The Pitch: Based on Stephen King’s 1978 novel, The Stand is an apocalyptic epic that sees 99.4% of the world’s population decimated by a lethal strain of government-stamped influenza. What humanity remains is spiritually drawn into a climactic battle of good and evil. On one end is Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) and her ragtag team of survivors out in the Rockies. On the other is Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard), a Canadian tuxedoed force who has amassed a devoted following nearby in Sin City. Place your bets.
Danse Macabre: To say the road to this reboot has been long is an understatement. Prior to landing at CBS All Access, the project had been in development hell since the latter half of Obama’s first term. This is back when Warner Bros. initially envisioned it as a theatrical event with Ben Affleck set to direct. Then Scott Cooper. Then nobody. Look hard enough online and you’re bound to stumble upon enough headlines to match the book’s outstanding page count. It was as frustrating to cover as it was disappointing.
Eventually, Josh Boone came calling. A Constant Reader at heart — hell, he even managed to score a Stephen King cameo for his 2012 directorial debut, Stuck in Love — Boone felt like a curious name to enter the mix. Unfortunately for him, he would go on to endure over half a decade of starts and stops — with plans oscillating between one feature film, to three, then to four — before the whole thing pivoted away from theaters and back to our living rooms. It’s a move that felt perplexing at the time, especially given the context.
When Warner Bros. annihilated box office records with 2017’s It, any insider with even the slightest grip on King’s work could have guess-timated that The Stand would be the next high-profile adaptation to roll out into theaters. After all, much like It, The Stand warrants multiple installments, guaranteeing a nice little nest egg for the studio to lean upon for at least three years. Couple that notion with the then-budding King renaissance, and you have what can best be summed up as a missed opportunity for Warner Bros.
Well, before 2020. This year’s pandemic threw all of those would-be meditations down the drain (hey, with Pennywise). With the world becoming an unnerving 4K experience of King’s apocalyptic masterwork, the narrative has drastically changed for this adaptation. Now, it’s a total coup for Warner Bros. and CBS All Access, arriving at a time when studios and streaming services are not only desperate for event television, but event television with a built-in following. The Stand checks off both of those boxes with ease, but does it work?
Yes and no.
Structure and Format: What has always plagued any attempts to adapt The Stand is its girth. This is a thick-ass book, chock full of characters, side stories, tangents, meeting minutes, musical interludes, you name it, King put it in there. Several writers and filmmakers have tried and failed since its publication — even the Master of Horror himself. His own journey towards writing the screenplay for Mick Garris’ original 1994 ABC miniseries makes the walk from Boulder to Vegas look like a stroll by comparison.
Bottom line: This isn’t an easy project.
But, it’s not like Boone and showrunner Benjamin Cavell made it any easier on themselves. By making this a one-off event as opposed to a full-fledged series, they’re essentially in the same sandbox that King and Garris found themselves in with ABC. Whereas Garris’ worked with six hours spread across four episodes, this jaunt affords Boone and Cavell nine hours, one of which is dedicated to a brand new coda written by King. So, ultimately, there’s very little wiggle room for the two of them.
To their credit, though, they get creative with the format. Unlike Garris and King’s traditional linear approach, Boone and Cavell tore a page or two from Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s Lost, opting for a more pretzeled narrative. By leaning on flashbacks and memories, the two are able to bounce around the book to account for timing and pacing. It’s a savvy approach that not only offers a spin on King’s novel, but a new experience for those who grew up with the original miniseries.
Having said that, this new format also asks a lot of its viewers, particularly those who aren’t Constant Readers. With all of this leaping around, so much of the characterization draws upon an inherent knowledge of the source material. Relationships are formed without much connective tissue, narrative beats are well underway with nary a point of origin, and references are dropped at a brisk pace. Again, all of this will likely make for a disorienting experience for newcomers in King’s Dominion.
But it also doesn’t aide the tension much, either. Because things are moving at such a rapid clip, it’s hard to really get a grasp on what’s at stake, and that feeling extends towards much of the world building. At times, it’s a very claustrophobic experience with so much of what’s happening in this world being told rather than shown. And while some of this exposition is wisely left to our own imaginations, most of these comments feel like tossed in signposts, leaving the narrative feeling often hollow.
