Get on the Train: “Snowpiercer” and its three versions

As corny as this sounds, I love that there’s no single way to tell a story. It’s a bit like that childhood game “Pass the Message” – the story branches out and transforms with each telling, and could actually be better than the original version.

And I don’t mean spinoffs, fanfiction, or derivative stories. Adaptations and translations are super fun to watch and dissect precisely because they don’t always match the source material, or aren’t adapted/translated just once.

For example, Norman Wilwayco’s Mondomanila is in short story, novel, and screenplay form; and Khavn de la Cruz made three film adaptations of it. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was also translated from Swedish to English, and led to two film adaptations plus a franchise reboot via David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web.

Then there’s Snowpiercer.

I recently finished watching the 2020 TV adaptation (starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs). Before that, I saw Bong Joon-ho’s amazing 2013 movie version (with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris). And in the past week, I went through the first two translated Snowpiercer graphic novels (Volume 1: The Escape and Volume 2: The Explorers, which also contains The Crossing).

Looking at Snowpiercer‘s three versions as one full story can get complicated. Then again, it’s fun to see which version pulls what from which source.


Major spoilers ahead!

The basic elements

Let’s start with this fictional dystopian world’s rules, established in The Escape:

  • Earth is now a frozen (and therefore, uninhabitable) planet after a last-ditch environmental solution went horribly wrong. The surviving human population is aboard a 1,001-carriage train named Snowpiercer that’s circumnavigating the globe.
  • The train is organized by social class. The rich are at the front sections, living their best lives and receiving the best resources and services. The middle class takes up the next train cars and comprises the bulk of the workforce. The poorest survivors are confined to the “Tail” or cargo sections – and are basically treated as such. It’s so bad, they resort to cannibalism to survive.
  • Passengers are getting hooked on chronole, a “narcotized cleaning agent.” It’s Snowpiercer‘s version of our world’s most addictive illegal substances.
    • In the movie and TV show, it’s spelled kronole. But movie kronole comes from industrial waste, while TV-show kronole is a byproduct of the suspension drugs used in the Drawers (I’ll explain later).
  • The class divisions and unequal resource distribution breed conflict in an extremely enclosed space. The Tail wants to move uptrain; while the rich and middle class want to maintain the status quo and shut the Tail out, preferably permanently, by disconnecting or decoupling their train cars from Snowpiercer.
  • One character from the Tail becomes the unwilling Hero, and is led by a character from the Front who symbolizes the Villain. The Hero must get to the Front to see Snowpiercer‘s top brass and the “eternal engine” that runs the train. Along the way, the Hero will see what they’re being deprived of. And of course (and against all odds), the Hero prevails for everyone else in the end.

I loved The Escape for one major reason: that plot twist.

At first, Proloff refuses to talk about the people he left behind in the Tail. Then the truth comes out: he’s the asymptomatic carrier of an unnamed disease that decimated the Tail. His movement toward the Front causes an epidemic that kills everyone on board except him, and leaves him confined to the Front with Olga the Engine.

Damn. And I thought I was reading Snowpiercer to, um, escape the real world.

This development’s too on the nose given the current COVID-19 pandemic and all the associated stress, anxiety, and losses. But that also cuts this world’s Cause of Death to just three: freezing, human cruelty, and disease. Thanks for narrowing it down, I guess.

Leveling up

Snowpiercer Volumes 2 and 3 (The Explorers and The Crossing) change things up a bit.

Turns out Snowpiercer isn’t the only life-saving train (or moving prison) in this post-apocalyptic planet! A second train, Snowpiercer 2 (or the Icebreaker), is also operational – and running on the same track as #1.

So everyone on the Icebreaker is afraid of colliding with Snowpiercer, a train they already know is dead in every way except for its eternal engine. Just like current events, the second train’s people are kept under control by this fear. The higher-ups occasionally do “brake tests” to prevent this collision – or at least, that’s the official li(n)e they’re being fed.

The Icebreaker is also more technologically advanced than the original train:

  • It has two engines: one in the first train car and one in the last car.
  • It offers VR experiences for passengers. These are raffled off to the lower classes and bought outright by the upper classes. The people who create these experiences are called “creators of dreams.” Val Kennel, the daughter of a high-ranking Icebreaker official, is one such dream-creator.
  • It also has planes used for reconnaissance. But not all planes (and pilots) make it back to the train.

