When Channel 4 thriller Utopia was cancelled in 2014, fans were outraged. Now, they’d never see how Dennis Kelly’s twisted story – which involved a fake flu virus, forced sterilisation and plenty of graphic violence – would pan out, with the playwright’s strange new world cut off ahead of its time.
Now, as the series is remade for a US audience on Amazon Prime Video, some version of Utopia can live on. But how different will the American version of Utopia be from the British? According to screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who consulted closely with Kelly during the adaptation process, picking where to make changes was key to the new series’ success.
“I’ve never understood that idea of remaking something, desperately devoted to being exactly like the thing that you were remaking,” Flynn told RadioTimes.com.
“Because as Dennis himself would constantly tell me, if I was like ‘did I go too far?’ when I sent him a new script, he’d say ‘no – why remake something if you’re not going to remake it?’.
“Which was very very chivalrous of him, and much more gracious than I would be if someone was f**king around in my world that I’d created.”
As a matter of fact, the new Utopia does share a lot with the British version – the first two episodes follow it extremely closely, and almost all the characters fill similar roles and have the same names – but it also strikes out into pastures new, adding new characters and storylines while also making stylistic choices at odds with the original.
In short, the 2020 Utopia is the same, but different. And chatting to Flynn and her cast on the Chicago set of the drama last year, we found out just how those differences are manifested.
Check out the biggest changes below, but first why not check out this quick video recap of the original UK Utopia (above)? Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s probably high time to refresh your memory…
Without giving too much away, the initial storyline of Utopia remains fairly faithful to the original, featuring a gang of nerds who go on the run after their hunt for a legendary comic book (rumoured to predict the future) puts them in the crosshairs of a deadly organisation.
However, as the series continues the plot diverges more and more from Kelly’s original version, particularly when it comes to new characters like John Cusack’s Dr. Kevin Christie.
“There are several entirely new plotlines that I’ve introduced which include Johnny’s character… that’s a big diversion from the original,” Flynn told us, adding that she hoped to bring new depth to the existing characters of her Utopia thanks to the extended episode count (eight rather then six episodes).
“We had the decadence of having more episodes,” she said. “To me, it was cool to be able to explore all the characters a little bit more. My stuff has always been very character-driven.”
The remake also goes into some more depth about the titular graphic novel itself, which was only touched on in the UK original.
“We get to see more of Utopia, the actual graphic novel, because you know, again, in those five-six years since Dennis’s version, I feel like graphic novels have become very mainstream,” Flynn explained.
“We all know more about them, and even if you don’t read them, you’re aware of them. And I felt like I wanted to see more of what this thing was that people were on such a mission to use.”
“It feels like what Gillian did was just take the original and you know, use it as a launching pad,” series star Dan Byrd said.
“And then she just sort of built it out as much as she could and I think in doing that it will hopefully become a more accessible version of the show, a more Americanised version if you will.
“I think the comparison of the English Office to the American Office is probably a fair comparison of what we’re trying to transpose – this English Utopia into the American Utopia.”
And one of Byrd’s co-stars knows that process better than most…
“I really don’t like it when Americans remake British series,” quipped The Office star Rainn Wilson, who plays Dr Michael Stearns in Utopia.
“It never works out well. That’s part of why I knew I would take this job, because I’m sure it’s just gonna be one season and done. No-one wants to watch some tired rehash of a far superior British show.”
The tone and style
The UK Utopia was known for its eye-catching visual style and similarly bleak tone – and according to the cast, both of these aspects will be altered for the US version.
“The style of that show…. It was so visually appealing,” Ashleigh LaThrop, who plays Becky in the remake, told us. “Such bright contrasting colours.”
“It’s got that very kind of stark, like negative space look,” added co-star Dan Byrd, who plays Ian. “It’s a really such a unique distinct show, definitely got the feeling watching it that I didn’t know of any other shows that embodied that tone and that subject matter.
