Survival is insufficient: Thoughts on Station Eleven

(courtesy IMP Awards)

You have to hand it to anyone who adapts a beloved book into a TV series.

On the one hand, it’s a sensible move since some of the best storytelling around comes from authors who pour themselves and their stories into immersive, compelling reads; however, many readers, like fandom across all media really, feel immensely protective of the books they love and all buy defy anyone to take their treasured narratives apart and out them back again in a more visual, immediate form.

So, the backlash and the embrace by fans, depending where they stand, can be daunting and fulsome in ways that test the artistic resolve of any TV series production team.

The team behind Station Eleven, adapted from the international bestselling book of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, rightly saw a brilliantly engaging story in a book that dares to look at the standard grimly realistic tropes of apocalypse – to be fair, not entirely undeserved since the end of the world is an inherently dark and pessimistic thing – and imagine what might happen if hope, rather than self-destructive loss is the order of the day.

In a move that is oddly prescient about the current pandemic that continues to reshape life as we know it, though not in an end of the world sense at least; likely leave it to war and climate change to accomplish that horrific goal – 2015, Station Eleven explores a world in which over 99% of humanity has died from a virulent flu with almost 100% lethality.

What’s left in its wake is a society brought to its knees, its cities overgrown with grass and trees and fearless populations of animals who graze in once-grand, now-disheveled opera theatres and playhouses, and its remnant populace surviving in small agrarian populations learning how to work in harmony with nature all over again.

It’s at this point that most apocalyptic tales tend to throw up their hands in despair and helplessness, assuming humanity will give into their Lord of the Flies / The Walking Dead selves and finish off with orgiastic violence and murderous self-interest what nature, or the villain du jour, first began.

The joy of Station Eleven is that it does none of those things.

Certainly it acknowledges the ruin, the grief and the loss, documenting in the immediate hellishness of the pandemic, and in its one-to-five years aftermath a people who have lost everything and often everyone who defined them.

There is no easy way to face the end of everything you held dear and Station Eleven doesn’t for a second pretend it’s ever going to be a walk in the park or a stroll through an abandoned petrol (gas) station as the case may be.

What it does do in a story which brings quiet power and understanding to a nuanced, understated story which relies less on apocalyptic bombast and more on raw humanity to make its point is elevate hope, that enemy of the genre normally, right to the fore.

In fact, the book ends on a note that suggests the fat lady is a long way from singing and that perhaps, maybe and you just never know, humanity can come back from the precipice of oblivion.

What is interesting about the HBO adaptation, which is lush and beautiful and arrestingly contemplative in ways which take your breath away – the world may have ended as we know it but it remains a stunning place in which to exist for a whole host of reasons that owe nothing to bright lights, TV and computers – is that doesn’t give hope quite the same reverence that the book does.

That’s not to say that the story of Kirsten Raymonde (Mackenzie Davis as an adult; Matilda Lawler as a child) and her accidental life-saving guardian Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) and the Travelling Symphony is suddenly all hopeless battles and dark moments of the human heart.

The series does a movingly exemplary job, in episodes that feel like experiential works of visual art as much as nuanced storytelling, of examining what it is that keeps the existential lights on, whether that’s touring Shakespeare to populations hungry for art, civilisation and things that exist above mere survival, and why people choose to fight to rise from the ashes instead of forever brokenly coating themselves in soot.

In that respect, it does shine in ways that will really dig deep into your heart, courtesy of a narrative structure that is content to spend as much illuminating time in the past as the present – much of the story takes places twenty years after the pandemic has done its worst – and which isn’t so enamoured of striking narrative punctuation marks that it forgets to spend time just letting its characters be.

What is challenge if you have read and love the book is how much the adaptation plays around with characters and narrative flow.

That’s to be expected and embraced; after alL, TV/streaming shows are not, and will never be books, and to expect them to tell their stories in similar or exact ways, is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how each medium works.

What does strike you is how much the series turns bad guys into broken ones, inspiring communities into paranoid-laden strange ones and how hope is not so much revered as held quietly to the bosom in the hope it will be seen anyway.

What Station Eleven the adaptation does brilliantly well, in ways which will move you to the absolute core, is examine what happens to people when bonds are frayed or outright broken, when certainties are pulled out from under them and new ones don’t rush in to take their place.

People like Tyler Leander (Daniel Zovatto as an adult, Julian Obradors as the child), son of famed actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) who ends up at an airport in rural Michigan with his mother Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and their old “friend” Clark (David Wilmot) and has to grapple with the end of the world, the rupturing of his family and everything he ever knew when he’s barely into his teens.

Both he, and Kirsten, who deals with family lost and family found in unique ways that are touchingly given real affecting form by the series, are bound by a boutique comic book called Station Eleven (only five copies are ever printed) by Leander’s first wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) which eerily touches on themes of belonging and loss and the inevitability of finding those you are meant to be with no matter what life might throw at you in the meantime.

That is ultimately what emerges from an imperfect but far from broken adaptation in which hope isn’t as prominent in terms of the broader brushstrokes of civilisation but where the vibrancy and potency of found family and the everlasting connections they forge (such as the robustly intense one between Kirsten and her “mother”, the co-founder of the Travelling Symphony, Sarah (Lori Petty) are what gets us through trying and difficult times where the world may have ended but humanity, once again, and you suspect for the duration, most certainly has not.

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