After the Fall: Revisiting The Stand

Does Dylan take a stand against this TV miniseries of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic nightmare? 

The Stand has often been referenced as one of Stephen King’s best novels. It is certainly one of the most epic, with basically the whole population of the Earth getting wiped out thanks to a deadly virus. This has led to some obvious hesitation when bringing it to the screen. It’s hard to see how the film could be done in under a trilogy, but considering the subject matter, this would require serious investment in a series of 18/R-rated movies. So far, the only adaptation we have is a 90’s miniseries of the same name. Although it had an impressive budget for the time, can it possibly be a decent tribute to a jewel in King’s oeuvre?

The plot follows the escape of a deadly virus nicknamed “Captain Trips,” which kills 99.9% of the world’s population. The survivors across America form into two groups, one hemmed by the evil Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), a time-honoured King antagonist, and the other by the virtuous Stu Redman (Gary Sinise). From there, it becomes a battle for the survival of the rest of humanity…

This is a much easier pill to swallow if you are a fan of the novel and King’s work in general. The design is really starting to show its age. The “baddies” are often dressed in biker leathers, and it gets laughable in places; the dream sequences with Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) are clearly filmed on a sound stage, and it cannot escape the low-rent feel of 90’s video. Also, the less said about the jacket worn by Harold (Miguel Ferrer), the better.

This is a long watch as well, at well over six hours. And not all of it is plot. There are some baffling directorial/editing decisions along the way, including a scene where the whole national anthem of America is sung, and a deaf mute character spends much of his time on-screen writing all his notes  by hand.

I would recommend that if you aren’t invested in the characters by the end of Part Two, then stop. ABC’s presentation of The Stand could be a slog for some, and a love of King’s work or science fiction in general will definitely help. You may be surprised by quite how supernatural the story is; psychic characters and magic are an intrinsic part of the landscape, and this is not the “realism” of, say, The Walking Dead. It also does not delve into the psychology of the characters in the same way as the book. They become strong television personalities, but sometimes their motivations and ideals are rushed. However, it does succeed in juggling a big cast, and there’s a high calibre of talent to keep you interested. Sinise, Ed Harris, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald and many others pull in great performances, and it is astonishing to see actors of this quality working in a television miniseries.

Most importantly, though, The Stand manages to take a huge sprawling epic, one of the most rambling from a rambler of a writer, and make it somewhat straightforward. King’s own screenplay not only manages to keep these plot strands together, but turn them into episodes with specific themes to them. The first part deals just as much with the government’s attempt to keep the crisis under wraps as it does with the virus spreading, and even the cheesiest parts are at least relevant. This is also your only chance to see one of King’s most popular bastards comes to life. Randall Flagg, a man central to the mythos of the great man’s work, is brought to life here, and it is a convincing performance by the unknown Sherdian (bar the rather naff red eyes). Those who came for Trashcan Man (Matt Frewer), and Las Vegas appropriately becoming the capital of sin, will not be disappointed.

There were scenes deleted, characters amalgamated, and situations summarised, but generally The Stand sticks closely to the original story, and keeps on top of it, too. Despite switching between many different storylines, you always understand the progression and where the different characters are. The fact that King himself wrote the teleplay makes a big difference, and makes sure what has gone from his original is not missed. If we take 1980’s The Shining as the ultimate example of an artist reinterpreting King’s work to his own ends, then The Stand is one of the purest interpretations of his work.

For me, though, the standout moment in the entire six hours is when Larry Underwood (Adam Storke) tries to trek through an underpass in New York, full of dead bodies and darkness. It is a genuinely creepy scene, especially for anyone living in the city, and just shows how much wealth there is in this story for the right production. I would still love to see another version of The Stand made. This one is limited by the grand nature of the source material, and the inevitable limitations of the format and time in which it was produced. At this point in television and cinematic history, with an interest in apocalyptic fiction and generally higher production values available, it could be a classic live-action rendition. What this version provides is a taster. With a solid ten hours behind it and modern effects, this could be the zenith of apocalyptic fiction. As it stands, this is a solid watch for fans of King and the genre.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Miguel Ferrer originally wanted to play the role of Randall Flagg, but Stephen King wanted someone that the audience wasn’t overly familiar with. After Ferrer heard that his friend Jamey Sheridan had been offered the part, but wasn’t sure it was something he wanted to do, Ferrer convinced him to take it.
  • Randall Flagg says, “Pleased to meet you, Lloyd. Hope you guess my name,” to which a confused and starving Lloyd responds, “Huh?” Randall Flagg responds with, “Just a little classical reference.” This refers to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, and maybe the novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail A. Bulgakov.
  • For years it was planned to make this story into a theatrical film, directed by George A. Romero. King did many drafts to make it of a suitable length for a feature film, and when he couldn’t get it short enough they considered breaking it into two separate films before finally letting Rospo Pallenberg write a draft. But before they could make it, King was offered the chance to make this miniseries for television.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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