WARNING: SPOILERS APLENTY
So, having dealt with Designated Survivor (which didn’t survive), I’ve been watching the first series of Mr Mercedes. I loved the book and was interested to see what sort of mess the adaptation would turn out to be. Up till now, I’ve seen eight screen adaptations of King’s work – The Shining, Dolores Claiborne, Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, The Dome (TV series), Langoliers (TV series), Kingdom Hospital (TV series) and 11/22/63 (TV series). The movies were terrific; the TV series were spotty. The Dome was just terrible (every single recording of it should be confiscated, fired into the sun and never mentioned again); Kingdom Hospital was less terrible, but only slightly – it was at least four hours too long and nothing will make me sit through it a second time; Langoliers was OK but not memorable; 11/22/63 was terrific – mainly due to the fact that it cut out about 500 pages of padding and subplots from the novel and concentrated on the main story of the time-jumping hero.
So I was hoping that this one would be good, at least. And, so far, it is – sort of. There are quite large changes from the book – Hodges’ neighbour is given a name and fleshed out as a widow who is constantly trying to get him into bed. This could have been horribly overdone, but the writing and acting is sensitive enough to make it just gently comical and touching.
Jerome no longer speaks that ridiculous jive-talk, thankfully (it should never have got into the book, frankly). Mrs Hartfield is also fleshed out, with a backstory that makes her more sympathetic and far less of a grotesque. Hartfield’s job and his co-workers at the electronics store are expanded, especially Lou “Freddy” Linklatter. She turns out to be a strong and interesting character who has to face almost daily homophobia. I’d really like to see more of her.*
Hodges, for some reason, now has a strong Irish accent (according to the plot, he emigrated as a teenager).There’s no mention of his background in the book, and there’s no reason why he has to be Irish here; Bendan Gleeson can presumably do American accents perfectly well. Gleeson does look and play the part of an alcoholic, aging ex-cop very well, I just find the accent jars. I listened to the books, which were all read by the splendid Will Patton; for me, Bill Hodges will always have Patton’s gravelly growl.
Holly is also a disappointment – she’s far too young! Book-Holly is 45 and looks it; TV-Holly is “31 and a half” and is played by an actor who looks about 18. I know she’s meant to be quite childish due to being treated like one all her life, but did the producers really have to put her in the kind of flowery dresses and lacy ankle-socks worn by 12-year olds? She also rather overdoes Holly’s autistic tics and weirdnesses; I’m not sure if this is due to the writing or the actor. She does the various tics well, but it looks forced.
The ending is changed, too (although Holly still gets to perform some satisfying self-therapy on Hartsfield’s skull). In ep 9, Hartsfield has (how is never explained) got wind of the SWAT team swoop on his house in enough time to set up a massively complex distraction-display of electronic tricks and fireworks, ending with him apparently being immolated alongside his poisoned mother. But we all know it wasn’t his body on his mama’s bed – it’s still only the penultimate episode and he has to be alive for the big finale in ep 10.
So how did he get out of a house that was surrounded by police? We find out in a single line from Pete Huntley: “He had egress. The SWAT team found a hidden door in the cellar leading to a tunnel.”
That is literally all the explanation we get. (And do US cops actually say “egress”? Did the hidden door perhaps have a “This way to the egress” notice tacked to it?) In story-telling terms, this just does not fit – there is no forewarning of this escape route, no foreshadowing. We see plenty of Hartsfield’s cellar, but we never see that door, and there’s zero references to a tunnel. Who built it, how was it built, where does it lead to – none of these questions are answered. “He had a tunnel” is just a deus ex machina pulled straight out of the ether.
It’s almost as if the writers were working on the fly, just a couple of episodes ahead of production and discovered they had written themselves into a corner:
“Hey guys – now how do we get Hartsfield out of the house when it’s surrounded by cops?”
“Maybe… maybe a secret tunnel?”
“Well, you know we have to put in at least one obscure reference to one of King’s books in every episode…”**
“Shawshank Redemption! Y’know, that escape tunnel?”
King exec-produced this and I get the strong feeling that he was grabbing the chance to rewrite parts of his book to fit the current political and economic climate. He’s entitled to do that and I’ve no complaints. But surely that escape-tunnel nonsense in ep 9 would have caused him to send the script back with a great big “WTF???” scribbled over it in red pencil?***
So, I’ll now download Series 2 and see how that goes.
*Having risked spoilers and checked out reviews of the second series, I find that we do see Freddie again. I’d hoped that she’d be recruited into Hodges’ investigation agency; as a fellow nerd but much more grounded, she’d make a good foil to Holly. Disappointingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case, even though she does apparently play a major role.
**That actually appears to be true. Though far from being a King aficionado, I’ve spotted at least four such references without even trying. There’s almost certainly a fan wiki somewhere listing every single one.
***Having now read episode reviews of the series, it appears nobody else was at all annoyed by this “With a single bound through his hitherto unrevealed escape tunnel, he was free…” plot device. And it was a single writer who wrote that episode. Huh.