I try to make my own TV decisions and not follow hype but watching Netflix’s The End of The Fucking World was the product of an expiring Netflix trial and positive word of mouth. I’d been aware of Chuck Forsman’s graphic novel. I knew the series was coming. The material made me nervous.
James and Alyssa are teenagers with upsetting home lives who decide to go on the run together. While the book never gives James a diagnosis, on the show James calls himself a sociopath. It’s a self-diagnosis derived from James’ struggle to feel things and he starts dating Alyssa because he wants to murder her.
It’s not a comfortable subject, or meant to be, and if it had been handled poorly, no one would’ve hesitated to call the show out. James and Alyssa, played by Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, are a couple you come to root for, as they help each other grow, and it’s a show that really makes you stop and consider. These are two kids who get written off all the time or ignored outright. While you root for DC Eunice Noon (Gemma Whelan) and her desire to give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s from a place of knowing she’s right. In real life, would we do the same?
In any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about the show, but didn’t know whether or not to read the graphic novel. It is a different experience and one I’ve found more difficult than most adaptations to treat separately. Coming into the book with a pre-existing attachment to these character colors everything.
One difference you notice is Forsman’s graphic novel contains less dialogue. The use of narration is the same, with the book split between Alyssa and James’ point of view. Sometimes it feels like Alyssa gets shortchanged, since instead of seeing her with her family, we’re told about them later (except for one scene towards the end with Alyssa’s mom that feels like a call out to anyone who uses discomfort as an excuse), but this also has to do with the way the book is paced.
When James steals his father’s car, you never see him pick Alyssa up, or talk about leaving. Instead the book lets readers play catch-up. Forsman doesn’t over-explain, and it leaves room for interpretation. In a story like this, ambiguity can be scary. Characters’ lives are on the line, but it’s these unclarified details that make reading this book so consuming. You can’t be lazy or impatient because that’s how false assumptions are made. It doesn’t matter if a scene looks like it’s moving towards sex. When Forsman cuts away, readers don’t know what happens next.
Not to mention that what Forsman can achieve with silence is truly impressive. There’s a dancing scene in both the book and the show that’s a narrative highlight, but Forsman’s is completely silent, outside of having music, and I wouldn’t have believed you could parse the scene down that far.
Without having to always say James is dangerous, a chapter head has James holding a rock and there’s an immediate association. He ends up breaking a window, but the same goes for anytime Alyssa runs into a cat. These visuals are all the reminder readers need that Alyssa isn’t safe. At least in the beginning, James can’t be trusted.
The importance of location to Alyssa is something I didn’t pick up on the show, but in the book we’re introduced to her point of view through a discussion of the sky. Given the otherwise dismal setting, it’s an early sign of Alyssa’s ability to find beauty where others don’t. Considering everything that happens, her strongest reactions are often elicited by setting (“Jesus Christ Jesus Christ” is how she responds to the land turning flat).
A major turning point of both the show and the book is when James murders the professor whose house he and Alyssa crash in. The professor’s a murderer, too, and was going to hurt Alyssa, but while the scene on the show isn’t free of controversy (the reason James was in the room to protect Alyssa was that he was going to assault her while she slept), the way James sets Alyssa up as bait in the book feels worse.
James changed his mind about hurting Alyssa on the show, but this is different — premeditated. There’s also the queasiness of the professor’s single curl of hair giving him the appearance of an adult Charlie Brown (the parentheses around Alyssa’s eyes, to mark her shock, are very Charles Schulz as well). The book doesn’t include the scene where James goes to the police to confess. Both changes on the show help ease viewers’ minds about James’ actions.
Season one of the show ends on a cliffhanger, and opinions have been mixed over whether there should be a second season. Networks have been reluctant to let shows end lately (13 Reasons Why; Big Little Lies) and in the book, Forsman actually takes the story one step farther, which confirmed my reservations. The cliffhanger leaves a glimmer of hope, and sometimes that’s better than anything a second season could divulge.
The End of the Fucking World is available for purchase here. Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.