Movies

Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ Is Bloated, Racist, And (Somehow) Still A Masterpiece

We love the apocalypse. Zombie invasions, nuclear holocausts, a ragged band of survivors — we’re fascinated by these stories because they’re as attractive as they are terrifying. On the surface, they represent the primal horror of everything we know disappearing. All of our loved ones, dead. All the order and comfort of our previous lives, replaced by wilderness.

But apocalypse stories also speak to the common human fantasy of wiping the slate clean and starting over. The upside of Armageddon is that you don’t have to worry about your bullsh*t job anymore, or any of the daily aggravations of modern life. You are free to redefine your existence. You have nothing, and everything is possible.

What would you do with that freedom? If the world ended tomorrow, would you be a good guy or a bad guy?

Birth Of A Monster

Take a look at the novels and anthologies that Stephen King published from 1974-1992, and try to name another American author who started his career on a comparable hot streak[1]. King put the entire horror genre on his back. He refreshed all the classic scary story tropes — haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, aliens, cats and dogs — and found fertile soil in modern anxieties like obsessed fandom and getting your period for the first time after gym class.

In 1978, King published The Stand, an 800+ page epic[2] about a super-charged strain of the flu virus — developed by the U.S. government as a biological weapon — which escapes from its testing facility and kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. The survivors in America[3] are drawn to a “good” community in Boulder, Colorado (led by the 108-year-old Mother Abigail), and an “evil” community in Las Vegas (led by the demonic and ageless Randall Flagg). As the threat of Flagg looms, several members of the Boulder community journey to Las Vegas to confront him. That’s basically the story, and people went nuts for it.

In 2008, a Harris Poll named The Stand as the fifth-favorite book of all time by American readers, four spots below the Bible, two spots above To Kill a Mockingbird. So, we’re not simply talking about a career highlight of a best-selling genre-writer. We’re talking about one of the most influential books in the history of the English language.

Last year, it was reported that Warner Bros. will be producing The Stand as a four-movie series directed by Josh Boone, with Matthew McConaughey attached as the lead actor[4]. Of course, The Stand was already adapted into a four-part movie series back in 1994, when ABC aired a corny made-for-TV miniseries starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, and Rob Lowe.

I was 13 when the TV adaptation aired and deeply in the throes of my Stephen King obsession, which had started the year before when I checked out Night Shift [5] from the library. The sheer size of The Stand scared me away from reading it back then, but the miniseries — which was scripted by King himself — had my full attention.

Twenty-one years later, I only remember bits and pieces: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” soundtracking the opening montage. The big dumb guy from Coach playing a big dumb guy. (“M-O-O-N, that spells moon.”) Crows on telephone poles. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a bell-ringing doomsayer. Lloyd Henreid starving in his jail cell, keeping a dead rat under his mattress “just in case.” Corin Nemec — Parker Lewis! — looking like the “before” photo in a Noxzema commercial. Laura San Giacomo’s cleavage. The climactic Hand of God scene, which made me roll my eyes even back then. Gary Sinise doing his best to make the whole thing seem like a serious enterprise. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

It had been a while since I spent some quality time with my first literary hero, so with the new movie series on the horizon, I decided to grab a copy of The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition and experience the novel in its intended form, without the compromises of network TV censorship, airtime limitations, and bottom-shelf special effects. The Uncut edition — which includes several hundred pages of material that King’s editors made him cut when the novel was first published — clocks in at 1,153 pages, and it manages to feel too long[6] and too short[7] at the same time. It’s shaky, shaggy, a woefully dated product of the ‘70s, and totally problematic by 21st century standards of political correctness.

And yet it’s obvious why The Stand is so often name-checked as King’s crowning achievement.

Too Hot For Theaters!

