What Does “The Stand (2020)” Stand For?

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The Stand was considered one of the best if not the best books from Stephen King of his writing career. It was numbered 53 on Britain’s “The Big Read”, a survey from 2003 where 750,000-ish citizens voted on their most beloved book. But this latest miniseries adaptation had me questioning whether the original text was good at all.

That may sound overblown, but I am stunned as I am finishing up my time with the miniseries. Having gotten a free trial of the CBS All Access pass to host the Superbowl for two friends, we felt like we should use it as much as possible and get in some time with the series as a way to bookend reading King’s work in 2020.

I had read The Stand sometime in college, and, having re-read most of it with my wife, I had somewhat less of a positive outlook. What I prefer much more now is Under the Dome which I feel makes good on every theme and plot turn in The Stand and does it so much better that there is really no question.

Because the miniseries highlighted for me so much of the book’s shortcomings. Or, maybe, the adaptation is showing me EXACTLY what the book was, and it took the better part of a decade for that to unfold.

The book is one for our times to be sure. A superflu virus infects the world, killing 99% of the population. The 1970s and 1980s are replaced with the 2020s, but honestly because of the post-apocalyptic nature of the story, less changes than you might think. Replace the cars, tighten up the clothing, expand the house size, and you have the setting and decorations for a largely unchanged story.

We’ve got two sides. We have the side of mechanical certitude and utility in Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas, and we have the hippie granola commune of Mother Abigail’s Boulder, Colorado. As the virus infects the population, some of the survivors who find themselves immune also find themselves having dreams of one, the other, or both. They are driven to one of these two places because they feel as though they identify with what each leader provides. As the story progresses, however, we get the sense that some people are in what they feel to be the “wrong” place, and they itch to escape, as well as get a little revenge before they leave.

The first thing I want to write to you about is probably my strongest complaint of BOTH the book and the series, and that is what it assumes to be vices and what it takes to be sacred. Stephen King, perhaps relying on a little Joseph Campbell, has multiple occasions of a “temptress” moment, where a young woman is sexually enticing another in order to achieve some end. The miniseries upholds this and even extends it. Sex is littered across the series. Each episode seems strangely steeped in it. Every instance mentioned in the book gets a take here, as well as some other ones that seem included for the camera’s sake. Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas is almost comically hedonistic. As Dana Jergens attempts to inveigle her way into Flagg’s penthouse, she observes a gladiatorial arena where chainsaws are used to dismember the fighters with numbers attached to their denim jackets. On all levels, orgies take place with an abundance of leather.

Someone on staff must like the Fallout video games.

Contrast that to Boulder, Colorado, where the cold forces people in layers like some Victorian Era. Old timey music plays in a nostalgic throwback to Nuclear family era lifestyles. There is much shoulder grabbing from proxy-Uncles who just want the world to get along. But the place is largely sexless. On the outskirts, as main characters make their way to Boulder or Las Vegas, sex is used as temptation on Nick Andros, who rejects Julie for being outrageously mean and frivolous with Tom Cullen. Larry Underwood and Rita have sex in New York…before she commits suicide. And then there’s Nadine Cross, played by Amber Heard, who most likely has one of the strangest roles to play in The Stand (book and miniseries) and disappointingly both have little to say on the matter. In a gaudy declaration, Nadine begs Larry to “fuck” her so that Randall can let her go.

It appears Satan cares as much about virginity as God does.

Larry, of course, wants this, because he has traveled with her to Boulder and feels some sort of closeness with her and Joe, the young music prodigy who does not speak. But the timing isn’t right and Nadine takes that to be a blanket rejection. Sex here is transactional, much like sex for procreation. Sex for pleasure, for communication, as a salve for the horrible atrocities just witnessed by these survivors, seems off the table.

