Monday, 3 October 2022

Station Eleven

Terminal Act

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9781447268963

A few months ago I was absolutely bowled over by a new TV miniseries which I watched twice. It was a ten episode show called Station Eleven (reviewed here) and, by the time I was through it the first time, I realised I would have to read the original source novel, which was written by a writer I’d never heard of called Emily St. John Mandel.

And now I have and... well, for starters, it’s great.

I think sometimes it depends what iteration of a piece of art you are exposed to first as to which version you respond to better. I have a Twitter friend (thanks Laura) who said she preferred the book and I suspect, although I may be wrong, that she read the book before seeing the TV show, which was not developed or worked on by the author but by a fellow writer and friend of hers, from what I can understand. As for me... I think I’m just about coming down to preferring the TV show myself but, to be honest, it’s a really hard call. There are major differences between the two... and also many more similarities... but both are carrying the same kind of spirit within their respective media.

I’m not going to go over the basic plot again but it takes place before, during and after a pandemic of Georgian Flu has wiped out the majority of life on Earth and we get scenes of a whole bunch of characters from different times in their lives, their stories slowly developing as they brush against times and places important to other characters, to build an overreaching story arc, of sorts. The novel is split into nine sections - those being 1. The Theatre, 2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3. I Prefer You With A Crown, 4. The Starship, 5. Toronto, 6. The Airplanes, 7. The Terminal, 8. The Prophet and 9. Station Eleven... each of these subsections being split into various chapters which generally take on one or two of the characters at a time.

And I think this is a case of the TV show expanding things or taking different directions from the novel in pursuit of a ten episode adaptation and actually improving them... while at other times missing some other specific story beats, which it could perhaps have done with.

For instance, the novel starts off with exactly the same scene as the TV show, with Arthur Leander dying of a heart attack on stage and Jeevan jumping up from the audience to try and save him... also trying to comfort the younger version of Kristen, the same day that the Georgia Flu hits the city. However, unlike the TV show where Jeevan and Kirsten are bonded by the experience and the two of them start off and spend the first year or two in the apartment with Jeevan’s brother, Frank... here they part ways for good. Kirsten can’t remember in the book just how she survived the first year of the pandemic. And Jeevan holes up with Frank and has other experiences separate to hers.

So there is no amateur play adaptation of the graphic novel Station Eleven in the book, put on by Kirsten, Jeevan and Frank as there is in the show. Indeed, Station Eleven is actually a deluxe comic book of two separate issues in the novel (I’m imagining one of those square bound format style graphic novels which were all the rage in the mid-1980s now, like Batman - The Cult or Blood - A Tale). Someone on the internet said that Jeevan is a far less important character in the book than in the show but, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. He’s just a slightly different character and he does, in fact, touch other’s live (both in negative and positive ways), even if nobody remembers his name. For example, in a newspaper article from the time of the death of Leander, he’s mentioned as ‘a member of the audience’ and everyone post pandemic who reads that surviving newspaper article years later can vaguely remember him.

And he does survive in the book as he does in the show, although we are not treated to that brilliant sequence where he’s helping about 15 to 20 women give birth on the same night in a makeshift hospital upcycled from an old, abandoned supermarket. One the other hand, we do see how he once, quite negatively, touches Miranda’s life in this... on the night that she decides she needs to divorce Arthur Leander, when we become acquainted with one of the professions Jeevan has worked in over the years.

And I knew I was in the hands of a really great writer from very early on in that, Mandel really makes you feel the emotional resonance of the characters by the phrases and choices of words she uses to put across their moments. For instance, there’s a scene in the first section where she could have just said a specific character started to cry... instead, she says this, “The lights over the sea blurred and became a string of overlapping halos.” which is frankly a much better way of getting your message across, I think.

Another thing she does, to keep a sense of continuity going over the rapid ping ponging from different time shifts, is to introduce the occasional themed section, inserted into the narrative as a juxtaposition with whatever character you happen to be following at the time. So, for instance, one of these devices is an interview that Kirsten gives to a brand new, amateur newspaper in one of the new post-pandemic communities, fifteen years after the outbreak of the Georgia Flu. And, later, it makes its way into the airport to Clark (who is a lot thinner and clean shaven compared to the wonderful actor who brought him to life in the TV show) and his Museum Of Civilisation. And it’s from this article that he recognises that Kirsten is someone who would remember Arthur Leander (because, unlike the TV show, they’ve never actually met pre-pandemic).

And, yeah, I don’t think I want to say much more about the original version of Station Eleven other than... The Prophet is, amazingly, a lot less sympathetic a character than in the TV show and that another certain key character, who is visited an antagonistic, violent death in the TV version, is afforded a much more peaceful, ‘TV network unfriendly’, deliberate overdose of sleeping pills here. If you liked the TV show, then I’m pretty certain you’ll want to give this one a go... if you haven’t, well you may want to read this version first and figure out for yourself which bits have been improved and which bits have been left out, to the detriment of the show (whole characters are wiped out in the TV show while others are given more prominence, for example). Both are great and all I can say about the novel, really, is that it’s truly wonderful stuff and I’ll definitely be pursuing some of this writer’s other novels, for sure.

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