I’m a bit of a latecomer to the epic Stephen King novel, The Stand, first published in 1978. I’ll admit that I was never a fan of the works that made Stephen King popular in the first place. I don’t love horror or gore.
But I did stumble upon some of his books in the 1990s and then fell in love with his more modern style – more of a “horror light.” Think The Green Mile or 11-22-63 or The Outsider (some of my favorites).
And even though I watched The Stand miniseries back in 1994 (remember how exciting a new miniseries was?), I didn’t feel like I ever gave the novel it’s proper due.
Originally written in 1978, King actually rereleased the book in 1990 set 10 years later. This updated copy was the author’s original cut and made it his longest standalone work at 1152 pages. It was this version that I downloaded from Audible.
After 47 hours of listening, I feel like I’m on a first name basis with Grover Gardner, the narrator of this epic audio adventure. And I also felt the need to revisit that 1994 miniseries.
Unable to find it streaming anywhere, I purchased the Blu-Ray copy of the 1994 miniseries, The Stand (run time 6 hours) for the veritable bargain of $9.99. And I forced my family to watch it with me.
It was cheesy. It was fun. It was dated. And it was the perfect precursor to the CBS All-Access reboot of The Stand which started airing in December 2020.
And now starts the inevitable comparisons. I found myself watching both versions and turning to my family saying, “Well, in the book, this part was different…” Yes, I am that annoying person.
After hours and hours and hours of The Stand, I thought it might be time to weigh on on “who wore it best” by looking at the casting, the story, and the production of both old and new versions.
I am of the opinion that Stephen King writes character-driven stories. And in a story like The Stand, you’re dealing with a lot of major characters and a lot of minor characters and somehow you’re able to keep all of them straight.
In the book, I attribute that exclusively to King’s writing. But on the screen, it’s greatly impacted by the casting. And it’s nearly impossible to not compare the actors for each major role from both versions. Below are some of the most memorable characters and a discussion of who wore it best.
Stu Redman is the main protagonist, a simple man from East Texas who becomes the reluctant hero. In 1994, a relatively unknown actor named Gary Sinise brought Stu to life. In 2020, we find hunky heartthrob James Marsden.
Marsden did a fine job of acting (though his accent felt a little light) but he just didn’t feel enough like the everyman that Stu Redman is. And the story didn’t give him enough opportunity to endear himself to the viewers.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Gary Sinise, 1994
Frannie Goldsmith is the reluctant heroine who’s forced to grow up quickly as she finds her way across the country from small town Maine to a much bigger world. In 1994, Fran is played by 80s It Girl, Molly Ringwald. In 2020, she’s played by Australian actress, Odessa Young.
Honestly, I didn’t love either actress in this role. Ringwald seemed a little too naive and girly for the role. On the other hand, Young put too much of an edge to the role making her rather unlikable.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Molly Ringwald, 1994
Mother Abigail is the reluctant messenger of God (a lot of reluctance in this story). She plays a 100+ year old woman from the middle of the Nebraska cornfields. Ruby Dee brought the 1994 Mother Abigail to life while Whoopi Goldberg played the updated version in 2020.
Ruby Dee brought incredible warmth and wisdom to the role of Mother Abigail while Whoopi Goldberg seemed to bring harshness and judgment, which seemed completely out of character for the role.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Ruby Dee, 1994
Randall Flagg is the antagonist and he’s portrayed in very different ways by Jamey Sheridan (1994) and Alexander Skarsgaard (2020). In both versions, he’s a casually dressed demon with some really memorable hair.
I think both actors brought their own flair to the role, eliciting both fear and adoration. While I think the story worked against the 2020 version of Randall Flagg, Skarsgaard brings a slight edge to the role.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Alexander Skaarsgard, 2020
Larry Underwood is such a complex character that perhaps has the biggest character growth in the book. I always felt like Adam Storke (1994) was a little bit of a lightweight for the role. English actor Jovan Adepo was cast in the 2020 version and finally brought depth to the role.
It helps that the newer version showed his relationship with Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) which was key in his character’s development.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Jovan Adepo, 2020
Nadine Cross is the reluctant love interest of Randall Flagg and has been designated his queen. In 1994, Laura San Giacomo play Nadine as a cross between Rita Blakemoor and the Nadine Cross of the book. Amber Heard appears in the 2020 version with a little more backstory.
