Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: after many, many years, Stephen King's most monumental work, The Dark Tower, is finally seeing the first fraction of its length made into a motion picture. King being noted for his very long novels, it has been a habit for quite some time to adapt his heavy doorstops into equally massive audio-visual events; let us now train our attention on the longest of these.

Golden Ages of the made-for-TV movie occur roughly every other decade. In the 1950s, they took the form of super-serious prestige series like Playhouse 90 and Studio One. In the 1970s, they adopted their purest form, that of the two-hours-with-commercials narrative in which aspiring directors crossed paths with declining actors and created some honest-to-God classics, particularly in the horror and thriller genres. In the 2010s, they can be spotted in a heavily mutated form in the serial narrative limited series format of American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective.

But I, your humble author, came of age in the 1990s, and so my impression of the great made-for-TV movie is of the vaguely literary spectacle that usually took place over two consecutive: things like NBC's surprisingly good version of Gulliver's Travels from 1996 or their unsurprisingly crappy version of The Odyssey from 1997; the horrible killer squid movie The Beast, or the 1998 USA Network take on the classic Moby Dick, which I'd go so far as to say is still my favorite filmed adaptation of that novel (not a terribly competitive field).

Within that field, there was one particularly robust subgroup, practically a subgenre in its own right: the Two-Part Stephen King Telefilm on ABC. From 1990's It to 2002's Rose Red, there were no fewer than seven of the damn things,* and my recollection is that each and every one of them was a major cultural event. But none was more major or culturally eventful than the only FOUR-part miniseries of the bunch, the 1994 version of The Stand, with a screenplay written by King himself. It was the second King adaptation directed by Mick Garris, who'd go on to helm a total of seven (five of them for television), which I believe makes him the most prolific director of King adaptations ever.

At which point we should not a couple of additional things: King isn't much of a screenwriter, and Garris is even less of a director, and The Stand is not very good. Actually, what it is above all is very inconsistent. The six-hour, four-part finished object has the somewhat marvelous characteristic of getting slightly worse almost entirely without interruption across every scene. The opening is entirely and without reservation terrific, the ending is hilariously awful, and between the two of them is a steady diagonal line. What this also means is that, if we're thinking about it in terms of episodes, part one, "The Plague", is fairly close to actively great, while part two, "The Dreams", is still fine. Part three, "The Betrayal" is a little bit dumb and boring, while Part 4, "The Stand", is a tire fire that has a grand total of one thing that I admire: Laura San Giacomo's giggly-horrified delivery of the line "We are dead, and this. is. Hell."

This was, to be fair, built into the material that King and Garris were working from: King's impressively large 1978 novel, revised into a staggering doorstop in 1990, showcases the most overt example I have read of the quintessential problem with all of King's longer novels: it gets spectacularly bad at the end. Not quiet as spectacularly bad as the ending of the miniseries, because we don't have to see it. And the miniseries starts losing air much earlier, owing to a constant pile-up of ever more idiotic mistakes of characterisation.

Anyway, The Stand, writ large, is about how simple human error causes a killer superflu created in a government lab to escape into the Texas countryside, from which it hungrily wipes out 99% of humanity, or Americans - the series very much does care to strike a distinction there. The remaining 1%, a completely random subset, start to experience strangely insistent dreams demanding that they travel to Hemingford Home, Nebraska, home of the 106-year-old Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee), or to Las Vegas, Nevada, the new base of operations for smiling devil Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). Once they've settled into two groups, divided according to a ruthlessly Manichean sense of morality, the survivors are destined to have a stand-off. Spoiler alert: they do not. The six hours of The Stand are instead resolved in the most objectionable way possible, with a singularly literal deus ex machina.

And if, as a direct result of that, I'm generally full of a certain sour rage at the whole project, I'd like to back up and reiterate that "The Plague" is, in fact, a pretty damn solid 90 minutes of pre- and post-apocalyptic tension. The opening is one of the best sequences I can name from 1990s television: W.G. Snuffy Waldern's laconic string-plucking score is interrupted by a klaxon and frantic dialogue about people dying like flies, and then a security guard races into and out of his home, gathering his family quickly, in one steady tracking shot whose implacable movement adds all the sense of urgency we could need to know that something fucked up is happening. And then we drop below ground to the facility he was guarding, to see what that fucked up thing was:Β  a whole base full of people dead where they were standing, as Edward J. Pei's camera glides through the silent rooms like an inquisitive ghost, and Blue Γ–yster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" howls across the soundtrack (the band re-recorded the song to avoid rights issues; the new version feels a teeny bit lifeless in comparison, but not such that you'd definitely notice). Everything clicks into place perfectly - sure, the song choice is obvious as hell (this will be true throughout the miniseries), but it's also doing exactly what Garris & company need it to do (this will also be true throughout).

The rest of the opening hour and a half isn't quite at that level of inspiration, but it's awfully damn fine, depicting the military and civilian responses to the end of humanity through some well-contrasted scenes and a few terrific performances: Ed Harris, uncredited as General Starkey, is a particular stand-out, stern military bearing giving way to a repressed note of panic, but Gary Sinise's mingled irritation and fear as regular fella Stu Redman provides a more immediate emotional anchor (Sinise will go on to be the protagonist of the whole shebang, while Harris doesn't survive the first episode). Overall, it's some of King's finest-ever script-writing, capturing the suddenness with which this is all happening and the desperation of the surivors and the not-yet-dead in trying to get ahead of whatever it is that's killing off civilisation. Kathy Bates has a scene-stealing cameo as a doomed radio host who offers a kind ear to her listeners but cannot afford sentiment; the creative team is able to stage some reasonably impressive scenes of mass carnage on a limited budget. The whole thing does look cheap - the notion that TV could look as good as movies was still young in 1994, almost exclusively the territory of the late Twin Peaks and the year-old The X-Files - but the production was at least trying to do something a little bigger than TV-scale spectacle, and it sort of gets there. There are many sets; there is CGI. Unbearably horrible CGI, but then, I can't think of any good television CGI until the 2000s.

