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Resident Alien: Why TV Adaptations Sometimes Stray From the Comics

Resident Alien feature

Next year, Resident Alien will become SyFy's latest live-action adaptation of a comic book series. The Dark Horse comic by by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse, has offered a satirical look at human society through the eyes of an alien biologist who crashes on the planet Earth. Since taking the name"Harry," he's tried to fit in with the rest of society over five four-issue miniseries with a great deal of heart and comedy.

While those 20 issues might seem like more than enough to adapt into several seasons of a television show to a casual fan, that isn't the case. As the cast and crew of SyFy's Resident Alien revealed at New York Comic-Con, the series is going to take  multiple liberties in adapting its source material -- some quite drastic -- in order to tell its story in a new medium.

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With television, audiences need a reason to keep watching. The same holds true for comics, but suspending tension and drama over eight or ten one-hour episodes with commercial breaks is a far harder beast than keeping an audience invested over four issues of a comic. Therefore, when adapting a comic to screen, you need to expand or develop ideas in the initial comic, turning a plot that might be solved in one issue into a season-long arc.

At least, that's how Executive Producer Chris Sheridan explained it. "At first, I wanted to take as much as I could [from the comics]...I had to make the decision early on 'Okay, will every episode be someone dies and Harry tries to figure it out?' And I thought taking the time to do that will take time away from exploring the characters."

One element of the comic that's been greatly expanded for the show is the murder mystery plot in the first comic. "Instead of keeping it enclosed like in the first episode," Sheridan explained. "I am making it the town story for the first season... because it's a great way to get to know the people in town and how they're reacting to it and other things that happen along the way."

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Furthermore, he had to change material in order to fit the format of television in general, to keep the series going over a longer-arcing narrative. "I added the thing about Harry's mission here, just because in TV, you sort of exist in the current landscape of cable television. I feel like you need the character to be moving toward a definitive goal."

Alan Tudyk, who plays Harry, said that the comics only initially informed his interpretation of the character.

"Once the script and the storyline started to veer off, I put [the comics] down and focused on [the script's] Harry," Tudyk said. "The doctor dies in the comics, so that tracks, but how that resolves in the comics and how that resolves in the TV show is different."

Building off of the concept of Harry's mission and of him moving toward a definitive goal, the amount of conflict that Harry faced had to be amped up in live-action.

"He's got this mission, and creating obstacles between him and that was a lot of fun." Sheridan said. "In this, I had [Harry] take over a guy's body. And what's fun about that in sort of building the comedy of it is creating a situation where he realizes after awhile he picked the wrong body to take over. First of all, he took over a doctor's body...but other things will come up as the season goes on where he's like 'Wow, I shouldn't have picked this guy because this is a nightmare.'"

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These added conflicts organically evolve and develop the story in sometimes drastically different ways.

Of course, the script is only one aspect of the adaptation process. When actors read and perform the script, their interpretations and suggestions can further veer the script away from the source material. Often, this interpretation can elevate a character in ways that might not be anticipated.

"I get my script and I just look at what's in the script and I'm like 'Okay, I can bring life to this.' You know, his body...like how he walks and how he moves in his body is not quite certain," Tudyk said. "Things don't move smoothly. When he moves fast -- his body moves before he does because it's not his natural body."

These aspects enrich the characters in various ways, expanding and evolving it in ways that are fascinating. When you compound these various, small changes, what you see on screen further veers off from the script.

But some things are just added on the fly because the actors feel something is missing. Corey Reynolds, who plays Sheriff Mike in the show, recalled how his character's beat-boxing skills were added to the script.

"The beat boxing thing was just a thing we came up with on the fly. It wasn't in the pilot. [We] were making a joke, and I said 'I think this guy should have a talent that is so weird that's so obscure...like maybe he's a bad-ass beat-boxer or something like that,'" Reynolds said. "We were actually up there filming the pilot and then decided to add a new scene into the pilot. I don't know how familiar you are with this, but that never happens. You don't ever get to being up there filming and then add a new scene."

Reynolds reflected further on the creative process behind SyFy's Resident Alien, adding what might indicate the biggest reason why a series might diverge from its source: collaboration.

"It was kind of a cool sense of collaboration," he said. "Often as an actor, similar to an athlete, your coach is the one who calls the plays, and your job is to execute the plays they wanna do, but sometimes you want to break from that play and do something you feel on the fly might be the better option."

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