The 1994 Nadine seems to embody more of what the book characterized her as. But more importantly, for reasons I’ll get into with the story below, 1994 Nadine feels truer.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Laura San Giacomo, 1994
Harold Lauder is the other surviving resident of Ogonquit, Maine, and clearly an unsocialized nerd. While Corin Nemec (1994) showed Harold’s insecurities and changes, he played more of a caricature of the role. Owen Teague (2020) brought a little more depth to the role for me.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Owen Teague, 2020
When reading the book, I had a very distinct image of Nick Andros in my head. And it wasn’t Rob Lowe (1994). He was a little too “pretty” for the role – and where was his eye patch? Although Nick was characterized very differently in the 2020 version (see my thoughts on story below), Henry Zaga (2020) matched the essence of who Nick was supposed to be.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Henry Zaga, 2020
Tom Cullen is the simpleton that befriends Nick on his way to Nebraska. Bill Fagerbakke (1994) plays Tom as an innocent child-like man. Brad William Henke (2020) worked to bring his own interpretation to the role but failed to bring the innocence to the character that made Tom so lovable.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Bill Fagerbakke, 1994
Glen Bateman is an talkative, philosophical, overthinking intellectual and plays a wonderful contrast to the down home Stu Redman from East Texas. Ray Walston (1994) played the role as an older, wiser companion but Greg Kinnear (2020) seemed to capture the spirit of who Glen was.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Greg Kinnear, 2020
Lloyd Henried was the sidekick criminal who quickly was anointed the #2 spot alongside the Dark Man. Miguel Ferrer (1994) plays Lloyd as a reluctant henchman who is conflicted by his loyalty to the dark side. Nat Wolff (2020) portrays Lloyd as a young and stupid wannabe who’s happy to live a life of debauchery in New Vegas. Unfortunately, the story leads the characters a bit astray and the Lloyd of 1994 is closer to the book.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Miguel Ferrer, 1994
Julie Lawry is a relatively small character (more so in the 1994 version) but I love Shawnee Smith’s 1994 version so much that I had to include it here. She plays the right level of dark insanity in a smaller role that outshined the pink-haired Katherine McNamara in the 2020 version.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Shawnee Smith, 1994
Trashcan Man is another small but important role in this story. Matt Frewer (1994) shows us the journey and evolution of Trashcan Man and why he makes the choices he makes. Ezra Miller (2020), well, doesn’t. His version is somewhere between a pervert, a mentally challenged man, and a psychopath. And he was just plain weird.
WHO WORE IT BEST? Matt Frewer, 1994
Casting aside, there were plenty of changes to the story from the book to the 1994 television version to the 2020 incarnation. And there were some good and bad for each.
I actually listened to the audiobook version of The Stand and the unabridged version came in at 47 hours. That’s 47 hours of telling, not showing. Now cut that down to 6-10 hours and you’ve got to take a LOT of story out. Here’s what they got right and wrong.
Stu and Frannie and Harold
In the 1994 version, we see an important scene where Stu assures Harold that he’s not moving in on his woman. And we also see Stu and Frannie develop their relationship. In the new version, none of that really happens and we’re missing the driving motivation behind Harold’s fall from grace.
In fact, we’re missing a lot of the emotional connections between the characters which was one of the major downfalls in this updated version of The Stand.
Nadine and Randall and Larry and Lucy
In the new version, I love that they actually showed Nadine’s backstory. They played out the scene where Nadine first encounters the Planchette and learns that she must keep herself pure for her role as queen.
But they missed the encounters between Larry and Nadine, where she’s conflicted about her role with the Dark Man. And they cut out Lucy Swan entirely. By doing both of these things, the new version fails to convey Nadine’s last minute desperation and why Larry was tempted but refused to help her.
I also really took exception to Nadine’s fall (figurative, not literal) in the 2020 version. In 1994, Nadine makes love to Randall Flagg and truly sees him for what he is – a demon. It’s at that point that she realizes what she’s done. In the 2020 version, Nadine seems completely fine to be a demon queen until she realizes that she won’t be needed after the birth of the dark prince.
