Television

Hollywood Still Can't Figure Out How to Adapt The Stand

If you’re looking for a coherent, compelling version of Stephen King’s pandemic opus, keep on walking.

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The Stand. Available on CBS All Access Thursday, December 17.

With 1,152 pages and something on the order of 25 major characters, The Stand is Stephen King's most ambitious novel, a grim and sweeping tale of a weaponized flu virus known as Captain Trips that escapes from a military lab and lays waste to the world.

For Hollywood, it's proven the most impenetrable. After 14 years in Development Hell and two failed attempts to make it into a theatrical release (one of them with zombiemeister George Romero directing a script from King himself), it finally emerged as a six-hour ABC miniseries in 1994. "Eight hours, which seem to fly by in like, oh, 38 hours," said the Orlando Sentinel, a judgment that summed up both the critical and audience response to a dumbfounding dud.

In 2011, memories dimmed, Hollywood began trying again. This new Stand project morphed from a conventional theatrical release into an eight-hour Showtime miniseries that would be followed by an in-the-theaters movie. When financial stakes were pounded through the hearts of all those ideas, another proposal finally found favor at CBS: a 10-hour miniseries to be broadcast on the streaming CBS All Access service. Six months of shooting finished in March, just before the highly nonfictional coronavirus began locking down America.

Admire that perseverance, if you must. But don't let appreciation for a work ethic, or even love for the stay-up-all-night-reading novel, suck you into spending 10 hours watching The Stand. It's a mess. Wait for the 2036 version instead.

Unlike a lot of bad television, there's no need to feel malice for the producers and writers of The Stand. Sorting out all those characters and story lines, as each of them painstakingly journeys from their dead little towns (or big ones—one of the more watchable chunks of the show involves a couple of characters making a harrowing escape from a kingdom-of-the-rats New York City) to what they hope will be refuge in Colorado is damnably complicated.

But the fact remains that the screenwriters (six of them, including King's son and sometimes writing partner Owen) didn't get the job done, and most of their wounds are self-inflicted. Instead of sticking to one story and one chronology at a time, The Stand darts back and forth from character to character, locale to locale, flashback to flash-forward. Are we in Vermont or Pennsylvania? Is this before the virus has emerged, or at its height, or after nearly everybody is dead? Has that woman broken up with her boyfriend yet, or is he still blissfully unaware that he's about to be dumped?

The haphazard structure also deflates many of The Stand's most dramatic moments. The big reveal of one character's secret pregnancy is practically a poster child for anti-climacticism, since she was seen waddling around in a flash-forward scene a couple of episodes back, her stomach looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's. Ultimately, deciphering The Stand is something like pulling apart a plate of scrambled eggs in hopes of reassembling the yolks and whites and cheeses.

That's an absolutely fatal compromise of King's novel. Its strength was in the often-lengthy tales of how the various characters—a one-hit-wonder rock star, an outcast high-school kid, a half-blind deaf-mute, a cynical sociologist, a school teacher with dark fantasies, and a burly man whose physical might is offset with mental weakness, among others—make their way toward Colorado. Along the way, they suffer everything from ruthless banditry to sewer-rat attacks to cannibalism.

The cast mostly doesn't rise much above the level of competence—nor, to be fair, drop much below it. The notable exceptions are Brad William Henke (Orange Is the New Black) making his mentally challenged character Tom Cullen impossible not to love; Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) projecting a palpable sense of evil as Randall Flagg, the baddest of the bad guys; and Henry Zaga, who pulls off a nearly impossible assignment in portraying Nick Andros, a man who can't hear or speak and can barely see.

What draws these characters on their separate treks toward a hoped-for salvation are dreams of a sweet, elderly black woman who begs them to join her. But they're also whipsawed by much more troubling visions of a sinister prophet who's setting up shop in Las Vegas. The good black woman accumulates all the poets, social workers, and community-college intellectuals; the bad white man all the pyros, nymphomaniacs, and physicists. Guess which side has the upper hand when the two camps square off for a theological showdown with a side of nuclear weapons?

