While shooting The Stand in Vancouver this past March, Benjamin Cavell started to feel a little uneasy.
Here he was, making a limited series for CBS All Access out of Stephen King's famed pandemic epic just as a real-life virus was spreading. "Life," says the showrunner and executive producer, "was beginning to mirror the story we were telling."
King's 1978 story clearly needed updating. Cavell had spent a lot of time imagining how contemporary America would react to a global plague. He'd always thought the story was still relevant, but not because of the contagion threat. He thought the interesting questions would arise after the pandemic — how would we rebuild a ruined society?
In this fresh take on The Stand, that question still leads — as in King's story — to big issues. It's good versus evil and altruism versus fascism in the post-apocalpyse: Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) gathers her democratic forces in the Boulder Free Zone, while Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) runs his authoritarian regime out of Las Vegas.
The groups differ strongly on how to restructure society in the post-plague chaos and how to soothe lingering contempt. Sound familiar?
Cavell had many discussions with Julie McNamara, head of programming at CBS All Access, about how to lend nuance to all this, including establishing why Flagg's acolytes would sign up for his Sin City society. "Much of The Stand is about the appeal of the authoritarian," Cavell says. "What is that kind of leader offering? Flagg needed to make a compelling case."
Despite its large cast of characters, King's book (and the 1994 ABC miniseries it inspired) didn't focus on race; only a few people of color flocked to Mother Abagail's side. In its nine episodes, the new series seeks to rectify that with diverse casting — and by swapping gender and race in some roles: the Rat Man becomes a Rat Woman (Fiona Dourif), and Ralph Brentner becomes Ray Brentner (Native American actress Irene Bedard).
These changes aren't superficial — they alter the essence of the characters. Jovan Adepo's Larry Underwood is no longer a white musician coopting Black culture. And Mother Abagail is no longer an eye-rolling embodiment of the old "Magical Negro" storytelling trope (in which Black characters exist mainly to save white characters).
"That was the first conversation that Whoopi and I had," Cavell says. "It was one of the big challenges — to make sure Mother Abagail was a character from 2020. Yes, there is something magical about her, but she has all the flaws and contradictions of a real person."
With these and other changes, Cavell hopes that even fans of the book will find surprises throughout the series, which premiered December 17. The nonlinear timeline allows Mother Abagail's fellowship to embark on a quest much earlier than in previous tellings. Easter eggs abound. Perhaps most important, King himself wrote a new ending for the series — a continuation of the story that he'd been planning for decades.
Pleased with the result, Cavell says, "We found little ways to tee up his coda, little hints sprinkled in at various points. It's a pretty intricate puzzle."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2020