You'd think it would be easy to adapt Stephen King to film or television, but history has proven otherwise. King's work is as much about mood as it is monsters, and that's a tough combo. For every masterpiece ("The Shining," "Carrie," "Misery"), there's a mess ("Christine," "Children of the Corn," "Bag of Bones").
Still, my own deep and abiding love for King began with television; my friends and I watched the 1979 miniseries "Salem's Lot" literally on the edge of our seats, pillows in hand for the moments when we Could Not Bear to watch.
So there are worries and expectations for "Under the Dome," which premieres Monday night on CBS. And not just regarding King — concerning the nature of adaptation as well.
Although "Under the Dome" is based on the 1,100-page book of the same name, it is a full-fledged, open-ended dramatic series. Graphic novelist Brian K. Vaughan, brought on as executive producer and writer, was given King's blessing to take the story of a small Pennsylvania town suddenly trapped by a mysterious barrier wherever he felt it needed to go.
Which is under that wacky dome as quickly as possible. For a story of such wide and possibly allegorical ambitions, the pilot seems in an unnecessary rush to get the party started.
Opening with a shot that manages to make the hatching of a baby bird seem ominous, we get right down to evil-doings. One man burying another in the middle of the woods, a young couple whose summer fling clearly cloaks something darker. A local drunk calls the sheriff to complain about some commotion, and a surprisingly lucid American hoarder tips off the comely local newspaper editor to a mysterious stockpiling of propane.
Then boom, down comes the dome, deadly and dramatic. After a cellphone call to his employer reveals he probably killed the guy he was burying in self-defense, Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel) runs his car into a field to avoid hitting some cows. Good thing too: As the earth trembles and the birds take off, an invisible barrier slices down right where his car would have been, cutting a cow in half.
As he is joined by young Joe McAlister (Colin Ford), whose family owns the field and the bifurcated cow, a private airplane smashes against the same invisible force, showering wreckage and body parts.
Right down the road, Sheriff Duke Perkins (Jeff Fahey), whose pacemaker suddenly goes dodgy, realizes that electricity and phones are out all over town. Showing up at the scene of the plane crash, Perkins immediately concludes that the whole town is trapped (it's like he read the Wiki page). He is quickly joined by Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris), an Al Haig-like car dealer, and that titian-haired investigative editor, Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre).
All of whom seem to instantly understand that Chester's Mill, Penn., is completely cut off from the rest of the world, probably for quite some time.
Many other things are established with equal rapidity and all-cap importance: Carolyn (Aisha Hinds) and Alice (Samantha Mathis) are passing through town when their troubled teenaged daughter Norrie (Mackenzie LIntz) has a fit that will no doubt Prove Significant (she mutters something about stars falling in straight lines). Big Jim commandeers the hip 'n' groovy radio station in a Most Fascist Way (although he does show life-saving foresight) and quickly asks to be deputized. The trysting couple seen earlier is revealed to be Rennie's Obviously Psycho son, Junior (Alexander Koch), and young Joe's Sweet but Feisty sister, Angie (Britt Robertson); their mother is on the other side of the dome so they are perilously On Their Own. Meanwhile, Sparks Fly between Julia and Barbie, although Julia is married to the town doctor, who is Inexplicably Missing.
Every pilot is burdened with establishing character, jump-starting the narrative and hooking the audience, but "Under the Dome" unnecessarily force-feeds us its first hour to its own detriment. What made King the master of his genre was patience and attention to detail — here is a town just like yours, here are people similar to the ones you know; they're drinking coffee, they're eating pie and chatting — except, whoops, a vampire has just moved into the house on the hill.
Perhaps Vaughan and his colleagues were afraid a quieter, more suspenseful opening would seem too trite, or maybe CBS figured the point is what happens under the dome so let's get that dome in place tout suite.
This was, perhaps, King's most overtly political novel, illustrating how quickly the social order we take for granted can erode when people are isolated and afraid — "Lord of the Flies" with grown-ups. Even so, order begins unraveling here at such a break-neck pace that it's swiftly predictable.
Which isn't to say "Under the Dome" won't wind up being fun to watch. All of the performances seem promising — and what's not to love about "Twilight's" Lefevre proving that print journalism is alive and well and drop-dead gorgeous? It's summer, it's Stephen King, it's small-town Pennsylvania, and it's a great concept; I'm in.
I just hope the creators take a breath between Episodes 1 and 2 and remember that when you're telling a scary story, it's best to tell it slow.
'Under the Dome'
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun