“Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s hit novel, from 2014, is the kind of book you gulp down in a sitting. I recently reread it in an afternoon; my partner devoured it on two short flights and a layover. The book inspires the sort of voraciousness that it ascribes to its virus, which blazes around the globe in a matter of days, killing ninety-nine per cent of the people in its path. The story’s main action takes place twenty years later, in the “After,” where a fierce young woman named Kirsten tours with a band of Shakespearean players, encountering agrarian communes and violent cults, keeping the flame of art alive. That time line has a clear, tight shape—it builds to a climactic confrontation and the resolution of a mystery—but Mandel splices it with flashbacks to the “Before,” our familiar, dazzling chaos of electricity, cars, and cell phones. There, the seductive figure of Arthur Leander, a playboy actor who dies onstage of a heart attack, bridges far-flung character arcs. We meet his ex-wife Miranda, whose pensive comic book about a stranded astronaut, “Station Eleven,” falls into Kirsten’s hands; Jeevan, an aspiring E.M.T.; and Leander’s second ex-wife, Elizabeth, and son, Tyler.
It’s not always easy to pinpoint what makes a book “unputdownable,” what gives it the feverishly consuming quality that “Station Eleven” has. (Although COVID-19 adds fangs to the premise, the novel was wildly popular before the pandemic.) But some of the book’s swiftness derives from its consistency—from a tone that never changes or breaks, slipping through your body like a pure, bright beam. For all their disparate circumstances, Mandel’s characters can evoke variations on a single person: wistful and dreamy, with a competent, vigorous exterior; invested in values such as beauty and goodness; and working to surmount their flaws. The over-all impression is of an author less interested in individuals than in manifesting a minor-key mood coupled with a hopeful, humanist vision.
“Station Eleven,” the HBO Max show whose finale airs Thursday, is something else entirely. Where the book felt stylized, more like poetry or a fable, the series embraces the messiness, range, and complexity of life as real people live it. One doesn’t binge it; ideally one watches its ten episodes slowly, more than once. And it differentiates the novel’s characters, allowing them to summon a wider breadth of experience. On a superficial level, Miranda is now a Black woman with roots in the Caribbean. Arthur was born in Mexico, not British Columbia, and is also more than simply charming; he exudes a sly, almost dangerous sweetness. Jeevan (a soulful Himesh Patel) becomes a freelance culture critic—“I don’t have a job,” he clarifies—who, rather than surge into action during Arthur’s heart attack, can only stand by helplessly. He adopts a girl—an eight-year-old Kirsten—whose parents have disappeared with the onset of the virus, and one of the show’s time lines follows him, the child, and Jeevan’s brother Frank as they hole up in Frank’s apartment tower to wait out the apocalypse.
The show takes one particularly smart liberty with its source material, rethinking art, what it …….