If you’re hungry for a dark and satisfying series to really sink your teeth into, AMC’s “NOS4A2” looks to deliver with a great story and top-tier talent.
Tonight brings the highly anticipated premiere of AMC’s new series based on Joe Hill’s New York Times best-selling novel NOS4A2. I had the incredible fortune to catch the first episode back in March at SXSW, with Hill himself in attendance — along with stars Ashleigh Cummings and Zachary Quinto, and the series show runner and head writer Jami O’Brien.
Billed as “a different kind of vampire story”, the show follows Vic McQueen, a gifted young woman who discovers she has a supernatural ability to find lost things. This ability puts her on a collision course with the evil and immortal Charlie Manx, a supernatural villain who feeds off the souls of children and then deposits what remains of them into Christmasland.
I had not read Hill’s novel before diving into this series.
Thus, I didn’t have any specific expectations or knowledge of the story going in. What I can tell you is that, after watching the first episode of the show, I was extremely eager to read the book. (Fortunately, Hill was kind enough to gift all those in attendance with a signed copy, which is now at the top of my Summer reading list.)
I did learn from the Q&A with Hill and O’Brien that adapting Hill’s sprawling story was no easy feat.
The story spans decades while weaving together multiple storylines. In addition to the supernatural plot points, which are plentiful, there’s also a great deal of human drama. In the first episode, for example, poor Vic is forced to grapple with her newfound psychic gift — one that takes a heavy mental and physical toll — as well as significant troubles at home and at school. As Hill explains, a film adaptation could have never done justice to the massive scope of his story, and a series was the only real choice.
What’s more, the popular author seemed overjoyed by the way his unique vision was lovingly brought to the small screen.
O’Brien, the woman responsible for the daunting task of perfectly capturing the intended mood and tone of the novel, explains that she was given a great deal of creative freedom by Hill. He remained very hands off throughout the process and trusted her to adapt the story for a new medium. For his part, Hill let the audience in on a bit of his own inner dialogue as he was crafting this story. He believed there was something so wonderfully sinister about taking a holiday like Christmas, which is ostensibly about peace and happiness, and revealing its dark underbelly — twisting the iconic imagery into something dark and menacing.
Though Hill let O’Brien fully steer the ship, he did offer her a bit of advice to help her capture the spirit of his dark imaginings. During the first conversation about the show, he said to her, “There’s nothing scarier than a candy cane in July.” That simple yet powerful point stayed with her, especially as she tackled the scarier parts of the show. When you see the first episode, you’ll understand.
Not only is this one of the few shows to boast a female showrunner (91 percent are male), but the entire show is very female centric.
Hill and O’Brien were in agreement that the female perspective of the young protagonist Vic (Cummings) should drive the production. The writers’ room was intentionally staffed with mostly women, and Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale) was hired to direct the first two episodes.
As discussed during the Q&A, one of the major changes made from the novel to the screen was with regards to the character of Vic McQueen. She is only 8 at the start of the novel. In the series, however, we first meet her as a high school senior.
A talented artist, she yearns to attend a prestigious art school in Rhode Island. But without the financial means or the full support of her parents, she worries her dreams will remain out of grasp.
Though we don’t get any of it in the first episode, much of the backstory for the character of Manx (played by the brilliant Zachary Quinto) was apparently pulled from Hill’s spinoff graphic novel “Wraith” (named for the model of Manx’s 1938 Rolls-Royce). Clearly, I’ve got one more title to add to that Summer reading list.
It seems a bit obvious to point out that Quinto is excellent as Manx.
Honestly, when is he ever not excellent? With that said, this is a role that demands an actor of his caliber. And while he’s no stranger to playing the villain, there was something special about this character that drew the Emmy-nominated actor to the role.
