The Stand Evaluation: The CBS All Entry Adaptation captures Stephen King’s battle between good and evil
When The Stand hit bookstores in 1978, few reviewers called it a modern classic. A widespread Associated Press review predicted that it could “only get some readers to sleep” instead of making them sleep with the lights on. UPI was friendlier but condescending and said, “It’s not art – but it’s fun.” One of the few blatantly bright messages came from Jim Ridley of Murfeesboro, Tenn. Morning Press, who called it a “new American classic”. Ridley was later a celebrated film critic and editor for the Nashville scene. He was all 12 years old when he wrote the review, but it’s safe to say that popular opinion has prevailed in the 40+ years since The Stand was published. It may not be every King fan’s favorite book, but it is clearly one of the author’s seminal novels. This marks a point where his ambitions stretched beyond scary stories into the realm of myth.
That ambition has also made it difficult to adapt. The booth begins as a story that follows a few dozen characters after a global pandemic wiped out much of the human population. It ends up being nothing less than a struggle between good and evil that unfolds in the American Southwest. Mick Garris directed a solid four-part miniseries that aired in 1994, but a feature film version has been talked about on a regular basis over the years, and this new nine-part miniseries can be traced directly back to a failed attempt to make a still film in the early 10s Years, an effort that grew into four films, then a miniseries, followed by a movie before it squirted out.
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A new miniseries might have been inevitable. It’s difficult to narrow a story of this magnitude to a shorter run time, and we’re in the middle of a season of book-to-miniseries adaptations. So why not The Stand? The first four episodes of the miniseries were developed by Josh Boone (Fault in Our Stars, New Mutants) and Benjamin Cavell with a writing team that included Stephen King’s son Owen King (and King himself for the finale) that approach. For all its apocalyptic oomph, The Stand is also a slow-cooking story that takes time to unfold, and miniseries are slowly cooking well.
However, the model of this new version is less Big Little Lies than Lost. Rather than going straight through from the beginning to the end of the narrative, this version of The Stand flashes back and forth, sometimes introducing characters before we learn their backstory, and then filling it in at a dramatically appropriate time. (And borrowing from Lost is hardly a crime, considering how much this series owes, according to its creators’ admission, King in general, and The Stand in particular.) Given the number of characters on The Stand, there’s plenty to do too on the screen here.
James Marsden plays Stu Redman, an everyday Texan who discovers he is immune to a superflu of weapons called “Captain Trips” that the American military inadvertently unleashed on the world. Redman is closest to the central character, but he’s more like the center around which the rest of the characters revolve. This includes Odessa Young as Frannie, a pregnant Maine resident who threatens to leave for Boulder, Colorado after a dream vision with the help of Harold (Owen Teague), an antisocial budding science fiction writer who has a crush on his companion Overturning obsession. Also in attendance is Larry (Jovan Adepo), a drugged pop star forced to sober up until the end of the world. Glen (Greg Kinnear), a frequently stoned professor; Henry (Nick Andros), a deaf drifter; Ezra Miller as a criminal known as the Trashcan Man; Amber Heard as the seemingly pleasant school teacher Nadine; and many more. And Whoopi Goldberg occupies the poles of good and evil and plays the stately hundred-year-old mother Abigail alongside Alexander Skarsgård as the demonic Randall Flagg.
It takes three episodes for The Stand to introduce most of its main cast, but it feels like time well spent for the most part. Boone and Cavell slowly pull everyone together as they portray the drama they encounter along the way, from a trip full of rats through New York’s sewer system to a terrifying encounter with a self-described “alpha” on a barren freeway. The generous budget of the series convinces post-apocalyptic America and the tense moments cause fear. If those first four episodes offer unmistakable moments, they’re always intriguing enough to arouse curiosity about what will happen next (or, for those who know the book, how the series will stage or remodel it).
It’s cleverly cast too. Goldberg brings humanity and humor to a character that can be read as a cliché on the page, and Skarsgård is appropriately creepy in his initially fleeting appearances. If there’s anything special here, it’s Teague who plays Harold as the incel sociopath who can just pass for an ordinary, happy citizen. At one of his best moments, he smiles himself fooling himself through the utopia of rebuilding trying to look victorious but mostly looking like Jim Carrey in fully manic mode.
It remains to be seen whether or not the customization will stay convincing to the end, but it has all the elements to make it happen, including a respect for the material who is not afraid to streamline if necessary. However, it also accidentally speaks to our present moment, with its devastating disease and portrayal of a nation deeply divided and struggling to define the future. But the gap, if not the disease, has long been with us. Perhaps that’s why The Stand has stood up to why there have been so many attempts to customize it – and why this likely won’t be the last adaptation to see it. It’s a book that is sometimes overcrowded, sometimes too simple, but also one whose vision of a fantastic America, whose potential for greatness and moral clarity, is always at war with its self-destructive impulses. Though many missed it back then, King found a way to express an underlying truth about the place he is calling home. The best parts of this adjustment channel so well.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
The booth premieres on Thursday, December 18th on CBS All Access. New episodes are broadcast weekly on Thursdays.