Last year when I visited Dreamworks Animation for a blogger day, the focus was on their two upcoming shows, Voltron: Legendary Defender and Home: Adventures with Tip and Oh. But we did get a very brief look at some art from Trollhunters, which the Dreamworks team was very excited about. Trollhunters had its first incarnation as a book by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus (with illustrations by Sean Murray), and was then adapted as a Netflix Original animated series by Dreamworks.
I finished reading the book recently and am about halfway through the animated series so far, and I was struck by the differences between the two—some minor, some major.
Some of the minor changes are things like the main character’s name: Jim Sturges Jr. in the book, Jim Lake in the show. Why? It’s not really clear, though in the book there’s a big deal made about his family name because, as it turns out, he comes from a line of warriors. A bigger change is that in the book, Jim lives with his dad—his mom left them when his dad’s extreme obsession with security and safety got to be too much; in the show, Jim lives with his mom—you find out later that his dad left, but so far I haven’t gotten any more details about the circumstances. But there does seem to be a big difference between a kid who grows up with an overprotective, too-attentive dad compared to a kid who grew up making meals for his single doctor mom who works extremely long hours. The Jim in the TV show seems capable and self-confident when you first meet him.
The biggest difference, I think, is that the book skews to an older audience—I would say it’s probably YA material, age 12 and up—but the TV show is rated 7 and up, perfect for fans of other Dreamworks shows like Dragons: Race to the Edge. I suppose it makes sense: the YA book market is strong and growing, but I don’t see as many fantasy cartoons that are made for teens and up. Excluding the younger crowd from the audience would probably not be a great move for Dreamworks and Netflix—but it does mean that some of what I see as del Toro’s signature elements are more easily found in the book form.
The trolls (and other monsters) in the book are creepier and the consequences seem more dire. The book actually opens with a scene from when Jim’s dad was a kid: it was a time when a lot of kids were disappearing (their faces appearing later on milk cartons), and Jim Sr. witnesses his older brother Jack get snatched up by a troll while they’re out riding their bikes. He never completely recovers from that, which explains all the locks on the front door, the steel shutters over the windows, the home security cameras. And what are the captured kids for? Well, they’re food for the trolls, plain and simple. Later on, the most of the trolls switched to four-legged food, like cats. I don’t feel like that’s made as explicit in the cartoon, in which they still like to eat cats, but don’t seem to be eating kids.
Take a look at the images at the top of this post. On the left is an early book cover illustration by Sean Murray featuring the main characters: Jim, the main character; “Tubby,” his best friend; Claire, the enigmatic love interest; Blinky, a many-eyed troll historian; ARRGH!, a big troll who’s a former war hero. The other kid on the front cover of the book? I won’t tell you who that is exactly, since he shows up halfway through the story. But as you can see, the trolls from the book are more on the scary side, not cuddly and friendly. Blinky—who’s voiced by Kelsey Grammer on the show—has the same personality in the book, sort of a Giles mentor figure, but his appearance is a bit more startling. While there are some scarier-looking trolls in the cartoon, none of them are quite as grotesque as the ones described in the book.
One interesting difference was this gizmo featured prominently on the final cover of the book. In the first episode of the show, Jim finds this mysterious amulet on the way to school one day—it was calling his name. It turns out it’s the Trollhunter amulet, and in the show the Trollhunter is sort of like the Slayer—there’s one, chosen by the amulet, who is responsible for hunting down the bad trolls. But Jim is the first human Trollhunter the amulet has ever chosen. The amulet is what gives him that shiny armor and the big sword, and you get to see the gears and wheels turning and clicking when it goes into action.
When I was reading the book, though, and Jim is presented with a medallion, I read the description, and it really didn’t seem to fit the illustration on the cover. I thought, oh, this is another case where the illustrator didn’t use the description and made up his own thing… until much later, when a character pulls out a special astrolabe, which is described pretty much the way it looks on the cover there. I can see why it was picked to be the cover—it’s a gorgeous illustration—but I think it’s easily mistaken for the medallion, and I do wonder if the Dreamworks team made a conscious choice to turn the astrolabe into the magical amulet for the show. (In the book, the medallion does not give Jim any special armor or magical swords, but it does allow him to understand the language of the trolls. Poor Tubs has no idea what any of them are saying for the entire book.)
The book has a real poignancy when it comes to Jim’s relationship with his dad: he sees his dad as sort of a loser, somebody who’s trapped in his past, with his little shrine to his brother Jack on the mantel. He’s worried about becoming the Trollhunter and putting his dad through another devastating loss. Plus, there’s the tinge of horror because you know what happened to all of those kids who vanished 45 years ago, assumed kidnapped. When other kids from school start disappearing, Jim realizes what is happening, but most of the community still thinks it’s about kidnapping.
As Jamie Greene mentioned in his post about Trollhunters after NYCC, he felt that the first two episodes of the show were a little cliched and relied on familiar tropes. Tubs is the “fat friend” and his weight is definitely played for laughs. He’s still the fat friend in the book, but it felt that he’s given a little more dignity and empathy there. Claire is the exotic love interest, and it does feel a lot of the time that she’s a prize that Jim and Steve (the school bully) are competing to win. Presumably, though, she eventually learns about Jim’s secret, because the promotional art and opening credits sequence imply that she’ll be involved in the battle herself at some point. (The romantic subplot in the book isn’t that much more sophisticated than the shows, though.)
After watching more of the show, I still do think there are a lot of tropes throughout—there are a lot of instances where I could predict what was going to happen. But there are also some surprises along the way, and the characters do grow (even if in mostly expected ways). The book included a lot of weird new types of trolls, but the show has been playing off more familiar creatures like gnomes, goblins, and changelings. There are definitely a few plot points that carry over from book to screen, but the show definitely is going in its own direction and isn’t a literal translation.
Overall, I think if you want the heavier dose of del Toro’s horror, the book is going to be more satisfying, but it’s definitely not one I’d recommend for younger kids. The show does have a little bit of creepiness to it, but it’s comparable to Dragons: Race to the Edge or Voltron. There are plenty of action sequences, and a lot of humor, though it may still be a bit much for kids who are easily scared. I had been a little skeptical after the pilot episode, but now that I’ve read the source material, I’m curious to see where the animated series goes next.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix Stream Team, and receive access to Netflix for coverage purposes. Opinions are my own.