Whoopi Goldberg in The Stand.
WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
After a man-made virus called Captain Trips wipes 99% of mankind off the face of the planet, a small group of survivors in the American heartland are left to pick up the pieces and build a new civilisation. Even with most of humanity dead, the final remnants of humanity are once again divided, but this time by far more than just political squabbling. With loyalties divided between the saintly Mother Abagail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg) on one side and the devilish – perhaps literally – Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard) on the other, what’s left of humanity are drawn into a supernatural battle between good and evil with the final fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Based on the acclaimed best-selling epic novel by Stephen King.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Aside from the sprawling, multi-volume Dark Tower series, The Stand is the Stephen King work most demanding a TV or film adaptation but is also perhaps the toughest one to adapt. King is not exactly known for the brevity of his novels, but even by his standard, The Stand – especially in the expanded form that has been the default version of the novel for decades – is a long freaking book. Something in the order of 1200 pages long.
It’s also a novel that is divided into three distinct sections, features dozens of main characters, as well as numerous sub-plots and sub-genres before it reaches its apocalyptic climax. And, oh yes, before The Dark Tower took its crown as the meta-textual work that lay at the centre of the “King Universe” and connected dozens of his other stories and novels, The Stand held this position proudly for years.
This HBO miniseries is not the first Stand adaptation by any means and, no doubt, it certainly won’t be the last, but assuming that no adaptation can adequately capture the grandeur of the original novel – not unless they give it the full-on “Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings” treatment – how does it fare at doing justice to so beloved a novel?
Well, with the understanding that I’m basing this review only on the first four episodes and that, though I read (and loved) the book, I only read it once many years ago and haven’t seen any of the other adaptations, it fares… well, fairly. In terms of King adaptations, it’s certainly not the awful Dark Tower adaptation, but it ain’t Stand By Me or the Shawshank Redemption either.
However, what really hurts is just how close it comes to being in the rarefied air of the upper-echelons of King adaptations.
As you might expect from an HBO production helmed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) and Benjamin Cavell (Justified, Homeland) and featuring a ludicrously starry A-list cast, it’s a really beautifully assembled, well-acted, solidly written and unquestionably cinematic slice of premium television that also happens to be based on an absolute corker of a novel. It’s just a pity that this is all undone by one of the most perplexing creative decisions I’ve come across in quite some time.
The Stand, the novel, is perhaps best known for two things: 1) a very large cast of mostly memorable characters and b) a real sense of storytelling momentum that makes even the side adventures and digressions feel like they’re part of a cohesive whole and, most crucially, makes the 1200 pages fly by with really very little effort.
With a lengthy but still limited ten-episode order, Boone and Cavell decided that rather than following the novel and telling the story in a linear fashion, allowing both the plot and the characters to reveal themselves organically along the way, they decided to pull a Lost and tell the story by constantly flashing between past (basically “Book 1” of the novel) and present (“Books” 2 and 3) with each episode coming from the point of view of specific characters. The result is an unmitigated disaster.
Yes, the novel switches perspective frequently, but that is something that long-form novels are particularly adept at doing, but by taking this approach in its adaptation, the entire structure of the story falls apart, leaving a terribly paced, bitty and unengaging mess in its place. It’s still The Stand, and it’s still basically well-made, so I will probably see it through to the end, but it only just earns its three-star rating, and I came very, very close to giving up on it after the second episode when, in an extended HBO-adaptation-only sequence, one of our heroes spends like seventeen real-time days mucking about in the sewers to no particular end.
Fortunately, the other three episodes didn’t have anything quite so unnecessary, misjudged and dull, but this general sense of “you have eight-plus hours to tell this huge story, please get a bloody move on!” permeates all four of the opening episodes.
And that is the biggest problem with this laborious non-linear approach: it saps so much of the momentum out of the story as, whether in the “past” or “present”, we are constantly snapped away from the action just as something really interesting happens. Say what you will about Stephen King, but the dude knows how to spin a great yarn, so it baffles the mind that in what is probably a desperate attempt at “Premium TV” relevance, Boone and Cavell jettison the classic, unfussy storytelling for something flashier and more complex but infinitely less compelling. Especially when damn near every other aspect of their adaptation is so on-point.
Should you spend hours of your life on something this flawed, then, and something this frustrating? If you’ve already read the classic novel, then, yeah, there’s enough here to keep you going. Maybe wait until a fan edit comes along that resequences the whole thing back into the same form of King’s original vision, though. Sure, it’s only a matter of time?
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: