NOS4A2: The TV Adaptation Commits the Cardinal Sin of Horror

Horror may scare you; it may disgust you. It may create a sense of creeping dread. There are many kinds of horror; psychological horror, morbid horror, splatter horror, post-apocalyptic horror, body horror (which is different from splatter). Whatever type of horror a book, a film or a TV show is, it mustn’t be boring. AMC’s adaptation of NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, is boring. I binge-watched it, and I’m tempted to whine and say that I wish I could get those ten hours back.

I hadn’t read the book, although I bought a copy and started it earlier this week. It’s already about fifty times less boring than the first season of NOS4A2.

Part of the problem is in that sentence –“first season.” Not having read or even looked closely at the book, I didn’t know it was 700 pages long. The joke’s on me. There is no way this story could be encapsulated in 10 episodes. Probably, it needs at least 3 seasons, and more likely 5. And I won’t be there for them.

I’ll say this; production values are good. The 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith which is the villain’s car (or maybe something more) is thing of beauty. Ashleigh Cummings, who plays Vic McQueen (short for Victoria), is an excellent young actor who is doing the best she can to keep this turgid drama afloat. Jakhara Smith who plays the psychic medium Maggie also does a fine job. Zachary Quinto plays Charlie Manx, the villain and CEO of Christmasland, a place where children who are stolen from their parents are spirited off to.

Like Charlie Manx, Vic is a “strong creative,” able to part the membrane between the “real world and the world of thought,” and to create “inscapes,” other realities. Christmasland is an inscape. Vic’s is an old covered bridge that was long ago torn down in “the real world;” the bridge also helps her find lost things. A strong creative needs a way to part the veil between worlds. Maggie calls this “a knife.” Vic’s is a motorcycle. Manx’s is the Wraith — except there’s a strong sense that the Wraith is something more.

So, really, it seems like there’s a lot here that should be scary: kidnapped children trapped in the backseat of the Wraith, who slowly turn into vampires; mothers drugged, raped and killed, and eerie Christmas images. Charlie Manx, a parasitic child-stealer, always offers his child victims a candy cane.

Other than a plodding approach to the story-telling, there are a couple of obvious problems with the adaptation. The first is the interpretation of Manx. Manx in the book is creepily fake-jolly, as befits a Christmas-themed demon. Quinto, obviously following direction, pays Manx as a Zachary Quinto Villain. He’s stern, menacing and intense. It’s hard to see how this villain became so enamored of Christmas.

Secondly, it seems as if, to compress the story (which in the books covers decades, with Vic maturing from an eight-year-old to a mother in her mid-thirties), the showrunners opt for a Chosen One trope, or at least a Special Girl. When Vic first uses her “knife” to find something lost, the Wraith reacts. Manx pulls out a magical map and a section lights up. At that point, he begins to search for Vic. This changes a vital dynamic from the book. In the book, an angry, rebellious, teenage Vic gets on her bike and goes, specifically, “looking for trouble.” Her knife takes her to Manx.

Turning Vic into an object of Manx’s desire, to a Special Girl, removes her self-determination and, to use a hackneyed expression, her agency. It turns supernaturally frightening Manx into a proficient sexual harasser and little more.

I was deeply disappointed in Manx’s human minion, the Gasmask Man, who is intellectually disabled. Played with virtuosity by Olafur Darri Olafsson, the character is a negative stereotype. To my surprise, the character in the book is a negative stereotype too. Part of the problem is that the show insists on making Gasmask Man a school custodian at Vic’s school, and they are friends. But he’s also a rapist and serial murderer, so the friendship is nasty — not scary, just nasty.

Those are the big problems. Smaller problems include the dismal pace and the constant argument between Vic’s troubled parents (it’s one argument over and over); the townie-versus-rich-kid-romance that goes nowhere, the art school application and desperately labored attempt to make it dramatic (everyone who thinks that Vic is going to graduate and go off to art school, raise your hand) and the overuse of symbols and lingering shots meant to convey Depth and Meaning. (I’m looking at you, pinwheel flowers in Gasmask Man’s front yard.)

Christmasland had the opportunity to be something crazy-wild, beautiful and frightening. Instead, it’s a tawdry amusement park. In a way, it’s the best example of what’s wrong here.

I’ll keep reading Joe Hill’s 700-page book because the troubled, damaged Vic is a compelling character; Manx of the book is a jovial, conniving horror and the Wraith is a powerful demon in its own right. Now this is horror.

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