How 'The Shining' Influenced HBO’s Stephen King Drama 'The Outsider'

Cynthia Erivo, Jason Bateman and Nika King - Getty - H 2020
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The first 30 or so minutes of The Outsider, HBO’s atmospheric new limited series based on the 2018 Stephen King novel, play out like a familiar slow-burn crime drama: a small-town cop (Ben Mendelsohn), haunted by a recent tragedy in his own past, investigates a brutal child murder that’s shaken his community to its core. What's not clear initially is how this story could possibly sustain multiple episodes, since the case seems to be open-and-shut. Beloved local Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also executive produces and directs some episodes) is the murderer, according to multiple eyewitnesses and physical evidence at the scene. 

But once Terry’s ironclad alibi emerges – he was miles away at the time of the murder, and there’s video evidence to prove it – things start to get weird, in the otherworldly sense. As Mendelsohn’s Ralph begins to realize he and his fellow officers are in over their heads, The Outsider reveals itself to be an unusual blend of grounded police drama and supernatural horror.

“I think that’s what attracted King to the material,” executive producer and director Andrew Bernstein told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s Los Angeles premiere. “He wanted to take what seemed like a straight crime procedural and turn it upside down with the supernatural element. It’s a tricky balance, because we wanted to really ground the show in reality and in the characters rather than try to scare the audience at every turn.” 

To that end, Bateman and Bernstein identified one iconic King adaptation to use as inspiration for their take on The Outsider. “The Shining was a template for what we were trying to do,” Bernstein said, pointing specifically to the central question of whether The Shining’s increasingly unhinged protagonist, Jack Torrance, is losing his mind in a human way, or being taken over by a supernatural evil. “The question of where does the evil come from: is it within himself, or is it coming from somewhere else? That was something Jason and I talked about a lot in relation to this project.”

Bateman added that The Shining had been influential not only in a conceptual way, but also in his approach to directing the show. “I was trying for The Shining in that there's a certain kind of horror that exists in some of Stephen King's stories, and then there's a certain kind of dread that exists in others,” he explained. “This show aligns best, I think, with the dread and impending-doom feel of The Shining, and with the intense kind of atmosphere that was in The Shining. I'm also a big Kubrick fan, and just composition-wise with camera and lighting and music, that film was a huge inspiration for me.”

Like Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, HBO’s version of The Outsider arrives with some subtle but significant changes from the original text. One of the most fruitful tweaks is to the character of Holly Gibney, a wunderkind private investigator who is white in King’s novel but a woman of color onscreen, and whose social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder are spotlighted in Cynthia Erivo’s compelling performance. “One thing I've never really seen is a woman of color being shown in that light, where there is a social awkwardness and the communication barrier is slightly up,” Erivo told THR. “It was fascinating to explore that awkwardness of how she relates to the world and combine that with a brilliant mind and all these specifics of how she dresses, the way she speaks, why she answers things, if she answers things, when she takes a pause. Her rhythm is so different from anything I've played with before, and I really enjoyed her.”

Though The Outsider is the latest in a long line of recent King TV adaptations, the show to which it’s been compared most frequently is the non-King-affiliated True Detective – it’s a genuine challenge to find a single review that doesn’t reference the 2014 HBO drama in assessing The Outsider. “I think you always want your thing to stand on its own and not be compared to anything else, but that's unrealistic,” Bernstein said of the comparison. “And if you're gonna be compared to something, True Detective is an amazing show. Are there comparisons to be made? Maybe. We didn't watch every episode of True Detective before we shot this; we went out to make our own thing. But I think it's just the nature of the beast, and that's what people need to do."

He added, "I think it's the blessing and the curse of working with HBO – they have such a great track record that you’re inevitably going to be compared to what’s come before. My hope is we can stand on our own and soon people will be comparing other shows to us, and we can be on the other side of it.”

The Outsider's producer MRC shares a parent company, Valence Media, with The Hollywood Reporter.