It’s always a risk diving into remaking a cult favourite. The team behind Amazon’s Utopia (2020) had big shoes to fill when adapting the UK cult favourite from 2013.
American remakes can take many forms, and when adapting this series for the US, creator and showrunner, Gillian Flynn, was sure to make sure she paid the right mind to Dennis Kelly’s series while making sure to create something all her own. The cast and Flynn all had different relationships with the original series and sat down to share their thoughts.
“When you take on something that’s such a cult favourite as Utopia (2013), you just have to accept that some people aren’t going to like it because it’s not the thing that they like.” Flynn knows she had her work cut out for her, but never wanted to make a carbon copy of the UK series. “Why would you want to watch something that’s exactly like the other thing? They should be complimentary bookends. They should be, one informs the other and one plays with certain different themes and takes them in a different direction.” Dennis Kelly was seemingly on the same page, “Dennis would say at every turn, ‘hey, why remake something if you’re not going to remake it?’ which gave me so much breathing room and freedom that I appreciated.”
Though she wanted to create something new, Flynn always respected her source material. “I would never have gone in and gutted Dennis’ world and turned it into something unrecognizable,” she told us. “There’s such a richness there. Dennis, I think, is a world class world builder and obviously there’s no kind of world he can’t create.”
Respecting the source material but ensuring they brought something new was a common throughout discussions with the cast. Dan Byrd, who plays Ian in the show said, “We all wanted to have an acute awareness of the origin of this story and why we were making this show, what it was actually based on. We all had tremendous respect and admiration for what they did but knew at the same time that this show had to stand on its own two feet and was also fundamentally different from the British show in a lot of ways. So having the awareness was important but also forgetting everything we knew the second we stepped on set was equally important.”
Ashleigh LaThrop, who, along with Byrd, played a character plucked from the original, Becky, echoed his sentiments. “We are creating characters with the same names and some of the same characteristics, but they are unique to us and unique to our version.”
Desmin Borges, whose character has some of the more direct connections to his UK counterpart, wanted to know just enough about the original while ensuring he brought something new and saved the UK surprises for himself. “I dove into the first three episodes and then pulled back really quickly because what Dennis Kelly created was a masterpiece and what Adeel (Akhtar) did with Wilson Wilson was nothing short of spectacular. While my main focus was to honour the brilliance that they originally set forth for us, it was also my intention, if I was given the opportunity to take the baton and move it forward in our version, to honour them and take it in a direction that Gillian best saw fit and vibed for the experience we wanted for Wilson Wilson.” He went on to share, “I haven’t watched the rest of the first season or the second season yet and I probably will avoid it until we are done telling this story, and if we are lucky enough to continue telling it, it might be some time. But I very much am looking forward to finishing it when we’re finished Utopia.”
Like Desmin, Flynn didn’t want to spend too much time with the original series so as to not cloud her vision for her take. “I did Widows which was another adaptation of a TV series and I did the same thing for both of those which was ‘I am going to watch it first to see if I want to do it, watch it one more time, take notes, take the plot twists and write down the moments in my notebook that were really striking, then I would never look at it again.’ Because to me, I personally couldn’t do it, it feels a little lazy, it feels a little too easy for me to fall into doing one of those remakes that is literally a remake. I wanted to do something new and take that great DNA that Dennis had provided and the relationships but push on the parts that I found the most interesting.”
Many of the cast was new to the series, but Jessica Rothe, whose character, Sam, was a new addition that didn’t exist in the UK version, had been aware of the show since it went into development in 2013. “I similarly was introduced to the show when I first auditioned but I actually saw it for the first time back when this was an HBO David Fincher iteration.” On being added to the cast via Sam, she said, “I am such a huge fan of the British show and it is really daunting taking on kind of a new iteration of anything because the whole thing is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but I feel so grateful that Sam was brought to life by Gillian. She is such an incredibly passionate fierce character and I love her addition to the show and I also think that Gillian has a lot of tricks up her sleeve.”
Rothe and Flynn think the show, by respecting where it came from and bringing something new, will appeal both to new audiences and fans of the cult favourite. Rothe said, “This show, I really think will capture the hearts of people who have never seen it before, and for those who are huge fans of the original, I think we pay homage in a really wonderful way to the beautiful, wild, messy, dangerous version that it was but we also take it in a different direction so it is not just a copycat, it really has a life of its own. I think that one of the big things that Gillian and our incredibly creative cast and crew poured in is so much heart and so much humanity which is something that our world needs right now.”
Flynn also wanted to bring a new appearance to her version, not only trying to avoid mirroring the story beats but the visual tone as well. “I knew there could be a tonal difference whereas [Kelly’s] is beautiful to look at and very sleek and, I think, kind of takes it’s tone a little bit from the sort of world of graphic novels and that poppy-ness. I wanted mine to really feel like we’re in it, to really feel based in reality to really feel ‘this is where we’re at now,’ whereas his talks about food shortages and different issues landing in the UK, I wanted mine to really feel like we’re even closer to that. We’re close to disaster.”
Flynn has experience adapting both her own books for screen like with Gone Girl and a series for the American market like she did with Widows, so she was ready to bring her take to an existing piece. “Even with Gone Girl, I had read the book so many times obviously by then because I had so many passes at it. I listened to it on audio book once, took my notes, then wouldn’t let myself go back to it for that same reason, it has to become it’s new thing.” For Flynn and her cast, they seem to have the exact handle on it you want for adaptations of your favourite works, “It respects the original world and progresses and adds to it.”
Utopia is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.