Nick and Tom
One of the things I loved about the original story was the unlikely friendship between Nick and Tom. Nick, as a deaf mute, spends most of his time writing his thoughts and befriends Tom, a soft-in-the-head man who can’t read. Between the two, we learn so much about tenderness and loyalty and the strengths that each man can provide.
Ultimately, Nick becomes a close confidante to Mother Abigail and Tom is hypnotized into working as a spy. But in this latest version, Mother Abigail admonishes Nick and becomes angry at him. Tom gets a nice talking to. And the friendship is glossed over. A missed opportunity for an important relationship.
Although New Vegas seems like the kind of place that the Dark Man would preside over, the book tells a different story. Randall Flagg is a leader and brings in hardworking people to get the town up and running. These aren’t the dregs of the earth looking for a life of debauchery. In fact, Flagg crucifies people for excess vices like drinking and drugs. So the Mad Max Thunderdome-ish city in 2020 didn’t seem like the right setting for the story, although it did make things visually interesting.
There were definitely some changes to the ending in this newer version and I honestly didn’t mind. In 1994, we follow Stu on his journey back to Boulder with the help of Tom Cullen and the ghost of Nick Andros. Although I loved that in the original series, I didn’t mind that they cut that to give us more time with Stu and Frannie.
Originally, we see Frannie mentioning she’d like to make it back to Maine. In 2020, they actually pack up and leave. Along the way, they have a strange encounter in Nebraska with the Dark Man and with a young Mother Abigail who ultimately heals Fran and sheds light on her future path.
Having Frannie completely healed was what convinced the fearsome four to head to Vegas to do God’s will. It always bothered me that that was left out of the original miniseries. In this new version, they brought it back in a different way and as a nice contrast to the temptation that Flagg still holds.
The story ends with them making it to the coast of Maine and we get a sense that new life will begin again. And we see Flagg will begin again as well, much like in the novel.
Changes to the story and changes to the cast are to be expected. Some worked and some didn’t but there’s one primary complaint I have about the 2020 version of The Stand.
The original miniseries actually has a runtime of 6 hours (television in the 90s had to account for commercials). That’s a pretty short window and yet they seemed to hit most of the key elements of the book and made it flow in a pretty seamless manner.
For this latest version, it appeared that someone took the entire script, threw it up in the air, scooped all the pages back together, and then started filming. Because the timeline was a mess.
The book and the 1994 version are both told in a linear fashion. We jump back and forth between the stories of the main characters until they all converge in Nebraska and then in Boulder. We grow with the characters.
Had I not already known the story of The Stand when watching this latest version, I probably would have been thoroughly confused and given up. They gave no indication as to time or location as they randomly jumped back and forth between Fran and Harold and a very pregnant Fran with Stu.
At the end, the story seemed to adhere more to the linear timeline so why they jumbled it up in the beginning is beyond me.
Maybe the producers thought that they’d need some gore to attract Stephen King fans. Or maybe they wanted to prove that CBS All Access is different! than what you get on network TV. But it was graphic and unnecessarily gross. From large necks to excessive snot to blood splatter, I had to look away more than once.
And as if to prove that this was adult content, they threw in the F word about every other line. That also felt excessive.
For an example of how to make good Stephen King content for television, check out The Outsider on HBO.
The Stand is a good story and one worth sharing on the screen. It’s too long to make it a movie but I think this could easily have been a longer series.
The 1994 version was short and sweet. Almost a little saccharine (which is how I felt about some of the cast). And it looked like a 90s drama with its sets and filming style. And some of it was downright cheesy. It was ripe for a remake.
The 2020 version delivered on production value with beautiful scenery and visuals but they missed the mark with some of the story elements, the casting, the gore, and that godawful timeline.
Final Thoughts on The Stand
If you can, read or listen to The Stand in its entirety. It is a masterpiece and a great study in character development.
If you’re not into reading and would rather see an adaptation, the 1994 version stills hold up quite well to the original story. In fact, my teenage son is studying the Hero’s Journey in English class and watching the 1994 version together was great example of this literary template.
But by the time we made it to the 10 episode modern version of The Stand on CBS All Access, my son chose to sit it out. He might have been the wisest of us all.