The Stand was the first book I bought with my own money, and the book I have read more often than any other. I’m well over a dozen times through by now, both the original and the ‘directors cut’ that Stephen King released years after the launch.
I enjoyed his extended LP version. There are some chapters in there that should have made the first release, but also some that should have stayed on the cutting room floor. I once wrote up a chapter by chapter breakdown of the entire novel because I couldn’t find one on the internet.
This level of demented fandom is why I’m the best and worst person to ask about the most recent adaptation - the CBS nine part series, available in Oz on Amazon Prime.
But, straight up verdict? I love it.
Nuanced version? I’m not sure if you’d need to have read the novel a dozen times or more to really appreciate or even follow the first couple of episodes. The 2020 series, which was in the can before COVID 19 shut down most of the film and TV industry, tackles the vast sprawling canvas of civilisational collapse by abandoning the book’s strictly linear progression for a discontinuous narrative style that opens the story after 99.94% of the worlds population has already choked out their last.
We spend the first moments of this latest telling, not with Stu Redman, the novel’s Everyman hero, who kicks off proceedings by saving Bill Hapscomb’s Texaco, but rather with Stu’s nemesis - Harold Emery Lauder.
From there the first four or five episodes jump back and forth from the earliest days of the plague to the arrival in Boulder and Las Vegas of the two contending sides.
If you’re deeply immersed in the original lore of The Stand (as millions of readers are - I’m not the only hopeless fanboi) the impressionist mosaic of scenes is a glorious, gaudy head spinning delight. Not just the structural re-engineering, but the cultural updates to a source text which was getting very frayed around the edges. Larry Underwood is now an African-American singer, which in so many ways is actually truer to the character than King’s original Larry. Ralph Brenter, midwestern farmer, becomes Rae Brenter a tough, Native American woman. And the whole messy, cultural tapestry of twenty-first century Americana is much more faithfully and appropriately depicted. Interestingly, although shooting predated the arrival of Ms Rona, it did take place well into the Trump administration and there is no mistaking the subtext of the mostly white and unapologetically nasty cohort of believers drawn to Randall Flagg’s camp in Vegas.
Flagg isn’t Trump, but he totally captured the post plague MAGA vote.
In some ways it might be fairer to compare the new series to the last screen adaption which was much closer in time and intent to King’s text. There’s probably a whole thesis to be written about the advances in the small screen arts simply by comparing and contrasting these two pieces of extended film making. On every metric, screenwriting, cinematography, special effects, directorial vision and even acting, I feel that the latter day adaptation is superior. But that’s not really a knock on the 1994 miniseries. There would be something terribly wrong if the modern producers had not been able to match and eclipse the efforts of their predecessors twenty-five years earlier.
The casting is brilliant. Everyone shines, and some improve on their characters. Odessa Young’s Frannie Goldsmith is smarter, tougher and possessed of much greater agency without sacrificing any of the vulnerability that makes Stu’s girl the emotional heart of the story.
Owen Teague nails it as Harold, oozing the creepiness that lies just under that character’s skin, but only letting it flow when nobody but the audience at home is watching. I can’t think of a better actor to play Stu Redman than Westworld’s James Marsden. And both Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg, and Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abagail are more than a match for their gigantic roles. (I sort of wonder whether Skarsgård even benefits a little from a carry over effect, having played a thousand year old vampire in True Blood.)
The special effects are a lot more special than was possible in 1994, and Captain Trips in particular is rendered in all of its grotesque snotty, neck swelling glory.
It’s a bit weird, but not impossibly so, to watch a series about the world being destroyed by a virus, while a virus tries to destroy the world. But King has often written that we love imagined horrors because they let us escape from the real ones, at least for a while.
I love this series, which should wrap up later this week with the last ep, and can see myself returning to it again and again. Just like the book.
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