Station Eleven review: HBO Max show invents a cozy post-apocalypse

The 2021 holiday season looks like an unusually weird and potentially horrifying time to launch a miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant 2014 novel Eleven station.

Eleven station is one of my favorite 21st century books so far, and its blend of magical realism, clockwork layout, post-apocalyptic setting, and complicated structure offers enough imaginative twists and turns for the TV adaptation in 10 episodes of HBO Max is having fun. (The first three episodes debut Thursday. Two episodes follow every Thursday thereafter until the finale drops completely on January 13.)

Corn Eleven station is also a book about the world in the preparation and aftermath of a devastating plague that is killing most of mankind. His resonance with the present moment is so strong that in March 2020, days before most of the United States was locked down, Vulture interviewed Mandel about his book’s overlap with the present. So it may seem macabre to tell a story about a disease so deadly that only one in 1,000 survives (heavy aerial quotes) “at this time in history”.

What else, Eleven station makes several adaptation choices that alter some of the essential elements of Mandel’s novel. Two characters who stand a chance to meet shortly before the Georgian flu wreaks havoc on the world are now precious companions for the first days of the apocalypse, and the book’s main villain has been radically redesigned. It would have been so easy to create a version of this story where these changes made the series toothless and aimless.

Yet few works of fiction in the aftermath of Covid-19 have struck me as as healing as this TV adaptation of Leftovers the writer Patrick Somerville and Atlanta director Hiro Murai. Rather than imagine something dark, Eleven station picks up Mandel’s book and amplifies his sense of a comfortable post-apocalypse, where humanity comes together rather than parting. I entered the series deeply skeptical and left with at least a half-hearted hope for what humanity might still become, even after the end.

“This strange and horrible time has been the happiest of my life”

In book form, Eleven station follows three characters who are lucky enough to meet on stage in a Toronto theater during a production of King Lear. Kirsten is a child actress, playing one of Lear’s daughters as a child. Arthur is a brash movie star who tries to burnish his reputation by playing one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And Jeevan is a future doctor who tries to save Arthur’s life after he collapses from a heart attack during a performance.

The book then traces three chronologies. He goes 20 years into the future to follow Kirsten into adulthood, touring the Great Lakes with the Traveling Symphony theater company in a world after the Georgian flu kills so many people. He stays with Jeevan in the present, as he hides in an apartment with his brother and watches the end of the world from above. And he goes back in time to retrace Arthur’s rise alongside his many friends and colleagues. Mandel drops short, interstitial chapters that tell the stories of various other characters important to the narrative, especially Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda, whose chapter is my favorite part of the book.

In the form of television series, Eleven station move several things around. The most notable change he brings is Jeevan (Himesh Patel) meeting Kirsten (Matilda Lawler as a child, Mackenzie Davis as an adult) in the theater, which leads him to try and help him find his parents. (In the book, they meet briefly, then go their separate ways.) As he tries to help Kirsten, his sister calls him to tell him that Georgian flu is in Chicago (the show’s new setting) and that it is very, very serious. He and his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), welcome Kirsten, forging a bond between the characters who didn’t exist in the book but who found the series.

There are adjustments like this everywhere Eleven station, the television series, which all serve to underline the links between the characters, some more improbable than others. Mandel’s book is a beautiful meditation on the resilience of humanity and the ways art can bring us together, but it is also a horological plot, where every element of history has a reason to exist. , which all come together at the end. Done well (as in the book), this technique may seem a bit magical, as the author reveals all his cards. Done poorly (as has been the case with so many TV shows), a clockwork plot can look like a writer insisting that everything is connected, in a way that rings false.

Somerville’s Previous Miniseries – The Netflix Vehicle Emma Stone and Jonah Hill Maniacal – felt a bit too much like Somerville insisting that everything is important. So I had at least some trepidation about his point of view Eleven station, where so many things could have gone so wrong. But Somerville also learned how to create a television clockwork script from Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, and he put all those lessons to good use Eleven station, but without the sometimes ultra-gray tone of the old series. (It was ultra-dark with a purpose, but we’re not here to question that.)

