The CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Stand has concluded, and that can only mean one thing: ad fontes!
The Beat is heading back to the beat-up bookshelf we found in a cave outside Calla Bryn Sturgis and pulling our battered copy of the 1990 edition, The Stand: Complete & Uncut. It’s a no-holds-barred Constant Reader deep dive – hop in your Buick 8 and buckle up, because we’re going TODASH!
The most dramatic departure from the novel in the CBS All Access adaptation of The Stand is the structure. In King’s novel, the action proceeds chronologically, beginning when Charlie Campion, patient zero for Captain Trips, wakes his wife and hits the road, where their journey will end at Hapscomb’s Texaco station in East Texas. From there, the novel proceeds mostly chronologically (although there are a few instances of briefly overlapping time periods as perspectives change from one character to another).
By contrast, the CBS ALL Access adaptation of The Stand uses a structure that sort of mimics LOST (and speaking of circles: the LOST writer’s room was reportedly never without a copy of The Stand, so the influence here flows both ways).
Beyond the flashback structure that rocks back and forth over the timeline from the Captain Trips infection to the Boulder Free Zone, this The Stand adaptation’s also has an interesting character-based element to the structure. The first episode is entirely built around Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), following his arc from someone who could have been a member of the Boulder community to an angry man who rejected his peers. By contrast, the season finale focuses on Harold’s foil, Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), closing the circle on the narrative. This requires the addition of new material to the narrative – in the novel, the family does visit Mother Abagail’s home in Nebraska, but unlike the show, Frannie doesn’t fall down the well.
Another departure from the structure of the narrative is the relatively fixed perspective of the novel. Throughout the second book, the majority of the narrative is centered on the events that transpire in the Boulder Free Zone. Then, the third book is largely based in Las Vegas, following Flagg’s people.
By contrast, the series featured a more integrated narrative when it came to the two fledgling societies, with New Vegas first appearing in episode five and then continuing to make appearances alongside the BFZ throughout the remaining episodes of the series.
The Kingdom of Flagg
In addition to mixing up the way that we see Las Vegas, the series also gives us a significantly different interpretation of the kingdom built by the Walking Dude. In the novel, it’s emphasized that the citizens of Vegas don’t actually seem that bad. While spying, Dayna even becomes close friends with one of them. Furthermore, while we see plenty of hedonism and debauchery on the floor of the Inferno, the novel describes the people of Vegas differently. Dayna even notes that, while people in Boulder are prone to taking long parts of the day off, in Vegas, they are dependable workers, with almost everyone putting in a full eight-hour shift each day.
The novel also gives us more of a glimpse into the malcontents of Flagg’s brave new world, including Whitney Horgan, who informs Lloyd that he (and some of the other residents of Vegas) are abandoning Flagg and fleeing elsewhere – north to Canada, south to South America. In the adaptation of The Stand, we don’t get to hear from any of those further away from Flagg’s inner circle than the Rat Woman.
Omissions and Edits
Aside from rearranging the structure, much of the narrative remains similar in the adaptation. There are some minor alterations throughout, largely with an eye towards making the story more workable as an episodic, serialized story. These include leaving some of the personal details about establishing life in Boulder out and omitting the abandonment (and subsequent return) of Kojak (bless, although in the novel we also learn his pre-plague name: Big Steve, and that he lives for 16 more years after the book’s conclusion).
One illustrative example of the way the adaptation works is the scene in which Dayna Jurgens (Natalie Martinez) escapes the clutches of the rapist trucker who has captured her and several other women. In the on-screen adaptation, fewer characters were involved in the altercation (on both sides of the conflict), but it otherwise played out very similarly. In the same way, her espionage mission to Vegas in the show may alter some of the details when compared with the novel, but the major details of the story are the same: she comes face to face with Flagg and kills herself rather than reveal that Tom is the third spy sent by the BFZ… but in the adaptation, she is the impetus for Tom’s return to Boulder, rather than a posthypnotic suggestion triggered by the arrival of the full moon, as it is in the novel.
