"Still There is Such Beauty"
Station Eleven is one of the best page-to-screen adaptations of all time
This is a discussion of both the novel and TV show Station Eleven. I do not mention large spoilers for either, but I do discuss general moments in the story and small details about the characters.
“If Hua said there was an epidemic, then epidemic wasn’t a strong enough word. Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.”
The antagonist of Emily St. John-Mandel’s novel Station Eleven is a mysterious man named The Prophet. The novel, set twenty years after the collapse of civilization as a result of a virus called the Georgia Flu, now feels like a prophecy itself.
Published in 2014, the novel follows a group of connected characters, notably Arthur Leander, an established Hollywood actor who dies on-stage during a production of King Lear on the first day of the flu’s spread to North America. The story also follows Jeevan Chaudary, an ex-paparazzi journalist in the audience who rushes to the stage to perform CPR on him, as well as Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress playing one of Lear’s daughters. Station Eleven also includes Arthur’s ex-wives, Miranda and Elizabeth, his son, Tyler, and his old friend, Clark.
There are two main timelines in the novel: before and after the Georgia Flu’s impact on Earth, which kills roughly 99% of the population. In the sections set twenty years after the flu, there’s a particular emphasis on Kirsten. After walking for years to survive, first alongside her brother and then by herself, she joins the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who circle a route through the new world and perform Shakespeare. The motto on the side of their caravan is lifted from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager: “Because survival is insufficient.”
Station Eleven was written by Emily St. John Mandel, a Canadian novelist and essayist from Comox, British Columbia, who was originally inspired by the SARS epidemic in Toronto in the early 2000s. Station Eleven is her fourth novel; it was nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
It’s a beautiful novel on its own: the prose is beyond gorgeous to read and the interconnectedness of the characters makes the plot extremely engaging. But it’s the recent adaptation of Station Eleven as a miniseries for HBO that truly makes the story soar.
While a show about pandemic during an actual pandemic feels way too prescient, Station Eleven was in development long before COVID-19 was a reality. Even though the film rights to the novel were acquired in 2015, the show was only ordered for production by HBO Max in mid-2019. It was created by writer Patrick Somerville, who also worked on the apocalyptic series The Leftovers, and directed by Hiro Murai. Filming began in January 2020, but was then delayed by COVID-19.
There are often innumerable challenges with adapting a story from page to screen; after all, the saying, “The book was better than the movie” exists for a reason. Not only because we see stories differently in our heads when we read them, but because one medium does not always translate well to another. Film adaptations must add a strong visual component to the narrative to work; they cannot simply translate the source material page by page. This is why the TV adaptation of Normal People was so strong. Just seeing the way Marianne and Connell looked at (or avoided looking at) each other added another layer of visual tension to their relationship that simply does not exist in the book.
While this may seem obvious, many film adaptations struggle and align themselves too closely with the source material rather than reinterpret it for the screen. However, Station Eleven is one of the greatest page-to-screen adaptations of all time, because the story is greatly enhanced in the show and taken even further both emotionally and visually.
There are many changes from the novel to the TV show. Location-wise, the setting is changed from the GTA to Chicago, which was personally not a huge difference to me, although did feel like a bit of a loss for #CanCon. The structure of the story is changed as well. Certain moments that happen later in the novel actually happen earlier in the show, as some characters’ backstories are fleshed out more fully to gain their own episodes. Additionally, Arthur’s son Tyler, known in the books as The Prophet, is given much more prominence in the show as both the series’ antagonist and as a person.
Another large change from the novel to the show is the emphasis placed on the Station Eleven books. In the novel, Station Eleven is the name of a graphic novel created by Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda, who makes only a handful of copies of the text right before the Georgia Flu. While it’s mentioned in the novel, it’s fully fleshed out visually in the show, right down to having the actual comic that you see people reading, with illustrations done by artist Maria Nguyen.
Lines from the comic are used in multiple ways in the show, both as narration and as code used for certain characters to communicate with each other. Phrases like “I remember damage” and “I have found you nine times before, maybe ten, and I’ll find you again” are woven throughout both the ten episodes and the larger narrative itself.
Still, the most impactful change in the TV adaptation is the relationship between Jeevan and Kirsten. In the novel, while the characters run into each other at the final performance of King Lear before the Georgia Flu, they are otherwise not connected. In the show, however, the first episode details how Jeevan becomes responsible for taking care of Kirsten as the world collapses and her parents are unreachable. It’s a genius change, so effective that in an interview with Esquire, author St. John Mandel said, “Honestly, I wish I’d thought of that.”
The relationship between Jeevan, a man in his late 20s who has been stumbling through life, and Kirsten, an 8-year-old child actor, becomes the emotional anchor of the entire show as they become reliant on each other for survival. It’s a well-thought-out character and relationship enhanced enormously by British actor Himesh Patel’s heartbreaking performance; he’s so good in the role I’ll (almost) forgive him for the crime against humanity that is the movie Yesterday.
The main criticism I’ve seen of the show is that it feels too uncomfortable to watch now, given that we are currently entering Year Three of our own global pandemic that has completely changed the world as we knew it. I found reading Station Eleven right now difficult but watching it was doubly so. In spite of how good it is, I could barely watch an entire episode without taking a break halfway through, let alone multiple in a row.
It’s difficult to be reminded of the loss, grief and pain that still affects the entire world, especially when you’re watching TV to zone out or de-stress. On the other hand, when I’ve seen other recently released shows and movies that don’t address the pandemic at all or act like it’s over, I can’t help but feel like they are disingenuous and fake. COVID is a reality of our world now, and one that we will be dealing with for years to come.
In spite of its difficult moments, there’s an optimism in the narrative of Station Eleven that makes both the novel and the show incredibly special and even hopeful. While there are flashbacks to the early days of the virus, much of the story is devoted to how people rebuilt their lives with those around them. In the show, I was especially struck by just how much greenery and new plant growth were featured. Visually, this made it contrast with so many other post-apocalyptic settings where beige barren wastelands prevail and was oddly touching to me.
The most moving component of Station Eleven is this core theme of regeneration. After a virus kills 99% of the population, there is still 1% who survive. That 1% are able to find each other and create a new kind of life. Just the idea of the Traveling Symphony was deeply beautiful to me, the idea that even at the end of the world, people will still want to play music and perform great art for others.
As St. John Mandel writes in the novel, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” In spite of its brutal depiction of a pandemic, there is so much beauty in Station Eleven, a small narrative balm as we live through an apocalypse of our own.
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