May 312021

Yeah, we all know the written work is almost always better than the adaptation. But today, I’m hear to say why this is the case for the Love, Death, And Robots called “PopSquad”

Paolo Bacigalupi wrote the original short story, it was first published in 2006, and can also be found in his anthology “Pump Six and Other Stories.” I strongly recommend it if you’re into grimdark SF. Every story there is fantastic, and he’s one of the best SF writers of the initial post-9/11 era.

But back to Pop Squad. The adaptation has a number of problems that read to me as a failure to grasp the themes of the short story.

Before we continue, just in case it needs to be said, this post will contain FULL SPOILERS for both the short story and the LD+R episode. Go read it and/or watch it first, though if you’re only going to do one, of course I suggest reading it




First, you know how I absolutely adore Altered Carbon the book, but hated the Altered Carbon series? This is mainly because the series is extremely Deathist in the standard, brain-dead Hollywood manner.  The Pop Squad adaptation has a similar problem. Sure, the core story of PopSquad is actually the same. There aren’t enough resources to make new humans when immortality is unlocked, so breeding is made illegal and new humans are killed when found. But the LD+R version is so… simplistic. Bacigalupi is, above all else, a scracity-of-resources author. His focus is extreme climate change and the economic effects it can have, and how this will lead to a drastic reduction in quality of life for most people, and how many of those people are liable to react. His work focuses on genocides, starvation, war over fresh water sources, etc. The focus on Pop Squad is, as with most of his works, the problem of scarce resources. It’s made pretty clear in the story that the primary driver of this scarcity is drastic climate change, and the killing of new humans is just one more stop-gap measure to address that. The story doesn’t have a pro-Deathist message. Yes, one of the breeders within it speaks with strong Deathist attitudes, but of course she does, that’s what someone in her position would do. It’s a realistic portrayal of such a person.

The LD+R episode misses all this, and goes for the standard “Immortality is bad, and you can tell because immortal people are baby-killers!” It’s not particularly interesting or nuanced.

In service of this, the immortals are made to be as unlikable as possible. In particular, the protag’s SO is portrayed as shallow and vapid. She has to be, since she’s happy being immortal. In the written  story she was a talented, driven woman making something beautiful. LD+R mirrors the surface level narrative, but loses all the substance

Second, LD+R completely loses the emotional engine driving the story. The written work is following a man as he descends into madness. We watch him self-destructing from the inside as he’s trying to keep up outer appearances, and Bacigalupi executes this fantastically. LD+R doesn’t seem to know how to portray any of this. We see the protag look at blood spatters on his hand during the opera, but it doesn’t mean anything, and comes off as a cheap “blood on my hands” literalism. They show the dinosaur several times and try to imply it means something important, but none of the obsessive focus that the protag had in the story comes through. Crucially, when protag + SO have the joking interaction about her being impregnated, they flip who delivers the “impregnate the woman” line. I suspect this was to not make the protag look like a creep (which, c’mon, he’s a literal baby-murderer, I think that ship has sailed), but the scene loses all of its impact and most of its character-defining qualities this way. Not that I think those would have landed well even if they kept it as written, because the episode is poorly executed overall. But it’s a glaring symptom of the problem.

Third, they made a PG13 version of an R-rated horror story, which just doesn’t work. They cut out our protag blasting three children’s heads off in the openning scene. This is crucial to the story. It’s shocking to the audience, and puts us in the same headspace as the narrator. You cannot cut that out. It is the inciting incident that puts him in the nose-dive to complete mental breakdown, and it never happens in the show!

Third-and-a-half, because it’s closely related to #3, they completely miss the importance of the handgun. The police force was recently issued new guns designed to take down robot assassins and gangsters on some crazy PCP-style drug. It is MASSIVELY overpowered for the purposes of executing children. The fact that it is so grotesque, so gruesome, is why our protag is having his breakdown NOW, rather than however many years ago he started this job. He is forced to watch these tiny bodies blown apart in fountains of gore. He obsesses about how ridiculous this gun is on almost every single page of the story. He obsesses about it more than the stuffed dinosaur. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the unstoppable and indiscriminate power of the state. Maybe it’s just a metaphor for his own monstrosity that he can no longer hide from. Whatever the case, it is the gun & the gore that push him over, and neither of these are touched on in the episode.

