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.