Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome


In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

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  1. the more I age, the more hostile I get towards Stephen Spielberg, Frank Capra is a giant compared to him

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 19, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

  2. I love King’s work. I’ve never bothered to check what academia say about him but that his stories have supernatural events is enough to guess what the reception will be. Curiously King spends most of his time doing what you’d think stiff old white men would like: he spends obscene—and ever so lovely—amounts of time and ink developing characters and a setting, usually a small town (Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Bag of Bones, you might add The Green Mile to that—but lord the magical negro trope doth present his smooth bald head in that one).

    Though I scoff at his remark about not writing for money. That’s easy to say when you have millions. In “On Writing” King states that less than 5% of writers survive on their book wages. And he demonstrates an entitled attitude towards the millions he makes, mourning his initial advance for Carrie in hindsight (about $200000 if I remember right in a publishing house known for screwing over their authors) and he remains quite comfortable with the money he and other big names pull in. And some of his advice to writers is comfortably condescending: a writer needs to subscribe to any number of short story magazines. Because you know we can all afford to do that. King expresses no remorse at the prolonged hell most writers must endure to get anything published or the shit pay, say $20 and 5 copies of the magazine which accepted your story.

    Louis you might well classify him a moralist but unless I misunderstood him King states in “On Writing” that the author should be concerned with the story first. Well and good but it’s implied the advance of morality would sully it. He used this quote in “On Writing” as well: I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message. Given my view of art I find this an odd thing to say. Either art keeps quiet about the injustices in the world even while recreating in fictional form this or that aspect of the capitalist system, and therefore whether it means to or not helps perpetuate them, or it attacks injustice. For example: I love the sitcom “Frasier,” I think it’s brilliant but you’d have a hard time convincing me that it or most other television series, sitcoms in particular, do not perpetuate a middle class lifestyle.

    It’s been decades since King and his wife Tabitha had to worry about health and electric and grocery bills.

    Comment by Pandora — September 19, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

  3. I watch all manner of cheesy tv, both network and cable. From CBS to the
    SciFi channel. And “Under the Dome” is cheesy. Not as cheesy as, say,
    “Revolution” where the future exists after all the electricity stops to
    flow and we all revert back to a 19th Century existence. But it IS quite
    cheesy. The dangers of someone like Louis doing a review of this sort of
    thing is over analyzing. Thus, losing the plot or an overly retentive
    analysis of the every bell and whistle modified by the some sort of
    post-modernist sociological take on something that is often supposed to be
    appreciated at the level of the way it’s presented: easy to understand
    escapism of a mindless plot. I find he does that a lot on, well, the more
    artsy or “independent” movies and shows he generally likes to review. In
    this case, however, I cut him some slack and will say he’s basically

    This is especially true considering *how GOOD* television has become over
    the last 20 years. As more and more money flowed into
    cable/satellite/internet productions, along came excellent writers,
    directors, casting agents and A & B List Hollywood acting talent. And now,
    it appears, EVEN to the major networks in the US: CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox.

    I would like to write a multiple part essay on this because I think the
    shift from what was overall lousy television of, say, the 1980s, is now a
    thing of the past with productions like “Under the Dome” sort of a dying
    trend, as sit-coms have become (with the notable exception of ABC
    television which seems to want to impose these onto corpses a heart beat
    they never had nor deserved).

    Back to “Under the Dome”. . .

    Louis’ description is accurate as I already noted. However, there is more
    to this story that needs to come to light. I have also not read the novel
    but I’m familiar with it, and of course wiki gives a synopsis. When I read
    the synopsis I realized that this concept of an impenetrable dome was
    clearly inspired, but I doubt attributed to, Theodore Sturgeon’s wonderful
    1941 short story “Microcosmic God”. I doubt S. King was unaware of this
    concept as it was initially developed by Sturgeon. The TV show gives not
    such “inspiration” label in the credits.

    One of the oddities pointed out by Louis was how Dean Norris, the
    protagonist in “Under the Dome” and supporting actor in “Breaking Bad” can
    be in such totally different quality television series. In the case of the
    showing of these, they actually overlap by a few months with Norris
    appearing on both shows at the same time. Breaking Bad was completed it’s
    filming over 6 months ago. Norris, who is only a ‘B List” actor, usually a
    supporting one at that, needs the work. No actor *ever* refuses work,
    especially in television where the majority often begin…and end…their
    careers with a single pilot or short run series. Norris has been in a lot
    of series, but usually only as a single supporting role for an episode or
    so and never as lead. This is why he is doing big network television with
    “Under the Dome”.

    [I should add that the cheesier show I mentioned above, “Revolution”, is a
    rip-off of a S.M. Stirling 2004 novel (and series) titled “Dies the Fire”.
    The sci-fi blogs were filled nasty remarks toward the network that ripped
    off the idea from Stirling.]


    Comment by David Walters — September 19, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  4. I read your website piece, and then the full review in COUNTERPUNCH, and here, for whatever its worth, are my thoughts on the FOX TV adaptation of my novels…

    Despite my full-screen billing on each episode: “Based On Characters From ‘The Locator’ Books By RICHARD GREENER,” plus my additional screen credit as “Creative Consultant,” the FOX TV series THE FINDER had as much in common with my novels and my characters as the great “mooning” scene in Paul Newman’s SLAP SHOT had to Apollo 11. But I’m not complaining. FOX TV told me straightforwardly, from the start, “The novels are yours, but the TV show is ours.” I’m positive that Stephen King signed the same kind of deal. NBC is totally responsible for UNDER THE DOME as a TV program. King’s screen credit as Executive Producer is not a management and financial screen credit. Executive Producer in TV is a writer’s credit. When you’re watching a TV series drama and see the list of “Executive Producers” – those are the show’s writers.

