Homecoming's success could show the way ahead for other podcast-to-screen adaptations
With Golden Globe nominations for Best Drama Series, and Best Actor and Best Actress nods for Stephan James and Julia Roberts, the Homecoming adaptation is among the rare podcast-to-screen adaptations to get it so right
(This article contains some spoilers for the Homecoming TV series.)
After books and plays, folklore and fables, operas and ballads, graphic novels, comics and video games, perhaps it was only natural that the movie and television business would turn its eye towards yet another source of stories: podcasts.
While there has been the odd adaptation in previous years, 2017-18 saw a slew of podcast projects (at last count, 18 of them) get picked up for a screen iteration. Some of the really big-ticket adaptations (in the podcast world at least) are still to go into production — Serial and S.Town among them. On the other hand, some popular podcasts have already been released, and either proved not to work with the audience, or displeased critics. (Sometimes, both.)
Aaron Mahnke's Lore, for instance, is among the popular podcasts that made its way to our device-of-choice screens. However, the Amazon Prime Video series was criticised for in effect, being the same as the podcast — albeit with some visual aids. Most episodes in its first season featured Mahnke providing a near-constant narrative voiceover (as in his podcast) with a few scenes reconstructed by actors, and some animation and archival material filling in the gaps.
The Lore experiment made clear that while adapting a popular podcast did have numerous advantages — a ready-made audience-tested storyline, with a pre-existing fandom that would presumably also watch the TV show based on it — more creativity was needed in how they were brought to the screen.
Another Amazon Prime podcast adaptation — Homecoming — may have shown the way forward. Homecoming the podcast, a Gimlet Media production, had several features that made it ripe for a screen adaptation. Unlike many other successful podcasts, this wasn't a single narrator (or reporter) driven enterprise, with experts or witnesses or other individuals occasionally chiming in; it was fiction, and more importantly, it was enacted fiction. You had stars like Kathryn Keener, Oscaar Isaac and David Schwimmer voicing the main roles — and they did a bang up job of it. So much so, that when the Homecoming (the TV series) cast was announced, seeing that Keener, Isaac and Schwimmer weren't part of it, was enough to make a dedicated listener anxious. This, despite the presence of a major Hollywood talent like Julia Roberts front and centre of this screen version of Homecoming.
The structure of the Homecoming podcast too — very little ‘scene setting’, with the plot development occurring entirely in the form of dialogues between two of the characters at a time — must have made adapting it for screen easier than, say a book (where characters may have internal thoughts or the narrator can propel the reader along by providing him/her information).
Still, a TV show can't depict only two people on screen talking to each other through all of its runtime; it must bring in other characters, it must bring to life comprehensively the details a listener may have only vaguely imagined earlier.
Homecoming, the series, goes a step further. Under the direction of Sam Esmail (Mr Robot), the show takes on a visual aesthetic so individual and distinct, that it becomes an entity separate from the podcast. So while the story (but for a few tweaks here and there) stays the same, Esmail's vision for it imparts it a final shape that is far different to the source material. And he doesn't just do this visually — Esmail engages the other senses as well in creating his finished product.
Before we proceed any further with this discussion, a quick recap of the story of Homecoming (the podcast and TV series): Heidi Bergman is working at a facility that helps American soldiers reintegrate into civilian life on their return home. Superficially, this is being done through counselling sessions with Heidi; in reality though, the soldiers are all being medicated with a new under-trial drug that is meant to target the trauma connected to their distressing experiences on the battlefield. This drug is administered through the meals served to the soldiers at the facility.
Heidi strikes up a friendship with one of the soldiers at the facility, a Walter Cruz. As part of their sessions, he tells her about his time in the army, the men he's served with and all of their quirks, the hopes and aspirations he has for the future, and wins her over with his humour and warmth. Meanwhile, Heidi must deal with her micro-managing, rude, focused-on-the-bottomline boss Colin, who cares only about the results of his drug trial (and the accompanying rewards from the parent company overseeing the facility, a firm named Geist). Heidi gets into trouble with Colin on more than one occasion for wanting to help the soldiers at the facility “more holistically”.
Of course, things involving the military and drug trials are rarely as straightforward as they seem, and Heidi soon realises that the facility (and the medication) isn't really meant for the purpose she thinks it was. And Walter's well being could be in serious jeopardy as a result.
That's part one of the story, which we learn of in flashbacks, or when Heidi is played recordings of her sessions with Walter, by a Department of Justice agent who is investigating the facility (and the company Geist) over four years later. The DoJ agent — Thomas Carrasco — tracks Heidi down to the diner where she now works as a waitress and questions her about her previous job, only to realise that she remembers virtually nothing of it. Carrasco's questions trigger Heidi's own search to find out what happened four years ago. This comprises part two.
The podcast — the creation of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg — is a moody, atmospheric listen. It has a foreboding quality that perfectly complements the proceedings, as they unravel. The listener, like Heidi, is in the dark about what's happening. Everything that we learn, comes to us through Heidi’s conversations with other people: with Walter, with Colin, with Thomas Carrasco, with her mother. [Colin is perhaps the only other character whose interactions (beyond those with Heidi) we are privy to.]
Sam Esmail enhances Homecoming's eeriness in various ways. The episodes until the one in which Heidi regains her memory have a very specific framing: the events of the present ('part two' in the outline mentioned above) do not take up the full screen; black bands cut it off on both sides — as though limiting our view of what's happening, just as Heidi's is because of the gaps in her memory. When she remembers, the bands disappear, and the frame widens to take up the whole screen. The aesthetic for the past and present too is very different; or rather, for the facility and Geist-related settings versus those that occur elsewhere. Heidi's home and the diner where she works have an ordinariness. The facility and the Geist offices on the other hand, are almost pointedly symmetrical. The facility has a retro look (that sits oddly with the futuristic work being done there), but maybe it's a way to put the soldiers at ease, in surroundings that aren't too outré. And Thomas Carrasco's office, at the Department of Justice, is made up of neat little rectangles — the cubicles, the records room — that seem to reinforce all one's ideas of bureaucracy.
Apart from the visuals, Esmail uses music to great effect as well. The background score — drawn from Hitchcock films and similar sources — is so incongruent when juxtaposed with the visuals that it seems discordant. It all effectively contributes to a dissonance for the viewer — so apt for a story that speaks of people's minds and thoughts and experiences being altered.
The performances all do credit to this elaborately mounted series. This may not be Roberts' best onscreen performance, but she is able to bring out Heidi's bewilderment well. Shea Whigham is perfect as the persistent Thomas Carrasco, while Bobby Canavale is a bit miscast as Heidi's boss Colin. Stephan James, however, is the real standout as Walter Cruz. He brings a certain ease and charm to the role that also stays true to the essence of Oscar Isaac's podcast performance of the same character.
Perhaps some of the charm of the Heidi-Walter conversation from the Homecoming podcast is lost in this adaptation, and the plot tweaks could have been used better, in aid of strengthening the story rather than adding meaningless detours. But with Golden Globe nominations for Best Drama Series, and Best Actor and Best Actress nods for Stephan James and Julia Roberts, it is clear that the Homecoming adaptation gets things right more often than not.
In doing so, it also provides a formula for other podcast-to-screen adaptations: building on the best of the audio source material, while capitalising on the opportunity offered by a new medium to develop a strong and compelling visual identity.
You can listen to the Homecoming podcast, seasons 1 and 2, here.
Homecoming season 1 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer here:
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