Under the Dome: From Book to Screen

June 21, 2013

Under the Dome is the fifth TV series based on something written by Stephen King. This number doesn’t include the many miniseries, only programs that aren’t designed to have a fixed number of episodes. Thus far, the track record is two successes and two that were canceled during their first seasons. The canceled series weren’t based on King books. The Golden Years—recently reissued on DVD—was an original story and Kingdom Hospital was a remake of a Danish series. On the other hand, The Dead Zone made it through 80 episodes over six seasons and Haven, inspired by The Colorado Kid, is currently shooting its fourth season. Both use King novels as launching points, but take liberties with the stories and characters.



With Under the Dome, which premieres on Monday, June 24th, CBS is taking a similar approach to the two success stories. Though its initial run is thirteen weeks, they hope the show will be picked up for subsequent seasons. After acquiring the project from sister channel Showtime, CBS was confident enough to go straight into production without filming a pilot. They’re putting a lot of money into promoting the show and the buzz has have been encouraging. They’ve also licensed it to dozens of international markets and will make episodes available via video on-demand to increase the revenue stream for this rare network summer event.

One thing TV has going for it, King says, is time to spread out and tell a story. He calls the series a pogo stick. “It hits big set pieces in the book, then bounces in its own direction.” The opening scene is a case in point. In the novel, former Army lieutenant Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel from Bates Motel) is hitchhiking out of Chester’s Mill in the wake of a beating he took at the hands of a gang of frat boys. In the TV series, he’s driving out of town after doing something quite sinister.

Julia Shumway isn’t a longtime resident of town who has been divorced for twenty years. Instead, she’s a fetching thirty-something redhead (Twilight’s Rachelle Lefevre) who recently arrived in Chester’s Mill from Chicago to become the newspaper editor. Soon after the dome descends, she discovers that her husband, a doctor, has been lying about his activities. She’s due for another shock, although it’s not clear when or how that blow will be delivered.

Most of the other major characters are there in one form or another, including Big Jim Rennie (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) and his oddball son Junior (newcomer Alex Koch). According to his blog, Joe McAlister (Colin Ford from Supernatural) is a few years older than the novel’s Scarecrow Joe McClatchey, and Norrie Calvert (Mackenzie Lintz) is a rebellious teenager of about the same age whose interracial lesbian moms (Aisha Hinds and Samantha Mathis, who was in ‘Salem’s Lot 2004 and “The Fifth Quarter”) are taking her from Los Angeles to a reform-school camp. Lost alum Jeff Fahey brings his reliable, calm presence to the character of Duke, the police chief, and in the first episode he suffers the same fate as his namesake. Whether that outcome will be permanent remains to be seen. Oh, and the gopher is played by a cow in the adaptation, to great effect.

In one of many major departures, Natalie Zea (Justified) shows up in the ninth episode (each episode corresponds to roughly a day in story time) as Maxine, a new character whose appearance spells big trouble. However, the writers haven’t strayed from the novel altogether. Young people suffer the same mysterious affliction. The incident with the Cessna is there. Big Jim will still make a power play once he figures out the lay of the land. Junior’s argument with Angie (who is Joe’s sister in the series) has a different and more interesting outcome—one that the actress probably appreciates. No sign of the super-smart dog yet, though.

And then there’s the dome itself. In the book, it’s semipermeable. In this adaptation, people on opposite sides can’t hear each other. All phone, TV and internet communications are down. The radio station can broadcast only within the town limits. Residents of Chester’s Mill are truly cut off from the rest of the world. There is a strong possibility that the explanation for the dome will be different from what King came up with (many readers hope this will be the case), but we may not know what that is by the end of the first season

If the show is renewed, the producers hope King will write a script. Although he visited the set a number of times, there are no plans for him to cameo; however, the producers are open to the possibility. Head writer Brian K. Vaughan (Lost) told Word and Film, “Even if you don’t see him crossing the street in the background, Stephen King is on every frame of what we shoot.” In a nod to suggestions that King borrowed the plot from The Simpson’s Movie (when, in fact, he’d first had the idea back in the 1970s), the third episode will reportedly feature a party scene where some kids are watching the film.

Since I couldn’t view the series with the same blank slate approach I had with Lost, I asked my wife to watch the first episode with me to see how someone who hasn’t read the book would react. She’s a hard sell, not being much of a TV viewer, but she is now as eager as I am to see the subsequent episodes. She was particularly struck by the way the dome is depicted—it’s completely invisible. People don’t know it’s there until they encounter it in one fashion or another. The special effects (even though they weren’t finalized on the preview DVD) are impressive. Each episode reportedly costs over $3 million, and it shows. (Many of the best effects from the premiere can be seen in this extended trailer.)

Vaughan says the first season will have three distinct sections: faith, fear and fascism. The show has been described as a cross between the mysteries of Lost and the quirky off-centered atmosphere of Twin Peaks. However, unlike those shows, some story questions are answered in the same episode in which they are posed.

Vaughan and showrunner Neal Baer are using Under the Dome, in part, to comment on contemporary social issues, including environmental themes and the fact that the world is running out of valuable resources like water and oil. King says that everyone living on planet earth is under a dome. According to Executive Producer Jack Bender (also from Lost), Under the Dome won’t be preachy, though. “This is still pulpy and fun,” he told the LA Times. “But the show does have something to say about our social structures.”

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