Jun 25 2013 12:00pm

How Well Does Stephen King’s Under the Dome Translate to Television?

Under the Dome

Last night, in case you missed its relentless advertising campaign, the first episode of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and Brian K. Vaughan’s Under the Dome premiered on CBS. The TL, DR? Efficiently entertaining, competently-made television that felt like LOST in Maine (Vaughan’s sole previous television credit was on LOST and the cast featured several LOST regulars). For people who have read the book it was a trip to Bizarro World where familiar names were attached to unfamiliar characters and everything felt just slightly off. If there was a surprise, it was that this was a perfect example of modern day television which, oddly enough, fails at visual spectacle but triumphs at character development.

After the jump: a woodchuck turns into a cow, you can judge the character of a man by the hair on his face, and Maine gets integrated. Also: plenty of spoilers.

Weighing in at a whopping 1072 pages, Under the Dome was published in 2009 and became Stephen King’s second-longest novel after It (I’m not counting his overstuffed 1990 re-release of The Stand which pumped it up to a steroid-addled 1152 pages). The story of a community sealed off from the world by an invisible force field was an idea King had picked up and abandoned a couple of times in a manuscript called The Cannibals which he’d gotten about 70 pages into in 1978—around the time he wrote The Stand—before dumping it, then picking it up again in 1982. This time he got further. Writing on his website he says:

That second try was mostly written in Pittsburgh, during the filming of Creepshow. I spent two months in a depressing suburban apartment complex that became (with the usual fictional tweaks) the setting for the story. It was called The Cannibals, and this time I got a lot further—almost five hundred pages—before hitting a wall. I assumed the manuscript was lost. Long story short, it turned up—battered, and with some pages missing, but mostly complete—in the summer of 2009.

Monty Burns King wrote this essay and even posted a chunk of The Cannibals online to prove he hadn’t stolen the idea after some folks pointed out that Under the Dome was simply The Simpsons Movie with less jokes and more necrophilia. In science fiction, the idea goes back further than that. B.R. Bruss wrote about it in his 1953 novel, L’Apparition des Surhommes. Clifford Simak wrote about it in 1965 in All Flesh is Grass. But neither of them approached it with King’s great, gory, gleeful embrace of carnage, mayhem, and red-blooded spectacle.

Under the Dome is, like It and The Tommyknockers, a Stephen King story about aliens coming to earth and acting like jerks. In this case, they drop an impenetrable dome over the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine and let everyone go bananas and kill each other for a while. Eventually, a band of survivors contact the aliens responsible, help them overcome peer pressure, and use feelings to negotiate a lowering of the dome, but not before most of the town is roasted to death in a giant meth-fueled firestorm of epic proportions. It’s a fun book, but not a great one, more of a satisfying B-grade summer blockbuster than one of King’s deeper efforts. Still, it goes down easy and doesn’t leave you feeling like your time was wasted.

The TV show, with its pedigree names (Spielberg! Vaughan! CBS!) is that familiar breed of nighttime drama that wears its ambitions on its sleeve: the season-long fantasy mystery in the vein of LOST (see also: American Horror Story, Fringe, Heroes). And, thankfully, it looks like it’s going to deviate significantly from the book, which is a relief since I haven’t been able to locate even the most hardcore Stephen King fan who will defend the book’s ending. What’s strange is that the book excelled at things I expected the TV show to do better, while the TV show got right things that I thought were the province of books.

In King’s Under the Dome, the characters started out broad and only got broader. “Big Jim” Rennie, the big bad guy, starts as a Bible verse-spouting hypocrite and used car salesman who sells crystal meth on the side, and his character development mostly consists of adding murder and a few more crimes to his plate over the course of the book. His son, Junior, starts the book as a psychotic, woman-beating rapist, but his character is later revealed to have a third dimension consisting of migraine headaches, paranoid delusions, and sadism. It’s like King started his characters at 11 and then had nowhere else to go but 12, 13, 14, and on into outer space.

In this day and age of delicately shaded, morally complex TV characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White, these cardboard caricatures will not pass muster, and so CBS’s Under the Dome is immediately a massive improvement on the book in terms of character development. Here, Big Jim is an upright, well-intentioned guy who’s a bit too hungry for power, but he mostly seems to want to do the right thing. It doesn’t hurt that he’s played by the enormously likeable Dean Norris from Breaking Bad. Junior Rennie comes across as a good kid with some genuine mental problems, and we’re an hour into the show and he hasn’t murdered any women or had sex with their corpses yet, so already that’s doing better than the book.

