more culturally existential threats — had a pivotal part to play.
“What struck me when I read King’s novella was how unfortunately timely it would be to tell a story about what people do when they are blinded by fear,” says Torpe, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “The book is about how the characters seek answers in religion but, in the show, I wanted to expand on that, and make it about not just religion but radicalization in every way.”
Torpe, 38, was mainly based in Denmark before execs at the Weinstein Company, enamored of the darkness underlying his acclaimed comedy series “Rita,” approached him with “The Mist.” A lifelong Stephen King fan, Torpe didn’t require much persuasion.
And when an e-mail to King himself, outlining ideas for how to adapt “The Mist” into a series, was met with emphatic support and one requirement — don’t do anything ordinary — everyone working on the series grew more keen to flesh out the world beyond the novella, bringing in fresh ideas and unfamiliar characters.
As showrunner, Torpe resolved to craft realistic, complicated protagonists who could amplify an idea that, in his mind, has always been central to the story: that, in uncertain times, people often place faith in those claiming to offer solutions and security.
“In America, now more than ever, are stories of terror, radicalization, crazy presidents, impending war, and all manner of terrifying things that are too abstract for us to feel quite physically threatened,” he explains. “We have this strange, abstract fear right under our skin, pulsating, that needs an outlet. And so, we start seeking answers in strange places and start believing people who claim they can provide an answer to things there may not be answers to.”
That search for answers, and the emergence of prophets claiming to possess them, is an essential component of what made King’s original story so compelling.
“It’s not about where the mist came from,” says Torpe. “It’s more about the search for an answer than the answer itself.”
Among the new characters driving that search for answers is Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy), a grieving woman whose profound connection to the environment eventually yields theories about the nature of the mist — and affords her the growing allegiance of townspeople.
“A really bad thing happens within this small town, and it takes on proportions that literally affect nature,” says Conroy, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “It’s nature violently responding to an act of violence. It affects everyone and opens up their insides, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.”
For Conroy, who has starred in “Six Feet Under” and “American Horror Story,” playing Nathalie meant entering the mind of an individual who, in the aftermath of personal tragedy, finds new purpose amid the pandemonium. “The mist contains death, but to Nathalie, it’s benign,” says Conroy.
Both Torpe and Conroy caution viewers not to draw parallels between Nathalie and the characters in King’s version — especially Mrs. Carmody, the God-fearing woman who gained deadly influence over survivors in the original novella.
“King’s story really is just 180 to 200 pages and it takes place over a day or two in a supermarket, so there’s not much stuff for a TV show in it,” says Torpe. “We had constant ebb and flow communication between the source material and new material, with a new story and new characters who are not in the original work.”
It was more important, the two say, to echo King’s knack for gut-punch, character-driven storytelling.
“[King] touches on very deep things that take you on a real journey,” Conroy says. “And he writes it so beautifully and simply. You follow the story, and he takes you off a cliff with two words. It’s extraordinary.”
In order to mimic that approach, showrunner Torpe aimed to conceive complex protagonists — among them a married couple (played by Morgan Spector and Alyssa Sutherland) shaken by a brutal crime against their daughter (Gus Birney); an amnesiac in military uniform (Okezie Morro); a put-upon mall manager (Isiah Whitlock Jr.); and a sheriff (Darren Pettie) stunned by town gossip implicating his son (Luke Cosgrove) in a horrific transgression.
“We went out and pitched this as Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Jaws,’ which is a joke, of course, but speaks to the kind of show we wanted to do, which was a character drama,” says Torpe. “We wanted the mist to work on a frightening level but also on an existential level. We had a rule in the writers’ room that if you ever needed the mist to move the story forward you were in trouble, because we wanted the story to be propelled by the characters, and their reactions to the mist — not the mist itself.”
Starring: Frances Conroy, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alyssa Sutherland, Gus Birney, Morgan Spector, Okezie Morro, Darren Pettie
On Spike, June 22Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.