This month is the 40th Anniversary of Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic epic fantasy novel. Among Stephen King fans, this book stands with his other well known works – It, The Shining, Carrie, Misery, The Dark Tower, The Green Mile, 11/22/63 – The Stand is on a level equal or higher to any of these works. So, on this anniversary, let’s look back at this book and how far it has come: the book, the adaptation(s), and how this book is a uniquely American masterclass of genre fiction.
Plot, Characters, and Genre
The Stand tells the story of a world rocked by a deadly virus that was leaked from an American army compound. We get to know our wide ensemble of characters gradually, as talk of the disease – colloquially called Captain Trips or the superflu – becomes more frequent until a boiling point with the US Government violently censoring talk of the disease, culminating in a world where 99% of the population is dead. Those who survive are plagued with conflicting visions in their dreams. They have dreams of a kindly old Christian woman called Mother Abigail, who tells them that they must travel to Boulder, Colorado, where she is establishing a new society. It’s noted throughout this first section of the plot that the dreams are actually telepathic projections sent by Abigail, who is essentially a prophet of God.
Alternatively, they see images of the demonic “Dark Man,” Randall Flagg, a maybe-not-human entity who thrives on chaos and has supernatural powers. He wants to establish an evil civilization based in Las Vegas, and draws misfits and people who respond to authoritarian rule. So the first part of the book ends with all of the characters making their way towards either Las Vegas or Boulder – either drawn towards the light, or the darkness. All of this builds through a second act of building new societies, and a third act of the light and the darkness squaring off in a confrontation of biblical results.
The cast of characters is fascinating. Among my favorites are: Larry Underwood, a would-be rock-star who has a wonderfully-plotted character arc; Nick Andros, a deaf-mute character who is a nuanced portrayal of surviving in a dangerous world with a physical disability; and Nadiene Cross, a motherly teacher who battles a shadowy influence all throughout the book. And of course, I’d be remiss in not mentioning how fascinating both of the opposing characters, Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg, were in this book. The more you got to know them, the more surprises you found.
When people see Stephen King’s name on the cover, they tend to just assume that the book is a horror story, but really, it’s a lively hodge-podge of genres, but mostly focuses on fantasy and post-apocalypse, with certain elements of horror. But I think that it doesn’t much matter what genre you categorize The Stand in – it’s likely among that genre’s classics.
This book is choc full of things that I absolutely love, which is unsurprising in a book that is as long as War and Peace and Moby-Dick – at that length, there will be something for everyone. But for the rest of this section, I just want to touch on a few things that this novel does wonderfully:
(This next part has SPOILERS, until the picture of the original book cover.) One thing that about The Stand which I think deserves much more praise is the character of Harold Lauder and how he fits in with the nerdy “Nice Guy” trope. Harold is a nerdy, awkward, yet arrogant sixteen-year-old at the beginning of the book. In the first part, he finds himself in something of a love triangle with his older sister’s friend Fran and her crush Stu Redman, who is a bit of a handsome redneck/cowboy. As they make their journey across the country, Harold becomes more fit and confident while Stu and Fran fall deeper in love. Now, the typical story would make Harold the protagonist of this situation, and ultimately Fran would leave the tough-guy-Stu for nerdy-but-nice Harold. But The Stand knows something that is usually true for real life: if a guy (usually those rejected by a woman) explains that he’s a “Nice guy” and that it’s not fair that women don’t give him a chance, then he’s probably not actually a nice guy. As far as I’ve read, Harold is one of the best fictional representations of this. When Fran falls in love with Stu, Harold goes completely maniacal, allies himself with Flagg (who, let’s remember, is basically the devil), and attempts to kill the entire Boulder Free Zone Committee, including Fran, who he fell in love with. And the thing that makes it just a bit better is the fact that Harold doesn’t even make it to Vegas to pledge his loyalty to Flagg. Since Harold so eagerly betrayed the Boulder Free Zone, Flagg sees him as too treacherous to trust and has him killed. Wow. That’s poetic justice.
Speaking of poetic justice, the end of the book has a literal deus-ex-machina in which the “Hand of God” comes down and detonates the nuclear bomb that Flagg’s Las Vegas society wanted to use on Boulder. The nuke is bought by Trashcan Man, who was rejected and made fun of by the Las Vegas people, so the fact that their cruelty inadvertently causes their undoing is rather fitting. But also fitting is the use of “The Hand of God” – people who dislike this ending probably missed all the Christian allusions and Biblical stakes in the first 2/3 of the book, and talk of how the fate of humanity and the world was at stake. With all the mention of God throughout the book, the fact that he finally makes an appearance is possibly the only fitting payoff to this.
And since the first two things I touched on were rather serious, I want to touch on something that’s a little more lighthearted. The moment toward the end of the book where Stu and Tom are making their way back to Boulder, and Stu dresses up the place where they’re snowed in with Christmas decorations, and the two have a nice little Christmas celebration – it was so heartwarming that when I read it I cried. To go through everything that happens in the first thousand pages of the book, this is such a happy moment.
