Across his massive body of work, The Stand holds a special place amongst Stephen King fans. It’s an epic, sprawling story of good vs evil that remains one of King’s best books. But it’s scope made a big-screen adaptation unlikely. Back in the 1990s, when made-for-television movies and mini-series were a thing, ABC actually pulled off a four-part, 366-minute adaptation of The Stand. Like ABC’s made-for-television adaptation of It, The Stand was a huge ratings success. Flash forward 26 years and CBS is taking another shot at the classic with a nine episode mini-series. Unfortunately, The Stand’s timing is suspect with COVID still paralyzing day-to-day life. And director Josh Boone showed a tenuous grasp of horror with The New Mutants. At present, neither critics nor fans have been impressed with the 2020 update.
The End Takes Some Unnecessary Narrative Liberties With Its Source Material
To be clear, there’s lots to like about writer and director Josh Boone’s take on The Stand. First and foremost, CBS All-Access offers fans a chance to see King’s vision of the end-of-world in all its gory detail. Comparatively, the 1994 ABC series conformed to primetime television standards. And The Stand certainly benefits from a more Rated-R approach to its source material. In regards to production values, this version looks and feels more cinematic. With nine episodes with which to work, The Stand seemingly tackles much more of the book than its predecessor. Despite these upgrades, however, something feels oddly flat with this adaptation.
Audiences will wait a few episodes before Alexander Skarsgård’s ‘Randall Flagg’ properly situates himself into the story, thus robbing The Stand of a looming threat.
Arguably, The Stand’s biggest problem concerns Boone’s narrative liberties with the source material. In spite of Episode 1’s title, The End, Boone kind of skips over the end. Maybe viewers will be relieved to not have to watch the fictional Captain Tripps during a real pandemic. But King’s detailing of society’s downfall represents some of the novel’s most frightening parts. At the very least, Boone’s decision to split the story into non-linear segments feels unnecessary. In addition to undercutting much of the novel’s atmosphere, it’s a decision that hurts several character arcs. Specifically, it’s a creative decision that kneecaps the two most central characters – Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail. Audiences will wait a few episodes before Alexander Skarsgård’s ‘Randall Flagg’ properly situates himself into the story, thus robbing The Stand of a looming threat. And Mother Abigail feels less essential to the story where she should occupy a critical role.
The Stand Gets the Most out of a Stellar Cast with a Few Exceptions
A clear advantage for the 2020 update was its casting. Hollywood used to draw a stark distinction between television and movie stars. Not so much the case today – big name stars routinely choose prestige and limited series as starring vehicles. By and large, showrunner Benjamin Cavell nails The Stand’s casting. Avid readers spend a lot of time with characters But James Marsden (Straw Dogs), Odessa Young, Jovan Adepo (Overlord), Amber Heard, and Henry Zaga (The New Mutants) fully inhabit these characters. Alexander Skarsgård’s ‘Randall Flagg’ mixes menace and charisma in equal measures. Both Owen Teague (Harold Lauder) and Nat Wolff (Lloyd Henreid) better fit their characters but the screenplay lets them down.
But it’s Miller’s artistic choices that truly sink the character. Everything they do with the character is exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish.
And some character gender-bending makes smaller characters like ‘Rat Girl’ (Fiona Dourif) and Irene Bedard (Ray Brentner) more interesting. But Greg Kinnear’s ‘Glen Bateman’ and Brad William Henke’s ‘Tom Cullen” are standouts. Lastly, one would be hardpressed to imagine someone better than Whoopi Goldberg as ‘Mother Abigail’. Too bad The Stand’s screenplay and early non-linear narrative waste the character.
Unfortunately, Ezra Miller’s (Justice League) Donald ‘Trashcan Man’ Elbert stands out for all the wrong reasons. And King fans can’t place all the blame at Boone’s feet. In the novel, King crafts a detailed, tragic backstory for the Trashcan Man. In contrast, Boone doesn’t have the same real estate with which to work in a large ensemble miniseries. But it’s Miller’s artistic choices that truly sink the character. Everything they do with the character is exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish. In particularly, the screechy voice and strange tics strip Trashcan Man of what might have been a more tragic arc.
The Stand Feels Oddly Flat Despite More Time To Re-Visit King’s Novel
Maybe no one can properly translate The Stand to a big or small screen. Or perhaps King’s novel would work better as a proper series similar to The Handmaid’s Tale. Regardless this 2020 updating of The Stand doesn’t add much even with its additional three hours as compared to the 1994 miniseries. Though Boone’s disjointed approach to the story is a major culprit, The Stand falls emotionally flat. With a compelling and timely story and timeless themes, The Stand should feel urgent. Yet in spite of impressive production values and smart casting, The Stand never feels much more than merely ‘watchable’.