the stand revisited 1

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they’re actually any good. In this edition: does the television miniseries adaptation of The Stand represent the pinnacle of Stephen King adaptations or…not.)

If you grew up between 1950 and 1990, you knew how the world would end.

The United States and the Soviet Union would press a few buttons, and aliens would sift through the radioactive ashes. Rod Serling told us all about it. Dr. Strangelove put clown shoes on it. School children learned pointless ways to defend against it. There was a bone-deep helplessness that came with the fear, not just of the end of your life, but of all life itself, floating in the back of your head at all times.

Right after I was old enough to be made aware of that fear, it disappeared. The Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and we Americans were forced to open our minds to new ways of destroying the entire population.

Stephen King’s The Stand straddles these immobilizing periods by existing in different forms. The first, a Cold War novel about the collapse of society following a massive government blunder; the second a post-Cold War miniseries about the collapse of society following a massive government blunder.

The Cold War and the Superflu

Told in four chapters, the miniseries begins with the release of a U.S. government-crafted Superflu (first called Project Blue and later nicknamed Captain Trips) whose devastation is near-total. The hundred or so survivors are pressed by dream visions to migrate to one of two places: a serene farm in Nebraska run by an 106-year-old Moses figure named Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee) or a Las Vegas strip lorded over by the demonic antichrist wizard Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). The outbreak nightmare gives way to a post-Apocalyptic tale of two cities. One is, wait for it, a kind of collectivist democracy inhabited by the good-intentioned while the other is a resource-poor dictatorship catering to fleshy corruption.

As with a lot of art, the story’s face shifted because our personal baggage changed. The book’s calamitous Superflu emergency  – though inspired by actual chemical weapon accidents like the Dugway sheep incident – could have been read when it hit shelves in 1978 as a morality tale about government overreach simply because all art that even orbited near the concept fell into a symbolic, critical black hole created by the Cold War. The conflict was reflected in everything, and everything was reflected in it.

A story about the United States government accidentally triggering the near-extinction of humankind? King might as well have included Major Kong yeehaw-ing Fat Man down to earth at the end of the book.

With the Cold War over in 1991, the 1994 miniseries version of the novel’s existential villain returned to its literal form to terrify us not as a symbolism for mutually assured destruction, but as the inevitable viral outbreak we expected would happen after narrowly escaping the shadow of the bomb. This was a parallel fear of the age marked most notably by AIDS and the initial Ebola outbreak in the mid-1970s that continued after the Soviet Union perished.

the stand revisited 3

Watching the End of the World with Young Eyes

Since I don’t remember the events of my childhood in chronological order, there’s a haze of viral terror in my memory of which The Stand seemed at the center. In reality, The Stand miniseries became a kind of cyclical cultural artifact because it was based on a 1970s book, inspired by outbreaks of the time which eventually returned to haunt us in the mid-1990s; Ebola was all over the news a year after The Stand aired when a devastating outbreak in what was then Zaire killed hundreds. Fresh fear on our evening screens. Art becoming prescient as history plays on repeat.

My brother was also diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1991, and we spent a good part of the time afterward driving four hours up the coast to specialists in Houston, living in hospital rooms, and playing with Super Mario Bros. Happy Meal toys on the papery sheets of beds with wheels on them. We had oxygen tanks in our house which were as tall as I was, and I heard terms like “pulmonary” and “hypertension” years before I understood what they meant. Dying and disease weren’t abstract concepts, but things I shared a room with.

My brother’s diagnosis at the time was a dire thing marked by doctors’ shaking heads and shrugging shoulders, so there was little space for optimism. But then he kept on living.

The Stand hit television two years later, when I was nine years old, and it captivated me. We didn’t have much appointment TV outside of Home Improvement and seaQuest DSV, and the 4-night destruction of society was a special event. Something you made popcorn for. Something that instilled in me a lifelong fascination in the Apocalypse at a young age. It was the gateway drug for The Twilight Zone, and the reason I wanted to see Twelve Monkeys and Outbreak when they hit theaters a year later. (I had to wait a while for those.)

It was also an event in the sense that I didn’t get to see it again, to puzzle over it outside of my own memory, until years later. If it played on TV again after that, I must have missed it, and we didn’t buy it when it hit VHS, I’m guessing, because it was too pricey. In the pre-streaming era, it became a singular experience.

For those four consecutive nights in mid-May, I was glued to the television. At the time, I remember everything about it being intense, severe, and fantastically weird. I stared wide-eyed at the self-strangling of humankind and recognized, through Vacation Bible School lessons, the ancient struggle between the humble faithful and the selfish destroyers.

The allegorical figures were steroidal to me at that age. I was a kid, so nuance was a few years off. Good versus evil, I could grasp, and that’s the product it was selling.

Looking back, I wonder if what I needed most from The Stand was reassurance both that the disease was someone else’s fault and that someone else, somewhere, was still in control.

Continue Reading The Stand Revisited >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: