There’s a delightful scene in the otherwise justly forgotten 2002 post-apocalyptic movie Reign of Fire, in which a group of burlap-clad peasant children watch spellbound as two men perform a dramatic sword fight on a candlelit stage. Only toward the end of this medieval-looking diversion does it become clear that the adults are acting out the famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader informs Luke Skywalker just how closely the two of them are related. Even in a world laid waste by fire-breathing dragons (yes, dragons), it seems, some stories are immortal.
This is essentially the premise of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, in which a troupe of roaming players perform Shakespeare to a series of little settlements established in the aftermath of a highly lethal global pandemic. The new HBO 10-episode limited series based on the novel may believe in immortal stories, but it makes so many changes to Mandel’s novel that it probably doesn’t count Station Eleven among them. Both novel and series are less survivalist action-adventure than ruminations on what makes human lives meaningful, what we’d choose to save when losing everything. But their answers are not the same.
The flu that rips through the world in Station Eleven has only a 1 percent survival rate, so after it strikes, infecting and killing its victims within a few days, it burns itself out, leaving behind a handful of people who managed to isolate themselves in time. All of the central characters in the story are linked to Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), a movie star who dies of a heart attack onstage in Chicago while playing King Lear, just before the pandemic starts. Sizable chunks of the timeline-hopping story describe life “before” and just after the flu strikes.
One character, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), is a shipping industry executive who works on a graphic novel about a lonesome spaceman called Captain Eleven in her spare time. Another, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), is a child actor from the Lear production who remembers Arthur’s kindness and cherishes the copy of Miranda’s self-published book that he gave her. After Arthur dies, an audience member, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), tries to help 8-year-old Kirsten get home from the theater. When her parents turn out to be unreachable and probably dead, Kirsten joins Jeevan and his disabled brother (Nabhaan Rizwan) in a high-rise condo, where they hole up with hoarded supplies for the first months of the pandemic’s aftermath. In yet another storyline, Arthur’s best friend, Clark (David Wilmot), and second wife (Caitlin FitzGerald) get stranded in a small airport where a few dozen of the uninfected must form a new community. There, Elizabeth and Arthur’s son, like Kirsten, spends much of his time reading and rereading Miranda’s comics.
Other parts of the story take place 20 years or so after the pandemic. There’s no electricity or running water and all fuel reserves have been exhausted, so the Traveling Symphony (which also features a small orchestra) has to rely on horses to pull their wagons from town to town. The intervening years have been harrowing, and the now-grown Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) has become a whiz at throwing hunting knives at potential attackers, but a tentative peace has settled over the land. To emphasize how fragile it is, the series provides a clever visual aid, a painted wooden map with Lake Michigan at its center. The map can be rotated to follow the circular route of the Symphony, outlined around the lake’s circumference. “We don’t go off the wheel,” the players explain to a new member, because the world outside the wheel isn’t safe.
It’s worth pointing out that neither the novel nor the TV adaptation of Station Eleven offers a plausible post-apocalyptic scenario. Mandel has survivors killing one another over backpacks in a world where there are far more backpacks (and pretty much every other material resource) than the remaining residents will ever need. The symphony is impractically large for a troupe that apparently survives off of the largess of the tiny encampments that actually grow fresh food. (We are never told or shown how or if the symphony gets paid.) Miranda’s comic seems to be the only book anyone ever reads—even those survivors camped out in the airport terminal, which ought to be rich in Nora Roberts and Liane Moriarty paperbacks. Last but not least, Captain Eleven is no Luke Skywalker. From what we’re told of the comic, it seems remarkably short on action, its characters spending all their time musing over the past and intoning Beckett-esque lines like “I don’t want to live the wrong life and then die.” This does not strike me as catnip for the 8-year-old imagination. When, in extremis, an exasperated Jeevan flips through Kirsten’s copy of the book and moans, “It’s so pretentious,” the series earned its only laugh from me.
Showrunner Patrick Somerville and other writers who worked on the series are alumni of The Leftovers, an HBO series which might have provoked a similar cry from Jeevan. Like The Leftovers, this version of Station Eleven is melancholy, enigmatic, character-driven, and ravishing. The end of the world is exquisitely photographed, whether it’s images of a theater or hotel room segueing into the same place, years later, taken over by grass, ferns, and animals, or the eerily vast, dim, low-ceilinged spaces of a chain department store that’s been converted into a post-apocalyptic birthing center. In the early episodes of the series, the stark beauty of the ruined world the characters inhabit is fully capable of carrying the show, but it doesn’t need to. Strong performances all around, particularly from Lawler as the child Kirsten, and scripts grounded in the characters’ relationships make every episode indelible.
Things start to disintegrate toward the end, unfortunately. The series creators have seen fit to make major alterations to Mandel’s plot, some astute, others simply confusing. Jeevan and Kirsten meet only glancingly in the novel. The series makes the inspired move of having him save her and become her surrogate parent until they are unwillingly separated. The terror of this sudden responsibility for another life transforms Jeevan and produces some of the series’ best writing and acting. In a less successful change, the novel’s main antagonist, a self-styled prophet running a local cult, has been transformed into a more ambiguous figure. His motives make no sense until you realize that the series, in search of more drama than Mandel’s novel can supply, is setting up a performance of Hamlet in the airport as a climactic moment.
There’s usually an element of wish fulfillment in any post-apocalyptic narrative. In Mandel’s novel, Arthur is an artist corrupted by celebrity culture, wealth, and a decadent abundance of choice that makes him incapable of fully committing to any woman as well as neglectful of his son. By contrast, the members of the Traveling Symphony are pure and, more important, so are their audiences, who have mysteriously lost their appetite for pop culture and clamor for the Bard. Miranda’s comic—perhaps the purest artistic work in the story, because it is made with no audience in mind besides its own creator—may come in a genre package, but it is as sedate, mournful, and brooding as any work of literary fiction. Just as Jeevan, a former paparazzo, redeems himself by becoming a doctor after the pandemic, audiences who used to clamor for trash, having been taught what really matters by catastrophe and hardship, have corrected their taste.
Some of this theme gets picked up by the creators of the Station Eleven series, but cinematic depictions of the importance of art can be hard to pull off without the result coming across as annoyingly self-important. On the page, the Traveling Symphony is suffused with Arcadian romance; on the screen, they’re show-offy theater hippies. The series seems oddly unconcerned with portraying the enduring power of Shakespeare’s work, but then what writer wants to fill his screenplay with testimonials to another, long-dead writer with whom he can never hope to compete? Among the many changes the series makes to the novel is the introduction of a mantra, repeated by the prophet: “There’s no before.” In contrast to Clark, who assembles a “museum of civilization” in the former air traffic controllers’ tower featuring displays of defunct technology, the prophet wants to erase the memory of “before” and start anew, with followers who were born after the pandemic.
The notion that the survivors must exorcise the past that haunts them appears to be one the series itself endorses. Along with the prophet—who harbors some unresolved grievances of his own—the other characters have to stop looking backward if they want to do more than just survive. This idea has, obviously, plenty of resonance for viewers currently working out our own complicated, yearning relationship to “before.” But it’s a counterintuitive message to draw from Mandel’s novel, a book in which all of the culture of significance belongs to “before,” and in which only death on an incomprehensible scale and a hardscrabble life can persuade the rude public to appreciate serious, quality art. As for the viewers of this world, whose sufferings have yet to match those of the characters of Station Eleven, a few will surely appreciate this moody, beautiful, and moving, if muddled, adaptation. The rest will probably still prefer The Walking Dead.