Stephen King didn’t call his novel The Virus. He didn’t call it The Disease or The End of the World As We Know It or anything that nihilistic. He wanted his 1978 book about a global pandemic that takes all but a fraction of human life with it to be called The Stand. When there are no rules, his thinking went, survivors have to make a choice: Do you go full Darwin and indulge dark, selfish instincts or do what’s right for the sake of others? “I wanted to write about bravery,” says King. “At some point, people do have to make a stand.”
The novel remains one of the author’s greatest achievements, and a new limited series adaptation is headed to CBS All Access later this year in the ominous shadow of an actual global pandemic. (The exact launch date is still to be determined.) Showrunners Benjamin Cavell and Taylor Elmore, who first worked together on Justified, are quick to point out that King layered in reassuring themes along with the terrifying ones. “It’s about the fundamental questions of what society owes the individual and what we owe to each other,” says Cavell. “Over the last however-many years, we have sort of taken for granted the structure of democracy. Now, so much of that is being ripped down to the studs. It’s interesting to see a story about people who are rebuilding it from the ground up.”
It’s hard to know what our world will feel like when The Stand begins its nine-episode run, but the coronavirus crisis has only intensified interest in movies like Contagion and Outbreak. The show had to wrap production four days early in March when COVID-19 began to shut down North America, but, as of now, CBS All Access plans to proceed with the release. “It was very surreal, obviously, to start to realize that there was a creeping pandemic the way there was at the beginning of our show,” Cavell says.
It’s important to note that the virus in The Stand is not an organic virus that leapt to humans from another species. “It’s a literally weaponized human-made device,” says Elmore, noting that an aspect of King’s story was the way humans too often engineer their own self destruction. And there will be no reference to the actual coronavirus. “This is an alternate version of how things could have gone.”
The disease in The Stand is also catastrophically worse than anything we’ve seen in real life, killing more than 99 percent of the population. King tried to quell some fear by tweeting this fact in the early days of the pandemic, but even he now acknowledges the unsettling similarities that have turned up in real life. “When you hear reports that 100,000 or 240,000 people are going to die, you’ve got to take notice, and it is going to be bad. It’s bad right now,” says King, who wrote a new ending to the story that serves as the miniseries’ final episode. “It’s brought the economy to a complete stop. In a lot of ways, I mean, you see the pictures of Times Square or London, and you say, ‘It really is like The Stand.’”
After the Fall
The miniseries will shuffle the chronology of King’s book, meaning it won’t play out the same linear way as the earlier Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Jamey Sheridan miniseries that was a ratings hit for ABC in 1994.
When the new show begins, the plague has already struck. The first episode, directed by The Fault in Our Stars filmmaker Josh Boone, opens with survivors in masks and protective gear cleaning up a neighborhood full of the dead in Boulder, Colorado. These men and women are among the last the remnants of humanity, trying to restart society again. Each of them is immune to the Captain Trips virus that wiped out everyone else they knew. They’re wearing masks and gear because removing countless decaying bodies is grim, messy work.
The showrunners said they loved Contagion—which is why they didn’t think it was necessary to repeat Contagion. “King does this great thing that we made the conscious decision not to do, which is to go to the 10,000-foot view of what’s going on,” Cavell said. “That’s not a luxury that our people have. What does the apocalypse look like from the ground where you can’t see what’s happening other places, you can’t see what’s happening to other people, you can only see your subjective experience?”
As we meet the major characters in the ruined world, we’ll see flashbacks to their old lives at the time the pandemic hit. There’s a musician, Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo, Watchmen) who scores his first hit single just as life as we know it stops. Heather Graham plays a New York socialite struggling to survive in a necropolis. Henry Zaga plays a deaf man, Nick Andros, who understands human nature well but is not often understood in return, while Amber Heard is Nadine Cross, a conflicted woman drawn toward dark and selfish impulses. Another key character is Greg Kinnear’s Glen Bateman, a widowed sociology professor who was wasting away in grief long before the plague. He was King’s vessel for thoughts on what could rise from the ruins.
