Emily St. John Mandel’s breakout novel Station Eleven is one of the most compelling and memorable books I’ve read in the past decade, so I was thrilled to hear it was being adapted for the screen. I wasn’t disappointed: HBO Max’s ten-episode miniseries is rich, haunting, and beautiful, with individual episodes that are particularly masterful, and it couldn’t be timelier.
Spoiler alert/trigger warning: Station Eleven is about a deadly pandemic. It says something about the skill and insight of Patrick Somerville (whose credits also include the inventive Netflix miniseries Maniac) that, without flinching at the subject matter’s darkness, he manages to imbue considerable hope and optimism into such a grim, topical scenario. The story begins in Chicago, as the quirky Jeevan (Himesh Patel) watches a production of King Lear starring famous movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal). When Arthur appears to be having a heart attack during the performance, Jeevan is the first to notice and rushes onstage to help. This moment of bravery introduces him to Kiki (the remarkable Matilda Lawler), a child actress in the play overlooked by her distracted handler after the show. Reluctantly, Jeevan agrees to escort her home, a dutiful decision that transforms his life. But when he receives advance notice of an impending flu’s deadliness, he brings Kiki with him to take refuge in the high-rise apartment of his shut-in brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) to wait the crisis out. Alas, the crisis doesn’t end; the world does. It ties Jeevan’s fate indefinitely to an eight-year-old girl he barely knows, as they struggle to survive the aftermath of modern civilization’s catastrophic collapse.
Like the book, Station Eleven ricochets through perspectives and back and forth through time, and another major narrative track takes place twenty years after the apocalypse. Kiki, grown up and now going by Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), is still an actress, this time with a traveling theater troupe that regularly circumnavigates Lake Michigan, putting on plays for fellow survivors. The Symphony, as it’s called, is composed of misfit performers committed to bringing art and meaning to the after-times. But there are new dangers in the post-pandemic world, including a peculiar cult led by Tyler (Daniel Zovatto) that sees the end of civilization as a kind of rebirth – and the remnants of the old world as a threat.
The plot specifics of the miniseries deviate significantly from the novel in a number of ways. Some of the changes are suspect – extending the weave of intertwined fates way too far into the realm of improbable coincidence, for example, and glossing over the logistics of extended survival in a post-pandemic landscape. But the changes are also deliberate and mindful. For one thing, they diversify the cast, and the many character changes allow Somerville to expand the story beyond its original scope, giving its multiple protagonists – and even its side characters – their own arcs and mini-arcs, side stories that contribute to the whole. The novel’s structural restlessness lends itself to an effective, nonlinear anthology-show feel. Somerville’s episodic approach to the adaptation allows him to explore the before times, the pandemic itself, and the aftermath, both individually and artfully bled together. These parts cohere into a swirling, impactful whole, all contributing to a common, winning theme.
And that theme? The immeasurable power of art in dark times. This theme invades every last corner of the show, but the key is Station Eleven itself, a graphic novel that is the passion project of Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), whose flashback “origin story” in episode three was a soaring highlight. Miranda is an introverted soul committed to finishing a project she has almost no intention of marketing or even sharing; it’s just something she has to do. In the end, only five copies of the book are printed, two of which eventually find their way into the hands of Kirsten and Tyler. Immersion in Miranda’s book provides emotional armor and internal escape for both of them as the world inexorably, terrifyingly mutates. Story gives them hope, escape, and purpose. This notion hit me where I live, and I suspect it will have a similar effect on the many writers, actors, musicians, or other artists in the world struggling to find meaning in their passions at a time when it feels like the world is collapsing. Story is important: it’s powerful and sustaining and a way of making sense of things. That has always felt true to me, and Station Eleven brilliantly crystallizes that sentiment: a story about a deadly pandemic, released during a deadly pandemic, featuring characters struggling to make sense of their inner drives, even as the show’s viewers face the same reckoning. Sometimes the world seems to be trying to make storytelling irrelevant, but that only makes it more important. It’s all very dark, of course, but there’s beauty and resilience in that darkness. And while the sentiment may be unrealistically rosy, sometimes a hopeful message is what we need to keep fighting.