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Television

The Stand is a Middling Portrayal of Stephen King’s Epic Novel

“Do you ever think how strange that is, huh? How fire needs oxygen to survive?” Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) muses to his newest follower, Trashcan Man (Ezra Miller) in the sixth episode of the modern interpretation of The Stand airing on CBS All Access. The pair are discussing the logistics of handling fire, of which Trashcan Man is an expert, and Flagg learns fire needs to breathe to flourish.

The same analogy could be applied to this recent adaptation of Stephen King’s lengthy novel, which is so overstuffed that it can’t tell an engaging story, even in its nine-hour runtime. The limited series was always going to be overloaded with characters, since King’s book is a character-driven story about the survivors of a super flu, yet the show manages to shortchange nearly all of them by bulleting past their backstories and internal motivations to get to the big finale – or, the stand.

This story is ultimately about good and evil, and how extreme circumstances like a worldwide pandemic can test the moral fabric of ordinary people. In The Stand, the characters have persistent dreams about both Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg), goodness personified, and her evil counterpart, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude – Randall Flagg.

The main players that choose to follow Mother Abagail to Boulder, Colorado include Stu Redman (James Marsden), Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), and Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young). Meanwhile, those who decide to hitch their wagon to Flagg in New Vegas are Lloyd Henreid (Nat Wolff) and the aforementioned Trashcan Man, among others.

The book masterfully explores the inner psyches of these characters and shows us why they make the choice they do, but this limited series adaptation isn’t capable of portraying more than poorly sketched-out caricatures of characters that were richly layered and complex in the original source material.

Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), for example, is a troubled and unfortunate young man who starts the book as basically a good guy, but is tempted by Flagg to give in to his own dark thoughts and misgivings about what he feels he is entitled to. Harold’s arc suffers in the miniseries, which portrays him as a creep and a villain right out of the gate, giving his character nowhere else to go for the rest of the story.

The many residents of New Vegas are also underdeveloped, which unfortunately undercuts the message King was trying to get across about morality in dubious times. In the book, it’s clear that most of Flagg’s followers aren’t outright evil, but morally ambiguous, lonely, and vulnerable, making them more susceptible to his manipulation. Many of them follow him out of fear, but the show makes no effort to portray this.

Instead, it shows a community of “trigger-happy sadists” that spend their days consumed by gambling, drugs, and sex, and have no objections to the grisly fights to the death by Flagg’s slaves for entertainment purposes. It’s disappointing that the “bad” guys in the story are so cartoonishly evil because it makes them less interesting and fails to challenge the audience in any meaningful way.

The residents of Boulder are similarly thin, since the 2020 adaptation skips most of their backstories and personal relationships with each other. This results in a large main cast of characters who are boring and unsympathetic, and who the audience has no reason to root for other than because the show tells us they are the “good” guys.

At least part of the reason these characters are so poorly drawn-out is because of the uneven pacing and needless time jumps in the first few episodes. For some strange reason, The Stand commits to juggling several tedious versions of its characters, often in the same episode. A character will get introduced at the tail end of the Captain Trips outbreak, fragile as the world as they know it crumbles and their loved ones die.

Then, the show will flash forward to that same character living comfortably in Boulder or New Vegas, weathered but fully formed, with very little indication to the audience of how they became that way. Finally, not content with only two timelines, The Stand will throw in occasional scenes of that character’s journey to their eventual destination, which only serves to show how dark and twisted this new world is rather than anything new about the character it’s following. The multiple time jumps in the first half of the miniseries makes it difficult for the show to flesh out the characters in any version of their story.

The CBS adaptation of The Stand is largely a disappointment, but it does have some bright spots. The special effects are impressive, and a significant improvement from the 1994 miniseries, especially when it comes to its portrayal of Captain Trips. The actors all deliver excellent performances, doing their best to make their characters nuanced despite the lackluster scripts. The acting is perhaps the best thing about this adaptation, and I feel the characters are largely cast perfectly.

The worst part of this mediocre adaptation of one of King’s most beloved novels is that it could have been great, but those involved with the storytelling were too concerned with checking off boxes of plot points without doing any of the necessary legwork to get the characters there, which is the meat of King’s work.

Image courtesy of CBS Studios

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