I remember very distinctly watching an advertisement for the world television premier of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves just before Mother’s Day weekend in 1994. The spot asked us: would we rather watch an eight hour miseryfest about the end of the world via plague, or a slightly edited version of the time Kevin Costner was English and Alan Rickman turned in a really great performance until he sort of tried to rape a lady. The answer for me, an eleven year-old, was obvious. I would watch The Stand, a miniseries to end all miniseries(es), a lengthy dive into the terrifying world of one of Stephen King’s greatest novels. A story featuring a mute Rob Lowe, Dobber from Coach (playing Dobber from Coach), the old black lady from the sequel to Roots, the old groundskeeper dude from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and of course, Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinise (two people who passed for pretty and handsome, respectively, in the gloomy days of the early nineties).
The same people who voted for Reagan (twice!) declared her a sex symbol.
As a prepubescent boy, I found this tale of a decimated America, reduced to ashes, populated by demons, and prone to virtue or vice depending on whether you’re in Boulder or Vegas, entirely enthralling, a landscape that was horrifying in all the right ways to a young mind that had just begun to ponder mortality. As a grown man who has read King’s fantastic novel (a true watershed of the genre) and has also come to understand that you can sin in Boulder (for free, and with nicer girls) far more easily than you can in Vegas (no touching!), I now find the whole affair pedestrian. Yes, a plague of human origin has wiped out most of the people on the planet. Yes, a black woman Christ figure must send her acolytes to blows against a satanic smooth talker who occasionally turns into a demon with penis horns, but it all just seems so damn boring, so incredibly dated, in the context of the current age.
Also… this was the time of L.A. Looks hair gel (which you could buy in a bucket)… and penis horns.
As Randall Flagg, the “Walking Dude” and the antichrist (perhaps), Jamey Sheridan delivers a sly, swaggering performance in spite of the mullet he is forced to don and the Canadian Tuxedo (a device that worked much better on the page) he wears constantly. As the antagonist he rises above a script that takes itself too seriously and stays too faithful to a very dense book. Part of the blame lies with King, who adapted his own novel, and has always failed to understand that his made up slang simply doesn’t work when it comes out of a live human being’s mouth–he is, after all, the man who complained about what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining. If there is anything to be said for this endeavor, it is that almost all of the actors do good work in spite of the lines they must deliver. King has always been good at drawing characters, but they rarely make a solid transition to the screen without judicious editing and elision–see The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick. The actors make some smart choices here, and that’s for the better.
And, in addition, Mick Garris, who has made a living off of adapting King novels, manages to make the early hours pregnant with fear and disgust–the low-fi technical work helps too–portraying a deserted American hinterland that will be familiar to anybody who’s ever been on a lonesome road trip across the midwest. That the final hour falls apart is symptomatic of King’s chronic failure to stick his landings. As with It (book and miniseries versions), the viewer is left with a sour WTF? taste in his or her mouth after a very long commitment.
I am not in the habit of comparing movies to the books they’re based upon (it isn’t fair), but in this case I can’t help myself. The Stand, as a piece of epic pop fiction, manages to evoke a great sense of loss in the aftermath of vaunting human hubris. There is no better book about the end of the world. Full Stop. (Okay… fine. The Road). The nations of the world have crumbled because of a bad cold and it is up to a few humble, not terribly bright people to ensure that life goes on in the face of mounting, unspeakable evil.
The Stand as a miniseries fails to understand the scope, both large and small, of such a task. Of the shear, unrelenting pressure of knowing that you are among the last of a very young species to walk upon a very old planet. What read like gangbusters on the page is reduced to penny melodrama on the screen. We never get a sense of the stakes, or that the people following the demonic Flagg in Vegas are just as human and desperate as those following the saintly Mother Abigail in Boulder. Point in case, there is a moment in the novel in which the Boulder group recites the pledge of allegiance. On the page: weirdly, sadly moving, a grand gesture to a bygone era. On the screen: hokey, bordering on crass.
There are moments that can’t be described as anything but gross directorial missteps, such as when Rob Lowe, supposedly playing a deaf/mute, challenges both claims while running away with a bomb.
Oh… shut up. Again.
Who the Hell picked costumes, Stevie Wonder? That’s a fake biker jacket paired with shorts and dress socks. Also, Laura San Giacomo is wearing a dashiki in the French fashion.
Now at GAP.
Here’s an object lesson in how to break tone: include this shot in your movie…
King will one day be studied in the same way we now look at Shakespeare. There have been some wonderful adaptations of his work (Stand By Me), but as far as this goes, I’m actually looking forward to the Ben Affleck-helmed version set for next year.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever somebody says the word “stand”
Take a Drink: for every ominous shot of that crow (which is just minding its own business)
Take a Drink: every time the word “moon” is spelled out. “M-O-O-N, that spells moon.”