The big obstacle in turning Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 science-fiction feature Snowpiercer into a TV series is the same one that now faces the Parasite TV adaptation: it’s tough to mess with what ain’t broke. The film Snowpiercer, adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, isn’t exactly subtle: In a new ice age, the last remnants of humanity are whisked around the globe in a train. The passengers are strictly separated by class, with the rich enjoying spacious cars and luxurious food, while those stuck in the tail cars jockey for space and for “nutritional bars” made out of cockroaches.
Director Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson get around the nakedness of the class allegory through sheer intensity. The action keeps moving up-train, and the constant crowds of extras amp up the adrenaline through unrelenting claustrophobia. The TV series — originally under the direction of Josh Friedman before he was replaced (due to “creative differences” with the network) by Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson — mimics that terror effectively in its first moments, but the 10 episodes of the show’s first season leave it with a lot of space to fill.
The TV version’s overall structure remains mostly the same: The train circles the Earth following a disastrous attempt to stop climate change, and its passengers — the so-called “tailies,” and the more privileged third, second, and first-class passengers — live in varying degrees of squalor or opulence. As the years since departure wear on, however, unrest begins to brew. The idea of exploring the train, of seeing each new car, is enticing for the audience, and the series tries to hang onto that feeling for as long as possible by opening each episode with a monologue from a different character, reflecting on life before and after boarding. Even so, any sense of novelty wears off after the first two episodes, not least because what’s on screen has already been seen in director Bong’s film. The cutesy learning car, the club car — they’re old news.
But the show brings in two big changes. One is the precise nature of Wilford, the man responsible for creating the train. The other is the addition of a murder mystery. The possible presence of a serial killer up-train leads those in control to call on the train’s only homicide detective, Layton (David Diggs). The catch is that Layton’s from the tail section, and is one of the leaders of the brewing revolution.
His investigation gives the show an excuse to dig deeper into the train’s class dynamics, but any sense of train-ness is mostly lost as Layton goes back and forth with relative freedom. There’s no longer a sense of a linearly built space; he might as well just be exploring a regular neighborhood. Snowpiercer feels less like a TNT series and more like something SyFy would produce: apart from occasional threats of train derailment, nothing really distinguishes the train from an outer-space colony à la Firefly or The Expanse.
The show is also more heavy-handed with its allusions to real-world class struggles than the film version, as characters explicitly reference eating the rich, and describe the train as “a fortress to class.” All that’s missing is a direct call-out of the one percent. The character dynamics are similarly clumsy, with one character’s knack for strategy and general smarts established by a focus on a chess poster in her room, and clothing items branded with the logos for M.I.T. and Yale. A rebellious teenager, meanwhile, seems to have her wardrobe pulled fully from Hot Topic. There’s nothing as inventive or memorably grotesque as the movie’s Tilda Swinton character Minister Mason, with her terrible teeth and Coke-bottle glasses.
Even the world of the show is a little dull: the dominant color onscreen is beige, making the distinctions between classes and sections of the train less pronounced. Unconvincing CGI exacerbates the problem; though the scenes set inside the train don’t give cause for second thought, any shot that depicts the train speeding along its tracks or features a window makes suspension of disbelief near-impossible.
Luckily, most of the performances are strong enough to distract from the clunky dialogue and world-building. The gathered cast is impressive: Jennifer Connelly as Melanie, the train’s chief of hospitality; Alison Wright as Ruth, the closest thing the film has to Swinton’s character; Shaun Toub as Terence, a ruthless member of the janitorial staff; Steven Ogg as a fellow tail-section rebel; the list goes on. The emotions they convey, whether frustration with the system they live in or the firm belief that order is necessary for survival, are the most solid thing for viewers to hang onto.
The murder mystery gives way to larger train intrigue halfway through the season, but the balance between that drama and the story about class struggle remains uneasy. Even though the series is being touted as an adaptation of both the graphic novel and the film versions of Snowpiercer, it’s best to consider it as a completely separate story. There’s no escaping how prominent a theme inequality is, but the series comes closer to The Hunger Games than Parasite. The fight for equality drives the action, but that literal action — character relationships and similar melodrama — takes precedence. This train just isn’t running at the same speed.
Snowpiercer will debut on TNT on Sunday, May 15 at 9PM ET, with new episodes weekly.