Spoilers: The Smartest Changes 'The Umbrella Academy' Made To Its Source Material
We’ve already talked about Netflix’s latest superhero joint, The Umbrella Academy (in a nutshell: It’s fun!), but what we didn’t discuss was just how faithfully the show stuck to award-winning comics it’s based on — or how far it diverged from its source material as it made its way onto our screens. So… let’s remedy that now, with this handy-dandy guide to the smartest changes the show made in adapting the comic, as determined by me!
But first, some general background: The overarching plot for season one of the show is based on the first arc of the Dark Horse Comics series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. That six-issue arc, called “Apocalypse Suite,” deals with the Hargreeves siblings coming together for their father’s funeral, the return of Number Five from the future, and the release of Vanya’s apocalyptically-destructive powers. However, the show also mixes in select plot points from the second arc of the comics (called “Dallas”), including everything involving Hazel and Cha-Cha and the details of Number Five’s involvement with that temporal monitoring agency (mostly called the Commission in the show, but known as the Temps Aeternalis in the comics). Other elements, like Klaus going to heaven or to Vietnam, are also inspired by this arc in the comics, though they play out very differently in the show.
But even with two story arcs to draw from, the Netflix series still tosses in plenty of original elements of its own. There are a ton of flashbacks that fill in what their childhoods were like in the Umbrella Academy, and provide depth to the various interpersonal relationships on the show. And part of the reason that’s necessary is because the comics, for all their madcap logic and seat-of-their-pants flow, simply wouldn’t translate to the screen as-is. Reasoning we accept on the page would stump us in a show, and vice versa — as viewers we expect a certain amount of justification behind actions that we wouldn’t otherwise question in the pages of a comic. The series had to thread a very specific needle, trying to recreate a semblance of the comic’s eccentricity while also grounding the story in, if not exactly reality, then at least a world that follows a logic we recognize.
And most of the smartest changes The Umbrella Academy made stem from this exact challenge: finding ways to ground the apocalyptic proceedings that manage to enhance the story, rather than de-fanging it. What am I talking about? Well…
Vanya & Leonard vs. The White Violin & The Conductor
In the comics, like the show, Vanya is the cause of the apocalypse that Number Five has returned to prevent. She has vast sound-related powers that were suppressed when she was a child, so she grew up feeling like an outcast from her own family precisely because she was supposedly normal. But how she comes into her powers, and how she goes on her rampage, happens a little differently. In the comics, a mysterious figure named The Conductor invites Vanya to join his Orchestra Verdammten in their world-ending performance of his “Apocalypse Suite.” And when she finally accepts his offer, The Conductor performs a bunch of weird science on her to release her powers and transform her into The White Violin (literally — she becomes pasty white with the markings of a violin on her body).
[It should be noted that the Hargreeves all have superhero names that are used frequently in the comics, but are only passingly referenced if at all in the show.]
Vanya, in return, uses her powers to kill The Conductor and takes over his orchestra, and decides for herself to continue his plans for destruction. But in the show, Vanya (Ellen Page) has a different figure pushing her toward her transformation: Leonard Peabody (John Magaro). Leonard hires Vanya as a violin teacher, only to slowly woo her — preying on her desire to be accepted and loved. The big reveal is that Leonard is in fact a deranged former Umbrella Academy fanboy named Harold Jenkins. Harold was coincidentally born on the same day as the siblings, but his was not a special birth. Looking to escape his abusive father, Harold had gone to the Hargreeves home to try and join the Academy, only to be harshly rejected by Reginald. Harold then kills his father, goes to prison for while, and emerges with a new identity. His obsession with the Umbrella Academy has soured over the years, and when he picks up Reginald’s diary from the trash (where Klaus threw it away) he learns all the family’s secrets — including the fact that Vanya harbors a terrifying power. He follows the notes in the diary in order to slowly awaken Vanya’s powers, using her as a surrogate for his own thwarted dreams. And when Vanya finally realizes the extent of Leonard’s lies and manipulations… she kills him, and proceeds to go off the rails.
In broad strokes, the comics and the show handle Vanya’s turn to villainy similarly. Vanya does slice Allison’s vocal cords, and kills Pogo, and there is a showdown at the Icarus Theater while moon-chunks rain down on Earth. She even turns a little pasty, too — though the show puts Page in a white tux rather than white body paint. But what the show did via Vanya’s relationship with Leonard was explore the depths of her alienation and her desire for love and acceptance. The end results may have been the same, but Vanya’s journey in the show is more sympathetic — and its impact leaves her whole family complicit.
Klaus, His Powers, And That Explosive Climax
Other than Vanya, the sibling that changed the most in the jump from page to screen was probably Klaus (Robert Sheehan). Called “The Séance” in the comics, Klaus has pretty much the same powers that you’d expect: he can channel the dead. Oh, but also he floats and can possess people? In fact, there’s a thread of telekinesis present in Klaus’s power set that we don’t really see in the show at all. It comes to a head in the climax of the first arc, when Klaus very nearly saves the day by channeling some distracting spirits, only to ACTUALLY save the day when he uses his brain mojo to stop the chunks of the moon that are falling down to Earth. By contrast, in the show his powers are limited solely to the whole “channeling the dead” arena — though it is true that he’s far more powerful within that arena than is apparent at the outset.
