What would you say to a heartwarming comedy about a teenage psychopath running away with the girl he intends to make his first murder victim? If you’re anything like me, you probably skipped The End of the Fucking World when the show first aired. The premise is eye-catching, but there are so many ways it could go wrong, and in this day and age, we have so many more options open to us. Giving attention to the show about the murder child seems like a bit of a moral decision on the part of the viewer, no?
But once you’ve run through the retinue of popular series (or in my case, thirst for new shows based on comic books), you might start wondering what the fuss is about. I had watched the whole first episode long before I decided to just dive in, get my hands on the book, and plan for a review, regardless of whether I ended up liking the show.
Spoiler alert: I did. I’m still skeptical that either version of the story overcomes the sometimes puerile violence of the premise and plot, but it is sweet, it is thoughtful, and it ultimately knows what it’s doing. I won’t say it’s worth a watch for everyone, but if you’re curious about adaptations, take notice of it.
Lesson #4: Grow
Love, and Murder?
I really ought to acknowledge SarahZ and her video on The End of the Fucking World, because to be honest, I didn’t even realize the show was based on a graphic novel at first. Her video is also an adaptation analysis, so while I think I hit different talking points for the most part, hers is worth a look as well.
The setup for both the book and the show is simple: James is a disturbed boy who feels few if any emotions and has a fascination with harm. He recognizes that his thought process works differently than other people’s, and he leans into it, preparing himself for what he imagines is his inevitable fate as a murderer. A girl at school starts paying attention to him, and he leans into this as well, forging a relationship. He decides that she must be his first victim. During a spur-of-the-moment fight with his father, James runs off and steals his car, Alyssa tagging along.
From there, grim chaos ensues as he and Alyssa try to find her estranged father. They find themselves in hot water with their parents, the law, and a host of the world’s creeps. As Alyssa becomes more canny to the sort of person James really is, James starts to realize those weird feelings he has for Alyssa might not be wholly murder-induced. Alyssa lives through the distress of seeing her boyfriend murder someone and realizing her father isn’t all he seems at first, and James comes to terms with his own trauma of seeing his mother kill herself when he was a child. Eventually, Alyssa comes to understand James in a way that isn’t really healthy but satisfies her, and James sacrifices himself in the name of love.
It’s a very odd, surprisingly sweet story. As you might be able to tell, it also has Problems.
While both the book and the show have empathy at their core, ultimately telling a story about trauma and the difficulty of expressing one’s emotions, neither of them really overcomes the grim premise. James kills animals, kills a person, and threatens Alyssa. Yet, because we learn that he’s damaged, and because he saves Alyssa later, we’re supposed to accept that he loves her, and it’s cute?
Well, yeah, sort of.
The story doesn’t set a good precedent, to the point where I kind of feel like it really ought to have some sort of discussion attached to it, to explain that in reality, boys who act like James are not likely to come around. People with disturbing tendencies that include fantasies of hurting others, and who actually go through with them, often do it because they like seeing people suffer, not because they’re suffering themselves. James is a fantasy, not a role model. That the story ends with Alyssa idolizing him and defending his actions is somewhat irresponsible, and the message that girls should put up with violent boys because they have something deeper worth digging to is hazardous. It’s led to more than a few tragedies in real life, and most of those don’t end with a heroic sacrifice by said boy.
With this in mind, though, I don’t think the story itself is necessarily advocating for anyone to mimic the actions of the characters. The End of the Fucking World is much more like Romeo and Juliet — the actual play, not just people’s pop-culture perceptions of it — in that it’s a tragedy. Two fucked-up kids make terrible decisions, leading to dire consequences that chase them until they can’t run any longer. They stick together through adversity, mistaking this and their lack of other realistic options for love. In the book, Alyssa makes it through her ordeal while James doesn’t, but she remains obsessed with him to the point of harming herself in opposition to those who see her as his victim and nothing else. The book frames this as significant for Alyssa and the audience alike, but because the book allows for ample interpretation, it’s perfectly acceptable to read the final scenes as upsetting as well.
In any event, it’s largely the delivery that makes the story worth telling, and that’s what drew me to the adaptation. The show and the book are both highly emotional, artistic, and in their own weird ways, charming, but despite hitting most of the same plot points beat-for-beat, they go about their delivery in crucially different ways.
The first thing I think many people notice going from the book to the show or vice-versa is the visual style. I haven’t come across many adaptations so disparate in their visual identities. The book is minimalistic, entirely monochrome with very little shading and linework that, while evocative, is sketchy and uneven, emphasizing every quaver of the pen. The show, meanwhile, is vibrant, lush, and richly detailed. This divergence goes far beyond the simple transition from book to live-action film, as both media seem to opt for opposite extremes.
