The Stand review: New Stephen King adaptation is too safe to be memorable, but too resonant to be dismissed

Had the show retained the novel's pacing, and opted for grief over gore, King's message of humanity's resilience might have carried more weight in these times.

Prahlad Srihari December 17, 2020 13:29:06 IST
The Stand review: New Stephen King adaptation is too safe to be memorable, but too resonant to be dismissed

Still from The Stand

Language: English

The Stand opens in a church where frontline workers in PPE kits and N95 masks set about the unpleasant business of disposing dead bodies during a pandemic. It's a scene unnervingly of the moment. While there, one of the workers digs through shelves and drawers in search of DVDs. "The world that's left is going to need entertainment," he says, before declaring his ambition to open a drive-in theatre: "Put up a big screen, double features on Friday night." Yes, it's all too unnervingly of the moment.

The new adaptation of Stephen King's sprawling novel comes from Josh Boone (director of The Fault in Our Stars and The New Mutants) and Benjamin Cavell (writer on Justified). It's a story that comes oven-ready for a retelling, stuffed with noteworthy good guys like Tom Cullen just trying to "M-O-O-N spells survive" in a post-pandemic world. Complicating this already impossible situation is King's Big Bad, Randall Flagg, and his lackies. It's essentially your good vs evil, light vs dark story set in the theatre of the post-apocalypse.

It is a well-known fact that King wanted The Stand to match The Lord of the Rings in scope, spirit, and size. Considering the uncut version of the novel is a staggering 1,472 pages, it is an obvious challenge to pare it down in nine episodes. What the show has going for it is all the ways it mirrors our current reality. A virus spreads rapidly en masse, a government downplays its severity, and a system already teetering on the edge of disaster breaks down in panic and chaos. 

The Stand review New Stephen King adaptation is too safe to be memorable but too resonant to be dismissed

Amber Heard as Nadine Cross

The Stand is a story perfectly suited to these times because it can engage just as well as help escape. When a character coughs on the show, it feels all the more terrifying because you can't help but immediately associate it with our own situation. The series obviously went into production before the pandemic. So, it misses out on the novel’s social distancing lessons it could have served through a character like Joe Bob Brentwood, an asymptomatic highway patrolman who spreads the disease across several neighbourhoods.

The pandemic in The Stand is caused by a superflu called Captain Trips. It might sound like a breakfast cereal, but it's far more unsavoury: a lab-engineered virus which ends up killing 99 percent of the world's population within a few months. Kudos to the make-up artists for bringing to life Captain Trips' nightmarish symptoms, from the enlarged thyroid glands to the composition of decomposition. The remaining survivors, all immune to the disease, try to endure in a lawless world before rebuilding society. It exists on the same dimensional plane as The Walking Dead.

The first three episodes is essentially table setting to acquaint the viewers with some 20-odd characters coming from different parts of the US. For those already familiar with the novel, it won't be too hard to figure out who's who. For those who aren't, it will demand undivided attention as the miniseries packs what would have traditionally been a whole season's worth of information into a few episodes.

The Stand review New Stephen King adaptation is too safe to be memorable but too resonant to be dismissed

Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood and James Marsden as Stu Redman

The showrunners employ a flashback structure, jumping back five months before the pandemic to flesh out backstories for the main characters. Be prepared for some whiplash as the camera shifts from one character to another, flashes back and forward, and volleys between Maine, New York, Texas, and Colorado. Though these complications could have been easily avoided with a straightforward linear narrative, it isn't exactly a challenging puzzle that might alienate its audience. (On a side note, there are some interesting music cues: Beach House's 'Space Song' plays to overhead shots of a desolate New York; Sigur Rós's 'Svefn-g-englar' becomes a boudoir jam.)

King might have gotten a lot of things right about humanity's response to a pandemic. But like he had imagined it, The Stand works best as a sociological study about its aftermath. The survivors are all people searching for a place and purpose in a new world. Summoned by two opposing forces in their dreams, they're forced to pick a side: the good Mother Abigail or the evil Randall Flagg. The former attracts charitable Texans, musicians, and sociology professors. The latter brings together murderers, pyromaniacs, and sodomisers. Unable to decide between the two is fittingly an incel, whose 'nice guy' persona hides a sinister agenda. What follows is a good vs evil battle. At stake is the mind, heart and soul of humanity.

There is an angelic quality to Whoopi Goldberg that makes her the ideal Mother Abigail. She's got the kind of presence that makes your ears perk up like Yoda's, just as the show starts to lose you. Sadly (in the four episodes I've seen so far), her appearances are mostly limited to dreams and brief encounters. You might think Alexander Skarsgård is too hot to play Randall Flagg. But it's what tempts even the good men and women of The Stand. It’s what takes them a moment longer to consider which side to pick.

The Stand review New Stephen King adaptation is too safe to be memorable but too resonant to be dismissed

Owen Teague as Harold Lauder and Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith

The ensemble is a nice assortment of stars and those who cut their teeth in indies: James Marsden as handsome hero Stu Redman, Amber Heard as scheming seductress Nadine Cross, Greg Kinnear as clear-eyed pragmatist Glen Bateman, and Brad William Henke as the always lovable Tom Cullen. Odessa Young is a more self-assured Frannie Goldsmith than King's version. It remains to be seen if her role will grow into something more than a limerent object and the community's in-house ASL translator. Keeping representation in mind, Jovan Adepo and Henry Zaga play Larry Underwood and Nick Andros respectively. Underwood, who was a white New York-based musician with a drug problem, is now a Black New York-based musician with a drug problem. Andros, who was a white, deaf-mute Nebraskan nomad, is now a Salvadoran deaf-mute nomad. Juggling so many characters with so little time, a majority are sketched in the broadest of terms. But Owen Teague’s portrayal of Harold Lauder as an incel with a saviour complex makes for a chilling update. When Harold saves Frannie's life, he believes it's a noble act that makes him entitled to her love, which has long been unrequited. Her rejection of his advances turns entitlement into resentment, which Flagg uses to turn him to the dark side.

One of the novel's strengths was how King captured a crisis through small stories that converged to form a larger reality.

Had the show retained the novel's pacing, and opted for grief over gore, King's message of humanity's resilience might have carried more weight in these times.

At least, by shrinking the novel's sweeping story to a miniseries, it won't be doomed to disappoint each season like its zombie cousin, The Walking Dead. In terms of King adaptations however, The Stand plays it too safe to be memorable, but it's also too resonant to be dismissed.

The Stand is streaming in India on Voot Select, with new episodes every Friday.

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