Adaptation is no longer simply adaptation. In 2019, it’s permutation as well. Something worked as a book? Make it a show. Or a game, and then a show. Something work as a game? Make it a movie. Or, uh, maybe don’t. (But either way, make sure it’s got a comic book to go with it!)
Things used to hop from one medium to another, but that’s table stakes by now. If a concept or story is delicious enough, development executives everywhere race to don their butchers’ smocks and carve that thing from the rooter to the tooter. Snowpiercer, the latest transplatform skipping stone, finally let folks on board at the a San Diego Comic-Con panel on the upcoming television series today—and from the look of things, it’s drawing not just on its own previous iterations, but a few other genre properties as well.
For those venturing onto the tracks for the first time: the future setting of Snowpiercer is not a good one. A new ice age has crippled the planet, and the only survivors live aboard a fantastically long train that endlessly circles the globe. Up at the front of the train, the wealthy dine on biennially farmed sushi and bliss out on hallucinogens; back in the tail section, though, people live in squalor. While it started as a series of French graphic novels in the early ’80s, you more likely know it from Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 feature film starring Chris Evans as one of the caboose-dwelling have-nots who leads a revolution to get to the front of the train and break out of bondage.
Both comic and film inform the new series, according to executive producer Graeme Manson, but the balance isn’t quite 50-50. “The graphic novels can be very heady and philosophical,” Manson said at the panel in the Indigo Ballroom. “We pull from them, they’re a source of inspiration … but the show has the feel of the movie.” That much was clear from the show’s initial trailer, which includes a hit parade of the movie’s memorable sequences. A dissenter’s arm is held outside in the elements until frozen solid, then shattered as punishment; on a cheerful schoolroom car, wealthy children are indoctrinated into the legend of the train’s inventor.
Yet, there’s much more to the show, which arrives on TBS in the spring, then there was in the film. That’s to be expected when you have 10 hours to fill in the first season alone (the show has already been renewed for a second season). The movie, for all its charms, stuck to good-evil binaries. Chris Evans’ Curtis was chaotic good, pressing ahead even as his friends died at the hands of the Snowpiercer’s security forces; Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason remained cartoonishly evil as the Grand Moff Amtrak in charge of maintaining the class divide, her prosthetic chompers looking like they’d masticated their way out of a British zombie movie.
The show’s principals, though, look to embody conflict from the giddy-up. Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connolly, the latest A-list film actor to take on a starring television role) may be the train’s head of hospitality, catering to the elite, but the series trailer shows her grappling with a crisis of faith. Similarly, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) may be gutting it out back with the other “tailies,” but he was a police detective before the ice age came, with a skillset that quickly leads him across otherwise impermeable class lines.
If you arched an eyebrow at the word “tailie,” you’re probably not alone. That word rings bells for anyone who watched Lost, and Snowpiercer cribbing it so explicitly is your first clue that the show is drawing not just on its own previous iterations, but other genre properties as well. The production design of the first-class train cars points squarely back to Westworld, and there’s plenty of Leftovers here as well: one character, Lena Hall’s Miss Audrey, works with wealthy passengers to help them process the grief of making it on board this rail-bound ark while their loved ones didn’t. (Then there’s the fact that Miss Audrey also runs a brothel—yet another page torn from the Westworld playbook. At this rate, I’m expecting a Succession shout-out by episode three.)
Bong’s Snowpiercer already felt like a TV show in a lot of ways—a long, dark bottle episode submerged in the cooler of an Ice Age. Manson’s series, in its quest for narrative daylight, looks to be taking on some elements of film. The CGI is expensive (in one clip shown, a cow collapses and succumbs to the frigid outside air), the language is blue. Most of all, though, the show leans into moments that the movie skirted around. When security forces smash the tailie’s arm in the movie, Bong’s camera cut away just before impact. Here, you see it shatter like a celery stalk dipped in liquid nitrogen. When you’re trying to serve comfort food in an exciting new way, after all, you’ve gotta be willing to try a new preparation. Even freeze-dried.