    In my experience, novelists are not highly regarded by TV networks or their executives. We are regularly referred to as “SMPs” which stands for Source Material Providers. Not too far removed from the sweaty pick swinger in a mining operation or the “gunslinger” driving his bolt into a steer’s skull in a slaughterhouse.

    The great writer Ursula Le Guin had it perfectly when she said: “When it comes to the actual contract: If they tell you they love your marvelous book and are going to put it straight onto the screen just as it is, if they promise to send you the screenplay and listen to your reactions to it because they know you are greater than Shakespeare, if they give you a fancy title such as Creative Consultant – even if they give you some money to be Creative Consultant – if they tell you they will consult with you on all important points – don’t believe them… Mostly the rule for the author is ‘Take the money and run.’ And never look back.”

    I believe King when he says he’s never written anything with money in mind. I can’t imagine a writer who could do that. But, of course, afterward it’s his agent’s job to turn whatever book King has written into the most money possible. Sometimes it comes out on screen with greatness – like the movie adaptation of his novel that was THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and other times we get junk like UNDER THE DOME. For myself, I admit in a moment of weakness I called my agent in Hollywood and told her I would give the money back if she could sell my books instead to HBO where I had visions of my Locator novels being dramatized with the skill and beauty of GAME OF THRONES and THE SOPRANOS. The fantasy at that moment was all mine. After hearing me out, my agent simply replied: “Richie, keep the money!”

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 19, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

  5. Richard, it’s nice to see you comment here. My wife and I were big fans of The Finder TV series. (I have not read the novel.) True, it was a sort of ‘light weight’ but the quirkiness of the lead character as was acted in the show kept us watching. And of course, Michael Clarke Duncan being in any production is always worth tuning in. His passing clearly was a big reason for it’s cancellation.

    I know Stephen King has had run ins with the television production companies in the past where he wanted to disassociate himself from the production because it veered to far from his own style or plot. It’s sad what TV does to novels, though sometimes they strike gold. I thought the TV movie Tommyknockers and the mini-series The Stand were both exceptional in staying to the plot of novels and the production value. On the other hand, if you look at his novel The Colorado Kid, the adaptation of this to TV in the form of Haven is sort of cheap with many of the rough edges of the novel smoothed for a ‘family’ audience (though to be fair the show is getting wonderfully creepy!). Clearly Kind wasn’t even consulted except for “It has to be about Maine”.

    The network profit motive is what at the end of the day simply doesn’t equal quality. It is usually “will the advertisers pay?”.

    Comment by David Walters — September 19, 2013 @ 8:36 pm

  6. “Source Material Providers”? I guess I should be glad its so curt and condescending and not some Orwellian monstrosity. Pickax indeed.

    To be fair I dont really believe King wrote for money. But the fact remains its trite of someone of his wealth to say such a thing. Particularly to say it to other writers, published or not, who would be most interested in what he had to say, particularly within a tome like “On Writing” that addresses the artists sphere.

    Comment by Pandora — September 19, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  7. I haven’t read or seen Under the Dome, but I do know a bit about Brian K. Vaughan. He was, indeed, brought on to Lost, I believe as an executive producer, for the third season, which was where, for me, it went awry. BUT, he wrote some pretty awesome comic books. The Runaways was a likeable title about teenagers who discovered that their parents were supervillains–so much so that they prevented poor Gertrude from starting a socialist club at her high school. Ex Machina was an interesting take on urban politics with a superhero who turns in his costume to run for mayor of New York City after being unable to thwart 9/11. The best, for my money, was Y: The Last Man about one Yorrick Brown who, along with his pet monkey, are the only males left on the planet with a world full of women. Nowhere near as sexy as you might think, but a wicked good read. If you like comic books.

    Comment by Doodlebug Anklebiter — September 19, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

  8. “Ex Machina was an interesting take on urban politics with a superhero who turns in his costume to run for mayor of New York City after being unable to thwart 9/11.” Sure. Great comic book. However neither the character nor the comic series addresses class issues and the main character turns out to be a lying manipulative son of a bitch who would label himself a “realist.” At the end of the series he’s on the presidential campaign trail as–and I kid you not–John McCain’s vice presidential candidate and the characters who’d served as his NY staff stop speaking to him.

    Comment by Pandora — September 20, 2013 @ 2:08 am

  9. I ran out of disposable income before Ex Machina ended, but, superhero turned NYC mayor ends up being a lying, reactionary piece of shit? Sounds like the perfect end to a comic book about urban politics to me.

    Comment by Doodlebug Anklebiter — September 20, 2013 @ 7:08 am

  10. David… My comment was part of a personal email I sent to Louis, who has been a close friend for more fifty years. He asked if I would post it and I was happy to oblige on the relevant portions. Glad you liked THE FINDER more than I did. Try one of my novels. They’re very different. I get emails from all over the world (THE FINDER has played in 100+ countries) and many complain they bought the books and didn’t find the “TV characters” they were looking for. But many others tell me how happy they were to discover the novels have the same characters in more interesting form. It’s all a matter of taste, like all fiction, I guess. In big-time Show Business, no matter how much they pay you it’s a bit unnerving to be thought of and referred to out loud as just another “SMP.”

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 20, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  11. As regards the intersection of literature and class:

    I surfed the Jules Verne wiki page intent on his bibliography and I stumbled on a curious passage. “However, Verne’s growing popularity among readers and playgoers (due especially to the highly successful stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days) led to a gradual change in his literary reputation. As the novels and stage productions continued to sell, many contemporary critics felt that Verne’s status as a commercially popular author meant he could only be seen as a mere genre-based storyteller, rather than a serious author worthy of academic study.[80]”

    Comment by Pandora — September 22, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

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