Is there a better time than during a global pandemic to release a limited-run television series about . . . a global pandemic?
Probably not. I’ve been a fan of the novel The Stand, by Stephen King, since the late 1970s, when it was published. In his dedication of the book to his wife, Tabitha, King called it a “dark chest of wonders.” It is that, certainly.
It is also a great honkin’ doorstop of a novel in its original publication form. In 1990, the Complete and Uncut Edition of the novel was published, which restored some of the material that had been edited out (to the tune of nearly 150,000 words), changed the order of some of the chapters and adjusted the setting from 1980 to 1990, which required the alteration of a few cultural references.
I own a copy of the revised edition, but I’ve never read it. Not yet.
I’ve read the novel in its original published form a few times. It was the first King book that I read, and it was the one that made me a fan, leading me back to Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining. I’ve remained a Stephen King fan for the following four decades or so. I read everything he published for a long while—at least ten years. Then, I missed a few. Then, a few more. Most years, King has published at least one book. A couple of years, as many as three.
I once joked that if a reader attempted to keep up with the output of Stephen King (and/or Dean Koontz), they might never read anything written by another author. It’s no joke. Counting collections and nonfiction, I’ve missed twenty King books in this century alone. I read fourteen of the books published during that same period, I should point out. I’m still a fan, just not a fanatic.
I admit that it wasn’t just the sheer volume of King’s output that made me miss a few of his books. The quality of his output fell off at some point. I’m not going to single out any part of his bibliography, since I realize every book is probably someone’s favorite, but suffice it to say that there have been a few I didn’t even bother to finish reading. This is a huge admission from someone with a completist pathology.
I will never stop reading King’s stuff. He still manages to surprise and delight me at times. He’s remained a popular author because the man knows how to tell a story.
Of all the King books I’ve read, The Stand remains my favorite. I mention this because the Internet—perhaps the single-most important “invention” during my lifetime—has earned a deserved reputation as the bridge under which internet trolls choose to dwell, waiting to talk dirt about anything that anyone loves. I avoid my own Facebook page for this reason. I don’t need people I don’t know (or barely know) telling me why I should hate something with a passion equal to their own.
I’m not here to hate on Stephen King. I admire the man, and am more than a little jealous of his success and talent and—this is the kicker—his insane productivity. When people dismiss his talent because he has chosen primarily to write “spooky” books, I realize that they just don’t get it. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” was a brilliant novella long before it became a brilliant movie, and the only monsters in that story are human ones. King is a great storyteller, not just a great horror writer.
I am writing a review of the latest adaptation of my favorite King novel. Because I loved the book, it is difficult for any adaptation to live up to my expectations. I just want to get this out in front of my review. If I hadn’t read the source material, several times, my feelings towards this limited-run series may have been different.
My opinions of this 21st Century take on The Stand were also affected by the original 1994 mini-series, which I also watched. And liked, overall. Not as much as the book, of course, but that happens only on rare occasions. However, it has happened to me with King’s stuff before. To date, I never finished reading It. I know there are many rabid fans of the book out there, but it bogged down in the middle for me and I ran out of steam. However, I thought the original miniseries, with Tim Curry as Pennywise, was great fun. I’ve still never watched the more recent movies, but haven’t ruled out the possibility. Likewise, I thought the movie versions of The Mist and Shawshank Redemption were better than the novellas they were based upon. So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
This limited series clocks in at nine hours. Without commercials, the 1994 miniseries was only six hours. With an extra three hours to tell the story, I had hoped that this series would come closer to capturing the epic scope of the novel. I’m afraid that it doesn’t. In fact, this show breezes over the events of the first half of the novel to get to Boulder, Colorado, where Mother Abagail’s people congregate, more quickly. I’m familiar with the use of flashbacks to fill in important background and other story events, but I was looking for a more linear story here. For an OG fan like me, this method of story construction is a bit off-putting. Perhaps even disrespectful, although I’m sure that wasn’t the intention.
Not that anyone asked my opinion. I’m offering it freely.
I suppose that the only thing that would have made me truly happy is a scene-by-scene adaptation of the original published novel (with the 150,000 words edited out) for the television screen. Open with Hapscomb’s Texaco in Arnett, Texas. Cue Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” after Hap’s gang discovers what is in the car that demolished the gas pumps. Then, introduce Frannie as she breaks the pregnancy news to her douchebag boyfriend. And so on . . .
The viewer misses so much by glossing over all this early stuff. I’m not sure I would have identified with any of the characters this time out if I wasn’t already a fan of the book. I’m not sure how long my dream version of an adaptation would be. Probably longer than nine hours. Maybe not. Peter Jackson managed to pull it off with Lord of the Rings, something I thought would never be done. Jackson was able to accomplish this because of his respect and love for the source material. Maybe the creative powers behind this limited series should have committed to a multiple-season story, like AMC’s The Walking Dead. Fans would have made the time commitment to watch the story unfold organically, without the Lost-style flashbacks that just seem intrusive to me.
