One of Stephen King’s most enduring novels is The Stand, a book about humanity attempting to rebuild—or just go full-end times—after 99% of the population is wiped out by a virus. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest earlier this year, people immediately leapt to The Stand, so much so that King himself attempted to calm the waters:
No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. Itâ€™s not anywhere near as serious. Itâ€™s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.— Stephen King (@StephenKing) March 8, 2020
Now, however, King has changed his tune slightly. Vanity Fair has the first official look at a new limited series of The Stand, and in their profile King says, “When you hear reports that 100,000 or 240,000 people are going to die, you’ve got to take notice, and it is going to be bad. It’s bad right now. […] I mean, you see the pictures of Times Square or London, and you say, ‘It really is like The Stand.”
Although society has not completely broken down like it does in The Stand, there are eerie similarities, particularly that people fall mainly into two groups: those who choose hope and want to rebuild, and those who don’t care and are willing to watch the world burn (sort of like, those who want to be proactive about prevention and those who are fine with allowing thousands of preventable deaths). It is going to be VERY interesting to see how The Stand plays when it drops on CBS All Access later this year (no official date is set, but CBS remains optimistic they can get it out this year). King notes that the book is selling well right now, but how we digest the things we read is different from how we digest the things we see.
This is a prestige effort at The Stand, with an all-star cast headlined by Whoopi Goldberg, Alexander Skarsgard, and James Marsden (FINALLY, something worthy of Marsden’s time). The story kicks off when the “Captain Trips virus”, a man-made biological weapon, is unleashed on the world. The series will scramble the timeline, so we’ll be moving back and forth between post-virus decimated society and the pre- and early-virus lives of the characters. The Stand is one of two King novels I’ve read all the way through, and given the scope of the story and number of characters, mixing up the timeline seems unnecessary, but there has already been a previous adaptation of The Stand, back in 1994. It’s been long enough they don’t have to worry about cultural memory overlap, but sure, let’s make a complicated story even more complicated.
Also interjected into the story, because it’s Stephen King and there must be spookiness, are the supernatural characters of Randall Flagg (Skarsgard) and Mother Abigail (Goldberg, who finally gets a shot at a character she has long wanted to play). Flagg is a character that appears in many King stories, and Skarsgard’s take is a “rockabilly demon”, which I’m on board with. Mother Abigail, meanwhile, is a centenarian who survives the virus and becomes the figurehead for the “society is good, actually” crowd. The Stand is all about good versus evil, and how that plays out on every scale from the intimately personal to grand-scale cosmic God and Satan stuff.
Audiences have long bought into the nerdy stuff as mainstream entertainment, and King is enjoying a revival right now, so on paper The Stand should do well. But we’re in the middle of a real pandemic, we’re dealing with the kind of ground-level fallout King writes about, albeit on a smaller scale, and people are f-cking stressed and psychologically exhausted from months of this, with months more looming ahead. I can’t decide which impulse will win, to seek catharsis in a story of survival and rebuilding, or to avoid any entertainment that reminds us of The Challenges We Face Every Day. The Stand is excellent, and this looks like a top-notch adaptation—Skarsgard as Randall Flagg is especially good. But this is like the best-worst moment for The Stand to arrive, when it is both timely and relevant, but also just plain exhausting to think about. I just don’t know if people are going to be ready to watch nine episodes of post-virus world rebuilding when we’re still in the midst of it for real.