Stephen King's work is consistently praised for taking everyday situations and turning them on their heads in a horrific way. One of the ways he accomplished this was by building up the world around the story. He created the fictional town of Castle Rock to ground his work and give the reader a sense of familiarity. It stands in for just about any small town in the United States. While King throws in his usual Maine touch, it has parts that everyone can identify with.
Since there have been numerous adaptations of King's work, the town of Castle Rock has had its share of on-screen appearances that can shape a story of the town without the movies even being related. This creates a way to tie movies together through the evolution of recurring characters to show the changes that Castle Rock itself has gone through.
Stand By Me (1986)
An adaptation of King's novella The Body, this film mainly takes place in 1959, as four boys go on a long trip to find the body of a young man that has recently gone missing. Along the way, the boys evaluate life and their place in it. Just as they reach their destination, the local thug Ace Merrill shows up with his crew of boys to lay claim to the missing boy's body for the fame that would go along with telling the police about it.
Castle Rock here is shown as a typical small town in the late ’50s. Everyone knows everyone else. While the kids seem like average boys, we are quickly shown the burden they all carry due to their familial ties. Teddy is disfigured after having his alcoholic father put his ear to a hot stove. His father is thought of as the town drunk, but Teddy fights to defend his father, who had been in the military, from anyone who would disparage him. Chris Chambers is at odds with his family, who are considered alcoholics and thieves. While never doing the same things his family is known for, he still carries the stigma with him. This hinders his pursuits in school as many think he won't amount to much, so they don't put any effort into helping him.
Vern might be the least burdened of the group but is overweight, bringing on ridicule from most of his friends and older brother. The main character of the story, Gordie LaChance, has a sadness that is stuck to him at the current point of the story. His older brother, Denny, had recently passed away in a car accident. While grieving himself, he is also dealing with the loss of attention from his parents. They seem stuck in their grief and don't realize their sadness is hurting the other son they have. Gordie is left to his own devices most of the time. He comments that he felt invisible to them before his brother's death, but now they act like he doesn't even exist.
The town of Castle Rock here is pretty grounded. It's not portrayed as an idyllic town with white picket fences, but it is instead portrayed as a blue-collar town where everyone is trying their best to make ends meet. The residents are polite to each other, but they all hold some judgment against everyone else. Most of the story is spent outside of the town, but you can still feel the presence of it in the film as the boys talk about what is expected of them and what they want for themselves.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Here Castle Rock takes a darker turn. Based on the 1979 book of the same name, we are introduced to Johnny Smith, played by the ever-charming Christopher Walken. He takes his girlfriend out on a date to a local carnival. On the way home, he is involved in a severe car accident and spends the next five years in a coma. After awakening, he finds that he can see things by touching people. He can see their future, their past, or even sometimes the present from a different perspective that could have a significant influence on them.
He looks at this ability as a curse; others look at it as a gift and ask for his help. Sheriff George Bannerman, played by Tom Skerritt, asks for Johnny's help in catching a local serial killer known as the Castle Rock Strangler. During this outing, Johnny outs Deputy Frank Dodd as the killer. While trying to apprehend Dodd, he ends up committing suicide. Johnny eventually leaves Castle Rock only to find a more significant threat in Greg Stillson, who will one day cause a nuclear war.
Castle Rock here is shown to be a little darker. It may be coming out of the Vietnam era, but the overall mood of the town has darkened. It could be that this perspective found its way into the novel as well. A darkness seems to hang over everything. The local murders don't help raise anyone's spirits or the town's mood. We see a town in a depression. Also, this could be what the town looks like from Johnny's point of view. Before his accident, he was a high school teacher dating one of the prettiest women in town. His life was outstretched before him, but after awakening from his coma, he learns she has gotten married and had a child without him.
Even more, he finds himself without a job and moving back in with his parents to help with his physical rehabilitation. He also sees his newfound ability as a burden rather than the gift that others claim it to be. Reporters show up on his doorstep claiming he is a fraud. People are constantly clamoring for him to touch them so they can know the answers to an infinite number of questions. All he wants is to be left alone to rebuild his life. This view could put a pall over the town in his eyes. He can barely leave his house anymore, and his world shrinks even more to the point where he has to leave Castle Rock entirely.
While this movie takes place in Castle Rock, we only get a small glimpse of the town as the central part of the story takes place inside of a car. During the opening of the film, we learn that young boy Tad has a fear of a monster living in his closet. While not expressed in the movie, in the novel, it's said that he fears that the undead corpse of Frank Dodd is in his closet. His lore has spread throughout Castle Rock to make him the new boogeyman. We are also clued into the fact that his mom, played by Dee Wallace, is cheating on his dad.
