Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Stand


As I have mentioned multiple times before in doing this series, The Stand mini-series was what turned me on to Stephen King in the first place.  My initial interest in it was a very silly reason:  Corin Nemic, who I had a huge crush on thanks to him playing Parker Lewis, had a role in it.  But I also knew Stephen King as the author whose books my dad was reading all the time, and I was curious.  We watched the mini-series together and as soon as it was done I asked his permission to read the book (I was 13).  Permission was granted and I dove right into the 800+ page epic regardless of the mockery I received from my schoolmates for wanting to read something so long.  Unlike Pet Semetary which bored me when I went from film to book order, I had no problems with The Stand.  While the adaptation is very faithful thanks to King himself writing the screenplay, there are so many extra details and background for the characters in the novel that it was like getting to know close friends even better than you had before.  I loved it, and it hooked me enough that I moved on to every other King novel I could get my hands on.

A few years back I read the extended, uncut edition for the first time, which adds a good 200 pages or so that was initially cut out because the publishers thought no one would buy a book that size.  I appreciated some of the extra background, but I have to admit that most of it is not particularly necessary.  As you might expect, none of this extra material is included in the mini-series.

If I'm not mistaken, this mini-series was not just notable to me personally.  I remember it being a large comeback for both Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe, and helped to launch the career of Gary Sinise (though I'm sure a little film called Forrest Gump in the same year didn't hurt).  It also helped renew an interest in Stephen King adaptations for television - Mick Garris and King were given the choice to adapt The Shining mini-series after this one, and other  originally written for television works followed.  I'm also willing to bet I'm not the only person who started reading King after this appeared on television.

For those unaware, The Stand is the story of a plague that overtakes most of the population of the earth, unleashed by a government accident.  A small section of the population is immune to the disease, and they slowly gather together on opposing sides of good and evil, but only one side can be the victor and slowly rebuild the world.  The story takes place in America, though we do get some mentions that it is effecting other countries.  I figure one plane across the Atlantic and another across the Pacific would be all that was needed to make this global.

There are a lot of main characters here to juggle with. That's a large part of why I like it.  It gives us a broad range of people who are dealing with the crisis, and we get to follow the choices they make and the way they change along the way.

Our primary cast:
  • Stu Redman - A Texan who has the misfortune of being at the gas station where the government employee who ran ends up crashing and dying.  Stu allows us a view of how the government is attempting to handle the situation, and he also becomes the strong, silent leader once everything unravels.  He's played by Gary Sinise.
  • Frannie Goldsmith - A young woman from Maine who discovers she's pregnant shortly before everything goes down.  Fran is strong willed but also silly, and I like her a lot even though she rarely gets to do much of anything on her own once things go south.  Her story also helps address what the future will be like for this world where the virus is still in the air.  She's played by Molly Ringwald.
  • Glen Bateman - A former socialogy professor that King uses to talk about whether society should be rebuilt or not.  He's played by the fantastic Ray Walston in the mini-series who automatically makes him ten times more awesome.
  • Larry Underwood - A New Yorker and a musician who managed to be a one hit wonder before civilization went away.  Larry's a user and a taker and he has a lot to learn before he can become a hero.  Larry is played by Adam Storke. A lot of Larry's story gets the axe in the mini-series, which is unfortunate as he's probably my favorite character in the book.
  • Nick Andros - A deaf mute who has been on his own since his teen years.  This was Rob Lowe's first major role since scandals took him out of the limelight, and playing a solidly good character like Nick probably helped his reputation.
  • Tom Cullen - A mentally disabled person that thinks just about everything is spelled M-O-O-N.  Tom is probably not the most accurately portrayed, but his character is incredibly likeable and Bill Fagerbakke makes him even more so in the mini-series.
  • Randall Flagg - Referred to as the dark man or the man with no face, he is the novel's villain.  His character has ties to The Dark Tower series, but you could easily also see him here as the devil's servant.  He's both charming and terrifying at the same time.  Jamey Sheridan reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton here when he's playing nice, and he's also great at making Flagg menacing when he needs to be.  Some of the effects used for him look a little dated now, but I think they work well.
  • Mother Abigail - The opposite side of the coin to Flagg, she's the one who gathers the good together.  Ruby Dee is great here (though she's also the reason I can't recommend the commentary track on the DVD).  While there's definitely a degree of stereotyping going on here with the character, I think King writes her likable and charming enough that I don't mind so much.
  • Lloyd Henreid - Flagg's right hand man who is loyal to him because Flagg saved  him from starvation in prison.  Lloyd strikes a good mix of disgusting and pitiable at the same time, and Miguel Ferrer provides him with that depth in the mini-series as well.
  • Nadine Cross - The chosen one who will bear Flagg's child.  Nadine is even more pitiable that Lloyd.  I want so badly for her to turn away from the path she's chosen.  She's played in the mini-series by Laura San Giacomo.
  • Harold Lauder - A teenager who grew up in the same town as Frannie and had a crush on her for most of his life.  He's the wannabe writer of the story (this is King after all, there has to be one) and another one who had the chance of redemption but ultimately rejects it.  Harold's portrayal as a disgusting, fat slob of a nerd is toned down very much for the mini-series where Corin Nemic plays him.  He only starts with a few rather fake looking pimples, and the rest is all surly attitude. My feelings on Harold and the journey his character takes could probably fill volumes in and of themselves.
  • Trashcan Man - A pyromaniac who hears voices and plays a very important role in the endgame of the story.  He's played by Matt Frewer.  This is the first of many appearances in King adaptations for Frewer, and in my opinion, his best.
And really, there are so many more characters involved than just those.  Much like ItThe Stand is a marathon.  Whether you are talking about the book or the 6 hour long mini-series, this takes an investment of time.   This time around I chose to revisit the book in audio form, and to help keep track of the differences along the way, I watched the mini-series episodes as congruently as I could with the "Book" separations in the novel.  It's not a perfect match as the novel has three parts and the mini-series has four.  Book I gets you through all of the first episode and a bit into the second, with some events told slightly out of order.