Before we go any further, here’s a short list of scenes and dialogue from The Stand that probably won’t be appearing in the upcoming movie quadrilogy, because even horror movies have to abide by some measures of decency:

– The “black junta” scene, in which a group of flu-crazed black soldiers stage a televised execution of their white comrades. This is King’s version of “Helter Skelter,” I guess. Honestly, it might not be the best time in our country to stick scenes of racially charged slaughter into a popcorn flick.[8]

– Five-year-old Sam Tauber falling down a well and dying a horrible death during the “second epidemic” montage. King has no qualms about killing children as a shock-tactic — see also: Gage in Pet Sematary, Kirsten in Desperation — but it’s generally taboo to include scenes like this in movies unless they’re necessary to the plot, and this one isn’t. Sam’s death only exists to add a sense of brutal reality to the story, showing what happens to the vulnerable and unprotected after their caretakers disappear.

– Tom Cullen being called a “retard” like three dozen times. In 1978, that word was rude. Now, it’s verboten.

– Tom Cullen’s “retardation” making him both an ideal conduit for divine messages and a perfect candidate for hypnosis. The Stand is loaded with 1970s junk spirituality and 1970s junk science[9], which seem to reach their embarrassing lows whenever Tom is involved.

– Stu Redman’s story about how he met Jim Morrison, or the ghost of Jim Morrison, or something.

– Nick Andros writing notes, writing notes, writing notes, writing notes, writing notes. The films might have to find another way for him to communicate that isn’t as painfully slow. All the phones are dead, so texting isn’t an option, unfortunately.

– The Kid raping Trashcan Man with his gun. Nasty stuff. I hope The Kid makes it into the movie series[10] because he’s a great character — a Tuco-esque off-his-rocker psycho with some amazing one-liners — but the motel-room sexual assault scene will not be appearing in theaters, guaranteed.

– Larry Underwood’s blues-rock radio hit, “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?”

Noooope. Unless the movies are set in 1980 like the original novel, Larry’s music will have to be reimagined entirely for our modern age. Maybe he’s a Sam Smith-style crooner, or he plays banjo in a whoa-oh band. Maybe the filmmakers will be merciful and leave the song to our imaginations.[11]

The Real Problem With Adapting ‘The Stand’ Into A Movie

The Stand endures because every generation sees the end-times on the horizon. But King also stacks the deck in his favor by creating such a wide cast of characters that you’re bound to relate to at least one of them. There’s the strong and stoic Stu, the philosophical Glen, the tortured genius Harold[12]. There are characters who put their faith in God, and those who reject religion in the face of such senseless devastation. There are geniuses and fools, kind-hearted souls and heartless predators, heroes and cowards. Whoever you are, you’re represented.

Like many great “genre” writers, the majority of King’s work has focused on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And while his imaginative plots were the hooks that drew readers in, Stephen King fans have always connected with his books because of those ordinary people — protagonists as flawed and insecure as the rest of us, who are richly brought to life through their inner monologues and memories. It’s the interior, psychological world that gives King’s best works their jet-fuel.

That also explains why some Stephen King movie adaptations lose their magic on screen: Without the deep character-development of his writing, we’re often left with basic, supernatural scream-flicks.[13] It’s no surprise that The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me — which lifted their poetic voice-over narrations straight out of the source novelas — are considered among the best Stephen King movies. (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is another common fan-favorite, although King still hates that movie for the way it completely altered the novel’s ending, and for Jack Nicholson’s nutty-from-the-jump portrayal of Jack Torrance.)

The 1994 ABC miniseries version of The Stand is an object lesson about what can happen when you strip a story of everything that makes it run. In the novel, we’re placed into the heads of a dozen major characters — which helps a lot when you’re dealing with the silent Nick Andros and the jabbering loon known as Trashcan Man, who don’t have much to offer in the conversation department. Even Kojak the dog gets a brief internal monologue in the book, as he recalls his harrowing fight against a pack of wolves.

The miniseries reduces all of them to shrill stereotypes. We have little sense of their pasts, or what the end of the world claimed in their lives, because we can’t read their thoughts. Unless Josh Boone plans to use voice-over narration for multiple characters — which might not be a terrible idea — his movie adaptations will suffer from the same handicaps.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why The Stand will be a nightmare to adapt into a satisfying movie series. Though the novel can be accurately described as an epic battle between good and evil, it actually doesn’t contain any battles in the literal sense. The armies of Boulder and Las Vegas never face-off mano a mano. Hundreds and hundreds of pages are spent describing characters simply moving across the country. Sure, a few of the good guys are killed trying to get to Flagg, and Mother Abigail has to fight off a herd of weasels, but the real war between good and evil in The Stand isn’t waged with swords or guns; it lies in the hearts of the characters. And that’s a huge problem if you’re trying to turn this thing into a four-part blockbuster franchise.