An even smarter choice of adaptation is to alternate between storytelling modes. Odd Episodes extend the aforementioned interstitial episodes to entire hours of television. The Miranda Chapter, my favorite in the book and now my favorite episode in the series, makes up the entire third episode, as Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) sets out on a long, bizarre journey to try and get home for the funeral of the show. love of her life, even as the world ends around her.

Meanwhile, the even-numbered chapters trace the travels of the adult Kirsten with the theater company, playing Shakespeare and exploring the sorrows and joys of a post-apocalyptic world. The plot of the series appears more in these episodes than the others, but the plot wouldn’t work without character development from the odd, more stand-alone episodes. The alternation between storytelling modes also gives the show a pleasant rhythm once you fall in love with it.

Somerville’s approach to the material is perhaps best echoed in a phrase one character says in the series trailer: “This weird and horrific time has been the happiest of my life. »The TV version of Eleven station uses all of these unlikely connections to express her wonder that human beings form any connection.

Jeevan and Kirsten shouldn’t know each other. In a vast universe, on a planet teeming with humans, they meet and form a family bond against him. But they meet again. And they bond. Even in the midst of the end of the world, there will be times of raw beauty and hope.

What if the end of the world was also really beautiful?

Eleven station has great Christmas vibes.
HBO Max

The unexpected beauty of the End of All Things is also reflected in the making of the series, most notably in the two episodes directed by Murai (the first and the third). Murai is one of the great visual stylists working on television right now, and the first few seconds of the series serve as a thesis statement for everything to follow.

In the first series of shots, wild boars take root in plant life inside a space that was once built and occupied by humans. A few scraps of paper mark this as the theater where Arthur (here played by Gael Garcia Bernal) died on stage playing Lear. Murai cuts to what remains of the seats, now covered in verdant greenery. And then he cut those seats the night of Arthur’s last performance. The theater is now a living space, where people can enjoy a large play. But it feels less alive than it used to be when its only occupants were plants and wild boars.

Television has been overwhelmed by an overabundance of series that rely too much on gray and dark visuals and digital color grading that reduces the image too much to dishwater mush. Yes Eleven station failed at all other levels, it would at least be worth seeing how he reverses that trend. The post-apocalyptic sections are teeming with a natural color palette, dominated by green. The mid-apocalyptic sections are pristine white, thanks to snow everywhere, with warmer tones for the apartment where Jeevan, Kirsten, and Frank are hiding. And the sections that take place in the past feel even warmer, as various characters remember their happiest times.

The use of color allows viewers to instantly know where they are in the show’s timeline, which might otherwise seem overly complicated. The series never achieves something as visually stunning as these opening shots, but there were several moments per episode where I found myself deeply in awe of the show’s willingness to tell its story in pictures, even if the dialogue concocted by Somerville and his writers is poetic and rarely overworked. (I said rarely. It is sometimes quite overworked.)

I can quibble. I think a few episodes of the show try too much to cram too many stories or broadcast too few stories over a full hour of television. (The episodes are around an hour long, although some are only 43 minutes long.) Dan Romer’s score is often charming, but at times the blaring music made it seem like she was trying to tell me exactly how I should feel. . And sometimes I felt like I needed a chart to track the bounce back over time, especially in some of those odd flashback episodes.

But these are just bickering. Most of all, I’m happy Eleven station has come at the end of a long and difficult year for many of us, as its embrace of joy and melancholy and love of the snowy expanses makes it an accidentally perfect vacation miniseries. In one episode, for example, young Kirsten, surrounded by a dying world, performs “The First Noel” for Frank and Jeevan, with twinkling lights in the background. At the end of the year, in the cold and the dark and the melancholy, we come together to make things a little warmer, a little brighter, a little more joyful. So why wouldn’t we do it at the end of the world as well?

Eleven station debuts Thursday on HBO Max. The first three episodes are available that day, with two episodes each debuting on December 23, December 30, and January 6. The final arrives on January 13. Yes, as mentioned, it’s oddly appropriate for Christmas.


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