(Those who’ve been tracking me around the interwebs for a while have probably already seen most of the content in this rant, so if it seems familiar to you… I am both sorry for boring you, and pleased that you’ve been paying attention for this long.)
We now return you to your previously scheduled programming.
There’s this funky little book by my hero, Mr. King. It’s called The Stand. Most of you have probably heard of it at one point or another – or at least seen the (somewhat okay) miniseries version – so I’m just going to assume you probably know the broad strokes regarding the superflu and Randy Flagg’s bid for world domination or destruction. I’ve always enjoyed the book, mainly for the reason that almost everybody can feel represented in the book somewhere. With the huge cast of characters and variety of personality types, there are few archetypes King leaves alone. Even better, almost every one of those characters has a significant plot arc, becoming someone better (or worse) than where they began. Major spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read it and plan to – or are currently working your way through – you have been warned.
For the record, anything I say in this article refers to the Complete and Uncut version of the book; it’s been far too long since I read the “regular” edition, and I can no longer separate content that wasn’t present in the original version from the one I’ve read twenty times. My bad, I know, but given that I don’t think the original version is on shelves anymore, and if you enjoyed the book, you’ve probably at least peeked at the newer one. If you haven’t, shame on you… because one thing that I know got significant upgrades was Trashcan Man’s journey West, and meeting The Kid is worth the price of admission.
So, in it’s original format, this rant was about my issues with the miniseries version of one of my favorites. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was overall pleased with it, but there were some particular changes that riled me up. (And no, I’m not talking about casting Molly Ringwald or Jamey Sheridan, much as I despise both of them.) It was in the combining of Rita and Nadine, which has subtle but unfortunate ramifications on Larry’s character arc, and making Harold kinda… well, suck.
It’s not a popular opinion, but I love Harold. The esteemed Mr. Lauder had potentially the best plot in the book in my opinion. From borderline solipsism, the hated teenage outcast eventually learns to function around other humans. He experiences the bloom – and loss – of his first love. He delves into revenge fantasies both practical and suitably insane. He eventually becomes a trusted member of his community, a pillar – even if some of the other characters refuse to acknowledge it – and starts on the path to being a better person. He grows up. Admittedly, he then screws up big time – though Flagg and Nadine know just how to stroke the remnants of his pubescent ego, playing him like a fiddle as they build up his rage, self-hatred and inadequacy complexes until he snaps and joins the dark side for real. Then, when it’s far too late to turn back, he dies begging for redemption… and even admits his own fault in the way things played out.
There’s some definite Judas imagery in Harold. Outcast becomes trusted friend, betrays friends, commits (essential) suicide upon discovering the error in what he’s done. To be fair, I have a soft spot for Judas figures. But more than that, he calls to me because I am reminded of myself in a lot of ways. Like I said earlier, everybody has that character that jumps out and says “This is my avatar in this story;” Harold is mine. Might be an unfortunate choice, but he’s still the one I sympathize with the most.
Of course, most people don’t agree with me. He gets slapped with the villain brush early, is never quite trusted, is always viewed with suspicion, and many people, upon discovering his eventual fate and suicide note alongside Glen, Larry, Stu and Ralph, think he got nothing more than his just deserts. I find it a trifle ironic that most readers greet him the same way most of the characters in the story do, offering the same treatment that starts him down the road to his unfortunate end.
The film version, on the other hand, says all that character development, his reasons and motivations, are unimportant and boil down to “Frannie doesn’t love me, waaaaaaah. I’m a bastard!” Admittedly, viewed from the outside, his actions can certainly seem that way, but I can’t help but feel they could have stopped obsessing over Molly Ringwald’s ultra-girly version of Frannie for ten minutes to point out some of Harold’s good points, or allow him to express his motivation for his deeds. They don’t exonerate him… but they do make him more human and understandable, I think.
What does this have to do with Larry and Trashy? They’re all on the same road, to a degree. All of them are “broken” at the start, outsiders with an inability to relate to others or understand why they’re on the outs. All of them blame others for their troubles. But like branches coming from a singular trunk, each of them reaches out in their own way, becomes something and someone else.