“He’s able to say these things that are part of my idea of the way that human nature works. First there’s chaos, and then there’s reintegration,” said King. “So it’s a question of, do things reintegrate in a way that’s good, or do they reintegrate in a way that’s Hitlerian and bad? It could go either way, so I wanted to write about that. I wanted to put those two forces in conflict.”
One of the central figures in this vast cast of characters is Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young, A Million Little Pieces), who learns she is pregnant just as the disease takes hold. She is immune to the virus, but will her child be too? “We do focus very much on that story of Fran and the baby,” says Elmore. “What are a modern woman’s motivations in this position, a 20-year-old kid who is pregnant when the world ends? She’s a formidable force in this story.”
Frannie carries within her the literal answer to whether life will go on. “She’s at the crossroads between that responsibility, but then also [wondering], is it cruel to bring children into a failing world?” Young said. “Is it futile if there’s no hope for humanity? Even after the virus has run its course, is it an act of cruelty to continue humanity?”
She is also one of the few survivors who isn’t completely alone. Her oddball neighbor, Harold Lauder (Owen Teague, one of the bullies from the It remake), also appears to be immune, and he has always harbored an uncomfortable crush on her. He claims he wants to protect her, but may actually see this as his chance to control her.
Harold’s prospects fall precipitously when he learns he may not actually be the Last Man on Earth. “Frannie’s very conflicted about the way she feels about Harold,” Elmore said. “Obviously, that’s a huge relationship in the book that is explored in a specific way, and we take tiny liberties with it that an actor like Odessa can use to really make that character feel modern and resonant.”
Frannie eventually will find a much safer companion in Stu Redman (played by James Marsden) a Texas good old boy who was there at the very start of the outbreak. “When we find him, he’s in a locked room in which there are people interacting with him with these hazmat suits on, and they’re not telling him what’s going on,” Cavell says. The series then flashes back to him hanging out at the local gas station when an out-of-control car slammed into the pumps. Inside the car was Patient Zero, a worker at an American bioweapon lab who escaped just as it was being locked down. With him escaped the virus that would end the world.
Among those who witnessed the crash, Stu was the only one to live more than a few days, and he became a guinea pig as the government tried in vain to study and stop the outbreak. There are others like Frannie, who are also immune, but it takes them a while to all find each other. And not all of the survivors are good people.
They are pulling apart into two groups, who view each other first with suspicion, then with contempt, and they don’t see things the same way at all. (Another prescient similarity to our own world.)
Here’s where things go supernatural. In the ashes of what used to be, the new tribes head for a clash that could fulfill the prophecy of Armageddon.
The Good, the Bad, and the Otherworldly
Nat Wolff (Paper Towns) plays the flip side of Stu—an equally hardscrabble survivor named Lloyd Henreid, who survives Captain Trips while behind bars after committing a murderous robbery. He and Stu watch the fall of the world from similar perspectives, albeit for different reasons. “It’s like, what would happen if you had to witness the apocalypse from inside a locked room?” Cavell said. “At a certain point there’s a riot going on in the prison around him but he’s restricted, essentially, to the view that he has just out of his cell because that’s all you can see.”
Lloyd may be immune to the virus, but not to starvation. He is near the end in his locked cell when he gets a visitor named Randall Flagg, who holds the key not just to his cell but to a lawless new kingdom he’s setting up in the only place that seems right—Las Vegas.
Flagg (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is the only one of the major characters in The Stand who is not quite human. In King’s novel, he was a denim-clad fringe-dweller practicing minor league acts of malfeasance and magic before the end of the world summons him to the majors. He is a demonic presence who appears throughout King’s work, and Skarsgård plays him here as a charismatic rockabilly demon.