There are a lot more changes in how characters are portrayed, and in almost every case the CBS version does it better. This series may only run 13 episodes but they’re taking their time and not showing their cards up front the way King did in his book, but don’t get me wrong: this show is still stuffed with television clichés. Characters threaten to reveal vital plot information but only manage a cryptic half sentence before falling down dead. Duke (Jeff Fahey), the police chief, has his heart problems foreshadowed so heavily that by the time his pacemaker finally explodes it feels more like a foregone conclusion than an actual surprise. The two most attractive white people on the screen instantly have sexual tension, and they both turn out to be vital to the plot.

And, this being television, machismo is indicated by facial hair. Duke is all rugged Yankee lawman, and he has a fine mustache and chin shrubbery, while Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel) is a badass who sports the thickest five o’clock shadow to hit the small screen since Matthew Fox on Party of Five. Not coincidentally, evil Big Jim Rennie is as bald as a newborn baby, and weasely Junior has the hairless face and greasy hair of Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks. But it’s a testament to how broad the book’s characters are that even network TV requires them to exhibit more nuance. But there are two other major changes.

One of them is that on CBS, Chester’s Mill, Maine is populated by numerous actors of color. Maine is one of the whitest states in the union, and Stephen King writes some of the whitest books around, but on CBS Under the Dome is as diverse as the photos in a high school math book with Hispanic deputies, African-American DJs, lesbian couples, and Asian-Americans doing science things. It’s nice to see that either color-blind casting or television’s quest to appeal to every demographic has successfully integrated King’s fiction. My guess is that the televised version of Under the Dome looks a lot more like 2013 America than King’s book.

The other major change comes in the form of Dale “Barbie” Barbara. In both the book and the TV series he’s a rugged outsider who’s just passing through town but gets trapped there when the dome descends. He’s ex-military in both, but in the book he’s a short order cook who is run out of town when some local thugs jump him and he beats their asses. It’s an introduction almost identical to the way Nick Andros enters the story in The Stand, and it’s always bummed me out to see King repeat himself like this: two rugged manly men who hate violence but clean the clocks of a gang of locals who jump them on the road just as they’re moving along.

In the series, we open with Barbie burying a corpse in the first scene, reporting to his superior by phone that a deal went bad, then sharing a moment with Dean Norris that seems to guarantee that the two men are connected via a criminal enterprise. It’s a bit cookie cutter (sometimes television seems to present an America where the only three professions are cop, drug dealer, or innocent bystander) but it promises a lot more narrative juice and thorny complications down the road and is already layering Barbie in more moral contradictions than he had in the book.

Where the series fails, strangely enough, is where I had thought it would most succeed: spectacle. King’s book kicks off with the descent of the dome and it’s a breathless, impeccably staged opening 100 pages of murder, mayhem, and death from above. A twin-engine plane smashes into the dome, a big rig rams into it, a woodchuck gets chopped in half, a guy doesn’t see it and walks into it, breaking his nose, and birds in the hundreds fly into it and break their necks. It’s all staged with remarkable skill by a master showman. King has always been a very visual writer and in his hands this beginning soars.

On TV, it comes off as lame. A few birds fall out of the sky with stock whooshing sound effects. A single truck smashes into the dome. The plane crash in the book is a fiery spectacle that imparts an ominously apocalyptic note to the proceedings, but on TV where we can actually see that fireball and the incongruous black smudge it leaves hanging improbably in the sky, it feels rote and tossed off. This is a TV series that lobs underhanded softball throws when it should be sending 100 mph fastballs right over the plate.

There’s a beautiful moment in the book when Myra Evans is gardening and she reaches out to pluck a pumpkin just as the dome descends, neatly amputating her arm. The scene is beautifully written, and perfectly detailed. Her husband can’t get through to 911 and he helplessly holds a tourniquet on spouting stump as a CD that was playing runs out and leaves him in silence, listening to police sirens in the distance. It’s a small human moment that highlights the scope of the disaster, showing us the big picture and the small picture all at once. In the series, a nameless, handless woman is found by Barbie and Julia Shumway (local redhead, reporter, and sexual tension generator for Dale) and dispensed immediately. It’s a banal moment that lasts about five seconds and has less dramatic heft than the ad for Stephen King’s new book, Dr. Sleep, that runs a few minutes later. Really, TV? That’s the best you can do?

