by Truly Edison
We’re now a little over a month post-The Stand 2020, the latest in a current boom of mediocre big-budget Stephen King screen adaptations that have been the bane of my existence since IT 2017. Anyone who’s talked to me in the last six months has probably heard my tirade against this trend at LEAST once, but the absolute state of The Stand 2020 felt like a particularly personal blow: I’ve been part of a matrilineal legacy of Stephen King superfans ever since my mom got me hooked in middle school with Carrie, and The Stand is her favorite Stephen King book of all time. Naturally, once she was able to convince me to take on the 1300-page behemoth, it became one of my favorites too. We watched the original 1994 miniseries adaptation of The Stand together, and my mom had been hyped up for this new version ever since it was announced a couple of years ago. Needless to say, it was a rough couple of weeks in the Edison household as we watched in growing bewilderment at the miniseries that ended up being produced.
For the uninitiated, The Stand details the saga of what remains of the U.S population following a virus that kills 99% of all human life on Earth (and before you ask, yes, the release of The Stand 2020 was pushed back due to probably the worst timing marketing-wise a show could encounter). The survivors eventually form two distinct groups, headed by two mythical figures: the God-chosen elderly Mother Abagail, and the chaotic “dark man” Randall Flagg. These groups ultimately have to face off against each other in a battle of “good” versus “evil” (with all the complications such a concept can have, of course). It’s an expansive novel with tons of characters and locations, sometimes compared to stories like the Lord of the Rings series in terms of sheer narrative scale. Taking that into account, I actually don’t want to bag on The Stand 2020 too hard simply because I think it would be impossible to create a working screen adaptation of The Stand that was any shorter than a full multi-season television show similar to something like The Walking Dead (which, as an aside, I’m surprised has never been pitched; if my mom is any indication, people with disposable income LOVE The Stand). On the other hand, I could probably also write a whole manifesto on everything about The Stand 2020 that made me so mad that I would get an actual headache after watching it sometimes. Luckily for you all, this blog post is not going to be that manifesto. Instead I want to narrow in on one specific complaint, perhaps a universal one for adaptation haters: I didn’t like what they did to my beloved Trashcan Man :(
In summary, Trashcan Man (real name Donald Merwin Elbert) is one of the survivors of the virus in The Stand who ultimately allies himself with Randall Flagg’s “evil” side in the final conflict. When he was a small child, his father went on a violent rampage and killed his three siblings, eventually being gunned down by the sheriff of his small Indiana hometown. The impacts of this early trauma manifested in the form of Trashcan Man developing pyromaniacal tendencies: his nickname comes from his childhood habit of setting fires in trash cans. Though this is never explicitly confirmed in the text, many people read Trashcan Man as also possibly being schizophrenic. These effects were only worsened when Trashcan’s mother ultimately re-married to the man who killed his father. As a pre-teen he was institutionalized after burning down an abandoned house, and was subjected to medical abuse for a number of years, including electroshock therapy that severely damaged his memory and cognitive function. After returning to his hometown, Trashcan continued to struggle, forced to drop out of school due to the effects of the electroshock therapy and tormented by the other people in his town who would shout at him in the street and throw things at him. He was ultimately arrested after burning down a church, and begins The Stand shortly after breaking out of prison as the only remaining person left alive there. He then travels to Las Vegas to meet up with Randall Flagg, who communicates with him in his dreams and promises him a better life than the one he lived pre-virus. Without giving away any spoilers, Trashcan Man goes on to play an instrumental role in The Stand’s intense, explosive climax.
I think part of why I love Trashcan Man so much is because on paper he reads as a character who could easily be done very poorly; oh look, here we go, another ~craaaazy person~ with violent tendencies. But Stephen King is able to portray Trash with a game-changing amount of nuance and empathy. We get several chapters in which he is the point-of-view character, which allows for a deep engagement with his personality, his insecurities, the ways in which he interacts with the world around him—all things we would expect to get from any character in such a long novel but so often don’t get from characters like Trashcan Man. We can also get a sense that he’s wanted by other characters, and that he has value and positive qualities despite his mental illness. Flagg seeks him out and speaks to him in his dreams because he needs Trash’s ‘sixth sense’ for finding weapons in abandoned West Coast military installations and skill with mechanics and explosive devices (a byproduct of his pyromania) in order to prepare for The Stand’s final battle. Most crucially, as readers we get a sense of the outside conditions that made Trashcan Man the way he is. We see the ways in which he’s psychologically scarred by the events of his father and siblings’ deaths, and the ways in which the people in his life attempt to help him (by institutionalizing him) only to inadvertently put him through even more trauma. Even on top of all of that, we see the ways in which he’s totally rejected by his community and further victimized in the moments where he needs the most support. Trashcan Man is able to be so much more than just a “crazy guy” taking advantage of the apocalypse to indulge in his demented fantasies: this is a vulnerable person who has just been totally let down and treated like shit by other people and by social institutions, who now finds himself in a position where those people and those institutions have gone away and he has the opportunity to live another kind of life. It’s not a perfect portrayal by any means—like pretty much every Stephen King book, The Stand has aged egregiously—but it still struck me as more nuanced and thoughtful than even some media that comes out today.
