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Sunday, 11 December 2016

To swear or not to swear; that's the f*cking question

Fans of the post-apocalyptic TV thriller 'The Walking Dead' were recently enthralled and appalled, in equal measure, by the arrival of a powerful new character. A terrifying cliff-hanger linked the end of series six with the start of series seven when -having captured our hero Rick Grimes and his colleagues- Negan, the charismatic leader of the so-called 'Saviours', prepared to exert brutal authority over those who had dared to challenge his regime. With the captives on their knees awaiting their fate, Negan’s speech was a masterpiece of choreographed intent, tension-building and gleeful malevolence. Brandishing ‘Lucille’ –a baseball bat covered in barbed wire- the character (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) explained that he had a strict code to which he expected everyone to adhere. Informing Rick and company that, while he would not kill them all (because they would now be working for him), he revealed that there would be at least one punishment killing in order to discourage any future dissent.

Having filmed different versions of this scene, the producers of the show have now decided that the newly-released Blu-Ray edition will feature an ‘uncut’ monologue from Negan, hence restoring the original dialogue from Robert Kirkman’s comic. I haven’t read the comic, so was unaware that the original speech featured quite so much swearing. I am not necessarily against bad language and have no problem with well-placed expletives; in context, even the most foul-mouthed rant can be amusing. But here’s the thing: when you watch the two versions of that execution scene, one bowdlerised for a television audience, the other ‘uncut’ and faithful to the comic, you get two different experiences. The sanitised version is electrifying, tense and heavy with menace throughout; Negan’s sinister use of understatement conveys the picture of a man in full control of proceedings. By contrast, the 'uncut' version, which features 23 variations on the f-word, threatens to peg him just a notch or two above incoherence. In the TV version, Negan’s introductory speech includes these lines: 

"Hi ... you're Rick, right? I'm Negan. And I do not appreciate you killing my men. Also, when I sent my people to kill your people for killing my people, you killed more of my people. Not cool. Not cool. You have no idea how not cool that shit is. But I think you're gonna be up to speed shortly." 

In the Blu-Ray version, those final four lines are adjusted thus: 

"Not cool. Not fucking cool. You have no fucking idea how not fucking cool that shit is. But I think you're gonna be up to speed shortly." 

An even greater contrast occurs when he explains what he is about to do to one of the captives. In the TV version, he says:  

"You killed my people, a whole damn lot of them … more than I'm comfortable with. And for that … for that you've gotta pay. So, now... I'm gonna beat the holy hell outta one of you.”  

The Blu-Ray edition features this colourful diversion:  

"You killed my people, a whole fucking damn shitload of them. More than I'm comfortable with. And for that … well for that, you gotta fucking pay. So, now... I'm gonna beat the holy fuck fucking fuckety fuck outta one of you.” 

That ‘fuckety-fuck’ stuff might, for a lesser character, convey a modicum of brutal comedic wit. But for Negan, it feels like a reduction in his lyrical arsenal; the swearing, the apparent absence of calculation, makes him seem less like a psychopathic poet warrior and more like a brainless hoodlum. I know that some fans will assert that this language is entirely consistent with the character as he appears in the original comic, but I haven’t read the comics and I’m writing as a fan of the TV show; I think the ‘fuckety fuck’ stuff makes Negan somehow less scary.  

The process of writing involves sketching, drafting, re-drafting and endless creative tweaking, but the requirement to work within recommended guidelines and a desire to push things to the limit will demand additional creativity from the writer; when those boundaries are removed, something lesser invariably happens. 

Constraints of taste not only require the writer to be more inventive; I’d suggest that the actor must also tap into deeper resources. If you get the chance, compare the two clips and tell me I’m wrong to suggest that Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to convey a far greater degree of menace in his ‘holy hell’ than in that ‘holy fuck fucking fuckety fuck’.

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