HBO’s ‘Station Eleven’ Surpasses the Novel

Patrick Somerville’s adaptation is about adaptation

Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max
Aaron Bady

The basic appeal of a pastoral apocalypse like Station Eleven — both Emily St. John Mandel’s novel and Patrick Somerville’s HBO miniseries is the suspicion that life might be better if society, as we know it, was wiped out. This is the long-running fantasy of “the Quiet Earth,” a genre staple in which an apocalyptic event creates the space for the survivors to build the kind of frontier utopia that modern society won’t allow. After the unpleasantness of a flu that kills 99 percent of humanity, Station Eleven tells the story of the survivors and the communities they find and rebuild, a post-capitalist utopia where you can live in tents, party, and do art. Once you get past all the death, it’s not too shabby.

It’s easy to understand the attraction of this kind of story: think how much time we spend in our day to day lives trying to wean ourselves off the devices and logistics that make the modern world what it is. We go camping. We limit screen-time. We try to work less, spend time with our loved ones, and reconnect with the things that “really matter.” During the pandemic, how many of us re-evaluated our lives? How many of us learned to see our commutes as obscene and immoral infringements on our wild and precious lives? How many jaundiced eyes now look at their 9-to-5 grinds — or, more frequently, their app-enabled gigs — and wonder if maybe the soft animal of our bodies might want something else?

Of course, we don’t want to look too closely at the fantasy element of the story. After all, we don’t really want most of humanity to die, horribly, alone and in despair; we certainly don’t want that for our loved ones. This is why Station Eleven treads lightly past the gruesome details. Kirsten’s parents die, but they do it offscreen, like Jeevan’s girlfriend and sister and mother. Despite all the death, the show gives us a world of green forests, and the wilderness reclaiming the city.

I don’t want to condemn this fantasy for being a fantasy. But I want to understand how a novel which I enjoyed, but largely forgot, has become a show that made me weep openly, and that I haven’t been able to get off my mind. Somerville’s adaptation doesn’t just change the original; it has a radically different philosophy of art. Station Eleven was a novel about the persistence of art — about the “classics” that continue to illuminate the human condition, no matter what happens to our society — but the substance of Patrick Somerville’s vision turns out to be “adaptation” itself. The show is about how art must be transformed as the world changes, how it must grow and change if humanity is to survive. You might even say that it’s about how, in 2021, we need a different Station Eleven than we did in 2014.

When Mandel gets invited to opine on pandemics, she has been refreshingly candid about all of the ways the “Georgian Flu” of her novel — though certainly a terrifying thing to read about in March 2020 — was a very different thing than COVID-19, not only scientifically implausible, but essentially a plot contrivance. She didn’t write about a pandemic, not really; she wrote a nostalgic novel about art, a very classical-minded vision of what might survive us. “People want what was best about the world,” as a character in the book declares, which turns out to be mostly Shakespeare and Beethoven. But if it’s a novel about the enduring value of the humanities, I think Somerville’s adaptation learned something from the pandemic about the preciousness of human beings, and about what we all lost when we were locked away from each other in our homes. It’s the first thing I’ve seen that really captured something crucial about what all of this has felt like.

The show is about how art must be transformed as the world changes, how it must grow and change if humanity is to survive.

Put simply, Patrick Somerville’s Station Eleven is about care work. It’s about parenting in impossible circumstances — also known as “parenting” — and about the fears that can make parents hold their children too tightly (or freeze up entirely). It’s about the desperate temptation to run away, to simply free yourself from your inadequacies, cut anchor, and go; it’s about the work that must be done to build trust when it’s been lost. Most of all, it’s about the hope that people are basically good, that trauma is survivable, and that any stranger — no matter how lost or wild — can be made into a friend.

This shift is refreshing, since most post-apocalyptic stories feel like fictionalized prepper manuals, filled with strangers trying to kill you and take your stuff. To survive, you must bug out, build a fortress, and defend it. Zombie stories particularly tend to be Hobbesian parables about the war of all against all that begins once society falls, with its walls, cops, and dads. In such a world, not dissimilar from the fantasy world of Fox News, strangers are the danger: outsiders must be kept out and the kids must be kept in, for their safety. If you see a zombie — even if it used to be someone you love — you must shoot it in the head.

In Somerville’s Station Eleven, the dangerous thing is being alone. What, after all, is a “stranger” in a world when everyone you knew and trusted is dead? Think about the scene where we see Kirsten fight off half a dozen “red bandana” assailants, by herself: the one thing she learned in her lost year of wandering alone was how to kill. This she can do. But she only survives because a stranger (one she’d previously stabbed, in fact) nurses her back to health. This will be a pattern the show repeats, over and over again: in a world so short of people — and so full of stuff — the great drama of post-apocalyptic life is not protecting your treasures but finding someone to share them with, to take you in, to tell you stories.

