AMC’s The Walking Dead and I have a strange relationship in that I watch it but don’t particularly care for it. I can’t really tell you why I tune in every week, but it has something to do with my great love for the comic books and a desire to see horror on television, mostly regardless of quality.
The books by Robert Kirkman have always had a bit of melodrama about them, but the show has often taken that to obvious, soap opera levels. “The Walking Dead” comics feature a great cast of characters with complex motivations and relationships. Many of those characters made it to the television show – well, at least characters with the same names made it in.
Things have changed so drastically from comic to screen that one has to ask – when does an adaptation stop being an adaptation?
Media changes forms. Movies that get turned into books undergo some changes. Books and written media that go to the big screen can undergo rather dramatic changes. Sometimes, this is for practical purposes, sometimes it’s for creative reasons. Jurassic Park is a successful example of both. The source material had some densely scientific moments, stuff that could never really be translated to film. That’s the nature of books – you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s words. The story was also creatively changed – different characters had different fates (in many ways the book is superior there) and the ending is entirely different.
But Jurassic Park worked as a movie. As an adaptation. I’m a fan of both the book and the movie. If you take a look at a movie like The Running Man, it’s loosely adapted from a story by Stephen King. If you were a big fan of King’s story, you might be disappointed in the movie, but it took the central theme and a several supporting ideas from the book and made a movie out of it. Acceptable, I suppose.
With The Walking Dead I am always easily upset because the source material is so good. You could take a Watchmen approach to this and basically just use the comics as your storyboards and shoot it as is. That’s how engaging the comic books are.
The real powerful moments in the comic books come from the characters, many of whom are drastically different on screen. Shane has a much different arc in the books, one that’s very good, but left out of the television show. But one of the biggest changes on a character level involved Dale and Andrea. In the comics, Andrea is only 26 years old, while in the show she is 36. Ten years is a lot, especially with all the goings on in the comics that never made it into the show. The relationship dynamic between these two is so very, very different on the page than it is on the screen.
Another example is Jim, a minor character in both the comics and the show, who had his bit changed. In the comic, his death is actually a sweet and somber moment; in the show, it’s just another cog in the machine.
Does The Walking Dead still count as an adaptation of the comics? Major deaths are changed, character relationships are changed, and things just happen differently. Has it changed too much? For legal purposes you might have to pay for the rights to the show, but if you’re going to go so far away from what the comics were, why not just go further and call it The Zombie Chronicles or something and avoid not only the costs of acquiring the rights,but also the disappointment of ardent comic fans?
For me personally, the changes are pretty huge. It’s almost at the level of paying millions of dollars to the rights of the Battleship board game and then making it about aliens. Why not call the movie Alien Engagements or The Navy vs the Invasion or literally any title other than Battleship? Adaptations come with expectations. Sometimes, you meet those expectations and make a faithful adaptation. Sometimes, you have no intent of ever doing so. Anyone who thinks the Navy versus Aliens has anything to do with the Battleship board game is a moron.
Take a look at I Am Legend (if you can do it without throwing up). If you’ve read the source material, either in written form or comic form, you won’t find much of anything familiar in the Will Smith movie. Why pay the money to change it? Why read something and exclaim “WOW, this is fucking fantastic. It’s so good I want to make it into a movie. It’s so exciting to me that I can’t wait to change it until it becomes unrecognizable.”
Sounds dumb, right?
Look, some material is kind of shitty to begin with. Making a proper adaptation of it sometimes doesn’t make sense. You’re just trying to capitalize on a name, rather than on a good product and that’s where you’re making your first mistake. No one thought a Super Mario Bros movie was a good idea and what came out of it is something so awful it’s become required watching.
It’s baffling why a movie company would pay so much money for a little name recognition, especially when they’re going to change it to the point that the fans they’re attracting will be turned off.
Jurassic Park worked. The changes made from book to screen in Jaws were for the better – though it probably helped to have author Peter Benchley on board. The ending in the novel form of Fight Club is a bit different, but the movie works. These make sense. You get the title recognition from best sellers, attract fans, and new people get on board.
Then there are the ones that don’t make much sense. The Running Man. Super Mario Bros. The Walking Dead? What’s the point of licensing the title? People who are unfamiliar with the books don’t care that it’s an adaptation. The people who are familiar get upset at the changes. It seems like a lose-lose scenario.
It’s worth noting that I liked the last few episodes of The Walking Dead. It’s finally moving and doing some good stuff, but I don’t really see it as a good adaptation of the source material. Characters have changed too much, the group dynamic is too far off. It doesn’t make for a good adaptation, even if you think it makes for good television.
When it comes to adaptations, I’m easily pushed to my boiling point. I don’t watch adaptations to see what’s going to be different, I go to see a new artistic take on something I enjoy. I can read a book and love it and then read a comic adaptation of it. I don’t need it, or want it, to change. I just want to see it in a new form. I’ll then go see the movie too. I’ll look at art. Posters. Paintings. Whatever. I don’t want to change it, I want to enjoy it again. Sometimes, Hollywood producers just don’t get that.