The Walking Dead is the biggest thing right now, and that makes me really happy; not just for Frank Darabont, who’s finally gotten a recent project off the ground that isn’t a Stephen King adaptation (or, uh, The Majestic), but for creators Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, who brought into the world a comic that was selling boffo numbers long before the TV series came out.
Still, it’s hard not to compare and contrast the two, especially when it comes to a TV show adapting a comic book with scores of fans. Plus, as visual mediums, comics and cinema are cousins that look a lot alike but are, in many ways, very different. You can especially see some surface-level similarities between comics and TV, both known for serialized installments and trade paperback collects kind of resembling full season DVDs.
Despite being a visual medium, Robert Kirkman writes an incredibly verbose comic in The Walking Dead. Characters speak in paragraphs that fill the pages, and much of it would sound rotten if spoken aloud by real actors. Not to say his dialogue is bad per se, but it was written to be read, not spoken. To see what I mean, go watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The script was by James Dale Robinson, of such comics as the classic 1990s Starman and the current Justice League of America, and you can tell he writes comics because the characters make declarations about what’s on screen, which (bad) comic books do, but movies don’t have to. Apparently Kirkman himself is writing episode 4 of the show, “Vatos,” and I’m curious how he’ll fare. Hopefully somebody on staff will set him right as far as screenwriting versus comic book scripting.
In the first episode of The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye,” Frank Darabont crafts an excellent adaptation of the initial issues of Kirkman’s comic by taking out all the words and relying on pure visual storytelling to drive the narrative. Protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wanders this unfamiliar, zombie-infested world with nary a word uttered until he actually locates some semblance of humanity. Even when Rick is alone, Kirkman can’t restrain himself from throwing in some needless word balloons: “Gasp!” or “What happened here?” Those don’t even really work on the page, and on screen they’d just remove all the tension — which the first episode has in spades.
Episode 2, “Guts,” is closer to the comics in terms of execution, as it features lots of characters talking. Unfortunately, the gaggle of survivors totally lack depth, with such winners as Merle the cartoon racist (Michael Rooker) and a large black man named T-Dog (IronE Singleton). It’s the year 2010, The Wire set a new standard for nicknaming black characters, and still — T-DOG. Even beloved character Glenn doesn’t feel right as Steven Yeun is forced to utter some ponderous dialogue.
Episode 3, “Tell It to the Frogs” gives us what we should probably come to expect from the series if the comics are any indication. The episode focuses on character interaction, using zombie very sparingly. The big draw of The Walking Dead (like, to some extent, zombie classics as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later) is the interpersonal conflict. If you can’t get into the characters there’s no reason to care if they survive. Here Darabont and company finally start to paint their characters in ways that make them resemble human beings.
When I heard The Walking Dead was going to be faithful to the comic, I was worried. More accurately, I was afraid that Frank Darabont would be adapting every issue into an episode, word-for-word, and thus give viewers like me little surprise and forcing me to wonder just what the point was of experiencing the same exact story twice in two different mediums. So far this isn’t the case.
Thankfully, the show is close enough to the comics to capture just what made them great, but with enough surprises to keep people like me interested. For one thing, he develops Morgan — who, in the comics, is pretty much just the guy who delivers exposition to Rick/the readers — into an honest-to-goodness character with an identifiable personal conflict, so much that I’m hoping he joins the main cast sooner than later.
One of the more dramatic changes to the story in TV form is the creation of Merle Dixon (played by the wonderful Michael Rooker) as the guy who Rick inadvertently causes to get abandoned amidst a zombie attack in Atlanta. In the comics Rick and Glenn return to Atlanta just to pick up more guns, which is a bit video gamey and akin to the concerns of early episodes of Lost — ooh, we discovered the water part of the map! With Merle’s life in danger, Rick’s not given more reason to go back to the city after just reuniting with his wife, but the show sets up Rick as the guy who takes it upon himself to make tremendously difficult decisions that affect the other characters in the series. So far in the series Rick has been a boring character compared to Shane (who seems like the chillest bro in the apocalypse), but given the knowledge of where Rick’s character is headed in the comics I hope they bring some more of those “heavy is the head” moments to the earlier installments. Great thing about narrative hindsight.
Shane is the other big change, as the show actually tries to make him likable. The comic casts him as the asshole who tries to take Rick’s woman, while the show sets him up as the guy who Rick is essentially usurping — who begins the series talking about how his one-night stands always leave his lights on and soon finds himself with a surrogate family in the form of Rick’s wife and son, who are convinced poor Rick is dead. Which makes sense because, um, zombies. Shane’s also a lot more fun than Rick, who as of yet has no personality traits except leadership.
Having read the comics voraciously (at the risk of skipping work — deadly for a freelancer), I’m glad The Walking Dead the TV show is deviating from The Walking Dead the comic book. While I’m sure the major twists and turns will still be there, I still feel like I don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s essential to the Walking Dead experience.
Don’t prove me wrong, Episodes 4 to 6.