The Stand 2020: Episode 1 – The End

(SPOILER WARNING – FOR THE BOOK AND BOTH VERSIONS ON TV!)

Stephen King’s The Stand is one of my favourite books ever. I first read it when I was 12 years old, and was captivated by this epic, 800 page long saga of Ultimate Good fighting Ultimate Evil in a post-apocalypse United States. Later, the Full Uncut version was released, bumping the page count up by about 300 by restoring the material cut in 1978, when the publisher didn’t believe the market would take to a book that long. I loved that version even more.

Given Hollywood’s usual eagerness to adapt King’s material, it took a surprisingly long time to come up with a filmed version of The Stand. In part, that was because of its sheer length; in the days before multi part epics like Lord of the Rings, no producer could quite figure out how to distil the novel’s huge span to one movie. After 16 years, though, it eventually found a home as a TV miniseries in 1994, directed by frequent King-adapter Mick Garris. Six hours long, in four parts, it still only covered the bare bones of the story, but it was a perfectly acceptable, if rather uninspiring, visualisation of the novel.

Fast forward 26 years, and there’s a new version. On the TV, again, although modern TV allows for far more of the horror material (and swearing!) to be retained where the 1994 version had to soft pedal on things like that.

Now, 26 years is certainly a long enough time to justify a remake, but I’ve always thought it pointless to remake something unless it’s significantly different from the original. The trouble there is that changing too much from this beloved novel risks losing the viewers. How, then, to justify a new version that does exactly the same as the one from 1994?

In part, there’s more runtime in which to show the story. This time, it’s a nine part ‘limited series’, with episode one at least running for an hour. If they’re all that length, we’re looking at nine hours overall – 50% more time to tell the (very long) story than the 1994 version. But the real bonus is a promised entirely new ending written by King himself. Even the novel’s greatest fans have to concede that the novel’s very literal deus ex machina conclusion was… less than satisfying.

So, an entirely new version of The Stand? Well, ending aside, this first episode doesn’t really make it look like that. The major change from 1994 is a non-linear approach to the narrative, with this episode at least focusing solely on three particular characters – everyman hero Stu Redman, impulsive young heroine Fran Goldsmith, and King’s usual author surrogate, Harold Lauder.

The ep begins with the superflu pandemic already over, with a voiceover narration from Mother Abagail that comes from quite near the end of the novel; it then cuts straight to a well- remembered set piece from the book, of Harold and his work crew comrades emptying a church in Boulder of its mouldering, months-dead occupants. Then we’re into flashback territory, as the story cuts to the beginning of the pandemic, showing us how Harold and Fran lost their families while establishing their characters.

Similarly, we’re introduced to Stu Redman while he’s already in sinister US government custody, though a brief flashback shows us the origin of the superflu outbreak in Arnette, Texas. The plot of his confinement and eventual escape as the disease rages through the country is intertwined with that of Harold and Fran. We do, eventually, see the bio-lab containment accident that led to the virus’ escape, but that’s not till the very end of the ep.

The non-linear approach certainly distinguishes it from the earlier version, and by focusing on specific characters in each episode, we get to see them in more depth. Morally challenged bullying victim Harold Lauder is one of the novel’s best characters, his story charting his descent from victim to willing acolyte of the demonic bad guy. Harold’s body confidence issues (he’s considerably overweight at the start of the novel) have a lot to do with his character, but the 1994 version rather diluted that by casting the undisguisably handsome Corin Nemec in the part. Taking a heart throb actor and putting some fake zits on him doesn’t really cut it when visualising Harold.

And lo and behold, they’ve only gone and done it again in this new version. Owen Teague is frequently cast as younger bad guys (not least in the recent adaptation of IT), but he’s another one who’s pretty easy on the eye. They haven’t even bothered with the fake zits this time, just greasing his hair down in a very unconvincing ‘nerd’ hairstyle.