Differences from Book I:

As you would expect, a lot of minor characters get removed.  The most notable ones are Frannie's mother and Rita.  Frannie's mother is unessential to the main plot, so the choice to change it so that she died years before all this happened makes sense.  I enjoy the dynamics of their difficult relationship in the book, but a whole lot of time spent fretting about whether Fran will keep her unwanted pregnancy is completely irrelevant once the plot gets going.  Similarly, Frannie has already broken up with the boy who made her pregnant in the mini-series.

Rita on the other hand is a more disappointing loss for me.  She is combined with Nadine, which I have to admit makes sense, though it changes Nadine's character a little and definitely changes how things are for Larry.  Nadine leaves Larry in the mini-series at the same time that Rita dies of an overdose.  While it leaves Larry alone, I think he needs the pain and guilt of failing Rita completely to help send him on his journey from a self absorbed jerk to an eventual hero.

Ed Harris and Kathy Bates both make uncredited appearances in the first episode.    Ed Harris' role is mostly accurate to the general that appears in the novel, and Kathy's role is also faithful with the exception that Ray was originally a man.  Her role is also the only real glimpse we get of a much longer sequence in the book where King takes us through various media outlets attempts to get out the information and the way the government covers it up.  It makes sense for these things to get cut, but those small details are also what makes reading the novel worthwhile.

Differences from Book II:

Book II is the bulk of the story, and is contained in the rest of the second episode and all of the third.  It's where our cast finally comes together in Boulder or Las Vegas and starts to rebuild their lives.

Since Nadine was in New York with Larry, she didn't help to raise Joe, the feral boy who has been traumatized by losing his whole family.  It removes some of the complexity of her character, as through Joe we see that she can be a truly good person if she wants to.  It also makes the attraction between Larry and Nadine stronger.  Here, Joe is with Lucy instead, and we don't see much of Joe at all, especially none of his bonding with Larry and how that helps him to recover.  Taking care of Joe helps Larry to stop being so selfish, and his ultimate choice to pick Lucy over Nadine is important as well.  Here we just cut away and Larry tells Nadine Lucy is his wife now so she better hit the road.

Frannie and Harold keep diaries in the book.  Harold finds Frannie's, where she says a lot of nasty things about him, and it helps fuel his desire for revenge.  His diary is full of his hate and anger and disdain for the people of Boulder, and provides a clue to Larry and Fran that something terrible is going to happen, though they discover it too late to do anything about it.  Once again, the depth of Harold's character is lost.  I understand his anger that is fueled by all the years he was mocked in school, and how he feels that Frannie and Stu are acting the same way to him, while he's completely unaware that it's his own bad attitude causing their revulsion.  Harold repeatedly makes bad choices, but he always feels a hair's breath away from making the good ones. If only everyone had been a little kinder to him, and he could have released his demons, things would have been better for him.  Of course, he realizes the error of his ways out in the desert, but by then it is too late.

