There was a popular narrative in the ’90s and aughts that Stephen King adaptations for film and television were usually bad. It’s a ridiculous narrative, because if you’ve written the source material for Carrie, The Dead Zone, Stand by Me, The Shining, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption, Hollywood has done pretty well by your work.
Or maybe the truth is that those strong productions aren’t exactly exceptions that prove a rule, but rather the counter-evidence that makes disappointing adaptations even more disappointing? Paramount+’s take on The Stand was disappointing because the writers tried too hard to fix a structure that wasn’t broken. Apple TV+’s version of Lisey’s Story was disappointing because the writer — in this case, some guy named Stephen King — prioritized the integrity of the books to the needs of a different medium.
And yes, Epix’s new 10-part limited series Chapelwaite is disappointing, in large part because nobody involved really wanted to adapt King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” but kinda did it anyway.
“Jerusalem’s Lot,” part of King’s 1978 Night Shift collection, is a slight but creepy tale. It runs a few dozen pages and involves only two or three characters. It isn’t exactly an origin story for King’s second- or third-most-beloved cursed Maine town, but it definitely involves the author’s thematic fascination with locations in which generational rot descends into pure evil. It’s more unnerving than scary, more rats scurrying in the walls than vampire children knocking on windows in the dead of night.
Peter and Jason Filardi’s adaptation for Epix does away with most of the plot of “Jerusalem’s Lot” and jettisons everything insinuating about the story in favor of overly spelled-out and familiar horror tropes that might recall Salem’s Lot. Chapelwaite is more purely horror and yet somehow duller, especially in a plodding first half. If the first five episodes of Chapelwaite had been condensed to two hours and the last five episodes had been trimmed to another two, I would still say that the miniseries was a slow burn, while acknowledging that there’s schlocky fun to be had in the home stretch.
Oscar winner Adrien Brody, maintaining the same gruff whisper and pained expression for 10 consecutive hours, plays Charles Boone. Charles fled a family legacy of mental illness and has spent his life on whaling vessels, which somehow didn’t stop him from raising a family of his own, including a nameless, characterless wife he picked up on an island along the way and kids Honor (Jennifer Ens), Loa (Sirena Gulamgaus) and Tane (Ian Ho), who were raised aboard ships, which somebody decided made sense.
Circa 1850, Charles’ wife dies at the same convenient moment at which one of his cousins passes away, leaving Charles the family estate, Chapelwaite, in rural Maine, an hour’s carriage ride from the town of Preacher’s Corners, home of a cast of puritanical characters half-lifted from a Hawthorne novel and collectively harboring fear and hatred toward the Boone family, past and present.
It’s a resentment that ties to behavior by Charles’ ancestors, has everything to do with prejudice toward his biracial kids, and may relate to the seemingly abandoned mining community of Jerusalem’s Lot. Tensions are exacerbated by a mystery ailment spreading through town, a condition that leaves its victims anemic and sensitive to sunlight. One could connect the fight between science and superstition in Preacher’s Corners to COVID-19, but not in any way that would add much to the story or that really resonates.
Attempting to get to the root of the Boone family curse is Rebecca (Emily Hampshire), introduced as an aspiring writer and then never given another personality trait. She takes a job as governess at Chapelwaite and begins to explore, basically without changing her tone or expression in 10 hours.
The lack of character development for Rebecca, technically the show’s second lead, is an easy illustration of everything wrong with the first five episodes. Anybody who has read the story will know instantly that the Filardis are leaving the text behind, but despite the abundance of time in which to introduce and develop new characters, those are tasks that go largely undone.
The three kids are at least slightly sympathetic, with Ens and particularly Gulamgaus providing easily the series’ most dimensional performances. But the decision to give Charles a trio of children who have Pacific Islander roots is a hollow gimmick, and nothing in their cultural background pays any dividends at all. Still, they’re vastly more interesting than the sour-faced priest, the sour-faced constable, the sour-faced priest’s sour-faced wife, the sour-faced priest’s sour-faced wife’s sour-faced father, or anybody else in Preacher’s Corners.
If, in five full hours of television, you’re unable to generate a single character worth rooting for or even caring about, you’re in a tough position when the next five hours require audience investment in whether those non-characters live or die. There are no real stakes in Chapelwaite. And yes, “stakes” is an intended pun.
Had those introductory episodes been five hours of haunted house creepiness interspersed with clever, thoughtful dialogue, I wouldn’t object. Stephen King wouldn’t deny being influenced by Shirley Jackson and Henry James, so what would be the harm of retrofitting “Jerusalem’s Lot” as a Haunting of Hill House or Turn of the Screw knockoff. Instead, it’s mostly dark shadows — again, pun probably intended — and lots and lots of worms, because a so-called Book of Worms plays a major role in the story, and so somebody decided, “There should be worms everywhere!”
As the village Jerusalem’s Lot becomes more central to the story and the true nature of the illness becomes clearer, Chapelwaite shifts gears and becomes ghoulish Hammer horror, complete with spurting blood and graphic beheadings and whatnot, before transitioning again and becoming an undead-siege Western (basically 30 Days of Night, without acknowledgment). After this change of pace, I wouldn’t call Chapelwaite good, but at least it finally starts moving.
These final stretches contain aspects that amused me, including some endearingly campy scenery-chewing from Christopher Heyerdahl as a menacing figure named Jakub, and an odd nightmare sequence shot through a red filter that offers a jarring reminder of how otherwise drab and washed out Chapelwaite is. In that respect, it matches the two lead performances, turns that are supposed to hint at potential romance despite the stars having as much chemistry as a fish and a tennis racquet.
Epix is calling Chapelwaite a series, with no “limited” in front of it. It ends largely conclusively, and even though I didn’t buy the ending, I had a bit of begrudging respect for how anticlimactic it is. Nothing in the finale or the series leading up to it indicates that there was enough material for a 10-episode single season, much less for further installments.