Part of why "The Plague" works so well, I think, is that it's telling a largely self-contained story, and not focusing so much on characters. "The Dreams" is where the actual meat of The Stand starts happening, and you can almost hear the clunking noise as the downshift in quality happens. The biggest individual problem with the miniseries is the inexplicably low quality of the acting, including from people who ought to be better: besides the one-and-done Harris and Bates, I'd say that Sinise, Dee, Miguel Ferrer as a career criminal turned demonic aide-de-camp, and Adam Storke as up-and-coming rocker Larry Underwood (whose hit single is hilariously bad, not on purpose), are the entire list of performances that work. And Dee is fighting some over-the-top old age makeup, and King's hypnotically bad dialogue (even in prose form, King's attempt at African-American vernacular is off-base and cringey, but coming out of human mouths, it is the stuff of nightmares, and all the worse because you can still tell that King truly admires African-American culture). "Is that what God is? A big ol' railroad dick?" is a line of dialogue has to make sound natural, and spiritual rather than a little bit dirty. She fails, obviously, but she fails by such a small margin.

And none of them are as good as the bad actors are bad: Molly Ringwald is a special liability as Frannie Goldsmith, stamping all of her dialogue flat with a nasal delivery that suggests that the end of the world bores her more than anything. Corin Nemec, as a nastily self-centered, horny teen, mostly just shouts poutily; Matt Frewer, as the insane pyromaniac Trashcan Man, just shouts. San Giacomo feels like she's fighting the one-note role, but fighting in the wrong way, ending in a femme fatale who comes off as a horny drunk. Bill Fagerbakke is stuck with a different kind of terrible Stephen King stock character than Dee, playing a lovable idiot man-child who keeps spouting out his catchphrase "M-O-O-N, that spells [tedious, shitty screenwriting]", and he lacks Dee's native ability to force through some real human personality anyway. Rob Lowe's deaf-mute Nick Andros is almost okay: his facial expressions are pretty solid, but his body language isn't, and he largely plays a man who does not desire to speak and hear, not a man who can't.

Jamey Sheridan is a bit of a special case. Given the story's most important figure, he certainly does try his best, but Flagg needs to ooze attractive charisma with an undertone of corruption; he needs to dominate the shot just by his presence. Sheridan can't do that. It was apparently King and Garris's active decision to cast Flagg with an unknown, which was a critical mistake: if any role in the miniseries was worth shelling out for a proper movie star, somebody iconic just in standing there, this was clearly the one (in 1994, I'm thinking Michael Keaton was the natural choice). Sheridan works hard at mixing a good ol' boy sense of seedy charm, undercurrent of psychopathic menace, and smug self regard: especially before they start slathering him with terrible-looking latex masks half of the time, he even succeeds. His delivery of the line "Please to meet you, Lloyd. Hope you guess my name... Just a little classical reference" is among the best moments of acting in the whole miniseries. But there are hard limits to what he can accomplish, and that limit is artificially lowered by the godawful mullet and all-denim outfit that he has been stuck with, for God knows what reason.

The almost complete failure of the cast to make an impression is fatal: King's work, for all his big concepts and facility with terror, is always heavily character-driven, and when the characters don't work, you've got shit (I think this is why so few King adaptations are any good: his character-building as a novelist is heavier on interior monologue than on actions. Onscreen, when all we see is a King character's actions, they end up feeling generic and prone to terrible folksy dialogue that sounds like it came out of a can). In the particular case of The Stand, that leaves us with a fight between the heavily deterministic forces of Good and Evil - if you offend middle-class morality in any way, you are Evil, and if you are a drug-using woman, you are so Evil as to be Satan's own concubine - that involves a great deal of attention paid to the manage of small-town life after the apocalypse, while we patiently wait for the goddamn stand-off of the title to happen. This barely works in the novel; it doesn't work at all onscreen, and as soon as the good characters start building their survivalist community in Colorado, The Stand plunges into a boring tedium for which it only perks up in order to be actively terrible.

Garris is certainly not director enough to combat this: he favors boxy compositions and blocking that makes his large cast mill around like aimless fish in an aquarium. Often, the thing we think we want to see is obscured by something pointless in the foreground. Usually, he just slaps everybody into generic TV-friendly medium close-ups, to that every conversation feels like the participants are all partitioned off into cubicles. This is murder for an already talky script, and the result is that the third and fourth episodes of The Stand are almost completely bereft of interest. When it turns into cheesy Christian proselytizing - an odd swerve for a writer notable for his ambivalence/hostility towards strict religious observance - it's actually a relief; at least it now has a certain cheesy energy that feels better than the beige flatness of far too much of the last half.

It is far from either the worst or the best of King on screen, but as one of the most commercially important adaptations of the 1990s, I think it serves as a good case study for why filmed versions of King novels typically just don't work. It's an ungainly story with characters who never emerge with the interiority to make them more than just a bundle of clichΓ©s, and it's gone off the rails for every inch of it's last 25% - ninety damn minutes. If The Stand was ever really good, that goodness has faded with time; all that's left is unreasonably cheap, artless production values, clumsy storytelling, and the vague campy value offered by unselfconscious '90s fashions. But that's hardly enough.




*And note that this doesn't include outliers like the 1979 CBS production of Salem's Lot or ABC's 2006 Desperation, fitted into but a solitary night.