In a year that feels like Captain Trips has started creeping on the real world, the timing of CBS All Access’ new adaptation of Stephen King’s plague-apocalypse epic feels eerily appropriate. But Josh Boone and Ben Cavell’s take on The Stand has some big cloven hooves to fill: the hit 1994 miniseries.
The four-part ABC series, directed by frequent King collaborator Mick Garris, hit the airwaves four years after another hugely popular made-for-TV King adaptation: It, featuring Tim Curry as Pennywise. When the It movies were announced, many wondered how anything could ever top its standout element, Curry’s memorably terrifying performance — a valid fear, though Bill Skarsgård’s 2017 interpretation proved there are multiple ways to bring a nightmarish clown to life. So it’s not without recent precedent that the upcoming version of The Stand, which happens to star Bill Skarsgård’s brother Alexander as a different iconic King villain, is being met with some questions about why a re-do is necessary.
Simply put: similar to It, The Stand has some elements that haven’t aged especially well, both from the 1978 book and the miniseries. It’s a near-guarantee that the 2020 version will rectify many of those things; at the series’ New York Comic Con panel, Whoopi Goldberg, who’s playing Mother Abagail in the new series, explained her character will be much more dynamic this time around: “She couldn’t be the Magic Negro. You couldn’t have that.” In the 1994 series, Ruby Dee cuts a dignified figure despite all the old-age make-up needed to add 30 years to her face, but the way her Mother Abagail is written is unfortunately pretty one-note.
It doesn’t help that the entire rest of The Stand’s cast, with the exception of Ossie Davis in a small role, is white. Every couple we see locking lips is straight. And the whole thing is very America-focused, which makes a certain amount of sense for the contained nature of the story, but still seems odd considering the plague (which occurs thanks to an American military experiment gone wrong) was no doubt a worldwide phenomenon.
So anyway — there’s not much diversity in this particular dystopia, though we do get disabled characters played by non-disabled actors, including Rob Lowe as Nick Andros, who can neither hear nor speak, and Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen who has a developmental disability. (Worth noting here that the 2020 miniseries also cast non-disabled actors in these roles.) Mother Abagail aside, none of the women get much to do other than make men angry and/or be pregnant, with demonic Randall Flagg’s unwitting partner Nadine (a bewigged Laura San Giacomo) — whose backstory is barely touched on, given the time constraints — having maybe the most miserable post-apocalypse of them all.
However, if you can forgive the stuff that feels a bit icky 26 years after the fact (42 years, if you’re going by the book), 1994’s The Stand is actually pretty entertaining. It runs just over six hours, but the pacing never feels like a slog. Things do get a bit maudlin when the dialogue leans into the God stuff, but otherwise it does a decent job briskly weaving together its multiple stories featuring dozens of characters, all of whom you end up having some sort of investment in. The heroes can be a bit corny (that group sing-along of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is very extra), but for every glowing moment of hope and promise, there’s some dark dream sequence or other disturbing imagery to help even the tone. And since this is Stephen King we’re talking about, you know that the baddies are going to be the best part anyway.
All the world loves a Skarsgård right now, but Jamey Sheridan’s version of Randall Flagg is just outstandingly off-putting in a way that’s hard to crystallize. Maybe it’s the denim-on-denim-on-denim outfit. Maybe it’s the luxurious mullet. Maybe it’s his weird blend of cruel brattiness and smarmy chuckles. There are special effects involved — Sheridan’s eyes change to black or glowing red when Flagg gets testy, and he does a full-on transformation when he’s angry enough to flash his true face; he also occasionally uses his dark magic to zap people or things — but a lot of it is the acting. You just sense something is wrong about the guy, and you can also see why his weird power has ensnared yes-men like Lloyd Henreid (the great Miguel Ferrer), a sleazy small-time crook who becomes Flagg’s top lieutenant in his Las Vegas kingdom.
For a series that has to cram so many characters into its plot, The Stand does a good job of making sure you notice the ones who’re going to make an impact in the end. Of particular note is unhinged pyromaniac Trashcan Man (the great Matt Frewer); Flagg psychically penetrates his fractured mind and guides him on a destructive mission around the Wild West fringes of the story. Every moment with Trashcan Man sticks with you, and it all makes sense when he becomes the catalyst for the story’s explosive finale.
Though The Stand is extremely character-driven, director Garris uses every available moment of breathing room to remind us what kind of world this conflict between good and evil is unfolding in. The first episode, which shows the rapidly spreading “superflu” outbreak, might just be the scariest part of the series to watch in 2020, since it shows the flailing government response, mass public confusion, and media suppression that takes hold at the beginning. But there are no mask brawls, lockdowns, or vaccine press conferences here; there’s no time for it. Captain Trips is far more potent than the coronavirus, and it quickly kills everyone it touches except the very few who happen to be immune.
As The Stand progresses, and the characters adjust to living in their new reality, Garris takes the time to show us all the rotting bodies that still linger in stalled-out cars, abandoned restaurants, on small-town streets, literally everywhere. The whole story takes place over a period of months, and even if the characters don’t spend much time mourning what they’ve lost, those grim visual reminders make sure the audience never forgets. The Stand’s use of pop music over some of those bleak scenes — especially “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” along with an offbeat rendition of “Eve of Destruction” — is incredibly effective.
The new series will have the luxury of 10 episodes to sink its teeth into King’s nearly 1,200-page novel; it also will have a new ending penned by King himself. In 1994, The Stand explicitly questioned whether going back to the way things were is the best plan going forward; it also wondered if humans are even capable of changing, even with the promise of a fresh start. No matter what fresh twist the author brings to the material, it seems likely the takeaway from 2020’s version of The Stand will still mirror the book, the 1994 series, and 2020 itself: no matter how bad a virus might be, humans who’re under the thrall of a malevolent leader can always be counted on to make things much worse.
The latest adaptation of The Stand hits CBS All Access on December 18. Stay tuned for where it’ll end up in Australia.