The Stand

I finished reading Stephen King’sThe Stand a few months ago. I’ve been holding off on writing anything about it because I wanted to give myself a bit of time to hopefully gain some objectivity about it. I knew nothing at all about the book going in -having not even read the back cover of it before starting- and it was definitely worth the read. Unfortunately, it was also made into a tv mini-series in 1994. I made the mistake of watching the mini-series less than 24 hours after finishing the book.

Don’t ever do that.

That was part of the reason that I wanted to give myself some time to develop some objectivity about the story. While the book was really very good, the mini-series was utter crap. It was very clearly slopped together quickly to make a couple bucks, and I can hardly believe that King signed off on it at all. The book is enormous, and there’s just no way they could put all the events into the 6 hour mini-series. I get that. After watching the mini-series, though, I question why they even tried. But I’ll get to that later on.

As for the book, it was almost the most amazing novel I have ever read. Almost. I’m going to assume that everyone who is going to read the book has already done so, and start dishing out the spoilers now.

The nickel version of the plot is this: The government develops a plague to use for war and then accidentally releases it into the public. It kills more than 99% of the population. The survivors begin forming into groups which are eventually absorbed into two larger groups. These two groups hate each other, of course, as is necessary for the plot. The climax leaves one group weak but not destroyed… The implication being that it can all happen again.

The first one-third of this book was simply amazing. It was pretty confusing for the first hundred or so pages as the characters were being introduced, because it was bouncing between four or five primary characters. As the plague was initially released, we see each of the primary characters dealing with those around them dying. Since it was all happening at the same time it made sense for it to be told that way. Once I learned the character names, it got much easier to follow. And much more compelling.

King again does a masterful job of creating the primary characters in this book. Even not having touched the book in months, I can still remember Stu Redman, Fran Goldsmith, Harold Lauder, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, Tom Cullen, Nadine Cross … I could probably go on if I spent a few minutes thinking about it (let’s not forget Trashcan Man!). Each of the characters that is introduced has his/her own faults, and each of them reacts to the deaths around them very differently. Whether it was the weak, nerdy kid who was a little too shy, or the middle-aged guy who was a bit too selfish, or the teen-aged girl who wound up pregnant just in time for the end of the world, King creates very rich personalities and problems for each of them. I could identify with each of them in some way, and had images of them in my head long before I watched the mini-series (not one of the characters was portrayed in the way I saw it in my head). The rich backstories really added to my empathy for the characters and kept me reading until it all started to come together.

The spread of the plague in this book is portrayed, in my opinion, exactly as it would happen if this were to happen today. Obviously a disease like that would travel quickly and it wouldn’t take long to infect every human on earth -that’s not the important part of the story. The part of the story that grabbed me, and made it seem so real, was the lengths to which the government was going to attempt to cover it up. Early on, as there still seemed hope that the spread of the plague could be contained, the military was ordered to cut of all communication and roads into and out of towns as they became infected. Anyone attempting to leave would be executed on the spot. Media outlets were fed misinformation about the severity of the disease (repeatedly saying it was nothing more than a slightly worse version of the flu), and if the media outlet tried to detail any of what was actually happening, again they would be executed. As more and more towns and cities were destroyed, and millions of millions of people were dead, the government was still denying that anything was wrong. Uniformed armed forces were still enforcing the kill orders right until their own deaths from the disease. It was a very chilling portrayal of how such a disease would spread, and of how the U.S. government would do everything in their power to deny it. It seemed so very real because everything that happened did so in exactly the way I expect it would in that situation; the entire population of the world completely destroyed by an American government that refuses to admit that it made a mistake, or that they were working with biological weapons in the first place. The first third of this book really should be required reading in civics and sociology classes.

The end of the world didn’t have a great deal to do with the plot of the story though. It was the situation that caused the events to unfold, of course, and it is what set the primary characters in motion to reinvent themselves. Beyond that, this could have happened anywhere. The plot really was about Harold Lauder, a wimpy teen who was never very good at anything, falling in love with Fran Goldsmith. Fran subsequently fell in love with Stu Redman, and that left Harold feeling alone and outcast. He began a slow decline into madness that would last through the end. There was a lot more going on for sure, but that was really the main plot, and what held the book together. This is also exactly why this didn’t transfer well to video: Most of what drove the plot was Harold’s slow evolution from wimpy kid to madman. Most of this took place in thoughts, dreams, and general brooding, and while that can be told quite well when you are able to read what the character is thinking, when you are able to see only what they are doing it’s just a bunch of actions that don’t seem to have any reason or purpose.

