Another Sweeping Epic from the King of Sweeping Epics, Stephen King
Spoiler Alert: In this column, I discuss the ending to Under the Dome: a Novel by Stephen King. Also, the ending to World War II (in case you missed it).
When CBS announced it was producing a series based on the Stephen King novel Under the Dome, one of my friends remarked on Facebook, “The Simpsons already did it!” In 2007, The Simpsons indeed released a movie in which the lovable yellow-skinned citizens of Springfield,—-, USA found themselves trapped underneath a mysterious dome. Had the master of suspense ripped off the most iconic of American brands? No, of course not. The Simpsons, meanwhile, had nearly a two decades head start. How could we not be invested in the fates of Moe, Abu and Ned? They had become a part of our lives. Stephen King didn’t have that luxury. He had to make us care about the fictional town of Chester’s Mill with nothing more than his supreme ability to artfully wield a pen or a typewriter. If words are bullets, King is a belt-fed machine gun. Not only is it deadly, but it can leave quite a scene behind it. Under the Dome is just over one thousand pages. I listened to the novel on audiobook, and it required 30 compact discs and countless miles in my SUV (thank you to the narrator Raul Esparza). According to King, the first draft of the novel weighed 19 pounds. King did a public reading at the Library of Congress; I’m surprised that he didn’t faint from exhaustion. He must have grown some facial hair while in reading. The next US congressman who wants to filibuster could do worse than toting a copy of Under the Dome to the floor; at least the house would be entertained.
Like most novelists, King is not indifferent when Hollywood becomes involved in a project of his. King’s most famous spat with the heartless producers of Hollywood came after the release of The Shining (the film) in 1980. At times King has vocalized his distaste for the adaptation of his novel directed by Stanley Kubrick. Of course, The Shining (the film) is an American classic, and therefore we are left with a bit of a conundrum. Certainly, King would still be regarded as arguably the greatest novelist of his generation, but The Shining (the film) has done at least some work to help raise King to the heights of popular culture. Vince Lombardi belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame, but he would have won less games without Bart Starr as his quarterback. Similarly, Stephen King belongs on the Mount Rushmore of contemporary American novelists, but he would have sold a few less books had Stanley Kubrick not decided to adapt one of his novels. I bring this up because King is an executive producer on a CBS series based on Under the Dome. It premiered in 2013 and is currently working its way through its second season. King fully recognizes and embraces the vast differences between his novel and the series. I suppose 34 years of life can alter a man. King has changed as much as any man. He has overcome alcoholism and drug abuse as well as a devastating car accident that took place in 1999. Yet he has continued to produce incredible works of literature at a pace that is almost factory-like. The great thing for us is the factory of Stephen King produces quality that rivals that of the finest automobile.
George R.R. Martin has helped create a bit of a nexus in literature. He writes lengthy fantasy novels. These novels have translated well to television. His novels have been turned into Game of Thrones, which has become an American phenomenon thanks to the series on HBO. This isn’t new. Quite recently, crime novelist Jeff Lindsay created Dexter Morgan, and Showtime turned it into a great series (Dexter). The question for everyone who wants to write a novel is, does video guide novels? Is a novel only great if it can be translated to either television or film? It’s an interesting question. Should a novelist become a screenwriter? Is that all a novelist is, or if not, than a man holding a sign on the interstate begging for food? Most definitely a writer must consider video when he ever touches pen to paper. The greatest novelists of our times are considering their works as vehicles for video, and they should. Words and stories aren’t antiquated, but their delivery systems have changed. Smart people evolve, and storytellers need to evolve with the times. I would love a conversation with Stephen King about this subject, maybe someday. In the meantime, I will continue to report on his epic novel Under the Dome.
King’s most recognizable epic is The Stand. King, unlike George R.R. Martin, keeps most of his novels grounded in the typical dirt of American life. They are fantastical, and usually contain a bit of the surreal, but he tethers us to some sort of American life or popular culture. The castaways of The Stand traveled to Boulder, Colorado which is a very real place with a very unreal population (old hippies and young yuppies). Music is one of the ways King does this. He is a budding musician when he’s not toiling away in front of his typewriter. In Under the Dome, his choice is James McMurtry. “It’s a small town, son, and we all support the team.” McMurtry is not only a gifted musician, he is also the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, who wrote that one book one time; I think it was called Lonesome Dove, or something. Yeah, I think he was pretty good. Lonesome Dove also crests nearly above the one thousand page mark. (I can still remember reading Lonesome Dove as a child and asking my brother what a whorehouse is. Innocence is bliss.)
