The reaction to the recent adaptation of The Stand has been mixed. On one hand, I understand the critics who said they found the show uneven, in terms of both tone and performances. But on the other, as a huge fan of the show, I’m left to wonder; what did anyone expect? The show is bizarre and awkward at times, but so was the book. As an adaptation of one of the weirdest books of all time, The Stand does a damn good job capturing that “Stephen King feeling” that so many other adaptations fail at.
Maybe 2020 was a bad year for this adaptation. The plot follows a group of survivors in the aftermath of a global pandemic (yikes) that killed over 99% of the population. The only people that survive are a colourful collection of characters that seem to be immune to ‘Captain Trips’. On top of that, every person that remains seems to be having the same dreams. One involving a mysterious old woman in a cornfield (Whoopi Goldberg) or a charming but evil man in the Nevada desert, dressed head to toe in denim (Alexander Skarsgård).
So, going into this story, it’s worth remembering that this is not your usual post-apocalyptic tale. It has all of that stuff too, but The Stand is a lot more concerned with the overall battle between good and evil, between God and the Dark Man in the desert. It focuses on this weird, magical and religious side to the apocalypse in a way that I don’t think anyone except Stephen King could accomplish. And on the subject of the man himself, he has a certain style. One that makes him insanely popular but that makes him very difficult to adapt. For every successful adaptation of his work, there are a half dozen misfires. Even the successful ones find their own share of criticism (and conversely, even the misfires often have merit). But I was blown away with how much of that Stephen King weirdness this adaptation managed to retain, including a coda/epilogue written by King himself.
The first thing this adaptation has going for it is its excellent and diverse cast. Everyone pulls their weight and has their share of great moments, but the standout is Owen Teague as Harold Lauder. In the book, Harold is an overweight introvert, who is angry at the world for both his standing in it and the fact that, despite being the last two people in the world, his childhood crush still isn’t interested in him. He’s also the Stephen King surrogate character, a trope King likes to use. But here, they’ve kept him as outwardly pathetic, going more for a 4chan-dwelling incel, but made him far more empathetic. That is thanks mostly to a really excellent performance by Teague, and some smart choices by the writers. Harold makes some truly terrible choices by the end of the show, but ultimately you just feel sorry for him, for the trap he finds himself in. He’s less of a cowardly nerd, getting his own back on his bullies. He’s a tragic figure, one who is easily swayed by the lure of Flagg due to his own feelings of inadequacy.
Another great bit of casting is James Marsden as Stu Redman. This is a tricky role, because Stu is the closest thing the story has to a protagonist, but he is also easily the most boring character. And that’s probably intentional; he’s the all-American leading man that the audience can relate to. Not to interesting, with few King-y quirks. It’s a tricky performance to nail, but Marsden is perfect. He’s likeable, charming, and you want to be on his side. The same goes for Jovan Adepo as rockstar Larry Underwood, probably my favourite character in the book. He loses some of his more tiring qualities from the book and becomes a great hero figure. And they manage to sneak in his big hit, ‘Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?’ Greg Kinnear is also excellent as stoner- sociology professor and kindly voice of reason Glen Bateman. But it would have been more surprising if Kinnear didn’t absolutely nail that role.
I could talk about the cast all day, because it really is that good. Brad William Henke and Whoopi Goldberg both avoid the more problematic tropes associated with their characters and deliver really enjoyable performances, and Odessa Young is perfect as Frannie (but more on her). There are a few characters that don’t survive the translation from book to screen quite as well. Henry Zaga is great as Nick, but his importance is dialled back considerably here. And Ezra Miller as Trashcan Man is pitch perfect, but Trashy was by far the most offensively grating character in the book and that doesn’t change here.
But for fans of the book, the show lives or dies based how it handles Randall Flagg. Flagg (or The Man in Black, the Walkin’ Dude, and Walter O’Dim – among many other monikers) is the villain to beat all villains. Seemingly immortal and spanning across multiple King books and universes, he is a lot of fun to read and should be just as fun to watch. Matthew McConaughey’s weird, drawling Man in Black was the best part of the awful Dark Tower adaptation, but Skarsgård’s interpretation is exactly how I imagined him in the book. He’s terrifying, mainly due to his seemingly unstoppable nature and insane range of powers. But he’s also over the top and kinda silly, with a gorgeous pompadour haircut. He yells a lot, when he’s not pulling out people’s hearts, and this version has a habit of sipping glasses of milk. It’s this weirdness, this can’t-put-your-finger-on-it brand of bizarre characters that make a Stephen King book. The creators of this version don’t lose sight of this, and let Skarsgård go as hammy as he wants. But more importantly, they seem to get Stephen King, so the changes and additions they make fit right in. One great example of this is Flagg’s recurring motif, of ‘The Stranger’ by Billy Joel, or more accurately the iconic whistle at the beginning of the song. It feels like a pop culture reference straight out of the world of King.
Obviously, there are going to be some moments in an adaptation that you wish made it in. We knew going in that some cuts would have to be made, King’s original uncut version of the book was an insane 1300 pages, and this series needs to tell that in eight episodes (with a ninth for King’s coda). So I was sad to see Tom Cullen and Stu’s adventures over the winter get cut, and some characters do get short changed. As well as that, the structure of the adaptation might be off-putting for non-readers. I knew where it was going, so could easily keep the plotting straight in my head. But without that knowledge, the timelines bouncing around in the first half of the series might be a deterrent.
The final episode of the series is an original story, written by King himself. I saw it described somewhere as ‘The Last Temptation of Fran Goldsmith’ and that’s about right. So SPOILERS AHEAD if you’ve not got that far. By episode nine, all but a handful of the characters, good and bad, are dead. Most have been killed by the nuke in Vegas. Time has passed, things have settled, and Fran wants to make the trip back to Maine. Stu agrees with the idea and they go for it. This slower, road trip-heavy episode is the perfect way to end the series, and makes up for the lack of the Tom and Stu chapter from the book. It also gives Odessa Young the chance to shine as Frannie, as she’s tempted to the dark side by a bedraggled Flagg. It feels like an opportunity for King to clarify the meaning that runs throughout his original novel, to reinforce the theme of light vs dark, good vs evil. And it finally gives Fran the agency she needed, after getting stuck in Boulder in the original novel and being left out of the action in Vegas.
The adaptation feels expensive overall, which is key when adapting something like this. Especially with the way the book ends, it really would have been impossible to do this on a small television budget – as proven by the original miniseries and it’s ‘Hand of God’ ending. But thanks to the seemingly limitless well of money that exists to be thrown at streaming services, the world of The Stand is convincing and fleshed out. And the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve seen, with so much great music, including the aforementioned use of Billy Joel (which is always a huge bonus for me).
Overall, I kinda get the aversion to this adaptation. It is really weird, and surprisingly religious (and not in a subtle way). You might think the characters are all over the top and that the world is silly. But these are all elements from the book. And as someone who has spent the last year or two since it was announced wondering how they’d adapt it, I was blown away. It’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong. But all too often, King adaptations try to water down the stuff that makes his novels so entertaining. But The Stand went all the way, in the same way as the similarly divisive adaptation of It: Chapter Two. Weirdly, it seems to be a lot of book fans that are disappointed in these adaptations, which makes me wonder what they expect going in. It’s quintessential Stephen King, right down to the quirks and imperfections.