In The Stand 2020, Trashcan Man was portrayed by Ezra Miller, who I actually otherwise really enjoy as an actor; I thought they killed it in We Need to Talk About Kevin as another character with unspecified but intense and violently-manifesting mental health issues. I was especially intrigued because apparently Ezra Miller was given a lot of creative freedom with the role of Trashcan Man, reportedly being a huge fan of The Stand and having their eye on the role for a long time. But what ultimately came out of that take is, uh. I’m just going to link the clip here because I honestly don’t think that I would be able to describe in written words the sheer content of this scene. Be warned if you do click, though—Ezra Miller’s first scene as Trashcan Man isn’t just bad, it borders on genuinely offensive. They put on this erratic gesticulation and this horrible screeching that completely drains the scene of any empathy or character-building that it could potentially put forth. Do we learn literally anything about this guy from this scene? Other than the fact that he’s ~craaaazy~ and really likes fire? There’s no dialogue, no flashback (as is used in this scene’s equivalent in the book), none of the things we might expect from an introductory scene to a crucial character. He’s not even wearing any clothes we could make assumptions about him based on. Trashcan Man isn’t a character here; he’s barely even human. Whereas in the book we get an inward view on Trash, and see through that viewpoint how he’s perceived from the outside, the only perspective we get here is entirely from the outside. We’re being shown Trashcan Man from the vantage point of those in the book who so thoroughly ostracized him, as this grotesque freak show that we’re at best morbidly fascinated with and at worst violently repulsed by.
Maybe this would be less of an issue if Trashcan Man had any other key scenes in The Stand 2020. That’s the other thing that bugs the hell out of me about this version of the source material; this abysmal first scene is pretty much all we get of him for the miniseries’ nine-hour runtime. After this he has a brief, hallucinatory dream-interaction with Randall Flagg that...maybe would give us some backstory if literally any one of its hurriedly flashing images were lingered on for a little bit longer? And then he’s pretty much instantly in Las Vegas (where all of Flagg’s other henchmen are disgusted by him, far different from their enthusiastic acceptance of him into their ranks in the book). He “talks” to Flagg (more screeching) for about a minute before he fucks off into the desert for a couple of episodes, not to be seen again until the very end of the series. For a character with such a massive role in the plot, The Stand 2020 reduces him to pretty much a glorified cameo. If the audience had been given a little more time with him, we might have been able to feel connection to and empathy for even this weird caricature that Ezra Miller has created, but we’re not even given the chance to try.
Of course, you can’t just blame Ezra Miller for this turning out as a trainwreck, though if their reported love of The Stand wasn’t just a PR thing for the show then I would really like to have a little talk with them about what the hell they thought The Stand was about. Any piece of filmed media gets touched by too many hands to assign blame to one person, which arguably makes it a little worse in some ways, that so many people would have had to sign off on this version of the character for it to avoid the cutting room floor. Part of the trouble comes from the source material, too—the book is just too damn long to properly do in even nine hours! Trashcan Man doesn’t even get introduced until nearly halfway through The Stand. He’s also a character who potentially pushes the boundaries of what can be shown on TV, especially when it comes to his journey to Vegas. There’s a chapter of the book where Trash runs into The Kid, a violent and sociopathic Elvis lookalike who threatens, tortures, and even sexually assaults Trashcan Man while he’s trying to make his way to see Randall Flagg. This is a part of the book that has never made it onto the screen, and was even cut from the original publication of The Stand. I can completely understand why—it’s a bleak and brutal read, one of the most difficult parts of an already disturbing book to get through. But at the same time, it continues to build our relationship as readers to Trashcan Man, and it’s one of the defining moments of his character arc. Making the choice to cut it completely means that a showrunner has to come up with a substitute for the work it does character-wise, which is a hard wall to scale.
But it’s not impossible to scale, not in the slightest. There have been passable, or even pretty good, on-screen versions of Trashcan Man in the past. In the original 1994 miniseries he was portrayed by Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame, whose take on the character I’ve come to appreciate a lot more post-The Stand 2020. For comparison, here’s his version of that introductory scene. For starters, this scene is almost twice as long as Ezra Miller’s introduction to the character, which gives a lot more much-needed time to get to know him. Though Matt Frewer does erratic and repetitive behaviors similarly to Ezra Miller, the movement and vocal stims that he gives Trashcan Man feel much more humanizing—and his version of Trash can actually talk in full sentences like he does in the book! I never thought I would be so excited about that fact, but here we are. But most crucially, we get a sense of where he comes from and what’s happened to him before we meet him in The Stand in the form of the voices of his childhood tormentors that he hears. We even get a reference to being ‘stuck in the nuthatch’ and ‘given a few thousand shock treatments’, which goes completely unmentioned in the extremely brief and confusing bit of backstory we get for Ezra Miller’s Trashcan Man. Of course it’s not given the same in-depth treatment as it gets in the book, but it doesn’t have to be—a little can go a long way. He’s also considerably more present in the 1994 miniseries as a whole, despite it being about 2/3rds the length of The Stand 2020. The 1994 series seemed to have a stronger grasp of Trash’s role in the novel, and organized its structure accordingly. As bad as The Stand 2020’s Trashcan Man is, it somehow feels even worse when you consider the fact that there was a more rounded-out and empathetic portrayal nearly thirty years earlier.
Mostly I feel disappointed with The Stand 2020 not just because of my personal attachment to poor Trashy as a character, but because of the ways in which this version of The Stand presented itself as seeking to make right some of the failures of Stephen King’s original book and adjust some of its more problematic elements to run more appropriately in our current year. Like I mentioned earlier, Stephen King books have a tendency to age like milk political-correctness wise, and The Stand is DEFINITELY no exception. Before The Stand 2020 came out, the showrunners talked a lot about the ways in which they intended to rewrite Tom Cullen, a developmentally disabled man in The Stand who in the original text is an unfortunate bundle of ableist tropes rolled up into one kind of cringeworthy package. The showrunners understood this failure of the text and took great strides to correct it in their version. And that effort really shows! Brad William Henke’s version of Tom is honestly one of the high points of the miniseries. But it just makes me wonder why the same care and consideration couldn’t be taken when it came to reinterpreting Trashcan Man. Well, I guess I’ll just have to stick around for The Stand 2041 and cross my fingers.