Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Stand by Me

A review of a 1994 mini-series.

The Stand

Based on the novel by Stephen King; adapted by Stephen King; directed by Mick Garris. Starring: Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer, Jamey Sheridan, Laura San Giacomo, Ruby Dee, Corin Nemec, Matt Frewer, Ray Walston and Rob Lowe. 366 minutes; first broadcast May 1994

I watched this back in 1995. Obviously, I allowed it to be purged from my mind because it was that bad. Recently, my good buddy Phil decided to read the novel; a decidedly excellent tome about the end of the world as we know it and the ultimate battle between good and evil. The Stand might not be the best book ever written, but it is a rollicking good post-apocalyptic adventure novel. Therefore, you would think it would make a good TV mini-series... Once he'd read the book, he discovered there was a TV adaptation and asked me if I had it. I informed him that from memory, the TV series stunk to high heaven and he should keep well away; but he seemed determined to watch it. So, I downloaded it for him, burned it to a DVD and was about to delete the four parts from my hard drive when I became incapacitated with a slipped disc. This meant many weeks of doing nothing; so I opted to keep the files and watch it one day when I'd exhausted everything else available.

The biggest problem with the book and the subsequent extended version is that it is long. It weighs in at over 1000 pages and weaves a tapestry of characters that need to be believable if you're going to get the most out of the book. The book spends a lot of time delving into the complex humanity of its leading characters - what makes them tick, what drives them, what are their human frailties and these things are, essentially, why some of the characters veer to the side of good and others to the side of evil. For the uninitiated, this is important, as there are a number of characters in the book where you don't know if they'll go with good or evil. This was completely ignored in the adaptation.

My biggest criticism with The Stand - the novel - is that it starts well, has a great middle and a superb epilogue; it's just the ending that has always felt forced. The Stand isn't just a story about the end of the world, it's a tale about good versus evil - good is represented by Mother Abigail and her 'followers'. Abigail is a 106 year old woman who people predisposed towards good dream about after the plague has decimated 99.6% of humanity. Evil comes in the form of Randall Flagg - an enigmatic 'walking dude' or 'dark man' who takes advantage of the humanity's destruction to attract bad people. Flagg assembles a group of people in Las Vegas and runs anything but a benign dictatorship. Mother Abigail takes her people to Boulder, Colorado (which, thanks to a nuclear generator scare has been left largely deserted, even after the city is killed off by the flu). Both sides work to get the old ways back - power (as in energy), politics and order; but they all know that at some point there will be an ultimate battle - one between the old woman's people and Flagg's followers. However, that battle doesn't take the form that many expect and instead relies largely on the fact that God has set this up, so in the end it will be God that breaks it down. That was where I struggled to accept the ending of the book. As an atheist, I cannot get my head around the need for a God that needs sacrifice to appease him. If God did exist and that was his raison d'etre, then it makes me wonder why people would follow him/her blindly - which is essentially what happens to four of the book's leading characters.

To the uninitiated, the above probably sounds a bit crap; but King (who was still a young man when he wrote the book) manages to build an intelligent, thought-provoking and moving book; which is full of surprises, shocks and emotion. It is a sum of all its parts and it doesn't really work without all of these parts... And that brings us to the TV adaptation.

I've read a lot about this TV adaptation over the years; King's story about how it came about - it was originally going to be a George Romero project (oh, how I wish that had happened); how ABC gave King a budget of $28million dollars; how it broke ratings records when it was first aired; how King found his director and was pleased and how he decided that no one else could adapt his magnum opus - it had to be him. In fact, if you read the various accounts of how The Stand came about, you almost expect to witness this totally brilliant piece of US television history. Instead you get, quite possibly, one of the worst examples of television I've ever seen.

