All too often, when it comes to the conversation of books being adapted to the screen, fans of the story can be heard singing from the rooftops that “films aren’t long enough to tell the story” or “if it only had a couple more hours it could have been so much better”.
So back in 2015 when AMC, the production house behind The Walking Dead announced a television adaptation of Joe Hill’s world renowned 2013 novel about a child kidnapper in an antique car, the news was met with excitement along with the usual amount of fan trepidation. This month sees Acorn media releasing both seasons of the recently cancelled supernatural show to DVD, and it’s the first opportunity many people in the UK will get to see it. So the question is: is it worth it?
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At over a century old, Charlie Manx has roamed the country for countless decades kidnapping young children and taking them to Christmasland. In a world where people with a particular psychic strength have the power to tear the fabric of reality and travel to places not on any map, Christmasland is a snow-covered home for a lifetime’s worth of children stolen from their families where no one will ever find them and every day is Christmas Day. Travelling the roads beyond our world in an antique Rolls Royce, Manx (Zachary Quinto, American Horror Story) feeds on the souls of the children in his back seat to keep his youth. Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings, Hounds of Love), a similarly powered high school student finds herself able to ride her bike onto an old covered bridge she manifests from sheer will. Her bridge covers untold distances and helps Vic find lost things – a watch, a teddy bear. But can it help her find missing children?
When Manx lures a child away from his family in Iowa, before she realises what she’s looking for, Vic crosses the bridge and meets the kid’s tutor Maggie (Jakhara Smith, Into the Dark: Pure), a medium with the uncanny ability to read scrabble tiles and answer almost any question you put to them. Together they have to try and stop Manx and his well-worn path of carnage.
Told across two seasons, NOS4A2’s story of a man – a vampire in all but name – is one written to play on the anxieties of parents everywhere. Not just losing their kids, but losing them to a pure psychopath who has judged on no merits but his own whether or not you are worthy of having your children. Its basis is a long, multi-layered tale that spans many years and is the perfect foundation for a couple of solid ten episode seasons of television.
Quinto’s Charlie Manx is one of those bad guys so well played that if he wasn’t abducting children and letting them become husks of their old selves in the back of his car as he transports them to a world where it’s always Christmas, he’d be a bad guy worth rooting for. It helps that his right-hand man, Bing “The gas mask man” Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson – The Meg) is the real nasty piece of work in this team. While Manx’s desire to save children could be called commendable in his own twisted way, Bing’s need is pure violence often manifested against the parents of the saved children.
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On the other side of the coin, if being the protagonist in your story didn’t come with the automatic feeling of needing you to win, the whiney, annoying and eventually insanely self-loathing Vic McQueen wouldn’t get one iota of support from a general audience. Her partnering with the tile-reading Maggie is what endears her to us and keeps us invested in the outcome of her story. Perhaps this is what makes NOS4A2 such an interesting story to tell. Damaged heroes are nothing new, especially in the horror genre, but there is something about Vic’s damage that doesn’t endear herself to the audience, she needs that lighter, and frankly more interesting, Maggie Lee to balance the scales. A task Jakhara Smith is more than capable of performing for us.
Much like the first half of the show’s source material, season one sees Vic and Maggie chasing Manx down across the country and between the realities hoping to rescue the missing children and answer questions surrounding the soul-sucking old man in the Rolls Royce. The first ten episodes includes a few big, important beats from the book to keep fans of the story appeased while trying to make their telling of the tale their own. There are clearly big plans in place during the production of season one. Sadly, while there isn’t really a dull moment in the first half of NOS4A2, it is a fine season of television, ratings will force production down a different path if the numbers don’t do what the guys on the top floor want. And try as they might, AMC never saw the numbers with NOS4A2 that they did with The Walking Dead.
Season two of the cat and mouse horror followed the book’s time jump and matched a few beats again, but the quality of almost everything dropped significantly with the need to chase the focus groups and the ratings. Even getting the book’s author into the writers’ room to help create a brand new character didn’t light a much needed fire into the second season. Especially when the fresh onto the page character was used to undo the cost of the use of powers and finality brought in to limit and ground the show’s supernatural characters. Efforts to extend the character base and bring some humanity and depth to characters while trying to force investment feels contrived and cheap; with a cable tv version of Pet Sematary’s Pascal feeling equal parts wasted and manipulative in their execution. As the show wraps itself up in a way that left hope that they would be back but knowing they probably wouldn’t be, it was a fun but ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to a tale that deserved to be so much better.
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Acorn Media’s home video release is a decent one. With the priority given to getting the under-seen show to a wider audience, the featured extras, including sneak peeks behind the scenes and making of features, aren’t necessarily the best that have been seen, but they do supplement your experience with this adaptation of Hill’s novel nicely if you’re into those smaller details.
Overall, NOS4A2 is a fun little show that fell foul of its production company having higher expectations. But throughout the twenty episodes we got, while the quality may have dipped a little, it has enough redeeming quality to keep you going until the end. Quinto and Smith bring their characters to the screen with an air of needing, of deserving, something so much better. But they elevate what little we got of Manx’s travels to worth watching.
NOS4A2 is out on DVD and Digital on 8th March.