Test of Time: The Stand Miniseries, 25 Years Later

It has been a quarter-century now since Captain Trips first spread across the small screen and infected viewers throughout America. I can remember what an exciting television event The Stand miniseries was, a large-scale adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel that aired in four two-hour segments over the course of a week. I can also remember, though, having a mixed reaction to this adaptation at the time. After listening to King and director Mick Garris reminisce about the miniseries on the Post Mortem podcast last month (which I posted about here), I was inspired to go watch the miniseries again. This would be my first time returning to the material in 25 years; I was curious how The Stand stood up over time, and if my initial impressions would be changed.

The first thing I can recall about the 1994 miniseries is that the acting was a mixed bag, and a second viewing only confirms this. To be sure, there are some strong performances, led by the never-less-than excellent Gary Sinise, who is perfectly cast as King’s Texan everyman Stu Redman. Ray Walston shines as Glen Bateman, as does Bill Fagerbakke as the mentally-challenged (it’s surprising here in 2019 to see how often the miniseries resorts to the term “retarded”) Tom Cullen. Yet there are also some starkly subpar efforts here, which might be the product of lazy writing (the stereotypically nerdy mannerisms of Corin Nemec’s Harold Lauder) or just bad acting (the single-note conveyed by Shawnee Smith as shrill shrew Julie Lawry). The loudest raspberry, though, has to be directed at Laura San Giacomo, who is painfully unconvincing in the pivotal role of Nadine Cross (or perhaps I am too distracted by those caterpillar eyebrows of hers).

My recent re-watch also reestablished my ambivalence towards the settings in the miniseries. Some of these are particularly striking: such as the scenes set in New York, both amidst riotous upheaval and in post-apocalyptic sprawl (the book’s legendary Lincoln Tunnel walk-through is translated nicely here by Garris). At other, more jarring, times, however, I can’t help but feel like I am watching a film set. The scenes (and not just those rooted in character’s dreams) of Mother Abigail’s Nebraska home and surrounding cornfield are colorful and atmospheric but lack realism.

A quarterly-century later, I am still impressed by how skillfully the plot of King’s novel was adapted for the small screen (the fact that King himself scripted the miniseries no doubt is a major factor). I like how certain elements, such as Frannie Goldsmith’s pregnancy, unfold in a more understated manner and are only gradually revealed. The miniseries also makes crafted use of time jumps (aided by title cards updating the day and place), condensing the events of the novel and moving the action along sensibly. There is one sizable plot hole that I failed to spot back in 1994, but which stood out upon re-watch. It involves the scene when Randall Flagg and Nadine first arrive in Las Vegas. Nadine is practically catatonic (following her desert rape and impregnation by Flagg) as she is ushered upstairs to the would-be honeymoon suite. Later that very same afternoon, she taunts Flagg with alleged knowledge of discontent brewing among his minions; how, though, could Nadine know that “They’re saying that a simple retarded boy outwitted Randall Flagg. They’re saying Judge Farris got away from your man in Idaho. They’re asking questions about Dayna, too.”?

For a miniseries airing on 90’s broadcast TV, The Stand surely features some strong horror. Glimpses of moldering crucifixion victims are hard to forget, much like the scene of corpse clean-up inside a church. On the other hand, the archfiend Flagg (Jamey Sheridan, looking like Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon stunt double) proves grossly disappointing on screen, with his pointy demon teeth and lightning shooting from his fingertips. Garris’s direction also demonstrates an unfortunate over-reliance on “morphing” technology; the repeated emergence of Flagg’s monster face plays like a twisted version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. More hokey than horrifying, Flagg formed the glaring weakness of the miniseries for me back in 1994, and the representation definitely has not aged well.

Despite its various strong points, The Stand miniseries in the end is marred by a distinct cheesiness (the “Hand of God,” King’s blatant deus ex machina plot-resolver, does not translate well to the screen, and that closing montage of the heroic characters who died along the way seems like a ridiculous rip-off of the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars). In this post-Game-of-Thrones age, viewers are ready for a darker, grimmer adaptation of King’s novel, one infused with special fx that don’t prove oxymoronic. I can only hope that the miniseries remake forthcoming on CBS All Access evinces the same maturation that 2017’s theatrical release of It showed over its own television predecessor.

 

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