The Walking Dead and the Challenges of Cross-Media Adaptations

When it comes to movies that are adaptations of novels, everyone knows the drill by now: the book is usually better than the movie. It's a fair criticism, since the printed page is a very different medium than the moving image. But what happens when a TV show attempts to adapt a serialized--and unfinished--comic book series? With AMC's The Walking Dead, we're watching such an attempt play out now on prime time.

I've read through the first 70 issues of the Walking Dead comic book, which was created and written by Robert Kirkman, so I have ample amounts of source information to draw from when comparing it to its televised counterpart. I enjoy the TV show's ample amounts of zombie gore, and I thought that it got off to a great start in its first six-episode season. But after watching the meandering second season and seeing the third season end so poorly last week, I'm beginning to wonder how much longer this show can go with its rapidly rotting legs in spite of its high ratings. Read on for my analysis of the show, and why adapting an ongoing comic book series into a different medium requires much more planning and foresight than adapting a single novel.

NOTE: This post makes many references to events in both versions of The Walking Dead. Thus, if you aren't familiar with either of them but want to read/see them later, you might want to skip this post to avoid spoilers.

When The Walking Dead first appeared in comic book stores back in 2003, I was impressed at how it took an idea that's been around since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead--a global zombie epidemic--and turned it into a serialized narrative. Essentially, The Walking Dead is Night of the Living Dead: The Series; why nobody through to do this before Kirkman still astonishes me. Unlike Living Dead's sequels, which jumped to different sets of characters at different locations during the epidemic, The Walking Dead stuck with a group of characters during society's collapse in the wake of the epidemic and how they try to bring stability back into their lives while stuck in a world overrun by reanimated, flesh-eating corpses. Because the story was told through the pages of a comic book, the narrative possibilities were limited only by the imagination and talent of the comic's writer and artist.

The TV version of Walking Dead started in 2010 and it has tried to recreate the comic in many aspects. Most of the central characters and story arcs that appear in the comic are also in the TV show, with varying degrees of accuracy. However, due to the complications that come with TV production (in this case, AMC cutting the show's production budget and then ordering a larger number of episodes per season, as well as a seasonal succession of showrunners), the TV Walking Dead runs at a much different pace than the comic, which has resulted in some peculiar and counter-intuitive creative choices.

I've read many complaints (many of which I think are spot-on) about the Walking Dead TV show in how it handles its female and non-white characters. Here are some of the complaints that I have:

* The farmhouse story arc that only lasted for six issues in the comic was stretched for the entirety of season two, which ran for thirteen episodes. To me, it felt like a five-episode arc that was padded into a thirteen-episode season.

* The prison vs. Woodbury story in the comic was very simple: Rick, Michonne and Glenn are held prisoner by the Governor in Woodsbury, they escape back to the prison, and then there's a fight between Rick's group and the Governor's personal army at the prison, which results in massive casualties. This same story arc was the basis of season three and it felt like many details and subplots were added to simply to meet the sixteen episode requirement for the season, not to push the show in an interesting new direction. In the TV show, not only did the Governor survive the final confrontation at the prison, he also survived several other instances throughout the season where he should have logically died.

In spite of the differences between the details and pacing of the story arcs between the comic book and the TV show, it seems that the show's producers want the TV characters to develop the same way as their comic book counterparts do and when they don’t, another character is swapped in to take his/her place. When Dale was killed in season two at the farmhouse because the actor who played him quit, Herschel takes his place in season three (complete with losing a leg due to a zombie bite in the prison, just like Dale) even though he was the one who died at the farmhouse in the comic. I've also noticed that when the narrative trajectories of the TV characters stray very far from their comic book counterparts (specifically Andrea and Carol) the TV show doesn't know what to do with them. In contrast, I can see why Daryl is the most popular character in the show: Because he appeared briefly in the comic early in its run, the TV writers had many more opportunities to develop Daryl without having to meet any narrative requirement from the comic or use him as a replacement for a prematurely dispatched character.

When adapting a novel into a movie, the filmmakers naturally have to choose what can be translated from the printed page to film, and what cannot be translated due to budgetary and/or running time restrictions. In the case of The Walking Dead, the demands of AMC and TV production in production in general prohibit the series from being a faithful adaptation of the comic, yet it nevertheless remains dedicated to keeping the same characters and stories from the comic even past the point of its own internal logic.

Looking back, it may have been better for AMC to produce a Walking Dead TV series as a spinoff to the comic book that takes place in the same universe. That would've given the show's creative team more freedom to develop characters, settings and story arcs that are much more complementary with the show's budget and production schedule. In fact, a spinoff might have even been better than The Walking Dead comic itself. Despite the freedoms that the print medium allows, the comic hasn't moved past the main theme of every George Romero zombie movie: no matter how grotesque and dangerous the reanimated dead are, the living can and will be much, much worse. It's a compelling theme, but at over 100 issues and counting you'd think that a zombie comic book would have something else to say by now.

The Governor (David Morrissey) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln):
Gunfight at the Zombie Corral?

This wouldn't be the first time that a TV network would impose difficult and counterproductive demands on a genre TV show. The original Battlestar Galactica was supposed to be a series of made-for-TV movies, but ABC demanded that it be made into a TV series instead--a series that was later cancelled because the declining ratings weren't enough to justify the series’ large production budget, a problem that probably wouldn't have happened if ABC hadn't rejected the original plan of TV movies. Likewise, the original 1983 miniseries V was made on a very small budget, but that didn't keep NBC from deciding to continue the V story as a weekly TV series the following year. It too was cancelled after one season, and for the same reasons as Galactica's cancellation.

The Walking Dead doesn't appear to have the same problems as Galactica or V because it keeps setting ratings records and has been renewed for a fourth season. Yet if it doesn't do something to set itself apart as a TV series with its own dramatic momentum apart from the source comic, this zombie show could wind up dropping dead in the ratings before it sees a fifth season.


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