The Returned centers on the sleepy, Southern town of Arcadia and an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille Hargrave, whose son, Jacob, shows up on their doorstep fifty years after his drowning. He is one of “the returned”: women, men, and children of every age, race, and nationality who have returned, impossibly, from the grave.
Unlike the undead in recent novels and films like World War Z and Zombieland, the returned are not hungry for human flesh or lifeless reanimations of their former selves; rather, the returned return just as they left the world, their memories and personalities fully intact, their bodies as capable or sickly as the day they died.
This conversation took place in May of 2013.
Jason Mott: I think Plan B and ABC see the potential of the personal interaction, that personal friction between characters in the book that could make for great television. They’re excited by the prospects of how we would deal with all the returned as well. They see the potential for viewers to come to the TV each week with the questions “What would I do if my mother or sister came back from the dead? Would I be happy to see them, or would I be terrified? What would we do as a nation with all these returned flooding our homes and streets?”
AMK&MH: Do you know what the show is going to look like? As I read The Returned, I thought it definitely had the makings of a film, but it was a little harder to see how it could be made into 40-minute episodes.
JM: I have a general sense of what they’ve got in mind for the arc of the television show, but no specifics. And I’m okay with that. The TV show is their baby, and I trust the people who are producing it and I feel like they will be true to the spirit of the novel. That’s good enough for me.
The writer, Aaron Zelman (he’s written episodes for The Killing, Damages, and Criminal Minds), is a really great guy and amazingly talented. In all honesty, he inserted certain elements in the pilot that, when I read it, I was like “Man, I wish I’d thought of thatl!” I think that’s the biggest compliment and statement of my faith that I can give Aaron. And he deserves it. You always hear horror stories about how literary projects get dismantled in the transformation to screen, but I’ve actually had quite the opposite experience; this hasn’t been the case at all with Aaron at all.
AMK&MH: What’s it like seeing your characters “in the flesh”?
JM: Oh, the casting is spot on. Each time a casting announcement came, I was like “Yes! That’s exactly who should play that part!” But it’s funny: I try not to think of these actors as just the physical representation of my characters. I’ve met them all and they’re not the characters they play on television or in movies, they’re people. Kurtwood Smith isn’t “Red from That '70s Show,” he’s Kurtwood Smith—an actor, a husband, a father, and a great guy. So, more than anything, I’m excited by the skill, talent, and passion that these actors will be bringing to their roles…and it’s just an added bonus that these roles will be my characters.
AMK&MH: How has it been working with them?
JM: Man, they’re pretty amazing. A bunch of them found me and asked to read the book so they could learn about their characters from me rather than just the script they were given. It’s funny, one guy got his copy before everyone else did and they all got really jealous! It felt great. I came into this expecting many of the actors to be standoffish. I expected (sorry guys!) them to have this attitude of, “I’m the actor. I’m the talent.” But they have been almost the opposite of that, very friendly and approachable. We’ve actually had many very fun, cool conversations. I can’t begin to tell you what terrific people they all are.
AMK&MH: In The Returned, Harold and Lucille lose Jacob when he drowns in a nearby river. Then, when Jacob returns fifty years later (thirty-two years in the show), Lucille immediately welcomes him home even though she is a staunch Christian who believed, just moments before Jacob came back, that the returned are devils. Harold, on the other hand, has serious doubts. Just who and what is Jacob? he wonders. How has this person who passed away fifty years ago suddenly reentered the world? This becomes the major conflict for Lucille and Harold, for Arcadia as more and more return, and for the world at large. How did you come up with this conflict?
JM: It came about in part due to my own upbringing. I grew up in a very small town, just outside of Wilmington, North Carolina—so small that I just tell people I’m from Wilmington: one blinking stoplight, no fast food, two gas stations, and 600-800 people.
People in such small communities tend to make, in my experience, snap judgments like the one Lucille makes before Jacob comes back. She sees the returned on the news and, because she’s so distanced from them, she has no problem saying they’re devils. But when one of them turns out to be her blood, everything changes. When something like this bleeds into the small town, things get very complex in that town. Small towns are used to being overlooked. Whatever politics are going on in the world or whatever is happening outside of these small communities doesn’t seem to affect them much. Change doesn’t occur very often in small towns, so when change does come, people tend to react very dramatically.
So when these fantastic events start occurring, Lucille falls back on her religious upbringing while Harold remains somewhat aloof to the change so long as it doesn’t drastically affect him in a personal way. When Jacob arrives on their front porch, they start to own it, they have a personal investment. For Lucille, she gets her child back—the only child she could ever have. Lucille immediately declares that this event is a miracle. For Harold though, this event becomes a living, breathing reminder of what he perceives as his failure as a parent.
Stay tuned for more of this interview next week!