Patrick Somerville breaks down differences between the HBO Max show and the novel for EW.
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Warning: Spoilers ahead for the finale of Station Eleven.

Patrick Somerville and Emily St. John Mandel have a connection that feels straight out of Station Eleven. The creator of the HBO Max limited series, which released the final episode on Jan. 13, and the author of the novel that inspired the show first met a decade ago as two still-struggling writers. A friend of a friend introduced the pair and they decided to team up for a book reading — Somerville was promoting the paperback release of his second novel, and Mandel had just published her third. "I actually picked Emily up from O'Hare for the event," Somerville tells EW of their serendipitous meeting. "We took a detour to a gun show in the outskirts of Chicagoland because I was writing a piece for GQ about it, and then we went and gave a reading, which four people came to, and then I drove her back to O'Hare."

At the time, Somerville was pondering a pivot to television — the grind of freelance writing was beginning to grate — and Mandel had just started a new book that she hoped would prove successful. That book, of course, was Station Eleven. "I was working on The Bridge and I saw Station Eleven skyrocketing up the bestseller list and thought, holy s---, she did it," says Somerville. "She cracked the code and made a piece of literary fiction with wide appeal." The TV writer found himself drawn to the source material and its potential to have both depth and scale on the small screen, and kept his eye on the project as it struggled through a film development cycle. "When I heard the movie script crashed and burned, I found a way to get in a room with the producer, Scott Steindorff, who owned the rights," he says. "This was right when Maniac was ending and I had just enough juice to make the pitch."

A long, emotional journey to a greenlit project famously isn't the only hiccup that the Station Eleven adaptation encountered: The team had only a few weeks of filming under their belt when the early days of the coronavirus pandemic brought production to a stop, offering yet another way for art to eerily imitate life. But now that the series has finally made it to its audience — one that has become hungry for stories of human connection and a hopeful take on the too-familiar pandemic narrative — it's gained fans even outside of Mandel's devoted readership. Below, Somerville looks back on the creative changes the television team made to the original story and offers his take on the way the series wrapped up.

Station Eleven
Credit: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show makes a fair amount of changes from the source material — putting Jeevan and Kirsten together for a large portion of the plot, for example, and playing with timelines — did any of the changes seem more urgent at the outset than others?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: I think Kirsten's character [played by Mackenzie Davis] felt clear that there was more to do with her — not because Emily missed anything, but because she didn't need to, in the book. It didn't require Kirsten to have an arc. But I think actors need an arc, and we wanted to put a little bit of meat on the bone for a performer as high a caliber as Mackenzie to feast on. There was also a really interesting issue brewing with Kirsten, which was, is she allowed to kill people? Outside of the lawless world where she had to, to stay alive — but once she is in a space where she doesn't need to, we wondered if she liked throwing knives at people, and killing people. I bet you she does. That's where the idea for the origin story of her knife came in; it's the knife that killed Frank [Nabhaan Rizwan], but presumably it saved her over and over again during the years we didn't see.

Was there a specific significance in moving the setting from Toronto, where the book takes place, to Chicago? Was it just to make it more familiar to American audiences?

That was the one thing that, before we started, I called Emily to seek out her blessing. She totally got it. I had lived in Chicago for 10 years, I knew it very intimately, and I knew that in order to tell the story right, we were going to need a bunch of architectural way points that mattered to Miranda's eye as an artist. Like Lakepoint Tower, and Thompson Center, and the way the El operates. I think you can feel it in the book, in the way she writes the journeys through Toronto, that she deeply knows the place. I wanted to be able to do that, and Chicago is what I know. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, looking out across Lake Michigan and thinking it was a sea. I do think the whole show is a love letter to the Great Lakes. Ironically, after the pandemic came through and we were looking for a safer place to shoot — Chicago had some 70,000 active COVID cases during the summer of 2020 — we found Ontario. There were 125 in all of Ontario. Hiro [Murai, director and producer] and I decided to move production to Toronto because it's the same ecosystem, the same lakes, and the book taking place there was a cherry on top.

And is Frank's apartment, where he, Jeevan [Himesh Patel], and Kirsten spend the first two months of the pandemic, a real building in Chicago?

