From Book to Screen: The Stand
The Trashcan Man gives in to his pyromania
Our Stephen King Book to Screen series charges onward again. We’re going to have skip ahead a book again, but not due to my forgetful mind this time. Following The Shining, King’s next published book was the first of several he would publish under the pen name Richard Bachman. The Bachman Books, as they would later be called, were characterized by being darker in tone and focused not on supernatural occurrences but on the darker parts of human nature. The first of these was Rage, a book about a deranged teenager holding his school hostage with a gun. Following a wave of shootings in which kids claimed to be inspired by it, King pulled all copies of the novel. It’s hard to find the book, and no adaptation is likely to occur within King’s lifetime, if ever. This is perhaps a shame, as the novel is compelling in a miserable sort of way.
That brings us to his next novel, inspired by The Lord of the Rings and other epic narratives. Seeking to put his own touch on the epic form, King wrote The Stand. In a first for this series, we only have one adaptation to cover.
First edition cover
Like several other of King’s novels, The Stand originated as a short story. Titled Night Surf, the short version introduced the idea of a world ravaged by a deadly strain of influenza that had wiped out most of the population. King would expand on the scenario by combining it with his desire to write an epic fantasy in a contemporary American setting. Instead of Hobbits and dark lords, he would use a Texas everyman and a ruthless, wayward drifter, with Las Vegas serving as his Mordor. This initial spark set King to work until he ran into a hard case of writer’s block. Discouraged, King nearly abandoned the novel until he figured a way to work around his issues by introducing a bomb. The bomb would have to dispose of a large number of characters, but it saved the novel according to King.
The Stand would release in September 1978 to much critical acclaim. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel with much praise directed towards the rich characterizations and sense of scale. The novel also received praise for its detailed look at the breakdown of society and new societies reestablishing themselves. Though some degree of criticism has been directed the ending (a criticism common to many of King’s works), the book is widely considered one of King’s best and one of the better horror/fantasy novels of the later half of the 20th century. The book introduces Randall Flagg who would become an antagonist in many more King novels including his paramount Dark Tower series. Themes of destiny, playing God, and the grand battle between good and evil dominate the novel, and the story is a moving if somewhat nihilistic tale of humanity’s quest to better itself.
Initially set in the 1980s, the setting was updated to 1990 when an uncut version of the novel was released; The Stand was a very lengthy novel, and much of it had to be cut by the editor to bring it down to a more commercial length. With King’s growing success, a full release was authorized that restored the missing sections of the novel and added a new prologue and epilogue as well. Some have praised the longer version for building more on its characters and helping to fix the ending, while others have noted that the longer version is one of the best arguments for a good editor that exists.
Official series logo
Initial efforts to adapt The Stand into a film were difficult. The story’s great length made any kind of script a burdensome effort, and for about ten years the film languished in development hell. King would only trust zombie movie director George A. Romero with the project, and Warner Brothers eventually backed out despite a successful effort to turn the book into a three-hour script. King ferried the idea of a television version around, though he was informed that the story would be too bleak for TV. ABC eventually caved and offered to let King turn the book into a six-hour miniseries. He took the chance and wrote a slightly toned-down script. Director Mick Garris would be recruited to lead the effort; readers of this series may recall that Garris would go on to direct the TV version of The Shining. Successfully filmed with a massive production and cast, The Stand series was broadcast in 1994 to great success. It was nominated for six Emmy awards and won two of them for makeup and sound mixing.
While the series shows its age, the nominations for its various awards seem justified. From a production standpoint, The Stand is impressive: 225 different sets were constructed for the production. Shot across locations in New York, Colorado, and Nevada as well as cityscapes, cornfields, and highways, the series conveys much of the geographical scope of the novel. The characters truly travel across the barren remains of the country. Director Garris uses several creative methods to convey the intricacies of the book without being a literal page-by-page translation. The opening sequence of the series helps communicate the opening chapters of the book — when the plague breaks out — with a darkly humorous use of the song Don’t Fear the Reaper. There is another ironic use of music later in the series with the Crowded House hit Don’t Dream Its Over, making fun of the fact that the world is indeed ended as the characters know it (and is no longer a crowded house, so to speak.)
There are other smart decisions that help cut down the lengthy novel. Early introductions are made to the idea of The Walking Man, i.e. Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) well before the novel introduces the character. One of our heroes, Larry Underwood (Adam Storke), has an encounter with a woman in New York City that gets combined with a more important character, Nadine. We are also introduced to characters such as the Rat Man at earlier points in the story than in the novel. Despite all of these efforts, it was inevitable that necessary material was cut in the process.
Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg
While it’s difficult to blame them for cutting as much as they did, a lot of character development is sacrificed to expediency. Some of the characters’ actions go unexplained, and thus some behavior seems weird and the impact of some decisions isn’t felt. For example, one of the more important decisions in the novel is when Larry rejects Nadine during her final effort to resist the pull of Flagg. This decision is key to Larry’s development, as it shows him firmly deciding to move past his selfish, arrogant past and maintain a commitment to a loved one, in this case his new wife. Meanwhile, it is Nadine’s final attempt to protect herself from Randall Flagg, who desires her virginity to use her as a vessel to give birth to a new degree of evil. None of this is felt in the series, though, as Larry’s arc is severely cut back and his relationship with his new wife is not addressed outside of this scene. The same could be said of many characters, including Nadine and Harold and both of their battles to remain good in the face of evil. Flagg’s main henchmen Lloyd Henreid (Miguel Ferrer) is another who’s struggle between loyalty to Flagg and recognizing the evil the man represents is severely cut short. Randall Flagg’s own struggles with his supernatural powers waning and waxing are almost entirely omitted, though this is perhaps the least noticeable of the losses.
