Some ideas are just ahead of their time.
The science-fiction action film “Snowpiercer” takes its name from its setting: a gargantuan train that has become humanity’s last refuge after a failed attempt at reversing climate change renders the earth otherwise unlivable. As it traverses the frozen remains of our planet, this 1,001-car behemoth houses a brutal dystopia where class divisions are rigidly enforced and where resources — as well as justice and equality — are in short supply.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho, who wrote the film with Kelly Masterson, “Snowpiercer” was a critically acclaimed cult hit when it was released (in 2013 in South Korea, and the following year in the United States) — a bleakly imaginative parable that seemed safely set in the faraway future.
Now “Snowpiercer” is back: On May 17, it makes its debut as a TNT drama series, adapted from the movie and the French graphic-novel series that inspired it, “Le Transperceneige.”
The “Snowpiercer” series is a big, ambitious and costly endeavor for TNT, with a cast that includes stars like Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs and with elaborate production design that aspires to equal or surpass the film’s. Before the network aired a single episode, it had already committed to two seasons — and scrapped an earlier pilot and creative team that it felt did not deliver on its vision.
But the world that this “Snowpiercer” arrives in is one that has moved incrementally closer to the catastrophe that the series anticipates. Though the themes of the show may be more resonant now, the people who made “Snowpiercer” cannot be sure whether it will be more compelling or more terrifying to audiences as a result.
The power of good science fiction, Diggs said, is a universality that extends beyond the moment in which it was created. “No matter what time we’re living in, it allows us to reflect on ourselves through a particular lens,” he said. “We certainly did not know that this would be the lens through which we’d be viewing our own show.”
Graeme Manson, the showrunner of “Snowpiercer,” acknowledged that achieving the right balance was tricky, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. He did not want the series to be seen solely as a bleak fiction, but neither did he want it to forsake its moral mission.
“I do think it has a duty to warn but also a duty to entertain, too,” Manson said. “I’m an optimistic person, but how do you balance optimism and activism?”
Manson is one of several people to have grappled with these questions during the show’s five-year development process. The television rights to “Snowpiercer” were acquired in 2015 by Tomorrow Studios, which signed up Josh Friedman, the creator of Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and a screenwriter of the upcoming “Avatar 2,” to write the pilot and run the series.
TNT picked up the project as a pilot the next year, hoping that “Snowpiercer” would follow the successful trajectory of its other post-apocalyptic dramas like “Falling Skies,” an alien invasion series that it ran from 2011 to 2015, and “The Last Ship,” a pandemic survival thriller that aired from 2014 to 2018.
Cast members who signed on included Connelly (an Academy Award-winner for “A Beautiful Mind,” playing her first series TV role in 20 years) and Diggs (a Tony Award-winner for “Hamilton”), as well as Alison Wright (“The Americans”) and Mickey Sumner (“Frances Ha”). The filmmaker Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange”) was hired to direct the pilot episode.
But at the start of 2018, with the pilot completed, Friedman was dropped from the project and replaced by Manson, a co-creator of “Orphan Black.” Derrickson left soon after, writing on Twitter that Friedman’s script was “the best I’ve ever read” and that the pilot he had directed “may be my best work.” (Derrickson declined to comment for this article; an agent for Friedman did not respond to a request for comment.)
Marty Adelstein, the chief executive of Tomorrow Studios, said that the original “Snowpiercer” pilot “had a lot of beautiful things in it” but “it was too long and didn’t portray the story.” Brett Weitz, the general manager of TNT, TBS and TruTV, said that “Snowpiercer” should be “premium, populist content” and the earlier pilot “just wasn’t that.”
Manson continued to work with the cast that had been hired for Friedman’s incarnation of the show and met with several actors individually to chart a path forward.
Diggs, who plays the show’s lead — an oppressed bottom-class passenger named Andre Layton, who is offered the opportunity to investigate a murder in the train’s opulent first-class section — said he had been permitted more input into that revision process than he expected.
“When things started to change direction, I was like, well, is this now the same project I signed up for?” Diggs said. “But we were consulted a lot, in a way that’s probably pretty uncommon.” He said the Layton character retained its fundamental attributes, particularly “his belief in the need for revolution.”
