There’s a scene in Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel “Station Eleven” where people stranded inside a Midwestern airport realize that no one is coming to save them, because almost everyone world is dead.
One character, clinging to hope that the crisis will pass, says, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal,” a sentiment that seems sadly familiar two years into the pandemic.
One would imagine that a story about a devastating viral outbreak would be a tough sell right now. Instead, to Mandel’s surprise, readers — and more recently, viewers — seem to find solace in his post-apocalyptic world, where traumatized survivors find solace in art, music, and friendships with strangers.
“There’s something inherently hopeful about this message, just that life goes on,” Mandel said in an interview Wednesday.
Sales of “Station Eleven” surged in 2020 and 2021 and have now surpassed one million copies. Last month, HBO Max began airing a 10-episode limited series based on the novel, which was adapted by Patrick Somerville and ends Thursday. Some viewers found the show to be oddly life-saving, despite its premise that billions of people died from respiratory disease with a 99% fatality rate. James Poniewozik, the Times’ chief television critic, called it “the most uplifting show about life after doomsday that you are likely to see”.
Like the novel, the TV series follows a Shakespearean troupe as they travel the Great Lakes region to perform for survivors, offering hope that the art will endure in a world without electricity, plumbing, antibiotics or iPhones. It opens just before the virus sweeps North America, during a performance where an actor playing King Lear (Gael García Bernal) collapses on stage and dies while a man in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, tries to revive him. In the series, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) ends up caring for young play actress Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), and they self-quarantine with her brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) when society suddenly shuts down.
The story goes back and forth between the pre-pandemic era, the present, the beginning of the end of the world and 20 years after the crisis. Kirsten (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis), joined the Theater Company, a traveling caravan putting on productions of “Hamlet” and other Shakespearean plays. Along the way, she meets a prophet with whom she shares a strange bond – an obsession with an obscure graphic novel about an astronaut named Dr. Eleven.
Ahead of the series finale, Mandel told The Times why the story resonates with Covid-weary audiences, her unease at being treated like a pandemic prophet and why she has hope for a post-apocalyptic world. . These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It must have been weird to publish a pandemic novel set in the near future and then see a pandemic happen. What was it like watching this unfold?
I really didn’t predict anything. When you research the history of pandemics, like I did for “Station Eleven,” what becomes really clear is that there will always be another pandemic. We didn’t see this one coming because it’s been about 100 years since the last one in this part of the world, but it was always bound to happen.
You were also in the odd position of being considered a cultural expert on the meaning of pandemics. How was it?
It was incredibly disorienting and surreal. At the same time, it was everyone’s life in March 2020 when this thing hit. I don’t know if it was really that strange for me. What felt really strange and uncomfortable to me was that all of a sudden I started getting all these invitations to write editorials about the pandemic. It was kind of gross, like I was using the pandemic as a marketing opportunity. It’s something that I put off.
One of the themes of “Station Eleven” is the idea that art can give meaning to life in times of disaster. Has this been true for you and do you see evidence that this is true on a broader cultural scale?
Yes absolutely. It was really encouraging. When I think back to the spring of 2020, when we didn’t know much about the virus, I just remember being afraid to go anywhere or do anything. Books were kind of a means of transportation for me in those days, just being able to escape the confines of my apartment, basically, by reading. It really meant a lot to me, and I think that’s something the show captures really beautifully. There’s a traveling symphony, but there’s also that incredible moment in episode seven where Frank’s character get into a rap song.
What did you think of some of the changes made by the series?
The show delved into the story in a lot of really interesting ways. There are some things they did that I really like, which I think took ideas that I had suggested in the book and pushed them further, like the importance of “Hamlet” in the ‘story. In my book it was important that they play Shakespeare, but in the show Shakespeare is integrated into the plot in this very deep way that I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in the book .
I love what the show has done with the character of Jeevan, where in the book I never really figured out how to fit him in with the other characters without it feeling a bit too forced, really a coincidence. I love that they ask Kirsten to go back to Frank with him. This solved this problem completely. It’s just wonderful emotional architecture for the story.
What they really did beautifully was capture the joy in the book. It’s a post-apocalyptic world, but one thing I thought about a lot while writing the book was how beautiful this world would be. I was just imagining trees and grass, and flowers overtaking our structures. I thought of the beauty of this world, but also of joy. It’s a group of people who travel together because they love playing music together and doing Shakespeare, and there’s real joy in that.
Another significant change is the character of Tyler, the Prophet, who has a totally different fate in the book. What did you think of how they developed this character?
There’s something sadly familiar about the prophet I wrote about, because he’s the only kind of prophet I’ve really encountered, in reporting and reading. I based my prophet on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Texas. There’s something really quirky and interesting about the show’s version of the prophet. He’s a much nicer character.
What was your involvement in this show?
I sometimes texted Patrick Somerville. He brought out a lot of major changes with me, which I really appreciated. I wasn’t particularly involved once the show started shooting. I never visited the set due to Covid. So I was a little removed from all that, which is a shame. I wish I could have gone there.
The show was just beginning production when the pandemic hit. Was there ever a fear that viewers would balk at the premise?
My assumption, and I’ve seen it play out on social media, was that some people would accept it and some people would just be too traumatized. I would say to anyone unsure about the show that the first episode is the hardest to watch, or at least it was for me, anyway. This experience of terror as the pandemic sweeps through your entire society is something we know all too well. It’s also a brilliant episode. If you can get over your discomfort for it, I think it’s a happier sight than people who are hesitant about it might imagine.
Many people find the series to be cathartic. Why do you think people are comforted by the novel and the series?
There’s something about the idea that you can lose an entire world, but the whole society you take for granted every day can disappear during a pandemic. But there is life after, and there is joy after, and a lot of things worth living after.
In the novel and the show, the story is divided into Before and After, and it is interesting to think about the cultural changes that will arise from the pandemic.
What’s weird is how quickly your limits drop. I had this wonderful experience last month. I met all of these “Station Eleven” cast and producers over lunch, and then there was a screening later. It was the first time I had socialized indoors without a mask in two years. I thought to myself, OK, I’ll do it. I was tested by PCR. I’m double vaxxed, et cetera. Its good. I was like, but I’m not going to shake hands or hug anyone. I kissed everyone.
The message Finding Joy Through Art at World’s End in “Station Eleven” appeared first on The New York Times.
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