Is Stephen King's The Stand Too Long?

Welcome back to Drunk on Writing, and the eighth episode of the Stephen King Dissection series. Today, we’re going in-depth into one of King’s most beloved novels, The Stand, as well its two adaptations: the 1994 ABC TV mini-series, and the more recent Marvel Comics series.

Feel like watching the video instead? Check it out:

The Plot

Every version of The Stand we’re talking about today—the book, the TV show and the comic —is broken into different acts.

The book has three: Captain Trips, On the Border and The Stand.

The TV show has four: The Plague, The Dreams, The Betrayal and The Stand.

And the comic has six: Captain Trips, American Nightmares, Soul Survivors, Hardcases, No Man’s Land and The Night Has Come.

Despite breaking the narrative a little differently, each version basically tells the same overall tale, with just a few unique differences. Which makes sense, given Stephen King had a hand in each of them—he wrote the show’s teleplay, and served as Creative and Executive Director for the comic.

Plus, why fix something that ain’t broke?

The general premise was previously touched on in the short story, “Night Surf,” which we talked about as part of the Night Shift collection a few videos back.

Basically, a deadly flu-like disease with 99.4% communicability accidentally gets released from a top-secret research base out in California, and like a horrible chain-letter gets passed from one person to the next until the whole of the United States is seemingly stricken with it, including all of man’s best friends, too—most notably in this story, the poor dogs.

And then dumbass secret agents proceed to infect the world-at-large, including Russia and China. Because it can’t look like the US violated the Geneva Convention, god forbid.

Chaos ensues, of course. People are mowed down in panics across the nation. Information is hushed. People die in hospitals, in their beds, they’re dumped by the thousands into the seas—all the while waiting, hoping to get better, to get a cure.

But there is no cure—two hundred and eighteen million or so die just in the US. This is the flu to end all flus, and it’s nicknamed everything from A-prime to choking sickness to superflu to tube neck, though it’s Captain Trips that obviously prevails.

There’s no explanation within the book or its adaptations about where that came from, though it was a nickname for Jerry Garcia, who apparently had a penchant from dropping LSD into people’s drinks. So maybe the flu’s called Captain Trips because it boils people’s brains so badly they hallucinate? Maybe.

Though I like reddit user theshallowdrowned’s explanation more. He or she suggested: I've always assumed it is a direct reference to Jerry Garcia, because the superflu would make you Grateful to be Dead.

Love that.

But this story isn’t called Superflu or Captain Trips. It’s called The Stand. Because the bulk of the tale is about what happens after the deaths, both flu and non-flu—poor, poor Mark and his danged appendix—and about everything after all the destruction and mayhem. Particularly the journey of our core cast of characters—a journey at least in part inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which’re referenced several times.

The Stand is characters surviving, coming together, attempting to reestablish civilization, a better civilization if possible, one based on the best things they remember, and making their stand against evil. Which, in this story, is personified by a Freddy Krueger-like being that haunts their dreams—one Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude. Described by King in the book as:

...a tall man of no age in faded, pegged jeans and a denim jacket.” Who has “...the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth, a face to make waterglasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees.

I also like this little piece of description:

He was a clot looking for a place to happen, a splinter of bone hunting a soft organ to puncture, a lonely lunatic cell looking for a mate….

And in the TV adaptation, where he’s played by Jamey Sheridan, he’s basically evil Jay Leno.

Quick aside about Flagg: this is his first true appearance, though he may have been hinted in the earlier books, but he’d go on to be in several future Stephen King books, most notably the Dark Tower series. But we’ll get to all those another day.

Now, aside from Flagg and his as-opposite-as-can-be counterpart Mother Abigail, the personification of good, who lives in a shack complete with an outhouse in the middle of a cornfield, who’s own face is “seamed with a million wrinkles like the map of a state where the geography hasn't settled” because she’s billed as the oldest woman in America, we have a fairly small core cast: Stu, Larry, Frannie and Nick, and you could probably count Glen, Ralph and Tom Cullen in there as well, with Harold, Lloyd, Nadine and Trashcan Man on the other side.

