Now that we've had time to digest The Walking Dead's pilot episode, it's time to look at the differences between the comic book's opener and its adaptation. Frank Darabont's script and directing nailed the atmosphere of life in the zombie apocalypse, sticking fairly close to the spirit of Robert Kirkman's opener without being beholden to it. There are a lot of similarities, but also some crucial differences that indicate the TV series will be diverging from Kirkman's work. Spoilers for both the TV series and the comic book's first story arc follow, so consider yourself warned.
Days Gone Bye
The first season will apparently be taking its cues from Kirkman's first story arc, "Days Gone Bye." This six issue story recounts how Sheriff Rick Grimes adjusts to the new world he's woken up in and his search for his wife and son. He learns to cope and survive in a world where the undead walk, while trying to reunite with his family.
The pilot episode borrows its title from this arc and follows a similar plot line. As is common in the comics, the episode ends on a cliff-hanger/revelation. The biggest, most notable difference comes in the stylistic presentation of the story itself. Darabont filmed The Walking Dead in color; Kirkman opted to present the story in black-and-white as an homage to George Romero's film, Night of the Living Dead. The book's art is generally simple and clean, without a lot of background clutter or confusing action panels, and very little to distract the reader. With color images it's easy to gloss over a scene, while black-and-white tends to draw the viewer in, forcing them to study the image a bit more in order to decipher the interplay of light and shadow and process what is happening.
Darabont is certainly familiar with the effect of black-and-white in horror, having used it as a stylistic option when he released The Mist on DVD and Blu-ray. The Mist was originally intended to be black-and-white, but he was unable to release it that way theatrically due to the demands of Dimension, the film's distributor, and so made it a special feature for the disc's release. Given AMC's support for The Walking Dead, it seems unlikely (but not impossible) that such interference played a role in filming the series in color. In fact, the choice to film in color is not at all a disservice to the material, and emphasizes the creative team's desire to move the series in a different direction. Using color film stock and some brilliant lighting techniques, Darabont is able to generate an intense and effective tone for the series. The make-up effects are on full, vivid display, showing off the lavish attention to detail that went into creating the prosthetics. While Kirkman's work is an homage to earlier zombie films, the TV series is clearly working in the style of more modern horror.
Neither series wastes time in introducing the zombie nightmare, although the TV pilot accelerates it even further. The episode starts off almost immediately with a zombie confrontation between Grimes and a small undead girl, before rewinding to a time before the outbreak. Grimes and his partner Shane talk about the women in their lives over lunch before being called out for an emergency. As in the comic, Grimes gets shot and goes into a coma.
In the comic, we start off with Rick and Shane already in the gunfight. There's no real introduction to Shane or a sense of the bond these two policemen share with each other before Grimes is shot on page one. Page two, he wakes up in the hospital and from there starts to get a violent feel for this brave new world.
The TV format is a great way to expand upon the relationships between characters, which can be difficult to convey in a 22-page comic book. By introducing Shane early on, viewers are able to get a sense of who this character is, how he feels about women, and the camaraderie he and Rick have. When it's revealed later that Shane has helped protect Rick's wife and son, Lori and Carl, and that he and Lori have become romantically involved, we get a sense for why this is going to be bad for Rick later on, beyond the typical love-triangle scenario. The same story arc in the comic took longer getting to the point, but a simple rearrangement of the story for TV has already produced effective plot points that should be paid off by season's end if the writer's are following Kirkman's map.
The hospital scene is perhaps the most different from comic to screen, with Darabont eliminating an entire action scene and loads of zombies. Given the tone that's established in the moments leading up to, and immediately following, Grimes waking up from his coma it's a smart alteration that avoids typical horror-genre cliches, operating fully on the less-is-more principle.