Before the hot-potato landed in the hands of Josh Boone, one of the directors who was tasked with adapting The Stand into a movie was David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films. Here’s what Yates told Collider about the aborted project, after he signed on and then quickly backed out in the Fall of 2011:

What I love about King’s work and what I love about The Stand is the fact that Stephen King really puts you into these people’s lives, and you see the world from a very intimate human level, which normally is something I love. But we felt this pressure to make these super tentpole movies with this material, and the things that you get in Potter—which are these extraordinary episodes of action—they didn’t exist in the material, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to deliver the kind of movie that ultimately the studio was hoping to get from this material. I could see making a miniseries from it, a really interesting, intricate, layered, enjoyable long-burn of a miniseries, I could see that, but what was missing for me were the big movie moments in the material, the big set pieces.

After Yates split, Warner Bros. offered Ben Affleck the director’s chair for The Stand adaptation. Affleck eventually backed out to play Batman, and Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper was approached to take the gig. Cooper lasted a few months before leaving due to creative differences with the studio.

And that, my friends, is how the semi-obscure director of a young-adult tearjerker wound up with the unenviable gig of turning The Stand into a movie series: Because a bunch of other directors recognized it was a suicide mission, and backed out while they still could. Boone hasn’t followed in their footsteps yet, but he still might, and who could blame him if he did?

Larry’s Bad Dream

I used to have this dream. I’m on stage, about to play a concert with my band, but there’s something wrong with my drums. The cymbals are too far away. The snare and toms are arranged at bizarre angles. The hardware keeps collapsing. My bandmates are looking at me impatiently. The audience is getting restless. I’m doing my best to put everything in order, and I just can’t. It’s a total mess.

Here’s what Stephen King writes on page 1,060 of The Stand:

Whoa. So that’s what that means.

I’ve struggled with anxiety throughout my life. When I was younger, it was the fear of consequences, and when I was older, it was the fear of failure. As a writer, I’m my own worst critic. I write a sentence, and it sucks and I hate it, so I quit and I go stare at the Internet for a while. Maybe that’s why I never grew up to be Stephen King.

It takes bravery to commit, to take that first step off the cliff. And it takes an inhuman amount of bravery to do that day after day after day, until you have over a thousand pages of a story about the end of the world. You have no idea if people will like these thousand pages — if they’ll add to your professional reputation or ruin it — but you eventually release them to your publisher, so that people like me can read them and judge them. Then you do it all over again, write another thousand pages, and another. You do this for over four decades. Every morning, you take the first step that leads to the next ones.

This is why Stephen King is a legend.

Stephen King Is Problematic

Twenty-five years after The Stand was originally published, Stephen King allowed himself to be filmed for a Chappelle’s Show segment in which he asked — with the guileless innocence of a child, or perhaps an alien visitor — if “black people want to go to black dentists, and do black people want to get buried by black undertakers.” It’s not an offensive question so much as a totally baffling one, and Paul Mooney roasts him for it. (“He almost said ‘nigga,’” Mooney deadpans[14].)

The Chappelle’s Show appearance provides evidence to my working theory that King maybe didn’t spend a whole lot of time around African-Americans during his formative years in Maine. To him, black people are mostly fictional characters, with strange customs, charming dialects, and occasionally, magical powers — a separate form of life.

King didn’t invent the Magical Negro literary trope, but he’s spent much of his career coasting on it. Consider the psychic hotel caretaker Dick Hallorann in The Shining, who comes back to rescue Danny Torrance when Jack loses his mind. Or the hulking and simple-minded John Coffey of The Green Mile, who heals the innocent by absorbing their pain, and dies as a savior figure.

In The Stand, we’re presented with Mother Abigail Freemantle, a religiously devout beacon of benevolence who uses dreams to summon the main characters to Nebraska and Boulder, then disappears for a while, then shows back up out of nowhere to rescue (most of) the main characters from Harold’s attempt to assassinate them.

