Welcome back, Pagerinos, to the internet’s favourite blog about a podcast about Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind.
Jeremy here, as ever. Now, if you’re a SFF (sci-fi fantasy) geek, you’re probably already aware that last weekend, Netflix dropped it’s latest sci-fi offering, Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk thriller based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. I’m a huge fan of that book as well, so I thought it was worth taking a look at how that show went about adapting a complex, sprawling world for TV, and what lessons and warnings it could offer for those adapting The Kingkiller Chronicle.
(At the time of writing, I have seen only the first four episodes of Altered Carbon. I have read the whole book though, so … possible spoilers ahoy.) I was pretty stoked for this show – dark, violent, morally-compromised sci-fi noir is the jammiest of my jams. But the first few episodes of the show left me lukewarm.
The good: Altered Carbon is very pretty, and rarely feels cheap. The cast is stacked with good actors: Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Byron Mann, and Renee Elise Goldberry in particular are all playing the heck out of their parts. And the show raises some interesting questions about who gets to live forever, and why. How does your relationship to a person change when they come back to you in someone else’s body – or when their body comes back to you in someone else’s brain? (For example, Detective Ortega downloads her sweet ol’ granny’s mind into the body of a cracked-out criminal so they can spend Dia de los Muertos together – a conceit the show has a lot of fun with.)
Some parts of the show feel familiar, and not in the good way. There are scenes that I have seen done to death in the exact same way. (The kids hiding behind the louvered closet doors while Dad beats Mom … I played that scene in Wolfenstein II for God’s sake.) The traumatized hero who wakes up from a coma and attacks the people waking him up. Even the very impressive visuals are lifted from Blade Runner pretty much verbatim. Other parts of the show just seem clumsy – the first two episodes in particular are laden with a great deal of heavy-handed exposition (admittedly, there’s a lot about this world that you need to get your reader up to speed on) and at least two different voice-over narrators, plus the cliche of having several long-dead loved ones appear as ghost-hallucinations. And then of course, there’s the stuff that just needles me as a fan of the books, like the backstory that got needlessly shuffled around.
Feeling a little let down, I spent last night reading through the opening chapters of the book, which covers a lot of the same ground. The book … does not feel familiar. It dispenses with cliche entirely (no kids in closets) or puts a fun twist on the cliche – our hero, Kovacs, wakes up calm and laconic, no muss, no fuss – which is part of his character – the cool, dispassionate, takes-everything-in Envoy. The exposition is delivered in an engaging voice, and doled out in parcels that make sense. It’s bizarre to me, frankly, that the show ended up the way it did, since producer Laeta Kalogridis, clearly has a passion for the material, since she’s been trying to get it made for years.
So what does all of this have to do with The Kingkiller Chronicle and it’s media adaptation? Altered Carbon is an object lesson in what can go wrong, even when a thing is adapted by someone whose heart is in the right place. When there’s so much money attached to a project, there’s a real concern that originality will be sacrificed on the altar of ‘accessibility’. So many of the things that make Altered Carbon (the book) a deep, rich, satisfying experience are not present in the show, or present in a much diluted form. The end result is a somewhat rote sci-fi thriller – not bad, but not what it could have been. I would hate to see a Kingkiller adaptation leached of the subversiveness and detail that makes this series such a joy.
Hopefully Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Rogers won’t commit those grievous sins. Or else a pack of howling Rothfuss devotees might tear them to shreds in the middle of the street.