Sitting down to watch a film or TV show based on a Stephen King novel is a triumph of hope over experience. The strength of his writing — powerful characterizations achieved through extensive interior monologue — is difficult to translate to the screen, and for every success like Carrie there are half a dozen hacky B-pictures like Firestarter and Maximum Overdrive.
So Under The Dome, the 13-episode CBS summer-series adaptation of King’s 2009 novel, should be approached with caution. But based on the pilot episode — with its taut script, strong performances and special effects that are impressive without being overwhelming — there’s hope that Under The Dome might measure up to its unsettling print progenitor.
Like many of King’s works, Under The Dome is a kind of Our Town (or perhaps its trashy Pepsi Generation cousin, Peyton Place) driven berserk by super- or supranatural forces. In this case, the rural Maine village of Chester’s Mill finds itself abruptly enclosed by an invisible and apparently indestructible dome.
Birds, bullets and airplanes bounce off it. So do sound waves and electricity, leaving Chester’s Mill dark and isolated — ominous conditions only exacerbated by the fact that most town officials, police and firefighters were off at a parade in a neighboring town when the dome dropped.
It’s a perfect environment for the town’s secrets, big and small, to fester.
The backslapping bonhomie of councilman Big Jim Rennie (Dean Morris, the bemused DEA agent in Breaking Bad) peels away to reveal something more foreboding. His son, Junior (stage actor Alexander Koch), the town bully, begins a baleful pursuit of an unrequited love.
Newspaper editor Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, What About Brian?) realizes she’s missed a big story in her own family. And whatever drifter Dale Barbara (Mike Vogel, Bates Motel) was doing in town, it wasn’t wholesome.
Under The Dome, however, aims to be much more than the sum of its characters’ personal demons. Both King (who, along with Stephen Spielberg, gets an executive producer credit, though in both cases the title probably has more to do with finances than creative control) and writer-producer Brian K. Vaughan are interested in a broader political statement about the twin impulses of anarchism and fascism. How Chester’s Mill fills the power vacuum created by its sudden isolation is at least as important as the town’s efforts to free itself from the dome.
Those efforts are fraught with paranoia, as theories about space aliens and secret government experiments run rampant (The drifter Barbara is skeptical that the government could have designed the dome – “because it works.”)
That gives Under The Dome a whiff of Cold War apocalyptic fiction that is underscored by the weirdly anachronistic 1950s streak running through the show. Leather-jacketed juvenile delinquents. Fallout shelters, Dialogue peppered with words like “egghead.” And surely Chester Mills’ radio station is the last one in the United States to be playing its music on turntables that spin vinyl records. I sure hope those cops are on the lookout for teenage werewolves.