Why 'The Stand' should never be a movie
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TV can't afford the apocalypse or the violence...movies can't afford the time. Should 'The Stand' stay a literary experience...?
Though I can't claim to be Stephen King's number one fan - that distinction goes to a certain Annie Wilkes - I've been a constant reader for the last thirty years-odd, and so I think I'm entitled to suggest that when it comes to Maine's favourite son, I have a fair idea what I'm talking about.
My association with the world's favourite bogeyman began way back in 1979 when my best friend lent me a slim novel called Carrie, which I read and loved (even if I didn't completely understand the mysteries of the, ahem, female condition of the opening chapter until my mother explained a few biological facts to her somewhat confused nine year-old son), and which was quickly followed by The Shining, Salem's Lot (still my favourite vampire novel) and the Night Shift short story collection - which spawned several lacklustre films including Children Of The Corn, Sometimes They Come Back and King's own directorial effort Trucks (aka Maximum Overdrive).
Then I discovered The Stand, a behemoth of a novel that seemed to have just shy of a gazillion pages, all of which I eagerly devoured as I was drawn further and further into this epic tale of the end of the world. For the few weeks that it took my ten year-old self to read this (then two year-old) novel, I developed such a connection with the main characters, good and bad alike, that to this day makes it feel like I'm looking up old friends whenever I return to it during one of my frequent rereads.
Ten years later, in 1990, the seemingly impossible happened. The already weighty tome was reissued as 'The Complete & Uncut Edition', which added another 400 plus pages (most of which had previously been excised by King at the behest of his publisher house Doubleday for financial reasons) and turned what I already considered to be the perfect end-of-the-world novel into the even more perfect end-of-the-world novel. By this point there had been several movie adaptations of King's works, some of which had worked (Carrie, The Dead Zone), most of which hadn't (pretty much everything else at this point - the bone of contention being Kubrick's version of The Shining, which I love, but isn't a faithful representation of King's book). In any case, my friend and I had long agreed that The Stand was one book that could never be done justice within the confines of a feature film.
King, however, was of a different opinion, and for many years during the 1980s he laboured with zombie king George A Romero (with whom he had already successfully collaborated on 1982's Creepshow) to bring a King-written, Romero-directed version of his apocalyptic tale to the big screen. The sheer length of the book prevented a workable screenplay from being produced, and so the project was canned. King subsequently allowed screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg to take a shot, and an acceptable three-hour (don't get me started - keep reading) treatment was delivered that looked set to go until Warner Brothers pulled out at the last minute, leaving the movie deader than a city full of Captain Trips victims.
All was quiet on the Code Blue front until 1994 when the ABC network offered King the opportunity to turn The Stand into a six-hour miniseries. I remember reading the news in Fangoria at the time, and being both elated that The Stand was finally being given room to breathe in terms of running time, and horrified that it would be on television, where the horror of it all would inevitably become the 'mildly unpleasant' of it all.
Thankfully the Mick Garris-helmed four-parter proved to be a half-decent transformation of King's brutal, bleak, explicit novel into an undeniably neutered, but still entertaining portrayal of the end of the world as we know it. The downsides were the loss of the soul-destroying bleakness, the stark, unflinching representations of the sheer depths of immorality to which human beings will sink when given a get-out-of-jail-free card (notably, but by no means exclusively, The Kid's appalling abuse of Trashcan Man from the Uncut edition), and the deliciously glacial pace of the novel.
The upsides, however, undeniably lay with the inspired casting. Though not hitting the target every time, Gary Sinise was absolutely perfect as East Texas native Stu Redman, brat packer Molly Ringwald nailed the innocent complexities of Frannie Goldsmith, Laura San Giacomo embodied the spirit of misguided, duplicitous Nadine Cross, Ruby Dee was Mother Abigail, Adam Storke brought musician Larry Underwood to life, and Matt Frewer was given maximum headroom to stand tall as the Trashcan Man.