When the family car needs to be fixed, she takes it out to the local mechanic's farm. She doesn't know that their giant Saint Bernard has gone rabid and killed everyone he has come into contact with. Of course, the car breaks down, and they are now trapped at this farm with a rabid dog trying to get into the car.
The town doesn't play as much of a factor in this film, but we are shown that even small towns host their share of secrets. The mechanic Joe Camber rules over his family with an iron fist. His wife, Charity and son, Brett, recoil in fear of Joe's violent outbursts. His demeanor only changes after Charity tells him she has won the lottery and wants to visit her sister. He has his own plans while she is gone, but that is stopped short by Cujo.
Donna (Dee Wallace), meanwhile, is having an affair. She tries to break it off, but her husband finds out before that can happen. She seems to regret her marriage and even her son, Tad, until she is forced to fight for his survival while trapped in her car during a blistering heatwave. Donna's husband, Vic, is out of town on a business trip, and no one else knows where she is.
The big Castle Rock connection here is that the police are asked to check on the Camber farm after no one answers the phone. Sheriff George Bannerman, played this time by Sandy Ward, stops out at the farm only to be mauled to death by the titular canine. After seeing Castle Rock through the serial murders, he meets his end at the jaws of Cujo.
After confronting and killing the cursed dog, Donna finally understands her love for her family and the horrible situation all of them have been put in through this ordeal. She reconnects with her husband and, after Tad almost dies, rekindles her love of being a mom and everything that entails.
The Dark Half (1993)
While this story is about duality, the view of Castle Rock here seems to be about restoring order. After the death of George Bannerman in Cujo, a new Sheriff is introduced in the form of Alan Pangborn. Played here by Michael Rooker, he is shown to be comfortable as a small-town sheriff who believes in law and order but understands that sometimes empathy can go a lot further.
Thad Beaumont, played by Timothy Hutton, is a writer who has had little popularity on his own and resorts to a pseudonym to write his more popular but violent crime novels. When a man comes forward and threatens to expose him, he decides to beat the guy to the punch and outs his alter ego himself in a magazine article. Strange things start to happen when his alter ego seems to come to life and kill off his most prominent critics and friends.
While he can account for his whereabouts when the murders happen, Thad is seen as the prime suspect since his fingerprints are found very prominently at the murder scenes. Pangborn doesn't seem to understand how this is possible, but he does agree with Thad that something out of the ordinary is happening.
We don't get a great feel of what Castle Rock is necessarily like during this period, but it could be said that with the new sheriff in town, order seems to have been restored to a town that has seen its share of unfortunate moments lately. With Pangborn in charge, things seem to have settled down until this new string of murders arises.
This is the first purely supernatural event to rock Castle Rock so far. A person who is created out of thin air and then goes on a murdering spree is by far the weirdest thing the residents would have experienced up till now. While Johnny Smith had his share of strange moments and abilities, they could easily be shrugged off as another fraudulent psychic taking advantage of people. For Pangborn, you would think everything would probably be easy to deal with after this, but you'd be wrong.
Needful Things (1993)
While the movies only came out a few months apart storywise, a lot has changed for Alan Pangborn at the outset of Needful Things, as his wife and son have died in a car accident. At surface level, the town of Castle Rock seems to hold on to its order and peace, but that is about to slip away and show how fragile life can be.
Leland Gaunt, portrayed by the menacing Max Von Sydow, moves to town and opens an antique store named Needful Things, where the items are cheap but come at the ultimate price. While money isn't required for some items, favors are. And these favors cause the downfall of others. Some are as simple as throwing mud on someone's clean sheets. Others could include murder. What follows is a series of events that causes the downfall of the entire town.
The only person who can keep the peace is Sheriff Alan Pangborn, this time played by Ed Harris. While he seems to be seeking a new romance with Polly Chalmers, he is still reeling from his wife and son's death. This is used to control Pangborn while Gaunt takes over the town of Castle Rock. Eventually, we see the entire town destroy itself as Gaunt gets everyone to turn on their closest family and friends.
Here we see Castle Rock fall into chaos. Whatever peace the town has ever had comes completely crashing down. The entire town ends up in flames at one point. The fragility that had been holding everything together snaps. Everyone's secrets are revealed and used against them. Everything they held dear is taken from them and destroyed.
The town could be looked at as just holding on after a disastrous recession that the country had just gone through, along with just coming out of the Gulf War. While some residents are shown to be doing well, others are down on their luck and some have their very livelihood attacked by Gaunt and his favors.
