Culture

The Highs and Lows of the Adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes

Harry Treadaway in ‘Mr. Mercedes’/Image © Audience Network

Stephen King may be best known for bringing the frights, but as a writer he has always shown a fascination with dabbling in other genres, particularly in his later years, and often with a fair degree of success. His 2014 novel, Mr. Mercedes, is a howcatchem mystery that proves as much a character study as an effective thriller and shows King’s versatility as a writer. Mr. Mercedes is a story firmly rooted in classic noir and free of the supernatural horrors that largely define his expansive body of work. The result is a lean (for King at least), tightly plotted detective novel, one that is identifiable for the kind of character, dialogue, and world building that has kept King on the bestsellers lists for forty-plus years.

Thankfully, the Audience Network’s “Mr. Mercedes,” a ten-episode adaptation of the novel, follows recent successes like “It” and “Gerald’s Game” by not only proving itself a faithful and well-made adaptation, but also by expanding on the underlying story in some interesting ways.

After screening the first four episodes of “Mr. Mercedes” back in August, it was clear that the series had definite promise: The opening was visceral and shocking, landing just this side of exploitative. The casting was pitch-perfect, and it encompassed the patient storytelling that every slow-burn mystery requires. I’ve screened the final six episodes and can thankfully say the series lives up to that early promise. With the finale arriving on October 11, here’s what worked and what didn’t for “Mr. Mercedes.”

WHAT WORKS

The Creative Team
There’s no question that “Mr. Mercedes” was primed for success with David E. Kelley (“Big Little Lies,” “Ally McBeal”), series director Jack Bender (“Lost,” “Game of Thrones”), and bestselling author Dennis Lehane leading the charge. After an arguable creative drought following the finale of “Boston Legal” in 2008, Kelley has had a career resurgence of late, most notably as the force behind HBO’s Emmy-winning adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, Big Little Lies. Kelley’s penchant for well-drawn characters, snappy dialogue, and taut pacing are suited to not only Stephen King – Kelley has the precise skillset to rein in some of King’s well-known excesses – but also to the thriller/mystery genre in general. It’s also likely not a coincidence that the four best episodes of the series – episodes four, six, seven, and ten – were written by Dennis Lehane, one of the greatest mystery writers in recent memory and also no stranger to the television writer’s room. The Audience Network smartly set this thriller, centering on a retired detective and a vicious killer who escaped his grasp, up for success right out of the gate and it shows. This is a talented group working near the peak of their careers and it makes for a polished, well-crafted thriller.

The Underlying Dichotomy Between Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield
If you’ve been watching “Mr. Mercedes,” it’s no spoiler to say that Brady Hartsfield (played with eerie precision by Harry Treadaway) is the Mercedes Killer. (This story is a howcatchem, not a whodunit.) What “Mr. Mercedes” does particularly well is tease out a somewhat neglected (for want of a better word) element of King’s novel: the allegorical dichotomy inherent to the characters of Hodges (a suitably whiskey-soaked Brendan Gleeson) and Hartsfield. When the story begins, we see retired detective Hodges as an increasingly reclusive and curmudgeonly shell of the man he once was. He drinks too much, lives in a constant state of unkempt raggedness, and contemplates suicide as he withdraws further and further from society. Hartsfield, on the other hand, is fairly integrated into his community; he has a steady job, maintains friendships, and presents a largely normal if innocuous face to the world. Over the course of the series, this dynamic shifts. As Hartsfield moves ever closer toward his murderous goals in increasing isolation and mental decay, Hodges slowly makes his way back to both community and humanity. As everything begins to slip from Brady’s grasp, Hodges rediscovers himself, finding romance and allies. It’s a fascinating study in the way these two men, each equally obsessive, are both at odds and inextricably linked to one another.

It’s a Miniseries
Stephen King is a sprawling writer, almost Dickensian in his penchant for large casts and meandering storytelling; it’s a hallmark of his writing and likely the reason you either love or hate him. It also makes his work difficult to adapt to film; the best generally either riff on the ideas in his novels (“The Shining”) or adapt shorter works (“Misery,” “Carrie,” “Stand By Me”). “Mr. Mercedes” took the somewhat rare step of spreading the novel out over a ten-episode series wisely giving the story, characters, and the setting room to breathe. There is a sheen of decay over every aspect of “Mr. Mercedes.” It’s symbolic in the early scenes with Hodges, his disheveled appearance a sharp contrast to the smartly dressed detective we see in the premiere’s opening moments. That seed of decay is also prevalent in the steadily deteriorating façade of Hartsfield, who increasingly lets his mask of normalcy slip as the series progresses. Witness the deepening bags under his eyes, the sheen of sweat on his increasingly sallow face. Even the community itself, once a vibrant working-class town, is now left derelict and crumbling in the wake of the late-aughts financial crisis. Jobs, particularly well-paying ones, are hard to come by. Lots are empty in the background, and shuttered or fading businesses can be seen looming in most scenes. This sort of lived-in world building has always been one of King’s strength. He understands that stories of any type are more compelling when they contain people and places we care about. Adapting the novel as a series gives these elements the room they need to flourish and grow, to settle over the viewer in a similar manner to how they settle quietly over the reader. “Mr. Mercedes” makes it clear this is something Kelley and company understand well.

The Casting
Brendan Gleeson is one of the steadiest and most underrated actors working today and he is predictably brilliant as Bill Hodges. Although, honestly, Gleeson is brilliant virtually any time he steps on screen in anything. It’s no real surprise that his foul-mouthed, misanthropic performance feels real and lived in. What’s interesting is the way Treadaway, best known as Victor Frankenstein in “Penny Dreadful,” matches Gleeson nearly scene for scene. Brady Hartsfield is meant to be a largely innocuous presence; the novel describes him as handsome in a nondescript, fade-into-the-background way. However, there is a current of unease lurking just below the surface, one that occasionally makes enough of a ripple leaving those around him unsettled even if they can’t pinpoint precisely why. Treadaway manages to bring those elements to the screen with surprising ease.

Beyond these two leads, talents like Mary-Louise Parker, Kelly Lynch, and Holland Taylor all found places to shine. There is always room for missteps in casting when bringing a book to the screen; “Mr. Mercedes” gamely sidesteps them all.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

Is Ten Too Much?
There’s very little about “Mr. Mercedes” that doesn’t work. I’m a fan of the book; it’s one of my favorites of King’s more recent catalogue and I think Bill Hodges ranks among the author’s best creations. On the whole, “Mr. Mercedes” opens well, but more importantly it sticks the landing. The middle is where the only real issue lingers. While “Mr. Mercedes” is a really good ten-episode series, I have a sneaking suspicion it would have been a great eight-episode one. It’s a minor complaint, but the series does suffer a bit from what’s come to be known as “Netflix bloat,” that increasingly common phenomenon where a series spins its wheels a bit too long before finally kicking into high gear. In the case of “Mr. Mercedes,” the series dawdles a bit too much in its middle section. This is a story that undoubtedly benefits from patient storytelling, but there are a couple of episodes in that middle stretch that don’t provide any forward momentum and largely just reiterate information we already know about the characters involved. I couldn’t help but think of the lean pacing of Kelley’s other recent success, “Big Little Lies.” That series was a mere seven episodes and as finely tuned as they come. For all its positives, a tighter, more focused treatment could have made “Mr. Mercedes” into something truly special.