Back in the day, if someone had tried to convince me to read a pseudo-religious epic with a four-digit page-count and a Deus Ex Machina ending without mentioning that it was penned by Stephen King, I’m pretty sure that I would have done my best to avoid that person (and the book) like the superflu. Luckily for me, I was already an SK fanatic with a fascination for all things apocalyptic when I first laid hands on an uncut edition of The Stand, and it ended up becoming my absolute favorite novel by the King of horror.
Inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, King’s viral opus was originally meant to bring the mythic scale of fantasy stories to (then) modern-day America, with Christianity replacing Middle Earth’s magical elements and country folk standing in for hobbits and elves. Of course, with the book telling the story of post-apocalyptic survivors who find themselves divided between following an aging prophet or a demonic tyrant after the earth has been ravaged by a plague, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this was yet another one of King’s genre nightmares. After all, this contemporary fantasy story still includes plenty of horror elements, with its terrifying antagonist having been borrowed from King’s own Dark Tower series and the gruesome imagery distancing the book from its Tolkien-inspired origins.
And with the author becoming a household name throughout the 80s and 90s, it made sense that adaptations of his work began sprouting left and right – including a highly anticipated CBS event series adapting The Stand back in 1994, helmed by frequent King collaborator Mick Garris. Like many made-for-TV King adaptations, the mini-series was pretty divisive among his fanbase, but it was only in late 2020 that it would finally be challenged by a remake once again developed by CBS.
And while one of these shows has way more fans than the other, I think both versions of the epic tale are worth revisiting because of what they say about their respective time periods, and that’s why I’d like to look back and compare both adaptations of The Stand.
The Stand (1994)
With big budget streaming and HBO sensations continuing to blur the line between film and television, younger readers might not be aware of what popular TV used to be like in the 90s. Before the days of Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, even ratings juggernauts like The X-Files had to contend with miniscule production budgets in order to accommodate the increased runtime when compared to movies.
That’s why it’s easy to forgive 1994’s version of The Stand for many of its budgetary blunders, as the show didn’t really stand out as a particularly cheap program when compared to other similar genre productions of the time – I mean, this was a year before Xena was on the air! Sure, the soap-opera-esque visuals and laughable effects sometimes hindered the more dramatic moments, but you’ve got to hand it to Garris for making the most of what little money he had to work with.
In fact, some of these dated elements have aged well enough that they add a bit of vintage flavor to the production, with charming little details like sets that look like they were originally built for a high-school theater productions and makeup effects that turn our main antagonist into a Power Rangers villain. That being said, if you can put the low production value aside, the actual storytelling here isn’t bad. This is still essentially the same narrative as King’s novel (with the teleplay written by the author himself), it’s just hampered by a lack of inner monologues and subjective details.
Fortunately, the iconic casting mostly makes up for these literary losses, with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald remaining my favorite incarnations of Stu and Frannie (though that might have something to do with my teenage crush on Ringwald, so take my opinion with a grain of salt). I also adore Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg even if he’s not quite as menacing as he was in the book.
In all honesty, I have a huge bias towards this mini-series since I watched it immediately after reading the book (I even own a DVD copy signed by Garris) but revisiting it decades later will probably be a very mixed experience for those who aren’t already hardcore fans. The 1990s CBS budget simply can’t keep up with the huge scope of the story and even the six-hour runtime isn’t enough to properly explore this world and its complex characters.
The Stand (2020)
A remake of The Stand was a long time coming, with rumored films and even a multi-season TV show being discussed before fate decided that CBS should once again be the one to bring Captain Trips back for another round of Pandemic horror. This time, however, the production value would be out of this world, with blockbuster effects and more time to develop these iconic characters and follow the book more closely.
At least, that was the plan. In practice, the show’s purist premise would end up being sabotaged by the decision to tell the story in a non-linear fashion, with choppy editing and bizarre transitions neutering the story’s scale and emotional impact. Episodes jump around the book’s timeline and the show expects viewers to tag along for the ride, erroneously assuming that we can just “skip to the good stuff” since most people are already familiar with the story.
There’s also the matter of that bizarre epilogue episode which doesn’t really add anything to the plot. While I appreciate that King decided to update his epic nearly four decades after its original publication, it still feels like a poorly paced afterthought.
Fortunately, the show is boosted by a star-studded cast that rivals the original production, with Whoopie Goldberg making an excellent Mother Abigail and Owen Teague being a big improvement over Corin Nemec as Harold Lauder (with his Tom-Cruise-inspired incel demeanor making him a lot creepier despite his differences to the source material). I also adored the always-lovable Fiona Dourif as the gender-swapped Ratman, though I wish the script had given Jovan Adepo more to do as a less charming version of Larry Underwood.
My personal favorite recasting was Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg. While I still think he should have incorporated more of Sheridan’s over-the-top persona into the character, both versions are equally memorable for different reasons, though the budget actually allows the more recent version of the villain to feel legitimately scary.
I have to address the elephant in the room, however, which is the fact that this high-profile TV show about a deadly virus was released in the middle of a real-world pandemic. Not only did this affect production, with filming being delayed due to Covid restrictions, but I also get the feeling that the non-linear editing might have been the result of CBS wanting to speed the story along and skip over the initial pandemic plot in order to distance the show from the real-world tragedies of 2020.
I can’t really confirm this theory, but I have the feeling that somewhere out there is a superior version of The Stand that tells the same story in chronological order and (hopefully) skips over the epilogue entirely.
So Which Is The Better Show?
It’s hard to objectively compare two pieces of artwork created in completely different eras. Many of the improvements of the 2020 version of The Stand are simply due to the evolving media landscape surrounding it and aren’t necessarily merits of that particular production. At the same time, several of the flaws of the 1994 mini-series were already egregious back in the day, we simply accepted them because that’s what was expected of genre TV or – as it was in my case – we grew up with it.
Looking back on it now, the 1994 production is a much more cohesive experience, benefiting from a linear plot and dialogue from Stephen King himself. Meanwhile, the 2020 reboot has singular moments of brilliance that outshine the original (like the reworked finale that miraculously makes the whole “Hand of God” scene less ridiculous) in between hours of messy and often boring storytelling. And on a minor note, both shows benefit from equally entertaining soundtracks, though it’s a shame that the more recent version relegates most of its music to the end credits.
At the end of the day, neither adaptation can quite convey the Tolkien-esque scope of the novel, even if the 2020 incarnation at least features some sweeping Peter-Jackson-inspired shots of the “modern fellowship” travelling to Las Vegas. That’s why I believe the definitive version of The Stand will always be the original novel, as the spiritual conflict of this particular epic lends itself better to literature than television – or even film for that matter, as the story’s structure would make it difficult to divide into a satisfying big budget trilogy.
That being said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I still prefer the 1994 adaptation as my personal cheesy favorite.