'Utopia' remake to challenge expectations of international TV adaption

By Matthew Barnauskas, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 1, 2015

Two men walk into a comic book shop. The clerk says, “We’re closed,” but they’re undeterred. One of the men, known as Arby (Neil Maskell, “Atonement”), gives the clerk a piece of paper that reads, “Utopia Manuscript.” The musical score comes in with small electric beats breaking through the atmosphere. The other man, the impeccably dressed Lee (Paul Ready, “Dresden”), pulls out a piece of pipe and a gas canister. What follows is a grand display of efficiency and brutality as Lee incapacitates everyone in the shop. The music swells, dark tones blair with menace. The clerk, frightened for his life, looks at Arby, who has one question: “Where is Jessica Hyde?”

And so, “Utopia” begins, and I already feel like I’ve spoiled too much. No, it’s not the debacle of a reality series by Fox; this came from British network Channel 4. Created by Dennis Kelly (“Black Sea”), “Utopia” followed a small group of ordinary people who just happen to find themselves thrown into a rabbit hole of conspiracy. At the center was the graphic novel “The Utopia Experiments” and its unpublished sequel that supposedly predicted some of the world’s greatest disasters.

The series brought forth a comic book aesthetic while grounding itself in a disturbing reality. Its visual style popped with bright colors across the spectrum. Its story was dark with intrigue and violence. Its humor was even blacker, delighting in pushing the boundaries of what should be said and seen. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s (“Jamaica Inn”) equally threatening and playful score could orchestrate a murder or play through a club.

But behind all its technical mastery, “Utopia” was a thriller with something to say, or at least to question. What would you do to survive? Where does you draw the line between pragmatism and extremism? What is the value of a human life in the long run? Its villains were just right enough and its heroes just slightly wrong – easy answers were hard to come by and even harder to face.

I speak of this show in the past tense because “Utopia,” in its current form, is dead. Canceled after its second season in the summer 2014, “Utopia” and its 12 episodes join the likes of “Firefly” in the category of “great and gone too soon.” But, there is still a chance at life for the series at HBO.

Yes, an HBO remake of the series (announced before its cancellation) is on its way. David Fincher (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is at the helm, directing every episode of the first season. Alongside Fincher is “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, the breakout screenwriter of 2014. Only in development stages, the remake is already stocked with talent, but concerns remain for “Utopia” ’s small but loyal fanbase.

U.S. adaptations of British TV series aren’t anything new. They’ve been going on since “Til Death Us Do Part” was shipped over and became “All In the Family.” And they’ve enjoyed continued success with hits like “The Office” and “House of Cards” – with Fincher as a producer for the latter. But for every success story there are even more failures like “Skins,” “The Inbetweeners” or “Viva Laughlin!”

The pitfalls are endless in these remakes. A creator can fail translating the cultural tone from one country to the other. American audiences may not be receptive of a concept popular in Britain. Some series, like “Gracepoint,” may just not do enough to differentiate themselves and beg the question, “Did this even need to be remade?”

This final question has been answered by some networks by just bringing the original series to American viewers. Starz had a recent success airing the Golden-Globe-nominated “The Missing,” a troubling look into obsession surrounding the abduction of a young boy and his father’s quest for answers. This, along with PBS’s acquisition of programs like “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock,” proves that British shows can be accepted in their original forms.

So why remake “Utopia?” Maybe it’s because, despite being made in Britain, several of its ideas are close to home. Fears of government power and distrust of powerful third parties strike a chord with a population that has learned of far-reaching NSA surveillance and candidates funded by dark money. This, in addition to the thriving nerd/geek culture and “Utopia” has already forged its twisted place within American conscious.

“Utopia” faces some daunting challenges in its adaptation to the American small screen. Whether it addresses these challenges successfully will determine the remake’s longevity, and hopefully the series will live up to its idealistic name.