How The Stand Became TV’s First Genre Epic

“I do think it woke people up to the fact that you can take genre material seriously and reach a really wide audience,” director Mick Garris says.

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The Inverse Interview

For much of the past decade, cable channels and streaming platforms have increasingly turned to classic literary works of horror, science fiction, and fantasy for source material. From The Haunting of Hill House, to Foundation, to The Wheel of Time, to The Handmaid’s Tale, these shows bring the stories to life in elaborate, expensive, multi-part or even multi-season adaptations that largely respect the original texts and stay faithful to them in tone — if not always exact narrative.

But the first real attempt at bringing a work of genre literature to the screen in sweeping, epic fashion was actually 30 years ago. That’s when ABC’s four-night, eight-hour adaptation of Stephen King’s beloved 1978 novel The Stand premiered at at 9 p.m. May 8, 1994, with three subsequent parts airing on May 9, 11, and 12. For years, filmmakers like George A. Romero and John Boorman had tried and failed to turn King’s 800-plus-page tome (more than 1,100 pages in its unexpurgated edition) into a film, but the story — about an apocalyptic battle between good and evil following an extinction-level global pandemic — was simply too massive.

Previous TV adaptations of King — two-part, four-hour versions of Salem’s Lot (1979), It (1990), and The Tommyknockers (1993) — had done well for CBS and ABC, respectively. But even four hours (roughly three hours of story, minus commercials) wasn’t enough for The Stand. King, having leverage with ABC thanks to the success of It, along with his own personal brand as the world’s most popular horror author, persuaded the network to give him four nights — a large chunk of primetime real estate unprecedented for a story as dark and horrific as The Stand.

“They knew that it was Stephen King. They knew it was his most popular book ever,” Mick Garris, who directed all four nights of The Stand, tells Inverse. “And I think they wanted eight hours because the network was not thriving at that time in 1993 when we were making the miniseries. So they welcomed it.”

In 1992, Garris, a former Hollywood publicist turned screenwriter and director, helmed Sleepwalkers, a low-budget horror film about a shapeshifting mother and son based on an original screenplay by King. Impressed with Garris’ work on the film, King recommended him to ABC for The Stand, for which King himself wrote the teleplay. “I was aware of it,” recalls Garris of the book’s long development as a feature. “But I never imagined, until getting the opportunity to work with Steve on Sleepwalkers, the opportunity to work with him at all, and especially on his most successful book ever.”

The Stand was a daunting book to adapt, but Stephen King put his full faith in Mick Garris, whom he recommended after seeing his work with Sleepwalkers.

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The Stand was filmed over six months, with a then-substantial budget of $28 million (roughly $7 million per episode) on more than 150 sets in six states, boasting a cast that included 125 speaking parts. Working at real locations in states like Utah and Nevada allowed Garris and cinematographer Edward Pei to compose shots that were, for the then-standard 4:3 ratio of TV screens, fairly spectacular. The Stand takes place across a vast, empty United States, and the miniseries reflected that. “In television, everybody was afraid of the size of the screen,” says Garris. “I didn’t watch much television in those days, but I loved movies, and I think we brought a cinematic sensibility to a medium that was seldom embraced by cinematic sensibilities.”

Garris also maintains that the miniseries was bolstered by its (for the time) boundary-pushing on broadcast TV in terms of gore (“One of the first things that Broadcast Standards said was no open-eyed corpses… [so] right in the opening titles, we not only have an open-eyed corpse, but we just move right into her face”) and especially by its cast, a mix of film and TV actors that was unusual for the period and the genre.

“For the most part, all of the actors either knew or loved the book or loved the screenplay when they got it,” Garris says. “So we cast it like a drama, not like a genre film, where we respected all of those characters because they’re so well-written. The quality of actors we had was unsurpassed by any genre film I can think of... especially in terms of television. At that time, there was still a snobbery about feature-film people working on television.”

The result, when it aired in May 1994 (a sweeps month on TV), was an unqualified success: The Stand averaged a 20-21 rating and 32 share (via Nielsen) and was watched by around 19 million homes all four nights, topping the week for its entire run. It also earned six Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including Outstanding Miniseries, while winning for Outstanding Makeup and Outstanding Sound Mixing.

Gary Sinise helped ground The Stand as everyman Stu Redman.

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“It was a phenomenon, and nobody expected that, least of all King and myself,” says Garris with some pride. “Nobody had any idea how successful it would be. We hoped for it to be able to reach a wide audience, but nobody imagined that it was a wide mainstream audience comprised of people far beyond just the limits of the genre fans.”

Three decades later, The Stand is not exactly ageless. Many visual effects — especially turning antagonist Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) into a demon via primitive CGI — have not stood the test of time. Nor has some of the acting: Sheridan himself captures Flagg’s jauntiness but not much of his true malevolence, while others in the cast, particularly Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith, fall short. Ruby Dee is quite moving at times as the saintly Mother Abigail, but the “Magical Negro” trope doesn’t pass muster now. (She’s also the only major character of color.)

On the other hand, Gary Sinise is excellent as everyman lead Stu Redman, while Adam Storke, Ray Walston, Laura San Giacomo, Matt Frewer, Miguel Ferrer, and others turn in strong work. (There are also terrific cameos from Ed Harris, Kathy Bates, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) W.G. Snuffy Walden’s score is haunting and evocative. The first part, “The Plague,” is perhaps the best, chronicling the terrifying spread of the Captain Trips superflu and society’s collapse. And there is a deep humanity to the story that keeps one hooked — a King trademark that makes the leap to the screen intact. (By comparison, the nine-hour 2020 remake utterly fails in this regard.)

The CGI red eyes of Randall Flagg haven’t aged particularly well.

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“I do think it woke people up to the fact that you can take genre material seriously and reach a really wide audience,” says Garris when asked if he detects the DNA of his version of The Stand in the lavish genre adaptations produced now on a regular basis. “So I do see that we may have had that effect.”

“It may have taken a while for it to catch on and for other people to appreciate it, but that’s always the case,” he adds. “I do think it opened doors, that opened doors, that opened doors.”

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