Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 17, 2020)
One of Stephen King’s earlier books, 1978’s The Stand remains his longest – by 14 pages. The Stand spans 1152 pages, while 1986’s It clocks in at 1138 pages.
Sort of. As published in 1978, The Stand “only” ran 823 pages, but that happened because editors got King to trim the book by a substantial amount. 1990’s “Complete and Uncut” version reinstated that deleted material and took the book to its record-setting length.
Just as It got adapted into a TV mini-series in 1990, The Stand leapt to the small screen in 1994 – and the latter got a lot more room to breathe. Whereas the 1990 It crammed that massive book into a mere 187 minutes, the 1994 Stand got almost twice as much time to explore the story.
And a timely story it remains, as I write this during the COVID-19 pandemic. In The Stand, a government lab in California houses a powerful strain of the flu, and it accidentally gets released.
The virus spreads rapidly. This “super flu” leaves the vast majority of the human population dead.
The survivors eventually wind up in two camps. Mother Abagail Freemantle (Ruby Dee) heads one, and this group stands for positivity. Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) leads the other, and they seem bent on destruction. The two will face off to determine the future path of humanity.
Given the length of the mini-series, obviously this synopsis leaves out a whole lot of content, especially related to the characters. Stand involves a slew of participants, and a formal exploration of these would make my overview run far too long.
Indeed, the novel’s length caused a long delay in its filmed adaptation. After Kubrick’s version of The Shining dazzled my 13-year-old self, I went on a King binge, and The Stand was one of the books I read.
I still recall my copy claimed that the tale would soon become a “major motion picture” with George Romero at the helm. I guess back then no one would go the same route as the 2017 and 2019 It films and split Stand into two theatrical movies, so the property sat for years since King couldn’t figure out how to cram the epic story into one feature flick.
Back in this site’s early days, I wrote up a review of the DVD version of this mini-series. Due to some long-forgotten technical issues, that discussion never got posted and I lost the original file.
As such, I can’t examine my specific thoughts about The Stand circa 2000 or whenever, other than I think I didn’t like it. Given the vagueness of these memories, though, I went into the mini-series with an open mind.
Well, semi-open, as that 20-year-old perception stayed in my head. Also, my fairly negative view of that It mini-series adaptation left me without much optimism for how well broadcast TV could translate King.
Although I can’t recall specifically why I didn’t care for this mini-series 20 years ago, I can state that I don’t disagree with that negative assessment. While the 1994 Stand doesn’t provide an unwatchable piece, it never becomes particularly compelling.
For lack of a better description, the mini-series just seems too “TV movie”. We maintain the general sense that it needed to be dumbed down for broadcast television, so the rough edges no longer exist.
Granted, the nature of this story doesn’t require the level of graphic content one would need for something like It to succeed. While it feels sanitized here, it can still work without “R”-rated material.
It can, but it doesn’t, mainly because the mini-series lacks much drama or tension. The entire project builds inexorably toward the good/evil confrontation I describe, but it doesn’t manage to develop these issues in a particularly compelling manner.
Really, little about The Stand manages the kind of dread or terror it needs. We get a long tale about the near-extinction of humanity that elevates to a battle for the soul of the world, and it all feels oddly sluggish and languid.
I wish I’d read The Stand more recently than 40 years ago, for I’d like to remember how well it worked. Back then, I know I loved it, but as a stupid kid, it didn’t take much to impress me.
As a stupid middle-aged dude, I’m harder to please, so perhaps I’d find King’s novel to be a snoozer. Given that I read It not long after I saw those movies and enjoyed it, though, I suspect the book holds up well.
King’s novel must work better than this mini-series, at least in terms of dramatic content. With so much room for involving material, I really can’t get over just how dull so much of TV version of The Stand feels.
Perhaps some of this is inevitable given the length of the source. Even a six-hour movie may be insufficient to depict an extended text like this.
The 2017/2019 It ran a total of about five hours – almost a full hour shorter than The Stand - and it managed to cover the necessary territory fairly well. However, It came with a much more concentrated assortment of characters and settings, so it lent itself to this form of abridgement.
On the other hand, The Stand provides a substantially more epic affair, with an enormous roster of characters and a broad array of locations. This source required King to pare matters to the bone or depict everything in a superficial manner.
King opted for the latter, and I can’t fault him, as this felt like a “no win” proposition. An abbreviated Stand might work better as a TV production, but it’d disappoint fans of the novel.
I don’t know how those folks feel about the 1994 mini-series, and maybe they went away happy because it managed to include so much of the book. Still, I don’t know how much satisfaction they took from the sluggish, drama-free program, though.
The Stand does come with a pretty good cast. Ed Harris and Kathy Bates appear in cameos, but the main group offers some solid performers like Dee, Sheridan, Gary Sinise, Ossie Davis, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe and others.
Most bring competent performances, albeit turns that lean toward the campy side. Much of Stand comes with an overwrought feel typical of made-for-TV fare from this era, and even though most of the actors worked in feature films, they tend to “act down” to the format.
At the risk of redundancy, that remains one of the biggest issues with The Stand, as it simply feels too much like TV movie melodrama. The mini-series fails to tap the inherent drama in the story and becomes a slow, fairly dull exploration of the material.