A few weeks ago I did a post about book cover design, and at the end of that post I included a few of my general favorites, which included the first edition cover of The Stand, designed by John Cayea.
About a month after I finished reading the book, I was talking with a friend who hadn’t yet read the book but was interested in it. “I love that cover,” he said, “It’s so strange. What’s even going on there?” I chuckled, because naturally, I had had a similar thought when I was reading the book. With a lot of amusement and some satisfaction, I told him, “It’s an awesome cover, but I hate to burst your bubble, that scene doesn’t happen in the book.” “Really?” He seemed surprised, when I explained that the scene on the cover is symbolic of the struggle of good and evil. And when I read through the book and realized that there was no such scene, I was just as disappointed. But then I realized that it doesn’t diminish just how wonderful the original cover is.
Compare this with the version of the book you’re more likely to find in book stores; this one (which is the one I read), which shows a highway with a bunch of dead bodies laying in the road. To be fair, this is more true to what happens in the book, but the original cover is more true to what the book is really about. And comparatively, I think that the hero-fighting-demon cover is just so much more exciting.
Intertextuality: America’s Lord of the Rings
In the 1970’s, Stephen King decided that he wanted to write an epic fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This produced two of King’s most iconic works: The Dark Tower – a wide and complex high-fantasy genre-hybrid series (that is related to The Stand) – and of course, The Stand, which he described as Lord of the Rings with a contemporary American setting. And the similarities are worth examining.
The Stand is one very long book divided into three several-hundred-page sections. The first in which the disease wipes out the population, the second in which two opposite societies begin to form, and the last section involving the confrontation between the heroes and villains.
J.R.R. Tolkien originally wanted to publish Lord of the Rings as one massively long book, but due to the cost of paper during the 1950’s had to be published as three separate volumes. The Stand kind of gives us a look at what Lord of the Rings would be like if it was published as one volume. (But alternatively, I think that Lord of the Rings is not what The Stand would look like if it was divided into three separate books.)
The plot – while obviously not exactly the same – is noticeably similar. Both stories involve a fellowship of heroes – sometimes together, sometimes separate – walking/riding great distances in an attempt to fight a war of good-versus-evil. Post-apocalypse Las Vegas makes a wonderfully dangerous and formidable stand-in for Mordor. The Boulder Free Zone Committee often feels like the Council of Elrond, deciding who ought to journey into the den of evil.
It’s said that Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings to create a national mythology for England, and I think in a similar way, The Stand is a uniquely American story. Characters traverse long distances (often going west, the most American direction) in an attempt to reform a democratic society (the first official thing this society does is ratify the Constitution) under the tutelage of a wise and almost magical old Christian woman who receives premonitions from God. The final climax of the story involves a group sent by the good guys into the base of operations of the evildoers who live, conveniently, in a city often referred to as “Sin City,” and (SPOILERS) the bad guys are punished for pursuing nuclear weapons and find themselves killed by “The hand of God.”
King remixes Tolkien’s story to make one that is relevant to contemporary American fears: disease, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, harmful government bureaucracy and secrecy, martial law, authoritarianism, capital punishment, and censorship, (not to mention the book even has time for a debate about abortion, a hot-button American issue of 1978 and now). This is all set against Tolkien’s backdrop of divine good versus absolute evil.
There’s a long and convoluted history as far as adaptations of The Stand are concerned. If you want to read all about it, go to Wikipedia, but here’s the TL;DR: there was a proposed feature film that sat in development hell for the entire 1980’s, and later a television miniseries (basically a six-hour movie) that aired in 1994, talks in the 2010’s for a two-movie series that seems to have gone nowhere, and King himself mentioning that the book might be made into a series on Showtime or (God help us) CBS All Access.
Looking back at the 1994 miniseries is interesting. Let me say this; the original TV Series of The Stand hasn’t aged well, as noted in this article by the AV Club. Most recent critics and audiences of The Stand miniseries praise Gary Sinise’s performance, but the modern response is largely negative.
The thing is, now is the perfect time for a Stand series (or movie, but preferably series). Stephen King’s work is going through a bit of a revival (pun intended) right now, with It, 11/22/63, Mr. Mercedes, and The Dark Tower all receiving recent adaptations in film or television – for better or worse. Not to mention Hulu’s Castle Rock, which adapts many of King’s short stories and hinges so heavily on his aesthetic, indicating just how successful the body of Stephen King’s work is and just how much it occupies the zeitgeist.
And obviously, Game of Thrones has paved the way for successful television based on epic fantasy. Picture this: each of the book’s three sections are divided into seasons of 10-13 hour-long seasons, a la Game of Thrones. This, I think, would give all of the characters enough screen time to grow and develop.
The stage seems so perfectly set that it almost surprises me that we haven’t heard any recent announcements about an adaptation. CBS and other networks are hesitant to go through with this, because it’s a bit of a gamble. But y’know what else was a gamble? Game of Thrones.
C’mon CBS, take a risk. Or should I say TAKE A STAND?
The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there… and still on your feet.
This post is already so much longer than I intended so let me end with this: if you haven’t read The Stand already, give it a chance.