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How CBS All Access 'The Stand' fixed Stephen King's most problematic characters

Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail of the CBS All Access series The Stand.
(Image credit: CBS All Access)

After 26 years, Stephen King's The Stand is hitting the small screen, once again. The nine-episode limited series, which hits CBS All Access on Thursday, December 17, is chock full of the deeply-flawed heroes and villains that made the author's novel such an enduring hit. But as we gear up to revisit Captain Trips, and the havoc this virus causes, it's worth noting that some of the show's most important characters have received a worthwhile upgrade.

As we saw with Mick Garris's 1994 mini-series, it can definitely be a challenge translating King's work from the printed page to TV. Much like that project, the upcoming adaptation sports a packed cast — from James Marsden as Texan good-guy Stu Redman and Amber Heard as Nadine Cross to Alexander Skarsgard as the iconic King baddie Randal Flagg and Nat Wolff as his right-hand-man Lloyd Henreid. 

But for the purposes of this article, we're going to focus on three folks who play very distinct roles in Stephen King's apocalypse: Whoopi Goldberg's 108-year-old prophet Mother Abigail Freemantle, Jovan Adepo's drug-addled musician Larry Underwood, and Brad William Henke's developmentally disabled Tom Cullen. 

Let's start with Mother Abigail. A legendary character in Stephen King's extensive repertoire of legendary characters, the 108-year-old Black woman finds herself receiving messages from God after Captain Trips ravages most of the world's population. She ends up visiting the survivors in their dreams, beckoning them to come find her in Colorado. For all intents and purposes, she's the light-side to Randal Flagg's sinister darkness. 

And with her character comes a genre trope King has used a lot in his stories: "The Magical Negro." Basically, the concept takes shape in the form of a supporting Black character with supernatural insight or powers that comes to the aid of the tale's white protagonists. 

This trope played out with characters  like Dick Halorann in The Shining and John Coffey in The Green Mile. But The Stand's Mother Abigail Freemantle came first.

In Garris' mini-series, actress Ruby Dee brought the religiously devout character to life in a manner that leaned heavily into that magical aesthetic. And as show-creator Benjamin Cavell explained to select members of the press during the official junket for The Stand, humanizing Mother Abigail and the rest were at the forefront of his mind.

Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail of the CBS All Access series The Stand.

(Image credit: CBS All Access)

"From the very beginning, we were talking to Whoopi about, essentially, that we couldn't fall into that," he explained. "At all costs, Mother Abigail had to be a real person with real contradictions and real doubts. She's very grounded in reality, and yes, she was obviously in touch with something and getting messages from something, but she's sort of in the dark about a lot of it and where it was coming from."

It's worth remembering that The Stand first hit bookshelves in 1978 and multiple revisions of the novel have been published since then. To bring the adaptation into the year 2020, it's understandable that the characters and events from the story get a refresh. And turning Mother Abigail into a flawed human is an interesting, resonant choice.  

A subtle, yet important change to the story comes in the form of Larry Underwood, who's played by Jovan Adepo (Watchmen) here. Stephen King's original iteration of Underwood was that of a white man co-opting Black music for his own fame. The character was brought to life in the original mini-series almost verbatim to the way he was written, but in the upcoming CBS All Access iteration, Underwood is a Black man, which takes that antiquated race plotline out of the mix entirely.

Adepo, who revealed during the show's press junket that he took inspiration directly from modern-day blues artist Gary Clark Jr., said the change in his character was already decided before he came on-board. 

"I think that those are important conversations to have for sure," he said. "I think Josh [Boone] was very clear that he wanted my version of Larry Underwood and he wanted it to feel organic. But more than anything, though, I think that his personality, his core, and his essence are what people have come to really admire. And I think he's just an imperfect guy, who is that guy that we've all seen, or that person that we've all seen before, who has all the tools to be successful if they could just make some kind of effort that isn't impulsive."

Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood.

(Image credit: CBS All Access )

Then, of course, there's Tom Cullen, the developmentally disabled man who is one of the standout heroes from the book. In the original mini-series, Cullen was brought to life in a manner that felt a lot like Lenny from "Of Mice and Men." And while this character is played by Henke, an actor who does not have a mental disability, Cavell pointed to the character development that went in to fleshing out the "Moon Man" to make him more than the hollow caricature audiences were used to seeing.

"He [was] really inhabiting the trope of like, 'Oh, this is a child trapped in an adult body.'," Cavell revealed. "[Co-executive producer] Taylor [Elmore] and I talked a lot about this and talked to Brad William Henke, who plays Tom Cullen, about it. In our experience, a person who's developmentally disabled isn't in the dark about the idea that they have deficits or that they have differences in the way that they process information or navigate the world. It was very important to us and to Brad, too, to have Tom not in the dark about having his deficits or challenges. It was very important for us to try to be honest about that experience, and not play him as a trope, but as a real person who lived a life before Captain Trips." 

Brad William Henke as Tom Cullen.

(Image credit: CBS All Access)

Whether these updates stick the landing remains to be seen, but there is something to be said for proper on-screen representation, especially in a Stephen King story. And for Whoopi Goldberg, who revealed during the Television Critics Associated press tour panel, that she is a die-hard horror fan and has been champing at the bit to play Mother Abigail for decades, this is a step in the right direction.

"I'm riding what Stephen wrote for me," Whoopi Goldberg said during a panel for the Television Critics Association press tour. "Ehe is the representation of what is supposed to be the light, and of course, when you are human, you are flawed. She is probably not as 'Magic Negro' as she was maybe 30 or 40 years ago. She's a little, I think she's a little more of a person who is trying to get a whole bunch of people to do some things that maybe they don't believe in. You know it's basically I'm doing The View.'"

"Now when she's 108-years-old," Cavell continued, "she finds that, 'Oh, wait, I'm the messenger of whatever this power is, that's talking to me?' That's just as much of a surprise to her as it is to anybody else. And she's trying to roll with it."

The Stand premieres on Thursday, December 17 on CBS All Access.