Monday, November 30, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Stand" (1994)

How can a screen adaptation be so faithful to one of my favorite books, and yet I borderline can't stand it?

That's what I, and I believe many other fans of Stephen King's "The Stand," thought when the ABC miniseries came out in 1994. Although it got generally good reviews and audience numbers at the time, I speak for a lot of people who were put off by the cheap television production values and a few spots of crucial miscasting.

Now the story is being made again as a miniseries for CBS' premier channel coming out next month. Obviously, a story about a mysterious plague that kills 99% of the human population has a lot of topical weight at the moment, though I'm sure the producers couldn't have known that when they were shooting it. The timing seems perfect for our age of anxiety and rage.

The high anticipation for the new adaptation made me want to revisit the original to see if my opinion has changed significantly.

Short version: not really.

If you're not familiar with the book or show, I'll give a very stripped-down summary: a bio-weapon  escapes from an American military facility and quickly kills most of humanity. A tiny percentage prove to be immune to this "Superflu," and those who survive begin to experience psychic dreams that draw them toward one of two loci of power: the evil Randall Flagg in Las Vegas and the saintly Mother Abigail in Nebraska (later relocating to Boulder, Colo.) for an apocalyptic showdown for the soul of humanity. The story tracks about two dozen characters as they join the fray.

It's not surprising the miniseries, which played as four two-hour episodes (totaling six hours once you remove commercial breaks), hews closely to the book since King wrote the script himself. He hated what Stanley Kubrick did with "The Shining" and, along with a few other miscues with other adaptations in the 1980s, led the author to have more direct control. So he was both teleplay writer and executive producer of the miniseries, along with having a small role as an actor.

Director Mick Garris had previously helmed the King-sourced "Sleepwalkers," and King liked it well enough to tap him for "The Stand." Garris has mostly worked in television and seems captured by the limitations of the medium, or at least those that existed at the time. There's a very crabbed view of the world, as if Garris is afraid to point the camera at anything outside of his limited set dressings.

For example, we don't get to see all of the garish majesty of Las Vegas, only a few signs and a few other visual slices.

It's amazing how old-fashioned the more squarish 1.33 aspect ratio of television looks to my eyes now; even "regular" TV has used the wider ratio of feature films for about 15 years. It adds to the effect of tunnel vision watching the miniseries. To save money they also shot it on 16mm film instead of 35mm, giving everything a slightly hazy indistinctness.

From a story perspective, "The Stand" sticks to the book pretty faithfully, at least the original version published in 1978 that was somewhere in the 700s in pages. I only ever encountered it when the extended version was published in the early '90s, coming in around 1,200 pages. That's an absolute gob of source material, and if you were to try to include absolutely everything you'd be looking at a 20- to 30-hour run time, not six.

The new version will reportedly be nine, presumably one-hour episodes. So it sounds like my desire to have every little subplot and minor character included is never going to happen. Though I hope someday someone does a mini-show that just chronicles the Trashcan Man's chilling, unforgettable encounter with singular malevolence of The Kid.

Aside from that, one thing I find lacking in the miniseries is backstory. Most every major character was given a pretty flesh-out persona and history to help you understand or even empathize with them. For example, Trash was a childhood firebug spurred on by the constant bullying he received, and ancient Mother Abigail overcame racism around the turn of the century -- the last one, which is I guess a qualification we'll increasingly have to start using.

Stu Redman gave up his college sports dreams to work and support his family; Nick Andros was an isolated orphan until another deaf-mute took him under his wing; Larry Underwood was a self-destructive jerk who was just on the verge of making it big in the music industry, and so on.

For me one of the most emotionally affecting was Frannie Goldsmith. Her fractured relationship with her mother was the key underpinning for her character's mix of resolve and self-doubt. I still remember distinctly the scene in the book where a child-age Fran hurts herself and bursts into her mother's social gathering, seeking reassurance and instead getting screamed at for spilling blood on her mother's favorite rug. That'll stick with you.