Within the entire Boulder Free Zone community — which eventually numbers in the thousands — Mother Abigail is the only person who is described as black. That’s right, kids: Stephen King’s utopic Free Zone society contains exactly one (1) black person. Other than that, the Free Zone is a diverse tapestry, featuring white people from Maine, white people from Texas, white people from New York, and white people from Ohio.[15]

Of course there are other black people in The Stand. You’ve got the jive-talkin’ Rat Man, who’s so creepy that even the nymphomaniac Julie Lawry won’t fuck him. There’s Richard Hoggins, the young black drug addict from Detroit mentioned in the “second epidemic” section. (“He had been addicted to the fine white powder he called ‘hehrawn’ for the last five years.”) Hoggins breaks into a drug dealer’s house after the Captain Trips virus kills everyone and OD’s on the stash he discovers there. “No great loss,” King writes directly afterwards. But wait, it gets worse. I regretfully present the beginning of the aforementioned “black junta” scene:

Huge black men wearing loincloths! “Amazingly even and white teeth in his coal-black face”! Oh man, Steve, what are you doing here? And let’s not forget the “brown, smooth skinned” band of spear-carrying natives that Flagg encounters at the very end of the book. Savages. They don’t speak jive, but that’s only because they don’t speak English at all.

As for Paul Mooney’s suggestion that King was thinking about the N-word when he asked the question about black dentists and undertakers? You only need to look at King’s books to find an unhealthy dose of “nigger” scattered throughout. Every notable black character in King’s novels — Hallorann, Coffey, Mother Abigail, Mike Hanlon in It, Susannah Dean in The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, Nan Melda in Duma Key, etc.[16] — is referred to as a “nigger” at some point by another character[17]. Usually, this is meant to signify villainy or ignorance in the character using the word. But you’d think a writer with as expansive an imagination as King would find different ways to make that point. I mean, for God’s sake.

So here’s my idea: In the movie series, Mother Abigail should be white, and Larry Underwood should be black. No more Magical Negroes martyring themselves for white protagonists; bury that tired stereotype once and for all. And Larry will no longer be a white hustler co-opting black culture. He’ll be, simply, a black man — a man, not a demon or a demigod — struggling through the apocalypse without the aid of special powers, just like the white characters. When Larry visits his mother, she won’t say, “You sound like a nigger.” And he won’t reply, “That brown soun, she sho do get aroun.” Please, please take my advice here, guys.

The End Has No End

Bad shit keeps happening to us because we never learn the lesson. Even when the armies are destroyed, their toys are left behind, and we can’t resist picking them up again. The virus of evil and domination that exists in humanity’s heart can never be fully extinguished.

That’s the moral of The Stand, and yeah, it’s a bummer. At the end of the book, when all the bad guys are nothing more than dust in a mushroom cloud, Stu reflects on the rebuilding of society, on the cops and judges and defense forces it will eventually require, and how it’s just a matter of time before mankind goes back to its old bloody ways. There’s no escaping it — all civilizations point deathward. From page 1,149:

All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter’s lifetime, his children’s lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.

A season of rest. Ultimately, The Stand is not a story about the end of the world. It’s about an end to hostilities. A brief moment in time when we’re not killing each other — which is pure fantasy, unless 99 percent of the world’s population were to suddenly die. But it’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why this book continues to have so much resonance for its readers. Maybe that’s the key to it, right there.

Being that opinions are like assholes, it means nothing for me to say that The Stand is not King’s greatest book. I think The Shining is a far better novel, and its smaller cast of characters allows King to dive more deeply into them. Different Seasons and Skeleton Crew are essential compilations that steamroll The Stand in terms of pure entertainment value. And yet nothing in King’s body of work hits the gut as hard as the one about the Captain Trips flu virus and the decimation of the human race. The apocalypse never goes out of style. The Stand stands alone.

**********

“The splitting of the atom has changed everything except the way we think. Thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
— Completely unsourced quote that may or may not have been said by Albert Einstein

Follow Ben Goldstein on twitter @GoldsteinRaw

[1] In terms of his impact on popular culture and hyper-prolific output, King is the closest thing we have to William Shakespeare. Yes, this take was so hot that I had to bury it in a footnote.

