It’s rough out there in the world of comic book adaptations. The last year and a half have given way to half a dozen shows from Marvel, and the last decade of the CW has been dominated by DC’s adaptations. It’s nice to get a break from the same two franchises though, and that’s where shows like Paper Girls can come in.
Prime Video’s eight-episode Paper Girls is based on the comic of the same name by Brian K. Vaughn, with art by Cliff Chiang. It was published by Image Comics from 2015 to 2019, and while it isn’t a sprawling epic like Vaughn’s best known work, Saga, it has two Eisner Awards for a reason. The story follows four 12 year old girls—Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), Tiffany (Camryn Jones), and KJ (Fina Strazza)—as they are sucked into a Time War between two factions that want different things for the future of humanity. The comic is fun and weird and emotionally driven, but unfortunately the show is missing most of the things that made the comic so wonderful.
It’s important to note that just because an adaptation of something deviates from the source material does not mean that it is bad. Some stuff doesn’t translate well to the screen, and some stuff is looked at retrospectively and changed to be more appropriate for audiences in whatever year said adaptation is coming out. That doesn’t mean that all change is good. The Paper Girls Prime Video gives us is almost unrecognizable from the comic apart from the names of the characters and the basic premise of “four paper delivery girls time travel.” Instead of taking the space available to expand upon the themes and worldbuilding that Vaughn created, Paper Girls instead strips everything down to the bones and does a sloppy paper-mache job in covering things back up.
This reduction of the story doesn’t just affect the general plot at hand, it directly affects the relationships between the girls as well. Originally, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ know each other in passing, but here they somehow don’t know each other at all. Worse, Mac is suddenly a huge bigot, something that wasn’t true of her character in the source material. Mac was homophobic in the comic, but it becomes clear that it’s something that she has internalized because of her own identity. In the show she’s a straight-up racist and antisemtic for no real reason. She calls Tiffany the wrong name multiple times after she’s been corrected, and the things she says about Jewish people are so bad that KJ has to ask “Have you ever heard of the Holocaust?” One could argue that it’s a symptom of the environment that she is currently growing up in, that it’s only realistic that she would be that way if the people who raised her were. But at the end of day, there was no precedent in the source material for her to be as intolerant as she is in the show, and more importantly her ignorance doesn’t add anything. Her character development didn’t need her learning how to not be closed minded, and it feels cheap next to the parts of her story that are more emotionally weighted.
Another place where Paper Girls falls flat is with the Time Travel aspect of the show. Almost always, good visuals and creative concepts on screen will work in a show’s favor, especially if the writing is less-than-great. Pretty, shiny things have the ability to distract us from things that don’t make sense, and even if that doesn’t work someone will always say, “Well, at least the visuals were great!” Paper Girls doesn’t even have that to fall back on. Across the 8 episodes, the girls only travel to two different time periods—2019 and 1999—and there isn’t anything particularly fun about them being there. To their credit, all of the actresses give very convincing performances when it comes to discovering how the technology of their future works, but it’s not something that can save the show. The comic’s short stint in the 2010s features three different versions of Erin and giant tardigrades duking it out on the coast of Lake Erie. But here they’re mostly stuck in time, and it drags.
Paper Girls is not completely without merit, though. Sekai Abenì’s performance as the adult version of Tiffany is one of the best in the show, and her and Camryn Jones build up a really great dynamic when they’re together. KJ realizing that she’s a lesbian is also very sweet, despite it feeling very disconnected from the rest of the story; Paper Girls might be a skeleton of its source material, but KJ and Mac’s relationship is (fortunately) one of the parts that made it through.
No adaptation can be perfect, but Paper Girls really doesn’t hit the mark. The fun of the comic is lost, the pacing goes from a thousand miles an hour to a slow crawl and back again in inconsistent waves, and there are times where the show seems like it’s meant for an audience around the age of its main characters. There’s nothing wrong with adapting a comic for a younger audience, but if all four of these 12-year-olds are going to be swearing like sailors, the writing should match that energy.
At one point in the show, KJ and Mac hide behind a gravestone with the name Vaughn on it, a clear reference to Brian K. Vaughn’s role in creating the Paper Girls story. While the bit is supposed to be a fun easter egg for fans of the comic, it feels more like a representation of how the source material was treated than anything else. Fans of the Paper Girls comic are likely to be as let down as I was by the series. More than anything, it’s clear that almost everyone working on this show—from the actors to the production crew—deserved better.
Paper Girls premieres with all 8 episodes July 29th on Prime Video.
Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.
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