For some reason when I first read Emily St. John Mandel’s, “Station Eleven” in 2014, I thought I was going to read a dystopian tale set in the near future with blights, deaths and horrors. Lots of scary end of the world stuff. What I discovered instead was a genuinely unique story centered on a group of nomadic people, which happened to be actors and musicians, known as the Travelling Symphony. They had embraced their predicament with a noble purpose, by keeping the essence of art burning, performing Shakespeare and classical music. It felt almost lyrical. Though there were creepy moments, involving the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic, with crazed survivors and a manic prophet leading a murderous cult. In the end, the book focused on what had been lost, on people’s nostalgia and longing, as well as the determination of art to expand our view of the world and save us from loneliness.
‘I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.’ – Dr Eleven
HBO Max’s “Station Eleven” gives the same vibes. It began filming in early 2020. HBO had ordered the adaptation in June the previous year. A year before the real pandemic began. I can just imagine what the production crew felt working on the series in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are elements, early in the series, where the perspective of the show reflects those real world fears we all experienced when the pandemic broke out. And the wonderful performances only strengthened those emotions.
Having just recently finished the limited series, I must admit I wanted to re-watch the first few (I think it was the first three) of the ten episodes again before moving on to watch the rest. There is a lot of complexity and depth, and re-watching actually helped to magnify the breadth of each episode in the beginning. I don’t recommend binge watching it.
Like the book, the film moves back and forward before and after the events of the pandemic. The episodes themselves will leave major characters by skipping an episode, to focus on introducing new characters, building up emotionally powerful scenes, only to return to them in the next episode.
I particularly loved how the graphic novel, Station Eleven, is recreated in the series. (I would love to find a copy) Here the term ‘Home’ becomes such an important theme in the story, and the graphic novel becomes central to that theme. Challenging us to consider the tragedy when things fall apart, and society ceases to exist. How much does it affect us to be where we are and with who we are? This narrative is explored while the Travelling Symphony moves through its motions and each play becomes an event. As when Shakespeare’s Hamlet is performed, and its plot impacts the narrative to form the intertwining pathway to all these places and people. It’s thrilling to watch.
Station Eleven can be viewed as a surreal journey exploring the past and the future of a society broken in half by a world-shattering event. It has its moments of darkness, but it also balances its scenes with unexpected humor and great performances. As a whole, it feels like a moving play, staged in a world of loss and struggle, which finds solitude when it finally returns home.
‘I remember damage. And escape. Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long time. But I’m safe now. I found it again. My home.’ – Miranda Carroll