Not with a bang, but a whimper: The Stand collapses

The Stand poster Stephen King, and all of us, keep coming back to The Stand trying to get it right. First published in 1978, The Stand has been re-issued with an additional 500 or so pages in 1990, adapted as a miniseries in the early 90s, a comic series by Marvel from 2008 to 2012, and yet another miniseries this year courtesy of CBS All Access. Despite a solid start, the latest attempt at getting The Stand right falls apart and fails to do justice to the source material.

Adapting books to television or movies is hard. Even your average novel that only weighs in at 300 pages or so contains more than you can cram into a movie, and is either too much or too little to do well over the course of a series. Game of Thrones loosely adapted one book per season for HBO, and still shed characters and events, combined book characters into a single person to keep things simpler, and so forth.

The Stand tried to do too much in too little time, and even tried to introduce a new ending that was as unsatisfying as it was unnecessary. (If you haven’t watched the show and plan to, beware there are spoilers ahead.)

Apocalypse? No thanks, already got one

Perhaps I’m being a little uncharitable to The Stand because the charm of plague-driven apocalypses wanes while you’re actually living through one. The resident teen TV critic in my house found the moniker “Captain Trips,” puzzling and “dumb.” The name made some sort of sense the last time I read the book, but if it had a compelling reason the series omitted it this go-around.

It’s unclear whether the beginning of COVID-19 curtailed development of the series or rushed its post-production. The final product might have been compromised by COVID constraints. Was the 9-episode runtime decided before or after shooting? Better pacing could have helped the series immensely.

Uneven cast and character development

Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg
Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg

One of the most glaring problems with The Stand was its casting. Alexander Skarsgård may be a fine actor, but he just didn’t carry the kind of menace that I’d expect from the character. When I first learned that the show was being developed my first thought was Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but perhaps he was unavailable or too obvious.

Some actors are chameleons, able to take on a wide range of characters. And then there’s Whoopi Goldberg. I’ve enjoyed movies with Whoopi Goldberg, and she was fine in Star Trek: Next Generation as Space Whoopi Goldberg. But there wasn’t a single scene in The Stand where she didn’t feel completely out of place as Mother Abigail.

Many of the cast were fine. James Marsden was fine as Stu Redman, Jovan Adepo was great as Larry Underwood, Henry Zaga was underused but good as Nick Andros. Odessa Young was OK as Frannie Goldsmith, Greg Kinnear was very likeable as Glen Bateman.

Owen Teague was fantastic as Harold Lauder, though what an awful character to be good at playing. Teague seems to be cleaning up on roles in Stephen King material, with The Stand, and It parts 1 and 2.

The first episode showed a lot of promise and had great turns from J.K. Simmons and Hamish Linklater. However, they were given far too much screen time and development compared to other characters (e.g. Trashcan Man) who should have carried more weight in the series.

Too fast, too slow

Nat Wolff as Lloyd Henried in The Stand
Nat Wolff as Lloyd Henried in The Stand

The first few episodes felt a little slow but not unpleasantly so. It would have been fine except for the fact that, after giving plenty of development to Stu, Larry, Harold, Glen and Frannie, it rushed a lot of the other characters. It felt a lot like the creators were trying to satisfy people who’d read the books and expected to see all the characters on screen.

Unfortunately, they shortchanged many of those characters and didn’t do well with the time they had on screen. Lloyd felt more like comic relief than a character, Nadine had a decent character arc to work with but felt one-dimensional.

Actually, all the baddies in the show felt second-rate, excepting Harold.

At no point in the show did you really feel like there was a chance that the good guys would lose or that the bad guys presented a real threat.

The Stand

After seven episodes of build up, the big battle between good and evil is an enormous letdown. The deus ex machina is trotted out and a few good guys are sacrificed to lend weight to the climax, but none of it is moving or satisfying.

But wait, you say, there’s nine episodes. If the climax happens in the eighth, what do they do during the final episode?

Here’s where we get a tacked-on, low stakes, supplementary battle between Flagg (who’s dead) and Frannie (not dead) and young Abigale (also dead, not Whoopi). Frannie is presented with a temptation, she resists, and the day is saved. And Flagg re-manifests elsewhere to start over.

One of my chief complaints with Stephen King’s works in general is that the supernatural is a plot device that often springs from nowhere and has no clear rhyme and reason. What are Flagg’s powers? What can he do, what can’t he do? If he can make somebody’s head explode in one episode why doesn’t he deploy that power in other situations?

I can suspend disbelief when there’s consistent logic in a series, but when the supernatural is just a convenient plot device to magically let good triumph over evil it’s a letdown.

Next time

Just as they can’t resist bringing back Flagg to bang home the point that the battle between good and evil never ends, there’s little doubt in my mind that The Stand will get a remake at some point.

The book has too many characters and is too long to do justice in just nine hours of television. If I read it again, I suspect I’d find the book doesn’t do justice to the characters it has even in 1,300 pages. The creators of this future series should either commit to a much longer work, or be ruthless in trimming down King’s work to fit within the time allotted. Find the book’s heart and be unafraid to lose characters and scenes that are unnecessary. You might say that the next series creators will have to, sorry, take a stand.


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