An energy-sucking vampire. A mysterious bridge to lost things. Mystical Scrabble tiles. One seriously classic car. “Scissors for the Drifter.” Have I caught your attention? Fans of Joe Hill’s spooky novel NOS4A2 know what I’m talking about — but for the rest of you, there’s an AMC TV adaptation on AMC now. The first episode aired on Sunday. I watched the premiere episode back in March at a SXSW screening that was followed by a Q&A with Hill, show creator Jami O’Brien, and stars Ashleigh Cummings and Zachary Quinto.
NOS4A2 tells the story of a mysterious monster named Charlie Manx (Quinto), who drives around the country abducting children and transporting them in his old Rolls-Royce Wraith to an otherworldly realm called Christmasland. He’s a vampire in the sense that he sustains himself on the souls of kids, but this is not your classic neck-biter despite the Nosferatu reference in the title (“NOS4A2” is his license plate). He’s the hero of his own story, saving children from lives of sadness and regret and taking them to a place where “every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law.” But the hero of our story is Vic McQueen (Cummings), a headstrong young woman from Massachusetts with a strange ability to track down what is lost — by summoning and riding across the Shorter Way Bridge, which will drop her off wherever she needs to go (while causing some pretty extreme side effects that take a toll on Vic’s body).
Beyond that, all I could really tell you would be the plot of the novel — and the series makes enough changes to the source material that I’m hesitant to project too far. That’s not a complaint, mind you. From what I could tell, the show made clever alterations in order to streamline the story rather than to alter its essential design, but it’s enough that I don’t want to assume I know exactly how the show will draw Manx into Vic’s orbit. Suffice it to say that they will collide, and the fate of the abducted children will hang in the balance. Children who are eerily transformed by their time in Manx’s care.
Instead, I want to focus on some of the insights I gathered from the pilot and the panel:
Season One Will Not Cover The Whole Book
In fact, the first season will only adapt the first third of the novel, leaving room for the show to continue without running out of source material (not to mention the fact that Hill also wrote a prequel comic about the history of Charlie Manx, called “Wraith,” which could, at the very least, inspire some flashbacks here and there).
Vic Isn’t The Only Person With Supernatural Gifts
The pilot also introduces Maggie (JJ Smith), a Scrabble tile-toting librarian from Iowa who uses the letters as a form of divination. And she’s already on the case, trying to learn more about the kidnappings! The episode opens with Manx abducting a lonely little boy named Danny, which introduces us to his unique M.O. (more on that in a bit). But it turns out that Maggie knew Danny, so when he goes missing she asks her tiles where he is. “The Wraith” is the response she gets, because Scrabble tiles, like Twitter, aren’t great at context.
It’s unclear from the pilot just how connected Maggie and Vic — and their unique powers — might be, though the groundwork has already been laid for Maggie to seek Vic out thanks to another clue from her tiles. I’m also curious to see whether Maggie’s powers exact a toll on her the way Vic’s do.
Vic Has Been Aged Up
The novel follows Vic from childhood to adulthood, but the show decided to condense that window for a very simple reason: they wanted to be able to cast one actress for the audience to grow attached to, rather than hiring a child actor and an adult actor. So in the pilot, the Vic McQueen we meet is already a high schooler, trying to decide her future while watching her family life fall apart around her. She wants to go to art school to embrace her talents, but her mother doesn’t think they can afford it and would rather she stick around after high school and help her clean houses. Meanwhile, her father does support Vic’s dreams… but he’s also an unreliable alcoholic who gets into violent screaming matches with her mother. One of the best surprises of the pilot is Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s turn as Vic’s father, because the actor absolutely nails the warmth and weakness of the man Vic loves so much, even as he is revealed to be far weaker than she ever imagined. I was ready to be wowed by Quinto as Manx, but I wasn’t expecting to be so moved and frustrated as I was by Moss-Bachrach.
But Seriously, Quinto Is Pretty Great Too
If you’ve seen any promo pics from the series, you have probably seen Zachary Quinto’s immortal villain already. Though you’d be forgiven if you didn’t recognize him under all that creepy old man make up (for the record, that’s him in the header pic up top!). The thing about Manx is that he’s not exactly a sexy vampire in any way. When he’s hungry, he looks decrepit. And when he’s had a meal, his clock rewinds to a younger appearance. Quinto said in the Q&A that he was interested in that transformative aspect to the role, and that they made the decision to essentially create 5 distinct phases, or ages, for his character to cycle through. Which I imagine will eventually become a sort of visual shorthand for how hungry he is at any given time.
Kids? Christmas? Seriously?
The idea of turning a vampire into a sort of effed-up jolly old Saint Nick is one of the things that makes NOS4A2 so enjoyable, but what makes it downright disturbing is it does to those children along the way. The pilot only hints at the fate of the kids in Manx’s care (Danny continues to look worse, and starts to sport some seriously sharp teeth, all while Manx gets younger and younger), but Hill spoke a bit about the dynamic between them in the Q&A. As mentioned above, Manx really does think of himself as the hero here, protecting these kids by draining all the bad emotions — the guilt, the regret, the sadness — on their way to Christmasland. But the thing about those negative emotions is that they are essential to learning, to growing as a person. If you’re a creature of pure happiness and innocence, Hill posits, you’re basically a sociopath. The kind of person who would play a game called “Scissors for the Drifter” — which Manx only references on screen, but I can only hope the show pays it off in the future.
There Just Might Be A Larger, Connected Universe After All
One of the things the novel did that excited fans was that it explicitly referenced not only Hill’s previous works (such as Locke & Key and Horns) but also those of his father, Stephen King (himself a master of creating a connected universe), hinting that at least certain themes and landmarks may be shared. The pilot wastes no time hinting at the same, with an exciting glimpse-and-you’ll-miss-it easter egg that will make you want to pause and stare at your TV. Whether this is simply a throwaway tease, or a concept that may be fleshed out in future episodes, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. But the fact that it’s there at all is… intriguing.
Image sources (in order of posting): AMC, AMC (via YouTube), AMC