On Wednesday, I handed a brand-new copy of the 2017 release Rebellion by Kass Morgan to the librarian so she could scan it. The librarian looked at the book and asked me, “Did you watch last week’s episode?” She wasn’t referring to the book in my hand, but rather to the television show The 100, which is very loosely based on Morgan’s series. Conversations like this one are becoming more common in a world where one story can be told two ways at the same time. We think of a written story being turned into a visual story as an adaptation or retelling. There is a set of words commonly used to discuss adaptations. A tv show might not have caught up yet with the source material, while another show might have exceeded the author’s novels. A movie can follow the books closely, or stray from the source material. In discussing whether or not a tv show has been faithful to the novels, we usually assume one as source material – they’re an original, a first. The adaptation follows.
The 100 cannot be explained using this vocabulary. Both the written novels and the television drama have been completely separate entities since day one – tied together by only the most basic concepts. Morgan’s debut novel hit the shelves on September 3rd, 2013. The television show premiered on March 19th, 2014. Kass Morgan sold the bare bones of her concept to producer Jason Rothenberg before her freshman novel was even published. The novel series and tv show were created simultaneously, yet developed independently. Writing for the show’s second season began before Morgan even published her second novel. There has never been communication between Morgan or Rothenberg, and there does not have to be. This style of adaptation is rare, and I’m not sure if this particular scenario has ever happened before. What it has produced is two completely different stories, set in the same place, starring two young people of the same name. Yet with no responsibility to source material and no expectations, both versions of the story can strive to do their best in the medium they are presented in. In the opening credits of each episode, the last title card reads “based on the book by Kass Morgan,” but even that seems to be generous. They are completely different, but it is the differences in approach, the different strengths and weaknesses, that makes the two stories interesting and memorable. Comparing the two is a crash course in narrative do’s and don’ts. Both the television show and the novels are conceptually so much better than their execution, and it is in this dissonance between what is and what could be, where you find a story, told two ways, that is strong, brave, and fatally flawed.
It is impossible to look at any sort of consumable art without thinking about the audience. So what is The 100? And who is its audience? Here is what the two narratives have in common: a group of people living in space stations survive nuclear holocaust on Earth and band together to ensure earth’s survival on a mega station, the Ark. A few generations later, Earth’s radiation levels are lowering – but the space station is dying. A totalitarian government sends one hundred juvenile delinquents down to the ground to test conditions. These teenagers and children survive, and in doing so, find that there are others on earth, the Grounders of earthborns. The hundred build their own community, their own laws. The real conflict begins when the rest of the space station follows and they have to figure out how to rebuild society together. Morgan’s novels are written to a YA audience. I would say that their reading level is almost middle-school, but the subject matter lands the ideal audience at 15-20, being generous. Morgan never tries to invite an adult audience into her books, and the marketing strategy given to the growing four-book series is similarly limiting. Both Morgan and her story seem content in YA sections of bookstores and libraries, and despite potential for deeper and riskier storylines, Morgan does not go where an adult reader might want her to go. Her allegiances are to her characters and romances before her plot and politics. In this sense, her books give very little competition to the television show.
Despite the show’s home on the CW, in addition to the cast made up of mostly young, beautiful actors pretending to be eighteen year olds, it became quite obvious very quickly that executive producer Rothenberg has ambitions beyond his genre. “Teenagers in dystopian societies” is a worn out trope, but The 100 is trying to breathe new life into it. The 100 on television wants to invite an audience beyond its target, and it is doing so seemingly successfully. The ambition that the show has, to be something of a Battlestar Galactica, is so grandiose at times that it can become a crutch to the story. Obviously, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but each version of the narrative succeeds where the other fails in a frustratingly predictable way. Neither has reached its full potential. Morgan has an audience and is increasingly loyal to it, thanking her readers in her acknowledgements, catering to them in her storylines. The ambition that Rothenberg has has worked against his audience, as he seems to be eager to alienate groups of fans he feels to be beneath his show’s potential. Ultimately, the ambition of the television show has turned it into the better of the two, while the books lag behind. However, the riskier choices which the show takes are not always for the best, and in its desire to grow an audience and grow beyond the stereotypes of its genre, it is exhausting itself and, in certain ways, also limiting its potential.
