In Search for the Perfect Adaptation in 'The Umbrella Academy'

Netflix made numerous choices to streamline this unconventional tale of unlikely heroes. Thankfully, they all pay off.

Umbrella Academy
Netflix

The question of what encompasses a “good” adaptation is undeniably personal. When filmmakers must decide what to include, excise, or add to a narrative when figuring out a cross-media retelling, stories will always be subject to quirks in taste and vision. Rarely does this involve total fidelity to any one source as well, making the adapter’s task an inherently tricky one.

That said, the interpretative power of adaptation encourages a strong appreciation for the malleable impact of storytelling as a whole. That sentiment is precisely observable in my latest TV obsession, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.

The 10-episode series is very different from the eponymous comics spearheaded by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá back in the late-2000s. Thankfully, obligatory creator endorsement aside, the show laudably delivers a palpable, unique atmosphere and aesthetic that is still well aligned with the graphic novels.

Spoilers

By virtue of being separate limited series, Apocalypse Suite and Dallas are slower and more disjointed when it comes to setting up the time-traveling, reality-bending lore of The Umbrella Academy. The best thing about the show is that it simply allocates more space to its jam-packed story. Translating twelve comic issues into 10 hour-long episodes allows the story and characters to breathe at a realistic, gratifying pace.

For instance, Vanya Hargreeves (Ellen Page) goes through her terrifying coming-of-age tale much more gradually in the Netflix show and this works to heartrending results. As opposed to being literally brainwashed by The Conductor in Apocalypse Suite, the show is more deliberate in its introduction of a deceptive manipulator and is far more interested in examining Vanya’s trauma from a position of empathy.

In general, the Hargreeves’ interpersonal relationships oscillate between an established fractured past and the opportunity for healing. Specifically, the showdown in Peabody’s cabin between Vanya and her sister Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) as a key example of this.

In the comics, Vanya’s apocalyptic recital is already underway when she slices Allison’s throat and there is much less of an emotional set-up to it. However, the TV version fosters heightened emotions and tension between the sisters that have built up across multiple episodes.

Vanya wants to be seen and Allison wants to be trusted. Both of them imperfectly handle each other’s needs, but these characters strive the most to maintain a positive relationship throughout the series. This makes Vanya’s accidental violence and Allison’s subsequent forgiveness hit home hard.

Of course, every member of the Umbrella Academy is extremely reticent with emotional openness. Vanya and Allison’s dynamic is but one example of the kind of humanization that makes Netflix’s series so compelling.

The show makes welcomed changes to Diego (David Castañeda) and Klaus’ (Robert Sheehan) more aggressively trope-y characters. On TV, the former retains a connection to Detectives Patch and Beaman (Ashley Madekwe and Rainbow Sun Francks). A quietly loving relationship with the Hargreeves’ robotic Mom (Jordan Claire Robbins) gives him purpose, too.

Meanwhile, the hot-headed Diego is much more abrasive and difficult in the comics, with no love interests bar a hinted attraction to Vanya. Rather, he particularly finds camaraderie after he travels back in time and spends years in the thick of the Vietnam War.

Because yes, Klaus isn’t the only one to land in a war zone in Way and Bá’s original. Luther (played by Tom Hopper in the Netflix series) and Diego end up in 1960s Vietnam with him and the situation is considerably weirder. It’s a whole thing involving the resurrection of a mummified Vietnamese leader and Klaus running a night club for three years in order to fund a teleportation device that helps him and his brothers escape.

In contrast, giving Klaus Diego’s role out on the battlefield in the show is definitely more effectively pathos-driven. Already very easy to love thanks to his cheek and sarcasm, this change coupled with Klaus’ frequent conversations with deceased brother Ben (Justin H. Min) — who gets to be a fantastic central character in the show despite being sidelined in the books — makes him even more earnest.

That similar energy is transposed into Luther’s arc. We only catch a glimpse of the character’s desire to please his father in Apocalypse Suite, but the father-son relationship is vitally explored in painful detail in the series. As Reginald Hargreeves’ Number One, to know that his moon mission means nothing brings the character to a breaking point in the show. The depressive slump that engulfs Luther in Dallas now has a place there, too.

Finally, most of Number Five’s (Aidan Gallagher) backstory stems from Dallas, including more details about the Temps Commission and the introduction of Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige). So, these additions to the apocalypse storyline were always the most expected.

Yet, other than the general fact of Five being a time-traveling anomaly breaking the rules of the Commission’s continuum, his storyline differs considerably on screen. His meaner comic counterpart is a cold-hearted killer (seriously, his DNA is spliced with those of heinous serial murderers) who cannot age or feel.

On the flip side, Netflix’s Five is more emotionally invested in his quest to get back to his family and save the world, and it’s much easier to root for him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get a snarky line here and there, though; he’s too smart not to keep it real with his brothers and sisters.

Overall, despite the zanier tone and wackier ideas of The Umbrella Academy‘s source, as far as this fan is concerned, Netflix nailed this adaptation. The numerous changes made to the story only strengthen the dramatic beats of this unconventional origin tale, ensuring that the spirit of The Umbrella Academy remains intact.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.