'The Stand' Review: Not an unworthy adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal dark fantasy novel

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Not many authors have consistently written best-selling books that get regularly adapted into films and series. Among those who have done it successfully, the first name that comes to mind is that of the celebrated American author Stephen King. It all started for King with the 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian de Palma, based on King’s very first published novel of the same name. Subsequently, his books have given rise to movies like The Shining (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), Stand by Me (1986), Misery (1990), Needful Things (1993), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999), Secret Window (2004), The Mist (2007), The Dark Tower (2016), and Doctor Sleep (2019), among others. Series based on his books include It, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, The Outsider, and The Stand—CBS All Access’ new series that’s being made available in India by Voot Select—based on the 1978 novel of the same name. The nine episode series follows the survivors of a pandemic caused by weaponized strain of influenza that kills almost the entire world population.

Now, The Stand is meant to be a pure escapist adventure which contains some of the best elements associated with Stephen King’s body of work. But while living in pandemic times even escapism comes with its own share of caveats. One wonders if it’s really an escapist adventure to see people getting killed by a deadly strain of influenza. So take the plunge only if you can handle it! For those of you who are still with me, let me assure you that The Stand will take you through an entire gamut of emotions. In writing the book, King sought to create an epic in the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that was set in contemporary America. And so naturally it wasn’t an easy book to write for King. In fact, while writing The Stand, King nearly stopped because of writer's block. But, he toiled and lucubrated to finally produce what’s widely regarded as his greatest work.

When some of the simplest of King’s books aren’t a cinch to adapt, one can very well imagine how challenging it would have been for Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell to adapt King’s seminal dark fantasy novel. To their credit, Boone and Cavell appear to have given their level best. But, is their best good enough? Well, the answer is yes and no. Let’s try and explore this in detail.

The series hooks us up from the word go. We learn that the “Captain Trips” flu epidemic has wiped out more than 99% of the human population. The remaining few immune to the disease, including Stu Redman (a widower from Texas essayed by James Mardsen), Frannie Goldsmith (a college student from Maine essayed by Odessa Young), and Harold Lauder (a young man obsessively in love with Frannie portrayed by Owen Teague), set out in search of other survivors with the hope of saving humanity from extinction. All the while, they experience visions of the nurturing Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) and the menacing figure of Randall Flagg aka The Dark Man (Alexander Skarsgård). Soon a few more interesting characters get added to the mix: Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), a musician on the cusp of his big break when the flu strikes New York; Nick Andros (essayed by Henry Zaga), a young deaf man and Nadine Cross (portrayed by Amber Heard), a beautiful woman haunted by a childhood memory.  

The CBS All Access series is marked by constant tonal shifts. To begin with, it presents some great moments of disgust when you can’t help but feel repulsed or freaked out. There are also loads of steamy moments on offer. Not to mention, the unrelenting mystery and suspense driving the narrative forward. The nonlinear approach helps in keeping one interested in the characters’ back stories. Take, for example, the case of Larry Underwood. Before landing up with other survivors he ends up all alone, wandering an empty city. His luck changes when he meets an alluring new acquaintance who is also desperate to escape. The two form a strong bond before things once again change for worse. Similarly, Harold obsessive love for Frannie goes back to the days when she used to babysit for him. When the flu breaks out he suddenly starts perceiving himself as her protector.

What The Stand lacks is consistency and clarity in the narrative. While some of the character arcs are done really well, others leave a lot to be desired. Frannie, for example, is supposed to a major female character but she doesn’t take the centre stage in the series the way she takes in the novel. In comparison, some of the male characters get a lot more focus, even when it’s not warranted. But, the acting performances are all superb. Skarsgård, Heard, Teague, and Adepo deserve a special mention. The series also features a few memorable cameos, including a delectable one by none other than J. K. Simmons. The Stand is not a great adaptation of King’s seminal dark fantasy novel but it’s certainly not an unworthy one either.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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