Emily St. John Mandel’s beloved novel should be difficult to adapt for TV. The HBO Max version reinvents it.
The 2021 holiday season feels like an exceptionally strange and potentially awful time to launch a miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant 2014 novel Station Eleven.
Station Eleven is one of my favorite books of the 21st century so far, and its blend of magical realism, clockwork plotting, post-apocalyptic setting, and complicated structure offers enough imaginative detours for HBO Max’s 10-episode TV adaptation to have fun with. (The first three episodes debut Thursday. Two episodes follow every Thursday thereafter until the finale drops all by its lonesome on January 13.)
But Station Eleven is also a book about the world in the build-up to and aftermath of a devastating plague that kills most of humanity. Its resonance with the present moment is so strong that in March 2020, days before most of the US locked down, Vulture interviewed Mandel about her book’s overlap with the present. So it might seem ghoulish to tell a story about a disease so deadly only one in 1,000 people survives it (heavy air quotes) “at this moment in history.”
What’s more, Station Eleven makes several adaptation choices that change some of the core elements of Mandel’s novel. Two characters who have one chance meeting shortly before the Georgia Flu ravages the world are now boon companions for the early days of the apocalypse, and the book’s main villain has been drastically rethought. It would have been so easy to create a version of this story where those changes made the series toothless and without a point.
Yet few fictional works in the wake of Covid-19 have felt as restorative to me as this TV adaptation from Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville and Atlanta director Hiro Murai. Rather than imagining something bleak, Station Eleven takes Mandel’s book and amps up its sense of a cozy post-apocalypse, where humanity comes together, rather than drifting apart. I entered the series deeply skeptical, and I left it feeling at least semi-hopeful for what humanity might yet become, even after the end.
“This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life”
In book form, Station Eleven follows three characters who have a chance meeting on stage at a Toronto theater during a production of King Lear. Kirsten is a child actor, playing the role of one of Lear’s daughters as a child. Arthur is a brash movie star trying to burnish his reputation by playing one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And Jeevan is a would-be doctor who attempts to save Arthur’s life after he collapses from a heart attack during a performance.
The book then traces three timelines. It hops forward 20 years into the future to follow Kirsten as an adult, riding around the Great Lakes with the Traveling Symphony theater company in a world after the Georgia Flu killed so many. It stays with Jeevan in the present, as he holes up in an apartment with his brother and watches the world end from high above. And it jumps back into the past to trace the rise of Arthur alongside his many friends and colleagues. Mandel drops in short interstitial chapters that tell the stories of various other characters important to the narrative, particularly Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda, whose chapter is my favorite part of the book.
In TV series form, Station Eleven shifts several things around. The most notable change it makes is having Jeevan’s (Himesh Patel) encounter with Kirsten (Matilda Lawler as a child, Mackenzie Davis as an adult) at the theater result in him trying to help her find her parents. (In the book, they meet briefly, then go their separate ways.) As he tries to help Kirsten, his sister calls to say the Georgia Flu is in Chicago (the series’ new setting), and it’s very, very bad. He and his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), take Kirsten in, forging a connection between the characters that didn’t exist in the book but grounds the series.
There are tweaks like this throughout Station Eleven, the TV series, all of which serve to underscore connections between characters, some more unlikely than others. Mandel’s book is a lovely meditation on humanity’s resilience and the ways in which art can bring us together, but it’s also a clockwork plot, where each and every element of the story has a reason to exist, all of which knit together at the end. Done well (as it is in the book), this technique can feel a bit like magic, as the author reveals all her cards. Done poorly (as it has been on so many TV shows), a clockwork plot can feel like a writer insisting that everything is connected, in a way that rings false.
Somerville’s previous miniseries — the Netflix Emma Stone and Jonah Hill vehicle Maniac — felt a little too much like Somerville insisting everything is important. So I had at least some trepidation about his take on Station Eleven, where so many things could have gone so, so wrong. But Somerville also learned how to create a clockwork plot for television from Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, and he’s brought all of those lessons to bear on Station Eleven, but without the former series’ occasionally ultra-grim tone. (It was ultra-grim with purpose, but we are not here to relitigate this.)
