January 26, 2022

Reading and Watching “Station Eleven” in “the Dead of Winter”

By Stuart Mitchner

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head …

—W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Imagine writing a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Let’s say things are going well, the end’s almost in sight when a real-life pandemic begins producing an alarmingly high death toll. As the numbers climb into the millions, you’re distracted by the ongoing event, the way it may conflict with or affect your concept, not to mention your own well-being, plus the pressure from a publisher looking to rush a sure bestseller into print.

Now imagine playing the starring role in a television series based on a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. You’re just beginning to get to know your character when the real-life pandemic of 2020 halts production, puts you in lockdown isolation for months, after which filming resumes in another, supposedly safer country, where you remain until production wraps in early 2021. And then, even as you’re doing pre-release interviews, new variants like Delta and Omicron are making you wonder if the world might be gravitating toward a virus no less unthinkable, and oh, here’s a new film, a silly but scary dystopian satire called Don’t Look Up coming along just in time to put a funhouse focus on life on earth as the environmental doomsday clock keeps moving toward high noon.

The novelist Emily St. John Mandel avoided the first what-if scenario by finishing her book Station Eleven in 2014. The actress Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) had to deal with, live through, and somehow successfully transcend the real-life challenges of the second scenario.

Visual Poetry

Now that I’ve finished Mandel’s novel and have seen all 10 episodes of Patrick Somerville’s television adaptation, I’ve been looking for clues to help explain why the series loses its way after a brilliant beginning. The film opens in a Chicago theatre when Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), a movie star playing King Lear, suffers a fatal heart attack onstage; what follows is a meeting, also onstage, between Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who performed CPR on the dying actor, and 8-year-old Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), who cherishes a gift from Leander, a graphic novel called Station Eleven. When Jeevan is unable to locate Kirsten’s parents, he decides to help see her safely home. After the excitement at the theater, you find yourself stunned by the visual poetry of the big dark-bearded, bundled-up man and the colorfully bundled-up little girl navigating a wintry Chicago night with an end-of-the-world pandemic looming. The child is a joy to behold in her blue, orange, vermillion winter jacket, her even more colorful scarf, and her magnificent knit cap with the multicolored tassel on top. Yeats says it in “Lapis Luzuli”: “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread … Heaven blazing into the head.”

Judging from the reviews on Metacritic, where Station Eleven scored an 82 (“universal acclaim”), I’m not the only viewer who was impressed. The novelist herself approved. In a January 13 New York Times interview (“Finding Joy Through Art at the End of the World”), Mandel says the show “deepened the story in a lot of really interesting ways,” particularly the “wonderful emotional architecture” achieved by uniting Kirsten and Jeevan earlier in the narrative.

This is a mixed blessing, however. If you’re looking forward to seeing more of those two characters as the story develops, you have to endure a long, confusing, time-shifting journey before you get to episode 7 (admired by Mandel for the “incredible moment” Jeevan’s brother “breaks into a rap song”) and the Hamlet-haunted finale, where Jeevan and the grown-up Kirsten played by Mackenzie Davis are finally reunited.

Yet in spite of all the things the show has going for it — the appeal of a post-apocalyptic Traveling Symphony spreading the wealth of Shakespeare, the presence of Davis, unforgettable as the computer whiz in Halt and Catch Fire — the scenes centered on the caravan are often annoyingly hard to follow, disjointed, and chaotic.

An Unorthodox Approach

The pandemic’s impact on Mackenzie Davis as she prepared for her central role as the adult Kirsten is made clear in an interview with Lauren Puckett-Pope (Elle, December 17, 2021). When the production shut down in early 2020, Davis and a friend had the first six scripts, which enabled them to shoot each of her scenes as a monologue, with Davis in front of a camera, “acting out her lines around her home and the woods surrounding it.” Whenever the script called for a line from another actor, the footage would cut to a shot of “crumpled leaves, bent sticks, birds floating from one tree limb to another.” As Davis said of the unorthodox approach: “ ‘It was a funny lead-up into shooting the show, to do this practice run of what it was like to do it at the time that we should have done it.’ ” In a January 16, 2022 NPR interview, she refers to the need to have “something that has a wholeness with a beginning, a middle and an end … when you’re in the middle of something and you’re like, I don’t know how close to the end I am. I’m just within.”