These conceits were silly even back in 1979 when The Stand was published. King's Luddite cosmology, which seems to be drawn in equal parts from 1950s big-bug sci-fi movies and 1960s campus urban myths about big-bellied cops torturing long-hair kids, has always been simple-minded. The Stand was the first of his novels to present ideas (unless you consider the conviction that Vampires Are Bad to be a comprehensive philosophical school), and they were stupidly authoritarian. The Boulder Free State, which King presented as a return to original American values after Captain Trips has kicked over the societal table, is a theocracy headed by a self-appointed prophet and administered by her secretive and unelected sock puppets. And this is the virtuous side of King's universe.

Unfortunately, the sabotage of the novel's truly enthralling story-telling leaves its ideology as its strongest element. If you're interested in a pithy discourse on how a world government seemingly modeled on Iran, except the mullahs are really nice (and good-looking!), then The Stand is the miniseries you've been waiting for. Otherwise, it will be of interest mainly to King nerds who want to spot heretical deviations from the novel. There are a number of them, mostly for the sake of wokeness. (For instance, the saintly deaf-mute Nick Andros, a Nebraskan in the book, has become an illegal Salvadoran immigrant in the miniseries, Andros being an old Salvadoran family name.)

But the general thrust of the novel has been maintained in the TV show, with one possible—and potentially enormous—exception: King has said in interviews that he wrote a new ending for the miniseries. CBS only made four episodes available for review, so there's no telling what that might be. With any luck, he'll make himself into a character, then wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette and reveal that it was all a bad dream and the vampires are back.

NEXT: From the Archives: January 2021

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  2. Have they ever made a good adaptation of any of King’s books other than Misery? (No, The Shining was not a good adaptation, it starred Jack Nicholson whom we all knew right off the bat was bat-shit insane and it had nothing to do with The Overlook making him go crazy. A good adaptation would have starred Tom Hanks.)

    1. Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me were good. Also there was a made for TV version of The Shining twenty or so years ago that was way more faithful to the book. I don’t remember if it was any good though.

      1. King directed The Shining miniseries himself, and it’s an improvement over Maximum Overdrive, at least.

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    3. I liked The Green Mile. Also, Blazing Saddles did a good job of capturing the original tenor of King’s novel.

    4. The Running Man.

    5. I was pleasantly surprised with the newest Pet Semetary. Probably because I expected nothing.

    6. I remember liking David Croneberg’s adaptation of “The Dead Zone” quite a bit when I saw it, but that was many years ago.

    7. The Mist had a better (meaning, more emotionally traumatizing) ending that the book. King himself was on record saying that he wished he had thought of it himself.

  3. Hollywood ruins everything they touch.

    1. To be fair, it’s hard to do justice to a good horror novel. Even “The Exorcist” pales in comparison to Blatty’s terrifying original novel.

      Although I thought Silver Bullet was the shit.

  4. 4 trump supporters stabbed last night by antifa. No biggie.

    1. That’s awful that you think it’s no bid deal that four people were violently attacked.

      1. What’s awful is how fucking stupid you are.

        1. He is isnt he.

          1. Nobody else here was saying it was “no biggee.” Just you, or the voices in your head.

            1. Oh. I missed the report here. They must have mentioned it and not ignored it like most of the violence over the summer.

              1. You’re looking for it on a weekend blog post about Stephen King?

                1. Fuck you retard.

                2. This is as good a spot as any to remind White Knight to go and fuck themselves.

    2. From the video I saw, four Proud Boys (out of a crowd of 20+) got stabbed after one of them sucker-punched a guy they knew had a knife. Guy with the knife might be with antifa, but I haven’t seen that established.

  5. Children of the Corn, in an early-80’s late-night-rerun kind of way.

    Stand by Me, which was good source material to begin with, and easily adapted due to its compact format that didn’t meander from the main story much.

    But yeah, kind of hard to adapt the usually ethereal stuff the guy can spend thousands of page on into a coherent 2-hour movie. See: The Dark Tower. I heard they’re going to screw up The Tommyknockers again, although my 16-year-old self drooled at Traci Lords back in the original TV version.

    1. Damnit. Was supposed to be a reply to “have they ever made a good adaptation of any of King’s books other than Misery?”

