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PopSmarts: Let Nothing Come Between Us

One of the most anticipated television events of the summer is Under the Dome, a 13-week summer series adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name. Under the Dome, which premieres June 24 on CBS, has a high-concept sci-fi hook; an entire town is unexpectedly encased in a semi-permeable force field, cutting the whole place off from the rest of the world. While a small group of citizens look for a way to escape their confinement, life inside quickly degenerates into a reign of terror as a nefarious local wheeler-dealer seizes power in the absence of any outside authority.

In short, Under the Dome looks like the kind of small-town-under-siege thriller you’d expect from Stephen King. If the premise sounds vaguely familiar, well, it’s probably because you’ve seen it in another Stephen King story. It’s a dependable formula that’s worked well in Salem’s Lot, It, and Needful Things, among other works. The transparent dome, as the characters themselves note, functions like a terrarium or a fishbowl — and the characters are specimens under observation. The setup lets King do what he does best; like a behavioral scientist, he puts a large and colorful cast under pressure and chronicles the different ways in which they crack. In The Mist, a mysterious mutating fogbank kept his characters confined. In Storm of the Century, it was a killer blizzard. The dome is simply the purest, most literal iteration of a device he has used time and again.

But if you factor out all the times Stephen King has used it either overtly or symbolically, that hook might still sound familiar. And that’s probably because it was also the premise of The Simpsons Movie. In that film, a power-mad EPA official (voiced by Albert Brooks) imposes a drastic quarantine on the disastrously polluted town of Springfield, sealing the entire place under — you got it — a giant dome, albeit one made of shatterproof glass rather than quantum brainwave energy from Dimension X. Again, the narrative is split between the fitful rescue efforts of a band of escapees, cross-cut with the deteriorating conditions of the citizens trapped beneath the barrier.

Now, the novel Under the Dome was released in 2009, a couple of years after The Simpsons Movie, and given the long lead time for a feature film (and an animated feature at that), it’s a dead cert that the script long predated his final draft. King could scarcely cry ignorance. Even a self-conscious elitist like Jonathan Franzen can’t escape the influence of The Simpsons; and King’s works are steeped in popular culture, sometimes to the point of distraction. Surely he knew of The Simpsons Movie. But King had been kicking around the core idea of Under the Dome for many years, and had worked on a couple of unfinished drafts in the 1970s and ‘80s before cracking it. So it’s unfair — as well as inaccurate — to suggest that one influenced the other.

The two stories are interesting as companion pieces, though, in the way that they use similar story beats to express opposing viewpoints. Both Under the Dome and The Simpsons Movie look at the consequences of incompetent, power-hungry leadership. King concerns himself with the enemy within. In his little town of Chester’s Mill, connection to the outside world is a moderating force. Once its civilizing influence is removed, quicker this you can say “Kill the pig!”, we’re into Lord of the Flies territory. A would-be strongman — King, stacking the deck shamelessly, makes him both a used-car salesman and a meth kingpin; his son is the local serial killer, to boot — exploits the town’s isolation and sets himself up as a small-time dictator by cunning and force of arms, and small-town political rivalries turn deadly. Set against him is a disgraced Army officer, trapped inside the dome, who establishes contact with the military personnel on the outside who are working tirelessly to free the citizens of Chester’s Mill. Upon him, as the ranking representative of the US government, falls the burden of legitimate authority.

King is a classic good-government liberal. He has said in interviews that he wrote Under the Dome partly in angry reaction to what he characterizes as the arrogant incompetence of the Bush administration, particularly its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the ruination of new Orleans. Under the Dome speaks out in favor of liberal values — accountability, legitimacy, service — and against the cronyism, pettiness, and self-interest he finds so deplorable.

The Simpsons Movie has a similar hook in its broad outline, but its take on the concept comes from a rather different place politically. The movie is riotously funny, but its humor is pitched several shades darker than a typical episode of the TV show — starting with the scenario that gives the comedy its weight and stakes. The villain is Big Government interventionism gone mad. Brooks’s lunatic bureaucrat uses his authority to imprison the entire town of Springfield and its citizens — and later plans to destroy same — all “for their own good.” What ensues is a paranoid hellscape of roadblocks and checkpoints and surveillance. There are none of King’s heroic Army engineers, valiantly trying to pump air into the toxic atmosphere inside the dome. The government presence is straight from the fever-dreams of right-wing talk radio, all unmarked trucks and circling helicopters, tranquillizer dart-guns and inescapable government thugs complete with bucket helmets and black jackboots.

