Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Dome Is Where The Start Is

When Stephen King published Under The Dome in 2009, his loyal fans proclaimed it a return to form, not least because of its size. Despite being a dab hand at short story-telling, King has always been happier producing books that, if hollowed out, could easily solve the housing shortage. After all, he is to the longform novel what Adam Richman is to the amuse bouche.

Under The Dome was a long-gestating project for the prolific author. Originally conceived during the gas shortages of 1972, it was always a cautionary tale of dwindling resources and bad government decisions. However, the fledgling writer found the project too big for him to handle at the time, so he put away the manuscript and concentrated on more pressing matters, like a town full of vampires and that barmy caretaker.

Thirty five years later, and the world was once again in crisis. As the rubble at Ground Zero smouldered, and Bush the 2nd gave his astonishingly arrogant “You’re either with us, or you’re against us” speech, King rediscovered the unfinished story, and set about completing it. He’d originally planned to stretch the narrative out over many months, but found that he was in danger of making even The Stand look like Anne Widdecombe’s erotic memoirs.

Issues of length aside, the finished novel was classic King – bucolic small town detail; a microcosm of Middle America, peppered with the author’s legendary ear for New England colloquialisms. But as any author will tell you, a great book doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great adaptation. King may be one of the most frequently adapted authors of modern times, but he’s also the most inconsistent when it comes to the finished product. For every Shawshank Redemption there’s a Mangler. For every Stand By Me there’s a Dreamcatcher. And for every The Shining (Kubrick) there’s a The Shining (Mick Garris).

That’s not to say that King hasn’t been well-served by TV in the past - Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone and Haven all deserved their considerable fan-bases. However, the small screen has often been responsible for neutering his most powerful work. My generation may have grown up with a deathly fear of clowns, but that was mostly thanks to Tim Curry’s incredible portrayal of Pennywise, rather than anything else that happened in Tommy Lee Wallace’s otherwise unremarkable IT mini-series. Elsewhere, The Tommyknockers, Rose Red, Storm of the Century and a woeful TV remake of Carrie (not the forthcoming Chloe Grace Moretz-starrer) all triggered more sleep apnea than sleepless nights.

Even so, hopes are high for the 13-part adaptation of Under The Dome. Here, for once, is a format designed to bring out the rich character detail associated with King’s writing. With Jack Bender on board for the pilot, having previous form as the director of Lost’s iconic first episode, and Steven Spielberg in the luxuriously appointed Executive Producer’s chair, early signs are positive.

Best of all, the show’s production team were quick to announce that they’d been given free reign to change the explanation for the mysterious dome’s origins. Without wanting to spoil too much, King’s original rationale made the similarly plotted The Simpsons Movie seem realistic in comparison. Borrowing heavily from Joe Dante’s bizarre mid-80s sci-fi adventure The Explorers, the denouement of King’s novel made most readers wish they’d just put the book down 100 pages from the back cover.

Already the surprise hit of the summer season in the US, Under The Dome makes its debut here on Channel 5. So here we are, watching a serialised horror show featuring a grotesque menagerie of caricatures trapped in an invisible prison, just as Big Brother reaches its unwatched finale. Talk about ingenious counter-programming.

The show itself wastes no time establishing its folksy backwoods setting. This is one of those all-American small towns, with one set of traffic lights. Where the pretty deputy police chief is engaged to the handsome firefighter, and the whole town congregates in a diner run by the tough-talking waitress with a heart of gold. There’s a handsome bad guy, an equally handsome (but mysterious) good guy, and a red-headed investigative journalist who won’t take no for an answer; even though she works for a small-town paper where headline news would be the repainting of a footbridge. Of course, all that changes the moment an invisible dome descends dramatically onto the town, instantly cutting it off from the rest of the world. One unfortunate cow is sliced in half, sliding messily down the side of the dome like a makeshift Damien Hirst. On the far side of town, a speeding truck implodes as it collides with the unseen barrier, and a light aircraft leaves a permanent dark smudge on the sky, as it explodes on impact.

As is often the case with King’s fiction, these big jaw-dropper moments are only here for shock value; little more than narrative flesh wounds. Ultimately, these grisly vignettes take second place to the character drama, and unfortunately, this is where the pilot of Under The Dome falls short. In literary form, King’s love of archetypes works, since we can get under the skin of the personalities who populate his fictional universe. TV pilots tend to answer a very different need, and have to combine exposition with character introductions in as ruthlessly efficient manner as possible. So it’s no wonder that this feels soapy and clich├ęd, rather than instantly compelling. The show’s villains are twirling their invisible moustaches before the second ad break, and heavy-handed flashbacks helpfully point out the identity of the body we saw buried in the woods during the opening scene. Equally, anyone hoping for sophisticated characterisation may feel a little short-changed by the mixed race lesbians with a troubled daughter, or the town’s teens, who appear to have been issued with beanie hats and skateboards as some kind of mandatory uniform.

The cast is comprised of familiar, rather than famous faces. Jeff Fahey gives good grizzle as the police chief with the dicky ticker. Given how many references are made to his pacemaker, and the mysterious dome’s electromagnetic effect on it, I predict it won’t be too long before someone’s hammering on his chest and shouting “Breathe, dammit.” The other key casting decision seems to be Hank from Breaking Bad as the town’s corrupt Councilman, ‘Big Jim’ Rennie. If the show stays true to the book, this could allow actor Dean Norris an interesting alternative to his former role as Walter White’s DEA brother-in-law.

What’s going to be most interesting, is seeing how closely the show sticks to the book’s clear political subtext. As an Executive Producer, King has been distancing himself from the politics, despite making clear associations between ‘Big Jim’ and Dick Cheney. The book’s greatest strength was its clever depiction of partisan politics, as observed through the prism of small town life. The producers may be hedging their bets until Under The Dome is more established, but the following dialogue gives me hope for the rest of the season:
“What if the government built this thing?”
“I doubt it?”
“Because it works.”

As for the rest of us, we’ll just have to wait and see whether the “eggheads” on the outside can figure out what’s going on, and hope the writers will be just as diligent in looking for answers.

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