Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven chronicles the travails of a group of interconnected strangers before and after a fictional pandemic ravages the globe and lays waste to 99 percent of civilization. Mandel doesn’t shy away from the mass death and social collapse implicit in her novel’s apocalyptic premise, but she uses it mainly to examine the potential for culture to survive the demise of society. Even as so much infrastructure, technology, and collective memory disappear, Mandel argues, art can continue to sustain and nourish.
The sales for Station Eleven have spiked in the past couple years, for obvious reasons: It’s easy to recognize the pre-pandemic dread and uncertainty in the chapters chronicling the initial wave of the Georgia Flu, which is as if the 2009 swine flu had “exploded like a neutron bomb.” The sections spent in a fictional Michigan airport, where the healthy passengers of a delayed flight create a permanent settlement, reflect the eerie stasis of 2020’s self-quarantine efforts. Mandel’s descriptions of lonely deaths will resonate with anyone haunted by the undignified losses and deferred bereavements of this early decade. And while modern society remains somewhat intact, those who spent the pandemic rewatching old movies or listening to music from their youth might find comfort in a novel about how culture can still have value amid so much upheaval.
A television adaptation of Station Eleven, which aired on HBO Max over the past holiday season, serves a similar function by shining a light on our current pandemic world, albeit via a more immediately doomsday version of it. Much attention has been paid to the series’ first episode, which follows the rapid spread of the Georgia Flu in the city of Chicago, as a brutal evocation of the early days of Covid. Station Eleven creator, showrunner, and writer Patrick Somerville and director Hiro Murai’s dramatization of the event, complete with scenes of overcrowded hospitals, eerily empty stores, and metastasizing sickness, generates a timely sense of anxiety. With the novel, Mandel’s matter-of-fact prose required imagination for its horrors to sink in, whereas the TV show has the benefit of a real-life referent to help achieve maximum emotional impact.
At the same time, the Station Eleven series follows the novel’s tack by focusing on the relevance of culture when all semblance of the status quo has evaporated. Shakespeare, music both classical and contemporary, and science fiction still hold sway over a world without a traditional social structure or economic framework. Whenever any fiction advocates for art’s inherent power or significance, it inevitably risks falling prey to its own self-importance, even without the apocalyptic stakes. Somerville’s Station Eleven occasionally grates in this regard, especially if you have an allergy to the insular behavior of theater kids. But like other successful art-focused shows before it, such as the Shakespeare-driven Canadian series Slings & Arrows and David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s post-Katrina New Orleans show Treme, Station Eleven mostly avoids these traps by emphasizing community and craft. After all, the people who create and promote art are also the ones who imbue it with meaning.
A prime example of successful adaptation, Station Eleven improves and expands upon its source material while retaining the broad strokes of Mandel’s vision. Like the novel, the series opens with the sudden death of actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), who suffers a heart attack during a production of King Lear on the night the pandemic spreads in Chicago. Arthur represents the fulcrum for Station Eleven’s disparate characters: His young costar Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), left without a chaperone in the immediate wake of his death, meets Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), an audience member who tried to save Arthur’s life. Meanwhile, Arthur’s second wife Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), his estranged son Tyler (Julian Obradors), and his best friend Clark (David Wilmot) all become stranded at the Severn City Airport on the way to his funeral the next day. Kirsten and Tyler are also connected by Arthur’s first wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), who wrote and illustrated a self-published sci-fi graphic novel titled Station Eleven, which Arthur gifts to both just before his death.
Twenty years after Arthur’s death, and long after civilization has collapsed, an adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) tours as an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic theater company that stages Shakespearean productions around what is left of the Great Lakes region. On their latest tour, they cross paths with a suspicious man, eventually revealed to be Tyler (Daniel Zovatto), who calls himself “the Prophet” and leads a cult whose beliefs are rooted in the mythology of Station Eleven. Kirsten and Tyler ultimately intersect on their way to the Severn City Airport, which has become a self-sustaining community in the previous two decades as well as the home of the Museum of Civilization, a gallery of bygone technological artifacts now run by an elderly Clark.
Beyond these narrative elements, Somerville’s series diverges from Mandel’s novel in productive ways. Some choices, like converging disconnected characters and altering others, are made to better fit the medium of television. In the book, Kirsten and Jeevan meet briefly in the first chapter and then separate; his subsequent appearances are scenes focused either on his inner state or his somewhat contrived intersections with the other characters. In the series, Kirsten and Jeevan are inextricably linked, as they’re forced to shelter in place at the apartment of his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) during the aftermath of the pandemic, which brings Jeevan closer to the main action. Meanwhile, the book version of Tyler resembles a David Koresh–like figure who collects “wives” and conquers various towns. In the series, Somerville reframes Tyler as someone who channels his childhood alienation into creating a death-of-memory cult whose followers are primarily children. Together, they futilely attempt to erase any lingering trauma by erasing the past entirely.
Mandel’s literary strengths lie primarily in world building, which was transposed wholesale to the series, but too much of the novel is bogged down by clichés and vagaries, both in the plot and in certain characterizations. The Traveling Symphony, ostensibly the symbol of artistic renewal, feels too indistinct, a mere vehicle for ideas rather than a believable ensemble. (That they were Shakespearean actors is almost entirely nonessential.) The Prophet is cast as a one-dimensional obstacle whose connection to Arthur seems almost incidental. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “Survival Is Insufficient,” a spare line of dialogue from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, but the irony is that the novel only excels when it’s focused on survival, such as the chapters involving the Severn City Airport survivors or Jeevan’s isolation. The actual living part never feels quite believable.
