The Stand 2020: Episode 4 – The House of the Dead

“… she took his hand.
And Harold Lauder succumbed to his destiny.”


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

In Stephen King’s first non-fiction examination of his writing, Danse Macabre, he talks at some length about the process of writing The Stand. A large part of his inspiration, he says, came from George R Stewart’s classic 1949 post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides. Stewart’s novel lengthily examines the realistic aftermath of a pandemic that nearly wipes out humanity, tracking the redevelopment of society and its evolution over the following decades.

I thought it was a great read, and evidently King did too. Consequently, a large part of The Stand (the novel) is very similar, tracking the downfall of society, the panicked scramble of survivors to find each other, and the new society that starts to emerge in the Free Zone of Boulder, Colorado.

But of course there’s another element to The Stand – an epic struggle between light and darkness in the ashes of civilisation, as vast supernatural forces fight for control of humanity in one last titanic struggle. That part’s pretty cool too, and nicely intertwines with the more realistic examination of social collapse and rebuilding. If you thought Earth Abides’ lengthy musings on changes in ecology and anthropology were a bit dry, King’s more typical tale of the supernatural serves to both complement and enliven it.

I mention all this because it’s becoming increasingly clear that this new adaptation (unlike the straighter 1994 version) is focusing far more on that supernatural plot than the downfall of humanity one. We’re into episode four now, and the Captain Trips pandemic and its aftermath have been dealt with glancingly (if at all) in a series of disjointed flashbacks. Treated, basically, as little more than necessary scene setting for the plot the TV show really wants to focus on – the conflict between Mother Abagail, Randall Flagg, and the powers they represent.

It’s an approach I can understand (and honestly, at this point who wants a lengthy depiction of society crumbling in a pandemic?), but one that, for me at least, strips the novel of much of its depth. I liked King’s depiction of the fall of humanity, and it serves very well to introduce the characters amid the chaos, shaping and informing their development. Without it, the characters come across as ciphers, lacking the progress their arcs get in the aftermath of the pandemic.

One of the most obvious examples, as I mentioned last week, is Nadine Cross. We know, in the novel, that she’s become somehow “promised” to the Dark Man, and part of what makes her character so compelling is her desperate (and ultimately futile) attempt to escape that destiny. Larry Underwood plays a key part in that struggle; she’s clearly in love with him (and he with her), but ultimately she finds herself unable to defy the dark destiny waiting for her, betraying all her principles, her humanity and her very soul in the process.

Precisely none of that comes through in this episode, which focuses on her hooking up with other hapless pawn Harold to sow chaos at Flagg’s bidding. We’ve seen barely anything of her strong attachment to feral child survivor Joe, or her forsaken mantra that “in a world where so many have died, the one great sin is to take a human life”. Without that, no matter how good Amber Heard’s performance is, it’s kinda hard to care about the character much. She comes in predefined as the bad guy’s spy, with no motivation or rationale for it.

Again, I think a lot of this comes from an assumption that the audience will be familiar with the novel; and again, I think that’s a bad idea. It’s really feeling now that this adaptation is a disjointed collection of adapted set pieces from the novel, with little yet to tie them together.

That’s a shame, because some of those adapted set pieces work really well. Notably, this week, I was impressed by two that were flashbacks to the characters’ post-plague wanderings before they reached Boulder; Nick and Tom’s encounter with the vicious Julie Lawry, and Harold and Fran meeting up with a misogynist nutjob keeping a “zoo” of young women available for sexual use in a truck.

Both sequences were genuinely enthralling – the zoo thing in particular was almost unbearably tense, even though (thanks to the flashback structure) you knew that Fran, Stu, Harold and Glen were in no danger of not making it. Scaled back from the novel’s roaming gang of four thugs with eight women, it still worked perfectly well as a portrayal of a certain kind of American – the type that refers to sensitive souls like Harold as “snowflakes” and only respects a man who can solve a problem with his fists. In the wake of events this week at the Capitol in Washington DC, that felt uncomfortably timely.

Similarly, Julie Lawry, as played here by Katherine MacNamara, was a spiteful, hissing little hellcat (just as she is in the novel), insisting on referring to Tom as “feeb” and “retard”. She didn’t go as far as asserting that the First Amendment guaranteed her right to say these things regardless of empathy, but equally she felt cut from the same cloth as the misogynist trucker. It wasn’t subtle, and perhaps my mind is being influenced by recent events, but it seemed very much like the script was saying the type of people who are devoted Trump supporters would naturally gravitate to the Dark Man.

The “zoo” incident also served to finally unite Harold and Fran with Stu, and later enlarge on the fateful love triangle between them. Still, though, I felt something was missing. Yes, we got Harold’s doomed proclamation of love to Fran, and her embarrassed rejection of it; but despite a soulful heart to heart by the campfire, there was little indication of her ultimate pairing with Stu. Again, this is likely to come up in future episodes due to the complex narrative structure; but I must say, for me anyway, that James Marsden and Odessa Young seem to have zero onscreen chemistry so far.

Another bit of overdue narrative gap filling was that of Mother Abagail, Whoopi Goldberg getting more screen time this week than she has in any episode yet. As Nick and Tom’s quest drew to its end, it became clear that “Hemingford Home”, unlike in the novel, wasn’t actually a town, but a local nursing home for the elderly. And if you were waiting for the inevitable Author Cameo that King usually does, it was sneaked in very nicely below the radar here.

