The Colossal Wreck of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ on CBS All Access
I wanted to love the new adaptation of The Stand. Since it is based upon one of my favorite novels, I had high hopes. The original mini-series from the 90s is still watchable, but it barely holds up to the cinematic quality of today’s entertainment standard, and Mick Garris just never seemed capable of elevating himself above B-Movie pulp. This new version definitely had a lot going for it: a top-notch cast, bigger budget, CGI effects, and a director with some major film experience in Josh Boone behind it.
But, with the airing of its penultimate episode, one thing is abundantly clear, this series went way off the rails, and will likely be remembered as one of the worst Stephen King adaptations to ever be attempted. I’m talking Dark Tower bad. There are many reasons why I feel this way, but mostly it amounts to a series of extremely questionable creative decisions that were made with the material, that fundamentally altered it from its original vision.
The biggest mistake the showrunners made, was when they decided to change the timeline of the presentation of the events. Rather than tell the story in a linear fashion, they opted instead to do a non-linear narrative, flipping back and forth from the past to the present, often with no clear transition between which was which. For those who are unfamiliar with the source material, this had to be confusing to follow.
But, aside from creating some confusion around exactly when things were happening in the narrative, this decision drastically changed the experience of getting to know the characters for the audience. Instead of seeing them grow as characters, and learning what events caused them to undergo dramatic changes in their personality and their interior motivations, we get immediate juxtapositions of their past self against their current self.
In theory, this could work for a sort of more subtle attempt at character development, but in execution, what happens is we get characters that feel somehow less authentic. It’s harder to connect with these people, and without that connection, much of the empathy and conflict is robbed of its emotional pull or power. It’s like buying a pack of Oreo cookies and opening the package to find that all the stuffing was left out. Turns out, the sugar cream is the best part of the Oreo, and without it, many people would opt not to eat the cookie at all.
This decision to jumble the timeline was made primarily to differentiate it from the original mini-series. It was a gamble, and unfortunately, it was a gamble that ended up being a huge loss. All you have to do is go to any social media post advertisement about this series to see the general fan reaction, which is negative, negative, negative, and mostly because of this narrative choice. It simply did not work and detracted from the experience when it was meant to accentuate it.
Next are the creative decisions that were made with certain characters that are essentially important to the story. For some reason, in this version, the creators thought it a good idea to focus primarily on the corruption of one person, and this left other major characters to be kicked to the margins of the story, where they become essentially caricatures and characters that have next to nothing to do with their intended inspirations.
As good as Owen Teague is in this series as Harold Lauder, and he is quite brilliant in the role, the story of The Stand is not the story of Harold Lauder. To focus so much on Harold was a really baffling decision. The Stand as it was originally written, was supposed to be more of the journey of Fran Goldsmith and Stu Redman. In this version, both of these characters feel like minor characters! The story of how these characters come to love one another is now completely non-existent. And that’s not even the worst part.
The worst part is what is done to the role of Nick Andros. In the novel, Nick is a pivotal character. He’s the character that most the audience comes to love because his journey with Tom Cullen is easily the one with the most obstacles to overcome. The audience should be rooting for Nick. Instead, we barely see him in this version, and we definitely don’t get to know him.
This makes what happens to Nick basically an emotionless sacrifice. What happens to Nick should be a moment of utter heartbreak. Here, it barely registers on the emotional radar, because it is utterly robbed of its weight. This is one of many examples in this series of the show presenting events to the audience that are ultimately unearned.
On the Las Vegas side of the mountains, the characters of Lloyd and the Trashcan Man are both made into worthless throwaway side roles. Lloyd, who is supposed to be the main henchman of the big bad, becomes a laughable clown here, who for some reason is taken from being a hard-headed criminal to a hip-hop artist wannabe. It’s impossible to take him seriously. No one in the Las Vegas cult of Randall Flagg is the least bit intimidating or threatening, not even the main villain himself, but I will get to that later.
Trashcan Man is borderline offensive in how he is portrayed. He was always going to be, because of how he is written, but in this version virtually any aspect of his humanity that would make him even resemble a pitiable character or one with even a shred of empathy to found for him is gone. He has one function here, and it is utilized with the bare minimum of plot device motivation, which in turn makes what happens completely meaningless.
I found these choices to be both baffling and infuriating. Again, the creators seem to lean too heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the novel to fill in the gaps they were too lazy or disinterested to attempt to give us onscreen. This does a great disservice to the final product.
