Monday, 23 September 2013

Under the Dome; This is not going to end well. Or at all.

Stephen King adaptations rarely work out well. If you'd put me in the hot box and worked me over for a while trying to sweat an answer out of me, I'd have said "Bitches, you want to beat the truth out of someone, don't be such lightweights. Drop the phone books; use Stephen King books." Because man, Stephen King is not the kind of guy who's going to use one word if he can get the job done in a chapter. And the iron rule is one page of dialogue is one minute of screen time. Try to cram one of his doorstops into a movie length and you're going to lose most of the words, and with them, you're going to lose the characters, who rise above formula when King has the space to let us hear what they're - kinda long-windedly - thinking.

So, if not movies, surely TV? In TV, you've got all the room you want, all the space you need for King's prose to sprawl out on the sofa just like the viewers. Yeah, not a lot of encouragement over in TV land either, where productions have routinely choked on the need to keep the action family friendly.

CBS found another way to go wrong. Under the Dome is one of King's less grisly books, in that no-one's getting ripped to pieces by eldritch abominations and such as. Bad stuff is happening, but it's all well within the wheelhouse of contemporary drama, even on CBS. And a standard half season run would have been a good fit for Under the Dome's bloated but only a week long plot. The problem - and it's a biggie - is that CBS aren't a cable channel and they like everything to run forever. This is the home of CSI, which is still running even though everyone I know stopped watching it about four years ago. Under the Dome is a bad fit for that model, what with the one week of action and the ending where everything burns down and blows up. Not really something you can spin out.

Undaunted, like fools and geniuses throughout history, CBS went for it anyhow. And they had one brainwave, dialling down the evil lunacy on Big Jim Rennie from "Aliens made the dome just to keep Big Jim Rennie from getting on reality" to "Small town demagogue with a mean streak". Even wilier, they hired Dean Norris, fresh off playing Hank in Breaking Bad, to play him. Norris is a good actor, coming off a role where he'd played a pretty uncomplicated good guy in a landscape of very complicated bad guys. Those two things together brought a lot of ambiguity to the character in the opening straight; sure, you'd hate to have to buy a car off Big Jim, but he wasn't a monster. Might even have some decency to him if he didn't have anything personal riding on a decision. 

Between hiring Norris and cutting a cow in half, the producers must have used up all the money, because there's no-one else in the cast who can even keep up - though in fairness, this was also true of the book characters; when I was reading the book, I kept having to flip back to figure out who the heck was angst-ing now about the current plot red herring. Big Jim might not have been the most plausible character ever to walk the pages of fiction, but he had a couple of dimensions to him...

Now, if CBS had grasped the idea that this was always a short term one time deal, by that one act of tweaking Big Jim to be more subtle, they'd have been well on the way to making an adaptation which might have beaten the source material. Instead, they faffed about, setting up mini-problems each week without ever doing anything to suggest that the townspeople were in any way freaked out by being stuck under an impervious goldfish bowl. They took King's howlingly insane meth plot and made it more howlingly insane, if that were possible. About six episodes in, I was starting to get worried; then I heard they were going for a second season and my heart just sank. There's no long game for the underlying idea. It was always about putting people in a pressure cooker and seeing what happened, and King went out of his way to stack it so that things would go to hell in a hand basket within a week. 

CBS wants something like a dystopian Gilligan's Island, or god help us, another Lost. This is a) dumb b) not the book they're supposedly adapting, but if that was the way they wanted to go, they shouldn't have smuggled in all the dynamite King stuffed his Dome with.

It will be next summer until we see whether getting King in to do the writing gets them back out of the hole they've dug themselves, but in the meantime, watch the Simpsons Movie, which I suspect is going to remain the definitive video version of "small town gets stuck under impervious dome".

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