Most of his character arc in the show is consumed by his struggles with sobriety — something that is an almost offhand character detail in the comics. The series explores the fact that he’s driven to numb himself by his fear of the dead, and that his only escape from being literally haunted 24/7 is through drugs and alcohol. A trip to the past leaves him with the pain of his first lost love, and the inspiration to try and maybe be a better person — and as he starts to clean up his act, he also starts learning how to control his powers. It turns out that he isn’t just able to speak to the dead. He can also manifest them in the physical plane. And here’s where I’m going to jump to what is probably my favorite change the show made…
Ben Is The Goddamn Best
In the comics, sibling number six is just a thing of the past — an unfortunate sacrifice in Reginald’s mission to create a super-team. Dubbed “The Horror,” Ben Hargreaves was a very nice boy with a very nasty set of tentacles that could burst out of his torso and wreak havoc on evil doers at will. The show chose to flesh out the lost Hargreeves child by actually including him at all. And to do that, they made him the spirit that follows Klaus around the most.
Ben (Justin H. Min) sometimes acts as Klaus’s conscience, and other times as his confidant. He scolds his brother, and sympathizes with him, and perhaps by seeing how Ben treats his brother, we as viewers begin to offer Klaus the benefit of the doubt as well. Sure, he’s a screw up — but he has his reasons, and Ben has been witness to all of them. Mostly, though, Ben is just a figment hanging around in the background, smirking at all his siblings’ drama. And for most of the season, that’s all his character amounts to — just a simple sight gag. But as Klaus begins to sober up, a funny thing happens: he manifests Ben in times of need. When he can’t rescue Diego from falling debris, Ben pulls them to safety. And during the showdown in the Icarus Theater, when Luther, Allison, Diego and Five are cornered by the time assassins, Klaus saves them all by manifesting Ben — who then unleashes his tentacles all over the place.
Not only is this particular growth of Klaus’s power set exciting, but it also promises a potential superhero team-up between Klaus and Ben in season two. And even though Klaus didn’t have the telekinesis to stop the exploded moon chunks in the show, at least Five was around to transport all his siblings to another time instead.
This is a seemingly minor change that could have a big impact when/if the show returns. In the comics, Five shoots Vanya in the head to stop her during the theater showdown. And though she doesn’t die, she does lose her memories — meaning she doesn’t really remember what she did (particularly to Allison). In the show, Vanya hurts Allison before the big showdown, and Allison recovers enough to continue trying to save her sister (even going against Luther, who is not ready to forgive Vanya for hurting the woman he loves). Overall, the dynamic between the sisters is built up far more in the show than in the comic, and the payoff is that it’s Allison who pulls the trigger to stop Vanya — and, crucially, Allison doesn’t actually shoot Vanya. She fires the gun next to her sister’s ear, which disrupts Vanya’s powers and knocks her out. Heading into season two, there’s every possibility that Vanya will wake up in possession of her powers AND her memories, which could be a huge divergence from the source material.
Hazel And Cha-Cha, And All Things Temps Aeternalis
Ben wasn’t the only character that got fleshed out in the show. Hazel and Cha-Cha were nothing more than a pair of ultra-violent, sugar-loving hitmen in the comics, and they certainly never took those cartoon helmets off. The show not only gender-flipped Cha-Cha when they cast Mary J. Blige in the role, but also used the pair to introduce the bureaucratic quagmire of the Temps Aeternalis, that pivotal temporal monitoring agency that wants to kill and/or re-hire Number Five. And in general, the particulars of the agency’s faulty management do bear more weight in the show than in the comics (especially when it comes to Kate Walsh’s role as The Handler), but that’s not the only purpose Hazel and Cha-Cha serve. They start off as a threat and a plot device, tangling with the various Hargreeves as they pursue Five, all while complaining about their accommodations and per diems. But slowly their partnership itself becomes a plot thread, as Hazel falls in love with the donut lady and tries to convince Cha-Cha to abandon their mission to protect the apocalypse and try to stop it instead. Eventually Five sends each of them fake instructions to assassinate the other, and we watch them each weigh their jobs against their relationship with each other.
Hazel and Cha-Cha also offer a handy insight into Number Five, who used to be a deadly agent tasked with defending the proper timeline just like them. They are the by-the-books operatives who are almost, but not quite, as good as Number Five used to be — and seeing them at work is like witnessing Five’s own lost past (or… future? Time, amirite?). And while sometimes their storyline felt like more of a distraction from the main events than was really necessary, overall I think the show was better for it. Without Hazel and Cha-Cha, the show would never have a reason to look away from the Hargreeves siblings at all — and it needed to, for us to get a sense of the stakes at play.
The Umbrella Academy managed to be faithful to the comics while building on them in smart and exciting ways, creating something that is at the same time fresh and familiar. And though this is hardly an exhaustive list of all the ways the show diverged from its source material, I think these are probably the biggest ones — and certainly the ones that’ll leave the biggest impacts as the show moves forward.
Header Image Source: Netflix