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Stephen King’s Son Owen on ‘The Stand’ TV Series vs Book Differences
“The pandemic parallel makes me a little uncomfortable,” says author Owen King, “Because the suffering of real people is one thing. And artwork is really another thing.” The millions who’ve been hurt by the COVID-19 epidemic are real; the victims of Captain Trips, the viral super flu in his father’s now-classic novel The Stand, are fiction. That story’s dramatically deadly plague, which wipes out more than 99 percent of the American population and leaves bodies filling the streets, is very different from the quieter horror actually unfolding across the nation, where COVID-19 victims die in hospitals pushed to their limits while members of the same communities enjoy meals at restaurants or write articles about television shows.
But while the similarities may be few, the timing is still striking: A new adaptation of the novel, a CBS All Access limited series, is debuting in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. And the real and fictional plagues have one thing in common. In both the real world and in the post-apocalyptic epic, illness itself isn’t the main story—how human beings manage or mismanage it and cope with our losses is. And Owen King, just a toddler when his father’s novel was published, is one of the writers and producers who’s brought the post-apocalyptic epic to the small screen.
The Stand tells the story of the plague’s survivors, who face a showdown of good versus evil as they congregate in opposing communities led by figures imbued with supernatural abilities. In Boulder, Colorado, the heroes, who include Stu Redman (played in the series by James Marsden) and Larry Underwood (Watchmen’s Jovan Adepo), gather under the guidance of elderly prophet Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), while the baddies flock to Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), a denim-clad demonic cowboy. The novel finds Boulder residents rebuilding representative government. In Flagg’s Las Vegas, those who violate the malevolent dictator’s rules are literally crucified.
For fans of the book, one of the biggest changes between the novel and the limited series is apparent from the show’s first minutes. CBS’s The Stand opens in Boulder, with the plague already over and survivors clearing out the corpses of the dead in order to make the city safely habitable. The novel, on the other hand, starts at the beginning, with a mysterious new illness escaping a military laboratory and lots of ominous coughing. The series’ early episodes transform the tale into a non-linear odyssey, jumping back and forth in time between the action in Boulder, the early days of the virus’ spread, and survivors’ slow and painful cross-country journey to their new homes.
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“The panorama of the story is so enormous in the book,” says King. “And so by creating this non-linear structure that sticks with essentially a first-person point of view of the different characters, you’re able to narrow the scope a little tiny bit, and make it a little bit more manageable.”
The decision to begin the story in media res was made long before COVID-19, but it turned out to be a serendipitous one. It makes the pandemic less central to the tale, making post-plague Boulder the seat of the main action from the outset. If lengthy depictions of viral death and destruction are the last thing you want to see more of in 2020, don’t worry: while such scenes are definitely present in the show’s early installments, The Stand isn’t a nine-episode version of Contagion.
This isn’t the first time that The Stand has been turned into a miniseries, which also contributed to the decision to give the story a non-linear format. When it came to the story’s new structure, says King, “I think part of our thinking was that they did it linearly the first time.” His father’s novel was published in 1978, but an updated and expanded edition was released in 1990, taking the tale from an already sizable 823 pages to a mammoth 1,152 pages. In 1994, the story was adapted into an ABC miniseries written by Stephen King and starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, and Rob Lowe. For years, a new version was stuck in development hell before emerging at CBS All-Access under showrunner Benjamin Cavell and director Josh Boone.
King first read the story as a teenager, and instantly loved the work. (If you’re a Stephen King fan who hasn’t read all of the prolific author’s works, you’re not alone: Owen hasn’t made his way through all of his father’s novels yet, either. “I’m kind of a slow reader,” he says.) But as with any adaptation of a work this long, the writers had to make some tough cuts. One of King’s favorite sequences that didn’t make it to the screen tracked a web of infections, following the superflu’s transmission from a police officer who pulls over an insurance agent, giving him “more than a speeding summons,” to the diner eaters that the insurance agent infects, and on and on.
“That scene is so great,” says King. “And it sings for visual representation, right? You can imagine doing the cut, to cut, to cut, of the different people.”
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The ongoing pandemic isn’t the only real-world parallel present in the tale. With Skarsgård’s Flagg, the story finds its villain in a blonde-haired, populist authoritarian who thrives on cruelty, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of the still-current president. “One of the things about the Trump era is that it’s been like a song that never stops playing. It’s like this buzz in your ear that never goes away,” says King. “And so I think that it would be disingenuous to say that Trump and contemporary politics never entered into the conversation, because even if we weren’t thinking about it, we were thinking about it.”
Whatever parallels to the current president exist in the adaptation come straight from the novel, says King. Flagg “is selling an easier, simpler way of life that doesn’t exist, where there’s a big guy who makes all the choices, and is always right, and you can just have faith in him. You can just put aside all morality and say, ‘This guy is going to handle it.’”
Owen isn’t the only member of the King family who worked to bring The Stand to television—Stephen King wrote the season finale, giving the story a new and yet-to-be revealed ending. But not the first time the two have collaborated, as they co-wrote the 2017 novel Sleeping Beauties.
“What I loved about doing that book was that we got to be father and son at a different time in our lives. I mean, we’re always father and son—that never stops,” says King. But working with his father as an adult was “just a different moment than the other moments in my life when I was around my parents all the time.” After the novel, he didn’t plan to do “another Stephen King project” but, he says, “I felt like The Stand was so special I couldn’t skip out.”
“I’m positive he would say this,” King says of his father’s approach to adaptations. “You can’t go into it being like, ‘I’m not changing a thing,’ because it’s not possible. You wouldn’t even want to, because it’s from 1975. There’s no way to do it without being a little bit free with the story and thinking about how to update it. He wouldn’t want an overly strict adaptation of it.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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