The middle third of the book introduces the characters Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg (the Walkin’ Dude). This is, in my opinion, the worst mistake of story-telling in history. Those characters are instantly and clearly portrayed to be God and the Devil -or more likely working for God and the Devil. They exist solely to draw the survivors together and separate them into two groups: good and evil. The story at this point is taken from a compelling story about the survival of the species and the madness of one man to being about the battle of God vs. the Satan. It was just so unnecessary. Harold would have continued his decline without intervention by Randall Flagg. His mental state was documented so well, and his turn to ‘evil’ so complete, that without any outside influence he could have been the one that started the opposing group. The group of ‘good’ would have come together naturally, as survivors looked for others. Any who were rejected, or even those who just felt rejected, would still have joined the opposite group. That would have changed it from having one group that was clearly on the side of good and one clearly on the side of evil to two separate groups, each driven by their own agendas, and each with their own logical, believable reasons for how they came to be there. Making it absolute good versus absolute evil had the effect of seeming to remove any responsibility of the people involved. It seemed like it was no longer about what happens to society as it is destroyed and has to rebuild, but instead it is about God and Satan playing chess with slightly more real characters.

As the story moves along, God’s group sets up in Colorado while Satan’s group chooses (surprise!) Las Vegas. This is, I believe, the major reason that the good and evil was introduced to the story: Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg appear to the survivors in their dreams and guide them to the settlements. That is the only reasonable explanation I can come up with for why they would be necessary to the story at all. However this would be easily done away with, as it would only be a matter of a few days before the survivors started hitting the local Home Depot stores en masse to pick up gas powered generators for their homes. Gasoline would be fairly easy to come by at every service station, and the survivors would naturally go to where the gasoline was easiest to obtain: big cities. Within a few days or weeks, people would want to know if anyone else was out there, so short wave radios would find their way into use. It would probably be under a month before the vast majority of the survivors found each other to start forming groups without intervention by the forces of good and evil. Infighting would come fairly quickly thereafter, which would ultimately lead to the two separate groups (though probably with a lot of smaller groups as well. This could be happening as the story unfolds anyway though; the story focuses on these two groups of people, but it is mentioned several times that even if the disease was 99.9% fatal it would still be several million survivors. I found that number fairly staggering, but the math is correct).

Aside from the good and evil drawing the groups together, everything seems to go exactly as you expect it would. In short order the surviving groups start to form governments (or at the very least hierarchies), towns are being rebuilt, power is being restored, etc. The two groups could coexist indefinitely if not for the constant prodding from God and Satan. Unfortunately for the purposes of the story, God and Satan are on equal footing as far as who is more evil. Both groups are being instructed to destroy the other group without any provocation. It is the reader’s knowledge that Randall Flagg is evil; his atrocities are laid our fairly well so that you know you aren’t supposed to root for him. That knowledge doesn’t exist for any of the characters though (at least not the ones hell bent on destroying him). All they know is what some old lady told them. Just like all the group of evil know is what some old dude told them. Acting blindly on the command of one person, lacking even the slightest hint of evidence to support the story they are telling, puts the groups of good and evil on decidedly even ground. This is yet another reason that the ultimate good vs. ultimate evil just detracts from the story.