Harold tries to be a better person; unfortunately, due to the abuse he suffered and the self-hatred it inspired, he found himself unable to let go and just let things be, and was ultimately destroyed for it. Larry, on the other hand, is likewise forced to grow up, to man up and accept responsibility for his actions. Again, the crime of the film version was merging Nadine and Rita; Rita and her messy end form an important stepping stone on Larry’s personal journey. Her suicide “on his watch” forces him to take a few steps back and really evaluate his life, and whether that’s who he wants to be; that death marks him, makes him open to love when Nadine, Joe and Lucy come along, makes him into a better man and protector.
It’s interesting to me that Larry idolizes Harold for much of the first half of the book. He considers him a role-model, a source of inspiration and ingenuity that Larry himself feels he lacks. His personal journey is in many ways a mirror of Harold’s (attempting to become a valuable member of a group, love denied and then found again – also of note is that the lover who rejects Larry ends up being the lover who drives Harold’s final fall – and discovering he has a use, a value to the people he cares for after all.) Then their paths split. Larry embraces his relationship with Lucy, and with the help of Judge Farris, Lucy, Joe and Stu learns to let go of what he was before. He learns to grow up and be a new man.
But that comes at a cost. Acknowledging and stepping up to his responsibilities and the demands on his conscience means sending Farris to his death. It means turning Nadine away when she comes to him for help… with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. Again, the links to Harold; Nadine comes to Larry seeking “redemption;” to serve the higher purpose, to be the man he wants to be, he must turn her away. Thus, he damns Nadine, who turns to Harold for her vengeance. The road to hell, good intentions and all that rot.
And then there’s Trashy. Oh, Trashy. Like Harold and Larry, he’s caught between two people, though his divide was in existence before Captain Trips; Donald, the abused and confused child who just wants to be happy… and Trashcan Man, the manic psychopath who wants nothing more than to watch the world burn. When the plague hits and Donald is let loose, he tries; he goes back home, tries to be good. He recognizes that his tormentors are gone, on some levels, and knows he could start over, be something else. He even dreams of Mother Abigail, unlike most folks who are destined for Flagg’s army in the West. But Flagg’s whispers and Trashy’s obsessions just won’t let him be.
Harold fights the darkness. Wrestles with it. He loses, but knows what he’s done and feels remorse. Larry turns back the dark, embraces the good and becomes someone better. Trashy embraces oblivion, and goes gleefully into the night.
All three of them start at the same point, but grow into vastly different people. But then there’s the question of if any of them really had free will. The Stand tries to hide it – sometimes – but it’s a very religion focused book, and the eventual fate of all the characters hinges on these three to one degree or another; had any one of them behaved differently, Flagg might not have been bested.
Take Harold. If he hadn’t given in to his vengeance-urges, would Stu, Glen, Ralph and Larry begun their trek westward, ultimately culminating in Flagg’s defeat? Probably not. Again with the Judas imagery; God’s plan demands betrayal, and someone must play that betrayer. Salvation bought and paid for in blood.
Larry? If he hadn’t been toughened and learned to recognize the good of the many, would he have gone West with the others when it came time? Would he have been able to take the reigns from Stu when he fell? Doubtful. Even the darker parts of his nature become his strengths, allow him to carry on.
And Trashy. Trashy’s turn to the “Dark Side” ultimately provides victory for the “good guys.” By joining Flagg, Trashy was put in position to sabotage the Dark Man’s forces, to seek his own twisted “penance” and bring the bomb that banishes Flagg and destroys most of the “bad guys” (who, coincidentally wouldn’t all be in one place if Larry and Co. hadn’t made their pilgrimage to Vegas, and they wouldn’t have done that if not for Harold’s betrayal…) He becomes the literal Will of God, scourging the enemy.
So, continuing the tree analogy, all three started in the same trunk, branched off to do their own thing… but ultimately become twisted and twined amongst each other, their lives irrevocably joined.
And all of that is just a really long way of saying… don’t hate on Harold. Because he’s got one of the best character arcs, his actions inform most of the other major characters, and ultimately, he paves the way to the happy ending for the citizens of the Boulder Free Zone that most readers were hoping for. 😉
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Tell us about your favorite Stand character, why Harold deserves the hate heaped on him, or your favorite under-appreciated semi-hero from another source! Use the magic box below. ’til next time!