His true power is the ability to bring out the worst in his followers. Another, let’s say, similarity to real life. “He’s so charming and he’s so handsome, and so powerful—I mean genuinely powerful, able to perform these sort of miracles where he could levitate himself and he has these actual powers,” Elmore said. “And yet he needs this adulation and this kind of worship from these people whom he’s summoned to him. He needs to have them make a show all the time of how grateful they are to him.”
“And there’s something fundamentally weak about that,” Cavell added. “Does it remind you of someone you know?”
“There are stark differences between Flagg and certain other people we could allude to,” Elmore says. For instance? “Flagg is so beautiful, he is absolutely a lion-like God figure. With perfect hair and…and also, there’s a softness to Alex’s performance that I think is fascinating. Alex just plays it where you feel not only sympathy for this character, but you hopefully understand why it’s so easy for people to gravitate toward him. He’s just magnetic, he’s just absolutely fascinating to watch. He’s galvanizing as a leader.”
Survivors who are drawn to decency unite around Mother Abagail, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who has endured the worst the world has to offer and kept her strength and empathy intact over the course of 108 years. “Well, that’s what she says,” said Goldberg. “She’s older, I think.”
“She is very, very righteous and very good. But really flawed I feel,” said Goldberg, who had wanted to play the part 26 years ago when the first miniseries was produced. “I’ve been fighting with not making her the Magic Negro because she’s complicated.”
Like many prophets from scripture, Mother Abagail’s main flaw is doubt. Something powerful and unknowable is trying to speak to her—speak through her—but the old woman resists it at first. “She doesn’t listen when God is talking to her. And she tends to go her own way because she’s been like this her whole life,” Goldberg said. “It takes her a little while to figure out that there’s something bigger than her.”
What qualities does Mother Abagail have that make her a leader for those who are drawn to decency? “We love old people. We just do,” said Goldberg. “On top of everything else they have been, and seen, and have different ideas and are probably trying to lead us in a good way. And if you show up in somebody’s dreams generally they do pay attention.”
That’s another weird parallel from The Stand that has popped up in real life. People are having similar dreams, probably compelled by stress. In this story, Mother Abagail uses those visions to draw decent people to Boulder, where she resides in a desolate nursing home, at her ancient age the unlikeliest survivor of all.
“There’s just an intensity to her that you’ve seen in all these roles, there’s something sort of gruff and hard underneath the surface, but there’s also such a warmth to it,” Elmore says. “The way she plays this role is just this beautiful split up the middle. She’s not this saintly old, ‘Oh, please take care of this.’ She’s a hard-living woman. She backs you down. She’s a general.”
For those who’ve made it through the worst, she magnifies the humanity and power that they need to keep going.
Light in the Tunnel
How will all this play months from now? Will people crave pandemic stories the way they have already, or will fatigue supplant the curiosity. These are things King wonders too. “Whether or not anybody will want to watch it in the aftermath of coronavirus, I don’t know,” he said. “The book is selling—The Stand, the novel, is selling—so…” King is no stranger to the question: Why are people drawn to the things that scare them the most? But he doesn’t have an easy answer for it. “That’s a discussion for a whole college course,” he said.
It may seem strange to say The Stand is a story of hope, but for all the loss and pain and failure the world witnessed over the past few months, we have also seen countless examples of kindness, unity, generosity and fearlessness, not just from doctors and nurses but often from very King-ian heroes: grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, neighbors looking after neighbors. That’s one final parallel between the book and our sometimes anguished reality. It may be why the book is so beloved, and why it may still resonate after all we’ve endured recently.
You could say King built his long career on exposure therapy, delivering story after story that make people confront the worst things imaginable. But for every shape-shifting killer clown or crazed father in an empty hotel, he also imbued his narratives with optimism and decency. If Cavell and Taylor have done their job, The Stand will possess the same.
Characters sacrifice for each other. Sometimes they die for each other. King’s villains in this story often chill us by giving in to their worst impulses, but his heroes always think beyond themselves. They stand for something bigger.