Beyond The Dome
A watch/skip guide to Stephen King TV adaptations
I haven't read Under the Dome in book form, but you don't have to be familiar with a Stephen King text in its original format to tell whether the adaptation of it is any good. For starters, it's going to look a lot like a white horse with a horn in the middle of its forehead, because for every Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me, you've got a campy Pet Sematary (the big hail-of-saliva kiss-off line: "fuck you, hairball") or an inert Hearts in Atlantis.
Why the mixed page-to-screen track record? If I had to pick a single reason, it's probably sheer volume; "Uncle Stevie"'s IMDb page lists 132 writer credits. King's work is catnip to filmmakers, unsurprisingly, since it reads so cinematically -- but Carrie alone has gotten adapted three times. With that number of adaptations in play, you'll get a bunch of stinkers. That's just math. The projects that hew more closely to the psychological aspect of King's writing, versus literalizing the monsters and gore, do a little better; the ones I mentioned up top are sobering and creepy in spots, but aren't strictly horror (I believe they're both "Bachmans"). The more SFX a filmed version needs to get over and the longer ago it was made, the worse it's probably going to be. Casting isn't insignificant either. Pet Sematary had a lot of problems, with Ed-Wood-issue animatronic zombie cats heading the list, but Dale Midkiff's animatronic zombie line readings weren't far behind. Sometimes dead isn't better.
Under The Dome is moderately encouraging so far. It's a cool concept; the effects actually have an effect that isn't mocking laughter (that halved cow was legit nast); and the casting isn't exactly murderer's row, but Dean Norris and Aisha Hinds are joined by several graduates of the David Hasselhoff What We Lack In Skill We Make Up For In 135 Percent Effort School Of Acting (Jeff Fahey, Rachelle Lefevre, and confusingly directed newcomer Alexander Koch as Young Creepenstein Junior Rennie). Last night's premiere may have sent you over to Netflix to browse the myriad other TV projects King's writing hath wrought (as it did me -- David Soul was in a version of Salem's Lot? Remember when David Soul was a household name? Yeah, I don't either). Let's make sure that red envelope brings joy to your household.
Worth It: The Stand
Reliable actors (Gary Sinise, Jamey Sheridan, Laura San Giacomo) and surprisingly-good-for-'94 cinematography anchor a miniseries version of what's possibly King's most highly regarded book…and it's especially good for readers like me who found the original initially gripping but overrated thereafter. As far as I know, it's the only run at The Stand anyone's taken, so it's probably due for a reboot, but this one holds up.
Worth It: Nightmares and Dreamscapes
I still can't believe how creeped out I get by "The Road Virus Heads North," every time I read it, which I can never resist doing. It's a haunted painting, come on. I certainly never thought a filmed version could work, much less one starring Tom "Glowers For Algernon" Berenger and tweaking the original with obvious network "suggestions" about higher stakes. But somehow it worked for me (I admit to giggling occasionally), and this anthology six-pack of King works also features Jeremy Sisto at the center of a heist gone wrong and William H. Macy as a private dick in 1938 Los Angeles. Hit or miss, mostly hit.
Worth It: The Dead Zone
No, not the Walken verzh (that one's great too) -- the series, starring Anthony Michael Hall as post-coma psychic detective Johnny Smith. Hall's post-John-Hughes adult face doesn't have much play, but that works for the Johnny role; his frequent impassivity is quite touching. The series eventually retreats to a safe, Monk-ish whimsy re: Johnny's abilities, and it's never gripping on a premium-cable level, but it's solidly good with the occasional touching zing.
Skip It: Kingdom Hospital
"Stephen King's take on the masterpiece series by Lars von Trier" -- could go either way. Doesn't go well. Stultifyingly paced, humorless, and anchored by the limited Andrew McCarthy, it's more disappointing than bad. But…it's kind of bad.
Skip It: The Shining '97
I don't love the Kubrick version, but if you're going to step to it, you don't do it on network and you don't do it with Rebecca De Mornay. A decent sit with a peanut gallery and a novelty cocktail, and Steven Weber probably could have carried the role five or ten years down the road, but if ifs and buts were candy etc. Laughable.
Skip It: Carrie '02
It seems Kimberly "Boys Don't Cry" Peirce is coming out with a theatrical release later in 2013, and it's unlikely to touch the hem of the De Palma Carrie's garment, but it'll get a damn sight closer than this mess, which stars Angela "Too Old" Bettis as our vengeful heroine and Patricia "Too Loud" Clarkson as her mother. It's co-written by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), who had not yet learned to harness that Pushing Daisies quirk for good, and Clarkson's just stuck, not wanting to ape Piper Laurie's "they're all gonna LAFFATCHOO" but not knowing quite where else to go. An instructive failure at best.
Want It: The Long Walk
I'd never have called this novella as King's most enduringly effective work when I was a kid, but it's the one that's stayed with me; I still don't think I entirely know what happens at the end. I really can't believe nobody's tried to bring it to either screen, but it would make a rad premium-cable two-nighter. It's fertile ground for a good director, and casting the right blend of post-adolescent boychiks could drive M*A*S*H-finale-style ratings.
Want It: Gerald's Game
One former-next-big-thing actress who's willing to lie on the same bed for weeks of shooting; one Malickian voice-over with mondo-macro close-ups of the sheets' warp and weft; instant classic. …Yes, "or instant nap," but does anyone else want to turn Eliza Dushku and Joss loose on that book?