Another instance is the way the character of Teddy Weizak (Eion Bailey) is emphasized. In the novel, Teddy is killed in the bomb blast with Nick and several other Boulder residents, but in the show, he comes upon Harold and Nadine building the bomb, and Nadine unceremoniously shoots and kills him. This serves to highlight the drama of Harold’s struggle with and ultimate commitment to evil, and it works well.
And Nadine Cross (Amber Heard) has some changes to her story, as well, although they mostly take place in her final episode, when she has arrived in New Vegas to become Flagg’s queen. In the novel, she is nearly catatonic after being impregnated, only displaying life in order to goad Flagg into hurling her off a penthouse sundeck at the Grand. By contrast, in the CBS All Access adaptation, Nadine remains more or less present and aware (albeit spooky), up until she elects to hurl herself through the Inferno’s penthouse window (as a result of Larry’s wake-up call to her; Larry does not interact with Nadine after she leaves Boulder in the novel).
Some of the alterations make plenty of sense given the visual medium of television – for example, having a mortally wounded Hec Drogan appear in Boulder after being crucified in Vegas made more sense for the adaptation than the way the events occurred in the book, which was for the residents of the BFZ having a shared dream of the crucifixtion.
One significant omission in the adaptation comes in the form of several chapters of the novel, which focus on some of the non-main characters in the United States as they deal with the fallout of Captain Trips.
One of these chapters focuses on the breakdown of the media, showing us glimpses of different journalistic situations across the country. Another is a chapter about the “Second Epidemic,” where many of those who survived Captain Trips succumb to horrible (but non-superflu) fates, like the toddler who falls down a well or the mother who ends up locked in the meat freezer with her late family’s corpses. You can fully understand why the adaptation omitted these chapters, which would have required additional actors, sets, and more time than was available. However, I personally missed these pieces of the narrative, especially the dry observation that the death rates of the “second epidemic” in the United States were significantly higher than elsewhere in the world.
Other scenes are omitted but still referenced: for example, while we never see Mother Abagail face off against the weasels, as she does in the novel, graffiti in New Vegas that can be seen in episode 8 reads, “Weasel Eyes are Watching.” And there are a few other minor alterations, such as the fact that Hemingford Home is changed from a family homestead in the novel into an old folks’ home in the show (which is totally worth it for one of the best King cameos ever – probably what you get for letting your kid, Owen King, work behind the scenes).
Perhaps the most significant departure for a character in the adaptation is the Trashcan Man. In the novel, we get dozens of pages about Trash’s backstory (including the fact that a cop killed his father and then married his mother), details about what transpires between torching his first gas tanks and arriving in Vegas (which leaves evidence that the BFZ heroes come upon as they journey west), and then a subplot in Book III that sees Flagg’s air program succumbing to Trash’s pyromania and personal vendettas. In response to the fiery destruction Trash has wrought at Indian Springs in the novel, Flagg even gives the order for Trash to be executed – lending additional motivation for the character’s decision to bring a nuclear warhead to downtown Vegas (he thinks it will buy Flagg’s forgiveness after his misdeeds).
By contrast, Trash’s part in the adaptation, where he was played by “guest star” Ezra Miller, essentially amounts to a few scenes which constitute the bare minimum of his narrative function. After being introduced late in the series, we see Trash join forces with Flagg, then a scene where he retrieves the nuclear warhead, and that’s all until he arrives at the climax of the penultimate episode.
By contrast, the adapted Julie Lawry (Katherine McNamara) is a significantly larger role than the character in the novel. Although Julie does meet Nick and Tom on the road, she has only a single scene with Lloyd. In the adaptation, her role is expanded, and she appears throughout the scenes set in New Vegas.
Some characters had certain variables tweaked. One was Larry Underwood, who is white in the novel but Black in the adaptation (a necessary and sensible change, and Jovan Adepo is great in the role). Another takes place with Harold’s character, who is repeatedly described as overweight in the book (and while book Harold prefers Chocolate Payday bars, on-screen Harold is fine with the regular Payday variety).
