‘The Stand’ Review: new adaptation does not play by the book

Stephen King has long had his issues with finishing his books, which is the downside of writing without outline and letting the story travel where it makes sense at the moment. But start? Few writers have ever been stronger at it, and few King novels start better than his 1978 post-apocalyptic opus The score.

The novel begins with a soldier escaping from a top-secret military facility while a plague is unleashed that kills everyone around him. He grabs his wife and daughter and goes into the night, unwittingly spreading this surplus amount (which is soon known as Captain Trips) around the world, until only a small fraction of the world’s population survived. The first chapters of the book are so relentless and so good at introducing core characters like Texas Everyman Stu Redman and junk musician Larry Underwood that the first few hundred pages fly by, even in the hugely elaborate 1990 reissue. The ABC adaptation miniseries from 1994 has its flaws, but at least it recognized the power of King’s opening, which came out in TV form on Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’, before that song was most commonly associated with the phrase ‘more cowbell.’

Now The score is on television again, this time as a nine-episode miniseries on CBS All Access. In some ways it’s an improvement over the ABC version, thanks to several strong main performances (most notably Alexander Skarsgård as the devil villain, Randall Flagg and James Marsden in his most convincing aw-shucks, All-American mode as Stu) and advances in digital effects and makeup that enable a more credible end to the world than was possible a quarter of a century ago.

But this is new Stand is disturbing from the start – or rather, from true it begins. Because for some baffling reason, this new version chooses to start in the middle.

We eventually see the soldier’s escape and what people like Stu, Larry (Jovan Adepo) and Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) experienced in the early days of the Captain Trips outbreak. But we see them out of order, opening instead five months after the end of the world as we know it, with a community of survivors already formed in Boulder, Colorado, and with Frannie’s creepy childhood neighbor Harold Lauder (Owen Teague ) that helps throw away the many, many dead bodies left by the plague. From there, the miniseries bounces back and forth in time, between events in Boulder, the plague and the painstaking journeys our heroes took to find Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg), the wise old woman who represents the forces of light against the evil of Flagg, Las Vegas decadent community.

Movies and TV shows use out-of-order stories forever, often as a way of engaging the audience with a plot that otherwise takes time to get going. You know the type: [record scratch] You’re probably wondering how I juggle chainsaws at Prince Harry’s bachelorette party. Well, it’s a long but ultimately exciting story … The in media res opening is rarely a convincing disguise, although the motivations behind it are understandable. But The score director Josh Boone and showrunner Benjamin Cavell, who co-wrote the premiere, have inexplicably done the opposite, downplaying an exciting start to end up in the more artisanal middle ground instead.

You might think the changes were made in response to Covid-19, because who wants to watch a fictional pandemic spread while still fighting a real one? But Cavell has said this has always been the approach they intended to take because they feel The score is less about Captain Trips than about the survivors’ attempts to rebuild the world in its aftermath. From that perspective, it makes sense to jump straight to Boulder. But it robs this version of all narrative momentum, while undermining attempts to establish the characters and their relationships. The good guys all end up in the Rockies, but the story is as flat as the plains they cross (very briefly) along the way.

King’s book had a huge impact on it Lostand those of Boone and Cavell, in turn, feel more modeled on the adventures of Jack, Kate and Sawyer than on the original text. Early episodes highlight one or two characters (Harold and Stu in the premiere, Larry in the second hour, Amber Heard as Larry’s emotionally damaged traveling companion Nadine in the third) and try to use the non-chronological story to describe different moments in their journey with each other. to connect. . But most of the time, bouncing around in time is counterproductive.

We jump into relationships midstream and sometimes only get the necessary context later. For example, when Stu’s group chooses to send some spies to Vegas to see what Flagg is up to, it’s presented as a huge deal that they nominate their developmental disabilities.

friend Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke) for the assignment. But Tom has actually appeared in one scene up to that point, so the group’s confidence in him and the moral dilemma of endangering someone who doesn’t fully understand the risk of the job doesn’t really materialize. The show also offers some glimpses of the characters on their way to Boulder, but in an alternate and condensed way, before they lose interest in that part of the story – arguably the most crucial in explaining why this group matters – all the way . We get a good idea of ​​why Stu and college professor Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear) become friends, but massive events in Stu and Frannie’s romance are implied at best and the fates of other characters are resolved with clumsy expositions. Several characters from the book have not aged well, especially the childlike Tom and the magical old black mother Abagail. Cavell and Henke try to put Tom in a more enlightened context – every time he meets someone new, he delivers a rehearsed speech, clearly received from a social worker or teacher, about his cognitive deficiencies and difficulty reading social signals – but his diminished presence in the road trip portion of the story (where he’s friends with the deaf Nick Andros, played by Henry Zaga) makes it hard to give him any real depth. Whoopi Goldberg, meanwhile, has in fact already played Abagail with her role as the serene, immortal Guinan on

Star Trek: The Next Generation

. Her performance here avoids most of the clichés inherent in the character, but in the process, Abagail seems far less powerful than the story takes her to.

Pictured: Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg and Nat Wolff as Lloyd Henreid from the CBS All Access series THE STAND. Photo Cr: Robert Falconer / CBS © 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg and Nat Wolff as Lloyd Henreid in ‘The Stand’.

Robert Falconer / CBS © 2020 CBS Even the decision to pay so much attention to Boulder (and, to a lesser extent, what Flagg and his grinning Vegas cult followers are up to) doesn’t make sense in this time-shredded structure. The goal seems to be to show that society is being rebuilt from the wreckage of Captain Trips . But the story skips past the early days in Boulder when the lines were written from scratch, and instead focuses more on Harold’s dangerous fixation on Frannie, or prophetic dreams that different characters have about Flagg. (Our glimpse of Vegas is hardly concerned with how things work, but Skarsgård is charismatic and clearly dangerous in a way that makes those passages more alive than those about its well-meaning opponents in Colorado.) Well, that or it can be attributed to the same reason as so many seasons of it The Walking Dead

(which itself has borrowed lavishly from

The score ) take place in a static location: because it is cheaper and easier to film than if your characters are constantly moving from place to place.

This new version has its inspired moments, like the way Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” somehow turns out to be the perfect theme song for Flagg, but the structure continues to suck the life out of things, from main characters to more minor . The unhinged arsonist who calls himself Trashcan Man appears in a parallel story throughout the book before playing a major role in its climax; here (appropriately played by Ezra Miller), he doesn’t show up until the season is more than halfway through. Without the connective tissue, presented in sequence, little of what we see feels like it matters. So many movies and TV shows have borrowed the iconography and events from King’s book over the years that it can be difficult for a modern adaptation to have the impact the novel or even the ABC version ever had. But this

Stand ponders its way to irrelevance, at least in the parts that have been made available to critics. The finale promises something new: a coda, long planned and written here by King, about what happens in the wake of the book’s conclusion. If nothing else, it would be ironic if a show that messed up one of King’s best openings like that corrects a conclusion he never quite liked. The booth will premiere on CBS All Access on December 17, with weekly episodes. I’ve seen six of the nine episodes.