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HBO’s Station Eleven adaptation review: Pandemic fiction we can feel good about

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Mackenzie Davis in HBO’s adaptation of Station Eleven.

Ian Watson/HBO Max

In early 2020, earlier than the lockdown, earlier than the coronavirus even had a reputation, the passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess started a two-week quarantine off the coast of Japan. I bear in mind telling a buddy the world was beginning to feel like Station Eleven. Life imitating artwork. 

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One of probably the most memorable and haunting photos of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 speculative novel Station Eleven will not be a cruise ship however an airplane. An airplane assembly tarmac, slowing to a cease and sitting dormant with out opening its doorways or releasing its passengers, sealing the an infection inside. It is Schrödinger’s airplane, its passengers already ghosts earlier than they die. 

Now in late 2021, the wildly in style before-times novel is an after-times HBO Max unique restricted collection, premiering Dec. 16. Instead of COVID-19, Station Eleven’s world is devastated by the Georgia Flu. Its story of collapse and rebirth returns to seek out an viewers that might be too weary to show to dystopian hypothesis for leisure. Because now Station Eleven jogs my memory of the early pandemic: grocery hoarding, overrun emergency rooms, face masks. Art imitating life. 

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The first dying we see will not be from the flu: Movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) is enjoying the titular position in a stage manufacturing of King Lear. Child actor Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler, performed as an grownup by Mackenzie Davis) watches Arthur succumb to a coronary heart assault whereas viewers member Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) interrupts the present to carry out CPR. Arthur dies on stage. Soon, nearly everybody within the theater shall be useless, too.

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The fictional plague is each extra lethal and extra contagious than COVID-19, killing some 99% of the earth’s inhabitants in a matter of weeks. Those who survive turn out to be unwitting actors on a post-apocalyptic stage the place there are not any medical doctors, no international locations, no provide chain, no web, no celebrities, a world the place luck and destiny decide who lives or dies, and youngsters be taught to kill or be killed. 

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Matilda Lawler as younger Kirsten.

Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

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“I bear in mind injury,” Kirsten repeats 20 years later, quoting a comic book e-book referred to as Station Eleven that was given to her by Arthur earlier than his dying. Kirsten has improbably survived the pandemic and joined The Traveling Symphony, a roving Shakespeare troupe, spreading artwork and tradition from the earlier than occasions to a Great Lakes area that’s now dotted with small settlements of survivors coexisting in relative concord, however with an ever-thrumming baseline of hazard. 

Civilization in a post-pandemic world

The plot unfurls throughout not solely timelines however characters, and Kirsten’s comedian e-book is the portkey that reveals the tangled internet we weave — the six levels of separation, the missed connections, the “what a small world!” coincidences. The world of Station Eleven is small, the ensemble solid like that of a late-career Garry Marshall film. We soar from the earlier than to the throughout to the after; between Kirsten and Jeevan and Arthur; and likewise Arthur’s first spouse Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), his second spouse Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), their son Tyler (Julian Obradors), and his good buddy Clark (David Wilmot). We see how this interconnectivity each creates and dismantles civilization. It is that this similar connectedness that permits a virus to proliferate, in any case.

One of probably the most unsettling of the COVID-era catchphrases is “new regular.” And whereas the display screen adaptation of Station Eleven considerations itself extra with the quick aftermath of the collapse than the novel does, it’s nonetheless primarily a narrative of rebuilding normalcy. Not solely do folks proceed to carry out Shakespeare within the after-times, however they fall in love, they provide beginning, they go swimming, they learn comedian books they usually curate museums. Strangers turn out to be household. Stranded airport denizens turn out to be a group. The world is as completely different between Year 20 and Year One because it was between Year One and “pre-pan.”

In this fashion, Station Eleven depicts not the tip of the world — not a earlier than and after — a lot because the inflection level of general systems collapse, a idea that posits extra of a cyclical sample, a waxing and waning of societal complexity all through historical past. (Sally Rooney’s 2021 novel Beautiful World, Where Are You additionally references this idea.) Our infrastructure is tenuous in its complexity, a truth we’ve grappled with in actual life amid provide chain disruptions and the coining of “essential worker.” So it’s considerably comforting to have a look at collapse by means of the lens of enterprise as common.

A up to date soundtrack does the heavy lifting for the collection’ level about continuity, and each recognizable tune is a reminder that this unfamiliar world is not as far eliminated as we’d prefer it to be. Unlike the novel, wherein Kirsten’s reminiscences of Year One have been misplaced, Davis’s Kirsten remembers so vividly that she primarily lives in each timelines directly, even returning to the early collapse and conversing along with her youthful self in a fever dream. Her performances are animated by her grief, and the collection appears to say that artwork is not only a comfort prize, however a present. Perhaps Station Eleven will not be even dystopian then, however a somber grasp at utopia.

Adapting Station Eleven for the small display screen

The undertaking of any book-to-screen adaptation is to recapture the magic of the unique utilizing the instruments of the brand new medium. And showrunner Patrick Somerville (of Netflix’s Maniac) achieves this aim deftly, bringing to life a few of Mandel’s most indelible photos — the ghost airplane, the horse-drawn pickup vans, the failure of {the electrical} grid — whereas amplifying among the e-book’s quieter moments. The adaptation turns Jeevan and Kirsten’s probability encounter into the collection’ emotional hinge, a revision that appears so becoming I needed to double-check it wasn’t within the supply materials.

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Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler as Jeevan and younger Kirsten in Station Eleven.

Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

The largest change in HBO’s adaptation is the therapy of the prophet (Daniel Zovatto), whose easy villainy within the novel fuels the plot and gives the stakes in Year 20. Here, his “there is no such thing as a earlier than” perception system is extra enigmatic and empathetic and thus, frankly, extra fascinating. This model of the prophet is understandably extra engaging to Kirsten, too, battling with the preservationist ideology behind the Museum of Civilization. Even post-collapse, human tradition finds its footing astride the conservative and the unconventional, and the prophet jogs my memory of the burn-it-all-down, can’t-go-back-to-normal rhetoric of our current pandemic, the place systemic inequality is lastly foregrounded within the cultural dialog. 

Still, the miniseries is quieter than numerous viewers will anticipate, given the premise and style, and by complicating the prophet, the story loses a lot of its momentum. Tonally, moments of lightheartedness feel dissonant and even cringey, just like the message of hope is a capsule the actors could not fairly swallow. Perhaps the adaptation would have felt completely different if it had arrived earlier inside our personal pandemic, however after all it was the pandemic that delayed filming.

The Traveling Symphony’s mantra is “Because survival is inadequate.” As a bit of tradition in a post-COVID world, the HBO miniseries has taken up this mantra itself, a reminder of dystopian fiction’s raison d’etre. It is why everybody began streaming Contagion and reading Camus final yr. Even when the bubonic plague shuttered Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the present went on. Art has its personal survival intuition.

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