Film and television have a long tradition of showing us how nature will one day turn against us, and most likely with help from human beings.
Stephen King’s epic apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel The Stand is a tale of how government manipulation of the flu bug for militaristic purposes accidentally escapes from a lab and wipes out most of the population.
The story follows several survivors who appear to be immune to the epidemic. They are not only forced to survive in a vastly changed world, they also find themselves plagued by similar—and terrifying—dreams. Other dreams direct them to travel to Nebraska and join an old woman named Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee), who wants them to join her in a fight against a man who is the personification of evil. They gather in Boulder, Colorado and try to form a society out of the disparate bands of survivors, while Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), their enemy, is mobilizing people and weapons in Las Vegas to wipe them out.
The Stand is mentioned by many King fans as their favorite King novel. Written fairly early in his career, he practically invented the sci-fi/supernatural genre blend. It has been cited as an influence on The Walking Dead, the TV series Lost, and Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage. The 1994 TV adaptation sticks fairly close to the story in the novel, though of course it had to be truncated in some ways to fit the 8 hour running time.
The series’ cold opening is kind of awesome—again, sticking close to the book—showing how the superflu bug gets out of its government facility and then is spread through half the country by a guard and his family that escape before the gates shut them in, as the credits roll to Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper.
The car with the guard and his family crashes into a gas station in Texas, where we are introduced to Stu Redman (Gary Sinise). The government, now aware of the accident and the rogue guard’s escape, sweeps in to quarantine the town and takes survivors to the CDC facility in Vermont. Eventually, out of everyone in his town, Stu is the only one who doesn’t come down with the deadly strain of flu.
Terrified he will be killed by the dwindling staff, Stu eventually escapes. He meets up with a professor named Glen Bateman (Ray Walston), a pregnant woman named Fran Goldman (Molly Ringwald) and her companion Harold Lauder (Corin Nemec). They all have dreams—some nightmares about a “Dark Man,” others about Mother Abigail, telling them to come to her in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, other groups of survivors also make their way to Mother Abigail—Nick Andros (Rob Lowe), a deaf-mute, Tom Cullen (Bill Fagerbakke), a mentally-disabled young man, Ralph Brenter, a farmer, Larry Underwood, a rock singer, and Nadine Cross (Laura San Giacomo) a mysterious woman who seems to have a secret.
On the other side, criminals such as Lloyd Henreid (Miguel Ferrer) and “Trashcan Man” (Matt Frewer) join Flagg in Las Vegas.
In Boulder, Lauder is jealous when Stu and Fran become an item. Taking advantage of Harold’s immaturity and grievances, Flagg controls him through Nadine, who he wants to join him and become the mother of his child. Together, Harold and Nadine plot to destroy the burgeoning society in Boulder. Eventually, they bomb a meeting of the town council, killing Nick.
Mother Abigail, who has been wandering in the wilderness, returns to her death bed. Before she expires she tells them God wants Stu, Larry, Glen, and Ralph to travel to Vegas on foot and with only the clothes on their backs so they can make a “stand” against Flagg. The rest of the story is the journey to Las Vegas and the confrontation with Flagg.
What appeals to me the most about the story—and most of the same genre—is the idea of the “clean slate” where characters need to rebuild society from the bottom up. By adding the supernatural happenings (Flagg, it turns out, is some kind of hellish demon) it ratchets up the stakes considerably, as the few survivors—many regular folk—are forced to participate in a fight of good vs. evil.
There was a great deal of excitement when the production of the mini-series was announced, and at the time, it seemed a fairly good adaptation of the novel. Nowadays, with people used to TV adaptations of books done with far bigger budgets and stronger casting, it does seem a little bit stuck in its time. Current TV stars and/or not quite A list actors were usually picked for roles for TV movies.
In this case, the waning in popularity but still well-known Brat Pack resulted in Ringwald and Lowe being cast in major roles, and both were seriously miscast. So was San Giacamo, who made a splash with the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape and never quite became a star, but was still very recognizable at the time.
Another problem is even though King wrote the teleplay, he re-conceived the character of Nadine Cross, who is very layered and complex in the book. In the series, she’s a more standard femme fatale and not nearly as interesting.
On the other hand, much of the rest of the cast is spot-on (Sinise, Frewer, and Fagerbakke are pretty much perfect in their roles). The series also features a beautiful acoustic score by Ry Cooder, which enhances the emotional canvas of the story.
A new adaptation of the series has been rumored for a couple of years, with talk of three feature films, or a mini-series ending in a feature film. For now, though, this is the book’s only adaptation.
In spite of its flaws, I just can’t resist nature (with the assistance from humans) wiping out everything and survivors having to reimagine society. That’s why I curl up on the couch to watch this mini-series again every now and then.