To Be (Dis)Continued: Stephen King’s The Stand by Becky Lea

Cuautitlán Izcalli by Becky Lea @beckygracelea

This is the first in an ongoing feature that will look at mini-series and series that were cancelled within their first season. They may be good, they may be bad, they may be Firefly, but any and all could get a look in (any recommendations welcome!). May I also extend a hearty thanks to@AndyLonsdale21 for the feature title and to all those who suggested alternatives. To kick us off, I check out Stephen King’s The Stand.

Adaptations of beloved works like The Stand are always a tricksy business because the personal experiences of reading novels is exactly that, very personal. For me, The Stand is a book that means a huge amount to me. It was the first Big Book I read back when I was thirteen, that curious age when Enid Blyton doesn’t quite cut it anymore and Tom Clancy’s just a bit too daunting. My mum was a huge Stephen King fan and we had a lot of his books visible on our bookcases, shiny letters and intimidating front covers that suggested scares straight away. When I was looking for something to get my teeth into, my mum handed me The Stand with the rather glowing recommendation that it was one of her favourite novels. I finished it within three weeks and have since read it a further four times.

As a result, I’ve been a little wary of the mini-series; to see a work that you love so much can be a thrilling experience if it largely, in your eyes, gets it right. It can also be very disappointing if it gets it wrong. I’d heard various things about the mini-series from all sorts of people, some who loved it, some who didn’t. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to this either with recommendations and condemnation coming from both book-readers and those who had just caught the live action version. And so, with a little trepidation and a fair bit of excitement, I sat down to take in the adaptation.

When considering the mini-series, it feels near impossible to discuss it without reference to the book so I’ll be making reference to the book whilst also trying to consider the adaptation in its own right. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum because if you haven’t it yet, there’s no way I will spoil that experience for you.

For those not in the know, The Stand tells the story of a viral outbreak known as Captain Trips, bred in a military research centre and unwittingly unleashed on the world. It kills the majority of the population swiftly with flu-like systems whilst leaving a select few unharmed. These people start having dreams; some of a mysterious dark man, Randall Flagg, who is calling people into Las Vegas, the other of a kindly old woman known as Mother Abigail who leads everyone to Boulder. Breaking down into a battle between good and evil before long, it is left up to the survivors to decide which road to take.

Considering how long the book is, King is to be commended for managing to condense his work down into a mini-series of just six episodes, when it could have easily been something much longer (the new adaptation is rumoured to be a three hour film – oh how I would love for someone like HBO to produce a ten episode season as originally planned). It also rattles along at a fair pace, building itself around the four main events of the narrative; the outbreak, the journey, setting up in Boulder and the explosive events of the climax. However, that produces something which is the very definition of a mixed bag, an uneven story that never captures the giddy heights of the novel.

Much of that can be attributed to the confines of the mini-series’ runtime. Because there is a lot of ground to cover, the outbreak of the plague rushes past without building the sense of foreboding that would elevate the rest of the narrative. Shortcuts are taken and whilst some scenes manage to capture that panicky, chaotic edge (Stu’s time in the research centre), others don’t quite manage it. Nick’s storyline in particular suffers from this as his disabilities (he is unable to hear or speak) prevent us from getting to know him through the dialogue, but the shortcuts taken through his story ensure we don’t understand him quite as much as we perhaps should moving forward.

As with the narrative, the characters and performances also vary wildly from actor to actor. The longer book allows for us to get to know these characters on a greater level; we understand their flaws and their strengths and they feel all the more familiar as a result. The series never takes the easy route either. Some characters may feel a little thinly drawn, but they’re certainly not archetypes. Aside from Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg at the opposite ends of the light-dark spectrum, each character adopts a fairly grey moral position, often being called upon to make questionable decisions from either side of the good vs. evil fence.

Thanks to a great performance from Gary Sinise, Stu Redman, the story’s ostensible hero, is brilliantly realised, a wry Texan who goes from a quiet, unassuming sort of fellow to one of the key leaders in the Boulder Free Zone. His relationship with Frannie doesn’t feel quite so organic though, but that seems more to do with the reduced timeline and the changes that take place with her character from page to screen. It also doesn’t help that Molly Ringwald is one of the cast’s weaker links. Likewise, Adam Storke’s Larry, who undergoes something of a redemptive arc over the course of the novel, is given little to do here and almost seems superfluous to the ongoing narrative. And the less said about the rubbery faced and be-mulleted Randall Flagg, the better.

This haphazard nature isn’t just applied to the performances either; there is a weird mixture of attention when it comes to details. There are little touches that are pretty neat, like the crows that follow the characters around, different forms of Flagg himself. And then there are other moments that don’t quite match up. Understandably, given that television programmes couldn’t quite get away with what they can now, but there simply aren’t enough corpses lying around from nearly the entire world dying.

The men travel for weeks but are completely clean-shaven apart from the final pilgrimage. Molly Ringwald manages to maintain a perfect bob for months whilst travelling. They may seem silly things to pick up on, but it’s crucial to the post-apocalyptic horror of the story. Would The Walking Dead have the same impact if it didn’t look like the cast had been through the wringer? The Stand’s characters should look dishevelled after months on the road, not as if they wandered out of an outdoor activities catalogue with a bit of designer stubble.

However, when it’s good, it’s very good. It masterfully weaves in some of the smaller narrative details from the book that I feared would be lost such as the military reaction to the chaos. They attempt to shut down the press, but use increasingly heavy-handed methods to do so. In one standout scene, taken directly from the book but here weaved into Fran’s story as she listens to the radio, is a chat show. Played by a superb Kathy Bates, host Ray Flowers decides to take questions from the audience and talk openly and honestly about the plague. She’s gunned down live on air. It’s one of the most viscerally horrific moments that the series produces, precisely because it conveys that fear of a society at the brink of complete collapse.

The dream sequences, so key to the plot, are also particularly well done, given the kind of mystical edge that relishes in the absurdity of this aspect of the story. The Mother Abigail sequences are especially good, the red and purple colour scheme at once both threatening and welcoming. It’s a classic American homespun image of the farm and the nice old lady in a rocking chair on the porch is all kinds of friendly. But beyond the corn, the dark man lurks. In those brief sequences, The Stand manages to capture the real horror of the narrative, the safety of the home threatened by the darkness from outside.

The final battle between good and evil is, like the book, one of faith, those who have it and those who don’t, rather than one featuring all kinds of fighting. The effects used to show this might be a little cheesy (one character returning in blazing light and smoke for example) but it never loses sight of the human story at the centre. It’s one of survival and finding the will to live amidst a whole lot of death. And in that respect, the mini-series succeeds admirably. There’s a triumphant, hopeful note to end on (despite a slightly incongruous appearance of a floating head), one that simply says life must go on instead of anything too grandiose.

Like everyone who offered me their opinions on The Stand before I settled down to watch it, my own reactions to the mini-series are wildly varied. There’s a huge range of quality between the positives and the negatives, but fortunately they make up for an enjoyable whole. The book may remain the real masterpiece, but this mini-series has a decent stab at recreating it.