In my recent post on The Walking Dead—in comparing the comic book series to the AMC television series–I said that I found the comic book more complex, more brutal, truer to the darkness of a post-apocalyptic world ruled by the dead and diseased. In saying this, it seemed to me that the filmmakers would have done better had they hewn closer to the comic’s story-lines and characters, thus capturing its zeitgeist by trying to display a greater literal fidelity to it. In response, a friend said he preferred the show deviate from the comic book, as it already has, considerably, because he liked the idea of being surprised, of finding out anew what the show’s writers had done with it. I take it that by this he also meant that he looked forward to the possibility of the show reinvigorating the comic book’s basic premises. And thus, we found ourselves at the oldest of debates when it comes to cinematic adaptations: Should you-the writer–stay (with the original)–or should you go (by yourself)?
My friend is right, of course, that writers in charge of a cinematic adaptation have the blessed freedom to clear up confused storylines, eliminate weak characters, straighten out plots and all of the rest. Thus, in the case of The Walking Dead they have–besides the opportunity to exploit the medium’s possibilities to bring the animation to life–the chance to provide readers of the comic books with an entirely new experience. Conversely, they also have the chance to–pardon the French–fuck things up completely: they may introduce plot twists that make little sense, introduce not clarity but obfuscation to the show’s narrative, and make characters not stronger but considerably weaker and less interesting. (On the Internet Fan Planet of The Walking Dead, there is much dissatisfaction expressed about the characters on the show; I agree with some of those views.)
This leads me to suspect the show’s makers have backed away from a central fact about the comic series: To wit, it is grim, very grim. Some of the conflict–of all stripes, not just the physical kind–and violence is, er, cartoonish, but a great deal is not, and bringing that frame by frame to the screen would have resulted in a show of almost unrelenting darkness. There is a grimness that must be faced up to if the post-apocalyptic world is to be reckoned with and translating the comic book closely to the screen would have been one way to have done it. I do not think it is an impossible task, and I do not think viewers would not have been able to deal with it. But the makers of the show seem to have decided–unfortunately, it must be said–to introduce more conventional characters and story-lines of conflict and resolution, in keeping with well-established television tropes, perhaps in the hope of keeping some of the grimness of the zombie-world at bay.
This does not mean that The Walking Dead is not a good television show; it still is. But comparing it to the comic book would be a mistake. The final word in these matters, to resolve the minor dilemma posed in the first paragraph above, is to treat these two cultural productions that happen to share the same name, as two entirely distinct entities, and to evaluate them accordingly. A cop-out perhaps, but in these sorts of matters, it’s the only reasonable thing to do. (I wonder if this is a bit like comparing translated versions to originals?)