And yet, the show doesn’t do so in disdain for its source material. In fact, the opening is filmed to closely parallel the opening few pages, while also highlighting the unique features of the show — that it’s brighter, and British. It’s no less disturbing, but the contrast between the almost child-like color palate and the morbid material sets the show up to be far more comedic. The book, meanwhile, features small, square panels that provide little context and ample empty space, encouraging the reader to slow down and breathe in everything the panels do provide.
The respective styles of the two iterations extend beyond the layout of each shot, and into the pacing and editing as well. The graphic novel alternates text and images, a technique that isn’t unique among graphic novels, but is somewhat unusual. Dialogue is fairly light, and scenes transition with little additional context. For instance, at the end of the first chapter, the characters run off in James’ father’s car, but a few pages later, we see the car upended off the road and the characters travel on foot for most of the rest of the book, the accident never mentioned directly. It’s a small thing, but there are a lot of scenes that similarly breeze by unnoticed, but add a layer of turmoil to the story upon further inspection. The simple art style and the fast transitions allow these moments to hit hard when they finally click. Much of the story is communicated through ambiguity, so moments of clarity, especially violent ones, come into almost uncomfortably sharp focus.
The show, meanwhile, is a bit tamer in its delivery as well as its story, generally using common film techniques that audiences see in other prestige and entertainment television. In order to fill the runtime, the show generally adds content and clarifies scenes it takes from the books, giving more time to character reactions and establishing shots. The editing is sometimes fast-paced, as in the opening, which mirrors the jittery pacing of the book through the use of montage and stills. At times, it has almost an air of Wes Anderson about it. However, many of the choices that make the show more conventional still nod to meaningful parts of the book, such as numerous wide shots and extended quiet moments that hearken back to the larger panels of the book.
Ultimately, as the show aims for humor over solemnity, it tends to make stylistic changes that better fit a comedy than the strange little art piece that is the book. Part of this is commercial, so I tend to think it’s a bit dull compared to the unique look of the graphic novel, but it’s pleasant viewing nonetheless. A good eye for cinematography and skill in editing for comedy bump the show up a notch above its competition, and as it comes into its own story, I think it might in a good place to explore new avenues where it can flex its artistic muscles.
When it comes to adaptations, though, most of the alteration that people care about comes down to story, more than aesthetics.
The End of the Fucking World, like many comics and graphic novels, is well-suited to becoming a television series, at least structurally. Its sixteen chapters revolve around a single encounter or mini arc, and so although much shorter than an episode of television by script or reading time, it isn’t difficult to combine or extend them. As the pacing of the book alternates between slow, ambiguous scenes and montages that can pass weeks, the show can use the book as a guideline and fill in important moments that it feels merit more exploration. As a result, many scenes of the show run parallel to the book, right down to the dialogue.
I probably wouldn’t be talking about it, though, if it were a straight adaptation. I like my adaptations with spines and lasers and weird tumors sticking out of the side.
There are several small differences between the book and the show, but the ones I see as most important are the tone and character expansion. Yes, there’s an odd thing about satanists and Alyssa’s father being a drug addict that are cut or changed in the show, and the order of events is altered a bit, but these only matter in light of the more consistent changes between the iterations.
The book is bittersweet and somber, but rarely if every funny, or even amusing. The characters are constantly in danger or distress, so the closest the book ever comes to giving the characters a chance to breathe is in moments where the protagonists are building their relationship or expressing themselves, such as when Alyssa stops to breathe in her surroundings or dances to an old record.
The show has these moments, too, but it often punctuates or accents them with comedy, adding a small joke to the end of a somber moment, or interrupting a more serious scene with a light aside. I maintain that switching between drama and comedy is far more difficult than shifting the intensity of a dramatic situation alone, and I won’t say that the show accomplishes this without any difficulty, but it manages admirably much of the time. As the series goes on, the characters settle into their roles more effectively, and the comedy balance generally improves.
The second major change, and the reason for many of the new scenes in the show, is that side characters are greatly expanded upon, and this in turn has a favorable reflection on the two protagonists. James’ father and Alyssa’s mother barely appear in the book at all, and only two other characters even appear in more than one chapter — the satanist who is the book’s main antagonist, and Alyssa’s father.
Alyssa’s father plays a large role in the show as well, bonding with her and James while they hang out in his trailer, before turning them in to the police. The satanist is cut from the first season of the show entirely in favor of a duo of lesbian cops trying to figure out how to navigate an awkward one-night stand and a working relationship. This is a good change all around. The cops provide a lens to how the families are dealing with their children running away, and they eventually have to break the news of the murder to them as well.
