Snowpiercer Vol 1: The Escape is a comic book (or graphic novel) by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette (published in English by Titan Comics). 30 years since the original publication, it is a powerful example of the post-apocalyptic books of the era, depicting our ice-covered world, too cold to support life. The remains of humanity cling to life in a giant, high-speed train which is continuously moving, the poorest inhabitants stuck in cattle trains at the back, the richest living in comparative luxury at the front. After escaping from the back of the train, one man fights to reach the engine room at the front of the train and freedom, or some vague idea of it.
Science fiction is an odd genre, reflecting our dreams (and our nightmares) about the future in a distorted mirror. While earlier incarnations of the genre revealed our fears of science run amok in the shape of dehumanizing automation, nuclear mutation, and menacing alien contact, it was the science fiction of the ’80’s which really embraced the fear of us ending our own world. Now-classic novels about miserable, desperate, post-apocalyptic survivors were everywhere, ideally acting as a cautionary tale rather than a promise of an inescapable future. Originally published in 1984, Snowpiercer is a typical example of this genre; sad and bleak, with all the hopes and fears of a lone warrior fighting a battle he cannot win.
Rochette’s black and white art eloquently depicts the grim, cramped world of the train as it barrels along with no destination or end in sight. It is a journey without hope of redemption or escape and Rochette’s emotionally-charged inking portrays that perfectly. There is nothing pretty or polished about this life, the world outside is inhospitable and Rochard perfectly creates a deteriorating, claustrophobic environment with tight close-ups never leaving the intimacy of the interior of the train. Lob’s dialogue (translated by Virginie Selavy) is brusque, depicting a slew of militaristic characters who do not care about the sanctity of life or human dignity. With little or no communication between groups, rules are enforced (and often created) by the army who maintain order on the train. Brutality is the norm, and only the smallest moments of privacy or intimacy can be snatched for the miserable inhabitants of the train.
Essentially, the Snowpiercer film (directed by Bong Joon Ho) follows a similar plot, but with a few very significant differences which speak to the ways in which our ideas about the future have changed in the decades since the book was created. The film begins earlier, and so we are able to join the revolution in it’s infancy. We follow the protagonist as he fights his way along the train (instead of only meeting him after he breaks out of the cattle trains and is apprehended by authorities). Rather than being a lone escapee eventually joined by a young woman, he fights alongside a large group of revolutionaries, and as they fight towards the engine room their numbers gradually dwindle. Most significantly of all, he isn’t forced into his final role, but is able to exert a series of choices which go a long way towards changing the destiny of what remains of humanity… I won’t go further into this since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone considering reading or watching this in the future. Suffice to say that the changes chosen in this adaptation step away from the idea of a fatalistic dread of the end of humanity, and go a long way to implying hope and faith in our future, however miniscule.
Overall, there never was a concept more well-suited to a steampunk aesthetic and the filmmakers embrace this aspect of the original story. There is a strange art deco/Victorian stylistic hybrid to many of the interiors in the film and it does a nice job of depicting a futuristically crumbling luxury. What is missing in the art direction of the film is the raw, implied bleakness of the original comic book art. While interiors aren’t shown in too much detail (since the overcrowded humanity dominates), there is still an awareness of the impossibility of life on a train and all the insanity that kind of inhospitable environment would create. To a certain extent that is probably understandable, after all this is a film and it demands a certain level of watchability.
Tastes have changed since the story was originally published in 1984, and so perhaps the unflinching gaze of Snowpiercer Vol 1: The Escape isn’t entirely appropriate for a contemporary film. In an era when books like V for Vendetta were being published, there was sometimes an attitude of inevitability about the ways in which civilization would end and what that would mean for humanity. But as world communication and awareness of our fellow humans grows, there is a certain acceptance of the tenacity of human life, no matter what might befall our veneer of civilization. In embracing this, Snowpiercer is a film which takes a graphic novel as a valiant jumping off point, and creates an entirely new (but very familiar) story from it’s core.