Connelly, who plays Melanie Cavill, the head of the train’s hospitality services, said that with her role, “the bare bones remained the same: her personality, a little bit of her story.” But in the reconceived version of the show, Connelly said, “the spin on her was different — this is definitely a different iteration of her.”
Beneath Cavill’s formidable exterior, Connelly said, the character’s journey, like the show itself, offered “a very human story about love and loss, pain and recovery.”
As he reworked “Snowpiercer,” Manson wanted to place the show in the tradition of what he called “existential sci-fi,” he said, meaning genre fiction that seeks “to address social realities in what’s actually quite an absurd premise.”
Though some elements of “Snowpiercer” might be blatantly, scientifically unsound, Manson said that the show’s commentary on climate change and other solvable environmental crises was pointedly aimed at a present-day audience.
The inhabitants of Snowpiercer are “so close to the end of the world and riddled with the guilt of losing the planet through their own actions,” he said. “It’s our current guilt, too, at what we’re doing to the earth and what we’re doing to each other.”
James Hawes, a veteran director of genre shows like “Black Mirror,” “Penny Dreadful” and “Doctor Who,” was brought into direct the new pilot. Hawes (who is also an executive producer of “Snowpiercer” and directed later episodes of the series) said that sets were rebuilt to move and turn like actual train cars, and to provide each section of Snowpiercer with a distinct identity: sumptuous first-class cars for its elite passengers near the head of the train; cramped, industrial compartments for its underclass, rear-car residents, known as “tailies”; aquariums and greenhouses for the fish and flora it preserves.
Hawes said that he, Manson and their art department worked to furnish Snowpiercer with technological innovations that its passengers would have developed during their time on the train.
“After seven and a half years of going around the world, what have you managed to invent, to improvise, from the stuff that’s around you?” he said.
Bong, now a three-time Oscar-winner for “Parasite,” is an executive producer of the “Snowpiercer” series and visited its set in Vancouver, British Columbia. Manson and Hawes said they were admirers of his “Snowpiercer” film and inspired by it, but they also said they were not required to follow it like a blueprint.
“We wanted to be aware of it, and harness it, but never be limited by it,” Hawes said. “You need much more story to keep 10 episodes, let alone multiple seasons, going.” (A representative for Bong said that the director “has been focusing on his family during this time” and was not available for comment.)
No one can predict how viewers will respond to a show like “Snowpiercer,” with its stark depictions of life-or-death stakes, during this time. As the debut approaches — TNT moved its premiere date ahead by two weeks amid a growing appetite for new content while audiences shelter in place — its cast and creators understand that the coronavirus pandemic will be at the forefront of viewers’ minds, even if the parallels are not entirely intentional.
“Everyone on that train has been separated from their communities, the lives that they lived, the places that they loved,” Connelly said. “We didn’t imagine that, by time this show came out, we would all be living a version of that.”
Manson, the “Snowpiercer” showrunner, said it was inevitable that real-world events would gradually draw closer to the calamitous forecasts of science fiction. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “I’ve been expecting it.”
Manson described himself as having grown up in the Cold War “with a sense of fatalism” and as a fan of authors like William Gibson, who wrote speculative fiction in which “there’s no wool on the eyes.” When your sensibilities are forged by that kind of work, Manson said, “There’s something in your gut that tells you, don’t be complacent.”
He was skeptical that his brand of storytelling could prevent the kinds of catastrophes it predicts. “What does a TV series really do?” Manson said. “You hope you open some eyes. I have some doubts and questions about its efficacy to change.” But he added that “if reality and fiction can align at the moment that something is broadcast, it can have an impact and make people think.”
Connelly said that she did not see “Snowpiercer” as “just dark and dystopian.” The series, she said, is “asking relevant questions about the use and abuse of resources and the choices made by the people who have the power to distribute them. That can lead to change and to something really positive.”
“Snowpiercer” is also, Connelly said, “a show that’s full of hope” — one that reminds audiences that champions can emerge even in the most dire of circumstances. One that finds hopefulness in its characters’ efforts to stay alive.
“They’re struggling to find meaning in their existence,” she explained. “The show is saying: ‘This is what they are going through — how will they respond? How will they go on?’ Meanwhile, there is humor, as there is in life. And even in the darkest times, there’s joy and there’s love, and there’s sadness and beauty.”