All of these side characters are well-developed and the relationships they forge with the main characters, despite few direct interactions, are unique enough that they stand out. I love how one of the cops is enthusiastic for the prospect of their relationship and is willing to bend the rules more than the other, who is more typically by-the-book and frankly a bit embarrassed about the whole one-night stand. James’ father is a kind man who remains willfully oblivious to his child’s unusual behaviors and has a hard time accepting that James could harm anyone. Alyssa’s mother is often absent from her life, and her stepfather is predatory. Her birth father, who she hasn’t seen in years, turns out to be little better, a generally kinder person, but a philanderer and a drug dealer who would readily sell his family down the river if he came out of it better in the end.
All of these characters interact with the protagonists at various points in the narrative, and set the stage for James and Alyssa’s motivations. Of course, they are still supporting characters, and as in most stories, this one isn’t exclusively about them.
The most important element of The End of the Fucking World is the two main characters. James is the one who gets the introduction and conclusion, and because Alyssa is far more normal, James tends to get more attention within the story, but I want start by talking about Alyssa and where she fits in.
We see into Alyssa’s head periodically throughout the story, and in the middle of the tale, we get an extended sequence of her on her own. Alyssa is a normal kid. A weird kid, but a normal weird kid. She doesn’t relate to her peers, which is what draws her to James in the first place. She’s the sort of person who would break into someone’s house or run away from home, but once she actually does these things, she doesn’t really know where to go from there. Living rough and getting away with petty crimes sounds great to her on paper, and she’ll push to actually have these novel experiences. Once the initial thrill rubs away, though, Alyssa is lost, frightened, too scared to go back for fear of reprimand, but also cognizant of the bad place she’s in. She doesn’t seem to have a solution to it, so she latches onto whatever’s available. Often, it’s James.
In the book, Alyssa is often a fairly passive agent — apt to voice her opinion when angry, but more innocent and carefree when not in immediate danger. This is partly due to the general expressionlessness of the characters as illustrated, but as the story goes on, Alyssa tends to show more apprehension and frustration with her circumstances.
The show’s version of the character is a bit more sporadic, proactive at the start of the story and far more persistent than James. Many of the added scenes expand upon the characters’ roles, one of which is a montage that features Alyssa actively pursuing James because he’s the weird kid in school. Both of the characters are given more backstory as well, so Alyssa’s obstinate acting out is in response to her catty mother and her frankly creepy stepfather. In response to their expectations that she act like a typical daughter, Alyssa lashes out. She dislikes authority figures and is generally the leader of her and James’ adventure into the unknown.
However, all of this changes when about halfway into the story, she and James break into a house and realize the man living there is a serial killer. In the book, the man comes home while James and Alyssa are sleeping together in his bed, trapping the two of them in the house. James tells Alyssa he has a plan, and hides while the man comes into the bedroom, then kills him when he starts talking to Alyssa. Alyssa is understandably freaked out, at which point James shows her photographs he found of the man’s victims.
The scene in the show plays out in a similar way, with much of the same dialogue, but the crucial difference is that James is already hiding in the bedroom, waiting to murder Alyssa. He hesitates when she comes in, but when the homeowner returns and comes onto her, that’s when he springs into action and kills the man.
This is the first time in either iteration that James shows his propensity for violence in front of Alyssa. The book characters initially seem to get over it quickly, but Alyssa grows increasingly aware of James’ lack of emotional response to this and other serious situations. Eventually, this leads her to abandon him at a bus stop and amble about for a bit in the city. She starts to regret her decision, worrying that he’s going to be unable to take care of himself and get shot by the police — which is what eventually happens. Throughout the rest of the book, though, she’s more nervous, more confrontational, and far more suspicious, of James and everyone else around her.
In the show, Alyssa has less response to the murder than James himself does, and it takes her a while to fully express her feelings about it. James eventually explains, sort of, but Alyssa initiates them cleaning up the house and tries to dispose of the body even before then. She grows paranoid in the next few scenes, abandoning James, and only returning to him, as in the book, when she realizes how alone she is and that she doesn’t really have many other options at the moment. But rather than become more confrontational as the season continues, Alyssa generally becomes softer, especially on James, and more gullible. She starts to trend toward violence herself on a few occasions, but otherwise seeks affection and vulnerability, first in James, and then in her father, to the point of missing obvious red flags.
James, meanwhile, is fairly consistent between the two narratives, with one crucial difference: in the show, he is not actually a psychopath. The book implies that he might not be either, as he shows a lack of self-preservation instinct and very little emotional response in general, but in the show, he quickly becomes sickened by his previous thoughts and actions when he murders an actual person. James shows little outward response aside from vomiting immediately after, but he continues to have flashbacks to the murder, and later in the story when he and Alyssa come across a fatally-injured dog, James can’t work up the stomach to put it out of its misery. His arc toward the latter half of the first season becomes less about him coming to love Alyssa than him relying on Alyssa to show him how to be an ordinary non-serial-killer human being.
