As it seemed befitting for this particular TV program, this article is a kind of hybrid review/feature about “Sweet Tooth’s” first season’s success as an adaptation, as well as a look into how it appears to confirm a trend in the modern TV landscape’s YA approach to comic-to-screen translations
Let’s get this out of the way; Jeff Lemire is my favorite creator in all the world. I will never forget seeing his drawing of that thin boy with antlers in a plaid shirt, chewing on a chocolate bar, atop the cover of “Sweet Tooth” #1 – an issue which was priced at 1.00$ the Wednesday I bought it off the racks at the comic store in which I would later work. Practically giving away the first issue of a new series for a dollar was a smart marketing idea DC’s (now sadly folded) Vertigo Comics imprint implemented after establishing its brand through quality series such as “Preacher,” “Unknown Soldier,” and “Y: the Last Man”; trying out a new book from Karen Berger’s publishing arm for just a buck was almost never a risk. Adapting the series for television however, seemed like another question to an over a decade long Lemire fan.
If an oversimplified logline for the comic could be “The Road” meets “Bambi,” then Netflix’s adaptation (developed by Jim Mickle) can better be described as “The Walking Dead” by way of “The Wizard of Oz.” In tone, the show steers closer to Lemony Snicket than Cormac McCarthy, feeling less George Miller than Tim Burton, having more in common with the streaming service’s expansive adaptation of Daniel Handler’s middle-grade book series than films directed by David Lynch or the aforementioned Miller, which heavily influenced Lemire (this is not a value judgement, merely an observation of a vast change in the creative approach). So as not to personally succumb to “how dare they change that!” syndrome, I deliberately stopped my re-read of the comic after the second arc. After finishing the season, I plan to do detailed recaps going through the changes and finding Easter Eggs (see how many times can you spot “Essex County”)
For those unfamiliar with the story, “Sweet Tooth” follows a boy named Gus (Christian Convery), a half-deer/half-human hybrid raised in the words by his Father “Pubba” (Will Forte), cut off from humanity for all of his childhood. Unbeknownst to Gus, an event referred to as “The Great Crumble” occurred about a decade before our series’ main narrative begins (the show being narrated by James Brolin, who reads the not quite a fairy tale bedtime story like a mesh of John Goodman and Johnny Cash). After crossing paths with an intimidating hunter-type named Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie, stealing the show with a phenomenal performance), Gus learns that his father has kept many truths from him and soon ventures out into the world in pursuit of his mysterious mother, Birdie, whom he has never met and only has a single photograph of.
Jepperd warns Gus – whom he affectionately nicknames Sweet Tooth, after discovering the boy has a fondness for candy bars – that his kind are hunted, experimented on, and killed by the humans that still live because animal-hybrid children are now born in their stead. Most humans have died from the post-Crumble virus, but they can’t explain why some don’t seem effected. But brave, boundless Gus will not be deterred. The “Call to Adventure” approach the show takes is different from what sets off the pair’s journey in the comic. Expanding the cast and scope of the series’ world early much like AMC’s “Preacher” did, the first season of Netflix’s show is essentially a sweeping prologue which sets the worldbuilding pieces into place, setting the stage far faster than the source material (in which we effectively only see the world through Gus and Jepperd’s eyes throughout the first 2 storylines). Singular subjectivity has been sadly tossed aside in favor of contemporary accessibility, as revealed via the third major character to appear in the comics, Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who has a beefed up role in the show.
Arguably the most major difference between the show’s world and comic’s is the state of society after “The Great Crumble.” As opposed to Lemire’s story, in which the organized world has all but collapsed, there is still some semblance of a society left in Mickle’s show, the TV series adding a character and plotline by giving Dr. Singh a wife who is infected with the virus which wiped out most of the planet, Rani (Aliza Vellani). This adds a curious COVID-19 meets “The Good Place” angle to the show, neighbors awkwardly throwing parties through politesse but having masks at the ready in case anyone displays virus symptoms, as another outbreak may be coming. Entirely understandable given the world we now live in, “Sweet Tooth’s” original world has certainly been molded to a post-pandemic aware culture, mask at the dinner table jokes finding their way into the show as early as Episode 2. It can get a little grating given how obvious it often seems, but the show wisely pokes fun at those elements as well.
By the opening of the third episode a – “Ready Player One” mixed with “The Hunger Games”-esque character introduction of Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), founder/leader of a wilderness activist group called the “Animal Army” who protect hybrids from “the Last Men,” (more on this term later), it should be firmly apparent that Netflix’s series opted to take the currently popular Young Adult Novel approach/anime & manga craze in its adaptation process. In the comic, Gus’s first real introduction to a group of common people in the outside world is a not-quite abandoned rural whorehouse, where fake hybrids are sold as a fetish. Gus does not react well. The Netflix show trades this in for an isolated family running/living in ski-lift shop, who take Gus and the Big Man in for the night. This juxtaposition/disparity is perhaps the most glaring example of the vast difference in tonal narrative approach – the show tweaked to be better suited for younger audiences (again, not a value criticism; merely an important observation, I think). A play date where Gus listens to records for this first time is one of the boy’s initial societal encounters, not sleazy men taking advantage of sex worker’s in order to survive.