An even smarter adaptation choice is to alternate between storytelling modes. The odd-numbered episodes expand the aforementioned interstitial episodes to entire hours of television. The Miranda chapter, my favorite in the book and now my favorite episode of the show, makes up the entirety of the third episode, as Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) goes on a long, strange journey to try to get back home for the funeral of the love of her life, even as the world ends around her.
Meanwhile, the even-numbered chapters trace adult Kirsten’s journeys with the theater company, performing Shakespeare and exploring both the sorrow and the joys of a post-apocalyptic world. What plot the series has pops up in these episodes more than in the others, but the plot wouldn’t work without the character development from the more standalone odd-numbered episodes. The alternation between storytelling modes also gives the show a pleasant rhythm once you fall under its spell.
Somerville’s approach to the material is perhaps best echoed by a line a character says in the series’ trailer: “This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life.” The TV version of Station Eleven utilizes all those unlikely connections to express wonder at the fact that human beings form any connection at all.
Jeevan and Kirsten should not know each other. In a vast universe, on a planet teeming with people, that they would find each other and form a familial bond has every odd against it. But they do find each other. And they do bond. Even amid the end of the world, there will be moments of raw beauty and hope.
What if the end of the world was also really beautiful?
The unexpected beauty of the end of all things is also reflected in the series’ direction, particularly in the two episodes directed by Murai (the first and third). Murai is one of the great visual stylists working in television right now, and the first few seconds of the series serve as a thesis statement for everything to follow.
In the opening series of shots, wild boars root around in the plant life inside a space once built and occupied by humans. A few scraps of paper mark this as the theater where Arthur (here played by Gael Garcia Bernal) died onstage playing Lear. Murai cuts to what remains of the seats, now covered in verdant greenery. And then he match-cuts to those seats on the night of Arthur’s final performance. The theater is now a living space, one where people will enjoy a great play. But it feels less alive than it did when its only occupants were plants and boars.
Television has been overwhelmed by a glut of series that lean too heavily on gray, murky visuals and digital color grading that reduces too much of the picture to dishwater mush. If Station Eleven failed on every other level, it would at least be worth watching for how it bucks this trend. The post-apocalyptic sections burst with a natural color palette, dominated by green. The mid-apocalyptic sections are stark white, thanks to the snow everywhere, with warmer tones for the apartment where Jeevan, Kirsten, and Frank hole up. And the sections set in the past are warmer still, as various characters remember their happiest moments.
The use of color allows viewers to instantly know where they are in the show’s timeline, which could feel overly complicated otherwise. The series never manages something as visually astonishing as those opening shots, but there were several moments per episode where I found myself deeply impressed by the show’s willingness to tell its story in images, even as the dialogue concocted by Somerville and his writers is poetic and rarely overwrought. (I did say rarely. It’s sometimes quite overwrought.)
I can quibble. I think a couple of the series’ episodes try way too hard to either cram in too much story or spread too little story over a full hour of TV. (The episodes are all around an hour long, though some are as short as 43 minutes.) Dan Romer’s score is often lovely, but sometimes, the blaring music felt a little like it was trying to tell me what exactly I should feel. And I occasionally felt like I needed a chart to track the bouncing around in time, particularly in some of those odd-numbered flashback episodes.
But those are only quibbles. Most of all, I’m glad Station Eleven has arrived at the end of a long, hard year for so many of us, because its embrace of joy and melancholy and its love of snowy expanses mark it as an accidentally perfect holiday season miniseries. In one episode, for instance, young Kirsten, surrounded by a dying world, performs “The First Noel” for Frank and Jeevan, twinkling lights in the background. At the end of the year, in the cold and the darkness and melancholy, we come together to make things a little warmer, a little brighter, a little more joyful. So why wouldn’t we do that at the end of the world, too?
Station Eleven debuts Thursday on HBO Max. The first three episodes are available that day, with two episodes each debuting on December 23, December 30, and January 6. The finale arrives January 13. Yes, as mentioned, this is weirdly appropriate Christmastime viewing.