Recent news came up that Stephen King's novel "The Stand" will get a theatrical version. This piece of news struck me as strange, because there was already an adaptation of this particular novel, as a 1994 TV mini-series. In fact, it has been sitting on my DVD shelf for 6 years now and I remember I was quite excited when I accidentally stumbled upon it. I only watched it once, the day I got it, so, I decided to give the 2-disc set another spin, in light of these recent rumors.
I certainly wish they would digitally restore this, maybe even whip-up a Blu-Ray edition, 'cause this movie could definetly use it. The image is typical 4:3 TV format, and the clarity suffers greatly sometimes. I doubt they can do it, since the original footage is probably either lost or deteriorated by now, which would explain the unremarkable video quality. Sometimes it feels like VHS rather than DVD. Anyway, I will not let such trivial matters overshadow what is otherwise an awesome piece of entertainment.
The 6 hours mini-series' first part mostly deals with a modern plague accidentally set loose upon the world. A government-engineered virus, nicknamed Captain Trips, decimates the population, spreading at an alarming rate and killing rapidly all but a few who seem immune for reasons that not even the scientists can figure out. Soon enough, everyone is dead, except for the aforementioned lucky few. And "lucky" is probably not the best word for it. They start having weird dreams. A sweet old black woman, Abigail Freemantle from Nebraska calls out to them. But so does another guy, a dark wanderer calling himself Randall Flagg. These dreams are a form of telepathic beacon meant to deliver the message and it's up to each person to decide who they'll follow. Mother Abigail moves the survivors to Colorado where they form the Boulder Free Zone, while Flagg takes his worshipers and establishes his base of operations in Las Vegas (appropriate, isn't it ?). Soon, the survivors find themselves enrolled in the ultimate battle between good and evil.
The novel this movie is based on is over 1000 pages long (in its Uncut version). I will not reveal any more details from the plot because, honestly, the story is so complex that you will enjoy it more if you just discover everything as the story moves along. There are plenty of other sites if you just want to plow through the whole plot via detailed summary instead of watching it. Wikipedia, has some solid entries about the book. There's a wide array of characters here, which you can easily label as simply "good" and "bad", but like with any King novel, there's more to them. The movie manages to retain the depth of characterization that King is so great at, even when it has to do without a lot of details that were left out when adapting the novel, for length or content reasons. Sometimes it just hints at things. Just imagine what a behemoth the novel is, if even a 6-hours mini-series needs to leave some things out. Otherwise, it's a remarkably faithful adaptation. Major plot-points and almost all of the characters are there. Most of the things that are missing are sometimes related with the need to tone down the brutal imagery and themes of the novel to make it more suitable for television. It's a shame they had to be left out, but it never really does any harm to the narrative.
Director Mick Garris is to be commended. He manages to keep everything fit for television, while also maintaining the creepy spine-chilling atmosphere. He even adds some nice touches to the narrative. For example, the opening credits of Part I run on a montage of scenes from the laboratory where Captain Trips was being developed, full of people who died instantaneously while they were doing ordinary stuff, as the soundtrack plays Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper". Effective stuff. Also, great unbilled cameos from Ed Harris as the commanding officer of Project Blue (codename of the deadly virus project) and Kathy Bates as a radio show host (she previously played Annie Wilkes in another Stephen King adaptation, "Misery"). The cast is really, really good. A few of the best are Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, one of the survivors who becomes leader of the Boulder Free Zone group, Ruby Dee as Mother Abigail, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd, Flagg's right hand man, Matt Frewer as a pyromaniac madman and Jamey Sheridan as the Walkin' Dude himself. Oh, and I almost forgot, Rob Lowe, as Nick Andros, a deaf-mute survivor. He shows off a keen ability to emote, particularly since the role denies him the use of spoken language. Never imagined he could pull off something like this.
Production values are pretty impressive for a TV movie. There's not a lot they could afford, but the art direction team crafts everything with great attention to details. The cinematography always finds the right way to frame what happens on-screen and adds unexpected depth to each scene. The make-up is probably the best part of this production. It's excellent. So good in fact, that it was awarded an Emmy. There's even some CGI in a few shots, but it's so primitive that you'd be better off not noticing it.
Fans of King's novel might find reasons to nitpick, but even they would have to agree that this is a superior mini-series and among the best of his novels' adaptations. It's as faithful to the novel as possible, has a great cast and is overall a very entertaining movie. It remains to be seen just how far the new plans for a big screen version will go, but I can't imagine they can offer anything but a butchered version of the novel. This movie is still the definitive version of "The Stand". I think there might be hope for the project actually being any good, if and only if they do it as a TV series, something like "The Walking Dead", maybe. Otherwise it would be just a waste of time and money.