A lot less narratively brutal than a comic designed for mature readers means the twists and character turns have a lot less bite, but the show is also going for a much different taste; the minimalist, yet poetic miserablism of the source material being traded in for mythical possibility, lessening the road tragedy aspects in favor of being a “fairy tales aren’t what you think, though sometimes they can be” yarn for younger teens (the press notes for the series cite the show as being made for the whole family, which the comic most certainly is not). A potential issue with this however, is the overwhelming state of similarly marketed genre stories being targeted at a similar demographic. In a world that literally cannot keep up with teenagers voracious demand for more manga/anime, as well as the evolution of post-apocalyptic sci-fi in the YA market, a number of programs have started to walk over similar territory. Amazon Prime has an upcoming adaption of the popular series “The Promised Neverland,” a narrative one might compare to what it appears “Sweet Tooth” the TV show’s tonal approach is going to be moving forward.
On the note of genre work moving over the same ground, there’s an interesting epidemic of adaptations being churned out right now; sometimes seminal stepping stones of narrative history are skipped over in favor of release timing – material which predates certain new TV series often only coming into the public’s eye after another work that likely inspired it finally gets made, and is considered redundant. An older example would be the complaints lodged at Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” adaptation, which modern audiences claimed had imagery that felt copied from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” Well… the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of the ‘John Carter’ series) was a seminal influence on George Lucas, and predates him by literal decades; only… most contemporary consumers didn’t know who Burroughs was. I worry “Sweet Tooth” is about to be the accidental bearer of a future predicament. Case in point: “Y: the Last Man.”
Brian K. Vaughan’s already considered to be a classic take on the post-apocalyptic story (all males of any kind dying out except for a boy and his monkey) has been in TV developmental hell basically since getting optioned. It is finally set to be released later in the year by FX, but by the time it comes out, “Sweet Tooth,” may have beaten it to the pandemic punch. Coincidental or not, Mickle’s show opens with an montage sequence that feels incredibly close to the first issue of “Y: the Last Man,” which is a world away from the first issue of “Sweet Tooth” (once again, not necessarily a judgement, but an inevitable observation). The show also repeatedly uses the term “Last Man,” a heck of a lot more than the comic (if memory serves), which seems a bit thoughtless.
It might be a tad difficult for fans of Lemire to rectify lessening the brutal aspects of the book in favor of a more traditional “coming-of-age” approach, but Netflix’s myriad of influences successfully balances old timey story trends with those of our contemporary streaming age. This means creative decisions such as modern folk-pop needle drops that may seem a bit on the nose (Of Monster’s And Men‘s “Dirty Paws” probably being the prime example) being juxtaposed against images such as giraffes and zebras prancing through frontier plains, many of which fit like a glove and some of which might raise your eyebrow. Either way, one must concede that directly translating Lemire’s cartoon work was always an insurmountable task (see also: “Umbrella Academy,” another example of the turned into a YA show trend). Ultimately what matters is that Lemire’s human tendencies as an artist do come through. Themes such as letting go and leaving loss behind which have percolated his work melds itself well to the more hopeful Hollywood approach, but its Nonso Anozie’s threatening yet compassionate presence / performance providing an avenue for the filmmaker’s to walk its darker storytelling tightrope. The season ends on a different note for him than the character in the comic, and while I’ll probably never “prefer” it to Lemire’s grim direction, it was the right choice for this series.
I must however make one minor quibble; in the streaming show, people recognize Jepperd as a former football star. This is one of the only/closest changes to the source material nearing sacrilegious territory, in this writer’s eyes, due to hockey being such a key part of Lemire’s creative/Canadian identity as an artist. This minor detail also coincidentally ties in to my genre influence/similarity theory. The popular apocalyptic sci-fi game “Gears of War” featured a former football star character nicknamed the “Cole-Train,” who becomes a seasoned wartime squadmate – revered sports celeb turns hardened military man – not that unlike what Jepperd goes through after the world falls, but quite different from his tragic journey/descent in the original tale.
“Based on characters created for DC by Jeff Lemire” is how the artist behind “Sweet Tooth,” is credited for the series. To be entirely honest, my heart sank slightly when I first read this. Something suddenly clicked in my mind though, and I went to find an old sketch of Jepperd that Lemire had drawn for me at the DC Comics booth at SDCC 2010. The sketch is on a piece of Superman paper. What once stung suddenly made me smile. Lemire’s creative cycle has come full circle, and different or not from the original stories he dreamed up in his head, the world is finally about to be exposed to them. And Lemire’s worlds are full of so many wonderful ideas, whether that word seems to fit at the outset or not. Netflix’s adaptation of his Vertigo classic makes sure his ideas stand tall, even if scale and sentiment sometimes overshadow its subtler storytelling strengths.
*Check back after “Sweet Tooth” airs June 4 on Netflix for more detailed recap coverage of the series*