We’re first introduced to Manx, a decrepit old man, at the very beginning of the first episode. (Quinto is virtually unrecognizable thanks to the brilliant makeup effects by Academy Award-winning artist Joel Harlow). He’s just lured a sad and lonely young boy into his Rolls-Royce Wraith with Christmas music and a bounty of presents. Once locked inside the car, Manx’s manservant violently disposes of the boy’s mom and her boyfriend — sending a clear message about the tone of this series.
Manx tries to comfort the terrified boy, telling him he’s going somewhere very special. He’s off to Christmasland, where he’ll experience nothing but pure happiness. But it isn’t long before the boy’s appearance starts to change. He grows increasingly pale, sick, and frail.
Meanwhile, Manx begins to appear much younger and healthier. Instead of sucking blood to survive, Manx drains the life force of his young victims to restore his own youth and virility.
Clearly, he’s the villain of this story. But Quinto insists there’s much more to Manx than first meets the eye. And he teases a rich backstory, marked by deep childhood traumas. It’s this suffering that gives the character a moral complexity that spoke to Quinto, hinting that Charlie Manx may not in fact be pure evil.
Ashleigh Cummings (Hounds of Love) was also very drawn to her character because of her strength and courage.
But she also appreciated the way the Vic’s warmth, empathy, compassion and sensitivity were not played as weaknesses but as a huge part of what makes her so strong — and such a formidable opponent to Manx.
For her part, Cummings is extraordinary as the talented and troubled teen trying to come to terms with her gifts and the difficult hand she’s been dealt. She has to convey a wide range of emotions, and she says so much with just her wonderfully expressive eyes. Although she’s got an undeniable strength, she also exudes a real vulnerability that makes her relatable and easy to root for.
During the Q&A, Hill emphasized the importance of that character depth and what horror means to him.
While he certainly appreciates the bloody and gory stapes of the genre, he thinks truly great horror needs to affect you on a deeper level.
“Horror is not just about sadism. While that can be fun, it’s not scary to me. I think really effective horror is about empathy,” explained Hill. Horror is about making you feel something, making you invest in characters and care about their plight. That’s when real terror sets in — when it matters to you what happens next and how characters survive (or don’t) their harrowing ordeal.
Hill notes that part of what he really loves about the medium of television for his story is that there is ample time (season one of NOS4A2 consists of ten episodes) for the viewer to really fall in love with the characters over many weeks and months.
He also has tremendous praise for his two lead actors, noting how impressed he was with Quinto’s ability to be truly frightening, yet still witty and strangely charming, and Cummings’ ability to dig deep and convey such tremendous emotion and heartbreak (especially in the final three episodes).
One of the things I really loved about the series premiere is how quickly the writers throw you right into the action.
Unlike most series which take their time slowly unveiling characters and conflicts, NOS4A2 begins with a bang — in a wonderfully twisted fashion — and wastes no time getting to the supernatural spookiness. It’s a great lead in for the series, even for those unfamiliar with the source material. And it’s very effective at setting the stage for the terror to come.
Despite the changes necessary to adapt the novel for the small screen, the consensus from those in the know is that very little of real substance from the source material seems to have been changed, which should make fans of the book very happy.
Having seen the excellent pilot in March, it’s been a merciless wait for the show to arrive on television.
The wait ends tonight at 10/9C. Fortunately, if you’re like me and struggle with patience, AMC Premiere subscribers can binge watch the first three episodes of the show commercial free at amc.com. While I’ll refrain from giving too much away, I am happy to report that the next two episodes of the show beautifully build upon the momentum established in the first episode.
Each episode begins with a chilling cold open and ends much the same way it begins — with a shiver. And while there’s plenty of horror to satiate genre fans, there’s also a compelling — often emotionally gut-wrenching — story. Combined with stellar performances and excellent cinematography, this can easily be described as must-see television.
As Hill noted, Season One of NOS4A2 only covers about a third of the more than 700-page novel. So let’s all keep our fingers crossed that the show becomes a big hit, as there is so much more incredible story to tell.