By contrast, the series’ greatest coup is fleshing out the novel’s thematic core by centering community as a means for living beyond mere survival, something that Mandel only gestures at. In the series, the Traveling Symphony feels—occasionally to a fault—like an actual band of self-aggrandizing theater nerds who firmly believe in their social utility. The Shakespeare element is better integrated in the series as well, with sizable sections of Hamlet performed over the course of the 10 episodes. Plus, the series takes a more comprehensive view of the kinds of art that survive an apocalyptic event: Shakespeare sits side by side with the music of Franz Liszt and Gladys Knight. Most of all, Somerville and the other writers take pains to demonstrate that collaboration extends not just to artistic creation but also to communal living and care. By sheer circumstance, there’s now an imperative to help one another in order to stay alive in a world hostile to existence, let alone creativity.
However, Somerville also goes to some lengths to illustrate that the flip side to this collective necessity is the tendency to devolve into insular factions. Each community in Station Eleven has its own elements of extremism to which the group’s members are blind. Kirsten becomes enraged whenever anyone decides to leave “the Wheel,” the map of towns through which the Symphony travels. Tyler and Clark find themselves on opposite ends of a stubborn commitment to kill the past and the future, respectively; any attempt to deviate from this goal is met with anger, if not violence. There’s a tendency for the characters in Station Eleven to recklessly commit to a cultish ideology ostensibly to endure, but mainly to cope with the ephemeral nature of life after the apocalypse. It’s not terribly difficult to find a similar dogmatic paranoia in the contemporary world, and we don’t even have the excuse of widespread technological failure.
It’s also why a totem like the Station Eleven graphic novel holds sway over Kirsten and Tyler. Stray lines of dialogue repeat like mantras across the series: “I remember damage”; “To the monsters, we’re the monsters”; “You’re going to die, and I can’t stop it.” For Kirsten, the graphic novel is a haven to return to when the world feels fragile, a literary escape hatch that she uses when holed up in isolation with Jeevan and Frank. But for Tyler, it’s a mythology that he uses to captivate his child soldiers. Their divergent readings of the story are indicative of how cultural interpretations dictate worldviews and how escapism exists on a continuum, from harmless to disastrous.
My feelings toward Station Eleven have continued to fluctuate since watching the series. I resisted its charms initially, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of the source material and have become skeptical of storytelling about trauma. The ostensible goals of these narratives are to convey the possibilities of closure by way of exhuming repressed emotions, which can feel frustratingly reductive. So it was easy for me to focus on Station Eleven’s flaws, because the series is frequently rough around the edges: Some actors lagged behind or were out of sync with the others, especially among the Traveling Symphony. Also, the writing can be strained with barefaced metaphors and creaky symbolism, and the emotional payoffs were sometimes forced. Much like the novel, the narrative contrivances tested my patience. I also resented on principle any show about societal breakdown whose primary takeaway seemed to be that we all need to hug each other more.
Yet the series had a cumulative effect that lingered in my mind much longer than I expected. Some of this can be attributed to its episodic structure, which successfully operates like building blocks, with each character interaction or visual cue subtly accumulating weight. Station Eleven’s editing, which shuffles the three timelines (the pre-pandemic era, the first 100 days of the pandemic, and 20 years after the plague) like a deck of cards, was distracting at first but eventually proved to be emotionally effective. Instead of exclusively presenting the scenes from each time period linearly, the narrative strategy is to have them often triggered by a character’s recollection. They are flashbacks in both the narrative and psychological sense, visually conveying how grief can suddenly recur depending on external factors.
It’s a somewhat obvious idea executed well, which describes many of Station Eleven’s best qualities. So many of the series’ strongest scenes seem clichéd on paper, but they come alive in practice, largely due to the strength of certain performances that reach a fever pitch across a number of scenes. I’m thinking of the moment when Frank, in an attempt to stave off the freezing winter and boredom in the aftermath of the pandemic, loops a piece of audio from his tape recorder and performs an impromptu rendition of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions,” with Rizwan effectively selling the joy and desperation behind Frank’s performance. Or when Miranda’s colleague, previously characterized as a callow businessman indifferent to the realities of the pandemic, vulnerably confesses his fear of dying. Or the scene in which Kirsten tries to connect with Tyler at the Severin City Airport moments before he’s about to commit a callous act of destruction: She fails to get through to him, and we watch him tearfully execute a terrorist plot, soundtracked by Bill Callahan’s wistful “One Fine Morning.” Station Eleven exerts emotional power because it embraces anguish in its most unpleasant shades.
It is the series’ willingness to stare unblinkingly at the ugly, incomprehensible aspects of mortal existence that save it from becoming maudlin. Station Eleven remains affecting because its earnestness never feels less than hard-won. Somerville never shrinks from the bleakness baked into the series, which ultimately lends power to every tearful reconciliation or unlikely act of heroism or dramaturgical therapy. I firmly believe that collective action and artistic creation are necessary tools for sustaining life, but I’m naturally distrustful of hearing those beliefs parroted back to me like pabulum. For all its faults, Station Eleven rarely conveys these ideas lightly, implicitly understanding what a difficult sell they are in such a cruel, indifferent world.