How Faithful Should 'The Walking Dead' Be to Its Comic-Book Source?

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The series runs the risk of favoring fidelity to the comics over true suspense.

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AMC

Spoilers for last night's episode of The Walking Dead and The Walking Dead comic series to follow.

After more than a full season's worth of simmering tensions, the conflict between Rick and Shane finally came to a full boil in this week's "Better Angels." And just like the Westerns to which The Walking Dead pays homage, only one man could be left standing—and that's the heroic marshal.

If Shane's death didn't register as a complete surprise to every viewer of The Walking Dead, it might be because they'd heard that Jon Bernthal had been cast in Frank Darabont's upcoming pilot, L.A. Noir. Or it might be because AMC's website accidentally promoted a season two DVD set that will feature "Shane's last episode." But the majority of The Walking Dead's spoiled viewers have known about Shane's death since before the series premiered at all —and in the most extreme cases, since March of 2004, when the character was killed off in the sixth issue of Robert Kirkman's freshly launched comic series. "Better Angels," which was as gripping an episode as The Walking Dead has had all season, is a textbook example of what's always been one of the series' biggest assets—and one of its biggest challenges: its comic book source material.

Recent TV series based on literature have adapted their written origins with varying degrees of reverence. There's the Game of Thrones approach, in which the series is essentially a direct translation of the source material. There's the Dexter approach, which uses the basic concept of the source material as a springboard for all-new storylines with no direct corollary in the books. And there's The Walking Dead approach, which feels a little like the playground game "Telephone": It's the same rough story, with details added or lost in the translation. The TV adaptation of The Walking Dead has hit all the comics' biggest beats (Rick's coma, Hershel's Farm, and now Shane's death), but added its own detours along the way (the Dixon brothers, the CDC).

Shane's stay of execution is the TV series' farthest-reaching deviation from the comic series, and arguably its best. At the very least, it's a decision that led to many of the uneven second season's strongest moments, from Shane's murder of Otis to the revelation that Sophia was a zombie after Shane opened the Greene family's barn. The show will miss Bernthal—who's a fine actor—but perhaps even more so it will miss Shane, who's been the catalyst for virtually every interesting thing that's happened this season.

But there's another, less remarked-upon reason that the various Shane-driven plot twists have worked so well for the TV series: they're completely different than what happens in the comics. With Shane out of the picture in the comics, Otis doesn't die until a zombie attack that happens many issues later. And 94 issues into the series, Sophia is still going strong. (Viewed in this light, the TV series is a kind of Bizarro-World version of It's a Wonderful Life for Shane: How many lives were worse because he lived?).

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman said that he believes in "staying true to the comic and adapting things as closely as we can when it fits and when it feels necessary." That's certainly true for Shane, whose death was planned for the TV adaptation "before the first episode of season one was shot." Consequently, "Better Angels" gives Shane's death scene the weight and import that it deserves, and it even manages to mix up the details; in the comics, Carl shoots and kills Shane before he's a zombie, not after. But the death of Shane is a risky move for the series on every conceivable level: It's the loss of the series' primary antagonist and its most interesting character—and it's playing right into the expectations of the comic series' fans.

Consider, by contrast, Dale's death in last week's "Judge, Jury, Executioner." Fans of the comics, who know that Dale and Andrea eventually end up romantically involved, anticipated Andrea putting aside her anger and realizing her true feelings for Dale—even though a change so abrupt would have seemed (and been) completely implausible for Andrea's character in the TV series. Dale's death is a gut punch for fans of the TV series because it's the loss of a major character—and an even bigger gut punch for comics fans because it changes the expected plot arc of the rest of the series.

Shane's death moves the storyline back to its expected path. The second half of The Walking Dead's second season has markedly improved on its draggy first half, and I'm inclined to believe that showrunner Glen Mazzara, Robert Kirkman, and the rest of the series' creative team has a strong plan for going forward (the oncoming zombie horde at the episode's end is certainly a promising cliffhanger). But the tradeoff in making a TV series that has source material is losing suspense. And if recent casting announcements are any indication, The Walking Dead will continue to hew closer to its source material—at the expense of suspense for the series' biggest fans. It may, as with Shane's death, be a necessary trade, but it's an unfortunate one.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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