In the pilot, when Grimes wakes up he slowly becomes aware of the changed world. Flowers Shane left him are dead and withered; nurses aren't responding to his calls for help. When he's finally able to get out of bed and start walking, the hospital corridors are a disaster area. The floor is littered with rubble, lights dangle from the ceiling, their bulbs flickering. It's eerily quiet. Trails of blood and bullet holes line walls, leading to a chewed-up corpse. A door that's been barricaded shut with a loops of chain and pieces of wood warns away whoever finds it. There are dead inside, it says, yet the door slowly opens against its restraints, pale white fingers groping their way through the opening, sensing fresh meat just on the other side. Rick wisely avoids it, making his way down a dark stairwell, lighting matches for illumination as he goes. The typical, easy scare would be to have a zombie grab his foot from beneath the steps, trip him up and attack him. Thankfully, it never happens and he bursts through the exit into broad daylight. The dead have been piled up in neat rows. It's clear the hospital has been under assault, and the ruins of a helicopter hint at the military's role in the devastation here. It's a more effective shock than a petty scare and serves the dark tone well. Had Darabont followed the comic exactly, introducing a zombie attack would have disrupted the overall tone of the scene and come off as trite given the clear devastation and loss on such a large scale. Andrew Lincoln's performance as Grimes throughout this scene is so captivating and genuine that disrupting it earlier with a cheap cliche would have been unforgivable.
The comic presents a more sterile medical center despite the disaster. The building is in good shape, and other than empty hallways it's hard to tell there's anything horrifying happening. Mysterious, certainly, but it's not clear there's a darker tone to all this until Rick finds his first corpse and he realizes something is seriously wrong. There are no warnings on the doors, no indication of the dead inside.
Rick is looking for survivors, hoping to find help. When he finds a door that's been closed shut with a single wooden board, he thinks nothing of removing it and going inside. What he finds is a shocking scene, as rotting corpses lurch across a ruined waiting room. They sense fresh meat and go after Rick as he stumbles away in shock. A zombie grabs him and they fall down a stairwell, but Rick is able to escape. Outside, all is surprisingly peaceful. There are no indications of the greater disaster, or of the military's role in seeking to contain the outbreak and their response to the worsening conditions around them.
The pilot episode effectively conveyed just how much things have changed during Rick's coma. The scene involving the barricaded door and its brutal warning, then the slow push with the fingers creeping into the gap, was chilling and smartly played. In the horror genre, it's often smarter to allude to the monsters lurking beyond than to bludgeon the viewers over the head with them.
In the comics, Rick stumbles into the zombies largely out of necessity to the story--the comic book format just isn't large enough to allow for the slower pacing television affords. You've got to quickly get to the nitty-gritty and propel the story forward. I certainly have no complaints with how Kirkman handled his story, largely because Grimes is an everyman. He is slow to grasp the changed realities, simply because the reality is so far-fetched. The readers are lulled into a false-sense of security with Rick, and it's a delight to see the monsters beyond the door.
However if Darabont simply copied it he would have been doing the material a disservice. While it works in Kirkman's story, crafting a comic adaptation often requires a subtler approach to create a believable world. In slowly unveiling the undead and reintegrating Rick Grimes into this devastated world, Darabont creates a bit of mystery to the proceedings and further establishes the dark tone of the series. It generates tension for the viewer by introducing the concept of these monsters, that they are dangerous, something to be feared and shied away from, priming the audience for their unveiling. Thankfully, the reveal doesn't happen in the time or place you expect it to.
Morgan and Duane
Morgan and his son Duane get a bit of a face-lift for the series opener. In Kirkman's first issue, they are only briefly seen and their relationship with Rick is more easy-going and good-natured in comparison to what's depicted onscreen.
The TV counterparts are initially more hostile and distrustful, having been deeply traumatized by recent events. They see Rick's gunshot wound and immediately fear the worst, but quickly grow to trust him. Darabont invests these characters with more depth than Kirkman's brief spell with them, and we get to know them in greater detail. Duane still have a child's sense of adventure regarding the apocalypse, but cracks begin to show and we start to see how deeply affected he is as he grapples with losing his mother. Morgan's friendly nature in the comics is tempered here with an unflinching survivalist instinct, giving little thought to the outright killing of zombies after suffering the loss of his wife. In the comics, he is more reserved and actually stops Rick from killing the zombified officer outside the Sheriff's Department, warning him that more zombies will be attracted by the gunfire. There's a deeper fatalism to the television character, and when he and Rick part ways, Morgan is trying to muster up the courage to kill his undead wife.
