Posts Tagged ‘Walking Dead’

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of 2CELLOS. Their particularly charismatic brand of classical pop song covers makes for a hugely energetic sound, and as my friend John pointed out, there’s something about the cello that gets you right in the gut. But this morning, listening to their cover of Kings of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’, I felt the penny drop.

These guys play music like Robert Kirkman writes zombies.

The Kirkman hypothesis

Robert Kirkman is the creator of The Walking Dead, the hugely successful Image comic that’s become a hugely successful TV show. As a comic, The Walking Dead doesn’t have the sales of the big X-men books or the latest take on Batman, but it does have something those comics don’t – sales growth. Most comic books see their biggest sales at the point of launch. Lots of curious readers pick up the first issue. Less of them bother with the second. Sales keep dropping off in a slow death slide, until the comic is cancelled or re-launched amid a blaze of publicity.

For years The Walking Dead was the only comic that defied this trend. Its sales kept growing as word of mouth spread about how great this book was. Its success was unprecedented.

I once read an analysis of The Walking Dead that argued that Kirkman’s success came not from creating something completely new, but from getting the right balance of the familiar and the novel.* Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic soap opera got readers because they saw something they knew they liked – zombies – and found within it something even more fascinating that they’d never have looked for. If he’d just given them the new thing no-one would have bought it. If he’d written just another zombie comic it would have suffered that familiar slow decline.

Kirkman’s comic kept growing because it found the perfect balance between the two.

Nothing is new

When I read that analysis my mind was blown. It made perfect sense, and it was something I could use as a writer – combine the familiar and the unfamiliar, draw readers in with something they know but keep them reading with something new.

I started seeing this pattern all around, in many of the best things I read, watched and listened to. Hence the 2CELLOS connection – songs I like (except Coldplay) played in a way I wouldn’t have looked for (including Coldplay, I never look for Coldplay).

But actually, what Kirkman achieved wasn’t all that new. Just take a look at The Lord of the Rings, a foundational text of the fantasy genre. Tolkien wanted to share his own wacky enthusiasm for detailed secondary worlds full of magic, mystery and invented languages. The familiar trappings of medieval Europe gave it an aura of familiarity that let people get drawn in and find enthusiasm for this new world.

Balancing acts

It’s an interesting exercise to consider as you’re reading. Think about what’s new in a book, what’s familiar, and what all of that is doing to your interest in the story. The right balance varies with the reader, and even their mood. Some days I want to watch Breaking Bad, some days I want to wrap myself in the comfortable tropes of Castle. Being aware of that balance has even helped me judge my own mental state.

As writers it’s a useful question to ask as we approach the page. What am I including that’s familiar, that will make people comfortable and draw them in? And what’s new, whether in content, style, or the way I mash elements together? Because that’s what will make the story interesting.

And in the meantime, here’s 2CELLOS doing unexpected things with a Greenday song. If you like this I recommend watching their Arena Pula gig on Youtube – an hour and a half of fantastic stuff.

 

* Apologies to whoever wrote that article, but it was years ago and I can’t even remember where I read it, never mind provide attribution. But hey, you probably aren’t reading this, so we should be OK.

I love a good adaptation. Whether it’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, seeing something I love on the screen, seeing how script writers, actors and directors turn those familiar elements into something new, it’s pretty exciting.

Tonight I’m off to see Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve written before about how powerful and skilfully written I think the books are, and I think that the first film did a good job of a potentially difficult transition from page to screen. But I’m going to see it with my friend John, whose criteria for judging adaptations are slightly different from mine. For John, as for many fans going to see stories they love, what matters is how faithfully it sticks to the original. For me that has a place but, more than with presenting the past on screen, what I’m really after is a film or TV show that can stand on its own two legs, inspired by the source rather than bound by it.

These two different attitudes to adaptation are where film and TV producers can get in trouble with their potential viewers. I think that the way Elizabeth is portrayed in the 1990s BBC Pride and Prejudice is fantastic, drawing out sympathy and contrasting with other characters. But I know that others feel she’s not as faithful to the book as she could be. And in the second season of Game of Thrones, I thought that putting Arya and Tywin Lannister together strengthened the narrative, but some people look at that and mutter about how it didn’t happen in the books.

You can never entirely please both sides.

The show that probably comes closest is The Walking Dead. They’ve taken a clever approach, one that probably only works because the original writer is involved and this gains the trust of fans. They’ve kept the characters and the scenario, as well as some of the story arcs, but thrown the detail of the narrative out of the window. In this way they’ve set their stall out from the beginning. They’re actually being more faithful to the unpredictably terrifying world of the comics by being less faithful to their storylines, and that works for fans both new and old.

Of course it’s an approach that wouldn’t work for a story like Game of Thrones, where that epic story is crucial, or a small, more contained work like Pride and Prejudice. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that seems to be paying off.

So what are your favourite adaptations? What works for you and what doesn’t? How do you judge their success? Leave a comment, let me know.