More minor characters are dropped out, and some characters join different parties moving west.  Given the huge cast, it makes sense to condense them as much as possible.

Differences from Book III:

The final episode and Book III cover the same part of the story.  Things are condensed quite a bit, but the bulk of the story remains the same.

Stu gains a strange kind of psychic connection with Harold so that he knows when he crashes his motorcycle and when he kills himself.  In the book they run into Harold's dead body on their walk to Las Vegas.

The crowd gathered in Las Vegas in the mini-series is a little too eager to see the executions.  In the book, they've all become very much scared of Flagg and are only there out of fear.
Mother Abigail's spirit also shows up a few times in the mini-series whereas once she's gone in the book, she's gone.  It doesn't really change anything, nor does making Frannie's child a girl instead of a boy.

The extended edition of the book also contains an epilogue where we see that Flagg has survived and been sent somewhere else to once again try to manipulate the lives of others.  It's perfect for the book but wouldn't really fit with the mini-series.

When it comes to this mini-series, I have to admit I have nothing to say about Garris' direction.  This feels very much like the adaptation belongs to King.  I've never seen the screenplay, but it certainly seems like Garris just followed that to the letter.  There's really nothing wrong with that - the cast is strong and so is the story, so there's really nothing to do but sit back and let it happen.

Despite its length and the fact that I just read this a couple years ago, I was not even remotely fatigued by going through the story again.  I also think I could watch the mini-series regularly and never get tired of it.  To be honest, I think I've got it memorized in parts.  I love these characters and I love the journey they take.

I remember being initially very confused about the appearance of the hand of God in the final moment in Las Vegas.  It seems to come out of nowhere.  I had hoped the book would provide answers, but it didn't really.  You could ask yourself why God sent the guys over to Vegas if he was just going to blow it all up anyway.  After all, it's clear that even though Trash didn't realize it, God was using him to bring the bomb there.  But he needs Larry and Ralph there to gather the crowds.  It's complicated and it's cruel, but ultimately I like the way it all plays out.

If you're looking for an even longer and more in depth analysis of this novel, may I suggest Boulder Free Zone, a series by Laura over at the Second Time Around blog.   I enjoyed reading her take on the book and I recommend it.

2 comments:

  1. I think this miniseries was my intro to King when I first saw it in the mid 90s. I’d heard of Carrie and Shining and some of the others, but hadn’t seen them, and I remember getting hooked on this story when I rented it from Blockbuster. The first half, I should say, as I largely forgot most of the second half until I read the book and rewatched the mini a decade later. I do still love that first half and all of the characters, but the second does wander away from me, as I’m less interested in the mystical religious parable aspects, of the good town vs the evil town, Randall Flag, and the direct intervention of God. The further it goes, the deeper into that angle it gets, and it just doesn’t hold me nearly as much as the great opening of the book and the deep human struggles it leads to. It’s not that those elements make for a bad story in their own right, but it’s a very different story than what led me in in the first place, so the book always has a discordancy to me.

    The miniseries has similar problems, as well as some of the truncation which you mention, though the cast is amazing. King is of the generation where his scripts are very detailed, getting into specific shots, camera movements, and what songs appear (less author ego than, up until the 80s, that was the standard style everyone wrote screenplays in), so yeah, much of what you see is there because that’s how Steve wrote it. Even then, Garris is inconsistent in his direction. How he frames a shot or how long he holds on it can leave them feeling awkward and clumsy at times, and I don’t see much difference between what he did here and what was in The Shining. Other directors have worked off of King scripts of the same amount of detail and still pulled it off better.

    Still, there’s so many great moments and characters in there, and just the sheer scope of it, it’s more than enough for this book to have earned the position it has.

    I've also read an unproduced film version from 89-90, written by Rospo Pallenberg with George Romero signed to direct. It was interesting seeing that draft try to squeeze as much of the book in as they could, but had to race over everything at such a brisk pace that there just wasn’t enough elbow room for any of it to comfortably settle in and be explored to any depth. I worry the same thing would happen if they try again. It could maybe work as two or three films, but most of the story is human drama instead of grand, cinematic imagery, so there’s no reason they couldn’t pull it off better with the floor space of a television series.

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    1. No, I don’t think you ever gave me that script. Romero does seem like a good choice to direct it, at least. I imagine that’s why they are trying to go with a three hour film this time, because unlike IT where you could split it between the conflicts in the two time periods, it’s harder to do here. I guess you could end the first half with the bomb, but that would still cram a whole lot into the first film and no doubt leave a good portion of character development out.

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