These days I spend a lot of time thinking about adaptations. More and more movies and television shows are drawing inspiration from the printed page — and when it comes to comic book adaptations, the waters get murkier. How faithful should they be to their source material? How faithful CAN they be? Years of continuity combined with fan expectations and the possibility of an expensive (or inadequate) SFX budget can make any comic book adaptation a challenge.
Shows like Legion and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. found an arguably successful formula by taking a single character or organization and creating a wholly new story around them. They had ties to the larger extended universes, but they were ultimately treated as solitary offshoots. Marvel’s Netflix offerings and The CW’s DC shows form their own little universes, tackling bigger comic characters and setting them up in relation to others on their network/platform. They draw heavily from the comics, but rearrange the elements into their own tapestries. The heroes contend with their canonical villains, for example, but their relationships with other comic characters aren’t necessarily derived from the source material. The Flash may have its own “Flashpoint” event, but it’s not a straight adaptation of the comic event. And then there is something like Preacher, which takes characters and themes from the graphic novel and blows them all up into something that feels native to the medium of television (it’s not always successful in its choices, but it’s certainly admirable in its experimentation).
Which brings me to Marvel’s latest offering, and its first show on Netflix’s competitor Hulu: Runaways. It’s a good show, but more than that — it’s a VERY GOOD adaptation. It’s faithful to the comics, but not slavishly so. Like Jessica Jones before it, Runaways has the benefit of being based on a fairly new, fairly self-contained series of comics. There isn’t a whole lot of comic book history to reconcile in bringing it to the screen, and since it barely referenced the larger Marvel universe on the page, it doesn’t have to bend over backward to fit into the MCU. And most importantly, the comics always read like they were their own genre. If Alias (on which Jessica Jones was based) was a private-eye/noir tale, then Runaways, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, was a teen soap. The O.C. with superpowers.
Which is funny, because Runaways was adapted for the screen by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, whose previous credits include Gossip Girl and The O.C. — and they clearly took the lessons they learned from those series and applied them here. The elevator pitch for Runaways is simple: “What if you found out that your parents actually are evil?” While the comics focused on the titular group of teenage runaways, with their raging hormones and confusion and naïveté, the show places equal importance on their parents. No really: The second episode is basically a direct re-telling of the first episode, but from the parents’ point of view. And just like Gossip Girl or The O.C., it turns out that the parents are just as hormonal and complex as the kids!
By developing the stories of the parents alongside the introduction of the kids, the show starts at a more leisurely pace than the raring-to-go comics. It’s a trade off, but one that works because of the cast. The Runaways are pitch-perfect: Rhenzy Feliz as Alex Wilder, Lyrica Okano as the brooding Nico Minoru, Virginia Gardner as Karolina Dean, Ariela Barer as Gert Yorkes, Gregg Sulkin as Chase Stein, and Allegra Acosta as the youngest of the group, Molly Hernandez. And though the parents are portrayed differently than in the comics, they are also brilliantly cast, from Kip Pardue as Karolina’s washed up actor father to James Marsters as Chase’s abusive genius dad, and Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh the crunchy, over-sharing Yorkes. They are all privileged pinnacles of sun-drenched Los Angeles society — inventors and real estate moguls, even the heads of a trendy new religion — and they secretly come together as some sort of red-robed, human-sacrificing cult. The comics never hesitated to call them super villains, each with their own distinct superpower, but the show’s version of their mysterious group isn’t quite as clear cut. Or at least it isn’t just yet.
Molly has gone through the greatest change from page to screen, and I’m not just talking about her last name (she was Molly Hayes in the comics). She’s been aged up slightly, which works well — she’s less of a brat, but still a very innocent character. In this version she is an orphan, who has been adopted into the Yorkes’s household after an accident killed her parents (who it appears were also a part of the parental cult). Nico has also been given an older sister who died mysteriously a few years before, leading to the fracturing of the friendship between the kids. The important thing is that the changes likely won’t distract fans of the comics — they are intelligently executed, in service of deepening the story and teasing out the potential that was already there. The rest is reassuringly faithful to the original.
And though I’m calling it a teen soap, don’t let that confuse you — it’s still very much a Marvel show, with superpowers, secrets, and weirdness galore. A girl develops super strength. Another girl makes it snow indoors. There are x-ray goggles and secret lairs. And then there’s that dinosaur…
THE DINOSAUR IS AMAZING, YA’LL.
Hulu posted the first four episodes as screeners for press, and I believe the first three episodes will be available to watch when the series launches on November 21st. The good news is, I’m hooked. The bad news is, the story doesn’t progress as much as I would have expected in nearly 4 hours of screen time. All that set-up, proficient and interesting as it is, is at the expense of the action. And with all those moving parts, it’s natural that a few corners are cut in terms of the finer details (seriously — who would build a secret passageway and have it triggered by a set of coasters… OBJECTS THAT ARE MADE TO BE USED BY STRANGERS?). But despite the slow pace, the show is a confident and well-balanced piece of work. It knows where it’s going, and it’s got a hell of a great template to draw from. I just hope viewers are willing to stick with it as it ramps up to a full run.