In the novel, King intended to kill off his favored fictional town. He had used it and made allusions to it through a lot of his work, and now it was time to send that town up in a final big blowout. Sadly, there are numerous great things we don't see in the film that are essential parts of the novel.
We return to the farm where Cujo went on his killing spree. Gaunt tasks Polly with digging up some items that had been buried on the property. While there, she sees a pair of red eyes staring at her from the darkness. A low growl also emanates from within the shadows. The evil spirit that had possessed the dog could still be lingering around its hunting grounds.
One big difference in the movie is that one of Gaunt's biggest allies in the novel is the recently-released-from-Shawshank-Prison Ace Merrill, whom Kiefer Sutherland played in the film Stand By Me. His character plays a big part in the book but is absent throughout the film. Also, while the film has limited screen time, in the novel we get a more extensive look at the residents of Castle Rock and their roles in Gaunt's web of tricks and favors.
Castle Rock (2018)
While the town of Castle Rock fell quiet in King's work for a while, we would get a peek now and again of how the town was doing through his short stories or mentions in other novels. In 2018, Hulu released a show based on the fictional town that wouldn't be based on any one piece of King material but would instead borrow bits from King's mythology and tell a brand-new story.
In the series, it's discovered that a man referred to as The Kid has been kept captive in the basement of Shawshank Prison for decades, but he hasn't aged a single day. When someone releases him, he seeks answers to why he is there and what has happened to him. New mysteries are uncovered, and more secrets are told about this quiet town.
We are once again introduced to Alan Pangborn as a retired sheriff who is now in love with Ruth Deaver. This time Scott Glenn plays our sheriff while King alum Sissy Spacek plays his love. Some other familiar characters and actors show up in our favorite little town. Bill Skarsgård, fresh off his take as Pennywise in the IT films, plays The Kid. This gives the character an aura that something is not quite right.
Jane Levy plays a character we haven't met before but comes from a family we're all very familiar with. She plays Jackie Torrance. There are a few references to the fact that her uncle tried to chop up his wife and kid. Throughout the first season, there's a lot of hints that the town itself has gone through a rough time in the past. When a plaque is being commemorated to honor Alan Pangborn for his service to the town, it's not outright mentioned that the events of Needful Things happened, but they say he ushered the town through some of its darkest times. Clippings are shown about the rabid dog that killed a family. At Shawshank Prison, we are even shown portraits of past wardens who had worked there, and actor Bob Gunton is in the lineup as his character from the film The Shawshank Redemption.
The town here seems back to being a small blue-collar town, but under the surface, literally in the case of The Kid, there is a feeling of dread and uncovered secrets. You would think the residents would have learned by now that secrets are no good in Castle Rock. It could be the effects the 2000s have had on the small town. Any big manufacturing jobs have moved out of the country. Unemployment and hopelessness have taken their toll on the residents.
In season two, we got even more familiar King faces, as Lizzie Caplan brings Annie Wilkes of Misery fame to Castle Rock. After having a name-drop in the first season, some of the action even moves to Jerusalem's Lot and the Marsten House with Ace Merrill front and center. While the town seems to be the same as in season one, we start to see some forward momentum that eventually comes to a halt during the unfolding of the season's mystery.
Are these movies and shows connected? Not really. They were all made by different studios and creative teams. That being said, they do still collectively show a story of a town. Being adapted from source material written by one author carries over onto the screen. How Castle Rock was doing is evident by how it was portrayed in the words King put down on the page.
Even after King decided to kill off his famous fictional town; he would return to it every once in a while, mainly through his short stories and novellas. Some early stories such as “Uncle Otto's Truck” and “Mrs. Todd's Shortcut” would host the town, but some of his more recent work has brought the town back. In 2018's Elevation, we meet Scott, who seems to be losing weight even though he looks perfectly fine on the outside. Soon he discovers that he is floating above the ground and if he loses more weight, he could soar into the atmosphere.
Starting in 2017, Castle Rock became a setting for three books about Gwendy Peterson, who is tasked with taking care of a strange box that could destroy the world. The first book, Gwendy's Button Box, was co-written by King and Richard Chizmar. The follow-up Gwendy's Magic Feather was written solely by Chizmar. King would return to the character with Chizmar in the trilogy's final book, Gwendy's Final Task, in which the dreaded button box was still causing issues, and Gwendy came up with the ultimate idea of how to get rid of it.
While Castle Rock wasn't the main focus in all of these projects, it became a familiar backdrop to view these stories. While not always directly affecting the events unfolding on screen, it is the living and breathing town these characters come from. Watching these Stephen King adaptations feels like coming home to Castle Rock again, even if that homecoming ends in fire, death, and destruction.