By Randee Dawn
Neal Baer has worn many hats during his careers – first as a physician, then the long-running showrunner for ER, and Law & Order: SVU. These days he’s the force behind CBS’s Under the Dome, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel whose story has diverged significantly from its source material. For Baer, who recently published his second thriller with Jonathan Greene, Kill Again, evolving is par for the course in TV storytelling. He spoke with Cynsiders about turning books into TV series, and why slavish adaptations are the wrong way to do it.
Cynsiders: Under the Dome is now in its third season; was it the plan from the start that it would go in a different direction than King’s book?
Neal Baer: There was some confusion on the audience’s part, in that they thought it would be a limited series. But broadcast networks don’t really make one-offs. It was never planned to be one season — we hoped it would be more.
Cynsiders: And King was all right with this?
Baer: He said to his fans, “You know how the book ends. Don’t you want to be surprised and go for a new ride, rather than get a slavish adaptation?” He always supported the book as a launching pad, a stepping stone, whatever metaphor you want — and then onward with these characters.
Cynsiders: How do you feel about shows like Game of Thrones, which explore territory that hasn’t yet been published, while also altering the written universe?
Baer: Why not? They’re different entities. The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest movies ever made, and there were no ruby slippers in the original [book]. They were silver! To Kill a Mockingbird is better as a movie than the book – it’s perfectly cast, the music is perfect, the setting is perfect. And I like the ending better than the book. Those movies transcend the original books.
Cynsiders: What’s wrong with a slavish adaptation?
Baer: A TV series is not a novel. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process where you see how something works, and if you like it and if you do you continue it and if you don’t you tweak it. A novel is there for eternity. A novel is chained to you and it cannot change; a TV series is an evolutionary process.
Cynsiders: And yet shows like Mad Men are said to be “novelistic.”
Baer: Mad Men may have felt novelistic, because it unfolded in a Dickensian way with all these characters – but it is not a novel. Once you have a novel in your hand, it won’t change; in a TV series, episode three may be written, but episode five may shift and you may kill characters. And it’s changed even more since social media has created this multi-directional involvement between viewer and creator. In the past, the creator uni-directionally created a TV show to be consumed. Now the TV show is tweeted the night it’s on, and tweets can even come from the writers’ room. The curtain is pulled back in many ways.
Cynsiders: Is that a positive change?
Baer: I don’t see it as positive or negative. It’s a result of transmedia. What used to be done with focus groups is now on Twitter. Twitter is a big old focus group, an instantaneous focus group. I know networks look at what the tweets are saying, and they respond to it. We don’t take any specific tweet seriously, but if they go down a certain path we’re likely to pay some attention to it.
Cynsiders: In your experience, are networks heavily involved when it comes to book adaptations?
Baer: They’re responders, not creators. They never say, “Take the book and go XYZ.” [But] they’re much more involved now because the pie is smaller. When I did ER and Law & Order: SVU, we did not get network notes. Now, no matter how successful a show is, I don’t know any [show] that doesn’t get notes. There’s a general fear that’s permeating all of television and making it less risky. Everyone is risk-averse.
Cynsiders: Do you anticipate having your novels adapted for TV?
Baer: We hope to do a movie or TV [show]. We’ve been talking about it since the first book [Kill Switch] came out. I’d be fine if the adaptation [was different than the books]. Please, come up with more stories!
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