In Mandel’s Station Eleven, the world still contains dangerous figures like the Prophet. Kirsten pities him, and even recognizes the boy that he had once been; he too, she speculates, must have once been “adrift on the road.” But only in the show do we learn this story. We see Tyler’s primal scene, the trauma that makes him what he becomes: watching his family shoot a stranger that he tried to help, poisoned with paranoia and fear of an outsider carrying contagion. The word they shout, when they see the stranger, is “Zombie!”

Tyler wants to delete the old words, to destroy the museum of civilization because “the before” is coming back. And he is right. The Severn City airport has preserved more than just electricity, running water, and a museum of electronics; it has prison cells, surveillance towers, and the paranoias of hierarchy. Clark fears the coming of the Traveling Symphony, because the anti-establishment messages they carry (in Hamlet of all things) could spread like a virus. The only safe thing to do, he proposes, is to cancel the play and imprison them. “It isn’t fucking art therapy!” he sneers. “It’s civilization!”

The danger is always that our griefs will be too profound, our traumas too deep, and that, alone, narcissistic, we won’t be able to live with them.

Clark is wrong, of course. Art is not old treasure to be hoarded and preserved; as Kirsten drily observes, “the world is filled with garbage from before.” Nor is Art what distinguishes us from the savages. In a story about a theater troupe — and a web of familial connections to a man named Arthur Leander — “Art” is the thing that binds people together, the most precious thing in the world. And it is therapy, the structured communication, storytelling, and confession that help people heal, and change, and grow. It is the thing we make, in order to make ourselves. It is how we turn inarticulate pain into the kinds of everyday sadness we can live with.

It’s also not a panacea. Art is work, from the tense collaborations that make a theater production to the tedium of practicing, preparing, and even performing. And Station Eleven is under no illusions that all art is good. The danger is always that our griefs will be too profound, our traumas too deep, and that, alone, narcissistic, we won’t be able to live with them. The danger is that we will disconnect from those around us and be frozen in our griefs; that we will fear and seek to imprison and even kill.

This, in a surprising twist, turns out to be the meaning of the comic book that gives the novel and show its name. In the novel, the comic is a figure for the randomness of what gets canonized and preserved, as well as the malleability of art (a cherished story in Kirsten’s hands, the Prophet infuses it with old testament fury to make the bible of his death cult). In the show, it represents melancholia, the failure to grieve that famously afflicts Hamlet with morbid indecision, ghosts, and an inwardly-spiraling narcissism. It’s a brooding, wounded book that inarticulate children cathect onto, in their pain, but with consistently disastrous results: Kirsten loses Alex and Jeevan while distracted by the book, Tyler flees his family under its spell, and Haley — a member of the undersea whose significance we desperately needed the scenes which were reportedly cut out of the show to understand — orchestrates the bombing that climaxes the fourth episode. (It’s also kind of perfect that the comic book itself appears to resemble a Wes Anderson film; one of the funniest moments in the show is Jeevan’s bleeding-to-death-in-the snow judgment on the twee piece of work: “SO PRETENTIOUS!”)

The comic book’s astronauts represent the fantasy of solitude, of armor, of sterile invulnerability, Miranda’s dangerous conceit that “I am at my best when I'm escaping.” As we learn, Miranda began writing it the day her entire family died, while she, safe on a high counter, was coloring; from an expression of her apocalyptic loss during Hurricane Hugo, it becomes the vehicle for her inability to re-connect to the world afterwards. Arthur calls the comic book “the asshole who ruined my life,” blaming it for her inability to be present in their marriage, a sentiment she echoes (“I think that book ruined my life,” she tells Clark). It keeps her locked in melancholy stasis, and if she gets a job in logistics because “I remember everything,” it’s that very job that makes her absent when the man she loves dies. It makes her inscribe the symbol of an anchor — which means to “cut and run” — into the center of her life’s work. It makes her share that work with no one, until it’s almost too late.

Does Art save us? In a sense, Station Eleven argues that it does. The play is the thing, both softening Clark’s monomania and creating a space where Tyler can speak to his mother and stepfather; the ghost of the man they all loved brings them together, in a radically perverse re-imagining of what Hamlet is about. But this is a show with no time for mere things, or fidelity to the past. What saves everyone in the airport is Miranda’s transcendence of her grief through a desperate act of trust with a stranger. The comic book was a MacGuffin; we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as someone once said. And that’s why you can’t simply delete capitalism, as the young Tyler suggests of a downloaded wikipedia entry for the old world’s economics (“we’ll just invent it again,” his mother observes). It’s also why “stabbing doesn’t work,” and why burning things never seems to get rid of them: they keep coming back as ghosts until you give them away. Healing, the show insists, is when you build something new, when you do it together, and when you return to see how it’s grown in your absence. Care compounds, and trust reproduces itself; in this post-capitalist utopia, investments in love are what return interest.

Aaron Bady is a writer from Oakland.