Mild spoilers below for the Netflix series Sweet Tooth, so be warned if you haven't yet watched!
Netflix's Sweet Tooth is currently the most popular TV show on the streaming service, and for good reason, since it's an epic and darkly delightful adventure. The live-action adaptation compares quite favorably to the source material from comic book creator Jeff Lemire, who served as a writer and consultant on the series. But anyone familiar with the comics likely noticed just how many changes were made from the original story.
Ahead of Sweet Tooth's premiere, I had the pleasure of talking to not only Jeff Lemire, but also showrunner and series developer Jim Mickle, and executive producer/writer Beth Schwartz. Having very much enjoyed the way the TV show brightened up the comic's tone and characters (relatively speaking), I asked Lemire about the inspiration behind making those alterations to his original tale. Here's how he answered:
I think for me, a few things really informed it, and Jim can speak to it more. But you know, I did the comic a little over a decade ago, and since then, the world has clearly changed pretty dramatically. But also, you know, fiction and television have changed dramatically too, and there have been a ton of post-apocalyptic stories on the screen since then. And I feel to do it just like I did it in the comic might feel like we're seeing the same thing we've seen in a dozen other shows. The visual language of the apocalypse would feel kind of familiar and kind of boring, you know? So I think Jim was smart in leaning into the the idea of nature returning in that aspect of this world, and kind of creating a post-apocalyptic future that was a little different than what you normally see. I think that's good.
For the first part of his insightful answer, Jeff Lemire pointed out how the decade between Sweet Tooth's comic origins and the show's development delivered a wide swath of post-apocalyptic storytelling in TV shows, films, video games, etc., with much of that wave leaning into darker tones. So in bringing Sweet Tooth to live-action, Lemire & Co. were able to reinterpret his visuals into a vibrant and human-lite world once again taken over by nature's lushness. Not to mention a world with far cuter hybrids than those from the comic.
Outside of post-apocalyptic mood-setting, Jeff Lemire talked about how bringing Sweet Tooth to a different format also necessarily impacted the changes made, while never really changing his original vision altogether. In his words:
And I think just in general, when you're adapting anything, you're gonna have to expand and make changes and additions. That's just the nature of two different mediums. Comics can be very focused, but in TV, I know from adapting some of my stuff myself, you just need more stories. It's just the nature of the medium; it eats story so fast, so you have to expand. You have to add characters; you have to broaden the world. And so I think all these things just informed those changes. But in general, I would say, especially as this series goes on, most of, if not all of the central themes and the heart of the story and everything that made the comic 'the comic' is still very much there. So I think you kind of get the best of everything and they each stand on their own, but can complement each other quite well.
Truly, Sweet Tooth episodes would be far shorter if the creative team adapted Jeff Lemire's comic book verbatim without adding to the cast or the story arcs, or else the entire comic series would fit into a single TV season. So they definitely had to find ways to branch certain narratives out from what was already there.
From the viewpoint of Jim Mickles - the horror-friendly filmmaker who also directed Sweet Tooth's pilot, finale and two other episodes - a big way to make the TV show feel distinct from both the comic and other post-apocalyptic fare was to truly make Christian Convery's Gus a prism for the audience. Here's how he put it:
I came to the comic as a fan, and so when it came back around, we were first talking about it in 2016. The first reaction I had was like, 'Heyyy, don't fuck this up.' I love it, and I love Jeff's stuff. But also, as Jeff said, it was like looking around and going like, I remember when this first came out in 2009 or 2010 and just feeling like I hadn't really seen this kind of apocalyptic story and this combination of elements before. It was so fresh and so groundbreaking. And now, six years after Walking Dead and that kind of world, how do we do a show that feels just as fresh as when that comic book came out. For me, it was all about the point of view of Gus; just like, 'What would this world look like through Gus' eyes?' It'd be a little bit bigger, a little brighter. There'd just be a completely different way to look at the world that you don't get to do in any other show. So that was kind of the guiding force behind it.
In a way that champions whimsy over pandering, Sweet Tooth definitely does feel like a classic coming-of-age tale similar to timeless projects like The Goonies and Stand by Me, where the youthful perspective was just as important as anything else. Even with adult characters around like Nonso Anozie's Tommy "Big Man" Jeppard and Neil Sandilands' General Abbot, Sweet Tooth is still the hybrids' story through and through, with Wendy, Bobby and others guiding viewers' emotions even when Gus isn't around.
While former Arrow showrunner Beth Schwartz wasn't around for Sweet Tooth's initial development phase, she joined the creative team after the pilot was shot, and here's how she influenced the comic story's adaptation to live-act
I was the last one to join. I was just coming off of the last season of Arrow, which was a much darker show and adaptation. So when I saw the pilot, I had just had a newborn baby; at the time I joined, he was about six months old. So when I saw Jim's pilot, I was just blown away and wanted to be a part of that world and a part of that hope, and telling a fun genre story. But really, at the heart of it was this boy who loved his family and had the need to search for where he came from. And as a new parent, that's what really hooked me to the show.
Elsewhere in our interview, Jim Mickle also pointed out how Beth Schwartz's new role as a mother was a key element in building out Gus' search for his mother Birdie and how that character fit into the TV series. While the comic book definitely features Gus' trek to learn about his origin story, it clearly didn't have the same kind of feminine creative touch that makes that live-action arc so emotionally poignant.
So all in all, there were quite a few reasons why Sweet Tooth had to alter its original story for Netflix, and I think it's fairly safe to say they made all the right decisions every time. Or at least almost every time. Find out how it all goes down by streaming the eight-episode first season on Netflix now, and don't forget to keep tabs on all the other big shows hitting the 2021 Summer TV schedule.