The Stand 2020: Episode 9 – Frannie in the Well

“Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long.
And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.”

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

And so, the new version of The Stand ends as it began – missing out huge, rather important parts of the story, and focusing on two characters so underwritten and uninteresting you simply didn’t care what happened to them. Along the way, you had to keep reminding yourself of the stakes, since the whole “pandemic wipes out 99% of humanity” thing has been so underplayed throughout, you could have been forgiven for thinking the USA that Stu and Fran were trekking across was perfectly normal. After all, it’s not uncommon to drive hundreds of miles across America’s heartlands without seeing a town or a human being.

But what of this promised “new ending” by Stephen King himself? I’d hoped it might have come last week, to improve the generally recognised weak conclusion to the struggle against Randall Flagg. But no, in keeping with the general tone of things throughout this adaptation, the original ending was not only kept, but actually done quite badly. God still wiped out New Vegas by detonating Trashcan Man’s handy nuke, but this time, the Almighty’s role in events had also been so downplayed that it wasn’t even clear He was responsible.

Given that this new version has been much more interested in the Epic Supernatural Struggle than any other aspect of this sprawling, massive tome, I theorised last week that, nuke notwithstanding, we hadn’t seen the last of Randall Flagg. Indeed, in the ‘Full, Uncut’ edition of the novel, that turns out to be the case. In the epilogue, The Circle Closes, Flagg is revealed to have woken up on a tropical island, and immediately sets to work recruiting the local primitive tribesmen to his dark cause.

And what we got here was little more than an extended version of that. As I’d expected, Stu and Tom’s epic journey back to Boulder was completely omitted, just like all the other character journeys earlier in the story that were so essential in building our understanding of these people.

Instead, Stu and Tom just turned up one night at Boulder to interrupt Fran’s self-pitying brooding. Last time we saw them, Stu was stuck in a desert chasm with a seriously broken leg, while Tom had just turned up to express his amazement at the mushroom cloud that even now was presumably sweeping deadly radioactive fallout in their direction.

I don’t know about you, but if I was unfamiliar with the source material, I’d have been pretty frustrated not seeing anything of how they got out of that. Here, we didn’t even get any dialogue to cover it; just the two of them turning up unexpectedly, to Fran’s lukewarm delight. The worrying issue of Fran’s baby (here a girl named Abagail, as in the ’94 adaptation) actually catching the superflu was dealt with in a similarly peremptory manner, in five minutes of voiceover narration that wrapped up the subplot before Stu had even returned, robbing even that of the drama it has in the novel.

Still, that’s been the tone of this adaptation throughout. The detailed, epic story of the pandemic and the practicalities of its aftermath obviously interested the showrunners not at all. It’s an approach that you might find ok, I suppose. After all, we’ve now seen so many deadly pandemic stories that the material could seem old hat; and since we’re actually living through a world-changing pandemic at the moment, it would be understandable that the writers might have wanted to soft-pedal that aspect for fear of audiences tuning out.

Trouble is, it’s an integral part of the story. Captain Trips, and the subsequent epic treks the characters undertake in its wake across a deserted, lawless USA, are what shapes the characters into becoming who they are, and hence motivates them to take the actions they later take. With all that character development totally omitted, the reasons for the characters doing what they later do are unfathomable and implausible.

To return to this “new ending”, what we got here was, in essence, an expansion of the novel’s last couple of chapters and epilogue. Just as in the novel, Fran gets a hankering to return to the Atlantic coast of Maine, and Stu, who in this version has seemingly no character traits to shape desires of his own, simply agrees. Along the way (this is the “new” part), they stop for a couple of days at a deserted Nebraska farmhouse. Fran falls down a well, and the Epic Supernatural Struggle plays out again in miniature, inside her own head.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – these versions of Stu and Fran are so underwritten and uninterestingly played that I felt like I had no emotional stake in the outcome whatsoever. James Marsden, despite his matinee idol looks, can act – I’ve seen it, in the likes of Westworld. And while I’m unfamiliar with Odessa Young, I doubt she’d have got this far without at least some reasonable acting chops.

But even the likes of Olivier and Dench would have struggled to make an impact with this material (or lack thereof, where these two characters are concerned). I know Stu’s supposed to be an “everyman” type of character, but in the novel, and the earlier adaptation, that’s a virtue. Here, it’s just dull. We learn nothing about him, and we don’t really care. The earlier subplots of him finding his feet as a charismatic leader of the new community having been omitted, and in fact his role in that massively downplayed, the viewer is left scratching his/her head in puzzlement as to what people think is so great about him.

Alexander Skarsgard and Whoopi Goldberg at least did make an impact, though as with the novel, the replay of their tug of war for these people’s souls felt like an afterthought. Just as in the full version of the novel, Flagg was inexplicably reincarnated on that tropical island, and it was there that Fran, unconscious in the well, was astrally transported for a final bit of satanic temptation – in this case, a kiss that would allow Flagg to possess her whenever he wanted. The trade being her security and Stu’s safety.