The spectacle here feels cheap, like they didn’t have the budget for it, but instead of narrowing down their moments they chose to show them all, lingering over their lack of depth. There is, however, one saving grace: they turn the woodchuck into a cow. In the book, one of King’s best characters is a fat, middle-aged woodchuck out for a morning stroll who gets chopped in half by the dome. Television, thankfully, doesn’t have time for woodchucks. In a moment that pretty much everyone will be talking about, the TV series changes him into a bisected cow. It’s a great gag, and one of the few visual moments that people will remember from this show because it’s one of the few visual moments that the show expends any effort on.

Then again, if they want us to stay committed to this series for 13 episodes, then it’s not visuals we’ll need. King already gave us those in his book. This series will live or die based on its characters and how much we get wrapped up in their mysteries and so far CBS is pulling ahead of the book. And that’s the weird world we live in. With more and more books reading like pitches for screenplays and TV series, it’s television that’s becoming the writer’s medium, and so Under the Dome might be one of those rare cases where the movie actually turns out to be better than the book.

Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.

1. olethros
Sounds like the Luna Bros. Girls more than anything else.
2. dobieprime
Am I wrong, but wasn't this suppose to start June 30th?
Tabitha Jensen
3. pabkins
I forgot to record it - maybe they'll rerun the first episode i'm sure. I'd be interested to check it out since I just read Life on the Preservation which was another "dome" type sci fi
David Gunter
4. spdavid
Obviously it's early to form but so much of an impression.I read the book awhile back.I thought the pilot was reasonably good at following it with a few touch ups for tv.I think the effects are a bit low budget but I don't judge things like this on that (Star Trek anyone?).What I'm most in question about is that this is an open ended series not just a tv version of the book.How far can you go with this story beyond the book?Anyway I'm ok with it for now enough to keep watching.
5. sofrina
that kidnapped teenager was confusing. with all her jobs and wardrobe changes i thought sure she was a pair of twins. her crazy boyfriend, junior. well...how long can he carry on before people open that bunker? they have all the time they need to search every nook and cranny for her.
Lee VanDyke
6. Cloric
I admit, the changes to Julia annoyed me a bit. I always got the impression in the book she was a middle aged (or older) seasoned journalist, not a twenty-something married woman who doesn't seem to have been in the news business that long. But the change to Barbie is really getting to me. I know the current trend is that our heroes and protaganists need a "dark side" or dirty secret to make them interesting, but I still prefer my heroes to, I don't know, not commit murder during a deal gone bad. I'm REALLY hoping that we'll find out that what they showed in the initial scene isn't what it looked like.
Sean Dowell
7. qbe_64
Haven't read the book, was sufficiently intrigued to continue watching. Kind of dissapointed, but not surprised that it's aliens.

For someone who has read the book, could you please tell that somebody tries to dig underneath this at some point? I suppose it would make more sense from the outside, since they would have actual mining equipment. Does it turn out to be a sphere?
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
Yes, in the book people try to dig underneath and fail.

(In the book it's not a sphere, because it's really not a dome, even though they call it that. The walls are straight up-and-down, several miles high, and they follow the legal boundaries of Chester's Mill exactly -- which makes it clear that the barrier is an artifact, because nothing natural could possibly do that.)
13. Pokey81
I read the book and loved it. The TV series of course will be different than the book, like the rest of Stephen King movies, they always change some things in it. Stephen King himself read the script and is on site during filming, and he is happy with what they are doing. I'm a huge Stephen King fan and if he's happy with how Under The Dome is turning out, then I'm happy too! Don't be critical and expect it to be exactly like the book. NONE of his books that turn into movies are exactly the same.
Michael Green
14. greenazoth
Alas, I just didn't like a single performance -- even from the actors I've enjoyed in other things. At least Norris seemed to be trying really hard, bless his heart.
Tim Marshall
15. smaug86
I'm pretty sure that it was a spehere in the book. It had the same shape under the ground that it had above which would make it sphere-like.
16. HedgeWitch
I gave up reading Stephen King after I stayed up till 3 in the morning to find out what happens at the end of Pet Cemetary. The rest of the book was clever apart from cannibalising the idea of the wendigo; but the end of the book just made me go "Oh, for goodness sake!" At that point I turned to Dean Koontz ("Watchers"). I need a lead that I care about (check!), peril that is scary not stupid (check!), a buildup of suspence (check) and a happy ending (check!).