In either version, James is awkward and frequently emotionless, which he interprets to mean that he is not like other people. He starts the story violent, killing animals and injuring himself in an effort to feel something. Initially, he lets Alyssa dote on him because he figures he’ll end up hurting her as well and isn’t opposed to the idea, but as he continues to delay violence toward her and protects her from the serial killer instead, he starts to realize he genuinely likes her.
The book isn’t really much more than that. James dies at the end, still protecting Alyssa and still being violent, but coming to understand at least a little, in his own words, “what people mean to each other.” He finally confesses his love to Alyssa, amidst the police closing in on them. He tries to get Alyssa to say that she was kidnapped so that she won’t be blamed for any of their crimes, and then he goes out in a blaze of glory. It’s an unfortunate and melodramatic ending, but it’s kind of the best this particular character might have hoped for. The story relies on the tragic death at the end, and although various adults throughout the book show some degree of sympathy toward the two teens, no one so much as implies that James would receive a particularly warm welcome should he survive, regardless of the circumstances. At best, he could hope to live out his life in a high-security mental facility, and at worst, he might be executed anyway.
The show softens the character quite a bit, especially in its latter half. Part of this is because James has to shoulder some of the comedy of the series, and part of it is because the show remains open-ended for another season or two.
Which is a curious statement, because the show ends in much the same way as the book, with the same sort of shot (pun intended).
Aside from James having a bad reaction to, well, murder, he also tries to turn himself in at one point. The show much more explicitly links his past trauma to his behaviors as an adolescent, and the character seems somewhat aware of this as well. Dazed, he turns himself in, but then turns around to report his mother’s suicide instead, despite the fact that she died eleven years ago, when he was, like, five. It’s one of my favorites of the added scenes, and it’s a good encapsulation of what the series offers. It’s darkly funny and awkward, but also offers a rare moment for the character to open up. There are a few similar moments that delve a bit further into James’ character, which tend to transition a bit more cleanly in the show compared to the book because of its lighter tone.
One of the main merits of the book is that it is self-contained, all of its story wrapped up in the events it depicts. Its narrative is often bare-bones, with few characters, few lines, and really, compared to other graphic novels of its sort, very few pages. I’m not entirely enthusiastic about its dour ending, and even less so about its somewhat fetishistic epilogue, but I can’t deny that it ties everything up in a nice, neat bow.
The show does that, too. Then the show got greenlit for a second season.
To me, this would seem an odd choice given the story doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. I suppose seeing the characters recover from the aftermath of their run from the law could be compelling, and just because there’s not really anything more from the book to adapt, doesn’t mean the adaptation can’t run its own course. It has enough groundwork, with the expanded characters, to at least set up a new narrative for these characters to pursue.
I won’t really talk about the second season much, mainly because I’m not finished with it yet and because it doesn’t really factor into the adaptation as much. It’s more of a sequel, really, specifically a sequel to the show and not the book, although it does feature a character playing the role of the vengeful satanist who was originally cut from the first season. I don’t disparage the series this choice; from what I’ve seen, it generally knows what it can add, and the people behind the production are talented enough to make it work.
I do question its longevity, though. The book is short for a reason: it has to be. While Alyssa and James can evade the law for as long as the writers can keep coming up with compelling adventures for them to have, stories with a focus on character have to be punctuated by unique emotional plot points that build upon one another. Repetition becomes tedious and diminishes the eventual outcome a series intends. If you want to have the full impact of the characters getting caught, it’s going to be difficult to put the characters back into that same situation. The second season almost opens up the possibility of an anthology format, this season focused on Bonnie as its new psychopath stand-in. James and Alyssa are still the main characters, but Bonnie is arguably the one with the more emotional journey. James and Alyssa’s story is largely complete, so should the show want to continue further, I could see them becoming background characters themselves over time.
But it does beg the question of when a series becomes overgrown. As is sometimes the case with miniseries, the success of the first season prompted the show to open up to continuation, but it was not originally designed for it. The showrunner has stated that they weren’t opposed to a second season, and the expansion of the original story made for the adaptation clearly allows it to some degree or another. But the first season was not designed with a long series in mind, and given how closely it sticks to its source material, I’m not sure it was even specifically adapted for a second season initially. The second season is good so far, and I don’t regret that it was made. I do think that this is the sort of series that should stop while it’s ahead, though. Too often, a clever series is driven into the ground because it’s pushed far beyond its natural lifespan. I think this is becoming less frequent as a whole, and if anything, many series are ending perhaps a bit too early for their narratives to cope, but it’s certainly a consideration for The End of the Fucking World.
In the meantime, though, the writer has expressed comfort with the series sitting at two seasons, and as far as what exists here now, it’s a pleasant size.