Taking a Stand
The Stand showrunner Benjamin Cavell takes DQ inside the adaptation of Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel and explains how he worked with the acclaimed author to bring the series to the screen.
When work began to adapt The Stand, one of Stephen King’s most beloved novels, showrunner Benjamin Cavell could never have predicted how prescient the nine-part series would become.
Commissioned by US streamer CBS All Access, the apocalyptic drama is set in a world decimated by a devastating plague and standing on the precipice of a battle between good and evil. On one side is 108-year-old Mother Abagail and a handful of survivors, who go up against a man with unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the Dark Man.
Whoopi Goldberg and Alexander Skarsgård lead the cast as Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg, the leaders of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ survivors, respectively, alongside James Marsden (Stu Redman), Owen Teague (Harold Lauder), Odessa Young (Frannie Goldsmith) and Jovan Adepo (Larry Underwood).
Other members of the ensemble cast include Amber Heard, Henry Zaga, Brad William Henke, Irene Bedard, Nat Wolff, Eion Bailey, Heather Graham, Katherine McNamara, Fiona Dourif, Natalie Martinez, Hamish Linklater, Daniel Sunjata and Greg Kinnear.
In a year when the real world has been struck by a global pandemic, it’s important to note that The Stand is not just about a plague, which in the show serves as a catalyst to position the story’s key characters in preparation for the epic clash to come.
“Stephen King has been pretty emphatic and public about the idea that Captain Trips – the name given to the virus in the show – and Covid are not the same,” Cavell tells DQ. “Captain Trips is a fictional, manmade disease and it’s much deadlier and much more horrifying. That’s not to minimise the horror we’re currently going through, but Captain Trips exists in the book as a mechanism to clear out the world so King can do his [version of] Lord of the Rings in modern-day America.”
Having first been introduced to the novel as a kid, Cavell was approached by Julie McNamara – then exec VP of original content at CBS All Access and now the streamer’s head of programming – in 2018 with a view to adapting The Stand more than 20 years after it was previously brought to TV by ABC in 1994. This new version is produced by CBS Studios and distributed by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group.
“Is there anybody who’s been more influential on my generation of storytellers than Stephen King? I don’t think so,” he says. “I feel like we’ve all grown up on his work and on adaptations of his work. Obviously in the two years we spent making it, and especially as our production was getting towards the end, we started to realise the story had more of a literal relevance than we could ever have imagined. But honestly, in early 2018, when Julie first approached me, I thought the book was eerily relevant even then.
“For me, the book is really a question of how these characters would essentially reboot humanity if given the chance. What if you could press the reset button on humanity? Would you build society the same way we did before and essentially set yourself up for some of the same problems, or would you take a different approach?
“It just seemed to me that, even in early 2018, the whole world, but certainly in the US, people had started to question things we’d always taken for granted about the structure of democracy and the structure of a democratic, egalitarian society. What does society owe the individual? What does the individual owe to society? That was why I wanted to be part of the show and why I felt like this was the perfect time for it – and then events conspired to make it more creepily or eerily relevant.”
From the outset, Cavell saw The Stand unfolding in a non-linear way, with time jumping backwards and forwards as characters are initially introduced. He also knew he didn’t want to spend too much time exploring the effects of the story’s pandemic before the main characters came into conflict with one another.
“The real story is dark versus light, the Dark Man versus Mother Abby. That’s what we’re really telling,” he says. “Stuff like Contagion and Outbreak are great movies about plagues and pandemics, but that’s really not what we were doing. We had to have some of that, no question. But from the beginning, the non-linear storytelling was a big part of how we approached it.
“We also wanted to do justice to it by updating it properly for 2020. It’s not 1978 anymore, which is when that book was written, and there are a lot of ways in which 2020 America doesn’t look the way it did in 1978. The book is very white and very male in terms of its protagonists, and that didn’t feel honest to us about where America is now. It felt like if we were going to update it and make it relevant for this moment in time, we had to take a different approach to all of that.”
In the opening episodes, it’s notable that Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg hardly appear at all, save for the former’s appearance in several survivors’ dreams calling them to Boulder, Colorado, while the supernatural Flagg similarly begins to recruit supporters for a totalitarian state he is building in Las Vegas.
“Flagg is the shark in Jaws. The less you see of him, the more he maintains his power and the more you can build him up,” Cavell explains. “It was also very important to us that the people who follow Flagg don’t seem to just be evil. They have reasons for following him that we, as an audience, can completely understand. It’s not just because he looks like Alexander Skarsgård and he has that easy charm and charisma, although that’s certainly part of it. And, of course, he has supernatural powers.
“But our approach to Mother Abagail and Flagg was that they both have the same relationship to their abilities, which is they don’t know the extent of them and they don’t know the origin of them. The real difference between them is Mother Abagail is very upfront with her people about that, whereas Flagg is at great pains to never admit there’s anything he doesn’t know. They are just as in the dark about what exactly is going on, but it’s very important for Flagg to maintain this facade of being on top of it all.”
For a story that takes in cities, deserts, snow-covered mountains and vast landscapes, Vancouver proved to be the perfect filming location, offering easy access to the range of different environments needed to chart the journey of numerous characters across the US.
“We wanted all these different environments so that people could be coming from all parts of the country, and we wanted these enormous vistas with this enormous western sky that you can get in British Columbia in a way that’s very hard to get in most places in the US,” Cavell notes.
“In terms of dressing these cityscapes, emptying them out and messing them up [when the pandemic leaves cities empty and abandoned], our production designer Aaron Haye and our VFX supervisor Jake Braver worked their magic. There was so much talk, meticulous planning and attention to detail. That’s really the only way to do it.”
At more than 1,150 pages, The Stand is King’s biggest single piece of work. So it’s no surprise the task of breaking down the novel and then rebuilding the story for TV proved to be the biggest part of Cavell’s job. He describes the adaptation process as a jigsaw puzzle – one made more difficult by the non-linear way the series introduces numerous characters, who then all collide around the mid-section.
“Adapting Stephen King is actually quite difficult, because his books are so internal,” he continues. “He gives you so much access to the deepest, darkest thoughts, fantasies and feelings of all of the characters, and my task as a showrunner is to make all those things external and reflect them in the way people react to things or the things they say. That is really fundamentally changing the nature of what’s there. Then, at the same time, it’s very important, certainly in a book like this that’s so beloved and has so many iconic pieces, to be faithful to the source material.”
Who better, then, to have on board the project than King himself, who wrote the final episode, which serves as a new coda to his original story. The author also read every draft of the script and was consulted on casting and directing choices, while his son, Owen King, was an executive producer on the series and joined the writers room, co-writing a number of episodes.
“One way in which our lives were made easier is we felt like we always had the King family keeping us honest,” Cavell says. “If we tried to go too far afield, we would always get pulled back, but there was never a time that that happened. In fact, Owen was often the one who wanted us to deviate most from what was there.”
King is no stranger to adaptations of his work – some he’s loved, some less so – but Cavell says the writer supported his take on The Stand and hopes viewers will tune in when it launches in the US on December 17.
“He’s a very good person to work with because he understands that, having seen some drafts and really liked them, the book is the book and an adaptation is an adaptation,” the showrunner says.
“There are a couple of things that are a little bit of a deviation from the book, but it keeps the spirit of it. And at a certain point, he just said, ‘Yeah, this is exactly right. It totally fits in the universe you’re creating.’ He actually did write an email that said, ‘Go on with your bad self.’ I was shocked to have Stephen King write something like that to me.”