[2] “I wanted to do The Lord of the Rings with an American background,” King said of the novel’s inspiration.

[3] Chief among them: East Texas good-ol’-boy Stu Redman, self-centered musician Larry Underwood, deaf-mute drifter Nick Andros, pregnant college student Frannie Goldsmith, bitter outcast Harold Lauder, career criminal Lloyd Henreid, and insane pyromaniac Donald Merwin Elbert (aka Trashcan Man).

[4] Early rumors pegged McConaughey as playing agent-of-darkness Randall Flagg — an odd choice considering Flagg is a cold, sociopathic villain, and McConaughey can’t help but being likable in everything he does. Later, Boone corrected those rumors, claiming he wanted McConaughey for the role of everyman hero Stu Redman, which is dead-center in his wheelhouse.

[5] Night Shift was King’s first short-fiction compilation, and is perhaps best known for “Children of the Corn,” the quintessential “weird little town” tale. It also features “Night Surf,” about a group of teenagers who have (temporarily) survived a killer flu epidemic that has wiped out most of the world. First published in 1969, “Night Surf” was the story-germ that blossomed into The Stand.

[6] The second half of the book is great if you like town hall meetings. Plus, Stu and Tom’s slow winter trek back to Boulder near the end of the book is pure agony, both for the characters and for the poor readers who have already slogged through 1,100 pages to get there…

[7] …and yet, The Stand could have been 1,500 pages long, easily. As massive and sprawling as it is, the Complete and Uncut Edition still feels like there are chunks missing. For all the time we spend watching the construction of the Boulder Free Zone, we only get rare glimpses at how things are going in Flagg’s Las Vegas. Also, Mother Abigail leaves the book for a few hundred pages when the narrative doesn’t need her anymore. What did she discover during her vision quest? Anything? Forget it, it’s not important.

[8] King has a troubling history with black characters, which we’ll discuss further in Chapter 5. Whether he’s demonizing them or sanctifying them, black people always seem to be The Other in King’s work, not regular folks like your friendly neighbors in Bangor, Maine.

[9] Speaking of 1970s junk, Nadine’s use of the planchette to communicate with Flagg might not make the cut in the movies. Man, remember when Ouija boards were a “thing”? I don’t think you could convince today’s teenagers that a piece of wood could summon Satan to your bedroom. Note to self: Make Ouija board smartphone app for kids.

[10] The Trashcan Man’s brief and terrifying partnership with The Kid was left out of the original 1978 version of The Stand, but was restored for the expanded version.

[11] Alternate possibility: Warner Bros. will hire Pharrell Williams to make “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?” into an actual hit song.

[12] Harold is a physically repulsive aspiring writer who can’t get the girl he pines for, whose brilliance isn’t appreciated by the dull animals he’s forced to associate with. He eventually decides to blow up the Boulder leadership with a homemade bomb, in a fit of righteous teenage male rage. While I was reading the book this year, Larry Underwood felt closest to me, but if I had read The Stand as a 13-year-old, Harold might have been my guy.

[13] The all-time worst Stephen King adaptation? That’s probably a tie between Dreamcatcher — which was based on one of King’s worst books — and the irredeemably awful Maximum Overdrive, which King directed while “coked out of [his] mind.”

[14] Mooney continues: “That’s kind of a weird question, isn’t it? Coming from Stephen King, that was very strange. Having a horror man come on [and] ask a question about a nigga, that was already scary. I wrote a script for Stephen King, I have a Stephen King horror movie — ‘Nigga With a Brain,’ we’ll see how that scares people. ‘Niggas in School,’ how ‘bout that, Stephen?”

[15] It should be noted that there are also no Asians in the book, and the only character who might be Hispanic is Hector Alonzo Drogan (aka “Heck”), a drug-addict who is publicly crucified by Flagg.

[16] Red from The Shawshank Redemption would be on this list, except he was a white guy in the novella.

[17] I vaguely recalled an odd little story from Nightmares & Dreamscapes about a black housekeeper who secretly consumes the semen of a white writer in order to pass his talent to her unborn son, and yep, there it is.

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