Netflix’s Sweet Tooth is a surprising departure from its source material, the comic series written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. But unlike most comic book adaptations that change a lot in the transfer, it’s not about simplified character origins or costume tweaks.
Sweet Tooth has a vastly different tone in its TV incarnation. It’s still about a half-human half-deer boy named Gus, who joins a world-weary bounty hunter to venture out of his childhood sanctuary and into a big, dangerous, post-apocalyptic world — but it’s much brighter and hopeful than the 2009 comic series of the same name.
To Lemire, that’s ideal.
Polygon spoke to the writer-artist over Zoom, where he said that given his own experience with adapting other work to television himself, he knows that stories tend to change in the process. Sweet Tooth is no exception, and some of those differences have naturally made a comic about a virus-borne collapse of civilization and human children transforming into persecuted animal hybrids — into a television series that’s lighter than his original.
“My drawing style is pretty stark, as opposed to this lush photography in New Zealand, right?” he said with a laugh. “That alone creates a visual difference, that’s pretty dramatic. And then the violence, obviously, is much more suggested in the show than in the comic. [...] You can actually show things in a drawing on a piece of paper with child characters around, that feel more appropriate or acceptable than if we had child actors [around] that same level of violence. It can be much more shocking [in live action], and not in a good way, necessarily.”
But most of all, according to Lemire, Sweet Tooth on TV is more colorful and optimistic because of how much pop culture has embraced stories about dark post-apocalypses since the comic first hit shelves.
2009, Sweet Tooth was Lemire’s way of making his mark on a sci-fi subgenre that he’d eagerly devoured while growing up. “I mean, it’s only been 12 years or whatever, but in that 12 years the world’s changed a lot. And also we’ve seen a ton of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction on screen since then. Jim [Mickle, who created the Sweet Tooth series,] felt, and I agreed, that if we were going to do a post-apocalyptic thing on TV, you needed to find a new angle on it, or else some of that visual language would start to feel a bit tired.”
He also simply feels burnt out on post-apocalypse as a fan, not just a creator. “I loved it growing up, but I don’t find myself seeking it out anymore. [...] I like that the show feels like a fresh take on it, where it’s kind of a welcoming place to go to.” And then, of course, there’s the perspective of living through an actual global pandemic and the changes it forced on society. The first episode of Sweet Tooth was filmed in 2019, with the crew only able to return to New Zealand to continue filming in fall of 2020.
And so like its traveling protagonists, the Sweet Tooth TV series strives to discover something new in an environment already well-scavenged.
“[We were] thinking of it as a post-post-apocalyptic world,” Lemire said, “where you’re coming out of the ugliness, and the world is starting to return to nature; it seemed to fit really well with the themes that were already baked into the story. [...] I do think that there’s still quite a bit of darkness in the show, it’s just presented in a different way, and likewise, there’s a lot of heart in the comic was just presented maybe in a slightly different way. In the end it’s all the same characters, and they’re gonna be hitting all the same story beats. They might get there in a different way, or they might have added new characters and things, but on a whole, I feel like it really is still Sweet Tooth and I feel really happy with it.”
But the best part of having a sweeter Sweet Tooth on Netflix is that its creator gets to share it with his own son, Gus, who was born as he was working on the first few issues of Sweet Tooth the comic.
“Now, my Gus is basically the same age as the character Gus, and surviving a pandemic,” Lemire told Polygon. “So it’s the weirdest thing, but it’s cool to sit there and be able to watch it with him, and for him to ask me questions about it. ‘Is this in the book? Is that part in the book?’ and just me explaining ‘Oh, this part’s in the book, that part was a little different.’”