Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book to Movie: The Stand (1994)

The Stand
Miniseries made for television
Original air date: May 8, 1994

In the early and mid 90s, mini-series based on Stephen King works became an industry for ABC television. Between 1990 and 1995, ABC cranked out mini-series based on IT, Sometimes They Come Back, Golden Years, The Tommyknockers, The Stand, and The Langoliers. Some were good and some inferior.

In 1994, ABC aired The Stand in a four part mini-series over four nights. This would be an easy book to make into a very bad movie. Hollywood could have taken the barest elements of the story and dressed it up in special effects and makeup, as they were wont to do even in an era before computer generated effects. Instead, they did a good job of casting, used a script that held true to the novel, cast it well, and turned out a decent small screen version of King’s apocalyptic novel.

The screenplay eliminates none of the story’s elements. It only abbreviates them much as King’s editors abbreviated them from his original manuscript. Gone in the screenplay is the Trash Can Man’s trip across the desert and his encounter with The Kid. Gone is Nick and Tom Cullen’s encounter with the tornado and gone is the tragic character of Rita who would die after leaving New York City with Larry Underwood. Her pill popping vice and neurotic behavior is transferred into Nadine in a character amalgamation that is about 90 percent Nadine and ten percent Rita.

It is the introspection that develops each character so well in the novel as they march across the landscape of ruined America in search of a purpose in the immediate aftermath of the superflu. That introspection is not in the movie. Trash Can Man’s tortured walking day dreams are still there, but are tacked on and, unless you have read the novel, don’t make much sense. The dreams of Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail serve to set the tone of morality in the novel. On screen, it’s impossible to develop the dreams into anything tangible. Such are the shortcomings of celluloid.

All of the story’s best scenes are incorporated in the show and none of them are botched. Larry’s slow, ponderous crawl through the Lincoln Tunnel is well written and well shot, but still falls far short of the reading experience. This scene demonstrates best how film often comes up so short when interpreting Stephen King material. It is not what Larry sees in the tunnel that is terrifying. It is not what happens to him. It is what he thinks he sees and what he thinks is going to happen to him. An interior dialogue tacked on to the scene would have made it foolish. There was no way for Mick Garris to pull this off, but we can give him credit for knowing it and not making it worse by trying to make it better.

Although not nearly as dramatic as Larry’s escape through the Lincoln Tunnel, Stuart Redman’s escape from the Stovington Center for Disease Control is another riveting scene in the book. This transfers much better to film. Knowing the jig is up, Stuart overpowers the man sent to kill him. He encounters dozens of dead medical and administrative personnel in the hallways after being locked up for a month. As he searches frantically for an exit, on the brink of panic, he is accosted by the demented and nearly dead. Director Mick Garris deserves kudos for the pacing of this scene which accurately depicts the panic. The viewer almost holds his breath as Redman, played by Gary Sinise, makes his last dash toward the exit to find the ghost town formerly known as Stovington.

Garris relied very little on animated or computer generated special effects. Only at the end, as the two remaining heroes make their stand, do special effects come into play. Garris does the best job possible in bringing to film the hand of God as a special effect, but if falls far short of the novel as King describes death by fire as prophesized in Revelations.

Garris enlisted a few top notch actors and a capable list of unknowns to bring the script to life. Gary Sinise is perfect as the east Texas factory worker, Stuart Redman. Sinise was at the top of his game as an actor then – fresh off of his performance in Forrest Gump and preparing to make Apollo 13. Sinise’s average looks, slow speech, and unpretentious bearing are very close the character I envisioned as Stuart Redman.

As I read the novel, I never envisioned Frannie Goldsmith anything like Molly Ringwald. This is a role that is truly miscast. Although she was 26 at the time, that adolescent whining she did so well in the 1980s is pervasive in a character who is supposed to be more mature. Frances Goldsmith, in the novel was anything but whining. She was not brash or demonstrative, but she was stubborn, decisive, and insightful. The character portrayed by Ringwald is a whining observer of others. Ringwald does a marginal job of acting with a marginally written character.

Rob Lowe -- like Ringwald, a brat packer of the 1980s -- is cast as Nick Andros. Playing a deaf mute, Lowe obviously has to work hard to develop the Andros character on film without any dialogue. His performance might be the strongest of the cast. Lowe is a little older than the Nick Andros of the novel, but aptly conveys the cynicism combined with innate goodness that King authored.

Bill Faggerbake, known best to children as the voice of Patrick Star on Spongebob Squarepants and to adults as Dauber Daubinski, was born to play Tom Cullen. His huge stature, combined with his innocent, boyish facial features and mop of blond hair give him the tools to play a mentally challenged character. His baritone voice, ability to portray juvenile characters, and strong direction help Faggerbakke develop Tom Cullen as fully on television as he was developed in the novel.

True to his character, King did not gift Cullen with great insight into his own character or nature. He thought simply, acted simply, and reacted to events around him. Tom Cullen is not developed through introspection, but through deeds. Garris stays true to this and serves the story well.

Adam Storke portrays Larry Underwood – the narcissistic and self loathing rock star. King once wrote that he’d like to see Bruce Springsteen cast as Larry Underwood. Alas, The Boss is too old and is a rock and roll icon. It would be impossible to imagine him as a would be rocker who sold out to pop to make some easy cash. Storke’s body of work in Hollywood is limited to just a few roles – none of which I’ve ever seen. He is well cast here and carries off Larry Underwood’s dramatic character arc seamlessly.

Randall Flagg had to have been the most difficult character to cast. Flagg is beguiling, charming, and affectionate while his nature is evil, cruel, and antagonistic. He is portrayed by Jamey Sheridan. Sheridan has an impressive television resume and is best known as portraying Captain James Deakins on NBC’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Far from looking like a cop, Sheridan has the countenance of an graying 60s radical. His long, stringy hair and faded denim jacket are exactly what is depicted by King. Sheridan is charming enough when Flagg must charm. However, his rage is usually depicted through animation and makeup – and not particularly well. Sheridan did the best he could while producers and graphic artists fudged the rest.

Occasionally, a director will find a way to improve upon what is in the novel and make it work on television or the big screen. This was certainly the case with Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining. The novel is ranks among the finest of King’s work and it probably could not be improved upon as a book. Kubrick worked his magic and took scenes that just wouldn’t work on the big screen and rewrote them for his medium, making a better movie than a straight retelling of the book.

Garris, unfortunately, doesn’t go that direction. His is a straight, although abridged, rendering of the King text. Perhaps a little more imagination on Garris’ part would have made the stand in Las Vegas more meaningful. Admittedly, the hand of God is hard to top. But if you can’t pull it off on screen with the majesty it deserves near the end of an 1100 page novel or eight hour made for television miniseries, find another way to do it.

The miniseries is The Stand in a vacuum. We are given no insight into Flagg’s link to the master of the Dark Tower or the evil wrought by him in other worlds.

While it will never rank among the best or most important of King works on screen, it is better than most of his work that was made for television.

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