Chris Evans took a break from his Marvel superhero duties in 2013 to star in Bong Joon-ho‘s sci-fi movie Snowpiercer. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the story followed a high-speed, non-stop bullet train filled with the final remnants of the human race as a second Ice Age turned the planet into an unlivable, post-climate change wasteland.
The inhabitants on-board the locomotive represent a sampling of a society that was all but wiped out. The overcrowded back-end of the train is where the underprivileged exist, forced to follow the various orders handed down by militia, while they eat gelatinous blocks of protein for every meal. Contrasting this gritty despair is that of the passengers residing in the front of the train. Here, it’s like a high-class vacation every day, where the elite are pampered with all sorts of perks like sushi, pedicures, and lavish nighttime parties.
Bong’s film was widely celebrated, so it wasn’t too surprising when it was announced two years later that a Snowpiercer TV series was in development. A pilot was ordered in 2016, and TNT ordered the series in 2018.
It’s been four years since the news hit, though. During that time, the project has been hit with a flurry of setbacks. Behind-the-scenes creative disputes and the shuffling of the project — it was moved from TNT to TBS, and then back again — has kept the series stuck in development hell.
After all this time, it is looking like the small-screen adaptation of this futuristic dystopian tale is finally on a hopeful trajectory. So let’s get into the nitty-gritty and explore everything we know about the upcoming Snowpiercer TV series.
For such a high-concept TV series, one would expect a collection of top-notch actors to come along for the ride, and the ensemble brought together for the TNT series is pretty impressive. After 19 years, Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) returns to television — anyone remember the short-lived procedural, The $treet? — to play first-class passenger and head of hospitality Melanie Cavill. Tony Award–winner Daveed Diggs, who is best known for his roles in the musical Hamilton and his feature writing debut Blindspotting, plays former police detective Layton Well, a man who lives in squalor in the back of the train.
Other actors featured in the show’s cast include Mickey Sumner (American Made), Tony Award-winner Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Annalise Basso (Slender Man), Steven Ogg (The Walking Dead), and Timothy V. Murphy (Sons of Anarchy).
In the new series, the constantly-moving, self-sustaining train that is known to its inhabitants as the “Rattling Ark” will still be there. But while we’re getting the futuristic visuals of this post-apocalyptic version of Noah’s Ark — along with the similar themes of class, race, and social politics featured in the graphic novel and movie — the mechanics of the Snowpiercer world will be expanded.
“As a fan of the film and reading the scripts, it broadens the world exponentially. And that’s one of the advantages of TV: you have time,” series star Diggs previously told IGN. “So the politics that are hinted at in the film are explored in much more depth, and the mechanism of the train [is explored further] — just the little things that create a world, world specificity.”
During a panel at the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour, TNT boss Kevin Reilly teased a central mystery that would be the throughline in season 1, saying it would focus on “characters stuck together in an intense environment in a game of survival.”
Diggs further touched on the class commentary featured in the series at the program’s NYCC panel.
“Anyone who’s from a marginalized community knows there’s a kind of togetherness that comes out of necessity, and a feeling of family and lack of lying from having to band together,” Diggs said. “So there are some good things, but no amenities. It’s pretty bleak; it’s hard to raise children with no resources. They’re dealing with truly extreme circumstances, so the idea that there’s something to fight for is pretty intense.”
A year after TNT ordered Snowpiercer to series, Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) was brought on to run the show. Just weeks later, after production officially began, Friedman was replaced by Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson (pictured).
This led to some public drama that found Friedman claiming he didn’t exit the production. Instead, he posted on Twitter that TNT insisted that he be “removed from show running duties because they didn’t think I’d be compliant.”
Obviously the word is "compliant." Clearly not a word I've used too much.
— josh friedman (@Josh_Friedman) February 27, 2018
“Quite often when you have a change, it signals that you didn’t necessarily buy into a vision,” TNT president Kevin Reilly explained during an executive session at the 2019 Television Critics Association winter press tour. “We had a pilot that was really promising with some really creative people behind it. In that case, they were really a filmmaker who had not done television before. Mounting a series was a different order. Graeme has built off of the template we have with the great cast.”
Friedman does have television experience, though, having previously served as executive producer on Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and NBC’s Emerald City. When Manson took over the project and never reached out to Friedman, the former showrunner vented his frustrations on Twitter, where he called his replacement “an idiot, a coward, or a vichy motherf—er.”
If you're asked to rewrite someone or take over their show it seems like good sense and good karma to reach out to that person first and a) find out what the circumstances of their departure are and b) thank them for doing the work you'll be profiting from.
— josh friedman (@Josh_Friedman) May 17, 2018
The behind-the-scenes issues didn’t stop with the showrunner shake-up, either. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson was originally connected with the pilot episode of the project. He even took to Twitter at the beginning of 2018 to celebrate the episode he helmed, saying: “I will say this about Snowpiercer – the all-female key crew was the best I’ve ever worked with, and the entire ensemble cast is just astonishing. Very proud of the show we made.”