I got all the unsubtle allusions of the tropical paradise being an analogue of the Garden of Eden, and Flagg the tempting serpent within. For a show that’s rarely acknowledged the importance of God as a force in the narrative, this has been oddly keen on re-enacting well-remembered moments from the Bible.

But it was never in doubt that Fran, being the virtuous one since the outset, would turn him down. Just as it was utterly predictable that the mysterious little girl creeping out of the cornfield would be a newer version of Mother Abagail, reborn to start the struggle anew. Who was also, conveniently, capable of healing the wounds that Fran had suffered. Well, fair’s fair I guess; she wouldn’t have fallen down the well in the first place without Flagg shouting “boo” at her, so the wounds were as unfairly gained as the miracle cure.

At least Skarsgard got to have a final hurrah in the part, and he was as charismatic and unsettling as ever. He’s been very good in the part, which is part of why it’s so frustrating that the show around him has been so generally anemic. Lounging barechested in the verdant jungle, he was every inch the Great Tempter, that easy smile both engaging and terrifying. His final appearance, naked and exploding the head of an unfortunate tribesman before roaring, “worship me!” belonged in a far better adaptation than this.

As did Whoopi Goldberg, who’s taken the iconic (if problematic) role of Mother Abagail and made it her own. Here, in Fran’s visions, we saw her sitting on the stoop of an old farmhouse surrounded by Nebraska cornfields and playing guitar, just as in the novel. It may have been a nice nod to the original to recreate that well-remembered image, but like so much else here, in this version it made little sense. We know from earlier that this version of Mother Abagail was found in an old folks’ home near Boulder; she never comments on being originally from Nebraska, so what she’s suddenly doing there in Fran’s vision is baffling.

In the end, though, Stu and Fran got their happy ending, gazing wistfully at the cold, grey Atlantic off the beach of Ogunquit. Flagg got his happy ending, starting anew with a new group of disciples to presumably someday trouble the rest of the survivors of humanity. This wasn’t a “new ending” at all. It was just a slight expansion of the one the novel already had.

And even then it lacked the dramatic resonance of the original; for the same reason as so much else has been weak in this adaptation. This whole series has been a frustratingly missed opportunity, because it omitted so many key parts of the story and forgot to put anything else in to justify the characters’ actions instead.

The reason it’s so frustrating is that a lot of what we got here was very, very good. But without the context surrounding it, it was little more than a series of set pieces recreated from the novel, seemingly in the assumption that every viewer would know the original and fill in the blanks for themselves. That’s lazy, lazy writing. And it does both the characters and the actors quite a disservice. I’d have loved to see more of Henry Zaga as Nick Andros, one of the novel’s most important characters; here, his importance was acknowledged, but since we barely saw anything of him, also hard to understand.

Similarly, while the story did well at focusing on Owen Teague’s Harold Lauder, Amber Heard’s Nadine Cross was an underwritten, motiveless enigma. And despite Jovan Adepo’s best efforts, this version of Larry Underwood never came across as the asshole from the novel, whose key character journey was one of redemption. Here, he’s just somebody who drank a bit too much and neglected his mum, then was instantly a decent guy in the aftermath of the plague. The omission of his and Nadine’s relationship arc robbed many of their later, faithfully recreated scenes of the drama they should have had, as well as making some of their actions incomprehensible.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the sort of purist who can’t stand to see any changes from a beloved source novel in an adaptation. As I said right at the start, with a perfectly adequate adaptation from 1994 already existing, another would have been pointless without some significant changes. And some of the changes here were definitely for the better. The reordering of events to show more of New Vegas was definitely welcome, as was the clever suggestion that the goofy Lloyd Henreid was Flagg’s second choice as right hand man after Nick Andros turned down the offer.

But these improvements paled into insignificance compared to the vast swathes of actually vital plot material that was left out. Even that might not have been a problem if the writers had written new material to cover all the plot and character development that was missing as a result. Instead, we got what seemed a lazy assumption that every viewer would know the original material as well as King fans like myself.

There’s been some talk of creating a “fan edit”, to reorder the disjointed, flashback heavy structure of the first half’s narrative into something that makes a bit more sense. Sadly, in my view it’s a doomed exercise. Even re-edited, there’s too much material missing to make this a coherent story that stands on its own without knowledge of the novel. Charitably, as I mentioned before, it’s possible that the lockdown-induced pause in production put the kibosh on filming those scenes as planned; but I’m afraid the cynic in me just doesn’t believe it. If you want a good (or at least acceptable) adaptation of The Stand, go watch the 1994 version again. Or even better, read the book. At least it’s a complete story.

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