The novel was in development for many years as a feature film. Then, as a series of feature films. Ben Affleck was attached to direct at one point. It was the sheer scope of the project, and its huge cast of characters, that made development problematic. It’s also why it went the miniseries route yet again.
I can appreciate that it was a monumental task. I’m not accusing the writers of not having a love of the source material, either. Stephen King’s son Owen King was a writer and producer on this series. Certainly, he would have been protective of his father’s vision. In spite of my issues with story construction, I do think this series attempts to remain true to the novel. It just seems at times like this story is being told by someone with an imperfect memory who read the novel a while back.
When I think of a finished work that doesn’t value the source material, I think about Josh Trank’s execrable Fantastic Four, which squandered its decent cast in favor of the director’s personal artistic vision. Which any focus group truly representative of the audience for this movie would have told the studio was a mistake.
That’s not what I’m comparing this series to. It was more about not having a canvas large enough to do the story justice.
Every good Stephen King story is carried on the backs of his characters. Here are a few of the main characters in this story.
Stu Redman is the man of few words from East Texas who becomes the male lead in this story. He is there, almost at ground zero, when the spread of the superflu known as Captain Trips begins. He’s portrayed in this outing by James Marsden, who I think was an excellent choice. Marsden has an Everyman quality that has served him well in various roles. Gary Sinise, who played Redman in the original miniseries, left some huge boots to fill, but Marsden does an admirable job.
I’ve always suspected that TWD‘s Rick Grimes was based, in part, on Stu Redman.
Frannie Goldsmith, our female lead, is played by Odessa Young this time. I loved Molly Ringwald in the role in the 1994 version, but I admit this was mostly the nostalgia factor. I’m not familiar with the Australian actor’s previous work, but she does a good job with this role.
Jovan Adepo plays Larry Underwood this time out. I don’t even remember who played the character in the previous series, but I know he was a Caucasian actor. I thought the switch to Larry being a black man was done seamlessly, and I’m always in favor of adding diversity where it doesn’t interfere with story.
Henry Zaga is deaf-mute Nick Andros, a role played by a redemption-seeking Rob Lowe in 1994. I have to give the advantage here to Lowe’s performance. There was some very modern-day controversy about Zaga, who is neither deaf nor mute, being cast in the role. You know how it is.
Casting Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail was inspired.
Greg Kinnear was not exactly who I pictured as Glen Bateman. Ray Walston was closer to the mark. But, Kinnear is always excellent. Jeffrey DeMunn nailed it, in my opinion, as Dale Horvath on The Walking Dead. I know, I’m comparing TWD to The Stand again. Can’t be helped. Dale was Glen, as far as I’m concerned.
I could continue on about all of the characters in this story. My issues with this modern retelling have nothing to do with casting. I like all of the actors involved in this project. Other actors whose roles may not be huge, but are deserving of honorable mention, include: J.K. Simmons, Heather Graham, Hamish Linklater, and Brad William Henke (who was perfect for Tom Cullen).
A story such as this one relies on the believability of its villains. Alexander Skarsgård would probably have not been my first choice for the role of Randall Flagg, but all of those Skarsgårds turn in terrific performances, don’t they? As much as I liked Jamey Sheridan in the role, Skarsgård may have been closer to what I envisioned. Nat Wolff does an admirable job as Lloyd Henreid, Flagg’s right-hand man, a role originated by the late Miguel Ferrer. Wolff conveys a manic, humorous side of the character that Ferrer’s natural gravitas wouldn’t allow to shine. I don’t envy Ezra Miller having to follow Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man, but he’s okay.
We have our important villains on the Colorado side of the conflict as well. Harold Emery Lauder is as important a character in the novel as Stu and Frannie. Harold is played to a suitably creepy degree by Owen Teague. Maybe even slightly creepier than Corin Nemec in 1994. Amber Heard is also great as the kinky, ill-fated Nadine Cross.
The plot is a familiar one. Most of the people in the world—99.4%, if memory serves—die from the superflu. There are no zombies, but humans are bad enough. Some of the American survivors are drawn to Las Vegas, where a wizard who just may be the Antichrist has set up shop. These are the bad guys. The rest of the survivors flock to the side of an elderly black woman in Boulder, Colorado. These are the good guys. This happens, then that happens, and there is an eventual showdown between a handful of the good guys versus all of the bad guys. Honestly, the odds were better for the Spartans at Thermopylae. The good guys actually lose the battle, but end up winning the war because something the wizard-guy did earlier in the story comes back to bite him on the ass.
I thought that this series was average, nothing really special. The effects were much better than they were a quarter-century ago, and the acting was good. The story felt chopped up and thin in places. If I didn’t already know the story, I might not have understood everything that was going on when I watched this. I can’t even say, with a clear conscience, that this was better than the original mini-series. It should have been.
Too great a story to leave alone, though. Before I pass away, I’m liable to see at least one more remake of this story. Maybe it will be given the Peter Jackson treatment over multiple movies, with the epic scope the novel deserves.
Firewater’s This-Dark-Chest-of-Wonders Report Card: C
You might not hate this if you watched it, but you have better things to do with nine hours of your life. You should read the book, for sure.