The Strain is a book written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan and first released in 2009. It’s the first book in a series followed by The Fall and The Night Eternal. I reviewed The Strain back in 2009 and you can check out the full review here, I also pulled in my friend Val to do another review which you can find here. If you don’t want to read both reviews let me give you the highlights. We both agreed that The Strain featured a fascinating update to the vampire myth. del Toro and Hogan took familiar elements of vampire folklore and gave them reasoned scientific approach (with the exception of the whole won’t cross running water thing) while at the same time equating the notion of vampirism with that of a virus or parasite. I found that del Toro and Hogan while having a fascinating take on vampires were not terribly great at their character creating a handful of characters that were boring and uninspired and several who were downright fascinating and woefully underexplored. By and large both Val and myself found the The Strain to be a enjoyable and entertaining update to the vampire myth.
Needless to say I was definitely excited about the prospect of The Strain as a television series. del Toro is a masterful visual artist and his distinct eye and unique vision are always a pleasure to watch. Given that the novel had a certain amount of cinematic flair to it it seemed certain that very little would have to be discarded in order to make an entertaining television show. Turns out I was a little bit wrong about that as the pilot episode of The Strain is an enormous mess.
The biggest setback, and an obvious clue to the tonal shift of the series is the lack of the folktale which opens the novel. Told to Abraham Setrakian by his grandmother the tale sets up the myth of the vampire and provides some wonderful foreshadowing not only with regards to the dangers about to descend on New York but also the familial link between Setrakian and the Master. Setrakian’s narration over the opening of The Strain is nice but lacks the same emotional impact as that of the book and there is very little to indicate. Rather than linger on the myth and legend of the vampire The Strain jumps straight into the descent of the plane that will bring death and destruction to Manhattan.
This change, the move away from the slow reveal, is the hallmark of the series so far. Narrative elements and information that were trickled out slowly over the course of the novel, in an effort to build tension, are dumped in your lap wholesale over the course of the first episode. The series goes for shock and awe over the slow build of tension and suffers as a result.
While character was not strong suit of the novel, the television series takes things one step farther. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, nominally our hero, is a total and complete jackass. In the book he was obviously driven by his work but Corey Stoll’s performance amps up the character’s arrogance making Eph seem like a complete and total asshat. Eph’s milk “addiction” (he drinks milk because he won’t drink alcohol) is actually more stupid in the show than it was in the book; thanks largely to the total lack of explanation. Dr. Goodweather is not divorced from his wife, merely separated, making his affair with his co-worker, Dr. Nora Martinez, something far more unsavory than a simple one-night stand. Eph’s arrogance seems further complicated by the unnecessary fact that he, for no reason I can determine, drives a British car with the steering wheel on the wrong side.
On the up side is the fact that Mia Meastro’s portrayal of Dr. Nora Martinez is strong however her seeming devotion to Eph feels like a sort of twisted codependency. Maestro sells that devotion but the script doesn’t really help the viewer understand why she’s so devoted to him. David Bradley is definitely the highlight so far. His portrayal of Abraham Setrakian strikes the right balance between crazy and badass. The imminently recognizable Francis Capra makes an appearance as a seemingly minor character, Gus’ brother Crisipin (I think). The role of Gus is in the hands of Miguel Gomez who does a passable job. The introduction of Richard Sammel’s Thomas Eichorst takes some of the fun out of the vampire reveal and means a reduction in the role of Mr. Fitzwilliam (a huge disservice to Continuum’s Roger R. Cross) at least in the pilot.
Given how fast the pilot moves, it covers what felt like about the first third of the book (minus the historical interludes), I’m not sure how much the tv series can stick to the same progression as the book. The whole episode just felt off and it moved so fast, and revealed so much that there was never a moment of real tension. It doesn’t help things when the lead character is a complete jerk. The weakness of Ephraim’s character was mitigated in the book by the large stretches of time spent with Setrakian and Gus but neither of those characters get as much screen time as they did page time. I’ll be sticking with The Strain for a while yet, it’s possible it might improve, but the television series not only has the same problems as the book but actually manages to make them worse.