There’s a delightful scene in the otherwise rightly forgotten 2002 post-apocalyptic film Reign of fire, in which a group of burlap-clad peasant children watch, fascinated, two men perform a dramatic sword fight on a candlelit stage. It is only towards the end of this medieval-looking diversion that it becomes clear that the adults are re-enacting the famous scene of The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader informs Luke Skywalker how closely related the two are. Even in a world devastated by fire-breathing dragons (yes, dragons), it seems some stories are immortal.
This is basically the premise of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Eleven station, in which a troop of wandering gamers perform as Shakespeare in a series of small settlements established in the wake of a highly deadly global pandemic. HBO’s new 10-episode limited series based on the novel may believe in immortal stories, but it makes so many changes to Mandel’s novel it probably doesn’t count Eleven station among them. The novel and the series are less survivalist action-adventure than ruminations about what makes sense of human life, what we would choose to save if lost. But their answers are not the same.
The flu ravaging the world in Eleven station only has a 1% survival rate, so after hitting, infecting and killing his victims within days, he goes extinct, leaving behind a handful of people who managed to self-isolate in time. All of the central characters in the story are linked to Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), a movie star who died of a heart attack on stage in Chicago playing King Lear, just before the pandemic began. Important pieces of chronological history describe life “before” and immediately after the flu.
One character, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), is a shipping industry executive who works on a graphic novel about a lone astronaut called Captain Eleven in her spare time. Another, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), is a child actress of the Léar production that remembers Arthur’s kindness and cherishes the copy of Miranda’s self-published book he gave her. After Arthur dies, audience member Jeevan (Himesh Patel) tries to help 8-year-old Kirsten get home from the theater. When her parents prove unreachable and likely dead, Kirsten joins Jeevan and her disabled brother (Nabhaan Rizwan) in a high-rise condo, where they hide with supplies amassed during the first months of the aftermath of the pandemic. In another story, Arthur’s best friend Clark (David Wilmot) and his second wife (Caitlin FitzGerald) find themselves stranded in a small airport where a few dozen uninfected people must form a new community. There, Elizabeth and Arthur’s son, like Kirsten, spends much of his time reading and rereading Miranda’s comics.
Other parts of the story take place around 20 years after the pandemic. There is no electricity or running water, and all fuel reserves have been depleted, so the Traveling Symphony (which also includes a small orchestra) has to rely on horses to pull their carts from town to town. The years that have passed have been painful, and now an adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) has become an expert in throwing hunting knives at would-be attackers, but an attempt at peace has gripped the country. To emphasize its fragility, the series provides a nifty visual aid, a painted wooden map with Lake Michigan at its center. The map can be rotated to follow the circular route of the Symphony, drawn around the circumference of the lake. “We don’t get out of the wheel,” the players explain to a new member, as the outside world behind the wheel is not safe.
It should be noted that neither the novel nor the television adaptation of Eleven station offers a plausible post-apocalyptic scenario. Mandel has survivors killing each other on backpacks in a world where there are far more backpacks (and just about every other material resource) than the remaining residents will ever need. The symphony is impractical in size for a troupe that apparently survives thanks to the vastness of the tiny encampments that actually grow fresh food. (We’re never told or shown how or if the symphony is paid for.) Miranda’s comic seems to be the only book we’ve ever read, even the survivors camping out in the airport terminal, who should be rich in paperbacks from Nora Roberts and Liane Moriarty. Last but not least, Captain Eleven is not Luke Skywalker. From what we’re told about the comics, it looks remarkably short in action, with its characters spending all of their time pondering the past and chanting Beckett-style lines like, “I don’t want to go through the bad one. life and then die. ” It doesn’t seem like catnip to the 8 year old imagination. When, at the last minute, an exasperated Jeevan flips through Kirsten’s copy of her book and moans, “It’s so pretentious“, the series deserved its only laugh from me.
Showrunner Patrick Somerville and other screenwriters who worked on the series are alumni of Leftovers, an HBO series that could have elicited a similar scream from Jeevan. Like Leftovers, this version of Eleven station is melancholy, enigmatic, character-oriented and lovely. The end of the world is beautifully photographed, whether it’s images of a theater or a hotel room coming together in one place, years later, overgrown with grass, ferns and trees. animals, or the eerily large, dark, low-ceiling spaces of a chain department store that has been converted into a post-apocalyptic birthing center. In the first few episodes of the series, the austere beauty of the crumbling world the characters inhabit is quite capable of carrying the show, but it doesn’t have to be. Strong all-around performances, especially of Lawler as a child Kirsten, and scripts based on character relationships make each episode indelible.
Things start to fall apart towards the end, unfortunately. The show’s creators saw fit to make some major changes to Mandel’s plot, some clever, others just confusing. Jeevan and Kirsten only meet at a glance in the novel. The show makes the inspired decision to have him save her and become his surrogate parent until they are unwillingly separated. The terror of this sudden responsibility for another life transforms Jeevan and produces some of the best storylines and acting sets in the series. In a less successful change, the novel’s main antagonist, a self-proclaimed prophet leading a local cult, has been transformed into a more ambiguous figure. His motives don’t make sense until you realize that the series, in search of more drama than Mandel’s novel can provide, is putting on a performance of Hamlet at the airport as a decisive moment.
There is usually an element of wish fulfillment in any post-apocalyptic narrative. In Mandel’s novel, Arthur is an artist corrupted by celebrity culture, wealth, and a decadent abundance of choices that make him unable to fully commit to a woman and neglect his son. In contrast, the members of the Traveling Symphony are pure and, more importantly, their audiences too, who have mysteriously lost their appetite for pop culture and the clamor for the Bard. Miranda’s comic – perhaps the purest artistic work in history, as it has no other audience in mind than its own creator – can be featured in a genre set, but it is also calm, sad and gloomy than any work of literary fiction. Much like Jeevan, a former paparazzi, redeems himself by becoming a doctor after the pandemic, the public who used to clamor for garbage, having learned what really matters through disaster and hardship, corrected his taste.
Part of this theme is taken up by the creators of Eleven station series, but cinematic representations of the importance of art can be difficult to achieve without the result looking boring. On the page, the Traveling Symphony is steeped in Arcadian romance; on screen, they are show-off theater hippies. The series seems oddly indifferent to portraying the enduring power of Shakespeare’s work, but then what writer wants to fill their screenplay with testimonies from another long-dead writer who they can never hope to compete with? Among the many changes the series makes to the novel is the introduction of a mantra, repeated by the Prophet: “There is no before. Unlike Clark, who is assembling a “museum of civilization” in the old air traffic controller tower with screens of defunct technology, the Prophet wants to erase the memory of “before” and start anew, with followers born after the pandemic.
The idea that survivors must exorcise the past that haunts them seems to be one that the show itself endorses. With the Prophet – who harbors his own unresolved grievances – the other characters must stop looking back if they are to do more than just survive. This idea, obviously, resonates a lot with viewers who are currently working on our own complicated and ardent relationship to “before”. But this is a counterintuitive message to be taken from Mandel’s novel, a book in which all the culture of meaning belongs to “before”, and in which only death on an incomprehensible scale and a difficult life can persuade the public. rude to appreciate the seriousness, the quality art. As for the spectators of this world, whose sufferings have not yet equaled that of the characters in Station eleven, some will surely appreciate this sullen, beautiful and moving adaptation, so confused. The others will probably still prefer The walking dead.