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Filmmaker Benjamin Cavell on his modern retelling of Stephen King's 'The Stand'

July 28, 2020
3 min read time

Benjamin Cavell and the team behind the CBS All Access limited series The Stand got to shelter in place for the pandemic by the skin of their teeth. They wrapped in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 11, 2020  mere hours before much of North America and the world shut down for the looming threat of COVID-19. The cast and crew made it back to their respective homes to see what would happen next. It would be eight more months before they could all safely meet again in Las Vegas to shoot a few more scenes.

Their show is a new retelling of a Stephen King book that had already been adapted in 1994. This new version is not the same. The story begins in a different place from the last one, starting after a pandemic. Cavell tells me that the whole seed for the new show began in early 2018 (which makes me wonder if he’s psychic), smack-dab between the 2016 and 2020 American presidential elections. With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ rally cry that we must “battle for the soul of the nation”, the people of The Stand also had to do this, but for the soul of the globe.

For me, there is a 45 (the number of the most recent former president)-Stacey Abrams dichotomy on the show between the characters of Randall Flagg (played by Alexander Skarsgård) and Mother Abagail Freemantle, portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg. They each are the leaders of their own faction of the remaining human beings on earth, who must choose between the two after a plague wipes out most of the world’s population. 

Randall and Abagail are polar opposites. He is a white man, she is a Black woman. They stand for completely different things. Randall is narcissism incarnate. According to Cavell, “The Stand is an examination of the authoritarian-strong-man figure that’s been in ascendancy in numerous places around the world for a number of years now. What’s this person offering?”

He adds, "Can you imagine a guy who looks like Alex, is charming like that, and who has demonstrable super-powers? He can levitate. Flagg knows how to attach meaning to the horror everyone’s been through  the heartache of the world they once knew, where everyone’s been through pain and chaos.”

I personally would still be wary of someone like Flagg no matter what charms and magic he possessed. On the flip side, we must honor Abagail and all that good that she represents, while we keep in mind that Black women are not here to take care of other people’s problems, even when they are excellent leaders or we perceive them to have nurturing characteristics. I have learned that all of us must avoid “mammy-fying.” Abagail represents the good, while Randall represents the evil of the world in which The Stand takes place.

The Stand is reminiscent of other dystopian stories. It has touches of Children of Men, which Cavell confirms is a good comparable in that the world, as it was known, is destroyed and we have a glimmer of hope in a newborn baby on the way. Other pieces of entertainment Cavell can liken his show to are The Road (a 2009 movie directed by John Hillcoat starring Viggo Mortensen with the logline: “In a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, an ailing father defends his son as they slowly travel to the sea.”). Cavell says the difference with The Stand here is, “We didn’t want to be bleak in the way that is we didn’t want it to feel hopeless.” 

The takeaway Cavell offers to us is, “You have to be willing to continually stand up to evil because the wheel keeps turning. Randall Flagg, in some form, will always be back and we cannot rest on our laurels and must continue to answer the ongoing call.”

Cavell says he was relieved after the election this past year and that, “The Stand is an apt parallel to the world we’re living in today. The battle is not forever won. We cannot afford complacency.”

Besides this story that he’s brought to screen, what is Cavell’s most favorite Stephen King book? The Running Man is something he would also like to re-make. Even though Cavell is a fan of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of that time (1987, when the movie came out) and the professional-wrestling aesthetic of that adaptation, he tells me that the book is very different.

"It’s prescient about reality-TV culture and can be handled in another way," he said.

It looks like Cavell likes being in the Stephen King cinematic universe!

We’ll have to wait and see if Cavell gets to re-make The Running Man in our real-life post-pandemic world. For now and until we get our booster shots, check out The Stand and decide where you stand.

The Stand is currently available to stream on Paramount+


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