The Key to Success

With ‘Locke and Key’, Netflix adapts itself

Locke and Key, now streaming on Netflix, contains some pretty big departures from the comic series it’s based on. But its primary focus is adapting other Netflix shows.

On the title page, Netflix describes this horror fantasy show, based on an IDW comic written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, as “Narnia meets Stranger Things.’” That’s a pretty basic distillation of a series about a trio of siblings who move to Keyhouse, their late father’s massive (and massively creepy) Massachusetts manor after someone brutally murders him. Soon, the kids find that their house contains a multitude of strange keys that have magic powers. Among them: There’s the Anywhere Key, which allows someone to go, well, anywhere. There’s the Head Key, which lets someone literally walk around inside their own head. There’s the Ghost Key, which allows people who step through select doors to become a ghost. All of these keys are a part of the Locke family’s legacy–they just don’t know it yet.

Locke siblings Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and Bode (poor Jackson Robert Scott, AKA Georgie from It, who clearly hasn’t learned to stop talking to strangers in dark places) slowly learn the lore of these keys while exploring Keyhouse and grieving the loss of their dad Rendell (Bill Heck, doing a cross between Keanu Reeves and Jack Pearson). Recovering alcoholic mom Nina (Darby Stanchfield) knows hardly anything about Rendell’s childhood and is determined to just fix up the house until they can flip it and start a new life for real. As they all try to cope, a demon named Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), who has a link to Rendell’s past and is hellbent on owning all the keys, pursues them.

If all of this has you thinking of another Netflix show about a haunted house and a family dealing with trauma, you’re not wrong. The Haunting of Hill House comparisons hit social media almost immediately after the first season of Locke and Key dropped in the early hours of February 7. People also compared the show to Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for the way it blended teen angst drama with horror and fantasy. And of course, with its “group of youngsters banding together to fight evil” vibe, the Stranger Things and Series of Unfortunate Events comparisons rolled in, too.

One can’t help but think that’s by (algorithmic) design. Locke and Key has been in development hell in some form since 2010, when Fox gave it a pilot and then discarded it. Then producers picked it back up for a possible film series and then another pilot at Hulu before it landed at Netflix. Showrunners Carlton Cuse, Aron Eli Coleite, and Meredith Averill toned down the more horrific moments of the comic and emphasized the fantasy elements to fit with the Netflix mold. At its best, it’s a peak teen Netflix fantasy drama; at its worst, it’s emblematic of what fellow Book & Film Globe contributor Omar Gallaga calls Netflix’s mediocrity problem.

To be fair, many of the changes are for the better. The comic could be excessively gruesome at times, and the show is mostly lighthearted fun. The show’s story manages to cut some of the fat from the comics and also adapt a storyline from each arc seamlessly within 10 episodes. In a nice gesture to horror legend and one-time Joe Hill babysitter Tom Savini, Kinsey’s film club friends call themselves The Savini Squad. The visuals are also mostly true to the books–Keyhouse looks exactly the same, and it’s fun to watch the way the show unfolds the Head Key arc from the books.

Adapting a comic to another medium is tough, especially in this case, when the comic communicates so much in panels and flashbacks and time lapses. The show features a lot of expository dialogue and “tell, don’t show” moments that came off beautifully in the comics but feel clunky on the screen.

Emilia Jones
Emilia Jones in ‘Locke and Key’.

Despite my avowed dedication to the comics, this adaptation won me over once I realized it was going to be the Netflix version of this tale. Tyler, Kinsey and Bode are all perfectly cast, with Emilia Jones being the strongest of the bunch. She plays Kinsey with jaded and dejected body language, but can’t hide the vulnerability and fire in her eyes. And for a child actor who has to carry entire scenes by himself, Scott acquits himself well.

Ultimately, this is the most accessible version of this story, and as a fan, I’m grateful there’s an adaptation to begin with. I just wish it didn’t feel like it was manufactured by an algorithm.

You’ve seen all of this before on other Netflix shows, because Netflix is trying to make shows based on what its audience already knows. Locke and Key is a fun way to spend some time in front of the TV, though it’s not much more than that. But hey, we’ll always have the comics.

Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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