Despite these sacrifices, the series still manages to be effective in conveying or even adding to the horror of the book. The Stand could be considered one of the least horrific of King’s novels, at least as far as suspense and tension are concerned. The series restores those elements to some extent by creating horror-like sequences, like the one in which Stu Redman (Gary Sinise) wanders through the remains of a hospital. To great effect, the series also stretches out a scene where Redman runs from a crazed doctor wielding a handgun. Another scene from the novel that is expanded in the series sees Larry enter a tunnel leading out of New York City that’s filled with dead bodies. While this sequence does have tension in the book, the series effectively captures the tone and ratchets it up. The initial introduction of Randall Flagg is also a well-crafted sequence that conveys the nature of the character well.
Flagg’s other appearances, played for horror, convey one of the problems with the series: there are many instances where following the philosophy of “less is more” would have been more effective. Many scenes feature Flagg’s face transforming into a demon-headed monster. This is where the series looks dated, as the demonic makeup is hokey and out of place. Even the fairly heavy-handed King chose to be subtle with Flagg’s demonic aspects, leaving more to suggestion than description. Every special effect involving Flagg and other scary faces feels more goofy than scary. Garris is much more effective when he uses film-making techniques to produce scares.
And when he relies on his actors. Jamey Sheridan knocks it out of the park as Flagg; his casual cruelty and smirks hide a truly savage evil, exactly what one pictures when reading the novel. Garris would have done well to rely on Sheridan more than on red paint and horns. Sheridan is just one of many talented actors in the impressive cast. Sinise does well as Stu Redman, conveying the character’s East Texas charm. His chemistry with Molly Ringwald‘s Frannie isn’t anything to write home about, but both of them give strong individual efforts. This is a unique performance from Ringwald, especially if you’ve only seen her in the Brat Pack movies.
Rob Lowe also features as Nick Andross, a deaf-mute character. Lowe, who really is deaf in his right ear, also appears in the ‘Salem’s Lot adaptation from 2004, as readers may recall. Ruby Dee gives a talented performance as Mother Abigail, a leader of sorts for the good characters. She brings to life the elderly, devoted Abigail well, though like other characters her arc is reduced from the novel. Matt Frewer does a good job as the tortured soul that is the Trashcan Man, capturing the devoted pain of the character.
Speaking of famous actors, cameos and references abound. Two King adaptation notables show up in the form of Kathy Bates and Ed Harris. Both play small, uncredited roles, but are noticeable in their screen time. Stephen King himself shows up in multiple scenes, with generous dialogue allotted to him. Directors Sam Raimi and John Landis both have bit parts. Some broader references include Kareem Abdul Jabbar showing up as a character called the Monster Shouter who issues a Monty Python reference by shouting “Bring out your dead!” Flagg sings Baby Can You Dig Your Man! in two different scenes, a fictional song that Larry Underwood had gotten a #1 hit from shortly before society collapsed. One of the most subtle King nods is to the short story Night Surf: a scene of a teddy bear lying on a darkened beach.
The Stand isn’t a perfect adaptation. Indeed, with the heart of the story being the characters’ struggles with morality and their responses to the collapse of society, the severely-shortened arcs and relative lack of development hurts the series. Even so, everyone involved in the production clearly made their best effort. While it doesn’t measure up to the majesty of an epic like The Lord of the Rings or even the epic nature of the King novel, The Stand is a valiant effort and many elements work very well. The acting is largely on-point and the production value allows detailed sets and creative cinematography throughout. The series maintains remarkably good pacing for being so long, though it does get bogged down in monotony when it reaches the three-quarters mark. The final confrontation between Flagg and the heroes manages to attain a feeling of importance despite the flaws.
Fans of the novel and King’s work as a whole will find plenty to like. Even more casual King fans should find this a largely entertaining affair, if a bit of a haul to get through. Fans of the novel will likely notice every missing detail, but should be satisfied with this fairly decent adaptation. If you fill in the missing bits from memory, you may find it a remarkably accomplished effort.
What does the future hold for The Stand? Efforts to make a future film or multi-part film adaptation have been underway since 2011. Since then, there has been a struggle to keep actors, directors, and writers aboard the project amid changing demands from studios and actors. Names such as Steve Kloves, David Yates, Ben Affleck, and Matthew McConaughey have floated around the project. All of these have dropped off with the exception of McConaughey, who will play Flagg in the upcoming film version of The Dark Tower, at a minimum. Director Josh Boone was the latest name attached, and he had decided to try to make another miniseries from it, but as of February 2016 the rights to the film reverted back to CBS Films and the TV idea has been dropped. I personally feel that there is no way to do this story justice without a lengthy TV miniseries or a season-long narrative. The Stand offers plenty of epic potential for anyone willing to undergo the effort to produce as it should be.
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- Ranked #16/80 of Stephen King adaptations