New Netflix drama Sweet Tooth follows in the footsteps of shows like The Umbrella Academy or Jupiter’s Legacy in bringing a popular graphic novel to life – but unusually, the creators of the series didn’t want to make the series more gritty or grown-up for their new platform.
In fact, they wanted Jeff Lemire’s original 2010 story (which imagines a post-pandemic world of hybrid human/animal children and those that hunt them for science) to be less dark in its new incarnation, as executive producer Susan Downey explained to us in May 2021.
“We wanted to make some adjustments from the comic book, which is a bit dark, sort of more traditional post apocalyptic,” she told RadioTimes.com. “We felt there was a real opportunity in Sweet Tooth to get a wide kind of broad family audience. I know, it’s something I’d want to watch with my kids.
“And so we wanted to create a world that was a bit more inviting, and what maybe you can get away with in the comic book, but we just felt like we’d never seen anything like it on television. There’s nothing on like, like it on television now. So therein was the opportunity.”
So how was this even sweeter Sweet Tooth brought to life, and what changes were actually made? We chatted to Downey and showrunners Beth Schwartz and Jim Mickle to find out – as well as to discover what our real-life pandemic helped inspire in their fictional one.
“It’s an incredible adventure of a young deer-boy, who is going to experience the world and find friends and family in places he could never have imagined,” Downey said.
“We’re experiencing so much of the show through Gus’ eyes, who is our young deer-boy and is just filled with hope and optimism and a bit of naiveté. We really wanted to experience the possibilities in the world after something’s happened, as opposed to, you know, some of the harsher realities.”
Sweet Tooth comic to screen
While the basic story of Sweet Tooth remains roughly the same onscreen as it was in Lemire’s original comic (pictured), some key characters were changed or expanded including Nonso Anozie’s Jepp and Dania Ramirez’s Aimee.
“In the comic book, Jepp was a hockey player, and we switched him to an American football player, we did little things like that,” Susan Downey told RadioTimes.com.
“But the real kind of spirit, the essence of it, we stayed true to.”
The bigger changes, in fact, came less from the story itself and from the way in which that story was told, with the Sweet Tooth adaptation taking a lighter touch (and brighter visual style) compared to the dark telling of the original comic.
“I think the biggest shift was aesthetically, we just wanted to make this world much more vibrant and lush, and kind of create real space for this exciting adventure,” Downey said.
“And I think that, you know, the comic book stayed in a little bit of a darker place.”
“Keeping the stakes, and the drama, while also keeping it hopeful, was definitely a challenge,” agreed co-showrunner Beth Schwartz.
“We want it to be a dystopian fairy tale. However, we don’t want to be so completely ‘fairy tale’ that you don’t feel the real emotions of our characters, and that you don’t feel like it’s a totally different world. So it’s probably a large challenge in terms of bringing it to life.”
“When I read it in 2010 when it first came out, it was sort of ushering in this new wave of apocalyptic storytelling,” added co-showrunner Jim Mickle. “That was a big year for that kind of thing.
“And suddenly, looking at it again in 2016 or 2017, it suddenly felt like everything had sort of purged that story, or stolen from that story – you know, its apocalyptic ideas. And the world itself, I think, in the years since, had mirrored a lot that was going on.
“There was a lot of stuff that was like, ‘This almost feels too on the nose now.’ So it was also a matter of going through it, and finding a fairy tale aspect – I think that was a big one, because it suddenly made everything a bit more timeless, and feeling like it was happening right now. But that was one of the tricks.
“We had to do what Jeff did, but do it years after the world had changed, really, and stories had changed.”
Speaking of world-changing events…
Sweet Tooth and coronavirus
Fans may be quick to notice that (as with many series over the last year) Sweet Tooth has some notable parallels with the coronavirus pandemic, with the deadly pandemic (called “The Sick” in the comic and show) Lemire created in 2010 updated to be more like a kind of flu, inspiring the survivors to turn to temperature guns, social distancing, personalised facemasks and hand sanitiser to stay well.
However, some of these changes from the source material were apparently a coincidence, with Mickle and Schwartz noting that a lot of the work on the series had been completed long before the world had heard of COVID-19.
“The pilot was written and shot in 2019, so it was all before COVID,” Mickle told us. “And in the book – you know, that was one of the changes. In the comic, I feel like the disease is much more of a 28 Days Later kind of thing. You know, people get pus-y, and they get growths on their face, and it feels a little zombie-like.
“That was one of the things as we were trying to update because it felt like we’d seen that over the years. We started looking into superbugs, because at the time, that was a big thing. we kind of leaned into that of like: what if it was just a really intense flu, basically? And in a way, you know, COVID wound up resembling us a lot more than we, obviously, ever expected.”
However, when it came to production the pair did take some inspiration from our own real-life pandemic, noting that their audience would now be more familiar with the strictures of a pandemic than they could have predicted when writing the scripts.
“We had broken an entire season and written up to three scripts before the world ended and we moved into the Zoom room,” Schwartz told us. “In terms of story, we didn’t really change any of our plot points or episodes. But, you know, there were some details that we did add during production.
“In a way, it helped us… we didn’t have to go too deep into explaining to our audience, ‘This is the pandemic. This is what happened.’ We could do it with simple nods, like the hand sanitiser, or the ‘6ft apart’ sign that everyone kind of understood.”
“I mean, so much of it Jeff Lemire had already kind of thought through and created for it. But I think once you’ve lived through something, you know, people are going to have a sense of their own reality for it,” Downey agreed.
“There are little details like the personal face masks and some of the temperature checks and those kinds of things. They were actually in there already, but we just knew to make sure that we really displayed them. So it had a sense of realness that we’re all used to.”
And in fact, real life ended up proving stranger than fiction when it came to some pandemic responses.
“I remember in episode three, one of the writers had written than one of the characters had a bedazzled mask,” Mickle recalled. “At the time, it just felt like, ‘Wow, we’ve really gone extreme. It’s going to get bad, but it’s not going to get to that point.’
“I remember having to have a really hard conversation, or an internal conversation, about: ‘We can’t go so far that we push this into parody.’ And literally, it was a month later that everybody had personalised masks!”
In other words, watch out – real-life kids with antlers could be just around the corner…
Also, if you want to know more about the show’s beautiful scenic backdrop, you can read our guide to where Sweet Tooth was filmed.