It’s the middle of December, so it’s as good as any time for another Off the Beaten Path special. So what do I have in mind?
Well, I’m dipping my toe into the world of literary miniseries adaptations with one of the few I’ve watched before. A miniseries that involves a world-ending plague – be forewarned, in the age of COVID, this could ring as too close to home – and the Biblical struggle to rebuild.
If that alone hasn’t given it away (or, you know, the title of the post) I’m covering the 1994 ABC miniseries of the Stephen King tome The Stand.
So, after rewatching the miniseries, I’ve come to one conclusion. Namely, while it’s not exactly bad television, I think the miniseries struggles under the weight of trying to convey all the story in the original novel.
Just as a side note before I proceed. Due to how much the novel has stuck with me over the years – doesn’t hurt that I also re-listened to the audiobook over the last week in prep for not only this but my upcoming Watercooler Reviews coverage of The Stand (2020) – this review will end up being about whether or not The Stand (1994) is a good adaptation. That might seem unfair to the miniseries (there’s a reason people tend to say “the book is better” after all), but to be honest I’m not sure I can disentangle the two.
As such, I’ll try my best to judge The Stand (1994) on its own merits instead of just going “the book did it better”.
Some good things
Before I leap into what about The Stand (1994) rubs me the wrong way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some positives.
First and foremost, Mick Garrison’s directing isn’t bad. It’s not to the level of modern-day TV directing, but nothing from that time is. Out of the older tv shows I’ve watched, especially those I’ve watched for Off the Beaten Path, The Stand (1994) is up near the top. The only one that compares really is V: The Original Miniseries.
Like V: The Original Miniseries, a special mention must be made about how dated the special effects can look. For example, let’s just say the ending, a highly controversial one even by King standards, uses some CGI that barely held up even then.
That said, it’s not the kind of dated the annoys me, and for the most part, I’m able to look past it.
If there is a real highlight of the series though, it’s in the production values, specifically make-up effects. There’s a reason the show won an Emmy for that. While the transformation sequences from Flagg’s human form to his demonic form are rather dumb looking, the actual make-up works rather well all things considered. With Trashy, the process of turning him from a normal-looking dude to a radiation-scarred wretch is done all through make-up and is one of the things that’ll be tough for The Stand (2020) to top. Lastly, while my doctor family members definitely question the accuracy of the make-up of the plague victims, it’s fair to say the make-up department did a good job making the sick look really sick. Again, if I have any complaints here, it’s the dated look, but I can also overlook that for the most part.
The story struggles of adapting such a sprawling narrative
Before I go further, I need to clarify one fact about the book. It’s big. The definitive version is over 1,100 pages long. You could beat someone to death with that hardcover.
Because of this immense length, there’s little chance The Stand could ever be adapted into a movie satisfactorily. Going into The Stand (1994), I figured four episodes with a combined runtime of 6 hours could suffice; 1 episode for the destruction of society by Captain Trips, 2 episodes for the survivors to wander the land and regroup, and 1 episode for the titular stand between good and evil.
Before I was even done with the miniseries, I realized this wasn’t the case. They needed at least another episode, maybe two. That or increase the already long episode runtimes.
I’ll give King credit though, the miniseries is incredibly faithful to the book. Details and the sequence of events may differ, but on the whole, the story is transposed to the screen without much deviation, flaws and all. If you’re more often concerned with a show/movie staying faithful to the source material, you’ll mostly be pleased here. That is, if you’re already a fan of the novel, cause if not – to me, the reason people gravitate towards the book is not because of the plot (it’s strong until the two societies form, then it slowly fizzles out) but because of the characters – you are going to be frustrated by the lack of any effort to correct the flaws of the original.
Many of the changes are understandable to me from a standards view. As a show made for broadcast tv, there’s no way in hell some of the more vivid moments could be shown on TV as described in the book. Stuff like the kangaroo court and executions broadcast from Portland Maine, or the second Kent State Massacre during the fall of society, or the whole episode about “The Zoo” (it’s a nomadic rape gang Stu’s group comes across and wipe out, helping liberate Susan Stern and Dana Jergins in the process), or even some of the more gory moments like the extent of Lloyd and Poke’s initial gas station robbery wouldn’t fly on ABC now, yet alone 1994. And those are just a couple of examples.
Changes like that aren’t what bothers me about this adaptation.
The problem is that in trying to faithfully adapt his novel as best he can, King ended up creating a story where everything feels a tad rushed at best and undermines some characterization for the sake of expediency at worst.