It really is one of those things where it's difficult to find a point to start. Almost from the opening scene you realise that something is really wrong with it; like a production of something well known by an amateur dramatics group with no actors. Literally, from the opening scene where Campion, the army guy responsible for spreading the super flu, decides to high tale it out of the top secret base that has just had a rather serious accident; you're left wondering who got the job of casting this atrocity. But that wasn't just it; never in the book is it suggested that Randall Flagg was responsible for the release of the superflu known as Captain trips; it just made it clear that he took advantage of it, like he had taken advantage of other momentous occasions in world history. Yet, in the TV adaptation, you are immediately shown a crow, a recurring motif throughout the show signifying Flagg.

From Campion's escape from the army base, because of a malfunctioning gate (not in the book) to his subsequent arrival in Arnette, East Texas - where in the book everything begins to happen - you get the impression that this is going to have to be an abridged version of the book, despite the lengthy 366 minutes devoted to it. However, it isn't until much later in the show that you realise that King hasn't actually done any abridging at all; he's just mixed his pack up and dealt a slightly different hand, choosing to omit characters and replace them with other characters also from the book, but maybe not scheduled to appear as early as they do. But before we get into that, there's something else we need to look at.

The book focuses on a bunch of characters specifically; these are Stu Redman - an ex-serviceman, decent guy who just happens not to have a job (from the aforementioned Arnette). Frannie Goldsmith - a co-ed who has just discovered she is pregnant by her largely idiotic boyfriend. Larry Underwood - a nomadic, drug liking waste of space who has finally made it big as a singer and is on the verge of becoming a star, but can't escape the fact that he is actually a walking fuck-up and Nick Andros, a deaf mute wanderer who despite his handicap is a clever, self-effacing young man, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. There are other large characters in this book, but these four are the quartet that the book follows. The TV show largely follows the book in that these are the main characters. However, with the possible exception of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, everything about the other three is just wrong. Wrong people chosen to play them and wrong reasons for their involvement.

Stu Redman's story is simple. He is, like Andros, in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up becoming a guest of the US government, because unlike everyone else, doesn't appear to be affected by the super flu. His character isn't complex - he's where he is because fate has put him there. His character in the TV show is almost identical to the book, without some of the background. The same could also be said about Nick Andros; his story is very abridged, but largely the character in the TV series is the same as he is in the book; except casting Rob Lowe as a deaf mute was possibly the least inspired thing I've ever seen. Arguably, he would have made a much better Larry Underwood (as was originally intended). It is the Larry character that is, as the US military say, FUBAR. A guy called Adam Storke plays him and while Storke has the acting acumen of a house brick, he wasn't really given much to work on. King, in adapting his own book, seemed to think that he could strip out Underwood's entire raison d'etre and still leave a believable character. In the book, Larry isn't a nice guy - he's your will he or won't he character. He goes through a series of personal tragedies and skirmishes and comes out the other end a changed man - this doesn't happen in the TV show. In this he's just as shallow, but instead of coming across as a man in crisis with his life, he just comes across as a petulant wanker. And finally, there's Molly Ringwald's Fran Goldsmith. If Larry Underwood's book persona had been dismantled and reassembled as a photofit version, then Fran's was wiped out and completely started again. Yes, she did things that were the same as the book, but so much of her back story was just completely rewritten that by the time you get half way through the first part of the show you're seriously wondering why King was allowed to go within 100 feet of his own work. Plus, she was played by Molly Ringwald. Ringwald was 26 when she made The Stand and she had already left her best work well behind her. Essentially, she was good as a teenager working for John Hughes; she attempts to recreate this persona in The Stand and fails miserably; also her story has been condensed so much, there is no mention of her being pregnant until the 3rd part of the mini-series; this, of course, was her main driving point in the book. Fortunately, the director seemed inclined to relegate Fran to almost a minor character role by the time the series got into its stride.

There was also the apparent need to omit characters from the series and replace them with existing characters. For instance, Nadine Cross, who ends up as Randall Flagg's bride doesn't show up until half way through the book, but replaces the doomed Rita Blakemore as Larry's companion out of New York at the start of the story. Harold Lauder, a spotty 16 year old nerd and brother of Fran's best friend in the book has his character changed so much he becomes a different character entirely and much of his story is ignored, especially the strange but distant bond he formed with Larry - an essential part of both characters' developments. Various other characters were just forgotten about or merged making anyone familiar with the story wonder what the hell was going on. This is what I meant about the adaptation feeling abridged, yet in the end isn't. There are a lot of omissions, as you would expect from such a long novel; but the longer it goes on the more you wonder why King omits important things in favour of superfluous bits.