One way in which the narratives differ is in their different concepts and depictions of war. To my eternal frustration, Kass Morgan, who is not the most gifted author, writes around almost every battle and conflict. Her gifts lay in a close third person narration, following the intimate thoughts and feelings of her characters. Everytime she is faced with a large-scale event in her plot, she shirks away. There is a battle between the third and fourth novel which is only mentioned in retrospect. “It was hard to believe how much hardship and heartache they’d all endured over the past few months” writes Morgan, in the first chapter of the fourth book (Rebellion). That is about the extent of it. With only the fall-out but none of the details of the battle itself, the fourth novel feels very rootless, based off of a conflict resolution that the reader was not invited to witness. Morgan has big ideas but either does not have the talent to execute them, or does not want to, preferring to keep her stories simple and emotionally driven. Consequently, her subject matter doesn’t always work in this format, and the reader is left to guess at the details. The main character of the series, a teenage girl named Clarke Griffin, can reference the bloodshed of a particular incident, but I can not see the event clearly in my mind. This leads to a very disjointed narrative, one that is held together only by the character’s reflection, while the reader struggles to fill in plot holes and gaps, doing the world-building work that Morgan should have done.
To a completely opposite effect, Rothenberg and the team of The 100 on tv are dedicated to portraying as gritty and bloody a world as they can. The world building of the show is undeniably better than the book, but the ways that battle and conflict are used are over the top and almost grotesque at times. Given the chance to have a large-scale fight scene, The 100 will always take it. In the first two seasons, The 100 focused on smaller pictures of violence which kept the story grounded. These episodes had high stakes in intimate ways. The group of delinquents try to hang one of their own for a murder he did not commit. They torture a Grounder for information because they are too afraid to try to communicate with what they do not understand. These situations were personal and realistic. By the third season, however, the production was too in love with their “gritty” world and started to go too far. The production design (with literal blood flowing in the streets in episode Perverse Instantiation) becomes almost comical, and the desire to focus on the violence of the story has held back character and relationship development.
Morgan tried to use high-stakes situations to drive her character’s motivations, but her inability to be intimate and share the details of her character’s conflicts keeps readers from being fully involved in her world. Rothenberg started out on the right track, but at this point the show’s conflict is too gruesome, which can keep the viewer from feeling close to the characters. The 100 on television can be ambitious and risky without having their characters commit genocide twice a year. Rothenberg and his team need to find more subtlety in their story, more elegance while Morgan needs to stop shying away from her darker side. She needs to own up to her bloodshed, instead of having her characters recount it for the reader’s benefit, like in a Shakespeare play where war happens off-stage. Perhaps in an attempt to keep themselves independent and unique, Morgan and Rothenberg are purposefully trying to drift further apart instead of monopolizing on choices that could improve both versions of the story.
The novels and television show also differ in how they handle relationships, both romantic and professional. Morgan’s novels, firmly planted into the YA genre, are told only through the point of view of the teenagers – the delinquents sent to earth. We see the world through Clarke’s eyes, the doctor’s daughter. We meet Bellamy, the emotional, irrational young man. Octavia, the wide-eyed child. Wells, the Chancellor’s son, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Glass, the flighty young girl who doesn’t fit in. There is a large cast of characters, but without letting the adults become as developed as the delinquents, the lens of the story stays narrow. Morgan poses a power struggle between the young people and their authority figures who come down from the space station in the second novel, Day 21. Chancellor Jaha and Vice Chancellor Rhodes are fascinating characters who govern from a totalitarian, desperate standpoint. In space, if you did not behave or follow the rules, you were imprisoned or killed. Our young characters Clarke, Bellamy, and Wells want to change that. They want freedom on Earth. This is an interesting dynamic, but Morgan does not let her reader into the heads of the adults. The polarization between the young and old is a very traditional YA trope, and one the series clings to. Even the depth given to characters like Jaha and Rhodes is given to the reader secondhand. Jaha’s son Wells says, “We live not for ourselves… it’s what my father always said to justify the sacrifices he had to make” (Day 21). Why not let Jaha speak for himself? Wouldn’t that let us, the readers, form our own opinion of him? Help us feel sympathetic towards him?
The television show, trying to reach a broader audience, splits screen time between the young characters, the older politicians, and the earthborn characters, the Grounders. Rothenberg’s The 100 starts focusing on the hundred delinquents, but the scope is quickly broadened. For example in the books, Clarke’s mother is barely mentioned again after being miraculously found alive in the end of the third novel. In the television show, Clarke’s mother Abby is a main character, given her own motivations, goals, fears, and sex life. Chancellor Jaha, portrayed by Isaiah Washington, is similarly developed and has quickly become one of the show’s best characters. Beyond these two, the television show has Kane, a politician who tries to mediate between the sky people and the Grounders, as well as Indra, the chief of the Grounders living where the sky people landed. Recently, we’ve been introduced to Roan, an Earth-born character who is neither a “teenager” nor a “parent,” but somewhere in the middle – in his early thirties, I’d imagine. This diversity of character gives the television show a richness that the books simply do not have.