“It was definitely something to watch just to sort of get our bearings, but I think we knew that we couldn’t really try and simulate or even emulate anything that they’re doing because we wanted this to stand on its own two feet and we didn’t want to have somebody else’s interpretation.
“So I think visually that probably is… that’s less of the aesthetic than the English version had, more sort of grounded and tied into a more real life frequency.”
Rainn Wilson, meanwhile, suggested that the show could be less “bleak” for a US audience.
“The American business model for television is to reach 100 episodes so you get get syndication, and that’s where the real money is made. So if you make too bleak a show, you’re not going to reach a hundred episodes,” he explained.
“You know when you have Government-subsidised television, and you’re doing six episodes at a time, and you only make 13 episodes total, you don’t need numbers to make revenue. So you can afford to be more experimental. Television becomes this experimental artform, really.
“Whereas it’s so commodified in the United States. I’m not sure if I’d use the word bleak, but you certainly do want large numbers of people to watch, and it’s important that large numbers of people do watch.”
The existing characters
While key characters Ian, Becky, Wilson, Grant, Arby and Jessica Hyde are all present and correct in the US version and fill similar roles in the plot, the way the characters are presented is subtly different.
“With Dennis’s blessing it was interesting figuring out with these characters, where they came from and the answer was, to me, they actually come from a different place,” Flynn said.
“Jessica Hyde, especially. So, we switched that around.”
“The UK version of Jessica had more of a focus on… a style, kind of?” Sasha Lane, who plays Jessica in the remake, told RadioTimes.com and other press, noting that her performance was very different to that of original actor Fiona O’Shaughnessy.
“She was kind of flat in a way, which worked for that interpretation. But I wanted to play this character more like an animal.
“To be so cold, that means there’s something burning there, that has basically been hardened and to be this feral cat… there is a reason this person is always in attack mode, always terrified, always antsy and anxious all the time.”
Comic book nerds Ian and Becky (originally played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Alexandra Roach) are, by contrast, rather softened in the US version according to their new actors.
“I would say that my character is just a little bit meeker, initially at least, than in the original version of the show,” LaThrop said. “I think that’s the biggest difference is that she’s someone who just really really tries very hard to not step on anybody’s toes ever – she’s a people pleaser.
“And less of a potty mouth initially which is something that I missed…”
“I just remember in the English version he was like kind of a real hard-ass, had a real chip on his shoulder,” added Byrd. “So I think I’ve definitely softened that aspect of the character a lot.”
Of course there are plenty of new faces in the US Utopia as well, and the biggest new addition to the series is definitely John Cusack’s Dr Kevin Christie, who has no direct counterpart in the original UK story.
“My character, this whole storyline, is part of Gillian’s version of Utopia,” Cusack told RadioTimes.com and other press.
“I didn’t watch [the UK version] at all because my character wasn’t in it so I thought I’d react to it just how it was written on the page.”
“We can’t say tons about his character but his character has such a major arc to this show,” Flynn added.
Other new characters include Christie’s son Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) and Jessica Rothe’s Samantha, who joins the original gang of nerds in their quest to uncover Utopia, and Wilson’s scientist Michael Stearns, who gets sucked into a disease crisis as the series continues.
“My character’s a virologist, and previous to the start of the story had discovered a peculiar virus that existed among Peruvian pygmy bats,” Wilson said.
“And as he’s drawn into the story, he does have increasing interaction with John Cusack’s character. And Christie Corp, the biotech company that Christie has founded. So he kind of gets drawn into the Christie Corp world.”
While Kelly wrote two series of Utopia, Flynn has suggested that she won’t follow closely in his footsteps for a potential season two, as the conclusion to her season one is so markedly different.
“I didn’t even watch much of Dennis’s second season because mine goes to a different place and takes us to a different ending,” she said.
“We already are just dipping into season two. I won’t write every episode myself this time, that was exhausting, so we have our writers’ room. And I’ve told everyone – the world is open, let’s see what we want to do.”
In other words, the big changes for Utopia are just beginning. Die-hard fans had better be ready….
Utopia is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.