The general rundown of The Stand is such: a weaponized strain of fatal Influenza (dubbed “Captain Trips” without explanation) is leaked in the United States, and within days a fatal epidemic swept the nation. The American government, in an effort to save face, sent the strain overseas to give the virus a natural appearance and to perhaps shift blame. A relatively small amount of the population proves to be immune to the disease, and they slowly begin finding one another due to prophetic dreams all pointing to an elderly woman in Nebraska. The lot of them eventually settle in Boulder, declaring it to be dubbed The Boulder Free Zone. Simultaneously, a drifter by the name of Randall Flagg emerges and begins recruiting followers in Las Vegas. Flagg is shown early on to have supernatural abilities, and he begins ruling over his people with fear, torture, and public crucifixions. While clearly intended to be an Antichrist figure, it is never made overt whether Flagg is indeed Hellspawn or simply a magical (and evil) creature.Despite its length there are significant details missing.The two sides are well aware of one another, and both make preparations to deal with the other. Flagg begins amassing weaponry, and The Boulder Free Zone, on the word of God speaking through a dying woman, sends four people with no food, water, or weapons on foot to confront Flagg. Eventually, of course, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and an optimistic ending is provided via the birth of a healthy (and plague-immune) baby. This is a remarkably condensed outline given the length of the novel (1152 pages!). Oddly, despite its length there are significant details missing.
Notably, Flagg’s rise to power was documented by his recruitment of his right hand man, Lloyd Henreid, and then proceeded to skip to his residence in Las Vegas with thousands of supporters. It’s an interesting omission, as it’s one frequently omitted or diminished in importance in fiction as well as musical theater (The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The New Testament, etc). You would think with 1152 pages to spare that a small detail like the villain’s rise to power would be considered.The Kid gives the schizophrenic arsonist Trashcan Man a ride to Las Vegas (you read all of that correctly).Conversely, some aspects are given too much attention. For example, a character named The Kid appears at one juncture and gives the schizophrenic arsonist Trashcan Man a ride to Las Vegas (you read all of that correctly). The Trashcan Man is threatened and both physically and sexually abused by The Kid along the way in a very graphic manner. It is not the only example in the novel of horrific sexual assault, nor is it the least horrific. The amount of detail that goes into these scenes is frightening, but not for the reasons King intended. King wisely abandoned all of this in his script for the miniseries.
For all of the strange omissions and even stranger details, King absolutely nailed one aspect of The Stand: Randall Flagg is pretty damned awesome. King does a great job of conveying a dark sense of humor within Flagg, and the character is made far creepier by it. His initial pulling of strings is quite clever, and even down to his planned injury and death of Judas figure Harold Lauder he’s consistent and believable. Well, as believable as a humanesque manifestation of a demon or something similar can be. To that point, I could certainly have done without Flagg’s shape shifting back into his “true” form. Subtlety is not King’s strong point, and he certainly is unaware that the thing lurking in the shadows is always going to be creepier than the horrible monster you can see. That aside, even King is aware of the strength of the character; he’s referred to in It, and is also a central character in his Dark Tower series.
In terms of the television miniseries, it was actually improved in some ways by excluding the aforementioned scenes of abuse. While it also lacked any clear background of Flagg’s rise to power, given the six hour constraints I didn’t feel it was as strange an omission. However, many solid moments from the book were missing. Flagg’s public crucifixion of a drug addict was one of the more vivid and compelling parts of the novel; the miniseries showed the end results, but not the deed. It certainly lacked the impact.
Strangely, the most notable exclusion in the miniseries is darkness. Throughout the bulk of the novel, you can’t help but feel that the “good” society does not stand (pun unintended, please disregard) a chance against the “evil” society. The Boulder Free Zone is struggling to turn on electricity even as they prepare to make their final stand against Las Vegas, while Flagg’s people not only have power but are stockpiling weapons from early on. The outlook is quite dim for the bulk of the novel, whereas the miniseries is laden with cheesy scenes of triumph backed with a sickeningly saccharine score. The Boulder Free Zone enjoys power quite early comparatively, and trivial moments such as characters riding bikes off into the horizon are given a musical backdrop to imply that something monumental had been achieved. The little triumphs were actually overdone to the point where there is no way that the miniseries could be dubbed as “horror” (a tag that only loosely befits the novel, at best); it was mostly designed to show moment after moment of “good” people succeeding.
As I mentioned, Flagg was the best element of the novel. He himself was perhaps the biggest letdown. Jamey Sheridan actually nailed the character in terms of performance, but he could not look more wrong for the role. King makes a point of describing Flagg as being attractive, but having a very average and forgettable face. Sheridan is quite distinctive looking, and looks really strange with long hair. Regrettably, 1994 low-budget special effects were used to give him glowing red eyes and to show his transformation into his demon form. Both were worthy of a laugh at this point in time. It had to have looked as awful in 1994 as they looked twenty years later. Giving a genuinely dark and compelling character moments that can be considered laugh lines and campy effects is one way to diminish the effect of the character.
Flagg was not the only poor choice of casting. Late 80s/early 90s stalwarts Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec both raised the question to me of whether they had any acting ability whatsoever. That they were both cast as characters several years younger than they themselves were certainly did not help. Nemec seemed to get a bit more comfortable with his role as his character began to grow a bit more backbone, but Ringwald actually devolved entirely. I was actually quite happy to see her absent for the bulk of the fourth part; four and a half hours of overacting was enough for me.
King had a number of influences that inspired his epic; most notably, he wanted to recreate the general storyline of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in an American setting. While I can see the parallel, overall The Stand falls quite short of its inspiration. King has some talent, for sure, but at times he seems like a George Lucas-esque figure with no one to answer to and no one willing to say no to him. He is truly gifted at the setup of a story, but his frequent ends of stories via usage of Lovecraftian devices or, in this case, a literal case of deus ex machina. It’s disappointing to see such promising setups squandered on such weak endings. The book is better by default, as its strongest element remains strong; the miniseries just made it silly. Throw in some campiness as well as a needlessly long King cameo, and you’ve got six hours that’s worth quite a bit less than 1152 pages. That said, I have to say that there is no clear winner in this particular circumstance.