The miniseries doesn't have any of that, not even relying on flashbacks to inform each character's motivation. Everyone exists exactly in the moment they are in, and no more.

A few of the things cut from the adaptation also turn out to be key. The most notable is Larry, whose interactions with women leave something to be desired. He dallies with a young tart and then blows her off, leading her to utter a line -- "You ain't no nice guy, Larry!" -- that becomes his haunting mantra as his journey, both geographically and spiritually, progresses.

Later, while trying to get out of New York City, Larry hooks up with an older woman, Rita, who has mental health and substance use problems. Larry uses her for sex and emotional support, then pushes her too far until she commits suicide. So it seems for a very long time we're not sure if Larry will wind up in Mother Abigail's camp or Flagg's.

The miniseries swaps out Rita with Nadine, the woman who is destined to become Flagg's bride and bearer of his child, cementing the reign of evil over the land. In the book, Larry doesn't meet her until later on when she is acting as guardian for Joe, a 10-year-old boy traumatized by the epidemic, not speaking and threatening Larry with a knife.

Larry's growing friendship with the boy marks his first steps toward becoming a more outer-directed person, so having Joe relegated to a virtual walk-on really saps the strength of his transformation. Instead, Lucy Swann is introduced at that point and becomes Larry's lover.

Later, when Nadine turns up in Boulder about a month later, throwing herself at him in a bid to foil Flagg's plans for her, Larry bizarrely refers to Lucy as "my wife."

A lot of philosophical musings and shadings in the book are lost as well. I was really intrigued by King's suggestion that certain personality traits generally seen as positive -- analytical minds, those who crave structure, defenders of rules and laws -- tend to migrate toward Flagg's camp. So he gets the bulk of the scientists and soldiers. Whereas the artists and freethinkers go to Mother Abigail.

Even though the fight against evil is often framed in fiction as holding off chaos, in these terms Flagg uses very rigid, hierarchical systems to maintain control -- executing all the drug addicts being a prime example -- whereas Abigail essentially thrives on a cult of personality built upon her station as a figure analogous to a second Christ.

Both systems are prone to threats their leaders couldn't see: hers from without, his from within.

Finally, let's get to the casting. It ranges from pretty spot-on to gag-inducingly awful. Seeing it again, I feel like most of the actresses are good fits while the male lineup is where things go terribly wrong.

Molly Ringwald as Fran, Ruby Dee as Abigail and Laura San Giacomo all do fine or better. I'll also put Miguel Ferrer as Flagg right-hand man Lloyd Henreid, Ossie David as Judge Farris, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman and Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man in that category.

From there, things quickly get dicey. I like Gary Sinise but he just can't sell calling people "hoss" or doing the taciturn Texas thing. Stu Redman is the sort of role Gary Cooper was built for -- in fact, I think in the book one of the scientists studying Stu for clues to his immunity refers to him as a Gary Cooper type.

I've often said that Scott Glenn would be my dream pick for Stu, but even in 1994 he was long in the tooth to play the character, who's about 30. Curiously, Glenn would've made a great choice to play Randall Flagg, who's supposed to be ageless and charming, with a dead-eye stare.

Speaking of, that brings us to Jamey Sheridan as Flagg. He's not bad, but he's not good, either. He gets the general mood right, which is twinkly charisma with a belt of rage right underneath it. But I dunno, I never really felt scared of the guy. Certainly not during his transformations to a demon-like figure, which won an Emmy for makeup but looked pretty chintzy even in 1994.

All of Flagg's inner thoughts are hidden, so he's just an existential threat and that's it. Within the book Flagg himself doesn't know his own origins, other than at some point he simply became... and also has the understanding that he will go on after corporeal death. An epilogue added with the expanded novel has him reincarnating in prehistoric times, and indeed King has gone on to use him in other books including as the principle antagonist in the sprawling "Dark Tower" series.

