The franchising of “Le Transperceneige”
Written in 1982 the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”- or “The Escape” as it later became known- has gone on to spawn quite the franchise. The post-apocalyptic story was set aboard a train permanently circling the earth following a freeze that made it impossible for humans to inhabit the world. In 2013 it was made into a feature film by famed Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho and has since gone on to be made into a TV series now streaming on Netflix.Aboard the train life is driven along class lines; those living in first class living in high end luxury and so on down to those living in the tail of the train who exist with few rights in abject poverty, repressed and subject to violence and injustice. Up at the front of the train the wealthy live a high end life; all gilt trimmings and Instagrammable looking meals. At the back there’s barely a crumb to eat and continual fear and violence. Political tensions simmer, revolt is brewing. The consequences of which are brutal. All whilst the train continues in perpetual motion, circling the earth. So far, so much crossover.
Same, same but different
But from here on in comes a difference. Translating an established and revered work to another medium is always going to be tricky (after all why cover a piece of music just to do it the same way) and the TV series makes a departure that really works given this. The main narrative thrust focuses on the character Layton- a “tailie” living in the lowest class, back carriage- who happens to be the only homicide detective still on earth. Following a murder further up the train he’s recruited to assist in solving it. In many ways this makes for a good departure from the film’s structure. It’s an exciting and refreshing change of slant on a similar world for one. It also amps up the noir values of the premise, a genre that works well with the world created and a nod to the heritage between noir cinema and anti-capitalist critique historically. What’s more the device allows us to journey into the train and discover different characters, sub plots and relationships at a more suitable pace and through the eyes of the protagonist much of the time. But it is also the show’s drawback. The film was fairly self contained and as a result packed a punch, the metaphor and the narrative were closely linked. However the meandering nature of the detective story line run across the same world detracts from the overall metaphor and the critiques being made. The two becoming a bit incidental to each other.
The Netflix interpretation
There is much to admire in the TV show. The world we’re presented with is richly textured and detailed; systems of justice and division are illustrated in close detail. We’re able to see more details and insight into the different groups and classes that co-exist. Family and romantic relationship dynamics are examined closely. The cinematography and production values are in line with what we’re all coming to expect from ambitious TV series. And some of the performances are particularly stand out, such as those by Jennifer Connelly and David Diggs. Alison Wright also creates a dark character, with a nod to Tilda Swinton’s equivalent in the 2013 version. The narrative provides twists and turns with an ending that comes as surprise and distinct from the film. But there are problems with the adaptation.
Timing of release feels too close to home
Interestingly the timing of the show’s release doesn’t work in its favour. Arguably it should match up- the concept of being cooped up in a confined space, the end of the world. The climate change setting is incredibly timely. But somehow this doesn’t work. Perhaps because after so many months of lockdown the last thing many people will want to see is anything that reminds them of the reality they’ve been living; fiction and television should in some ways act as an escape. The picture of inequality also sits strangely; critiquing capitalism and the huge divides that exist in our society are something of a given. When we consider that we’re living in a time of ever increasing divide and the fact that the pandemic has thrown up the intricate nature of divide in the world, the metaphor starts to feel crude. The world they’ve created is more of a fact than subversive. As a result some of the violence and flourishes of detail can come across a bit cartoonish and grotesque. Trying to shock for shock value, but without really shocking. In part this reflects the fact that the TV show has been a long time coming; it sat in development limbo for many years. The film only got a UK release last year. It is something of a timely artefact that by misfortune is no longer that timely. The TV series makes for an enjoyable watch but by diluting the ideas in it it loses a lot of what gave the film power in the first place.