[Regarding spoilers: I will be trying to avoid spoilers for both the books and the TV series, but any that I do mention will be minor, and from early on in the series. I’m currently five episodes into season four of the TV series, and have finished reading all the books.]
In a world continuously bombarded with YA adaptations, The 100 seems unique, as a TV adaptation that is near-universally acknowledged as superior to the books that inspired it. And although I actually quite enjoyed most of the novels, I’m inclined to agree with the general consensus on this… But I wanted to talk about it anyway, because the character and narrative choices that were made in each are kind of interesting.
I will start off talking about the characters, because they’re what I like most about both series… I found that all the characters in the books were very likeable right from the start, which surprised me, as it’d taken me a while to grow to like the TV versions of those same characters – but they are also very static; they learn new practical skills as the series goes on, but they develop very little as people. The TV series does a brilliant job of showing how the characters change and grow from their experiences on Earth, and the bonds they make with each other, but their book-selves are the same in Rebellion as they were in The 100. And while the TV series only has two clear lead characters to the books’ four (Clarke and Bellamy, as opposed to Clarke, Bellamy, Glass and Wells), the secondary characters in the TV series are all really well fleshed out, and many of them end up becoming quite important to the plot. The books, on the other hand, have a lot of throwaway characters, who are barely more than a list of names. Even Octavia (who seems like she should be the most important of the side characters if only because Morgan tries to put a lot of emphasis on the uniqueness of her and Bellamy being the only siblings in the universe) is woefully under-developed, and barely has any impact on the story beyond book one.
One thing that the books did do really well with the characters, however, was their backstories. In the TV series, the main characters all seem to be very much victims of a corrupt system, but their histories are much more complicated in the books. To use Octavia as an example again, in the TV series she was discovered as an illegal baby and immediately locked away for the crime of existing, but in the books she was actually sent to a group home instead, while her mother bore the brunt of the punishment for bearing her. When she’s later arrested, it’s not because she’s an illegal child, but because she gets caught stealing drugs. Clarke’s backstory is also significantly different in the books, and although she is still not guilty of the specific crime that she’s been accused of, she’s not completely innocent, either. Generally, in the books it makes a lot more sense for the hundred kids to be imprisoned in the first place, and I’m surprised that they decided to change this for the adaptation, given that the overall tone of the TV series is much darker than in its source material.
Also: Wells. He was a sweetheart in the TV series, but after reading the books I will never be able to look at him or think about him in the same way again, because book-verse Wells is the actual worst. The secret that he’s keeping is dark, and frankly quite alarming, and he’s constantly acting as though the fact that he did it out of love for Clarke – as if she wouldn’t be disgusted by the idea of such a thing being done for her sake – makes it somehow justified… I find it really frustrating that Morgan seems bent on making Wells a romantic hero despite everything.
In terms of world-building, I enjoyed the more peaceful portrayal of the books’ Earth, where the hundred accept Clarke and Wells as their leaders quite quickly, but I also found it rather unrealistic. In contrast, the Lord of the Flies-esque chaos that reigns in the hundred’s camp in the TV series is considerably more believable, if only because they’re a large group of teenagers who’ve shown contempt for authority in the past and to whom authority figures have not been kind… so of course they’d rather go without, now that they have the option – however unsustainable their lifestyle of choice may be.
The portrayals of the arc is more evenhanded; they’re wildly different from one another, but which you prefer will likely be a matter of personal taste, rather than any clear superiority on one part or the other. The books show the present-day Ark through the eyes of Glass, a teenager who was supposed to be one of the hundred, but escapes from the dropship moments before it launches. Her knowledge of what’s going on on the Ark is limited by the fact that, as a teenager, a lot is kept from her, but she offers an interesting insight into the Gaia Doctrine, a set of the Ark’s laws that have affected her personally and which are only alluded to in the TV series. Plus, the romance that she’s involved in is very cute. 😉 For the TV series’ part, we have Clarke’s mother Abby (and, for a time, Raven) as our main source of information, giving us access to a lot more of the secrets and complexities of the Ark’s power structure… It’s a political thriller, as opposed to a romance-with-hints-of-mystery. I’m not much of a fan of thrillers, so there were definitely bits of the Ark-storyline in the TV show that bored me, but I will admit that Abby had a much bigger impact on the plot as a whole than Glass was able to (despite her book-protagonist status).
The last thing I want to talk about is the relationships, which are another great strength of the TV series. I really loved the way both versions dealt with sexuality (there being straight, gay and bisexual characters all, without it becoming the focus of the story, i.e. each character’s sexuality is a part of their character, but is no more or less important than any of their other character traits), but I found that in the books, all the main relationships that were portrayed were completely heteronormative, where the TV series (which, with a wider audience, might also be more susceptible to backlash) instead decided to make the bold move of having a canonically bisexual lead, along with important, well-developed secondary characters who are in, or have had diverse relationships. I’m not sure that I’ll ever ship Clarke and Lexa quite as much as I do Clarke and Bellamy, but I really appreciated the depth of their feelings for one another, and how it brought out things in both of them that we might not have seen otherwise. Rebellion (the fourth book) seemed to try to imitate this attitude somewhat, but since all the series’ major characters were already in serious relationships by that point, the most prominent way that Morgan could show this was through Octavia, who, as I’ve already mentioned, has a significantly reduced role in the books compared to her TV-counterpart.
The TV show also did a great job of developing almost all the relationships – romantic or otherwise – really organically. For example, Clarke and Bellamy’s disdain towards one another in season one seems perfectly natural, but so does their deep affection in seasons three and four, and all the changes the relationship goes through in-between. Their book-selves, however, jump from loving each other to hating each other and vice versa very quickly, and with very little cause. Judgement over perceived (and actual) wrongdoings is severe and instantaneous, and so is forgiveness – and this is the case for all the relationships in the books, not just Clarke and Bellamy… (I will also say, however, just to show that the TV show didn’t do all their relationships perfectly, that as much as Octavia and Lincoln’s relationship was fleshed out as the series went on, anyone who says it developed naturally has forgotten season one, where Lincoln completely Stockholm-Syndromes his way into Octavia’s heart. It’s actually kind of creepy in the beginning…)
The books are much maligned, but there are a lot of things that they do just as well as the TV series, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that they are the reason that the TV series is able to exist at all. Certainly, the TV series is more action packed, and better paced, but the books add a lot of background details that were left out of the TV series (particularly in regard to life on the Ark), and their calmer tone will also have its fans. For those who are die-hard fans of either one or the other of these mediums, the differences may be quite jarring, but I found that the two complemented each other well; almost like reading/watching an interesting alternate-universe fanfiction – something I’m a big fan of. Of the actual fanfiction I’ve come across, most of it seems to be TV-based, but I’m always a little bit happy whenever I come across book-verse cameos in my wanderings (not something that happens often), such as a mention of book-exclusive characters like Lilly or Glass…