The Rule of King - J. L. Nicol
Does the CBS adaptation of The Stand live up to the legacy of the novel?
The general rule of thumb is – if Stephen King is involved, then you’ve struck gold. For anyone who has ever read a Stephen King novel, it isn’t hard to figure out why the King of Horror is one of the most adapted authors of all time. Mr King has a flare for storytelling. The reach and popularity of his work is undeniable. You don’t even have to be a fan of the man to appreciate his work. With the likes of Misery, Shawshank Redemption, It, The Green Mile, Stand By Me and countless other genre-spanning classics, you would be hard pressed to find a person who didn’t like at least one adaptation of his work. Over the past few years, re-imaginings of some of his most celebrated work has continued to increase, many to critical acclaim.
The most recent of these adaptations is The Stand, a CBS miniseries based on the 1978 novel of the same name.
My first Stephen King novel was Black House, co-written with Peter Straub. A newbie to the world of horror, I was blind to the interconnected worlds that weaved through so much of his work and unaware that the book I was reading was a sequel to The Talisman. The only reason I picked that book off the shelf was that I had a library card and the name on the dusty sleeve was familiar to me (perhaps one day I’ll tell you about me as a kid finding a copy of It hidden in a drawer).
I was baffled by the plot, didn’t understand the significance of The Territories and was left bewildered by the ending, but I drank in the words and from those ruffled pages a lifelong love of horror fiction was kindled.
Despite some initial misgivings, Stephen King quickly became my favourite author and I started to devour his books (although I still haven’t made my way to reading The Talisman yet). Some books are so good that I need to read them twice.
The Stand was one such book. I picked up my first copy, The Complete and Uncut Edition at 1,152 pages long, in a high street bookstore. I raced through the pages, desperate to reach the end and discover the fate of the citizens of Free Boulder. Then came the global Covid-19 pandemic. While not as devastating as Captain Trips, it has wreaked havoc on society as we know it and turned the lives of millions upside down, prematurely ending over a million others. At the time, I was in the beautiful Gothic city of Prague, the restrictions on travel had not yet been implicated, but a growing sense of concern was evident every time I turned on the news.
I had brought along with me Night Shift, Stephen King’s 1978 collection of short stories, to read in the small hours. In that collection was the story Night Surf, a precursor to The Stand and a tale which bore some striking similarities to the developing global situation. Deep within the human psyche is the pathological urge to pursue the things that scare us the most, and with the dawning realisation that the real-world epidemic was something real and worthy of the furore surrounding it, I decided to delve once more into the salacious world of Stephen King once again.
Re-reading a book can be a strange sensation. The first time around, every twist and turn is like walking an uncharted path, the horrors lurking around each corner catch the reader off guard, sending blood pumping as the words reveal themselves to virgin eyes. The second time, the reader knows what is coming, but this knowledge does not prepare the observer any more than it did the first time. In fact, the suspense of knowing what lies ahead can often increase the tension and anticipation.
The Stand will no doubt go down as one of King’s most glorious efforts. It may not be as viscerally scary as his other works, but his ability to touch the raw nerves of humanity’s downfall is a horror in of itself. The depth of his characters, the balance between good and evil, Mr King thrives in bringing to life the things that we fear the most.
My second reason for re-reading the lengthiest novel of my favourite author was its upcoming TV adaptation. I had previously seen the 1994 miniseries starring Gary Sinise, while an excellent effort, lacked some of the modern privileges of cinematography to bring the ambitious story to life on the screen. A remake of the series had the gravitas of modern television behind it to sculpt this epic story into something truly outstanding.
That had been my hopes at least.
The visuals drag the tale into the ultra-realistic era of 21st century television, and featuring a stellar cast, there are some stand out performances throughout the season, but somehow, this retelling still manages to fall a little flat.
It is no surprise to anyone that some changes were made to the story, yet it was some of those changes that perhaps take away from the elements which made the tale such a force in its original format. Right from the opening frame, I was left confused as to where in the story we had begun. Chronological order of events had been disregarded, presumably with the aim of adding suspense to the narrative which would be split across 9 episodes. This turned out to be the first fault. While it may have helped to bring order to the television formatting, the result disrupted character development. The story arcs of key characters, such as Nick Andros, suffers from the butchering of the plot. with Nick’s entire experience at the Sheriff’s Office eradicated entirely, for an alternative backstory. Important factors which endear the reader to Nick’s character are missed out completely. The resilience and ingenuity left out of his role, relegating him to a player of coincidence. Larry Underwood – while admirably portrayed by Jovan Adepo – has some of the subtly and redemption of his character removed, leaving traces of the ego and lifestyle which were important for him to shed in the novel to become the better person the citizens of Free Boulder required. And can we please erase the cringy, gratuitous Hendrix inspired guitar rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel is the zealous followers of Randall Flagg as they set up their base in Las Vegas. In the novel, the wicked members left over from the days of the plague are joined by those drawn to the mystical allure of The Walking Dude. Good and evil is not something so clearly defined. The residents of Vegas adapt to an efficient way of working to bring back power to the desert city, an oath of abstinence and obedience binds them through faith and fear. This however is replaced by a scene of debauchery and lawlessness in the CBS series, simplifying the story to a land marshalled by a sort of Mad Max society. The altered ending doesn't add much to the original narrative, although seeing the residents of Boulder having a BBQ, with a DJ, red plastic cups and cans of Sprite like the apocalypse never happened was something I struggled to overlook.
As I watched The Stand, I judged it by the standards of the book, as most readers will do, and in the same cliched fashion would say to myself ‘the book is always better’.
Yet it is here that I possibly get it all wrong.
You see, what I and many other readers sometimes fail to realise, is that these adaptations were probably not intended for us. Sure, when the screenwriting of such endeavours take place, productions will attempt to remain as true to the original story as possible, while tweaking parts of the story for visual or financial purposes and will aim to market towards fans of the existing work. But the purpose of these works is to capture a whole new audience. TV adaptations are meant for those who don’t read the books; they’re meant for the ones who pay the TV subscription rather than buy the paperback; the ones who want to immerse themselves in a visual world rather than a mental one. The readers are not forgotten entirely, but sometimes we must remember that this medium is not always directed towards ourselves.
Like The Mist and Under The Dome, the latest Stephen King adaption is removed from the original story in some ways, but familiar in others. Despite my criticisms, I watched The Stand as a fan and found enjoyment in doing so. Personally, no adaptation will ever compete with the imagery inside my own mind, created by the author's words.
There are times when a filmmaker will come along and is able to add an extra ingredient to the recipe, and when they do, I will lap it up.
As for The Stand, I am happy to have enjoyed the raw ingredients at its finest. And who knows, maybe sometime in the future I may read that colossal book from cover to cover one more time. Just to remind myself how good Stephen King it at telling you a story.
My rule of King is this – I will read and enjoy however many books this goliath of horror has left in store. I’ll also watch the adaptations with a sense of guilty pleasure, recalling the words that inspired the visualisation, feeling like I’ve been entrusted with a secret that others could not quite handle.
J. L. Nicol is a Scottish writer of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Can be found on twitter @jlnicolwrites