I know I'm childlike but life has chucked enough s*#t at me for me to want happy endings so, despite the fact that "The Dome" looked intriguing, I really couldn't be bothered to get involved with these characters only to watch the nice one dying like flies.
17. SoCalRaceGirl
So far I think its pretty good, I did hear he changed the ending after many of his fans (including myself) expressed their dislike in the ending. I can't wait to see how he has re-written it. The ending in the book was awful! He has also changed one of the brutal murders that takes place, and I think I know what one they are talking about, I guess we will have to wait and see!
18. Jimmy Cratner
That's all well and good, but where's Andy, the books best character, imo. Chef aswell is totally different. The only reason for watching for me is seeing how they overcome not having the two best people portrayed correctly( or at all in Andy's case), and seeing if they have an ending that feels more real than the novel. ( I love King's work, but his endings often leave a wtf taste in my mouth)
20. Cecilia Syvia
I read the book; "The Dome", loved the content, hated the ending. In the book, you either loved the charaters or hated them, in the series everyone to me is pretty much even. No one has really stepped up as being the really bad guy that you hate or the really good guy that you love so much. The book was pretty graphic in content and I think alot of that is getting lost in the series, which sometimes leaves me confused. Maybe it's just because some of the content is being used from the book and the other is just being rewritten for tv. In any case, I just hope that the producers turn up the heat for this series. It has the potential to be a great series.
21. Spanky361
By far one of the worst book adaptations ive ever seen. Complete and total bastardization of an amazing piece of fiction. For those who think the show is doing a better job at character development then you should maybe read the book again. Where the hell is Sammy Bushey??????? Why get rid of the most harrowing character in the book?!?!
22. Robin Boyd
I finally gave up on the TV series this last episode. The "feel" of the TV series is even more claustraphobic than the book because the enclosure is much closer to residences and a constant character. In the book, the dome is not a dome at all, but a very large cylindrical enclosure that is 47,000 feet high and needs to be driven to from town.

If characters are going to be changed as much as they are in the TV series, they really need to just be different characters. Also, the TV characters keep changing, making it very difficult to relate to them.

All in all, even if I did not read the book and think it to be pretty good, as a stand alone TV series, Under the Dome just comes off pretty hokey with completely unbelievable characters.
23. BookishWorm
Brian K Vaughan is a weak and predictable writer.

Following the episode, THICKER THAN WATER, it's obvious Junior will play the role of Severus Snape. Hated at first, he'll eventually help save Chester's Mill, then gain our sympathy after it's revealed his terrible actions were a result of an undiagnosed brain tumor.
24. Jim V
I read the book and, to put it mildly, was disgusted by the cheap, "throw-something-together to get it out the door" ending. Up until the ending, it was a fairly good King work, although far from his best. But the ending so disgusted me that I could only watch a few minutes of it before turning the channel. What I saw of the miniseries was even worse. I loved his 11/22/63. I can't wait to see the miniseries of it. I hope it's as good as the book, if so it'll be great.
25. Jim V
Reposting to make a correction:
"I read the book and, to put it mildly, was disgusted by the cheap, throw-something-together to get it out the door" ending. Up until the ending, it was a fairly good King work, although far from his best. But the ending so disgusted me that I could only watch a few minutes of it before turning the channel. I loved his 11/22/63. I can't wait to see the miniseries of it. I hope it's as good as the book, if so it'll be great.
26. rachael s
You're wrong. I've read the book twice and I have no problem with the ending. It was moving. It's something S.K. does well, get you invested in the characters and then continue to write the story whether or not you are invested in them. I cried again while reading the end of this book tonight. The humanity, the fight to live, and the coldness of their captors.

As far as the show oes, I watch it. But after rereading the book I am disappointed that they have deviated so much from the original. Junior had no redeeming qualities because of the tumor. Norrie lived there her whole life. No lesbian moms. The kids helped find the generator, but there wasn't some mini dome to crack with their super powers. Most importantly in the book was how FAST it happened. 6 days from the dome to the towns destruction by Rennie. The story of how ppl being complacent letting things slide and then boom, world changes and look at the monster you left in charge. In the show its been what? Something like 2 weeks already?

I guess I'll still watch it. Until CBS cancels it cause network tv cancels ALL SERIES so quickly. This would have been better on AMC. I don't see why they have to change things so much all the time. Yeah, I can understand jr in the closet with his gf's having sex with their dead bodies wouldn't go over on tv, but a lot of the book could have been done. One day happening each season. Six days, six seasons. Oh well. The show has it all screwed up now, so nothing to do but watch and see how much worse, corney, and sappy it gets.

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