The Walking Dead and the Puzzle of Cinematic Adaptations

In my recent post on The Walking Deadin 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?)

4 thoughts on “The Walking Dead and the Puzzle of Cinematic Adaptations

  1. It’s a rare thing to have a show/movie that is close to the comic book original. I’ve been a comic book reader since the early 1980s. I remember when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the cartoons and big screen. It’s been around for almost 30 yrs and every series or movie that has come out has yet to ever capture the gritty, dark, black and white feel of the original first few issues by Eastman & Laird. The wise cracking, pizza eating turtles are what most people remember them as, instead of the sword weilding, foot slashing ninjas that the comics showed us. I remember in the 90s, an MTV series called The Maxx came out which was based on the Image comic with the same title. It was probably the closest television show to comic adaption I have ever seen. Every panel from the comic was animated into the show. It followed the storyline to every word and dialogue bubble. It was pretty successful in it’s time, but the story got so confusing that even the creator Sam Kieth admitted he didn’t know where it was going. Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman movie was close to the Lee and Ditko comic in feel, but still it was changed up so much that it could only stand alone in it’s own universe. I feel the same way about every Batman, Superman, X-Men and most other Marvel/DC characters. I picked up The Walking Dead’s first 2 graphic novels after watching the first season and honestly I have to disagree with the fans. Rick Grimes is a much more interesting character on tv. I love that the writers have him carrying around a six shot .357 revolver. I enjoy the more police officer moments where he tries to bring sanity and law into a dying a world. I didn’t see that in the comic. The world they are in on tv shows the desperation of it all in better visual terms. They both have their strengths but the comic in all honesty had me bored through some of it, while the show has always kept me on edge.

    1. Red,

      Thanks for the comment. Great stuff in there from a serious comics fan! Interesting that we disagree about the Walking Dead – I thought the second season was dragging a bit, and would have done better to have hewn closely to the comic book. Isn’t Rick doing the same as you suggest in the comic book? I do like his assertion of authority in the TV show and agree too, that the TV character is very interesting (perhaps in some way, more human). I wonder how season 3 will go. I hope it does not degrade now that they are bringing in the Governor.

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