Heroes and Villains: The Stand is nothing without its ensemble of characters, and this adaptation rarely fails in that regard. Similar to Garris’ run, this entire miniseries serves as a revolving door for outstanding performances. Leading the way are Odessa Young and Owen Teague as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, respectively. Boone opens the series with these two characters, and it’s a wise move, one no doubt influenced by the roots of his own resume (see: The Fault In Our Stars).
Young and Teague run with the material, though. As Frannie, Young is tough and relentless in ways that would make King blush and think, Maybe another rewrite is in order. It’s a very physical performance with so many details embedded in each one of her reactions. Her chemistry with Teague is palpable, to say the least, one of outright disgust, and who can blame her? Teague is an unnerving force — even over Skarsgard, who’s billed as the big baddie — and impossible to turn away from.
They’re not alone, either. Greg Kinnear brings out the patience and pragmatism of Glen Bateman, Jovan Adepo channels Gary Clark Jr. to capture the tortured swagger of Larry Underwood, Nat Wolff goes big and gritty as Flagg’s right-hand man Lloyd Henreid, and Katherine McNamara gets fiendishly fun as the unpredictable Julie Lawry. And while we miss the casual, everyman charm of Gary Sinise’s Stu Redman, Hollywood hunk James Marsden is admittedly easy on the eyes.
Oddly enough, it’s the two principals — Flagg and Mother Abagail — that struggle to impress on screen, namely because they’re just not given much to do. Skarsgard’s Flagg arrives too late with too little, and just can’t muster up the menace he brought to Monterey on HBO’s Big Little Lies. Meanwhile, Goldberg feels completely wasted as Abagail, popping up for only momentary glimpses, and lacking any real presence. It’s a shame given the expectations tied to their star power.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes: This is a sharp and stylistic vision of King’s work with Boone and co. offering a very modern lens on the story. Each episode is lush with overhead shots, sneaky angles, and intimate perspectives, all of which make the shifting time jumps a little easier to follow. They also help maintain an athletic pace, so when things do slow down (and, yes, they often do), the more stoic scenes stand out and give the overall mood a little more permanence. You feel ’em.
Where this show really thrives aesthetically is when it’s outdoors. Shot across Vancouver’s infinite landscapes, there is truly no shortage of scenery to lose yourself in. More importantly, though, there’s just enough variance from location to location to make you believe this is actually taking place all across America. Scenes set across Ogunquit, Maine and Boulder, Colorado are some of more effective moments, capturing a kind of old-school Americana that you rarely see on television.
It’s the scenes set in Las Vegas that leave much to be desired. This is a one-note depiction of the Sin City that King dreamed up back in the ’70s, where he described everyday folk living everyday lives. Instead, we get this achingly antiquated set piece, one that leans hard on archaic condemnations like “BDSM is bad” and “sex is for sinners.” It’s a bad look given today’s more open-minded culture, and it’s likely to ruffle some feathers online in the weeks to come. Oh well.
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Boone is no stranger to loving a great needle drop, and The Stand is littered with them. Beach House pops up over New York, Sigur Ros scores a surprising sex scene, Apparat returns with “Goodbye”, and Billy Joel continues to reign supreme over television in 2020. The best of the bunch (at least so far) arrives in the first episode, “The End”, specifically during real estate previously owned by Crowded House. Constant Readers and diehard fans will know when.
The Verdict: Look, in a perfect world, The Stand would be a recurring series, span five seasons, and stroll rather than run through King’s magnum opus. That way no parlor tricks would be needed to condense the 1,000+ pages into an allotment of episodes that has yet to break into even double digits — Herculean feats that have warranted mixed results.
Don’t dream it’s over just yet, though. The Stand is still blockbuster television, and when it’s good, it’s damn good. Despite the aforementioned limitations, Boone and Cavell still thrive in their sequestered sandbox. The performances are strong, the set pieces are cinematic, and, most importantly, the commitment to King’s prose is stonier than a man’s heart.
Granted, that has led to a more insular experience and may leave passersby cold, but hey, inside baseball is better than no game at all. In that sense, The Stand is a Christmas gift for Constant Readers, and while they won’t get to see every page unfold on screen, they get to spend the holidays with some of their favorite characters finally brought to life.
Over long days and festive nights.