In The Stand, as in Under the Dome, there is a real evil and a surreal evil. In The Stand we have the evil of a government that would create a substance that would wipe the population off of the planet. I would like to believe that was the surreal evil, of course I would be naive. That is the real evil. The surreal evil is Randall Flagg, who represents the evil that rests in our hearts. He is, and I would imagine King took inspiration from this song: (he is a budding musician) The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. “I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg reigned and the bodies stank….I shouted out who killed the Kennedys, when after all it was you and me. ” Flagg was that kind of evil. There is an unbelievable passage in The Stand when King first describes Flagg and his literal ascent. He is levitating. King took all of the evil mankind is capable of and personified it in Flagg. The surreal evil in Under the Dome is the mysterious dome that has placed itself upon Chester’s Mill. The real evil is a portion of the citizens stuck inside that dome, mainly James Rennie and his grateful minions.
Rennie has read Adolf Hitler’s little known pocketbook: “How to be a Dictator.” It’s all there:
– Step 1: Exploit a disaster: For Hitler it was the Treaty of Versailles and the apparent castration of the German people. For Rennie it was the mysterious dome that descended upon his town.
– Step 2: Find a scapegoat: For Hitler, it was people of Jewish faith and the communists. For Rennie, it was Dale Barbara and his ghostly mob.
– Step 3: Find a tragedy to make your scapegoat culpable instead of yourself: For Hitler it was the Reichstag fire (of which he was likely culpable). For Rennie, it was the Food City riots and the tragic murders of town citizens (of which he was culpable).
– Step 4: Emasculate your scapegoat: For Hitler it was The Night of Broken Glass, and then of course the worst genocide in world history (a genocide for which I pray I am not making light of in this column). For Rennie it was the imprisonment of Barbara and the announcement of his existing ghostly mob.
– Step 5: Crush all means of free press and dissent: For Hitler it was the Reichstag fire and the ensuing propaganda by Joseph Goebbels and his arm of the Nazi Party, which would come to control all of the press and film industry in Nazi Europe. For Rennie it was the burning of the local newspaper previously controlled by the attractive and conservative Julie Shumway.
– Step 6: Create an army: For Hitler it was his goal to bring lebensraum to the German people, which is the annexation of lands to take from their occupants and give to the German people. Hitler, of course, did this by force, creating a devastating army that would change the world. Rennie created a police force that had little talent for policing but a heck of a lot of loyalty to himself.
The great irony of all of this is that James Rennie and Adolf Hitler both would come to die in a bunker, hiding from the great devastation they each created. I suppose that is the way of the dictator. This fact probably was not included in the “How to be a Dictator” pocketbook.
Children may be taught to hate, but cruelty and violence are not learned traits; they are ingrained. They swim in human DNA like sharks in a vast ocean. Frying ants with a magnifying glass, melting Bratz dolls with a microwave, assaulting peers for their adult conformation, these are childish actions. They are committed out of innocence and a yearning for knowledge, a longing to push the limits of life. They are an experiment. They are a child peering through the glass of a busy ant farm. As children age, they recognize this behavior as deviant and against adult mores. Therefore, the behavior ceases. The cruelty and violence remain though, and they are no longer perpetrated for discovery but desire.
Money, sex, power: the cruelty and violence is used to gain or maintain the endless lusts of man. We battle the urges that reside within us to use methods of cruelty and violence to achieve our own lust-filled needs; we battle it with our own moral code. This code is forever tested, and when it is broken it is difficult to replace. It is the first hit on a meth pipe, your sorrows disappearing like the blue smoke that surrounds you. It is that unflinching yearning to be surrounded by your “girlfriends” even if they are locked away, stone dead, in a pantry. It is the endless tanks of propane hidden from public view. There is always plenty of tanks, but you can always use more….more, until you have enough propane to cook a town full of meth or cook a town full of flame.
Violence and cruelty is a universal language. It is spoken by every tongue. It is the language of explorers, of conquerors, of dictators and of tyrants. It is the language of Columbus, of Khan, of Hitler, of Bonaparte, and of Custer. It is a language that is understood by all. It is the language spoken by a small town newspaper editor turned ambassador for humanity to an unknowing leatherhead. If there is indeed life in the universe that resides in a place other than the third rock from the sun, more than likely these alien creatures will understand this language. More than likely, it will be the way all of us communicate.