Bona-fide comic book geeks know there is more than one version of AMC's hit zombie drama The Walking Dead. In fact, there are at least three or four.
There's the world of the graphic novel that started it all, gritty and uncompromising, where hero sheriff Rick Grimes loses a hand, his wife and his innocence while leading a band of hardy survivors through a world suddenly and inexplicably filled with flesh eating zombies.
There are the novels built around a character called the Governor, a ruthless ruler of human survivors only now appearing on the TV show. Last year saw publication of The Walking Dead: The Rise of the Governor. On Tuesday, the second book in a planned trilogy, The Road to Woodbury, drops.
And there's the AMC TV series, now neatly divided into two parts: DF and AF.
During Frank and after.
Frank Darabont was the visionary director (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) who served as executive producer of the show from its inception until his unceremonious departure midway through the second season. Under Darabont, the show seemed to be less vicious and desperate then its other siblings.
But since Darabont departed, the series has grown closer to its comic book roots, with Grimes and his crew pushed to more extreme measures as they discover zombies might not be their biggest threat, after all.
"What excites me about Season 3 is that people are going to finally notice the evolution in these characters," said Robert Kirkman, the guy who, as creator of The Walking Dead graphic novels, co-writer of the Governor books and an executive producer on the TV series, serves as the great geek king of this twisted fictional universe.
"What's really cool about this show is, you know, watching these characters become different people in a sense, because of this horrific environment that they have to live in."
What's even cooler is the way producers have begun to play with the audience's expectations, offering twists that are exciting enough on their own but take on new resonance if you know the comic books from which they came.
Readers of the books knew from the start of season two, when Grimes and his survivors landed at a bucolic farm that seemed mysteriously free of zombies, it was because the people at the farm were corralling all their zombified friends, neighbors and family members in a barn at the heart of the property, kept off-limits to the newcomers.
What we didn't know was that a young girl who had been missing from Grimes' crew since the season's start, Sophia, was also stuck in there — a new twist showing the jolt that can come from thinking you know the story, only to find you don't.
"That's really a big part of what we do, adapting things in a way that are still surprising . . . because it's a lot of fun," said Kirkman, describing a process where the show's writers pluck out key moments from the comics, figure out how to blend them into the TV series' stories and then twist them wickedly to juice the serious fans.
So here's a quick look at what's coming in the season of Walking Dead starting tonight, based on an early look at the first two episodes, with particular attention paid to the way events echo the books and don't.
Warning: Spoilers aplenty.
The attitude: The Walking Dead's biggest contribution to fantasy may be upping the ante for postapocalyptic drama on TV. In this world, as we learn five minutes into tonight's episode, Rick Grimes and his crew have reached the point where eating dog food looks like a possibility. Last season, we saw Grimes' 12-year-old son, Carl, kill the zombified version of the family's best friend, Shane Walsh; this season, he becomes a full-fledged fighter with the group. Fans joke that the show's survivors now live under a Ricktatorship, where Grimes calls the shots with ruthless passion. Seeing how that plays out with new people they meet in the third season is a brutal, bracing reminder of how far this show is willing to go.
The setting: The new season features the group stumbling on a prison, just as they did in the graphic novel. But, of course, it's populated with "walkers," so the question of how the group takes possession of the facility — and what else they encounter inside — remains a potent issue for the new season. Later in this season, viewers will see Woodbury, the rural Georgia town ruled by the Governor. In the book, this is a town where outsiders are fed to zombies in an arena for entertainment. The TV show may have different plans.
The characters: Two beloved characters from the books finally make an appearance this season, after lots of queries from fans. The Governor, played by British actor David Morrissey (State of Play, Thorne), is a charismatic charmer hiding a lust for power in the TV show. There is a sense he may be less brutal than the savage ruler from the books who keeps a walker as a pet. Michonne (Danai Gurira) is a samurai sword-wielding, laconic walker-killer who was once a lawyer. In the books she joins Grimes' crew at the prison, but on television she lands at Woodbury first, with a woman from Grimes' group who was cut off from her friends.
The characters: The new season also brings the return of a character created for the TV show that fans love, racist Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), brother of the Southern survivalist who has become Grimes' right-hand man, Daryl Dixon. Merle, who was handcuffed to a pipe by Grimes after he attacked another survivor in the first season, cut off his own hand to escape. Now, it seems, he lives in Woodbury. Entertainment Weekly also reported that Dallas Roberts — known these days for playing Julianna Margulies' brother on CBS' The Good Wife — will play Milton, the Governor's right-hand man.