It’s a credit to the makers of The Simpsons Movie that they can wring laughs from an outline that, more than anything, recalls the libertarian fantasies of Glenn Beck. At its bare bones, The Simpsons Movie is essentially Agenda 21 played for laughs, with a conservative message to match. The yokels of Springfield may be ruining their own environment, but a big-government cure is worse than the disease; the screenplay ultimately stands up for personal responsibility, local solutions, and grassroots activism — all conservative values.

So it’s pretty clear that nobody is ripping off anybody else. Under the Dome and The Simpsons Movie are simply using similar means to very different ends. It happens sometimes. Ideas always bubble up in the culture that are too good not to use; different parties arrive at them independently, and each makes something different from the same idea. Sometimes, by unfortunate coincidence, two or more of them will surface at the same time, and the cries will go up that Hollywood is out of ideas.

Disaster movies are particularly prone to this syndrome (and both Under the Dome and The Simpsons Movie fall into the disaster subgenre, in their own ways). There are only so many ways to destroy the world, after all. And so we get stories about planet-killer asteroids in two separate movies, going head-to-head; or we see L.A. destroyed twice by dueling volcanoes. More recently, fairy tales have been having a cultural moment, with competing versions of the Snow White story hitting theaters within months of each other.

It goes back to a concept I’ve discussed before, that of semantic versatility — the way that strong, simple concepts are sturdy enough in themselves to bear the weight of a number of different meanings. And the notion of a dome — or, earlier, a wall — separating a population from the larger society has been a vehicle for social satire since the beginnings of literature, and has been used to carry varying messages about accountability, social class, and human interconnectedness.

Under the Dome and The Simpsons Movie both find small towns abandoned by outside authority — either by accident or by design — and dealing with the repercussions. John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi head trip Zardoz inverts the formula by seating authority within the dome; in a post-apocalyptic future, a handful of corrupt immortals manipulate the lives of the scavenging masses outside, insulated from the consequences of their actions by the impenetrable “Vortex” in which they live. The device dates at least as far back as the 14th Century; the framing story of Boccaccio’s Decameron finds a group of wealthy nobles secluding themselves in an isolated country villa, where they amuse themselves telling bawdy stories while a plague ravages the countryside without, decimating the unfortunate peasantry.

Boccaccio’s conceit would inspire many imitators, with the infamous Marquis de Sade taking the idea to its horrific extreme with his 120 Days of Sodom. Sade is sometimes mischaracterized as a mere pornographer, but at heart he is a writer of moral horror. In 120 Days — written in 1785 but not published until the 20th Century — a quartet of rich perverts hole up in a secluded estate where they can indulge their worst impulses upon a harem of unwilling, hand-selected victims. Free from the strictures of law, religion, or social mores, they stage a four-month orgy that begins in degradation and proceeds to torture, mutilation, and mass murder. When isolated from the moderating influence of society, Sade suggests, man’s passions will turn inexorably to destruction.

In his masterful short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allen Poe — who, let us not forget, was a literary critic as well as an author — exposes the heartlessness and self-deception underlying the voluntary-seclusion formula. Poe’s callous nobles discover that, however they may strive to set themselves apart from the common folk, they cannot flee their own mortality; Death is the great leveler of social class.

Leaving aside these primitive ancestors, though, we find one more important example of the invisible-dome trope, one that is largely obscure in the English-speaking world, but that — happy coincidence, again — will soon be available to American audiences; the 1968 novel Die Wand (The Wall), by Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer. An underground classic for decades (The Wall was first published in English in 1990), the novel was adapted for film just last year. Here’s the original, German-language trailer…

The film will finally see a limited release in America, opening on June 7 — just a few weeks before Under the Dome premieres, in fact. The American trailer sexes things up a little, but it’s still clear that this is a meditative, largely interior story…

Where most fictions that employ the device of the dome use it to explore communities in crisis, Haushofer’s The Wall focuses on the isolation of the individual. On a mundane level it’s a survival tale in the mode of Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away; but Haushofer’s real concern is with the psychological development of her unnamed narrator. Cut off from all the societal and familial structures that defined her as a person, she faces fundamental questions of identity. When I am removed from all the roles that I have played — in my community, in my family, in my workplace, in my faith — what is left? When everything else that I was is gone, who am I? Haushofer’s thesis is that human beings create elaborate structures of consensus reality precisely to avoid having to confront these existential questions. By walling her protagonist off from these structures — by imposing a physical barrier — Haushofer breaks down the mental barriers, leaving nothing between her narrator and absolute reality.

Haushofer’s novel has drawn high praise from the likes of Doris Lessing (perhaps unsurprisingly, since it themes echo some of the concerns of Lessing’s own forays into science fiction) and Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek. And if the US release of The Wall will probably not be a summer blockbuster, it promises to make a thoughtful counterpart to Under the Dome’s rip-roaring, populist treatment of the same premise.