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Can The Stand reimagine itself in an apocalyptic year?

The cast and crew speak out on the latest Stephen King adaptation

Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard) in The Stand 2020 CBS

Horror fiction has always been an outlet for the average person leading an average life to safely confront their fears. That’s been one of the successes of Stephen King’s work over the years. Afraid of big dogs? Let King introduce you to Cujo for a few hundred pages. Dealing with alcohol destroying your family? Spend some time in the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family.

With that in mind, a brand new adaptation of King’s The Stand, which premieres on CBS All Access on Dec. 17, is either just what we need right now or about to hit too close to home. Whatever happens, the imagery of hospitals filling up and body bags being carted into trucks doesn’t feel as much like fiction anymore.

King’s 1978 doorstopper of a novel tells a classic tale of good versus evil set against the backdrop of a world nearly wiped out by a super flu. In the book, 99 percent of the world’s population is gone within weeks, and the survivors start dreaming of two figures: One, the saintly Mother Abigail, the other a devilish figure calling himself Randall Flagg. It’s up to the last remnants of humanity to decide which side they fall on. The novel has long been held up by fiction readers as one of King’s masterpieces and has found a new audience this year, particularly because of the horrific real world similarities between the fictional story and what’s on the nightly news.

Today’s New York Comic Con virtual panel for The Stand, featuring miniseries producers Benjamin Cavell and Taylor Elmore, cast members Whoopi Goldberg, Greg Kinnear, James Marsden, Amber Heard, Odessa Young, Jovan Adepo and Owen Teague, and moderator Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair, addressed this a little bit and allowed the cast to walk through their characters.

The top of the panel immediately grappled with the parallels to COVID-19. Cavell reiterated that neither the book nor this adaptation predicted the pandemic, so any similarities between the virus and the fictitious antigen known as Captain Trips can be attributed to King’s talent as a writer capable of imagining a scenario that feels grounded enough that people can relate to something similar in real life.

Another thing Cavell said was that King gave him an early piece of advice in the early days when he was developing this show with Josh Boone. The book, he emphasized, is not called The Plague, it’s called The Stand. An epidemic is just what sets the stage. “The plague is a mechanism by which the world becomes a big, empty place for the story of good and evil.” The novel is ultimately about compassion and kindness standing up to greed and selfishness.

The creative team took that to heart and aimed to make sure both Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail were complicated. They are both the figureheads of their sides, but how boring would it be if Mother Abigail was a flawless paragon of good and Flagg was just a nasty devil?

“Flagg is a rock ‘n roll version of the devil,” producer Taylor Elmore said. “You have to want to believe what he says.”

On the flip side, Mother Abigail isn’t immune to the corrupting influence of power, something Goldberg said was a key insight to the character. Flagg may believe himself to be as powerful as God, but Mother Abigail has to struggle with her newfound prophet status or else she’s no better than her opponent.

In fact, in the original text Mother Abigail banishes herself from the Boulder, Colorado safe haven she’s helped build when she realizes she might be succumbing to that pride.

On the panel, Goldberg underlined that complexity as being something crucial to her take on the character, especially since the original text was written over 40 years ago, in a different time.

“She couldn’t be the magic negro,” Goldberg said. “That was fine 40 years ago, but she had to be a real person. You have to feel her, you have to know her. I needed her not to be the little old black lady that has all the magical information. She doesn’t.”

Whoopi Goldberg prays as Mother Abagail in CBS All Access’ The Stand miniseries Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

The panel was short and barely had time to cover each actor discussing their characters, but they did manage to all speak about their roles. James Marsden said his version of Stu Redman is a working class guy with strong opinions, yet he doesn’t talk a lot. When he speaks, he does so with purpose and power, which makes him a natural leader to help try to rebuild humanity.

Odessa Young explained that her character Frannie Goldsmith, a pregnant college student, might just be the last hope for humanity’s continuation. Captain Trips hits at a transitional time for her. She’s just becoming an adult and finding her place in the world when that world suddenly doesn’t exist anymore and she has to restart.

Harold Lauder, someone that Frannie knows, has been bullied his whole life, by his sister, by the kids at school, and has built up a defensive shell. He’s in love with Frannie, but he also has a lot of anger and hatred within him, which makes him a particularly vulnerable target for Flagg’s manipulations. Actor Owen Teague said on the panel that the key to playing Lauder was realizing that the mostly unlikable guy wasn’t devoid of empathy, he just didn’t have a lot of practice using it. The plague gives him a choice to become a newer, better person or stay the same angry guy. Fans of the book or the first televised miniseries will remember he doesn’t make the best choice between those two options.

Jovan Adepo acknowledged right off the top that he knows some fans might be wary of a person of color playing Larry Underwood, a one hit wonder musician whose ego has tripped him up his whole life. While King wrote Underwood as a white character Adepo assured the book’s fans that the complicated character motivations at the heart of Larry are just as they were in the novel. The character projects strength out of ego, but deep down he knows the difference between right and wrong.

The Stand 2020 cast on a stage Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Greg Kinnear is set to play Glen Bateman, a retired philosophical type who moderator Breznican pointed out was King’s avatar in the book. King wrote this character to say what he, King, would be saying if he was a character in the story. Bateman’s a kind guy, a smart guy and comes to this situation with a heavy dose of cynicism about everything presented. He doesn’t take anything at face value. Kinnear pointed out that Bateman was unique among the survivors in that he didn’t really lose anything when the plague hit. He was already a widower and lived off the grid with his dog, so that puts him in a fairly unique position to be clear-eyed about their situation.

Amber Heard of Aquaman fame plays Nadine Cross, a rather different kind of character from the rest. Like everybody else she begins this story wandering aimlessly, lost in a suddenly new, emptier world. Heard says the difference is that Nadine had a long relationship with Flagg, predating the virus. Nadine might be a more selfish character, but the actress says she’s also been groomed for a long time, describing a depth to a character that could be seen on the surface as a plain old villain.

The panel concluded with a trailer for the miniseries, focused on the epic scale of the adventure, essentially setting up Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg as the representations of good and evil. From a production value standpoint Boone’s take on the material is definitely more cutting edge, if still a tad on the TV side. The only point of comparison we have right now is the Mick Garris 1994 TV miniseries, which no one would mistake for ‘90s television quality.

Skarsgard’s take on Flagg also seems more in line with the book, down to his smiley face button. It’s hard to tell from a trailer how everything will shake out, but if Boone and Skarsgard got Flagg right that’s half the battle won. He’s one of King’s most iconic villains and this is his moment to shine.

Speaking of shining, Eagle-eyed King nerds will spot the iconic Shining carpet in Flagg’s Vegas domain, the first of what will likely be many Stephen King Easter Eggs in the series.

It’s also worth noting that Stephen King himself has written a new coda for the show, the contents of which are, understandably, shrouded in secrecy. We already know that Flagg is a character that pops up in many King stories, so fans have speculated that we may see a further nod to other King works.

The question remains. Are viewers going to be gung-ho for a plague tale in the time of COVID or will they shy away? We won’t know for sure until Dec. 17th, but if King’s track record is any indicator, I’d expect people will be binging this one as quickly as possible.