BY SEAN CLARK
[This is a new column in which we compare books with their A/V counterparts. Most of the time, but not always, the book is better than the movie or show. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be discussed. Follow this column here, and check out the rest of our ongoing features here.]
I’ve never really been into comics. Every so often I’ll read and enjoy a graphic novel, but that’s about it. The one exception is The Walking Dead, written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Charlie Adlard. Until Aaron’s first column a week ago, I had no idea what a “pull list” was and I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been in a comic shop. But I’ve long been fascinated with zombies. I’ve seen more zombie flicks than anyone I know. Some say they’re played out; I’m not sick of them yet, though. There’s still room for some interesting stuff to be created. The Walking Dead is a great example of this, and I buy the collected volumes they put out every few months. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I learned AMC was adapting it for television. But I had my doubts too.
Gore and campiness, the long-time staples of zombie movies, are fun enough, but the greatness of zombie plots lies in the universal pathos and the unique mythos that each develops. Unlike other monster stories and themes, the zombies aren’t the center of the show. They are a dark, looming presence, a threat that wrings the humanity and inhumanity out of the characters, a catalyst for dire, desperate action. These stories thrive in the murky grey areas of morality. Because of this, in a good zombie drama the zombie plague is the setting, not the conflict.
Fear, selfishness, courage, selflessness: all the best and worst traits of humanity emerge when zombies are done right. No one does this better right now than Kirkman and company with The Walking Dead. As the series proceeds, things reached a point when the survivors have become accustomed to the new realities of their world, and the zombies become almost atmospheric. All the horrors that occur (and there is some horrific shit in these books) comes from people, not the undead.
With its emotional and psychological tension, The Walking Dead comes close to the very high bar George A. Romero set when he more or less invented the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead, and its sequel Dawn of the Dead, which is the best zombie movie ever made.
So what about the show? How does it compare? Well, actually, so far it’s doing pretty well. The first episode did a great job of recognizing what works in The Walking Dead. In fact, much of it followed the comic shot-for-panel. Although for much of the episode Rick, the protagonist, was alone, the focus was on the humanity of the characters from the outset. Even better, when Rick returns to the hospital where he awoke to mercy-kill a pitiful, legless zombie–the first undead he encountered–the show used this as a nice touch to highlight the lost humanity of the shambling, crawling corpses. It rightly trumped and outweighed any action or gore–which was what I expected from a television pilot. Of course, the violence is there on-screen and awesome, too, just restrained nicely.
The second episode, however, gave me some misgivings. It didn’t follow the book hardly at all, and it lifted a bunch of stuff from other zombie movies (Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead) that wasn’t in the books. And while the human relationships and dramas were still played up, it felt a bit forced. That is, rather than serving the larger theme, the tensions and affections between characters feel like they’re too obviously serving an episodic television plot. That’s not a good sign seeing that it’s adapting an episodic medium which handled things just fine already. New characters were introduced merely as zombie fodder, or, as in the case of Michael Rooker’s redneck meth-head left for dead, to kick start conflict for the next episode. I’m all for them taking the fiction in new directions for the television show, but cribbing from movies and LOST is not the way to go about it, not with so much good source material at hand.
The plots of the books feel organic. Characters come and go. Main players die all the time. New ones are added. But they rarely come across as obvious plot and conflict triggers. Most new characters, by nature of the world and the experience of the group of survivors, are treated skeptically, and almost always distrusted; guilty and dangerous until proven innocent and trustworthy. At times the skeptics are proven wise to have been wary, at others they overreact, and call into question just who the bad guys really are. This is the strength of The Walking Dead books. Plenty of excellent characters crashing against Kirkman’s unflinching willingness to kill them, or break them down and push a good guy over his or her threshold. I hope AMC has the balls to do the same with their show, especially if diverging from the story lines set up in the books. If they just create and kill throwaways to satiate viewers’ zombie bloodlust, and establish and enforce clearly defined good and bad characters, we’ll all get bored very quickly.
Bonus video: This fan-made opening credit sequence is way better than what AMC starts with.