Stephen King’s The Stand is widely regarded as one of the greatest post-apocalyptic works of fiction of all time. It’s so beloved that, twelve years after the book’s original 1978 release, Doubleday (which previously asked King to trim) allowed the English muffin-fueled King to tack on 400 or so pages for a Complete and Uncut Edition that weighed in at 1,152 pages. The story didn’t markedly change with the additions, and yet, this was a rare instance of a work benefiting from some extra padding. (Weird, right? And I’m generally of the “vomit a bunch of words up, and start trimming, and then trim some more” camp of writing.) King, who anticipated some pushback, even wrote in his forward that the extra pages weren’t merely an “indulgence” but, rather, an effort to make the book greater than the sum of its parts. He added shading and flavor and more of that weird-ass King humor, and the Uncut edition stood in place of the original, much more so than some overwrought “director’s cuts” of movies that end up surfacing.
In that way, King’s The Stand broke the rules, and for the better. It’s been a good decade since I last reread the book, and I wasn’t quite insane enough to attempt to reread the entire shebang again in a year like this. I also didn’t revisit the 1990s miniseries because I recall that project to be lacking the spirit of the book. So, a compromise was in order. I downloaded the Audible book and, over the course of three months, I listened while driving and working out and such. It’s not something that normal people would listen to in 2020 (and it’s 47 hours long), but I believe that it helped me get through this year because The Stand does include some sneaky optimism. It also set me up to be disappointed in CBS All Access’ reboot, which didn’t happen. This is not a perfect adaptation, but it more than justifies its existence. It also, fortunately, does not feel like an “indulgence” like many reboots do, but like an update for our times. And it gives me some hope that our current situation will eventually lead to healing.
I believe that this reboot (to borrow King’s terminology) will satisfy his Constant Readers, who appreciate that this is not really a “pandemic” story. Yes, the Captain Trips superflu is a catalyst, but the story’s much more about what happens after the fact. It’s about humanity’s choice for whether to (as banally simplistic as this sounds) rally for good or for evil. Tellingly, the book also arrived at a point in King’s writing career where he moved past simply scaring the sh*t out of people, and here, he wrote about the rebuilding of society. It’s an expansive instance of storytelling and one that truly deserves to be described as “epic,” but one must wade through hundreds of pages about the superflu to really get to the good stuff. And then there’s the 2020 reality: there’s no way to convince an audience to hang for 3-4 episodes of misery in a 9-episode limited series, to get to some sort of payoff.
Fortunately, the powers that be (creator/showrunner Benjamin Cavill and director Josh Boone, along with a writing team that includes King’s son, Owen, and King himself) realized — long before our current global crisis arose — that a linear telling wasn’t the way to go. They couldn’t possibly have anticipated the pandemic back when this reboot was announced as a CBS All Access limited series. They did, however, recognize that we’ve seen more than enough pandemic-involved movies over the past few decades. Like, watching anything that vaguely resembles Contagion is so not what I need, now or ever. Nor is it what the public at large wants. And we don’t need to see a retelling that feels derivative of stories that were unmistakably influenced by King’s seminal work.
What does this mean for The Stand reboot? The show bypasses a lot of King’s pandemic backdrop. It’s still there, sure, mostly in the debut episode. There’s vomiting and coughing from the virus that wiped out 99% of the world’s population. It’s not pleasant, but this doesn’t last long. If viewers can make it past that stuff, then they’ll be rewarded with a fresh treatment on this cast of characters, who jump ahead several months after the devastation. The updated format also allows Boone (a Constant Reader) to get down with exposing the heart of the story and start building momentum for the all-important showdown that will happen within less time than a standard season. The structure works because it’s damn comforting to see people (quickly) coming together in a constructive and meaningful way. It’s the right approach for a modern retelling of King’s story.
So mercifully, there’s less road-tripping as survivors answer to dreams — from either Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) or Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) — and slowly make their way to either Boulder, Colorado or Las Vegas, respectively. Parts of these pilgrimages happen in flashbacks, largely from the perspective of Stu Redman, an east Texan embodied by James Mardsen. (Boy, I bet Mardsen was thrilled to play a cowboy-ish character who’s actually one of the only dudes who lives, so he doesn’t have to die, over and over again in Westworld fashion.)
Next to Stu in this photo, you’ll notice Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo). His backstory (that of a drugged-out singer who’s about to finally make it big as the virus hits) receives a lot of face time in flashbacks, but that story’s also lacking in dimension and “Baby Do You Dig Your Man” jokes. Larry, as a character, got the shaft, man. As did Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), the pregnant young woman who’s poised to provide a lot of clues on whether humanity can survive, long-term, but who’s treated as an object of the male gaze. Both Larry and Frannie suffer from a lack of depth in this reboot. They go through the motions of their backstories, but that action doesn’t show us what’s going on inside of them beyond the obvious grieving-factor associated with losing loved ones. It’s odd, because the rest of the main players are drawn with such dimension.
The Stand reboot — at least in the first half of the season screened for critics — serves as a fine rendering of realistically flawed characters who maneuver toward an ultimate reckoning for mankind. The polar opposites are represented well by performances from Goldberg and Skarsgård. Her role is a necessarily restrained one, full of wisdom, whereas he gets to have a damn good time. And it’s fun to watch. His take on Randall Flagg combines his True Blood vamp charisma and Hold The Dark menacing vibes, all laced with shades of his very bad man from Big Little Lies. And these days, really, one can’t seem to adapt a King yarn without a Skarsgård leering up from the sewer and whatnot. Bill Skarsgård scared the bejesus out of everyone as Pennywise and did the Castle Rock thing; and Alexander is here, giving it his all, as Flagg.
Put a Skarsgård in every King project, I say. Throw Gustaf into The Eyes of the Dragon as a wizard-y version of Flagg. Put Stellan into a remake of Needful Things as the shopkeeper. It’s like Mad-Libs but more chilling, and I’m being completely silly now, but really, Alexander Skarsgård is fantastic as Flagg, as the The Man In Black, and as The Walkin’ Dude. He commands every scene he’s got, and his interactions with Amber Heard, who portrays the doomed Nadine Cross, are otherworldly. (And finally, this series gives Heard a role with depth, and I’m here for it.) Much of the cast brings it, including Owen Teague (from the IT movies), who delivers a different Harold Lauder spin than I saw coming. Goodbye, greasy dude who’s in love with Payday candy bars, and hello, unsettling hybrid of The Joker/Tom Cruise Jumping On A Couch.
There’s a lot to like here, which is something I did not expect from a reboot that’s been so long in the making that it could have fizzled upon arrival. Hell, even Ben Affleck was working on a The Stand movie for awhile. Fortunately, this project landed in Josh Boone’s hands. He’s crawled inside of this story, dug into all the guts, and emerged with the soul within his grasp. He and Ben Cavill have constructed a reflective, rather than exploitative, take on what happens when society collapses due to a set of grievous human mistakes and some supernatural shenanigans afoot, too. And what a cast, man. Lots of familiar faces in smaller roles, like Heather Graham (as Rita Blakemoor) and Greg Kinnear (as Prof. Glen Bateman). Hell, even J.K. Simmons is here, doing his thing where he smacks you upside the head in a seemingly small role that burrows into the fabric of reality. He’s great. The Stand reboot is pretty great, too, if only people will ignore the “pandemic” stuff enough to give it a chance.
‘The Stand’ premieres December 17th (on CBS All Access) with new episodes premiering weekly.