I never had great expectations of the 1994 television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I didn’t really see how a six hour television adaptation could capture the immensity and the epic tone of the novel; I think the best way to adapt the novel would be as three or four three hour films. There’s so much detail that needs to be captured, and I don’t think it can be done in six hours.
However, to my pleasant surprise, the series does an adequate job. Most of the major plot points are present, a few characters are combined or omitted, but the basic structure of the novel’s plot is present. It does lose out on a lot of the detail, especially Stephen King’s characterisation – this is the most major fault of the adaptation. At times, it feels like a massive soap opera rather than the intimate drama that King wrote. That’s the problem with doing such a short adaptation – because the events are so large and spectacular, when you don’t have the character drama to back it up it all seems a bit lame.
Despite these complaints, the adaptation is actually quite enjoyable. It’s really quite great at times seeing how certain scenes from the novel are portrayed in live-action. Stephen King’s screenplay adaptation is also interesting, seeing what he cut from the narrative to create a somewhat more succinct storyline. However, this also has it’s downside too. For those who haven’t read the novel, it does feel like there are pieces missing. In particular, scenes like when Glen Bateman finally meets Randall Flagg. He states that Flagg is nothing and that they made such a big deal about him in the Free Zone – but there is very little discussion in the Free Zone itself about Flagg. It extends to Mother Abigail’s warnings, the creepy dreams, and Glen and Stu shortly noting that they have dreamt Flagg is crucifying people. It takes away some of the build up of Flagg – he’s not nearly as scary as in the novel, simply because of this element.
This brings me to the casting. The series as adequately cast, with a few stand out actors. Gary Sinise as Stu Redman and Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen are absolutely spot on in their depictions of their characters, and afterwards you simply won’t be able to imagine anyone else playing them (although Matthew McConaughey would make a great Stu Redman should the rumoured film ever be made). Rob Lowe as Nick Andros is a particular delight in this aspect. However, other actors and actresses simply don’t have the talent to effectively portray their characters – Molly Ringwald absolutely butchers Frannie Goldsmith, easily one of the novel’s most interesting characters, and Laura San Giacomo plays Nadine a bit too overly sexual for the character. The same goes for Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man, who changes one of the most nuanced and haunted characters from the novel into a raving lunatic. Ed Harris as General Starkey is another highlight. Jamey Sheridan does what he can with Randall Flagg – ultimately I don’t think a television series could completely capture how terrifying Flagg is in the novel. Others, such as Adam Storke as Larry Underwood and Corin Nemec as Harold Lauder do their best with cartoony characters. The screenplay is missing these character’s most important development – Larry goes from an asshole at the start to god’s chosen child at the end with no note of his inner struggle that made his character so interesting in the book. Likewise with Harold, he pretty much solely exists to have sex with Nadine and build a bomb, lacking much of what made his character great in the novel. This isn’t a criticism of the actors themselves, but of the screenplay.
Other than those criticisms, the show doesn’t hold up so well in the modern day – it is incredibly dated now, with not so stellar special effects and Ry Cooder acoustic style music by W. G. Snuffy Walden constantly playing, without respite. It’s a pleasing score to begin with but quickly becomes distracting and makes the show feel all the more soapy, which is a shame given the great story at hand. The adaptation also suffers by (most likely due to network restrictions) omitting the more disturbing scenes of violence. The violence and depravity of the novel effectively showed just how far civilisation has fallen, and without these scenes I think the show looses the bite that the book had. Flagg’s crucifixions are still happening, but we are merely told or shown the result weeks after it happened. The scene in the novel where Heck Drogan is crucified for drug abuse remains one of the most startling and horrifying scenes of the novel, and although there is a reference to this scene in the TV movie I think the adaptation suffers for not having it. These scenes are essential to showing how evil and depraved Flagg is, and just how easily he can sway the minds of the people of Las Vegas. Without them, Flagg is not nearly as scary as he should be.
Despite all of these criticisms, I did actually enjoy the adaptation. The first half is actually pretty good, and the adaptation succinctly shows the downfall of civilisation well. The characters are introduced and show quite a bit of deep psychology like the novel, and the dream sequences are pretty cool. It’s quite good. However, when most of the characters meet up in Boulder, Colorado at the beginning of the second half the show skips about 500 pages of the novel, showing how society begins to work again and developing the Free Zone’s fear of Flagg, straight to the last fifth of the book wherein Stu, Glen, Ralph, and Larry go on their quest to Las Vegas to destroy Flagg. By doing this the show does skip out on a lot of important character development. The second half isn’t as good as the first and is a bit patchy in areas – if you haven’t read the book you might be a bit confused at some of the going-ons – but it’s satisfactory. The finale doesn’t have the drama or brilliance of the novel, and falls a bit flat when Flagg is finally defeated. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable adaptation and is worth seeing if you enjoyed the book. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again or recommend it to anyone, but if you’ve got six hours to spare you could do worse.