In the second season, Abby and Kane have a conversation about Commander Lexa, one of the Grounders who is in a high position of power at a young age. “She’s a child. They’re being led by a child!” say Abby. Kane answers, “So are we” (ep. Remember Me). This conversation shows the conflict the adults are feeling, as their positions of power are usurped. Clarke and Bellamy had risen to power among their people while Abby and Kane were still in space. The power struggle between Clarke/Bellamy and Jaha/Kane in the show is more subtle than the same storyline in Morgan’s novels. Without being able to hear Jaha’s point of view, his opinions, his reasoning, there is very little to debate. The reader is on Clarke’s side. For a series of books about, ultimately, a fight for power and leadership in a post-nuclear world, there is very little political analysis. Recently, in the fourth season of The 100, Clarke’s friend accuses her of behaving like Chancellor Jaha did on the space station – using lies and threats to keep the people in line (ep The Four Horsemen). The Clarke of the novels would never be compared to Jaha. Despite the terrible amount of strain she is under, she has somehow stayed above reproach. A story that ignores adults is ultimately less compelling, and it is one of the biggest failings of the novels.
To continue on this topic a bit, there is something that all YA stories about teenagers thrive on – romance. The books are centered around three main romances: Wells and Sasha, Luke and Glass, and Clarke and Bellamy. Wells and Sasha have similarities to a couple from the tv show, Jasper and Maya, while Luke and Glass could perhaps be compared to Finn and Raven. The only one of these couples that has an exact counterpart in the television show is Clarke and Bellamy. The Clarke and Bellamy of the books fall for each other early on. The much quoted scene from a Bellamy-centric chapter goes, “Octavia [his sister] was the only person in the world who truly knew him. There was no one else he really cared about ever seeing again. But then he glanced over Clarke, who was leaning over to breathe in the scent of a bright pink flower, the sun catching the gold strands in her hair, and suddenly he wasn’t so sure” (The 100). Clarke and Bellamy (or, #bellarke) spend four books together, and by the end of Rebellion, they are engaged.
In Morgan’s YA world, love is the most important thing. Beyond rebuilding society, fighting rebel earthborns, hunting, starting fires… love is the most important. They are not the blasé relationships that begin when one is sure they will be dead in six months. Morgan’s group of adolescent delinquents, who can barely fend for themselves, have carved out time and energy for lasting, grown-up love. It’s a little ridiculous when you think about it. Wells knows Sasha for all of a few months, but when she dies his grief was that of a man who had just been widowed. The series is an enigma because despite Morgan’s undeniably bad writing, her characters are vivid and strong. They don’t make a lot of sense, they don’t seem realistic, but as a reader I love them. And I keep coming back for more. Their naivety is unique even for your typical YA novels; there is a childlike charm that The 100 has, a sweetness. Somehow, its strength lies in its unrealistic relationships.
Bellamy and Clarke on the show have a very different dynamic. They start out as enemies, then become co-leaders, partners, and eventually best friends. Their slow road to each other is in some ways more realistic than the novel’s fast track to love. They’re trying to keep each other alive. Each has had other romantic partners over the four seasons, but it is their partnership that grounds the show. Honestly there really isn’t a need within the show for the two characters to have a romantic relationship. The only problem is the chemistry. The chemistry that actors Bob Morley and Eliza Taylor have is so gorgeous that all I want to do is watch them together. At this point I don’t care what sort of relationship they have – as leaders or lovers – I just want them on screen together. Chemistry between actors is one of those things that makes television more unpredictable than novels. Morgan can decide if her characters should fall in love or not, but despite the fact that Rothenberg has claimed that the couple isn’t in the show’s future, Bob Morley’s Bellamy looks like he has been pining for Clarke for three seasons. The problem with the show isn’t that Clarke and Bellamy aren’t “in love,” it is the show’s strange stance on romances in general. Rothenberg has tweeted many times on the topic, including phrases like “I don’t ship” and “watch for the plot” (Dec 2014, Twitter). Rothenberg is trying so hard to escape the YA stereotypes that Morgan writes into her novels, he is ostracizing his strongest fanbase. He can tell fans to watch for the plot, but all the gritty rivers of blood do not replace romance. Romance is not a dirty word. Bellamy and Clarke might never be together and that’s ok, but they shouldn’t be kept apart artificially. Simply put, the television show cannot continue to thrive if they are embarrassed of their fanbase or trying to avoid romances by killing characters’ lovers (eg: Finn, Maya, Lincoln, Lexa) in an attempt to be “real” or “dark.”