It's hard to say what Darabont and company have in store for Morgan this early in the game. In the comics, Rick and Morgan eventually reunite, albeit not at all under happy circumstances. Darabont takes the time to craft a more nuanced and expanded version of Morgan that indicates he may have a larger role to play in the future. He could have easily been introduced as a stock element that helps Rick learn the ways of life after the apocalypse and forgotten about. Given the amount of screen time that's dedicated to establishing Morgan and his son, and developing a relationship between the three, it's quite possible he's the first real wild-card Darabont is introducing in establishing his series as being different from Kirkman's. It's also possible that Morgan may end up being an amalgamation of another character, Tyreese, who is introduced later in the comic's mythology and forms a close friendship with Grimes.
On the other hand, The Walking Dead has always been about the characters. The zombie threat is usually more of a MacGuffin for the larger story at work. While they act as an omnipresent threat, the real focus is on the interplay between characters, how they react, cope, and survive with the assaults and pressures of life in the aftermath. While Morgan is likely to reappear in the future, as he did in the comics, it's more likely that he serves as a reflection of the new order, and is simply an instructor to Rick and the viewers on what the world is now like and the cost of survival.
The last big change in the adaptation is the handling of Rick's venture into Atlanta and the discovery of an abandoned tank. While Rick becomes trapped by a zombie horde and loses his horse in the comics, the tank itself is more of a background figure than a vital staging element. He's able to fend for himself pretty capably and ends up retreating down an alley, escaping with the help of another survivor.
On TV, Rick loses the horse and escapes under a tank left behind by the military. The zombies are hungry and give chase. Rick is able to shoot several of them before finding a hatch and pulling himself up into the body of the tank, killing an ex-soldier turned zombie. Then a voice calls over the radio, chiding him for picking such a lousy hiding spot.
It's interesting that the pilot repeatedly shows the failures of the military to contain the outbreak and hammers home the futility of what the survivors are truly up against. It's also a remarkable deviation from the comic book, which rarely dwelt on the role of the military and its shortcomings during the crisis. The military response, and its ultimate failure, is more keenly depicted in the adaptation, serving as actual set pieces for the action, rather than notable images within the scenery.
A synopsis of the remainder of this six-episode season was recently issued by AMC, and it indicates that the CDC will play a role of some kind heading towards the season finale. It begs the question, given the groundwork that's being laid with these brief reminders of military losses against the undead, if Darabont's characters will be seeking answers about the outbreak. The CDC itself was never a focus in Kirkman's original arc, with the focus limited mostly to Rick finding his family and confronting Shane. Nobody seems to know what caused the outbreak, and none have been desperate to find an answer since safety and shelter are the more immediate concerns. The question, however, is certainly a valid and natural one. It makes sense that the survivors would want to know how and why their world has changed so dramatically.
The Bottom Line
Kirkman's comic is one of the more compelling and consistently well-told comics on the market. Based off the pilot episode, it appears that Darabont and AMC look to maintain that tradition, crafting this adaptation with exquisite care, unafraid to shy away from the dark tones, violence, and adult themes that permeate Kirkman's work. They are also unafraid to experiment, as new characters created solely for this series will be introduced in upcoming episodes, and by giving established characters greater depth. Kirkman's comics may serve as a road-map, but Darabont has been able to take some (thus far) minor, but well-earned, detours along the way, showing us some new sights while further mapping out the terrain. What remains to be seen is how sacred the source material will be as the series progresses and establishes it's own story-telling methods, not only in plotting out the season-long story arcs, but also in character development. Kirkman is certainly not shy about killing off or maiming cast members when it suits him. Only time will tell just how safe--or unsafe--their TV counterparts will be.