Walking Dead Comic vs. Show: Is One Better?
by Stephanie Earp, posted Oct 19th 2011 11:00AM
I had to pull out my zombie pillow within the first ten minutes of the season two opener of AMC's 'The Walking Dead' this past Sunday. What, you don't have a zombie pillow? Allow me to explain. It's large enough that when held tightly in your arms at waist level, the top edge is about eye level, where it can easily be shifted into a view-blocking position in times of particular stress. If your zombie pillow can be made to smell like vanilla or warm pie through the miracle of scented oils or room sprays, so much the better.
I've been both looking forward to and dreading the return of the show, which is, believe it or not, the biggest hit AMC has yet produced. Really. It draws more eyeballs than 'Mad Men' (even if some of those eyeballs are hidden behind pillows) and the premiere now holds the record for most-watched cable drama premiere. The show is unquestionably awesome in many ways -- the makeup, cinematography and suspense are all top notch. But it's also terrible in a lot of ways. Some of the acting, most of the dialogue and many of the plots and situations strain even the most liberal definition of believable. There's no denying it's engrossing, but it's also really annoying.
In preparation for its return I decided to read the source material to see if the show's problems come from an overdeveloped devotion to the comic books. I know early on, readers had been impressed by how closely the show followed the books, with actual frames and interactions reproduced. Maybe the suck followed the show to TV from its indie comic book roots.
So far I've read book one of the comic. For reference, season two's opener finds us about half way into that book, though not a single aspect of the Sunday's episode was based on the books. In fact, I was surprised how divergent the two plots are. And to my surprise, the show's troubles come from not following the book closely enough, it seems.
For one thing -- and spoiler alert I guess, although you've had 8 years to read the thing -- Shane is dead and has been since about the time Rick arrived in camp. Imagine how much more bearable the Lori-cheated-on-Rick bombshell would be if Shane had been shot in the head months ago? (Since I'm spoiling you anyhow, Carl shoots him when he threatens Rick.) Many of the credulity-stretching aspects of this plot line were invented for TV. Book Shane never claimed to Book Lori that Rick had died in the hospital, they just figured they'd never see him again, since hey, the apocalypse had arrived. In the book, Shane doesn't lie to Lori to get in her pants, they just have a near-death-experience sexual escapade they probably don't expect to live long enough to regret. With Shane gone, you aren't constantly thinking about how Lori is lying to Rick, and as a result that central relationship is much stronger. It's a much needed bright spot in such a dark world.
Also missing from the book? That whole CDC outing. Oh, and Merle. You remember the guy they left handcuffed to the roof? The one they went to rescue and ran into the group of survivors in the inner city? Yeah, none of that happens in book one of the comic. Basically, most of the events between episode 1 and episode 6 of the first season was invented for TV. I think even the most devoted fans will admit those middle episodes were the weakest.
That said, some niggly issues are present in the ink version. Like the fact that no one has ever heard of a zombie, or seen a zombie movie, but they use the word zombie to describe the undead. Or that shortly after Rick is told that gunfire draws the walkers, he plans to raid a gun store and teach Carl to shoot. While the book plot so far is different from the TV plot, it's not necessarily better. But the comic moves faster, is less dialogue-heavy and requires less nuanced characterization.
More than any other nit worth picking though is the lack of uniformity to how Rick and his cohorts deal with the hordes (or herds) or undead around them. They know the zombies can hear them, but within minutes of coming out of hiding from a stampede, they start clearing the highway, demolition derby style. They know zombies will sit perfectly still until something living comes by, but they all get out of their vehicles and start picking through the belongings in a car pile-up on the highway, without even having a look to be sure the rotting corpses in the cars are completely dead not just somewhat dead. And, seriously, if you had to select a vehicle for traversing the country during the zombie apocalypse would you choose a motorcycle? I wouldn't even drive with my windows rolled down.
This is something the show has inherited from the books, and it has to be solved if the show is to keep building its audience. If you write something that is so scary I have to clutch a pillow and chant 'don't die' under my breath, you have to at least arm your characters with common sense and memory. If they've lost the ability to be constantly fearful, that's fine. Just write it into the dialogue. The character may have forgotten to be scared, but the viewers haven't.