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Taking ‘The Stand’

It’s early days in the new miniseries but longtime fans of Stephen King’s book have reason to hope.
December 19, 2020
Taking ‘The Stand’

Sometime in 1978 or 1979, a fat package rolled through the front door of my parents’ home in Sherwood, Oregon containing the latest installment from the Book-of-the-Month Club. My father, an avid reader of just about anything but unfamiliar with the book’s author, Stephen King, picked it up and had a terrible time setting it down. For a couple weeks, he (and later my mom) would emerge from their room in the morning bleary-eyed and shaken by what they’d read. Inquiring teenage minds wanted to know what this was all about. Thus began my own encounter with The Stand—and the beginning of a life-long fascination with all things viral.

For fans of the King oeuvre, The Stand—what king calls his “tale of dark Christianity”—tells how a military bioweapon wipes out 99 percent of humanity, ushering in a post-apocalyptic struggle between the forces of spiritual good and evil. The book typically ranks at or near the top in popularity of his books. King himself says that while it isn’t his personal favorite it is the novel that his fans ask him about most frequently. He initially had trouble persuading his publisher, Doubleday, to print it due its length, scrapping nearly 400 pages of original manuscript before its first publication. As readership grew (and grew) Doubleday “looped back,” as they say, suggesting that he might want to restore that material so that millions of devoted readers would part with their cash a second time. There are now 4.5 million copies of The Stand in circulation. (Note to editors: trust the talent. Note to writers: sometimes editors are right even when they are wrong.)

As with any mega-successful book, opportunities for screen adaptations came calling. The first two Godfathersnotwithstanding, it is just about impossible to produce a film version that can keep up with a popular book. The longer the book the more difficult the task becomes. (I’ll never forget how much I loved Gone With the Wind on first viewing and how disappointing it seemed after I read the book, even though it is a very well made film.)

This goes double or triple for a book like The Stand with its sprawling (a philistine might say obese or unwieldy), plot that plays out against a backdrop that practically spans the coasts of continental America. The scope of the challenge resulted in two disappointing-to-unwatchable television productions along with several false starts in the world of feature films. Non-masochists could hardly be blamed for refusing to take on or see to completion an apparently impossible project. Until now.

CBS All Access launched a new, 10-hour adaptation of The Stand this week, and if the first episode is representative, there’s much to look forward to. Someone has spent a lot of dough on screenwriting, casting, and sets.

First, there’s the cast which includes James Marsden, Whoopi Goldberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Greg Kinnear, and Heather Graham. Money can solve casting, set, and special effects challenges but those aren’t the main problems with getting The Stand right. It’s figuring out how to contain the book’s sprawling plot and how to stage it in a way that can scare the bejesus out of viewers without winding up as a four-season series and/or bankrupting the production company. Writer-producers Josh Boon (The New Mutants, The Fault in Our Stars) and Benjamin Cavell (Homeland, Justified) seem to have put together a program that has polished production values, is respectful of the book’s fan-base, and comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the story. The first episode moves smoothly back and forth in time to help viewers understand the essence of plot and laying foundations for characters while reaching a satisfying breaking point in the story within the allotted 58 minutes. The last minute or so, which are not part of the book but are an inspired bit of screenwriting, make the tiny hairs on the neck stand up.

And heck: They might even make money on it since the only way to see The Stand is to buy a couple months of CBS All Access at $9.95 per month.

In the providence of Hollywood, now may be the perfect time for a big-budget adaptation of The Stand, given the confluence of COVID, Trump, and a renewed interest in Manichean thought. One exec pulled the plug on a movie adaptation with the argument that no one wanted to watch a show about the end of the world. Has anyone ever been so wrong? There’s a reason The Walking Dead is one of the most popular cable shows of all time: decades of terrorism, foreign wars, economic strife, and now literal deadly disease have primed viewers to … well, maybe not enjoy seeing such travails onscreen but perhaps have a chance to say, “Could be worse.”

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.