Frannie is the sort of tough-as-nails but oh so lovable gal everyone’s probably run into at one point or another, while Larry is the kind of narcissistic, talented, womanizing asshole you wish you could love but can’t help but hate for squandering their lucky break—he’s a taker, and he ain’t no nice guy—and Stu is exactly who I wish I could say I was in tough situations. He’s the Rick Grimes of the group, except Stu’s a little less prone to monologuing.

And I guess you can sort of say the same about Nick, the deaf mute. The heart of the group. Who gets unfortunately blown to smithereens by destiny-embracing Harold and horribly manipulated Nadine in a bit of a not-so-surprising betrayal. But they both get their comeuppance—though Harold’s feels a wee too anticlimactic to me, especially given he almost reforms at the last minute, but perhaps the way he’s quickly thrown aside is the whole point—and, as anyone who’s read or seen The Stand knows, Nick wouldn’t be the only one who gets to meet his maker after coming face-to-face with a bomb.

Because, in the end, after we’ve reestablished the “good” world in Boulder and the “bad” world in Las Vegas, after dozens of chapters of character growth, introspection, development—so much that the character descriptions I just gave are utterly worthless by the book’s end. I wish I could delve into it all further but I’d need a whole series just for that, believe me.

Where was I? Oh, after all that, and after sending spies that inevitably serve no purpose, and after four of our leading men get seemingly sent to their deaths to “make their stand,” though one returns, the problem is solved with a gift from the Trashman himself—what a sad tale he has, huh?

But yeah, that gift? A nuclear warhead.

Detonated by the hand of God.

God, by the way, is a genuine presence in this story, moving the characters like pawns across a chess board. And, honestly, he’s a real dick. This isn’t lovey dovey New Testament God. This is wrathful, vengeful, killer Old Testament God. And though he speaks through Mother Abigail, this lovable old woman who sits in her rocking chair and plays her guitar, there’s more than a few hints God’s the reason Captain Trips broke loose. Because who needs a flood when the US Army has a superflu?

At least he spared Stu and Kojak at the end. I guess?

Though it’s also worth asking, did any of this “stand” really matter? The very end of the uncut story shows Flagg is reborn. Evil is reborn, despite the best efforts, despite the sacrifices. So why do all this? As noted repeatedly throughout the book, all the stuff that brought humanity to the point of dirty rivers, the hole in the ozone layer, the pollution—it’s still out there, ready to be picked up and reused. And even in our “good” world of Boulder, as recapped in the denouement, people are already reverting to the world as-it-was less than a year after Captain Trips made its mark.

So what did all this really accomplish?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. There’s one passage between Nick and Mother Abigail that I think really showcases the end, and what it means for the overall story. It’s one of the dreams Nick has early on, and in it, he asks Mother Abigail, “How do I get out of this?” And she answers, “God bless you, boy, but no one ever does.

The Book

King delves into the origins of The Stand in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre—which I don’t plan on going into as part of this series, though it’s worth a read. In that book, he notes a number of inspirations, including the Patty Hearst case—she was kidnapped, raped, and basically brainwashed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, which she joined—George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides, a story—shockingly!—about a plague wiping out the majority of the human race, and, as I hinted earlier, The Lord of the Rings.

“Only instead of a hobbit,” King wrote, “my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor ('where the shadows lie,' according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas.”

Now, there are three versions of The Stand, the novel, to date:

The original hardcover version, published in 1978, with the story set in 1980. The first paperback version, published in 1980, with the story set in 1985. And the complete and uncut edition, published in 1990, with the story set that year.

That last version—which is the one you’d be buying if you went to the bookstore today—fixed a few errors, adjusted some cultural references (including another nod to Vietnam, which I talked at length about in the last video) and, most importantly, restored a bunch of text cut from the previous iterations. As King explains in the preface:

This version of The Stand is an expansion of the original novel…. Approximately four hundred pages of manuscript were deleted from the final draft. The reason was not an editorial one…. The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department.

