Review: TV’s latest swing at ‘The Stand’ can’t fill the cracks in Stephen King’s aging epic
As a story of a world-gutting flu pandemic, Stephen King’s “The Stand,” whose second, superior miniseries adaptation begins Thursday on CBS All Access, could not be more timely. And as a story of good and evil facing off for the usual high stakes — and of democracy versus autocracy, self-sacrifice versus narcissism — it also feels very on brand for 2020. Whether that makes people more or less inclined to watch, I couldn’t say.
I have reviewed a lot of King adaptations over the years, and apart from “The Shining,” my King reading consists entirely of preparing to review TV adaptations of Stephen King novels. Sometimes they are better than the books and sometimes worse. First published in 1978, at 840 pages, “The Stand” was updated in 1990 with a few hundred pages more, and you will excuse me, I hope, if in this case I do not take the reading on. I have researched the novel — there is a deep well of information out there in the digital universe — and have read it in parts, but make no claims as to the relative merits of what appears on the page and on the screen. (Fans will have their opinions, I am sure, especially those who consider the book a masterpiece, while this is just a big, decent TV movie.) That a 2008 Harris poll named it America’s fifth favorite book “of all time” makes my picking up this heavy tome no more likely, given that the top ten 10 also included two novels by Dan Brown, along with “Gone With the Wind” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
I will say that on its own terms it works well, and where it seems silliest it is following the map only as King drew it. (This is a book that includes a literal deus ex machina.) But even when it is silly, it is also fine. And it is never as silly — at least as seen from here — as the the oddly modest, nevertheless expensive 1994 ABC miniseries, with Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe, in which King himself played a small part — as did Sam Raimi, John Landis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (“A wildly tossed salad of mysticism slowly sinking in its own weird juices,” Times critic Howard Rosenberg called it upon release.)
Pop culture is in the midst of a full-on Stephen King boom. Again.
King’s stated aim was to create a modern American “Lord of the Rings,” which is discernible in its length, its good and bad wizards and its journey-to-Mt. Doom structure; it casts Las Vegas as Mordor and a soft-spoken cowboy type as Sauron (Alexander Skarsgård as the demonic Randall Flagg), while presiding over the righteous hacky sack republic of Boulder, Colo., is a 108-year-old Black woman (Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail), who, if not exactly Gandalf, does carry a staff here. I can see that this concept might have seemed mind-blowing at the time, or mind-blowing at the right time in someone’s cultural coming of age, but today, it is pretty old cheese, having been worked over endlessly in the interim.
Having watched the six episodes available for review (out of nine), a few things are clear even from a distance. There have been the usual practical cuts, compressions and rearrangements, along with some new inventions, to make the book work as a 2020 television show. The biggest addition comes from King himself, who, according to the streamer, has crafted “a new coda that won’t be found in the book,” giving the base audience for this enterprise something new to look forward to, or fret over.
King’s detailed backstories, and even the progress of the virus itself — the usual science-gone-too-far business — are boiled down to a line or two of dialogue or a brief flashback; the world is already well on the way to total collapse when we join it. Indeed, the pandemic itself, which makes “the Spanish flu look like a sham” — and for some reason has been nicknamed “Captain Trips” like Jerry Garcia in the days of old — is somewhat beside the point here, just a way to clear the board for an apocalyptic post-apocalyptic showdown as Light and Dark play their cosmic endgame. (It’s funny how supernatural forces always need to enlist “chosen” mortal pawns to carry out their tacky, tiresome plans for world domination — so weak.)
Cynthia Erivo and Ben Mendelsohn star as the Mulder and Scully of HBO’s new procedural, adapted from the novel by Stephen King.
Like Richard Dreyfus in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” driven to sculpt Devil’s Tower in mashed potatoes, the conveniently immune survivors have been receiving dream visits from Mother Abigail, in a cornfield, and/or Flagg, in a dark desert place that reminded me of the soundstage planets of “Lost in Space” and “Star Trek,” drawing them into opposing camps. Among them are the oh so good and good-looking Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) and Stu Redman (James Marsden), characters you know even before they share a scene are destined to be together (physiognomy is destiny in the moving pictures); rejected, revengeful, nerdy creep Harold Lauder (Owen Teague); recovering wayward pop singer Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo); philosophical, somewhat older guy (Greg Kinnear); Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke), self-described as “42 years old and mentally disabled,” but with, you know, heart; deaf drifter Nick Andros (Henry Zaga); teacher with a semi-feral kid in tow Nadine (Amber Heard); and luckless weirdo jailbird Lloyd Henreid (Nat Wolff), headed for an executive spot in the Randall organization. It’s a weird hire, on the face of it, but as I have never run a demonically remodeled Las Vegas, I won’t presume to second-guess this.
The cast, which also includes Hamish Linklater, Heather Graham and J.K Simmons in smallish parts, fills out whatever is hackneyed in their outlines with recognizably human qualities. Though this may not have been the intent, they are better company in scenes when relatively little is happening than in ones that play to suspense and terror, but even in many critical moments, the dialogue has a natural, relaxed quality. Not all the characters are equally interesting. Some are so settled in their badness or goodness that they serve the plot only in the most expected ways; others, who have not quite made up their mind, or had it made up for them, are easier to invest in.
As developed by writer-director Josh Boone (“The New Mutants,” “The Fault in Our Stars”) and writer Ben Cavell (“SEAL Team”), the new screen version does nothing to soften this dichotomy. Indeed, it plays it up in obvious, often cornball ways, opposing the ceaseless bump and grind of Flagg’s “New Vegas,” with its MA-14 sex and drugs and violence and, yes, rock ’n’ roll — come for the moral outrage, stay for the flimsy lingerie — with the down jackets and work boots, acoustic guitars and food-truck coffee of the Boulder Free Zone. There is a modicum of grossness, a scattering of psychopaths, rats crawling out of corpses, some “Exorcist”-style special effects and a few digital evocations of the world in quiet ruins. But more often, there’s just the normal suspense of characters creeping around in the dark, escaping from tight places and looking for love in the new, same old America.
Where: CBS All Access
When: Anytime, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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