It's called Lake Point Tower, and it's the only structure in all of Chicago east of Lake Shore Drive. My wife is actually from Chicago and her grandmother used to live there, so I have all these emotional connections thanks to her memories of that place. But it's also a cool building — it's a clover shape to maximize the window space of all of the apartments. Ruth, our production designer, would kill me if I didn't mention the architects John Heinrich and George Schipporeit. The idea in the show is that Lake Point is our lone tower of safety, but you can look out and see things like the plane that hit Navy Pier [in episode 1]. We shot at the building itself, they let us shoot down in the lobby and use the elevator. As far as the actual apartment, our production designer Ruth Ammon built that whole thing on a stage; it's not blue screen. We put it on a stage in Chicago, shot one scene, and then we trucked it from Chicago to Toronto and put it back together. The first day we shot in Toronto, almost a year after COVID shut us down, we were all standing in the same apartment in a different country, resuming the story of Kirsten and Jeevan.

The Internet has really become smitten with Jeevan, Frank, and Miranda [Danielle Deadwyler] — what's your take on the fandom and how it relates to the characters?

I've met plenty of Jeevan people, Frank people, Miranda people, I've even met plenty of Miranda and Clark people. It's sort of a Rorschach test. But for me, Kirsten is the character that I feel most connected to. It's a character played by two different actors, who both delivered unbelievable performances, and both needed to knit themselves to each other as well. I also just have to choose someone in the Traveling Symphony because I feel like a member in spirit.

Station Eleven
Danielle Deadwyler in 'Station Eleven'
| Credit: Ian Watson/HBO Max

You end the show with Miranda's arc, whereas her storyline was tied up — and her fate revealed — early on in the book; what went into deciding the lasting image and feeling you wanted to use to tie up the show?

In television, more so than books, it's good to have causal relationships — we always knew Miranda was going to come back into the plot, that her story wasn't done. It was really important that what she did mattered. She wasn't going to save the world in the way that a character in 24 would, but we wanted her to save the world in her own small way, from her hotel room in Malaysia. That very unusual phone call with a stranger [the pilot of the Gitchegumee flight] felt exactly right for our show. It mattered that she reconnected with Clark [David Wilmot], because that meant she knew who was at the airport. It mattered that Jim [Timothy Simons] came back and helped her find the phone number. And it mattered that she actually connected to Hugo, and that he listened to what she said. She could finally say what happened to her. I loved the idea of the surprise: You never thought Miranda would be more than a godmother of the people in the show and their past.

You also created a causal relationship between Alex [Philippine Velge] and Tyler [Julian Obradors], with the scene at the makeshift birthing center.

I see it as a Jeevan and Kirsten situation. We left some doubt as to who Tyler and Rose [Alex's mother] were to each other when they met, relative to when he walked away from the airport, and who the father of that baby was. There's some doubts, even, about what Tyler knows. When they're on the docks in episode 2, I believe he has no idea who this person is; I don't think he knows he's talking to the baby he handed back. But these are unexplored territories for me as well. This is a show with so many ellipses. I think what matters is the idea that we're all probably closer to each other than we know.

Even if Tyler doesn't know it consciously, the backstory explains what their pull to each other is...

Exactly. And I think the compelling thing for Alex isn't Tyler's propaganda about Station Eleven, or his charm or sexual appeal, or any of the promises he made to her about the future. She's smitten by the idea of a person who thought they were never going to see a parent again, and does. I think in that scene where she's watching them hug, she wants to be in that hug somehow.

Station Eleven
Credit: Ian Watson/HBO Max

What do you believe is the future or fate of civilization at the end of the series?

In the book, the power grid is starting to come back on, there's a light in the distance that they can see from the airport. I think in the show, what interests me is what the characters believe is going to happen. And if civilization is slowly coming back, do they want it back? Clark is holding down the fort just waiting for the grid to come back on, basically. Tyler's like, 'f--- no, I don't want it back.' The artists are always in the middle, where they honor the good things in the past but are also anarchic people. The artists are a hybrid type of survivor, who straddled the before and after, the chaos of the Undersea and the appeal of the museum.

You've made me think about our collective COVID experience. When it's gone, we don't get to go back to what life was before. We've lost so many people and we're f---ing traumatized, but a lot of us know ourselves better than we ever did. There's been an opportunity for deep change that is rare for adults. I hope we capitalize on it.

Emily St. John Mandel's last two books, combined with the forthcoming Sea of Tranquility, have formed a mini literary universe; do you have aspirations to continue adapting her work?

I can certainly imagine an amazing version of The Glass Hotel where Danielle Deadwyler is the lead investigator in Vincent's missing persons case. Danielle is a revelation. I don't know if it will happen, but I hope so.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Related content:

Station Eleven: A Novel
type
  • Book
genre
author
  • Emily St. John Mandel
publisher
  • Knopf

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