This is…sort of unacceptable? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nymphomaniac, and I have no real desire to go out on the town. But alongside this sexual conservatism is drug use, which seems just fine as long as it’s cocaine for Las Vegas and marijuana in Boulder. Alcohol seems just fine too, on both accounts. Never mind that, out of these “vices” alcohol has a lot to atone for. In the Harvard Grant Study, where researchers followed the lives of some of America’s leading young men from a top tier university, a whole chapter is given in their book on the subject to the damage that alcohol has done to families as the decades progressed. Can we say the same thing about these others? Not as equivocally. Yet when Harold Lauder comes over to have dinner, and a little too much alcohol is consumed, Harold starts saying some scary and passive-aggressive shit. To me, The Stand is a perfect example of misplaced priorities in American culture. Sexuality is demonized when the literature on the subject should proliferate. Studies show that sexual education is better than abstinence training on teen pregnancy and sexual promiscuity anyway. Is THIS show going to change that? Clearly the predilections and taboos stem not just from America but from Stephen King and the horror genre themselves. The two sides seemed so laughably exaggerated that my wife exclaimed, “Could we just go to the neutral place?”

Unfortunately, it gets in the way of the real dilemmas between the two places. There is a conflict at the heart of The Stand, when all the spiritually naive dilemmas of Flagg and Abigail and the hokeyness of good and evil are shoved aside. That conflict concerns utility and expression. That conflict is between top-down management and a recognition of individuality. Boulder, Colorado is willing to forego federal power for the chance for people to dictate their own lives, to form organically the society they want. Granted, it may take longer, be less efficient, and it may cause some conflicts between people, but it guarantees dignity and respect. Las Vegas is a place with immense power, but that utility rides on the back of a kind of acquiescence to atrocity. People are supposedly crucified (off-screen) one would presume, as a sign to others to obey. Much farther than obedience, similar to Stalin’s Soviet Union, for example, people go out of their way to show Randall Flagg their allegiance, tipping the line from society to cult. The trains run on time, sure, but at a cost to individual expression.

Instead, the miniseries lacks any imagination for adapting King’s book into anything outside the original intent. When the show does something different, it usually exaggerates. Rather than cut obvious corners, like with Larry and Rita, for example, where Larry could have decided to leave New York on his own and encounter Nadine sooner, the show seems destined to include EVERYTHING. The result is the opposite, which is that it is talking about all the themes without saying anything. There ARE stellar moments in cinematography, highlighting (when it can) a clock that has stopped in human history. But the result on the actors and actresses is the opposite. With so little time, each possibility for subtlety is tossed out for some intense yelling of “FUCK” many times that comes off as cringey. Nowhere is this more terrible than in Harold, who we suspect to be an anti-Stephen King. He writes, he views the world virtually, and he has none of the swagger of a man’s man like Stuart Redman. With his back-and-forth morality, we are supposed to feel closest to this person, who seems simultaneously rejected and accepted by those around him as being “that guy”. In the miniseries, as he stares into a mirror, trying to emulate Tom Cruise’s smile and point gesture, he seems more alien than ever. There is plenty in the original material for him to seem dejected, even in a place that is supposedly a City on a Hill. Yet they take pains to make him irksome, conniving, and devilish. And why did they decide for Larry to have a drug habit? He goes through no struggle as he carries his pill bag, and he seems to have no withdrawal when it goes away. With each episode, the trust of a fan of Stephen King’s book may find themselves losing faith with each episode. All these images signify nothing.

My parents swear by the original miniseries. Apparently it took their world by storm back in the 1980s, where they were extremely excited to see each episode. When I look at the book, and at this adaptation, it feels like an adaptation that is extremely difficult to pull off. The two biggest twists concern an explosion: one that a character sets off only to die later of an awkward motorcycle crash, one apparently by the hand of God! Can you get more underwhelming and overwhelming in a story? Compare that to “Under the Dome” where the explosion that rattles Chester’s Mill has been foreshadowed since the first act in the book, where Big Jim Renney and his pals have stockpiled propane in order to manufacture drugs in a side hustle that the characters spend many chapters uncovering. How, exactly, does a director work with the material provided by “The Stand” in the same way? It all leads nowhere, it starts all across the country, and the fabric that weaves it all together feels out of place and out of touch. Most likely, the best adaptation of “The Stand” would come from taking themes, rather than plot points. Which would mean it would not be the same thing at all. It would be “The Walking Dead” or some other post-apocalyptic work like that of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.

The Stand miniseries feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. It can’t dig too deep into some of the darker themes of America, because it is on network television, yet to tread too lightly (which they’ve done) on the source material, ends up a rushed mess of scenes that do not please anyone. What a waste of talent then, across the board. Go watch Mad Max: Fury Road for something more willing to say in two hours what The Stand dares not say in over eight.

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