When I first started reading Stephen King’s Under The Dome, I was immediately struck with a sense of “why didn’t someone think of this before.” What a unique approach to creating an “end of the world” scenario! The way it is done the provides a nearly perfect setting for the author to explore what has become an incredibly popular genre.
The premise, for those of who who haven’t read the story (and if you haven’t, but intend to, you may not want to read this review, as I will be divulging various plot points), involves a small Maine town which is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious, indestructible dome.
With this premise, he solves what I like to call the “small world” problem.
Books, films, and T.V. shows often run into a problem when trying to create a story of epic proportions. Any character, or any set of characters, are just so many people in a vast world. So if those characters are involved in epic plots to change the world, or save mankind, or destroy the ring of power (for example), there are untold millions who also populate that same world. All these people are also watching these epic events unfold, and interact, react and are otherwise entwined with them. In particular, if the world in question is the real world, our own world, we have a good sense of its vastness and complexity and notice when that is missing from a story.
A TV show that really struck me as getting it wrong was Revolution. Another post-apocalyptic tale, its events span the entirety of the United States of America. And yet, there are only a handful of characters, many of which are related to each other. A story which should have an epic feel plays out with 5-10 main characters and a few dozen extras. The world is too small.
Under the Dome, by contrast, starts out by creating that small world. Further, it does so in a way (isolating a small town) that allows the story to take place in the real world, present day. Yet within this new microcosm, we can explore all the problems of survival, lawlessness, environmentalism, and so on, that make (in my opinion) the end-of-the-world genre so appealing.
As to the story itself, if you like Stephen King you will probably like this one. I wouldn’t rank it among his best, but it certainly has that stuff that keeps him on the best sellers lists. The book is written in that way that drives the reader forward, eager to learn what happens next. I was kept up several late nights, unable to stop, until I finished just one more chapter.
Notable, for me, he continues something that was used in his earlier work, From a Buick 8. I’m thinking of is his description of horrors so total, they are incomprehensible to the human mind. This fascinates me. How does one describe the indescribable? He pulls it off.
One other comment on the book, for you firearm fanatics. A mistake he makes with the duty weapons of the police force kind of stuck in my craw. He identifies their pistols as Beretta Taurus Model 92s. It’s a little bit of sloppiness in the research department, as he’s mixing two brand names (for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, imagine has the characters driving a Ford Chevy 150). The Beretta 92 is a fairly common sidearm for military and police. Taurus also makes a 92, itself a Beretta clone (actually made in a Beretta-built factory in Brazil. I imagine a police department could save some budget by buying the Taurus over the original Beretta, although I have no idea. More likely it was a googling error, which mixed up some names. Stephen King is a bit of a hoplophobe, so one can forgive his ignorance (if maybe not his editors.) That this stands out as the low point should tell you how little I had to criticize.
Interestingly, given the thrust of my essay, I did have a problem with the scale of the dome and of Chester’s Mill, which seemed occasionally inconsistent. I live in a town that I imagine to be similar in size, location, culture, layout, etc., so as I read I thought of the story as taking place near my own home. Despite the fact that the area encompassed by The Dome is detailed in maps at the front of the book, I have trouble reconciling the scale with some of the descriptors. The downtown seems too small for the size of the town and the “back woods” portion of the town seems too big for the size of the dome. But I’m probably just over-thinking it. It didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment of the book.
Which brings me to the T.V. show. I found out fairly recently Under the Dome had been made into a series. I was excited, because I had enjoyed the book. I was also excited because the problems with a “small world” are much more acute for a T.V. show on a budget than for a novel or a film, and as I say, this setting was a great solution to that problem.
One thing I did not want to get in the way of my enjoyment of the T.V. series is too much comparison to the book. Even the best translation of a book to television (Game of Thrones?) will suffer if compared too closely the the original text. And the show does deviate from the book. Starting with some significant changes right from the opening scene, the series has continued to move in its own direction in a number of major ways.
But that is O.K. The setting can be used in ways that the original story didn’t. Given that my big nit with the book is the Beretta/Taurus thing, one new direction that the show takes the story is exploring Second Amendment issues. The ubiquity of gun ownership in rural (umm, where is this exactly? Maine? California?)… somewhere, and the implementation of gun confiscation in a crisis are explored. And when the guns come out, Hollywood’s unfamiliarity with firearms are boldly displayed. Our hero, Barbie, has a habit of constantly ejecting a round from his pistol, both before and after each shot. Shotguns are racked, reracked, and racked again, punctuating arguments between characters. One character even racks her Mini-14 like a shotgun.
It also bothers me, in each new episode, to hear talk of the sheriff and his/her deputies. These are town employees, not county employees – that much is made clear. That makes them police, not sheriffs.
I often wonder why T.V. shows and movies don’t put a little bit more effort into fact checking. Novels usually don’t have these glaring errors in them, I assume due to the editorial process. How hard is it to have editors/fact checkers look at scripts before they are filmed to keep out some of the more insane incongruities? Huh?
So, the nitpicks aside, what do I think of the show? At first, I thought it was headed for a place among my favorites. As the season wore on, though, I’ve been downgrading it to the good-but-not-great level. One of my biggest reasons for that is, you guessed it, the “small world” problem.
—–Spoiler Alert—- sort of
So about mid-season, we are introduced to some new characters. As it turns out, all the shady activity that we’ve been discovering in earlier episodes is all traceable to one crime boss. Furthermore, that crime boss happened to also get caught under the dome! Because the boss’ mother also happens to have grown up with the other characters. Somehow, all the trouble in South Western Maine (or is it Northern California) can be traced back to some bad decisions made in a Chester Mill High School. The mob bosses and drug lords of Boston (or is it Oakland?) don’t come into play – even pre-Dome, the world of this little town seems isolated from the larger world.
I sense that there were some major plot shifts, leading to possible discontinuities, which may have been a result of the series getting the go-ahead for a second season. I’m still looking forward to Season 2, and hoping that it will find it’s new groove.
Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King
Under the Dome: Season 1 DVD (free to watch on Amazon Prime)
From a Buick 8 by Stephen King
Revolution: The Complete First Season