Amazon Prime’s Utopia adaptation was released last week, to lukewarm reviews. The show revolves around a pandemic, which was never likely to go down well in 2020. Even if Utopia’s release had been delayed, though, the show suffers from another problem: it isn’t very good. This is quite a big problem and stems from the fact that it tries to copy an original that it doesn’t quite seem to understand. As such, several elements of the 2013-14 cult classic are left out of the revival. Let’s take a look at these missing pieces, and why they were essential to the original’s critical (if not commercial) success.
The original Utopia is capable of spectacular feats of violence. In the very first episode, a man’s eye is gouged out. This is followed up in the third episode by a school shooting, which drew dozens of complaints from viewers.
The violence is intense but never senseless. When a character kills, maims or tortures, there is always a reason. These reasons are rarely clear or justifiable, but they contribute to the story. They might show us how numb a character is to murder, for example, or reveal information that drives the plot forward.
The original also doesn’t take gore lightly. The first series ends with Jessica Hyde being shot in the leg. In an action movie, she might hastily bandage herself up and keep running. In Utopia, she screams, falls to the floor and looks terrified. After being presented as detached and impossible to phase for the entire show, this instils genuine fear in the viewer. As Jane Featherstone, the executive producer behind the original Utopia, put it when defending the school shooting scene, the series “shows the consequences of violence”.
That violence is often shown without music, leaving the viewer to squirm as a man is suffocated to death, or a woman is threatened with electrocution. Characters are often shocked by this, meaning we are too. In the original, gore colours the new, dark world in which the characters find themselves. It shows its audience that the stakes are high as opposed to telling us.
In the remake, the violence is still full-on, but largely without consequence. The American Jessica Hyde is literally able to get away with murder in front of the other characters. They agree to work with her, even after she shoots one of their friends in the head. Generic, high tempo music plays over some scenes of violence, suggesting the director is confusing gore for action.
The intent of violence in the original Utopia is clear: shock and offend, which is the response violence should elicit. In the remake, the waters are muddied: are we meant to be shocked, or find it cool? The masterfully unnerving presentation of violence was a crucial part of worldbuilding in the original. Losing it in the remake proves costly.
Music and visuals
Though touched on briefly already, the use of music deserves more attention. The original’s score was masterminded by Juan Cristobal ‘Cristo’ Tapia de Veer, who was award a Royal Television Society award for his troubles. The score manages to jump around genres, just like the show itself. There are times where it wouldn’t sound out of place in a spy thriller; other times, it’s positively melancholic. Part of ‘Utopia Overture’ is made to mimic the sound of deep breaths, making the world of the show feel downright claustrophobic. An ethereal timbre endures throughout the score, adding to the feeling that the viewer has never seen (or heard) anything like Utopia.
The show doesn’t just sound unique: it looks it. Shots of vast open fields and enormous abandoned warehouses lend the show a sense of scale. With the saturation dialled up to eleven, even offices look over-worldly. Attention is paid to the colours so as to mimic the look of comic books. Put together, there is the feeling that Utopia is completely detached from reality. In a show that involves a shadowy organisation engineering a vast conspiracy, being invited behind the scenes of the ‘real’ world is a nice fit.
In constructing an exaggerated visual world for Utopia, the show is able to get away with much more thematically. Abnormal amounts of violence become more permissible in an abnormal setting. The pandemic-heavy plot may not have been received so poorly had the remake taken place in a world that was like ours, but different. It’s worth noting that the original Utopia only goes into specifics about the politics of the past, in flashbacks. Current affairs are largely unmentioned except in passing, in favour of broader social issues, like climate change and supposed overpopulation. The remake is more explicit, which is a polite way of saying its discussion of corporate malpractice, protest and authority is entirely ham-fisted.
The music and visuals of the remake are both competent, but uninteresting. This gives the show the feeling of being more grounded in the real world, where weirder elements of the original show are less viable. As such, the plot has to be scrubbed of its original charm and mystery and treated with more cynicism. The remake’s first episode has a group of mansplaining comic book nerds mock the idea that the Utopia graphic novel holds secrets to real-world truths.
Characters with bite
In crossing the Atlantic, some characters also lose their charm. As played by Adeel Akhtar in the British version of Utopia, Wilson Wilson is manic, but not aggressive. He’s gentle and soft-spoken, lending him a bumbling charisma that allows the viewer to get invested in him. In the remake, he’s shouty and stand-offish. Where Ian is disorientated but affable in the original, he is whiny in the remake. Ian is the show’s primary straight-man, meaning we see the world through his eyes. He is also what the creative leads predict their audience will find relatable. Evidently, the original Utopia respected its fans, while the remake seems to hold its audience in contempt.
The characters are not out-and-out awful, so much as under pressure. Some characters are awful in the original: Grant is loud and foul-mouthed, and significantly toned down in the remake. His coming from a dysfunctional home is dropped altogether. Another major character change comes in the form of Arby. In the original, he is left completely devoid of feeling thanks to a childhood of trauma, which is explored in the show’s second series. The remake opts to go in a different direction. Speaking to Small Screen, Luke Poulton – a film and TV buff with autism – notes that the American Arby conforms to a number of autistic stereotypes. He’s spoken to like a child, remembers numbers, repeats things and doesn’t know how to act around people. “It feels like it’s done to make the character come across as quirky, which many TV shows and movies do when having an autistic character,” he explains.
For the most part, though, the personality of characters are simply dragged to the midpoint. It makes the show less rough around the edges, but being rough around the edges is what made Utopia’s name.
Put together, there’s less to be interested by in the remake, which makes watching much less enjoyable.
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