A Walking Dead comparison: AMC’s TV series vs. the original Graphic Novel

Yes, the incredibly popular TV show is back…

don't dead open inside

And while there are probably quite a few people who’ve watched every episode of the show AND read compendiums 1 & 2 of the comic, there don’t seem to be that many people writing about both of them. Which I guess isn’t that unusual, since each compendium is over 1,000 pages long, and devotees of the comic may be unwilling to watch the watered-down TV version.

I’m the first to admit that the TV show is terrifying. Well, maybe not so much anymore…although the mid-season finale, when the prison was finally overrun, injected some much-needed liveliness back into the show. But. The show started off as terrifying. It sort of reminded me of Dexter, in a way, because the idea behind the series was just so shocking. That first episode, along with the season 2 opener when the group is stranded on the highway and the herd of zombies comes through, is still my favorite.

walking dead herd

The main point of the graphic novel–and I’m not making any sort of clever argument about this since it’s explicitly stated numerous times throughout the book–is that the term “walkers” doesn’t apply to the zombies. Rather, it is the living people who are the “walking dead.” This is illustrated cleverly on the covers of both compendium 1 and 2. Heroes on the top, zombies on the bottom, with only a narrow slice of darkness between them. Walking-Dead-Compendium-2

In the TV show, threats are more ambiguous, and hope rules the day. Yes, the living people are dangerous (hello, Governor), but the zombies are still very, very much a threat.

zombies fence

Remember all the fuss about the fences coming down? In the graphic novel, Rick and his group of, well, essentially assassins, would have had no trouble dispensing of 50 zombies between them. The real threat, as Rick succinctly says, is people.

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Which brings me to a couple of the key differences between the comic & the TV show. The comic is in black & white. But don’t think that means it’s not scary. If anything, the complete lack of color re-emphasizes how bleak the world is. I realize it wouldn’t have been realistic to film the TV show in b&w; it simply wouldn’t have done as well. But bloody makeup and special effects aside, the zombies in the graphic novel are often more terrifying even though they’re not “3D.”

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This page from compendium 2 should give you a sense of the overall aesthetic. It’s grim, void of mercy or hope. The pacing of the graphic novel is also much, much faster than the TV show. Sometimes a couple of pages contain enough material for an entire episode. Granted, sometimes stretching out a scene makes things more tense. But in the graphic novel all bets are off. No one is safe. People are not kept around because they’re likable…they have to earn their right to live by becoming very effective survivors–a.k.a., killers.

I won’t go into the plot differences between the TV show and the book as they are too numerous to discuss. And really, most of the plot changes I completely agree with. You might have heard that the televised version of The Governor is tame compared to the comic counterpart, and it’s true. But the decision to cast a middle-aged man, sort of a Southern gentleman gone bad, was an interesting one.

But what about that key metric that is always used to judge film adaptations? I.e., faithfulness. Is the TV series faithful to the graphic novel?

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Well…yes and no. The above quote is pretty much the thesis of the graphic novel: once society collapsed, many people simply lost their humanity. The real tragedy wasn’t zombies; it was how people abandoned all pretense of goodness, reverted to their baser instincts, and came unhinged.

Is this “unhinging” depicted in the show? To some extent. You see that characters are driven crazy by their surroundings and by grief. But that thin slice of madness–the suggestion that anyone, at any time, could completely lose it–well, I’m not sure the show is as convincing in that regard.

There are also no answers in the graphic novel. The whole Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plot in season one of the show? Doesn’t exist in the comic. The concept of “trust” no longer exists. There’s an intense sense of claustrophobia, almost like you’re watching that horrible reality television show “Big Brother.” It’s a study of the human psyche–how far can people be pushed before they lose it?

The harrowing telephone call sequence is the closest in feel that the TV show ever got to the graphic novel. Is Rick going crazy? Who is he talking to? Is this a nightmare from which he will wake up?

rick-grimes-the-walking-dead-phone

The answer–in the comic–is ultimately, no. You don’t get to wake up. There’s always another horror lurking on the next page. So while the show is bloody and gory and full of machetes and crossbows, it only captures a fraction of the hopelessness that is the graphic novel.

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5 thoughts on “A Walking Dead comparison: AMC’s TV series vs. the original Graphic Novel

  1. This is really spot on and well-written. I gave up on the show a while ago largely because it never captured the truly grim atmosphere of the comic, while at the same time never really developing its own identity. I’ve heard good things about season 4 that might merit a revisit though, but I’m still wary.

    Funnily enough, I haven’t read the comic in a while precisely because its sense of hopelessness and despair is so convincing and overwhelming. It all became more than I wanted to deal with on a regular basis.

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment! Glad you liked my review of the comic & TV show. The series is definitely more hopeful than the comic, which makes sense from a purely marketing standpoint (completely depressing film & television usually aren’t widely appealing, but something with a grim “twist” is fine).
      Yeah, reading the first compendium was really tough. I had zombie nightmares every night, ha! I think I had become a bit more used to it (i.e., jaded) by the time I got my hands on compendium two, because the nightmares were far less frequent. I think that House, MD is the other significant bit of pop culture that made me feel that depressed on a regular basis.

  2. Great analysis. I love reading intelligent critiques of pop culture. I’ve never read the comics, but I tried the show. I watched about halfway into season two before I gave up in disgust. I found the obsession with “doing the right thing” and “hope” and what not completely bogus. I didn’t buy it. What I would expect from a zombie apocalypse is, as you put it… “once society collapsed, many people simply lost their humanity. The real tragedy wasn’t zombies; it was how people abandoned all pretense of goodness, reverted to their baser instincts, and came unhinged.” I think the tv show (at least so far as I watched it) lacks any real punch because it’s unrealistic. They capture the horror and details of the zombie’s so well, but they fall short on their depictions on humans. They make the loss of humanity an exception and the heroes of the show (at least the ever so annoying Rick) have this weird, baseless (no religion, no philosophy, nothing that explains why) set of “morals” for how to conduct themselves and survive.

    1. Ah, well I’m afraid I can’t really recommend the comic to you either, then. I agree that TV Rick can be very annoying at times, but believe it or not, he’s slightly more multidimensional in the show than he is in the comics. His “morality” in the book is explained as rising from the biological/evolutionary/basic-and-can’t-be-argued-with desire to protect his family. He sort of goes into survival mode, which limits his capacity to reason, and that kiiiind of makes sense. What’s more interesting in the comic is that Rick’s a much, much more unreliable character, so when he goes off on one of his “leadership rants,” they aren’t reassuring–rather, one wonders if he’s a complete lunatic. There’s also no omnipotent narrator in the comics; you just move through the story “as is.” So really, there aren’t many hints about what’s going to happen. I realize there isn’t a narrator, so to speak, in the TV version, but somehow it doesn’t feel as claustrophobic and certainly not as chaotic & unpredictable. And everyone’s persistent humanity is simply assumed in the show.

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