The New TV Adaptation of Stephen King's Iconic Novel 'The Stand' Came at a Bad Time

The latest, phlegmy interpretation of King's sprawling post-pandemic novel 'The Stand' on CBS All Access has us asking: Did we really need this right now?

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Owen Teague as Harold Lauder | CBS All Access
Owen Teague as Harold Lauder | CBS All Access

Stephen King's The Stand is a girthy piece of genre literature. The massive story about humanity's supernatural struggle between good and evil, after a man-made virus called Captain Trips obliterates the majority of the world's population, has had a huge influence on pop culture. The 1,152-page book is chock full of memorable characters, in both heroes and villains, and brings to life a post-apocalyptic vision of a polarized America. How timely.

And yet, as we waited for a new version of The Stand to hit the small-screen once again (it premiered to CBS All Access on Thursday, December 17), and with the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc on the world, we feel compelled to ask: Is now really the right time for this show? 

The gist of the story is simple enough: After Captain Trips kills nearly everyone in the world, the remaining human survivors are divided up into two factions. On one side, in Boulder, Colorado, is 108-year-old prophet Mother Abigail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg); on the other, smack dab in the middle of Las Vegas, Nevada, is the dashing, demonic, denim-clad Dark Man known as Randal Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård). 

These two characters are the guideposts that pave the way for a cavalcade of character stories to play out. And while the journeys of Stu Redman (James Marsden), Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), Nadine Cross (Amber Heard), Rita Blakemore (Heather Graham), Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear), Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke), Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), Lloyd Henreid (Nat Wolff) are fleshed out in all their wonderfully flawed glory in the book, the nine-episode miniseries proves once again that bringing Stephen King's literary nuance to television is a tall order.

The original Mick Garris-directed miniseries, like most of the Stephen King adaptations that hit television in the '90s, leaned heavily into production tricks and cheesy special effects to get the story across. We were given folks like Corin Nemec's version of Harold, the sheer embodiment of a rage-filled gamergate nerd, who chewed up all the scenery he was placed in front of, and Bill Fagerbakke's developmentally challenged Tom Cullen, who, in the end, was way more like Lenny from Of Mice and Men than resembling a real person living with such deficiencies.

CBS All Access's take on The Stand does its best to ground the story being told, as well as the ensemble cast of characters, but there are a number of reasons why the end result barely satisfies. 

This is where we talk about the big pandemic elephant in the room: In the 1994 adaptation of King's novel, the representation of Captain Trips was all-but-missing from the story. We got glimpses of those who were infected, but the manifestations of it were mostly unseen. Benjamin Cavell, the creator of the new series, took a different approach entirely. As COVID-19 cases continue to soar, and states issue stay-in-place orders across the country, viewers can tune into The Stand and witness a whole smattering of victims coughing up phlegm, essential workers wearing N95 masks, and dead bodies overcrowding hospitals. During a time when audiences are clamoring for fun, nostalgic, escapism, we feel compelled to say: This isn't it.

Does it get worse? Well, it gets gross. The first few episodes of the series puts the audience smack-dab into this fictional pandemic. And where Garris decided to skip showing exactly how the virus kills its victims, Cavell chose the disgusting path of representing exactly how it's described in the book—and yes, that means we get Stephen King's unforgettable tube necks. A whole mess of them.

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Disgusting! | CBS All Access

"The tube necks are such an iconic part of the book and it felt important to us in really doing a faithful adaptation of that story," Cavell said during the fall Television Critics Association panel for the show. "We really tried to ground it all in a really visceral, deeply felt, believable reality, which is why we worked so hard with prosthetics [...] to make those tube necks feel really horrifying and to match the descriptions in the book."

Now, showing the havoc this illness can cause, and the way it impacts each and every one of the characters in the show, sounds like a useful tool to help the audience connect with the heroes and despise the villains. Tragedy, trauma, and loss can do that. But whatever empathy that is established ends up getting buried rather quickly. Why? Cavell and producing partner Taylor Elmore decided to load the show up with episodic flashbacks in order streamline the introduction of certain character backstories. 

As interesting as this choice is, all the jumping back-and-forth gets a bit confusing. While it does help to dissolve the tension of seeing recognizable cities decimated by the apocalypse as the worst of humanity comes out to play (don't even get us started on whatever the heck Ezra Miller is doing as Trashcan Man), the gimmick throws things out of whack as the viewer scrambles to keep track of where, or when, everything is taking place. 

On a positive note, there are some performances that stand out. Whoopi Goldberg's portrayal of Mother Abigail sheds the unfortunate Magical Negro trope which King has been so keen on using in his books (See: Dick Hallorann from The Shining and John Coffey from The Green Mile). Ruby Dee's performance as the 108-year-old was lovely in 1994, but there was no real substance to her character which allowed the prophet to fully lean into the antiquated concept of a Black supporting character with supernatural insight coming to the aid of the white protagonists of the story.

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Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail | CBS All Access

"I'm riding what Stephen wrote for me," Whoopi Goldberg said during the same TCA panel. "She is the representation of what is supposed to be the light, and of course, when you are human, you are flawed. She is probably not as 'Magic Negro' as she was maybe 30 or 40 years ago. I think she's a little more of a person who is trying to get a whole bunch of people to do some things that maybe they don't believe in. You know, it's basically I'm doing The View."

Unlike Jamey Sheridan's suave, smarmy performance as Randal Flagg, Skarsgård brings a quiet intensity to the Dark Man. His version of King's iconic baddie is far different from what Matthew McConaughey did in The Dark Tower movie, and The Stand is better for it. But there's a downside to this is: Mother Abigail and Randal Flagg don't show up much in the first-half of the series. 

And then there's Tom Cullen, the fan-favorite developmentally disabled character who can't stop spelling the word "M.O.O.N." Cullen has an important role and the new series documents his journey pretty well. Unlike Fagerbakke's take, Brad William Henke dives deep into the emotional nuance of Tom so well that it's hard not to be moved by his character's introduction.

"He [was] really inhabiting the trope of like, 'Oh, this is a child trapped in an adult body,'" Benjamin Cavell explained. "In our experience, a person who's developmentally disabled isn't in the dark about the idea that they have deficits or that they have differences in the way that they process information or navigate the world. It was very important to us and to Brad, too, to have Tom not in the dark about having his deficits or challenges. It was very important for us to try to be honest about that experience, and not play him as a trope, but as a real person who lived a life before Captain Trips." 

What has always made the story of The Stand work so well on paper is that—aside from being about a bunch of people heading to a place to do a thing—this is the deeply emotional battle for mankind's soul. Stephen King has gone on record that this was his attempt at writing Lord of the Rings in America. For the diehard fans of his work, this version of The Stand will surely pluck the nostalgic genre heartstrings. But it comes back to iconic characters from an iconic piece of literature being watered down due to production protocols and the structural confines of TV drama. If you're looking for an edgy, entertaining piece of television that'll make you feel like you did when you left the theater after watching IT: Chapter One, well: this isn't it.

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Aaron Pruner (@AaronFlux) is a contributor to Thrillist.