The rushing I can kinda understand. The story, full of side tangents and meandering journeys of self-discovery, self-actualization, and self-destruction, doesn’t need to be adapted beat-by-beat to be successful. There’s plenty of room to condense the story in fact. That said, some of the stuff King rushes made me yell “Calm down Stephen! Take your goddamn time for once!” to no one more than once.
While this struck both sides of the protagonist-antagonist divide – the escalation of the dreams about Mother Abagail and the formations of both societies are rife with this – the biggest gripe I had about this pace was about Flagg’s set-up.
From the immediate get-go, Flagg’s presence and influence are made clear. There’s a crow (one of the main animals he’s associated with) at the military base when the superflu is accidentally released. Later, when Campion crashes in Arnette, he mentions being chased across the country by “the dark man”. There’s more, but taken together it creates the impression Flagg was personally behind the superflu’s release. And that’s all within the first 10 minutes.
While Flagg is certainly evil enough to do that, I feel it undermines both his character compared to the book and some of the broader themes of mankind’s capacity for mutual self-destruction that dominated the Cold War. It turns him from an ageless evil born for the right moment akin to the cult leaders and terrorists that inspired the character to a more typical evil overlord. Plus, how quickly he’s revealed to be an overpowered sorcerer from the get-go instead of a man who discovers his powers as his influence grows makes me wonder why he doesn’t use those powers to wipe out the Free Zoners before they know what hits them as he did to Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s monster shouter. But even if King wanted to shift to this kind of characterization, he could have done so without clobbering us over the head with it.
In a way, it’s this narrative clobbering that rubbed me the wrong way when it comes to the rushed story set-up.
But that’s just one example of a character getting rushed and a pretty unique one at that. What’s more common is that certain scenes or turning points happen offscreen.
For something this faithful to the novel’s narrative, this is inevitable. If we go by the novel there are at minimum 10 characters that go through distinct arcs, and those are just the ones who have multiple chapters told from their POV. That’s a ton of ground to cover for anything, let alone a 4 episode miniseries. That said it can still hamper the narrative noticeably.
This is present in all the narratives to a degree. For example, Stu and Frannie’s relationship doesn’t get much in the way of build-up, Harold’s growing insanity is slapdash, etc.
The ones who get the shortest shrift are the characters primarily around Larry’s orbit. For Larry himself, we never really see him hit the rock bottom that helps him grow as a character. In the book, he arrives in New York not only in money trouble with a drug dealer but also strung out after a weeks-long drug bender. When he leaves New York with an older socialite name Rita Blakemore, he confronts his worst traits after she commits suicide because she couldn’t handle the post-plague world with him. Near delirious from self-loathing and exhaustion, he begins the turnaround when he runs into Nadine and a young feral boy named Joe. From there, he begins the process of growing into a responsible man and a respected leader amongst the survivors.
In the miniseries, we never really see him hit rock bottom. He starts off as a narcissistic man-child sure, but we never see him reach the depths of despair he plumbs or see the moments that change him. We never see him struggle with his past life as a taker and “bein’ no nice guy” on his own. We don’t see that breakthrough with Joe when Larry plays the guitar. We get none of that. All we get is the before and after picture.
If anyone is hit by this narrative rushing the hardest though, it’s Nadine.
In the novel, she was the first caretaker of Joe, and when she joins up with Larry in New Hampshire they become surrogate parents of a sort. Soon, the dreams of Flagg, the one she is promised for, in conjunction with Joe’s lessening dependence on her and Larry becoming an item with Lucy Swann cause her to fall. By the time she works with Harold to assassinate the Free Zone Committee, there’s a sense of deep tragedy in her fall.
In the miniseries, she’s combined with Rita Blakemore. So instead of dealing with Rita’s death, Larry only deals with Nadine randomly leaving (this bit also goes back to rushing Flagg). It’s a change that makes sense on paper, but in effect, it removes the sense of tragedy around her fall.
When she tries to seduce Larry before succumbing to her destiny as Flagg’s virginal bride, there should be a sense of tragedy. In the miniseries, the scene is there but it feels performative, like it’s there to facilitate the plot instead of a logical consequence of intertwined character arcs. It just feels hollow, which is itself tragic.
If I had to attribute a reason for this beyond the sheer length of the novel, I’d put it down to King’s writing style. If you have never read a King novel, he relies heavily on inner dialogue to facilitate character, story, and horror. Many chapters in the book go through a cycle of real-time actions split up by inner dialogue and extensive flashbacks. Safe to say, most of that isn’t exactly filmable. This isn’t even limited to The Stand. To me at least, it’s the biggest challenge any filmmaker has with adapting something by King.
That in itself is fine, it’s one of the defining and unique aspects of a prose narrative.