Sizing a Novel for TV

What’s missing in Station Eleven the series, as Daniel D’Addario notes in Variety (December 15, 2021), “is narrative control — one of Mandel’s great gifts as a novelist. Chunkily paced, the flashbacks can appear random,” and there’s “a sense of uncertainty about how to make the sweeping novel the right size for TV,” with “some elisions” doing harm, while the graphic-novel-in-a-novel scenario that gives Station Eleven its title “is only fleetingly drawn” with the result that “its significance doesn’t fully land.”

The key words are “fleetingly” and “uncertainty.” While the series succeeds in bringing the story to life, it’s a challenge to shrink the essence of a 333-page novel into 10 episodes without disrupting narrative continuity or passing over the numerous displays of poetry, insight, art, and imagination that make Mandel’s book a unique reading experience.

Mandel and Miranda

Arguably the most important character in the novel is Miranda Carroll, the creator of the graphic novel Station Eleven and actor Arthur Leander’s first wife. Watching Miranda conceiving and composing Station Eleven, you know why she shares the name of Prospero’s daughter in  The Tempest, an island on planet Shakespeare. Mandel’s Prospero is Dr. Eleven, who took his name from a moon-sized space station that “can chart a course through galaxies and requires no sun” and where “it is always sunset or twilight or night.”

All through the narrative, Mandel shows Miranda transposing details of her everyday existence into imagery. Wherever she is, you feel you’re in the presence of an artist, which is why she’s at the center of the novel’s most nuanced and resonant chapter. The setting is a third anniversary dinner party in Arthur and Miranda’s Hollywood Hills home. The most “written” chapter, in the best sense (one that has more in common with The Great Gatsby than a sci-fi fantasy page-turner), it begins with a sentence that could be describing a panel in Miranda’s graphic novel: “Later they have a house in the Hollywood Hills and a Pomeranian who shines like a little ghost when Miranda calls for her at night, a white smudge in the darkness at the end of the yard.”

The dog’s name is Luli, and no surprise, Miranda draws its graphic alter ego into her story as Dr. Eleven’s steadfast companion In fact, the dinner party is reprised in the novel’s closing paragraphs when Arthur Leander’s old friend Clark is reading the adventures of Dr. Eleven by candlelight and recognizes in the drawing the dinner he actually attended decades before. He remembers everyone at the real-life party, can see them on the page; the only one missing is Miranda, “her chair taken by Dr. Eleven.” This is a brilliantly suggestive move, an act of imagination from a writer at home in her work; it’s also a gesture beyond the scope of a “limited” television series.

Even if the show had three full seasons in which to explore the material in Mandel’s novel, I can’t help thinking that an extended version of Station Eleven would continue falling prey to some of the most off-puttingly pretentious, farther-out-than-thou features of The Leftovers, the HBO series for which Patrick Somerville was one of the primary writers. As it happens, the weakest, most cliched scenes in Mandel’s novel concern the prophet, a character right out of The Leftovers. Suddenly you go from reading passages you can speak of in the same breath with F. Scott Fitzgerald to a scene out of the Hardy Boys (“Step forward. If you reach for those knives, you’ll be dead.”) 

Mandel is aware of the problem and says as much in the New York Times interview when admitting a preference for the film’s version of the prophet (“There’s something depressingly familiar about the prophet that I wrote”). In any case, Mandel neatly takes possession of the situation by echoing Miranda’s creation when she has Kirsten quote lines from her Bible, the first issue of Station Eleven. (“We only long to go home”). Meanwhile, Mandel names the prophet’s dog Luli, after Miranda and Dr. Eleven’s Pomeranian.

Yeats is Here

After taking the reader from “if you reach for those knives” melodrama by way of a graphic novel, Mandel returns to an environment where we’re not all that surprised to find a letter in which Arthur Leander quotes Yeats: “Love is like the lion’s tooth,” from “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers.” Truer to the mission of Station Eleven, both novel and series, are lines from W.H. Auden’s poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” written after the poet “disappeared in the dead of winter” on “the dark cold day” of January 28, 1939: “Follow, poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night, / With your unconstraining voice  /  Still persuade us to rejoice.”