The Explorers also introduces the Drawers, its version of an in-train detention center or prison. Think of mortuary cabinets, but the people in there are still alive and fully awake. This volume’s Hero, Puig Valles, is on his way to the Drawers for so-called disobedience during a brake test, and then to be sacrificed to the Freeze.

(Remember those recon planes I mentioned above? Puig is meant to fly in one to spot dangers ahead, then the Icebreaker plans to shoot him down as punishment. That’s just fucking cold, man.)

The Crossing ups the ante by giving the Icebreaker the ability to run without train tracks. Yep, it can move forward on its own, but at a much slower speed and with limited power for the train’s occupants. Okay, then.

The third story also makes the Icebreaker go through a deadly political power grab within the Front, as well as confront the possibility of meeting survivors outside their prison-train. So much for being the last of Humanity…

Snowpiercer has a few issues

Its “survivors on one train” concept remains original and engaging today, but some parts truly didn’t age well.

For starters, the female characters in The Escape weren’t characters at all – they were mere sexpots. Adeline Belleau, a “main” character, simply wanted to talk to Proloff on behalf of her pro-Tail movement. But she was already making out with him shortly after she meets him.

Seriously? Adeline was introduced just nine pages ago!

The same goes for the other women in this volume, particularly those in the Front. The conversations they’d have with other characters would be bare at best, and little is known of their personal motivations or inner lives. But you know there’d be several panels with them kissing and fucking the men within their proximity.

While it happens less often in The Explorers and The Crossing, it’s still as problematic. Val immediately has sex with Puig when he returns to the train from outside, and the couple uses sex to fix marital arguments. Also, some panels still have naked women in there just for the hell of it.

There were also parts where the English translations and story pacing felt off to me. The dialogue can be choppy and awkward, story threads can be intro’d and dropped in a few panels, and characters do illogical things. Like Proloff shooting all the windows out and letting the cold in, leading Adeline to freeze to death! WTF, dude.

The Snowpiercer adaptations

Bong Joon-ho’s movie adaptation takes the bulk of its cues from The Escape and fleshes out some aspects left raw or vague in the graphic novel. The upside is we get a streamlined story that’s also fast-paced and exciting from beginning to end. The downside is it’s done in just two hours.

We also get scenes that can only come from the brilliant minds of Bong and his entire crew:

The movie also reveals what happens to babies in the Tail:

Here’s the thing. The original French series, Le Transperceneige, is now 38 years old (it was first published in 1982), and wasn’t translated to English for 30 years.

That’s a long time to wait for what’s considered a classic comic series to reach everyone else. That also means the Snowpiercer movie was my (and others’) first time to get immersed in this story, so I will always associate it first with the movie, and then the source material and show.

Come to think of it, the Snowpiercer TV series has a tougher job because it takes inspiration both from the movie and the graphic novels. So again, the basic rules are established here, but with some spins on elements from the comics:

  • The existence of a second train. The Icebreaker becomes the much-larger resupply/maintenance train Big Alice in Snowpiercer‘s season 1 finale. And collision isn’t the threat to Snowpiercer, but a full takeover:
  • The disconnection or uncoupling of train cars. In the novels, this was used as a threat with small odds of becoming real. In the show, they actually did it to get rid of the Villains: the Folgers, and Nolan Grey and his Jackboots.
  • The Drawers. Here, the detainees are 100% sedated – and wind up being addicted to kronole when they wake up.
  • People willingly going out of the train. The Explorers‘ eponymous characters unwillingly do it during brake tests to retrieve collectibles for the rich and entitled Front. In the TV show, only Melanie Cavill does this for big Action Heroine sequences.
  • They used to eat people here, too. But not anymore.

If Bong’s movie filled out the gaps in the graphic novels, TNT’s TV adaptation has more room to play with through 10 episodes, as well as push female characters as solid leads. Snowpiercer doesn’t always hit the mark in pacing and believability, and some parts tend to drag and be cartoonish (for example, anything involving LJ Folger). But it’s a good effort and a notable improvement over the graphic novels.

Overall, the show enables audiences to know more about this icy world and its survivors. It’s also nice to see Snowpiercer beyond Tail vs. Front: once the revolution succeeds, how do you keep the peace and keep everyone happy? Is that even possible? And what happens when outsiders – led by a dude left for dead and a kid previously thought dead – force their way in?

Now what?

Guess I have to get the rest of the novels and wait for Season 2 to compare again! If you want to do this as well, here’s the official timeline of the entire Snowpiercer series to guide you.

I also don’t want the TV-show train (or Big Alice) to be able to run without tracks a la Icebreaker. I don’t know… I’m just not into it.