Adam Storke is more puckish than self-loathing as Larry, and I laughed at his very-90s wind-blown hairstyle and vest-over-T fashions. (Hilariously, other members of the Boulder community come to adopt this look.) Bill Fagerbakke has the height and hue for boy-man Tom Cullen, though I was put off by his using the exact same voice delivery that he did for his two other notable roles, Dauber from the TV show "Coach" and Patrick from "SpongeBob SquarePants."

(His hairstyle is even more distracting than Storke's, with long pale blond locks that hang like a curtain over the side of his head. His odd balding pattern with a large carve-outs on the sides result in a weird-looking back-to-forward combover that I doubt someone of Tom's limited mental capacity would trouble himself with.)

Harold Lauder is a terrific anti-hero in the book, a teenage genius with an obsessive fixation for Frannie. Like Trash, he's been bullied and isolated his whole life and it's led him down a dark path. Initially part of the Boulder group, he is enlisted by Nadine at Flagg's behest -- offering her body as payment -- and tries to assassinate Mother Abigail's hand-picked leadership group.

No doubt King saw Lauder as a stand-in for himself, since the character is a wannabe writer. He's also an awkward 16-year-old, described as quite fat, with bad acne and greasy hair. There's not a lot of young actors in Hollywood who look like that, and Corin Nemec certainly does not. He's lean as an icepick with a sharp jawline.

In the story, Harold loses weight and cleans himself up as he travels west and undergoes challenges. He actually becomes well-liked in Boulder for his intelligence and hard work -- even garnering the nickname "Hawk" -- and has a break point where he realizes this could be his actual life going forward.

Ideally, the actor playing Harold would lose weight as the story goes on, but that's a pretty hard feat to pull off logistically, especially given as most productions are shot out of order. It might be easier now than in 1994, what with the rise of CGI and better practical makeup effects.

Last, and least, let's get to Nick Andros.

He was my favorite character in the book, a young man cut off from everyone else by his disability who finds genuine friendship with Tom and a community that values him in Boulder. One of the things that define him is his physicality. He's supposed to be 22, small and skinny, probably with jug ears and freckles, and is not the sort of person who makes a strong first impression.

Moreover, as the result of an assault at the beginning of the story, Nick is supposed to have several of his front teeth broken and nearly has one of his eyes gouged out, so he wears an eyepatch thereafter. It adds to his sense of ugliness, not to mention his terror and anger at the prospect of becoming blind as well as deaf.

And here is pretty boy Rob Lowe.

With his feathered hair and soft blue eyes. No eyepatch, of course, though he gets some makeup bruises that soon go away. In a word, a dreamboat. And a lightweight.

Now, I think Lowe has grown a lot as an actor in the years since. He found his niche in deadpan comedy and seems like a delightful, self-aware person in the recent interviews I've seen him in. Ironically, I think he could pull off Nick Andros quite well now, though he's too old.

But this was such a fundamentally wrong piece of casting, I'm surprised King or somebody didn't step forward and say, "He can't be Nick." Or at least try to ugly him up with some makeup or a bad haircut.

Looking back I can understand why Lowe was cast. His feature film career had softened but he was still a big "get" for a television miniseries. And Hollywood understands that audiences like to look at pretty people. Still, it's eternally grating to have a fixed vision of a character you identify so strongly with and see it trammeled upon.

So, my takeaway after a second view of "The Stand," the first in a quarter-century, is that it's well intentioned but poorly executed. It looks just plain bad, with its poor, cheap camera work and limitations of the television format of the time. It serves to be instructive just how much shooting for "small screens" has improved since.

Will the new version be any better? I'm excited for it, but in truth some of the same fears persist. They've hired another beauty as Nick and another skinnyboy for Harold, so mistakes of the past and all that. Though I will say Amber Heard as Nadine seems like a home run.

Sometimes great works of art are only great in their original medium. Call it a premonition if you will, but I think "The Stand" is destined to remain one of those.


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