Not so convincing, though, and crucially so, was Jamie Sheridan's turn as the walking dude Randall Flagg. In the novel Flagg was dark, mysterious, sinister, seductive, and scary, but the miniseries instead made him a denim-clad, wise-cracking session musician for Hell's premier country and western band. Sheridan wasn't to blame, doing the best he could with King's script, but the Flagg we saw on television just didn't work.
On the whole, though, ABC's ambitious attempt at condensing King's almost half a million words into a mere six hours was an admirable effort, but one that was still forced to omit large portions of characters' back stories (particularly Frannie's relationship with her mother, and pretty much all of The Kid's interactions with the Trashcan Man) and truncate other events (such as Larry Underwood's escape from New York with the doomed Rita Blakemoor).
"I would love to read the 'acceptable' three-hour script that Warner Brothers considered - just to see exactly which two-thirds of the book they chose to jettison"
Therefore the announcement of an upcoming new movie adaptation of The Stand is one that, even though the King fan in me wants to rejoice and splash it all over the front pages of the Derry News and the Castle Rock Times, in my heart I have to take a stand against.
Though the 1995 miniseries was by no means the definitive version (or, depending on your point of view, crap) the fact remains that it proved that it was an apocalyptic struggle to fit King's epic novel (and it is an epic, right up there with The Lord Of The Rings – opinions on a postcard to the comments section below) into three hundred and sixty minutes. As a result, this should at the very least be the starting point for any subsequent adaptation.
A novel of this length, depth and complexity simply cannot be done justice to in the confines of a movie's running time (unless, of course, we're talking about French director Gerard Courant's experimental Cinématon (2011) that clocks in at an arse-numbing 156 hours), and I would love to read the 'acceptable' three-hour script that Warner Brothers considered - just to see exactly which two-thirds of the book they chose to jettison.
No, The Stand can never be a single movie, and while there are some who may point to the solution being a trilogy, I would simply, again, say no. While the book is split into what may at first glance appear to be three convenient parts (Captain Trips / On The Border / The Stand), the second act simply wouldn't stand on its own as a movie. The first part is full of death, the end of the world and general mayhem, and the third part concludes with an explosive (quite literally) climax, but the second act is King doing what King does so well, and what works a treat on the printed (or digital) page - characterisation.
"The danger is that to recoup the immense outlay, the distributors will push for a PG-13 rating rather than the hard-R that the material truly deserves - and then we're right back to the neutered compromise of the original miniseries"
As we've seen over the years, with a few notable exceptions King's human creations rarely translate well onto the big or small screen (among the exceptions being the aforementioned Annie Wilkes in Misery, ex-Munster Fred Gwynne's superb turn as Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary, and Sissy Spacek's Oscar-nominated performance in Carrie), so the prospect of two or three hours of frustratingly-misinterpreted characters shuttling between Hemingford Home and Boulder, or schlepping into Las Vegas, doesn't fill me with glee.
The only thing a movie would have going for it is a gigantic budget, which would ensure the accurate portrayal of a world in ruins. However the danger there is that to recoup the immense outlay, the distributors will push for a PG-13 rating rather than the hard-R that the material truly deserves - and then we're right back to the neutered compromise of the original miniseries.
Of course, the solution may be to turn it into another miniseries, which, given the success of The Walking Dead and the multi-platform plans for The Dark Tower (King's other Flagg-featuring apocalyptic saga), may not be such an unrealistic dream. With support from a network like AMC, perhaps we could see a thirteen-part adaptation that wouldn't have to pull any punches in terms of content, would be long enough to let the book's leisurely pace unfold, and would still attract a decent enough budget (and subsequently world-class talent) to realise - mostly if not fully - the sheer scale and scope of the book's shattered world.
A movie, though? Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather stick with what we've already got - a half-decent six-hour miniseries, an interesting ongoing comic book adaptation written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa for Marvel, and of course the half a tree that is sitting on the bookshelf of any discerning horror fan.
"There’s a lot of interest in doing the film, but it’s gotta be our way because somebody else… this is sorta unique and somebody else’d fuck it up."
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