‘The Stand’ Boss on New Relevance, Changes to Stephen King’s Story

Laveta Brigham

A limited series about a deadly virus that decimates the majority of the population may not seem like purely escapist entertainment during a year when a very real pandemic ravaged the globe, forcing production and other businesses to shut down and pushing events, such as Mipcom, online only. Yet, it […]

A limited series about a deadly virus that decimates the majority of the population may not seem like purely escapist entertainment during a year when a very real pandemic ravaged the globe, forcing production and other businesses to shut down and pushing events, such as Mipcom, online only.

Yet, it is the very combination of timely premise, immersive world and rich characters that make Benjamin Cavell’s nine-part adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand” wholly relevant.

“What better moment for a show that imagines that civilization torn down to the studs, forcing our characters to confront questions about the very foundations of government, what society owes the individual and vice versa, what we all as humans owe to one another [and] what we’re willing to sacrifice in terms of personal liberty in order to feel safe and protected?” says Cavell.

“The Stand” was first published as an 800-plus novel in 1978 and was later also released in an unabridged version that topped more than 1,150 pages. It follows a weaponized strain of influenza known as Captain Trips as it wreaks havoc, leaving only a few, rare immune individuals in its wake. These individuals have different levels of darkness within them and begin having dreams of Mother Abagail (played here by Whoopi Goldberg) and Randall Flagg aka the Dark Man (Alexander Skarsgård), gravitating toward one of them accordingly. They come together in groups to recreate society accordingly, with Mother Abagail representing the peaceful way and Flagg operating a violent dictatorship.

Set to premiere on CBS All Access Dec. 17, ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group is bringing “The Stand” to Mipcom to reach additional territories.

“When I came aboard this project in early 2018, I told [now head of programming at CBS All Access] Julie McNamara how eerily relevant I found this story even then — not, obviously, because I had any idea we’d be facing our own pandemic, but because I felt we were starting to question so many things we all grew up taking for granted about the structure of human civilization,” says Cavell.

“The Stand” has been adapted before — for a four-part limited series in the mid-1990s, for which King adapted his book himself. This time, though, there was a full writers’ room, which included King’s son, Owen King (who also serves as a producer on the project), with the elder King penning the finale episode.

More screen-time real estate for this version of the adaptation allowed certain elements from the novel that had been left out or condensed/combined in the previous limited series to be restored. This includes the characters of Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) and Joe (Gordon Cormier). In the novel, Rita is the wealthy New York woman who escapes New York with musician Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) in the novel, and Joe is the little boy Nadine (Amber Heard) “adopts” after finding him alone and traumatized. In the past series, Rita’s character was combined with Nadine’s, while Joe’s was left out of the story completely.

“The Stand” features a wide array of characters: other notable ones include James Marsden as leader Stu Redman; Owen Teague as the troubled Harold Lauder; Nat Wolff as former prisoner Lloyd Henreid; Odessa Young as Harold’s obsession Frannie Goldsmith; and Brad William Henke as Tom Cullen, who is differently-abled, intellectually. In order to offer insight into the pre-plague lives of these characters while still following them on a complex and somewhat supernatural present-day journey, Cavell says the non-linear storytelling method was a must.

This was “not because it made us immediately distinct from the book or the original miniseries — although that was a happy side-effect — but because I didn’t want to make an audience sit through three episodes of the world dying before we got to the meat of our story,” he explains. “For me, ‘The Stand’ has never been about a pandemic, but about the battle that follows between good and evil for the soul of what remains of humanity.”

Cavell says he is “very grateful” to King for giving his blessing to the changes made in this version of the story. Another key difference in this one, Cavell shares, is that they explicitly tied Flagg’s power to “the adulation of his followers.”

In the book, Cavell points out, “neither Flagg nor Mother Abagail really know the origin or the extent of their powers. It’s emblematic of the difference between them that Mother [Abagail] readily cops to this, whereas Flagg is always at great pains to appear to be on top of it all.” In this version, Cavell says, “we still don’t know who gave him his power, but we see that it rises and falls based on the strength of his acolytes’ faith in him. Flagg is terrifying not only because of the things that make him more than human, but also because of his quintessentially human thirst for power and his apparent willingness to do anything to gain and maintain it.”

Watching the corruption and abuse of power has been an especially heavy hot-button topic in the media — scripted and unscripted alike — in the last few years, across all territories. The relatability of that story is what Cavell says will set it apart — at Mipcom and beyond.

“Our story imagines the collapse of all national boundaries,” he says, so “we see people reduced to their basic humanity and see how different groups approach the task of rebuilding. That’s a pretty universal lens.”

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