The worst and most unforgivable sin in this attempt at adapting The Stand, was what was done with the character of Randall Flagg. After episode 8 ended, I was simply left dumbfounded. What a mess. I wanted to throw something.
Randall Flagg is Stephen King’s ultimate incarnation of evil. He is meant to be larger than life, so terrifying that his very presence on the screen should feel uncomfortable. Flagg has appeared across many of King’s novels, including his grand opus The Dark Tower, and as bad as the motion picture was of that failed franchise seedling, at least Matthew McConaughey brought some spirit to his portrayal of the Man in Black. Likewise, Alexander Skarsgard does his best to make the role fill the void of expectation.
The problem is it’s a struggle to capture such an omni-present representation of evil on screen and deliver the scale of emotional weight needed to make him truly threatening in the mind of the audience. All attempts have failed somewhat in bringing the nature of Randall Flagg’s embodiment of evil to fruition in a way that felt genuinely frightening. This was obscenely true in the original mini-series, where the idea of revealing Flagg’s true nature was to have him morph into a literal goat-horned devil.
This newest inception at least tries a more subtle approach, but one could argue they went a bit too subtle. In Josh Boone’s version, we rarely see Flagg go full Flagg. His idea of showing us his evil power is to routinely have him levitating in his Vegas penthouse, something that proves to have no purpose at all. The horror of Flagg is just underdeveloped, and ultimately unrealized. In the penultimate episode, he is revealed to be little more than a powerless joke.
What really was unearned about this representation of Flagg, though, was when they tried to make him into a symbol for Donald Trump, and the Vegas community into an obvious allusion to the Trump Rally cultists. This was completely out of left field and has nothing to do with Stephen King’s The Stand, because obviously it was written before Donald Trump was even on the political radar. The obvious references to Trump in episode 8, people wearing red hats and shouting in the crowd, Flagg giving a speech saying there are only “winners and losers,” and then going into a silly dance to outrageous music after his speech ends, just had me shaking my head in disbelief.
There was virtually no indication that they would go for this angle on Flagg until episode 8. None. Not only did this allusion fall flat on its face, but it was such a transparent attempt at trying to modernize the relevance of the material, for a movie that already should have felt eerily relevant to the modern era since we are literally viewing it during a global pandemic, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back of bad creative choices for this series.
There’s one episode left to go, and I’m too far in to drop out now. The final episode contains a brand new coda written by Stephen King with his son. I’m sure that will be interesting, but unfortunately at this point, there’s no way it can possibly salvage this adaptation from the colossal wreck it has become.
I hope this drastic failure serves as a lesson to future producers who may be interested in adapting classic novels, in that it shows them several examples of what not to do. As for fans of The Stand, I guess we will be waiting another set of years before we get another chance at seeing our beloved novel done right on the screen.
EDIT: Now having viewed the series finale, I still “stand” firmly in the camp that believes the majority of the choices made in this production undermined the results. The final episode was one of the stronger episodes, mostly because it gave us glimpses of what these characters could have been like if the creators had dedicated time to their development from the beginning.
The first part of the finale is kind of wonky, as if King had an idea of how to get to a better source of conflict, but getting there was a bit of a chore. However, once we get to the crux of the episode, it really takes off. We get good moments for Franny, for Flagg, and even for Mother Abigail. It was a breath of fresh air to finally see these characters portrayed in a way that they could have been shown all along if they had been in different hands.
The moral conflict, the choice to make a “Stand” is what this series was supposed to have been about. And we finally see that on screen, albeit in a more intimate setting. This works well. It was also very cool to get this series so obviously tied into the Dark Tower mythos, which of course, it always has been. The references to “a wheel” and that the message is to “be true” really hit the mark for me.
Overall, however, as good as this final episode was, as cool as it was to see Randall Flagg make someone’s head explode with his finger guns, this was too little too late, from a series that somehow lost the grasp of its central theme. It’s really difficult to earn the stakes of a moral conflict if you fail to make the audience love the characters. Because most of these characters are left as hollow shells of their inspirations, and because the ultimate showdown of good and evil feels a bit pointless and without emotional power, the end result is essentially a lot of hype with very little delivery.
There’s quite a bit to enjoy in this series. For instance, Greg Kinnear being cast as Glen Bateman was pure brilliance. This only makes it worse when his role is robbed of its best moment at the end, his confrontation with Flagg. So the negatives in my mind, far outweigh the positives, leaving me with more of a heightened appreciation for the original series from Mick Garris than anything else, and that is truly a shame.