      1. And the answer is yes, “The Dead Zone.”

  6. It’s a tedious book. Do yourself a favor and skip it. The only good part is what happens in Vegas near the end. I say near because king spent oh maybe 80 pages going on after the climactic ending and you’re wondering does he get paid by the word at this point.

    1. Denouement.

    2. I read the whole book as originally released — and really enjoyed it — but when I got to the end, I was convinced I must have missed something, so I went back and read the previous chapter. Then the chapter before that, and the one before that. Finally, convinced that I had missed something at the beginning, I reread the entire book cover to cover, only to discover that I hadn’t missed anything. Ten years later, the publishing house re-released the book with 400-plus pages that had been cut from the original. Fool me once, I said.

  7. Even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me could understand a “theocracy headed by a self-appointed prophet” if that prophet provided unimpeachable evidence she was actually divinely chosen to speak for a very real God.

    1. As an atheist I agree, but I would wonder if how wokeness, indeed human decency, would interact with dictums to kill men who lie with other men as with a woman.

    2. One of the trendy things in fantasy right now is fantasy atheism. Despite their being gods and an afterlife, people still being atheists out of wokeness

    3. “…..atheist like me could understand….,”

      An old black woman as unquestionably good?

      Yawn. Typical.

    4. Dumb take by the reviewer. The dreams and the old lady herself provide some proof that this atheist would have to take seriously. The people know about the capital-E Evil bad guy. And let’s face it, they’re rebuilding civilization pretty quickly in Boulder (at least in the book) so a benevolent dictatorship might be necessary to get on a war footing quickly. That’s the whole point in the book – we haven’t got time for discussion. He’s coming to kill us.

  8. I read the book in the early-80s in which the story started out good but got worse and worse as it went…and it’s a long book.
    We thought the 90s TV adaptation was very boring.
    Stephen King’s Twitter posts read like an 8th grader composed them.

  9. “The Stand is Stephen King’s most ambitious novel, a grim and sweeping tale of a weaponized flu virus known as Captain Trips that escapes from a military lab and lays waste to the world.”

    Back in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was nicknamed Captain Trips for his frequent use of LSD.

    Did Stephen King’s fictional virus also make people hallucinate?

  10. It’s not like the source material is compelling or coherent.

    The Stand is basically everything wrong with Stephen King. It’s a long, rambling, mess that needed an editor, but his ego doesn’t permit that anymore. In fact, he published an even longer, less coherent version of it.

  11. The real question is why do they keep remaking Stephen King’s stuff, when there are so many much more talented authors who have not had their works adapted?

    I mean, we’ve already had a Maximum Overdrive remake. That wasn’t even as good as the original concept, Killdozer

    1. Stephen King’s writing is over rated, simplistic, pedantic…and he seems to be one big, fat pompous ass. I could be wrong…

      1. I don’t think he’s fat.

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  15. Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile were good movies, and have held up well over time. I was never a fan of Misery but Cathy Bates crushed the role. Most of King’s movie adaptions end up feeling like a television “movie of the week” in terms of acting and production values. Part of the challenge is that horror–like sci-fi–doesn’t often age well. King-adaptation movies also have suffered from some regrettable casting choices.

  16. Then you’ve got Andromeda Strain which was immediately adapted almost perfectly.

  17. I like a lot of his novels, and the Stand and the Dark Tower are probably my favorite. I also like the original mini-series, as dated as it is, but as soon as I saw they were pulling the tired old race and gender swap of a bunch of main characters I lost any interest in ever seeing this series.

    Are woke progressive so insecure and narcissistic that they can’t sit through one solitary story unless someone who looks like them is on the screen? Well we already know the answer to that. Unfortunately every screen play where they change the original work to make individual lefties feel good about themselves always turns out to be complete garbage.

  18. “The Boulder Free State, which King presented as a return to original American values after Captain Trips has kicked over the societal table, is a theocracy headed by a self-appointed prophet and administered by her secretive and unelected sock puppets. And this is the virtuous side of King’s universe.”

    Has the author even read to book? The name is Free Zone, not Free State. It is not a theocracy and it is not headed by Mother Abigail. The members of the Free Zone Committee are not her sock puppets; they make their own decisions. Neither are they unelected; the Free Zone holds an open meeting, where the Committee members are elected by popular acclaim.

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