The biggest issues caused by the good vs. evil bit, though, is in regards to the climax of the story. Mother Abigail instructs four of the characters to go to Las Vegas to destroy Randall Flagg. She tells them they must go immediately, with only the clothes on their backs. Further, one of them will not make it there. Without much hesitation, the group does to go -still without anything more than her word that Flagg is evil. The problem is that the climax comes about when Trashcan Man brings a nuclear warhead into Las Vegas and it detonates -thus destroying everyone in the city (and presumably a fairly large surrounding area). This chain of events was set in motion long before the group arrived in Las Vegas, and would undoubtedly have happened whether they had gone or not. It simply wasn’t necessary for them to be involved at all. If we continue to imagine what it may have been like without good and evil driving everyone, we can imagine that Harold Lauder (and/or his sympathizers) are plotting to destroy Stu and his group, they hatch a plan to get a bomb of some sort into town, Stu’s group finds out, a showdown ensues as the two groups battle over control, Harold dies in the conflict, done. Would that story be better? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think that matters though; the point is that making this a battle between good and evil takes accountability away from the characters to a great extent. Taking away that accountability takes this from being a real-world, cautionary type tale to being a mere fantasy. That is my biggest issue with the book.

All that said, this really was a good read. I have never cared nearly as much for characters in any book as I did for the primary characters in The Stand. I wish the story had been told a bit differently, and I think it would have been a much more powerful story if it had been, but as it is it is still a very compelling story, and one that will leave you thinking about it long after you’re done reading.

That was the book. Now for the mini-series. Don’t watch it. If you’ve read the book and you watch the mini-series you will just be disappointed by how far it strays from the original story. If you haven’t read the book, you will be confused as to why some of the things are happening, a lot of what the people do doesn’t seem to be for any good reason at all, and you will ultimately be disappointed.

A good example of stuff being left out is when Harold sees Fran and Stu together for the first time (I can’t remember if they were having sex or just kissing). In the book, we go into Harold’s mind for a time as he tries to rationalize it, argues within himself, begins to get angry, and ultimately Stu’s fate is sealed. After this point, Harold is constantly wearing a fake smile -the type normally reserved for televangelists- and it is very clear that something has snapped in him, and it is only a matter of time before something very bad starts to happen. In the mini-series, that was condensed to a 2 second shot of Harold smiling and clenching his fist. It just didn’t resonate the same.

Many events in the mini-series are out of order to how they happened in the book. In most cases it made the story flow a bit better, so I won’t fault them for that. The amount of stuff that had to be left out, though, is astronomical. The sympathizers of Randall Flagg all had their own reasons why they were following him: one was saved from a prison where he had been slowly losing his mind while chomping on someone else’s leg for food before Flagg saved him from a slow death. Another was tricked into following him by the introduction of a guy driving a fast car and raping him before Flagg has him torn up by wolves (although it was most likely Flagg that made the raping happen in the first place), etc. There is a logical reason why the characters are following Flagg -none of that is in the mini-series. Likewise the entire portion relating to Mother Abigail is stripped down to a couple of ten second dream fragments. If you’ve read the story your mind can fill in the rest. If you haven’t read the story, I would imagine that you will probably wonder why someone would set about to walking 2000 miles across the country based on seeing a wheat field in a dream one time. Tom Cullen is a ‘simple’ man (suffering from some form of retardation). In the book when the decision is being made to make him into a spy, there is much ado. The group argues over whether he should be exploited in such a way, and it is made clear that a statement is being made on human nature: The same mistakes that doomed the race the first time will do so again. In the movie, there is no discussion at all, the group of ‘good’ doesn’t even bat an eye before using him as a weapon (which also further clouds the line between which group is good and which is evil).

One thing that the mini-series did do well though was tie up the plot hole the book created regarding the group of good traveling to Vegas. In the book everyone just dies, end of story. In the mini-series, Mother Abigail appears in a vision -clearly, now, the hand of God, and tells the three who are about to die that without their sacrifice the evil could not have been defeated. Again, in the book that nuclear warhead would have gone off with or without them and no such divine vision was granted. That was really the only redeeming quality about the series though, and you have to sit through six hours of either frustratingly sparse story (if you’ve read the book) or disjointed crap happening for no real reason (if you haven’t read the book) before it gets there. Hardly worth viewing in either case. And on my short list of biggest irritants in the history of cinematic license, they switched the sex of Fran’s baby from a boy (in the book) to a girl (in the movie) so that they could name her Abigail.

Well this has was supposed to be a couple of paragraphs suggesting that you read the book. I believe I may have missed that mark… 3000 words later… Do read the book, don’t watch the mini series.