Having just finished reading Stephen King’s Hodges trilogy last summer, I was a bit ambivalent about watching the first season of the new TV show based on the book. After all, King hasn’t exactly had huge success when it comes to adapting his novels on screen, even when he’s actively involved in the project.
Still, after the great job Netflix recently did with Gerald’s Game, and given that the best movie adaptations of his work so far have been those that are low on the supernatural element (or lack it altogether), I figured Mr. Mercedes was a ‘safe’ enough choice that would actually be hard to screw up. After all, it’s basically just a crime drama/detective story featuring a psychotic villain and a retired cop, both of whom practically leap off the page. It seemed like a no-brainer in theory.
In practice, sadly, I wasn’t too impressed. Not because there was something particularly wrong with the show. It had great production values, it was well acted, and despite the slightly slow pace, it kept you immersed and coming back for more. Even the soundtrack was pretty damn cool. But it just felt a little… off, at least if you went with certain preconceptions, which is usually the case for book readers.
On the positive side, the casting of Brady and his mom was completely spot-on. Harry Treadaway was brilliant as the homicidal computer wiz, Kelly Lynch was excellent as his alcoholic mother, and the two played off each other beautifully to capture their co-dependent incestuous relationship.
In fact, just about every single actor nailed their performances, from Holland Taylor’s portrayal of Hodges’ next door neighbor Ida (a character created for the show), to Robert Stanton and Breeda Wool as Brady’s co-workers at the electronics store, and especially Justine Lupe’s understated performance as Holly Gibney. Every single supporting character was well-played and quite believable, except maybe Jerome Robinson, whose book description calls for a very attractive young man, rather than an average, scrawny kid next door. Still, Jharrel Jerome did a great job with the material he was given, which is what makes the casting choice of Brendan Gleeson as Bill Hodges so damn frustrating.
Not that the actor was bad; Gleeson’s long career is testament to his acting chops. But he just didn’t feel right for the part, so imagine my surprise to learn that King actually wrote the character with Gleeson in mind! What was it about the Irish actor that screamed retired cop? Why not have him play with an american accent, instead of creating his Irish immigrant back story solely for the show?
I struggle to see how Gleeson fits with the description of Hodges in the books. Not only was his accent distracting, his appearance didn’t quite fit, either. Hodges is supposed to be a bit chubby, underlining the fact that he had let himself go since his retirement, not an overweight, scruffy and disheveled guy with excessive facial hair and a greasy mop on top. Even for a non-reader, his romance with young and pretty Mary-Louise Parker was a bit tough to swallow, not to mention his next door neighboor Ida’s odd sexual advances, a plot line that doesn’t even exist in the books.
My personal opinions about the miscasting of Hodges aside, what I had most trouble with were the actual deviations from the book. Not because I believe that every single adaptation should be 100% loyal to the source material, but because so few of the changes actually benefit the story.
For one thing, the show did a poor job of accurately depicting Hodges’ state of mind before Brady first got in touch with him: the long nights in his easy chair watching TV and eating frozen dinners were hardly touched upon, and neither were his depression and suicidal thoughts. Given that Brady managed to drive Mrs. Trelawney to suicide by getting inside her head, his attempts of pushing Hodges over the edge would have had a much greater effect if we saw him try and work on someone already on the verge, rather than simply taunting his nemesis and egging him on.
Which brings me to perhaps my biggest gripe about how the relationship between Hodges and Brady was handled: we didn’t need all the audiovisual cues to showcase Brady’s IT prowess, and we certainly didn’t need the distorted videos and computer hacking to see how he affected Hodges. Bill’s obsession with the Mercedes killer case wasn’t a result of Brady’s intimidation tactics, but pre-existed as one of his biggest regrets since retiring from the police force wtihout having been able to bring the killer to justice. Brady’s communication only fueled the fire that was already burning, and had the opposite effect of his intended purpose to drive Hodges to suicide. This didn’t require edited footage from the crime scene or visual reminders of the unfortunate young woman and baby girl who were squashed in the massacre. In the books, a simple, well-written letter does the job beautifully, as do their online exchanges Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. The added effects and creepy video chats simply didn’t feel authentic, and instead of fleshing out the characters’ nuances, they ended up hinting at the writers’ insecurity about letting the source material speak for itself. While I understand the urge to add visual elements for augmented effect, the result felt lacking, mostly because it stole focus away from Hodges’ psychology.
Another factor that greatly contributed to Bill’s single-mindedness about solving the case was the utter lack of interest shown by his former partner Pete and especially his new young partner Izzy’s sarcastic, and often downright hostile, attitude towards Hodges. Although a handful of scenes managed to convey their indifference to Bill’s pleas, I don’t understand why it was necessary to include them (spoiler alert) in the showdown at the Hartsfield home, when the book did such a better job of storytelling: instead of bringing in the SWAT team, Pete and the rest of the cops are nowhere to be found when Bill, Holly and Jerome sneak inside Brady’s house and look around his basement. There’s no big fire, no videotaped fake suicide note; Robi isn’t dead and lying next to Debbie’s corpse, and there’s definitely no ice-cream truck rigged to play that godawful music and then blow up as a distraction.
Additionally, there’s no City Center art show or any actual involvement of the electronics store, and Lou and Robi have zero bearing in the final chapter of the story. I get that you can’t really build an entire 10-episode arc just focusing on a couple of main characters, by why the choice to focus on Brady’s co-workers and give Jerome’s sister zero screen time? If anything, this just makes Brady’s decision to poison the dog seem like a whim, rather than a carefully planned-out ploy to hurt the people Hodges cares about.
Which brings me to the finale: the arts center showdown was so underwhelming, it felt like a joke. I have to assume that ditching the boy-band concert idea in favor of a smaller-scale gathering of locals was due to budgetary constraints, because it definitely didn’t do the story any favors. Not only did it not capitalize on whatever tension they had already built, but it also significantly lowered the stakes: it’s one thing to threaten to blow up an entire building full of tweens, including Jerome’s little sister, and quite another to just show up at an art show that isn’t even packed with huge crowds. Everything about how this story is told in the books worked, from Hodges rushing to the concert venue, the strain causing him to have a heart attack, to Jerome and Holly’s frantic efforts to locate Brady and stop him. On the show, this scene didn’t work at all (although I have to admit that Brady’s attack on Lou was a nice touch): Hodges and Brady have a stare-down, Hodges collapses, Holly appears out of nowhere and clocks him with a heavy art piece. Does this make for compelling television? Possibly, but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been had they followed the events laid out in the book rather than improvise.
Despite all these complaints, I still enjoyed the show. It may have served me better to watch it before reading the book, but what’s done is done. At the end of the day, the book is (almost) always better, so in that respect I guess I’m just thankful this didn’t give us the unintentionally hilarious results of mishandling other King classics like Desperation, The Dark Half or Pet Sematary, to name a few. Speaking of which, now that we finally got a decent iteration of It, how long before we can finally get a movie/tv series based on Salem’s Lot that’s actually worthy of the source material? Neither the late 70’s movie nor the early 90’s mini-series did the book justice, and seeing that it’s my (and a lot of people’s) favorite King book, I just wish they’d give it another shot, this time with a sizable budget and bit name actors and directors. Now that the vampire craze has died down and it’s all about the zombies, I fear we won’t be getting one any time soon, but here’s hoping.