In essence, the production costs and the cover price required to sell King’s original version of The Stand at a profit would’ve been too high for the market at the time. Which I think you can understand given this was only his fourth novel—not including Rage, which was released under the Richard Bachman pseudonym—and the previous ones were each considerably shorter.

King was offered the choice to do his own cuts, or let Doubleday’s editorial department handle it. King wisely, I’d say, chose to do “the surgery” himself. I’m fairly certain I would, too. And that cut version is what hit shelves back in 1978.

Fast forward 12 years, though, and King had become a household name, the market had changed quite a bit, and, frankly, even now, people want as much King as they can get. So King put together this “complete and uncut” edition. Which isn’t entirely complete and uncut. As King again mentions in the preface:

I haven’t restored all four hundred of the missing pages; there is a difference between doing it up right and just being downright vulgar. Some of what was left on the cutting room floor when I turned in the truncated version deserved to be left there, and there it remains.

So what was restored then?
  • The prologue
  • Larry taking money from his mother
  • Frannie’s confrontation with her mother, which is a particularly good one, I’d say
  • The chapter where Randall Flagg gets a car
  • Nick’s fight with Ray Booth where he gets his eye gouged, which was explained away with a car accident in the original. He had also replaced the restored “zoo” chapter with another car accident.
  • More background for Trashcan Man, including the somewhat controversial section involving The Kid (who was changed to an old man who has a heart attack in the original)
  • Nadine’s scene where she plays with the planchette
  • More details about Abigail Freemantle’s origins
  • Several of my favorite sections and chapters, including more from the military’s perspective, more details about how the plague affects people across the country, and the “No great loss” chapter, which focused on people who survived Captain Trips but died in other ways
  • Some of the extra details during Tom and Stu’s travelling time, including when they watched a movie
  • And the epilogue

There were also 13 or so illustrations by Bernie Wrightson, co-creator of Swamp Thing, thrown in for good measure.

This version, the complete and uncut version, is what I read for this Dissection. But, and I’m shocked I’m about to say this, I think maybe I should’ve read the Cut version. Because, to be frank, I think the book dragged far too long.

Hear me out here.

Like I said earlier, the book has three acts: Captain Trips, On the Border and The Stand. Captain Trips, which focuses on the plague, and The Stand, which sees our ragtag team of heroes confront the bad guy, the Walkin Dude—for the most part, except for the overlong denouement, they flew by. They were captivating.

But that middle section, On the Border? Not so much. For one, its chapter structure is wildly different than the others: the chapters are longer, and they follow just one person or just one group at a time. And when it was something like the Boulder Free Committee getting together to talk about how to get Boulder running again—well, frankly, it was a chore to get through.

And it doesn’t help that On the Border is the longest section by far, and also happens to have had the most restored in this final edition, where it’s 527 pages long! That’s almost half the entire book. And outside of a few parts mostly at the end, nothing much seems to happen in this section.

Actually, no, that’s not quite right. A lot happens. But most of it is talking heads. Character interactions. Character growth. Character introspection. This book is a master class in character development. Larry Underwood’s in particular is one of the most fulfilling character arcs I’ve ever read. But that doesn’t make this a particularly entertaining read, especially when so little of what I’m reading fails to move the plot forward in any meaningful way.

The adaptations, which we’ll talk more about in a few minutes, both heavily truncate this section. They concentrate on the first and last parts instead. Though that doesn’t make them perfect. Characterization is lost in that. Motivations are lost in that.

As is the somewhat overt connection to The Shining, what with Mother Abigail saying, “Prophecy is the gift of God and everyone has a smidge of it. My own grandmother used to call it the shining lamp of God, sometimes just the shine.

I think it’s implied everyone that’s survived has a touch of the shine and, honestly, this bit of The Stand sets the story in my mind as a direct sequel to The Shining, albeit one without any of the original characters and somewhat apart from the original setting, though it does bring everyone to Boulder, and that whole area was mentioned in the earlier novel as being a nexus of some sort.