Fortunately he’s also a pretty good actor, and he certainly makes Harold’s collapsing sanity look a good deal more intense than Corin Nemec managed. There’s a scene of him ‘practising’ his smile to resemble a photo of Tom Cruise that nicely treads the ground between comical and chilling, while his fevered grin as he pounds away at his typewriter to create his serial killer-style manifesto is terrifying.

Stu and Fran, I have to say, are rather less well-served. In part, that’s because they’re nowhere near as interesting as characters anyway; the 1994 version at least managed to make Stu more engaging by casting a young Gary Sinise, though Molly Ringwald with a brunette dye job always felt miscast as Fran.

This time, we get stolid but uninteresting James Marsden as Stu, and while he was good in Westworld (mainly by playing off and subverting his wholesome hero typecasting), he’s no Gary Sinise. Marsden’s Stu is utterly colourless – he’s not unlikeable, simply because there’s nothing much about him to like or dislike.

Similarly, Australian actor Odessa Young is pretty unmemorable as Fran. Molly Ringwald might have been miscast, but she certainly made an impression (even if it was probably the wrong one). In Fairness, Young doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with here. This version gives us even less of Fran’s backstory than the 1994 version, dispensing with her harridan mother from the novel, and only giving us a glimpse at her beloved father before he carks it from the superflu. The only interesting change is that Harold bonds with her by saving her from her attempted suicide after burying him in the garden – an understandable reaction in the circumstances.

In fact, we don’t even realise that she’s pregnant until a later scene flashes forward to the post-plague Boulder Free Zone, even though that knowledge would have added considerably to the drama of her suicide attempt. It was at this point I began to wonder whether the non-linear narrative approach sprang from an assumption on the part of the producers that all viewers would be familiar with the book, and wouldn’t need to be told details like that. If so, it’s a terrible idea – the 1994 version at least was completely accessible whether you’d read the book or not.

It did at least give viewers a few glimpses at the up and coming major players in the story. Prophet-of-God Mother Abagail popped up in the first of what will presumably be many dream sequences, and Whoopi Goldberg, her trademark dreadlocks coloured white, did a pretty good job in the part. Well, Guinan in Star Trek was already a pretty similar character, so Goldberg is an old hand at this type of thing.

As is Alexander Skarsgard, who popped up briefly to torment the feverish Charlie Campion before his fateful crash into the Arnette petrol station. Skarsgard made his name as imposing (and sexy) vampire Eric Northman in True Blood, and he’s good casting as King’s oft-used demonic baddie Randall Flagg. We don’t see much of him in this opener (he doesn’t even speak), but he’s certainly got the required presence for the part.

I have to say, though, that the 1994 version’s approach of casting a relative unknown might have been better – Jamey Sheridan made a great Flagg in that one, in part because the actor had no baggage so the viewer didn’t know what to expect. I think Skarsgard is excellent, but casting him immediately tells you everything you need to know about Flagg. There again, if the producers are working on the assumption that every viewer is familiar with the book, you already knew anyway, I guess.

This first episode didn’t leave much of an impression, and that’s unfortunate – the opener for something like this should grab you immediately and make you want to watch more. Again, I found myself wondering if the show’s producers were just banking on the audience’s familiarity with the book, but if so, that’s pretty lazy showrunning.

Yes, the non-linear narrative serves to distinguish it from both the book and the previous TV version, but I honestly think it would be baffling to anyone who hadn’t read the book – at least at this point, it’s possible that later eps will do a better job of filling in the gaps. And there are a few race and gender flips from the source material on the way – jerkass songwriter Larry Underwood is black this time, and Judge Farris is female.

Overall, though, I have to say that this doesn’t differ enough from the previous version to seem worth having remade it. There are a few nods to modernity, such as when characters refer to the internet having been “shut down”, but they’re so fleeting that they don’t really serve to update the story. I’ll keep on watching, and possibly blogging, in the hope that later episodes do more to impress, but based on this first ep, I’d say you might as well go and rewatch the 1994 version.