Given Stephen King's status as one of the best-selling authors of all time, it's surprising that his work hasn't been more successful on screens large and small. There have been well-regarded film adaptations such as "Stand By Me," "Misery," "Carrie" and "The Shawshank Redemption," of course, but quite a few movie misfires as well. On the small screen, crowd-pleasing adaptations of King's work have been even more rare, which is especially odd, given TV's current obsession with dark themes and edgy, blood-spattered fare.
Of course, there's much more to King than horror, and one of his late-period novels, "Under the Dome," is as much a political allegory and an environmental call to arms as it is a tale of small-town survival. The premise is right there in the title: One day, a town is encased in an impenetrable dome that appears out of nowhere. No one knows why it's there, and nobody can get out.
To adapt the work as a drama series that debuts June 24, DreamWorks (one of the project's producers) found a writer who knows from allegories. Brian K. Vaughan -- creator of the acclaimed graphic novels "Y: The Last Man" and "Saga," and one of the writers of "Lost" -- penned the pilot for "Under the Dome." Vaughan also serves as one of the executive producers of the series, which stars "Lost" veteran Jeff Fahey, "Breaking Bad's" Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre and Britt Robertson, among others.
Vaughan recently spoke at length about the challenges of adapting King's dense novel for television, and I couldn't resist asking him about his other well-known projects as well. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Can you talk about how you became involved in the TV adaptation of "Under the Dome"?
I'd actually heard from a friend early on that Stephen King namechecks [me in the book]. So I read the book largely out of my own giant ego to begin with, but also because I'm a tremendous Stephen King fan. As I was reading it, looking for my own name, I was also falling in love with the story. I thought it was so compelling and I loved the world.
When I heard that DreamWorks wanted to use the book as a launching pad to tell this story as an ongoing series, not as a miniseries, that's when I got excited. I loved the book, but I didn't want to just tell it over again and do a literal adaptation. For a while [the TV show was developed for] Showtime, and they were great. They were really supportive of it, and [then they headed] sort of in the "Homeland" direction, and maybe something that was genre wasn't a great fit. But [Showtime president] David Nevins kindly called CBS and said, "Hey, maybe you guys should take a look at this." And it came together very quickly at CBS.
There are quite a few Stephen King movie and TV adaptations out there, and I don't think I'm being too harsh by saying that not a lot of them are actually top-tier or do a great job of capturing what people love about his work. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think any adaptation is hard. I think it's always tough when you jump from one medium to another, particularly with horror. In a novel, you get to make that monster in your head, and in film and TV, there's no hiding behind your audience's imagination. You have to show it, and you definitely lose something.
But at the same time, there have been adaptations like "Stand by Me," which is exquisite. It just so perfectly captures what was great about that book and did something new with it, as well. I think Stephen King is probably not a huge fan of [Stanley] Kubrick's "Shining," but I loved that movie and I loved that book. I can see why they both work, even though they're very different.
Given how dominant he is in the realm of books, I guess it's somewhat surprising that his work isn't more dominant in other arenas, as well. Do you think there's something particular to his work that makes it difficult for that translation to work well on a consistent basis?
Take something like "Under the Dome." It has a hooky, accessible, high-concept [premise]. But I think Stephen's books are always much more complex than that. Maybe on the surface, it looks like [the high-concept ideas] will translate easily, but they don't. There's a lot lurking underneath, and I think that's why Stephen King is so popular. He's much more than just plots or cool concepts.
His novels are emotionally immersive in a way that I think everyone who reads him understands. But I think people who don't read Stephen King, they just think of horror and the scares. But there's a real, aggressive humanity to his work. He just loves people so much, and it really comes through.
When you sat down to work on this, how did you begin to think about whittling it down and making it work as an ongoing TV series?
I was lucky enough to get to talk with Stephen early in the process. He said, to quote Elvis, "It's your baby, you rock it now." The big thing he encouraged us [to think about] is, when he came up with the concept, he first thought about, "What if these people were trapped under this dome for potentially years, how might society change?" [When writing the book], he was on page 1,200 and thought, "Oh my God, they've only been trapped under here for a few days. I better wrap things up." He said, "Use television to go to the places that I couldn't." So when I sat down to write the pilot, it was just trying to capture the heart of the book while also having the freedom to know that we're allowed to go to different places.
Showtime and CBS are very different networks in terms of the audiences they're pursuing. Were there directives to change things when it moved to CBS?
Shockingly few. The whole appeal of doing something like this was getting to do a darker, edgier, more adult kind of event show. And so I was worried when I heard the Tiffany network was interested. I thought, "This has got cows getting cut in half! Maybe this won't be for them." But CBS was really enthusiastic from the beginning and said, "We want to compete with cable. We don't want to cede the summers to them. We want to do shows that have a bit more of an edge." So there was very little change from the Showtime version to CBS.
Stephen King has talked about ecological themes and the political allegories he worked into "Under the Dome." Could you talk a little bit about how those elements work within the show?
Yeah, I hope that they're all in there and yet it will never feel preachy or heavy-handed. Again, one of the reasons I love Stephen King is because his stories let you talk about big, challenging concepts, like class structure, like distribution of resources, like the environment. But you're doing it in a really fun, fast-paced, exciting way. You get to talk about these ideas without feeling you're being preachy. If anything, [the feeling] was to push the ideas even further. [The writers have talked] about guns under the dome, and getting to do a thoughtful story about gun control in the confines of this otherworldly dome has been very exciting.