I will say this about Snowpiercer – the all-female key crew was the best I’ve ever worked with, and the entire ensemble cast is just astonishing. Very proud of the show we made.
— N O S ⋊ Ɔ I ᴚ ᴚ Ǝ ᗡ ⊥ ⊥ O Ɔ S (@scottderrickson) January 10, 2018
What a difference half a year can make. Once Friedman was replaced with Manson in June of that year, Derrickson bailed. He once again took to Twitter to publicly state he would not return to reshoot the episode.
“The 72-page Snowpiercer TV pilot script by [Friedman] is the best I’ve ever read,” the Doctor Strange director said. “The feature-length pilot I made from that script may be my best work. The new showrunner has a radically different vision for the show. I am forgoing my option to direct the extreme reshoots.”
The 72-page Snowpiercer TV pilot script by @Josh_Friedman is the best I’ve ever read. The feature-length pilot I made from that script may be my best work.
The new show runner has a radically different vision for the show. I am forgoing my option to direct the extreme reshoots.
— N O S ⋊ Ɔ I ᴚ ᴚ Ǝ ᗡ ⊥ ⊥ O Ɔ S (@scottderrickson) June 29, 2018
Just how different TNT’s Snowpiercer now? “I completely rewrote the pilot,” Graeme Manson told Rotten Tomatoes at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter tour. “Jennifer and Daveed, their roles didn’t change when I came on. But I shuffled cast all over the place and gave at least half the cast new roles.”
The task of helming the pilot’s major fixes was handed off to Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful director James Hawes. His work with TNT and Manson seems to have been a fit, as he went on to direct two more of the season’s episodes.
Instead of taking place in the same time period as the movie — which was 15 years after humanity left the planet in ruins — the series’ story will happen just seven years after that watershed event. Showrunner Manson explained to the NYCC crowd that he wanted the loss of a habitable world to be “more immediate and more visceral” for each character on screen.
The series sounds like it’ll be inspired by the actual tone and world of the original Snowpiercer story. And this shouldn’t be confused at all with the graphic novel prequel, Snowpiercer: Extinction, which takes place before the extinction event occurred.
Graeme Manson explained to Rotten Tomatoes how his series takes inspiration from both the comics and the 2013 movie.
“I was a huge fan of director Bong’s movie,” Manson said. “It totally blew me away. I really took that tone and that sense of being able to, in our sets, to just step into a place that you’re like, how is this on a train?”
The new TV adaptation, Manson explained, is “more thematic, and really, like the first graphic novel.” The showrunner used the beginning of that first book as a big inspiration here, but according to Manson, some of the books’ bigger existential elements “just wouldn’t suit television as well.”
As much as he adores the original movie, Manson points out the challenge in telling a cohesive episodic story in the linear way Bong Joon-Ho did before him.
“It’s like, start at the tail and go to the engine — it all moves one direction, even in the frame,” Manson told Rotten Tomatoes. “Obviously, we can’t do that over the course of a series. So we really introduce the characters from around the train to create a character drama.”
After the 2019 winter TCA panel for the series was canceled, leaving any and all promotional clips unseen, an official Snowpiercer trailer setting up up the show’s bleak premise was finally revealed over the summer to the San Diego Comic-Con crowd.
When he visited the annual pop culture event, Manson explained to EW that the series “takes place seven years in the future when humanity, in our infinite wisdom, has attempted to cure climate change but has instead plunged the earth back into an Ice Age. So, the remnants of humanity have retreated into a giant, frozen, perpetual train that circles the earth, existentially, forever.”
This concept is established in the footage, along with some fantastic looking visual effects and set pieces, which focus closely on Connelly’s Melanie and Diggs’s Layton.
While audiences have been waiting quite a long time for Snowpiercer to premiere, the cast and crew have been hard at work bringing this thing to life. Graeme Manson told Rotten Tomatoes that the cast and crew were already halfway through production on the show’s second season. This little factoid made us wonder how many seasons he hopes the show will last.
“I always, kind of, put it at three and three seems like a number that can then expand to five,” Manson explained. “Three seems like a beginning, middle, and an end. Five then seems like five acts.”
To sum up, there’s the Snowpiercer story that’s in graphic novel form, Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 movie and now this new series coming to TNT. Whether the series lasts three seasons or five, Graeme Manson revealed to Rotten Tomatoes that there could be other Snowpiercer trains, and new stories to be told.
“The cool thing about Snowpiercer, too, is like, someone else can do another train,” Manson continued. “I think that’s what Jean-Marc Rochette, one of the artists of the books, said. There are as many Snowpiercer stories as there are trains you can imagine.”
When Snowpiercer moved to TBS, a prospective premiere date of June 2019 was thrown about. Netflix bought the international streaming rights to the series, ensuring its global reach to audiences outside of the U.S. and China, positioning the program for success.
After years of waiting, it was announced during the program’s panel at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter tour that Snowpiercer will premiere to TNT on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. With a second season already ordered, and Game of Thrones alum Sean Bean joining the cast, it’s probably a safe bet to expect this high-speed train to zoom around the small screen for some time to come.