The Stand Review: A Fresh and Faithful Adaptation of Stephen King's Iconic Novel

To call Stephen King's The Stand both epic and iconic is not hyperbole. From its release in 1978, the novel has frequently appeared on "best of" lists and impacted popular culture and beyond with its post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy tale of the collapse of human civilization and the battle between good and evil. It's also a substantial book, well over a thousand pages in its "complete and uncut" edition, making an adaptation a massive undertaking and, while it's been done before with ABC's 1994 miniseries, CBS All Access is approaching the novel again in its own, nine-part series event that kicks off on Thursday, December 17th. Despite this adaptation making some changes and shifts its approach in telling the story, it may just be the most spiritually faithful adaptation yet.

In broad strokes, The Stand tells the story of the survivors of a world in collapse. A weaponized strain of influenza (called "Captain Trips") is accidentally released from a secret U.S. Department of Defense lab in California and quickly decimates nearly the entirety of the human population. The few survivors who remain find themselves being drawn to either Mother Abigail, an elderly woman whom God speaks through or the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, a mysterious figure who pretty quickly feels like the representation of evil. The story is, at its core, less about the pandemic and more about that final stand of good versus evil in a battle for the very soul of humanity and is told through a large cast of characters, each one with a unique role to play.

With that broad and complex narrative to navigate, this adaptation -- developed by Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell -- takes the unique approach of telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, one that introduces viewers less to the pandemic itself and more to the characters, the hearts, and souls that the story is ultimately about. It's a move that may not sit well with some die-hard King fans, but it's one that injects a new life into the story. Starting with people, not with plague, immediately sets the series out on a much better foot and will hook audiences quickly.

The structural shift also sets the stage for some other changes. Even just from looking at the casting of The Stand, it's clear that there have been updates. The cast of characters is more diverse than ever before, something that organically looks and feels more like the world we live in, but the updates go beyond that. This version of the story more richly develops some of the key characters from the novel and even from the previous live-action adaptation. Frannie Goldsmith (played by Odessa Young), for example, is fleshed out in a more grounded and realistic way while Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke) is given more humanity than perhaps we've seen before. It helps that both Young and Henke deliver solid performances that feel less like archetypical characters and more like people we can easily identify from our own lives.

Going beyond the changes from page to screen, this take on The Stand being much more character-oriented is truly carried by some powerhouse performances. Young, in particular, delivers a rich and nuanced take on Frannie, one that allows the viewer to go on the journey with her. James Marsden had big shoes to fill in playing Stu Redman, given Gary Sinise's well-received take on the character in the 1994 adaptation, but he does an exceptional job at playing the quiet, genuinely good everyman who finds himself in many ways at the center of humanity's last stand. Henry Zaga's Nick Andros is heartbreakingly pure and Owen Teague will make your skin crawl as Harold Lauder. Katherine McNamara's Julie Lawry is also a surprising standout.

While Jamey Sheridan's Randall Flagg will probably remain the gold standard for many with his somewhat over-the-top 1994 performance, Alexander Skarsgard's sophisticated and artful version is a much more chilling and intriguing figure. He's unsettling more than he is charismatic and, while that loses something overall, it also brings a whole new and extremely fitting tone to the entire story. There is something about this version of Flagg that is almost more darkly seductive than he is even in King's written word -- particularly when the story shifts to New Vegas. It's impossible not to be drawn in.

That isn't to say that every performance in The Stand is perfect. Ezra Miller's Trashcan Man is almost too cartoonish and a little underdeveloped (at least in the episodes provided for review). Amber Heard's Nadine Cross is a performance that may take some time to fully settle with viewers; she captures the complexity of the character very well, but there are times when the performance feels uneven and some of the chemistry between her Nadine and Jovan Adepo's Larry Underwood is a bit lacking. There are also some spots in which the overall thrust of the story feels just a little bloated, despite the careful and skilled ways the novel's often-rambling prose has been trimmed but those are surprisingly few and far between in the series.

Like all adaptations, this one's not perfect and there will likely be plenty of viewers who will point to various changes or omissions as shortcomings of the overall project. That's to be expected, perhaps even more so with a story as beloved as The Stand. However, between smart updates, stellar performances, and incredibly well-thought-out cinematography, sets, truly chilling moments, and other fine details that tread into the space of spoilers, this version of The Stand comes across perhaps most true to King's book. The Stand has never been a pandemic story and this adaptation gets that right in the best ways possible. This is a story about humanity that happens to have a pandemic running through it and, as is the case with actual humanity, it's the little imperfections that make it so relatable, so admirable, and ultimately beautiful. Simply put, this adaptation gets it right.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

The Stand debuts on CBS All Access Thursday, December 17th.