The relationship between Clarke and Bellamy in the show is a dynamic and intriguing one. It has been described as one of the head versus the heart. This simple anecdote is what connects the Bellamy and Clarke across artistic mediums. Even though the couple in the novels is young and in love, while the power couple of the tv show are responsible young adults, their dynamic is the same. The books portray the characters as they would be younger, in a gentler world. The tv show gives us a different side – Bellamy and Clarke older and more desperate. Some of their best scenes throughout the show have been their arguments. “I need you, and we don’t have much time,” Clarke says to Bellamy, after having abandoned him and her people for several months. “You need me? You left me, you left everyone!” he replies (ep Hakeldama). Their often dark desperation for each other could easily become a romance, but even if it did, it would not resemble the light love of the couple in the books. Morgan’s romances are the light spots in her dark world. “Maybe here in the ruins of the old world, they could start something new” writes Morgan (The 100). In her world romance is a saving grace. In Rothenberg’s world it is a weakness, and those who give into it all seem to suffer in the end.
Morgan could benefit from allowing a true darkness into her characters’ lives, but it is a delicate balance. The innocent hope of her novels is what makes them so charming. Rothenberg on the other hand punishes love. The show tries to utilize love but never quite succeeds. Love as power instead love of weakness is a theme throughout the show, but a poorly executed one. Lexa, a Grounder commander, believes that love is a weakness for those in power after her lover was killed to get to her. She tries to overcome that fear and be vulnerable with Clarke, who she is drawn to in spite of herself. The problem is that the second Lexa and Clarke get over their reservations and tentatively begin to admit feelings, Lexa is killed because of Clarke. Love as weakness wins again. The show tries to show its characters grappling with these ideas, grappling with vulnerability, but when the viewer watches lovers come to tragic ends repeatedly, it’s hard to buy what the show is selling. Love only prevails when convenient to the show runners. On the flip side Morgan gives her characters external conflicts to fight through, but there is not enough emotional conflict in the relationship and friendships. For a series of books that tries to be introspective, characters seem too eager and willing to forgive, to be vulnerable.
There are small ways where the books and television show mirror each other, whether purposefully or not. There was an uproar when Lexa, a lesbian and a fan favorite from the television show, met an untimely mid-season death. In the next novel Morgan released, she presented a lesbian character of her own. Morgan’s Octavia is sweet, innocent, has a girlfriend, and is so far unscathed. The sweet, safe, homosexual relationship postulated in the book almost seems like an attack on Rothenberg for killing Lexa. It seems competitive. There is no way for me to say if one inspired the other, but as the books progress down one path, the show moves further in the opposite direction. In the last novel the delinquents had to fight a creepy Earth cult who had breeding ceremonies. On the show they are trying to save the world from a nuclear meltdown. The book characters have a harvest festival while the tv show character meet an AI. The narratives are more different now than ever before, but the further they drift apart the more I wish they would stop and learn from one another. They could help fix each other if Morgan and Rothenberg paid a little more attention to each other, and identified their indulgences. If Morgan’s vision is too narrow, Rothenberg’s is too broad. If one shirks from a topic, the other runs too far with it. Right now the only true similarities the two narratives have are Clarke, the princess, the doctor’s daughter, the head, and Bellamy, the soldier, the orphan, the heart.
It might seem odd that I’d want to write about a series of books that I don’t find particularly good. But I do find The 100 to be interesting. I believe there is a lot to be learned in investigating books that don’t live up to their potential. So often stories, no matter their medium, falter when the idea is better than the execution. These stories are frustrating – we remember them but we don’t really like them. I have read all of Morgan’s novels, though I have not enjoyed them very much. I find myself asking, where did Morgan go wrong? Why isn’t her editor helping her? If I can identify the structural problems, why can’t her publisher? Why does the story work better as a television show? Why is YA becoming such a masturbatory genre? Why aren’t Rothenberg and Morgan learning from each other? I have a feeling that the two versions of The 100 feel threatened by each other. They are striving so hard for independence that they are ignoring their fatal flaws. I will continue to watch The 100 and I will continue to read Morgan’s novels as long as she writes them. But I can only hope that they stop going with the self-indulgent option and evaluate their flaws. The further the two stories move away from each other in the narrative, the more polarized their strengths and weaknesses become. I want them to be the best they can be, in the medium they are made in. The idea is too good. It deserves more. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle. And with The 100, the perfect version of the story is somewhere in the middle too.
- The 100. The CW. 14 March. 2014 – Present. Television.
- Morgan, Kass. The 100. 2013. Kindle.
- Morgan, Kass. Day 21. 2014. Kindle.
- Morgan, Kass. Homecoming. 2015. Kindle.
- Morgan, Kass. Rebellion. 2016. Kindle.
- @JRothenbergTV. Twitter.
Sarah V Diehl