Stephen King Isn’t Afraid Of The Big Bad Adaptation

The prolific and frequently adapted writer has written an episode of CBS’ Under the Dome, but the series still diverges greatly from his original novel. As far as King is concerned, that’s part of the thrill of adaptation.

Stephen King on location in North Carolina during the filming of the second season of Under the Dome. CBS

While you might be tempted to associate Stephen King with his homicidal creations — telekinetic Carrie White, rabid Cujo, shapeshifting Pennywise the Clown — the monster he most identifies with isn’t one of his own.

“I’m kind of like the shark in Jaws,” he told BuzzFeed in March, speaking from North Carolina, where filming for the second season of CBS’ Under the Dome was underway. “I have to keep moving ahead and eating to live.”

Under the Dome, based on King’s epic novel of the same name, is set in the small town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes inexplicably trapped under a massive, indestructible dome. King wrote the second season premiere, which airs June 30, and had input into the series’ next 13-episode arc.

At 66, King is no stranger to adaptation: His novels have gotten the big-screen treatment time and again over the past several decades, from classics like 1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining to more modern fare like 2007’s The Mist and the 2013 adaptation of Carrie. A film adaptation of King’s novel Cell, with a screenplay co-written by King, is due next year, and there is talk of new versions of It and The Stand, both of which already had TV miniseries adaptations.

But Under the Dome presents a unique challenge to King, who is more directly involved with the production than he has been with most other adaptations of his work. The way he explained it, that’s a mixed blessing.

“It’s a responsibility to be directly involved,” King said. “I sometimes tell people that the ideal situation is, if the thing is a success you can say, ‘It’s based on my work.’ If the thing is not a success, you can say, ‘Well, I didn’t have anything to do with it.’ You’re in great shape either way. But once you’re involved, you’re putting some of your own ego and some of your own track record, if you will, on the line.”

Dean Norris as “Big Jim” Rennie on Under the Dome. CBS

Fortunately, King has been pleased with the direction Under the Dome has taken as it heads into its second season. Season 1 saw the residents of Chester’s Mill struggling to survive life under the dome, as the crisis gave way to looting, shifting power dynamics, and panicked people indulging in their baser urges. That’s all in line with the novel, but in terms of pacing and plotting the show has already diverged significantly from the source material, in part by necessity: King’s novel is finite, while CBS’ “event series” will continue to stretch its plot, ideally, over many seasons.

When he was approached about an adaptation, the idea of expanding Under the Dome was an attractive one to King, who revealed that his novel ended up being more condensed than he’d initially intended.

“When I was writing Under the Dome, my feeling was that it would stretch out over a period of months or even a year, and you would see a kind of reflection of what goes on in the world as resources run out and pollution increases and overpopulation becomes a problem,” he said. “All the problems in our daily life, I would reflect in Chester’s Mill over a period of time. But the book took over, and it ended up being three or four weeks.”

The idea that the novel could have been even more expansive may come as a surprise to readers who made it through Under the Dome’s daunting 1,000-plus pages.

“I know it’s a very long novel,” King continued, “but it covers a very short time. So when they came to me with the TV show and said, ‘We want, if the show’s a success, to cover months and years,’ I thought, Oh man, this is what I wanted to do in the first place!

While some authors cringe at having their work modified by others, King is not overly concerned with how these adaptations transform his source material. He likens the experience to getting that unattainable do-over in life — if you could go back in time, what would you change?

To be fair, King can always revise his work, but he describes himself as a “seat-of-the-pants guy” who rarely looks back. His writing process is “a little bit like putting on a pair of roller skates and grabbing the back of a truck and seeing how far across the city you can go.” With a series like Under the Dome, King gets to watch as the characters he created change course.

“When [executive producers] Neal Baer and Brian Vaughan said, ‘We want to take this in some different directions,’ I thought to myself, This is cool,” King said. “In a way, I’ll get a chance to see all the different things I could have done if I’d just taken another road. Because in another way, writing a book or writing a story is like being in a room that has a lot of doors. I chose one to go through, but you only get one choice when you’re writing a novel. So this is getting a chance to go back.”

That’s not to say that King is always thrilled with how these adaptations turn out: If he worried too much about that, he believes he’d lose his mind. Part of the process of adaptation is giving your work over to someone else and hoping for the best, all while accepting that the finished product might scarcely resemble what you had in mind in the first place.

In the past, King has been guided by his familiarity with the writers and filmmakers helming the adaptations. But even those instincts aren’t entirely reliable, and sometimes the adaptations he’s most excited about end up being disappointing.

“When I got that call from my publisher saying, Stanley Kubrick is interested in making a version of [The Shining], there’s no way anyone would say no to anything like that. I was very excited that he was gonna do it with an A-list cast, and I was very curious to see what he would come out with,” King recalled. “And I never hated it. I just didn’t think that it was successful. It seemed cold and it didn’t have a lot of emotional resonance.”

 

Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Dark Tower series, which begins with The Gunslinger, has stalled indefinitely, and Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of It is still up in the air. The adaptation of Cell, however, has wrapped filming.

As an author as frequently adapted as King will tell you, so much of the process is out of your hands. The experience King has had on Under the Dome is not unprecedented — it mirrors George R.R. Martin writing on HBO’s Game of Thrones, adapted from his A Song of Ice and Fire book series — but it’s still a rarity.

Not being involved past selling the rights means King is often equally in the dark when it comes to stalled productions, like the long-awaited adaptation of his fantasy series The Dark Tower.

“I was very excited when Ron Howard got involved with that project,” King said. “His original take on it was the best. He wanted to do the movies — three tentpole movies — interspersed with a number of TV series that covered Roland and his adventures as a young man. It was a brilliant concept, and I’m pretty sure it would have worked. [But] what sometimes happens in Hollywood and in filmmaking is, the financing fell apart, or the studio started to have second thoughts.”

When asked about the potential remake of It, directed and co-written by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), King answered, “You know as much as I do.” In sum: not much.

There are, of course, upcoming adaptations that King can speak to. Now that Cell, adapted from King’s zombie novel, has wrapped, he teased what he could about the film.

“The movie is not totally close to the original screenplay that I wrote,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, the end of it is so goddamn dark and scary. It’s really kind of a benchmark there.”

For now, however, King’s focus remains mostly on writing: His recent output speaks to his shark-like mentality when it comes to work. The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, was released last September, and this year King fans have two new novels to read — Mr. Mercedes, which was released earlier this month, and Revival, which is due in November. A sequel to Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, will hit stands next year.

As it turns out, King retains the power not only to scare his readers, but also himself. He was cagey about Revival, noting ominously that, “It’s too scary. I don’t even want to think about that book anymore.” When pressed, he continued, “It’s a nasty, dark piece of work. That’s all I can tell you.”

And then, of course, there’s King’s continued contribution to Under the Dome, which has put him in the unique position of having a voice in the room while also letting other writers do much of the heavy lifting. The result is an adaptation that’s thematically close to the novel he wrote, but that also has the ability to surprise him.

The push-and-pull of his involvement, especially with so much else on his plate, remains a challenge for King. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you’re not still challenging yourself,” King said, “you might as well retire and go away.”

Season 2 of Under the Dome premieres June 30 at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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