Finally, the ending is all wrong. In the written story, at the end our protag saves himself by the skin of his teeth. He rejects the law, and the judgement of the state, in favor of his own. From what we know of the story, this isn’t sustainable, the scarcity of resources is a Hard Problem. Moreover, its stated she’ll likely be caught/killed soon enough anyway — the institutional knowledge and infrastructure needed to raise children literally doesn’t exist anymore, they are thoroughly fucked from the get-go. But he retains his sanity by rejecting the social order, and maybe he’ll be able to start changing things now, rather than accepting the fate of the world mindlessly enforcing executions. In the LD+R episode he, instead, gives his life to let her go free. It is, again, boring Hollywood simplicity. “I redeem myself through my death.” We don’t feel he’s really earned a redemption, and the whole thing is very pat and tidy. Sigh.

So, in summary, the short story is a fucked up dystopian setting, but you truely feel how beautiful and complex and valuable the lives of normal immortal people are. And how overwhelming the challenges are that brought them to this horrific policy. And how insane and gross the breeders are. But it also makes it clear that’s not entirely the breeder’s fault either, and we’re all at the mercy of society and biology, and when those two are in direct conflict, bad shit happens (hi catholic church). Maybe don’t pit the overwhelming and brutal force of the social order vs the irresistable biological needs instilled by millions of years of evolution! And it even makes the squalor of the breeders, of being enslaved to your biology, kinda glamorous, in its own way, for just a bit.

It’s really good, cuz Paolo is an amazing author. I’m sad the LD+R version failed to get any of that, and instead just went for the mass-market appeal of Deathist applause lights. It deserved better.

Also, while writing this I noticed that LD+R is a cheeky anagram of TLDR. Clever.

  One Response to “The Book Was Better: “Pop Squad” version”

  1. Good evening (I don’t know what time it is in your part of the world so I’ll stay on mine), I’ve come to say my opinion :).

    Having seen the episode before reading the short story, I first truly believed it was not an adaptation (I dug on it because I study dystopian short movies for my master’s thesis in cinema). Despite being myself a big reader who mostly prefers the original books (I often don’t even watch adaptations of things I’ve loved reading), I find this one particularly good.

    I think what you are saying is right, but when you adapt something from a media to another, you need to make choices. Obviously, a short story deals with a number of topics and you can’t keep them all, especially if you want a short film adaptation. Moreover, things have to rely on visual and images.

    As it is a movie and not a book, we can’t hear the character’s thoughts. So yes, we have to rely more on our imagination and maybe interpret things wrong. Yes, Alice is less focused on and I don’t like that too, however as we are not in the main characters”s head (I doubt you would have liked the first-person narrator becoming a voice-over or a carton text), everything must be focused on him. His depression seems to already be there and he is always on the merge. The blood hands maybe are to easy but they are visually understandable and shocking in the clean and beautiful place he is.

    I totally disagree about the censored child killing scene. It probably would have been too much and deserving the aim. In cinema what is happening off-screen is not seen but yet exists. I don’t think it would have been useful to splatter blood everywhere on screen just to show the violence. Suggesting may be as strong and the censored version already makes my freaking sensitive brain want to cry. The emphasizing on the toy and not the gun is also a choice and can be as relevant : it turns something made to be innocent and cute into a terrible reminder that lets an imprint on the public and character’s minds.

    About the inverted joke, yes it makes him sound less creepy even though it simplifies the plot. I’m not a white knight wanting every character to be perfect, but I think, for the public watching, having a hero less “morally” weird was the logical choice to make. We have to feel a bit of sympathy for him and I’m not sure the Netflix viewers were ready for his fetish and erection in front of breastfeeding. However, you touched a right point, I wonder what a faithful adaptation would have done. Adaptations can also bring other meanings to a story, depending of the time they are made. The screenwriters and director had probably other things to say.

    I agree the ending is a bit too obvious and hollywood style but it works. Visually, it gives a really cool mirror movement of the shootings, and the emphasis is put (as in the novel) on the rain which this time instead of falling is almost flying up with the camera movement, closing the circle.

    So I get why it can be frustrating, but is it sure they had “all wrong” or it is just the rules of an adaptation to change things ? That’s a huge debate.

    I hope you won’t be offended by my reply, I am not in a “I’m right, you’re wrong” intention, I’m just saying my opinion because I love artistic debate and I’ll be happy to potentially read your arguments.

    I am sorry if I made some English mistakes, I’m fluent but it is not my mother tongue.

    Have a nice day !

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