However, many of the ancillary characters were altered in one particular way: many of the men supporting characters became women supporting characters. This is the case with Ralph Brentner (who became Ray Brenter, as played by Irene Bedard), the Rat-Man (who became the Rat Woman, played by Fiona Dourif), with Judge Ferris (who became Judge Harris, played by Gabrielle Rose), and with baby Peter (who became baby Abagail). In spite of the gender change, these four on-screen characters played a similar role as their prose-based counterparts (although the Rat Woman did get much more screen time than the Rat-Man spent on the page, and was easily the largest character departure of the bunch).
And some characters were entirely (or largely) omitted from the adaptation, which makes sense: there’s simply no way to condense all of the information from the 1,100-page novel into a nine-episode series. Notably, many of these characters fit with the information in the book, so interested viewers can head to the source if they want to know more about the biological father of Frannie’s child.
However, other characters, like Lucy Swann, who was Larry Underwood’s lover in Bouder, are either omitted entirely or reduced to offhand references (as when Stu, played by James Marsden, tells Joe to stay with Lucy-mom in the series finale, a smaller role than she played in the book).
And some characters are present but not explored as thoroughly as they are in the book, as is the case with Joe (Gordon Cormier), who gets more backstory (and the name “Leo”) in the novel. By contrast, we get fewer details about Randall Flagg’s “mortal” backstory in the adpatation, where he’s played by Alexander Skarsgård, than we do in the novel, but this works in two ways: Skarsgård’s onscreen presence picks up the slack, and frankly, I think Flagg works better when he’s more ambiguous.
Another change made by the adaptation is to update the timeline from 1990 to 2020. This is similar to the update undertaken by the 1989 “complete & uncut” edition of The Stand, which updated the setting from 1985.
There are not a lot of significant differences between the 1990 and 2020 settings. For one thing, Frannie uses a cell phone to take Stu, Larry, Ray, and Glen’s photo before they leave for Vegas (although when we see the photograph in episode 9, it looks like it was taken with conventional film – maybe they found a nice print shop on Pearl Street). And in the first episode, Harold alludes to rumors on the internet before it was shut down. But by and large, the story remains unchanged with respect to the date it is set.
There was one noticeable cultural difference since 1990: marijuana! In the CBS All Access adaptation, Glen Batemean (Greg Kinnear) is rarely seen without his vape pen sticking out of his mouth, and Teddy notes that it is fortuitous that they were called to the Mile High State, where weed has been legalized and the dispensaries are just waiting to be raided. However, while Glen may be half-baked for the entirety of his screen time, the narrative passes no judgment on him for doing so – well done.
One of the achievements of the adaptation is the soundtrack, which is varied and fit the show well, with many of the songs that played over the closing credits being particularly effective (I had “Brand New Key” stuck in my head for most of the month of January).
And speaking of the closing credits, the weekly montage of character-themed imagery was always fun to look at, like a lot of the series. Using what I assume was a metric assload of composite photography, the show did a good job of making it look like the characters were in New York City, Boulder, New Vegas, and traveling the highways between.
If you’d like to learn more about Flagg, there are several books by King you can check out. One is The Eyes of the Dragon, which is set in a fantasy realm and may be something of an “origin story” for Flagg.
Furthermore, one of the books in the Dark Tower cycle features an appearance by a Kansas Highway that has been ravaged by a certain Captain Trips, so if you really want to vibe in the world of The Stand for a little bit more time, Wizard and Glass has your number (and your number is 19).
As far as non-King reading goes, if you enjoyed the story of The Stand, you might also enjoy The Living Dead, the ultimate zombie novel by Daniel Kraus and the late George A. Romero, one of King’s close friends and frequent collaborators. As I mentioned in my review, The Living Dead bears favorable comparison to The Stand – say true and say thankya.
Still not enough Stephen King? Check out these 19 Stephen King allusions in non-King media. And if you’re looking for another King series to watch, you might consider Castle Rock, which has two seasons on Hulu. And be sure to let us know what you thought about the CBS All Access adaptation of The Stand on social media @comicsbeat!