If you’re one of the longtime fans of Locke & Key, the comic book series with a devoted following from illustrator Gabe Rodriguez and writer Joe Hill (the son of Stephen King), you were finally treated to a long-awaited, oft-delayed reward this weekend: A small-screen adaptation, at last, of the comic series that has been in the works, off and on, for a few years now, bouncing between a number of platforms before ultimately arriving as, in the opinion of this writer, a satisfying and family-friend fantasy series now streaming on Netflix.
The series follows three siblings in the wake of their father’s murder. They move, along with their mother, to their family’s ancestral home, which they slowly come to realize hides a set of magic keys that bestow upon whomever wields them powerful new abilities. Why this series works — and the reason I enjoyed it, while there will be some of you who definitely won’t find this up to your liking — is that showrunners Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill (who’ve had a hand in producing some of the best TV in years between them, but more on that in a moment) decided to move away from the comics’ emphasis on horror and tilt the whole thing more toward fantasy in the adaptation they produced. The idea, Cuse explained to me, was to make this something that would appeal to families, and to anyone who’s a fan of things like Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters and the Harry Potter film franchise. That may not be you, and that’s okay. A number of early reviews (like these) have found the series plenty satisfying for that reason — it’s in the same ballpark as Stranger Things, but definitely not as dark and violent — and Cuse and Averill believe in the show enough that they’re already working on a Season 2, and we caught up with both of them to talk about the show.
If you put stock in such things, Locke & Key at the time of this writing has a higher critics score on Rotten Tomatoes than does The Witcher, one of Netflix’s buzziest and most-watched series ever (72% for Locke & Key, 66% for The Witcher). Locke & Key, explains Averill, is “horror, it’s fantasy, it’s young adult, it’s a mystery, and it’s a family drama. And what’s so great about working with Netflix is they support their creators’ vision. They don’t try to tell you what the show needs to be … We had a lot of creative freedom to tell the story we wanted to tell.”
And it’s a story they have wanted to tell for quite a while, because as Cuse adds: “I’ve been working on this since 2016, and Meredith has been working on this since May of 2018. We put in the time and effort to make Locke & Key as good as we can make it.”
All that said, I half-expected to go into this feeling like it was along the lines of a CW kind of series, given the young stars who portray the three siblings and the fact that we’re dealing with a house and magic keys (I hadn’t read the comics, so I came at this fresh). If you’re familiar with and a fan of Cuse’s and Averill’s past work (Cuse having been a co-showrunner for Lost and showrunner for Amazon’s Jack Ryan, while Averill has worked as a producer and writer for shows like The Haunting of Hill House, Jane The Virgin, and The Good Wife) you should find something to latch on to here. Some critics have complained the show tries to be too much at once, as we alluded to earlier. I didn’t mind that so much — there are flashbacks that will be familiar to Lost fans, as the characters come to terms with their grief. The fantasy elements, such as watching what the keys are able to do … I’m at a point where, at the end of a long day, I don’t necessarily need to see the most critically-lauded TV show that’s ever been made. My main criteria is just that I want to be entertained and indulged, and this show delivers on that score.
“For me, when (the show) moved over to Netflix and they were looking for someone to develop it and I was handed the comics, I was not someone who’d read many comics growing up,” Averill said. “I was immediately struck by how emotional it was.
“I was just completely compelled by the story of these kids learning more about their father who’d just died and ultimately about themselves through these keys, these fantastic keys. And I thought it was such a unique way to tell this coming-of-age story, and a story about grief — and I was really attracted to it for that reason, how unique it was.”
We should also single out the visuals here, which are at times a real treat. One of the keys, for example, is referred to by the characters as the “head key.” You stick it in the back of your neck, Matrix-style, and it allows you to step inside your own head, with the aesthetic presented differently for each character. So for the youngest, for example, the inner workings of his head is presented in the style of a kiddie arcade. The middle child, the daughter, sees her head presented in the style of a trippy, dazzlingly colorful mall. You get the idea. This was actually one of the challenging things about adapting the comic for the small screen, and gives you an idea about how the showrunners tilted things away from the horror aspect. Averill points to one of the iconic panels in the comic, where we see the character of Bode use the head key and his head actually flips open, and you can look inside his head that way.
honestly Bode's head is what I want my living room to look like pic.twitter.com/pXsnEAyRdm
— Locke & Key (@lockekeynetflix) February 9, 2020
“It’s one of the more memorable panels,” Averill says, “and it’s amazing, but that’s not really translatable to the screen. I mean, it is, but it would be horrific. So one of our challenges was trying to take something like the head key and adapt it and find our own version of what that would look like. And so what we landed on is this key would sort of open a door that would allow you to step into your own brain.”
Plot-wise, you don’t necessarily need to know much about the show going into it. The family’s home is named Keyhouse, and the kids discover that the keys it hides are magical and might be connected to their father’s death. As they explore the keys and what you can do with them, though, it awakens a mysterious demon who desperately wants to steal the keys for itself.
Hill himself has said, in a statement included with press materials in advance of the show streaming beginning on Friday, that he thinks Netflix has come up with the best possible TV adaptation of his series. My assessment is along the lines of that from Ars Technica, which opines that Netflix’s version of the series was overall worth the wait that fans of the comic have had to endure. I found this to be a pleasant addition to the Netflix catalog that’s actually made me now want to check out the comics. “The challenge whenever you’re doing an adaptation is what’s the degree of fidelity you have to the original source material,” Cuse told me. “What are the important elements you want to emphasize when you’re translating it from one medium to another
“For Meredith and I, we spent a lot of time at the outset trying to figure out how to turn this into something that was really our aesthetic, and we did that in concert with Joe Hill — who wasn’t precious at all about his comic. He was very open to us finding our way to a version of the show that maintained a lot about what was great about the comics but that also was its own thing.”