The issue is that King didn’t have enough time to communicate that inner dialogue through onscreen action. He could have gotten around that by either asking ABC for another episode or two or had gotten more creative and changed around the narrative while sacrificing faithfulness to the book. Unfortunately, he did neither, so we’re left with a narrative so distilled it sags under its own weight like a soggy balsa wood bridge.
What about that massive cast list I mentioned earlier?
Alright, so after that long rant about the plot of the miniseries and the characters that populate it, we can agree that they are thinly drawn at best due to the limitations of the medium. But what about the actors playing those characters? Like the plot, it’s both rosy and muddied.
On the one hand, we got some good performances.
On the protagonist side of the cast list, my favorite performances were Gary Sinese’s (Stu), Ruby Dee’s (Mother Abagail), and Bill Fagerbakke’s (Tom Cullen). All three not only capture the spirit of what makes the characters tick in the book but inject some onscreen pathos that helps endear us to the characters. Sinese and Dee weren’t super surprising to me in this regard. Going in it felt like they were perfectly cast for their roles, and after watching them I wasn’t wrong in that assessment. Fagerbakke was a pleasant surprise, bringing that childlike good nature to good ol’ Tom Cullen. It’s honestly no surprise Fagerbakke, later on, became the voice of Patrick Star.
On the antagonist side, my favorites performances were Jamey Sheridan’s (Flagg) and Matt Frewer’s (the Trashcan Man). With Sheridan, he brought that jovial yet megalomaniacal energy I would expect. Even before he shifted into his more demonic forms, I could see Sheridan as a bestial presence akin to, well, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. As for the Trashcan Man, Frewer brings a different kind of psychotic energy to the role. A twitchy spaz with a love of fire and explosives who becomes more and more wretched as time goes by. Between the two, it was Frewer who was the real surprise.
Lastly, if I’m going to talk about the good performances of the show, I should mention some of the cameos and bit roles that pepper the story. If I had to pick three off the top of my head, I’d go with the following. There’s Ed Harris, who plays General Starkey, the general in charge of Project Blue. There’s Kathy Bates, who plays Rae Flowers, the radio DJ shot on-air by some military goons for reporting on the pandemic. Lastly, there’s Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who plays the monster shouter in NYC. All three are some combo of perfectly cast (moreso in Harris’ case) or highly memorable (moreso Bates and Abdul-Jabbar). Sure, they’re all in The Plague, but that’s the one that features the most varied characters anyway.
But as I mentioned earlier not all the casting and performances were great. For the most part, these fall on the side of not bad but not great either. Performances like Rob Lowe as Nick Andros, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, and Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid were serviceable, but not overly spectacular.
Then there were these performances, which left me scratching my head. The first was Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith. While I won’t go as far as saying she was miscast, but I wasn’t a big fan of her performance. It just felt stilted and emotional at the wrong times. Then again, I’ve never been crazy about Ringwald as an actress, so maybe I’m biased.
The one role I’d call entirely miscast was Corin Nemec as Harold Lauder.
In the book, Lauder is a fat bookish nerd, a perennial second favorite, and a loser who can’t let go of his past grievances. He’s basically King as a teenager if he was also a proto-incel. Nemec is not that. He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who got bullied in school. If anything he looks like the jock who bullied that nerd with some glasses and pimples slapped on. Hell, he looks older than Ringwald, who’s supposed to be 5 years older than him in-story. It’s baffling really.
I’ll end my talks about the casting (and my general thoughts about the miniseries as a whole) with this. If there’s anything about The Stand (2020) that has me intrigued, it’s the casting.
Here’s hoping the roles that were played well in The Stand (1994) are also played well while those that didn’t get their chance to shine get that chance this time around.
So that’s The Stand (1994) in all its flawed glory.
It’s a noble attempt by King himself to adapt his mammoth novel, to be sure, with good performances and decent ideas to streamline everything. It’s just there’s just so much story involved that the miniseries, with only four episodes, can’t cover everything satisfactorily while remaining as faithful to the novel as it is.
As of now, I’d only recommend The Stand (1994) to either big fans of the novel, King completionists, or people curious about how it might compare to The Stand (2020). Speaking of The Stand (2020) here’s hoping it fares somewhat better than The Stand (1994). Otherwise, I’d just stick to reading the novel.
My Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats
My Episode Recommendations
- The Plague: Recommend
- The Dreams: Recommend With Caveats
- The Betrayal: Recommend With Caveats
- The Stand: Recommend With Caveats
In Case You’re Interested in Watching The Stand (1994)
If you’re interested in streaming The Stand (1994), you can find it on YouTube. If you want something with better quality, you can rent it on Amazon.