Speaking of The Shining, you know, like that one, many rank The Stand as one of their favorite King novels. And while I agree it’s great, I can’t quite say it’s the best of the bunch. There’s just too much that feels like padding in here. Too many sections where it doesn’t so much feel like the characters are taking a stand, but rather King taking one against modern technological conveniences, against living the high life, against what has come of so-called life in these sometimes trying times.

I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure what Dick Ellis saying, “Maybe the old ways are best.” Or Larry wondering at just how “clean and fresh” the air smells even after all that death. Or Mother Abigail thinking “one hell of a lot of a person’s life” comes out of electrical outlets, which you don’t really think much of until they don’t work—it doesn’t take much to see what all that means to King’s theme at large.

But, even with all that sometimes just being groan-worthy, there are some absolutely amazing parts of this book, don’t get me wrong. Particularly those stand-alone chapters focusing on the plague-at-large and the Lincoln tunnel bit. Honestly, I read this book years back for the first time and only recently went through the Lincoln Tunnel for the first time… and Larry’s journey was all I could about as I drove through.

That was some truly powerful, horrifying writing. So while I think The Stand as a whole is far from perfect, there’s not a whole lot else I’ve read that’s stuck with me the way some of this has.

But I’m not sure I can say the same about the adaptations.

The Adaptations

Like I said at the front, there’ve been two adaptations of The Stand to date worth talking about: the 1994 ABC mini-series directed by Mick Garris with a teleplay by Stephen King, and the Marvel Comics series released from 2008 to 2012 written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with art by Mike Perkins and Laura Martin.

The mini-series won two Primetime Emmys, one for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Makeup for a Miniseries or a Special, and another for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Drama Miniseries or a Special. It was nominated for a few other awards as well, including another Primetime Emmy nod for Outstanding Miniseries and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries for Gary Sinise.

Oh, and Lynn Kressel, Casting Director for the film, won a Casting Society of America award for Best Casting for TV Miniseries. Which is absolutely deserved, because, including Gary Sinise, who’d win us all over later that summer as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, The Stand has one hell of a cast.

To name a few others, we have:
  • Molly Rinwald as Frannie Goldsmith—whose portrayal isn’t entirely in-keeping with the book, but she brings a good, recognizable name to the project
  • Laura San Giacomo as Nadine—you might recognize her from Just Shoot Me!, and also as an absolute inspiration for Game of Throne’s Khaleesi
  • Ossie Davis as Judge Farris
  • Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid —but you might recognize him from Iron Man 3
  • One of the more inspired choices, Matt Frewer, aka Max Headroom, as Trashcan Man
  • Ray Walston, or as I know him, Boothby, playing Boothby—err, Glen Bateman
  • Rob Lowe as Nick Andros
  • And Bill Fagerbakke stealing the show as Tom Cullen—he was pretty much born to play this role, and has one of the most sadly poignant lines when he says something like, “I wish I wasn’t retarded.” It’s just… ugh, heartbreaking.

There were also some wonderful cameos from:
  • The perfectly cast Ed Harris as General Starkey
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Monster Shouter
  • Kathy Bates surprising as Rae Flowers
  • Sam Raimi as Bobby Terry
  • Ken Jenkins as Peter Goldsmith
  • John Landis as Russ Dorr
  • Jeff Goldblum—yes, the Grandmaster himself—as a Radio Announcer
  • And Stephen King doing his best Alfred Hitchcock to play a surprisingly extended role as Teddy Weizak

So, yeah, one hell of a cast. The series itself, though? Eh. It’s not bad, and in a lot of ways it’s pretty good, but it’s certainly a product of its time—complete with cheesy music, poor CGI—particularly around Flagg, who melts into his devil form far too often. Oh, and there’s definitely some questionable fashion sense, including Harold’s amazing gimp suit of a motorcycle outfit.