The TV series is atrociously acted; as I said it feels like an AmDram production; it has no soul; none of the actors act like they believe what they're doing. It really does feel like they're all reading from the same dreadful script - which of course, they are. Plus there are glaring continuity errors: Judge Farris dies considerably later in the TV series than he does in the book. He was one of 3 spies sent from Boulder to find out what Flagg was doing and appears to be the first to leave; yet he is killed over two weeks later and still many miles from Las Vegas, while one of the other spies is already doing his job at the US Air Force base that Flagg is rebuilding. Also, the US is strewn with dead and decomposing bodies, yet in the space of one main street there are mummified corpses and bodies that look as though they have literally just stopped breathing. Some characters in the book have been placed in different groups of survivors in the series, which makes later interaction seem a bit odd. There are also some glaring non-story continuity errors: during a funeral scene, allegedly taking place in July, the trees have no leaves on them and it looks more like November; then later, during the very abridged epilogue, on what appears to be November 2nd, it actually looks more like July. There is also a scene in which Tom Cullen, one of the spies from Boulder leaves Las Vegas to return home; he leaves when the moon is full, yet over a week later, he looks up at the moon and its still totally full. You would think that the continuity editor would have been doing his job right.

I've mentioned the acting is bad, but even the dog supplied to play Kojak is dreadful; he is obviously more interested in his wrangler than he was in playing his role and on a number of occasions could be seen looking elsewhere or just not being aware that he was supposed to be a dog. In the book, when Stu stumbles across the dog and his new keeper, Glen Bateman; the dog goes crazy, barking and jumping up and down. In the TV show, the dog is totally unaware of a new presence and is actually looking in another direction. A simple thing, but also totally hilarious - which is what this TV series needed, some intentional humour, because the only laughs you get are from wondering how all these people managed to keep straight faces in the face of such a dreadful script and atrocious direction. I've used the word 'atrocious' a lot - not nearly as much as I would want.

As I said, the series cost a reported $28million dollars to make, yet you wonder, seriously wonder, how they spent all that money. Even the special effects make 1970s Dr Who episodes look state of the art. There is a scene where an oil refinery blows up and it looks exactly like it is, a series of small explosions set in front of a oil tanker, with use of camera perspective to give the impression wanted. Jamey Sheridan's Randall Flagg is bad enough without some of the worst special effects imaginable for his transformation into a devil like creature. In fact, the use of the word 'special' is an insult. It is also very difficult to be scared of an actor who looks like he's trying to be a redneck Billy Connelly...

Other notable things that happen include, the introduction of a character called Ratman, for which it seems no good reason at all; the actor who plays Ralph Brentner is a shoe in for the golfer Colin Montgomery's life story. There is also the appearance of a number of famous film directors such as Sam Raimi and John Landis - both capable of making superb horror films, who would have made a far better fist of this abomination than Garris; who later went on to make other King adaptations - badly. W.G. Snuffy Walden's music is probably the best thing about it and even that is a pale Ry Cooder impression.

I warned my mate Phil that this series was bad and that was before sitting through it a second time. 15 years later, I think it is possibly one of the worst pieces of junk that has ever been released by US television. It is worse than dreadful and it amazes me that it was nominated for several awards and actually won 3 of them. According to Wikipedia, it won the best casting award, which beggars belief; it won a best make up award, for which I can almost understand - the dead bodies at times were the most convincing thing about the series. It also won an award for the best sound mixing, which, I think you'll agree is scraping the bottom of award barrels somewhat. The series tends to get outings every few years on SyFy, normally in the afternoon. If its on watch Murder, She Wrote or something with Dick Van Dyke in it.

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