The long road to adaptation for ‘The Stand’

The recently released Contagion depicts the spread of a pandemic caused by an extremely virulent and deadly disease, and the devastating effect it has across the world, through both the death toll and society collapsing. Thus it bears some similarity to the first third of Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand. The book takes the death of 99.4% of the global population (due to an outbreak of a government-designed superflu) as the backdrop for an epic tale about good versus evil, as represented by two groups of survivors. Development hell had long been the fate of The Stand’s movie adaptation, but Warner Bros revealed in January their plans to make a trilogy based on the book, and this week it emerged that the studio’s current first choice for adapting and directing is Ben Affleck.

It seemed inevitable that The Stand would make its way to cinemas. After all, this is one of King’s most acclaimed books, and he has a very strong history with Hollywood; his work was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s axe-murderer in The Shining, Morgan Freeman’s sagacious jailbird in The Shawshank Redemption, mysterious Lovecraftian monsters in The Mist and many more besides. Yet The Stand presented a certain challenge as regards to being transformed into a screenplay. The book is fairly long and dense, so making a single 2‑3 hour film that does it justice could be almost impossible. King himself came to the latter conclusion after originally planning to write a screen treatment for The Stand in the 1980s – between him and his partner on the project, George Romero (who would have directed), they found themselves struggling to cut content. A TV series was considered as an alternative, but in King’s own words, “the networks don’t want to see the end of the world, particularly in prime time. Advertisers don’t want to sponsor the end of the world”. In fact a TV miniseries was eventually made in the 1990s, but many fans were disappointed with it, largely on the grounds that it was limited by its budget, and that darker content had been watered down to get it on air.

It wasn’t until the Warner Bros announcement at the start of this year that serious plans for having another go at The Stand surfaced. Certainly making a trilogy could mitigate the problem of fitting so much narrative into the adaptation, but nevertheless scepticism about this project seems justifiable. The team of director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves, who last collaborated on the final four Harry Potter movies, were at one point attached to the project; the fact that their deal fell through at a late stage is surely cause for a degree of concern. So is the information that King himself had not heard about this newest attempt to film his tale until it was publicly announced. One can only hope that The Stand, having been initially inspired in part by The Lord Of The Rings, eventually gets adapted with the kind of enthusiasm, reverence and talent that was directed at that book’s film trilogy.

– Sam Collingwood