But right off the bat, The Stand has some great scenes, like it’s opening credits, which play over panning shots of dead scientists and Blue Oyster Cult’s "(Don't Fear) The Reapter." Which can never have too much cowbell. Or a fake flu commercial used to stem the panic.

And going further into the series, we also get, going back to Stu being so like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes, him escaping the CDC, which is a straight-up template for The Walking Dead’s first episode. Oh, and let’s not forget Larry’s run through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or Nick holding Tom’s chest during the National Anthem.

There’s a lot of great scenes. But there probably could’ve been even more, because the mini-series is actually based on the cut version of the novel. Which is fine, given you can only do so much—even with six hours of film, though it does lead to some asides and references that seemingly make no sense, and the weight of certain things like the spies, the betrayal and pretty much every romance—they all seem lacking. Oh, and there’s seemingly no indication of any passage of time other than captions and a random pop-up beard for Larry late in the game. I mean, Harold doesn’t even start out fat. I suppose there’s only so much you can do with actors when you’re on a TV budget.

There’s been talk of doing a new film or TV show version of The Stand, ranging from it being just one 3 hour film to an eight part miniseries, so it’ll be interesting to see how the story’s handled today.

But the comic, it doesn’t need to worry about time or actor constraints. So it adapts the uncut version of the book. Except, to keep things flowing and prevent needing some 500 issues, certain things are still skipped, while other parts are heavily truncated.

For the most part, that works really well for the comic, especially the way the slogs of Book 2 are handled. But it leaves us with a few inconsistencies, like Dr. Soames missing his intro but acting as though we’ve already met him later on, or Kojak’s big return even though we were never told he was left behind. Things like that.

All those little nidlings though, they don’t mean much in light of the comics’ strengths. Aside from its brevity and quick pace, it’s easy to follow—and probably was even easier in floppy form, with the ads breaking up the chapters a bit better than in the collected editions—and improves on a few scenes, notably the Harold/Nadine bomb building scene and the Kid who, maybe because he’s such a comic book character in himself or, perhaps, because a certain violent rape is a bit glossed over, is vastly superior to his portrayal in the book.

What might help it most is we’re able to exploring the scenes through sometimes not-so-conventional art—and even the more conventional bits can be more expressive than the other versions, especially the TV show could. Like Appendix Mark, who in the comic looks like an alien jumped from his chest. And it’s like, duh, no wonder he died.

And the book’s heavy use of blacks is especially welcome, as it, along with the use of captions, makes the Lincoln Tunnel episode horrifying in a way the movie just couldn’t. That issue is probably one of the best of the series alongside the issue introducing Flagg—his intro is actually juxtaposed against the spread of Captain Trips, so his arrival brings an even heavier weight to the story.

Oh, and I want to make a special shout out to Kojak, who I didn’t mention has some of the greatest, albeit brief, sections within the novel, was vital to saving Stu at the end, and has some of the best glimpses within the comic. His looks are right up there with the greatest of comic book dogs, and I just ate them all up.

Is there anything else to say about those? Probably. But I’ll end with this: I don’t think either the comic or the TV show adaptation of The Stand would work very well for those who haven’t read the novel. They’re good, sometimes great, but they don’t stand—ha—on their own well enough.

Here’s hoping a new, fresh take on it, if we ever get it, solves the riddle. But if not, at least we’ve got this great novel, right?

Closing Notes

This has been a long one, so I’ll make this closing note a quick one. I just want to ask: whose stand was this?

Was it good against evil? Was it the Boulder Free Zone, especially those four at the end, against Flagg? Or was it perhaps Flagg’s stand against God? Or God’s stand against us? The characters’ stand against themselves, against the old ways?

Perhaps all of the above?

It’s said we’re all “captains of our own souls,” but how true is that, really? We can make our stand, surely, but in the end, does it matter? Are we all just stuck, can none of us ever break free?

Next time: The Long Walk, the second of the Richard Bachman novels.