Again, this was a change from the novel that worked just fine, though as mentioned last week it made the continuous appearances of cornfields in the prophetic dreams (and in Glen’s painting) rather baffling. Whoopi was as commandingly stern as ever – very Old Testament, but I found myself reflecting again on the cultural changes that have happened since the novel was written.

There’s a good argument that Mother Abagail is perhaps the ultimate in Stephen King’s tendency to use the American literary stereotype of the “Magical Negro” (see also The Shining, The Talisman, The Green Mile). It’s a well-meaning but rather patronising trope employed by (primarily) white writers that portrays black people as somehow mystical and unknowable; nicer than saying they’re lesser than whites, but still making them somehow other than human.

It was less of a problem when the novel was published in 1978, but in today’s understandably sensitive racial climate, it’s been brought up more than once. I had a long think about it, but I’m not sure anything can be done to change that. The character can’t just be left out, as she’s one of the most important parts of the plot. Equally, to recast her as another ethnicity (or a man) carries similar problems.

Probably the only thing they can do short of outraging King fans by completely rewriting the plot is to go with the character as written – for better or worse, it’s pretty much baked in to the novel. For myself, my misgivings were somewhat allayed by the fact that Whoopi Goldberg (who’s in a rather better position than I to judge the acceptability of such things) considers it a part that she not only doesn’t mind playing, but was reportedly extremely eager to play.

Understandably then, she didn’t disappoint – and the nursing home setting was a nice modernisation from the novel’s slightly implausible backstory of her singlehandedly running her ancestral farm at the advanced age of 108. It made her seem a little more human and knowable this week than in previous eps, especially with her well-conveyed doubts about her own destiny – thinking that none of the promised arrivals would make it to the home, for example.

It’s notable that I’ve spent more time this week talking about the scene-setting flashbacks than the episode’s ostensible “main” plot, set in the present. Again, this did its best to compress a lot of thoughtful community-building into a fairly short space of time, as the script focused on the five main characters becoming the Boulder Free Zone Committee, and how they would deal with the problems that came with that.

The 1994 adaptation faithfully recreated the first big town meeting from the novel, complete with the emotional singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. That was important thematically – the idea that these characters were trying to rebuild an ideal version of America, true to the Constitution’s utopian ideals.

Here, the meeting was pretty much skipped over; apart from establishing that Larry is far better at public speaking than Stu, who was portrayed as dumbfounded and inept. I wasn’t quite sure of the intention there, as it clearly undercut the idea of having Stu shown as “the Leader” – Gary Sinise in the 1994 version was far better at conveying an ordinary man who could still get to grips with this extraordinary situation. In a previous scene, Glen had argued that Stu had to do the speech because he was the one with the “most charisma”, but it was hard to see any of that in James Marsden’s performance.

The whole “rebuilding a better America” theme was rather skipped over too. Rather than the emotional rendition of the national anthem seen previously, here we got Larry performing a Hendrix-esque version of America the Beautiful on his electric guitar, as the power came back on in Boulder with far less drama than in the previous adaptation.

Of course all this was skipped over so quickly so the show could get back to the plot it was really interested in. The ep spent the lion’s share of its time depicting the Committee’s plan to send an unlikely trio of spies into the enemy territory of Las Vegas, along with Nadine’s seduction and goading of Harold to commit the ultimate assassination.

To their credit, both were handled well. In an interesting change from the novel, it was Glen rather than Nick who suggested sending the unlikely candidate of Tom Cullen; I’m not sure that worked as well, as the original both emphasises Nick’s smartness while playing on his obvious guilt at sending a close friend into potential death.

Still, it was undoubtedly an affecting moment when Tom set off, hugging a tearful Nick who was emblematically wearing a matching coat to his own. Rather less effective were the farewells to the other spies, Judge Harris (gender flipped to the marvellous and sadly underused Gabrielle Rose) and Dayna Jurgens, the sole survivor of the “zoo”.

Their departures stirred little emotion because literally nothing had been done to introduce them as characters up till now. Dayna (Natalie Martinez) was wordlessly introduced in the zoo flashback then forgotten about till later; while the Judge hadn’t, I think, even been seen before. Oh sure, they’ll likely get more depth as the story goes on, but that undermined a plotline of considerable emotional impact from the novel, as their sponsors wrestle with the guilt of sending close friends to near-certain death.

Still, it’s all about pacing these days, so the ep moved swiftly on with the beginnings of Harold’s Evil Plan. This too was rather lacking in depth, mostly due to the two-dimensional writing of Nadine – Amber Heard at least did try to display a hint of conscience at having to shoot Teddy Weizak (an added layer of jeopardy and guilt from the novel) but even here it was notable that she didn’t hesitate, while Harold looked genuinely shocked. Owen Teague as Harold at least gets far more depth in the script, having been focused on quite closely since the very first episode; and despite my initial misgivings about his casting, he’s doing the part justice.

This was the first ep that didn’t focus primarily on one or two characters, and it felt like the plot was properly starting to move as a result. It just felt unfortunate to me that so much of the earlier plot had been so cursorily skipped over. That’s obviously intentional – the scripts are co-written by Stephen King’s son Owen, and presumably overseen by the man himself. And if it works for you, fair play – what we do see has been for the most part very well done, and well acted. But for my personal taste, even though the 1994 version had to skip over plenty of material too, what we’re getting here feels more like a disjointed precis than an adaptation.

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