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Locke & Key has faced a long uphill battle to the screen

It’s been through so many iterations, studios, and services, it’s a miracle it finally got made

A dark-haired woman surreptitiously peers around a vine-wrapped tree in Locke & Key. Photo: Peter Stranks/Netflix

Unlike Adam Sandler’s Netflix movie series, which just keeps chugging eternally onward, the streaming service’s adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s comics series Locke & Key has had a rough journey to the screen. It’s surprising, after so many aborted attempts at adapting this story, to see it finally arriving on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 7. The project doesn’t seem entirely real after all this time. But the first season is actually completed, and its streaming arrival is a good time to look back at the long, arduous uphill battle the series has faced.

[Ed. note: spoilers ahead for the Locke & Key comic.]

Welcome To Lovecraft

The first issue of Locke & Key came out back in 2008, introducing the Locke family. After Rendell Locke is murdered, his wife Nina and three children move into his ancestral house, an old manor called “Keyhouse” that comes with a rich history. They’re looking for a fresh start, but instead, they find a series of magical keys and a mysterious woman bent on revenge against the family.

Not even a month after the premiere issue debuted, the Weinsteins acquired the film and TV rights to Locke & Key through Dimension Films, with the idea of turning the book into a film series. But by 2010, the production of the live-action adaptation began facing issues. Dimension lost the rights to the comic, and Star Trek’s (2009) Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci acquired them. They planned to produce a live-action TV series rather than a film, and they intended for franchise Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks TV to produce in partnership, with Fox airing the show.

After Fox greenlit a pilot, Kurtzman and Orci wrote a script with Josh Friedman (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), who was tapped as showrunner. Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go) directed the pilot, but Fox passed on taking it to series, and it was only screened once at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, after it had already been rejected. It occasionally resurfaces on YouTube.

The pilot, which was made when the six-volume comics series was about halfway done, is a fairly faithful (though condensed) adaptation of the first Locke & Key collection, Welcome to Lovecraft. The episode moves quickly compared to the comic, which jumps around in time and follows minor characters alongside the Lockes. And the Fox pilot tones down the comic’s colorful characters to make them look more like “normal” teens. As mentioned by reviewers who saw the Comic-Con screening, the pilot mostly skips Rendell Locke’s murder, only partially revealing what happened in flashbacks, and it drops many of the side characters as well.

Keys to the Kingdom

Another issue with the Fox pilot, which was addressed by critics at the time, is that it underplays the comic’s darkness, and even its fantasy elements. The pilot, looks like something that would air on The CW – it hints at out-of-the-ordinary events, rather than bringing them to the forefront. That contrasts with the rest of the Fox schedule for 2011: This was the year Terra Nova and Alcatraz premiered, and Fringe was at its height. High-concept shows were not foreign to Fox, and even Terra Nova was more effects-dependent than the Locke & Key pilot.

This is a major issue that has followed Locke & Key, directly or indirectly. The horror visuals Rodríguez drew in the comic would be nearly impossible to replicate in live-action, let alone on a TV budget. He created a fantasy world unlike any other. There are blockbuster-like action scenes like a fight between a giant Tyler Locke and a shadow demon that would require a Game of Thrones-level budget to even attempt to do it justice. Even in smaller moments, the comic often focused on bizarre imagery, like during the second volume, “Head Games,” where the Locke kids literally poke around inside their own wildly detailed mindscapes, pictured as insane phantasmagorias they view from above It’d be hard to pull that off today, let alone back in 2011.

Likewise, the Fox pilot tones down the comic’s darkness, making it as close to a clean family drama as you can get with a story about demons and magic-induced murder. The Locke & Key comic has some intensely graphic violence and a generally dark and disturbing tone that mixed the supernatural with real trauma like mental coercion and sexual assault. It’d be hard to accurately convey on network TV, and a film probably wouldn’t have been any different.

In a very busy, complicated comic panel, the Locke siblings look down into a mindscape representing Bode Locke’s head, full of dinosaurs, rides, candy, balloons, and toys.
A panel from Locke & Key’s “Head Games” arc.
Image courtesy of IDW Publishing

Alpha & Omega

After the Fox pilot was cancelled, Kurtzman, Orci, Bobby Cohen, and Ted Adams tried to produce a trilogy of films with Universal, but that project never got deep into production. Though there’s little public information about that planned trilogy, it’s hard to imagine them adapting the books as R-rated films back in 2011, so once again the problem is how to recreate the tone of the comic while appealing to a mass audience.

One adaptation of Locke & Key did actually make it to release: In 2015, Audible produced a 13-hour audio drama, featuring a full cast of more than 50 actors, including Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany and Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment, plus an original (and totally fantastic) score by Peter Van Riet. The audiobook accurately brought forth the strength of the story and the characters, and it was even nominated for 4 Audie Awards. Unfortunately, the nature of it being an audio-only production meant that the incredible visuals by Rodriguez were once again lost, making for awkward segments in the audio drama that are hard to fully follow.

In 2017 it was reported that Hulu planned to produce another TV show based on Locke & Key, this time with Andy Muschietti (director of It and It: Chapter Two) directing, after Doctor Strange’s Scott Derrickson left the project. But the project was scrapped in 2018, which producer Carlton Cuse (Lost) blames on a regime change at Hulu, even though the previous creative team had already built sets and set up a full writers room with multiple finished scripts.

After Hulu dropped the project, Netflix picked it up, but scrapped nearly the whole thing. A new crew and cast came on board. The trailer teases keys created just for the show, as well as a less-mature tone that relies more on fantasy than horror, allowing for a TV-14 rating. The season more or less covers the first three collected editions of the comic, leaving most of the key-heavy content and special effects demands for a potential future season.

Though we’re finally getting a full season based on the comics, it’s still worth wondering how general audiences will react to Hill’s story. The comics have incredible nightmare imagery, not just gory and disturbing, but fantastical, making for a magical experience unlike any other. A really solid adaptation could be a ground-breaking story like Harry Potter was back in the day, mixed with the prestige horror of Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House. If it all goes wrong, though it would not be the first time an adaptation of the show gets scrapped to make place for another.