There's obviously a big debate right now about violence in entertainment. I would assume that, given that these people are trapped in a very tense situation, there is violence in "Under the Dome."
Yes, I would be lying if I said our show had no violence. It's a Stephen King show, and we're on at 10 p.m., so we don't want to pull any punches. But the violence is never used for spectacle or for thrills. From the pilot onward, violence always has grave consequences for everyone. And I think the role that violence has, not just in our society, but in the burgeoning democracy [of "Under the Dome" is worth exploring].
I was actually thinking the premise sounds like a demented version of "Parks and Recreation."
Yes. If everyone was trapped in Pawnee and could never escape, what would happen?
I think the real violence would happen when there were no more Paunchburgers and no more french-fry deliveries.
You joke about that, but we were just in the [writers'] room talking about food shortages and what happens then. It's hard to have security with empty stomachs.
So this isn't necessarily a one-and-done season? It could continue?
Yeah, we treat this as if we are writing the first season of an ongoing series, not a TV miniseries. So it will be up to the audience, and we hope they show up and want more, but we certainly do. We have really long-term plans for this.
Does it make you nervous that it's on in the summer?
It doesn't scare me at all. It's exciting. And I know with [a deal CBS cut with Amazon.com], episodes are going to be available online [starting] four days after they air. I think all you can do is make a good show and hope that the things work out.
What has been the most fun part of making this so far?
I got to sit in a room with Stephen King on speaker-phone while I was sitting across from Steven Spielberg, we're all just batting around ideas -- that is geek fantasy camp. That is a highlight of my life.
I have to ask you about "Y: The Last Man," if that's okay. Is that still in development as a film script at this point?
To the best of my knowledge, I believe so, yeah. I think it's still in development, perpetually. I think that is still going on.
I'm also a huge fan of "Saga" [a comic book Vaughan co-created with Fiona Staples]. I wish there was a TV show of it.
Oh, thank you. Fiona and I set out to do something that felt like it was maybe too challenging to be a summer movie and too expensive and universe-expanding to be a TV show. So I'd never say no to [a TV adaptation], but I'm very happy with doing what only comics can do for right now.
It makes me feel good to hear you say that you wouldn't necessarily rule out an adaptation of "Saga." I've actually thought it could work as an animated show for adults. I mean, Fiona's art is so distinctive that it'd be a way to just translate the look and that world into a different realm.
Yeah, and I couldn't be a bigger nerd for animation. I grew up watching things like "Akira," and it felt like there was more animation maybe for an older audience, and that doesn't exist anymore. I know animation is expensive and hard, but sure, if anyone out there wants to do it an ongoing “Saga” animated show, I would be way on board.
I'm sad that there isn't more adult-oriented animation out there. I remember the Ralph Bakshi stuff when I was growing up --there seemed to be more of that kind of thing years ago.
I know Bakshi as well. I love that stuff.
It's just odd to me that there's not more of a market for animation that tells stories aimed at grown-ups.
Me too. All the toys that I grew up playing with as a kid are now movies aimed at adults, so maybe animation will grow up with us. But I guess because it is so expensive, [studios] want to hit the widest audience possible, so then it has to be for kids, too. But someone will be daring enough to do a big, crazy, R-rated animated thing, and it will be a big hit.
I'm just hoping one of the cable networks that takes on edgier projects finds a way to make it work, maybe years from now.
I think that's why, with all of my past experiences, Fiona and I are not being quick to give the rights away to anyone. We're just holding on to it, and if someday somebody comes to us with a plan and they know exactly how to do it or want us to be involved, [it's possible]. But until then, we'll keep the comic close and try not to let anyone ruin it.
How long do you see "Saga" lasting? Is it just sort of an indefinite thing for you and Fiona?
I keep joking to ["The Walking Dead" creator] Robert Kirkman that I just want to go one issue longer than "The Walking Dead" [comic]. I just want to best him by one. So at least 100 issues, we've got to go that far.
Do people still ask you about "Lost" all the time?
Every day, every day of my life. It's an honor. It's crazy to have worked on something that is still that meaningful to people's lives.
Do you ever get tired of being asked about it?
No, no. People love it, and I loved it, too. And it's strange to look back and think how fortunate I was that I got to be inside of that. It's funny, there's a "Lost" reference in the "Under the Dome" novel. And you can tell, obviously, "Lost" is so hugely influenced by Stephen King. And I think Stephen King in turn has been very influenced by "Lost." I will always be happy and honored to have been a part of that world.
Did you like how "Lost" ended?
Yeah, I did. I did very much. You know, I wasn't there. I left to go try and create my own shows, but I loved it. The finale in particular -- I just saw so much of [executive producers] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] and the writers in the room. And for me, that was always the passion. I guess it always felt like kind of the mythological question [of 'Lost'] was kind of a self-licking ice cream cone. I never cared as much about the Smoke Monster as I did about the quality of the writing between characters. [The finale] was just kind of the emotional send-off that I was hoping for.
This story appeared in the special Summer Issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available free in the iTunes App store.