Snowpiercer (Le Transperceneige) made its debut in France in 1982. From humble beginnings as a serialized bande dessinée, it has gone on to spawn sequels, prequels, a wildly successful film adaptation, and now a television series. Far from just a somber sci-fi thought experiment, the franchise has neatly tracked the crises and contradictions of this disastrous half century.
Regardless of the medium, the basic premise of Snowpiercer remains the same: an environmental catastrophe has plunged the world into eternal winter. Menaced by a frozen wasteland that kills in seconds, a few thousand unlucky souls pile into a high-speed locomotive. But this remnant of humanity finds itself strictly divided into classes: momentum must be maintained at all costs, and order is maintained with an iron fist. Non-ticketed passengers, reviled and banished to the rear of the train, play the role of whipping boy and reserve army of labor. But this lumpen-passengariat is freezing, famished, and ready to fight back.
So, why exactly has this gloomy rail journey excited audiences for forty years, and how has the tumult of capitalism stoked its creators’ imaginations?
The original concept was devised in the late 1970s by French comic artist Jacques Lob in response to a changing political climate in France. Lob had made a name for himself at the prestigious comic magazine Pilote under the direction of Astérix creator René Goscinny. During the May ’68 uprisings, Lob and the other young artists at Pilote famously revolted against Goscinny’s editorial authoritarianism. They demanded — and won — the inclusion of political content in the publication. The May ’68 revolt subsided, but the workplace tension at Pilote did not. Goscinny’s supporters accused his employees of subjecting him to a “Stalinist show trial, ”and Lob and his comrades left in 1974 to start their own publications.
By this time, the French ruling class was truly panicking about energy production. The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Sahara in the late 1950s had ignited French dreams of both a domestic oil industry and geopolitical influence. The Algerian War of Independence had crushed the first and dented the second fantasy. The 1973 oil crisis had further highlighted France’s embarrassing dependence on foreign oil. Rushing to save France came the Gaullist prime minister Pierre Messmer. Messmer had cut his chops as a sadistic colonial governor in Africa crushing communist rebellions. But his true passion lay in the nuclear realm. He had overseen the dangerous first French nuclear tests in the colonies and was enamored with the technology. He proposed what became known as the Messmer Plan — a scheme to provide all of France’s electricity needs through 170 nuclear power plants.
The Messmer Plan set French society ablaze. Fearful of the health consequences and furious at the lack of democracy of the Messmer Plan, hundreds of thousands of people became politically active. All across France, villagers, trade unionists, and environmentalists fought pitched local battles with the gendarmes to prevent construction of the plants. These battles raised real questions of power: Le Télégramme opined that the fight in Bretagne, led by militant communist Amélie Kerloc’h, “proved that the fiercely anti-nuclear local institutions can refuse French law, and enforce their own.” One of the largest protests was against the Superphénix nuclear plant in 1977. More than 60,000 people descended on the site to prevent construction and were attacked by the police. One young teacher was killed and many others injured and disfigured by police grenades.
The violence of the police and the ultimate failure of the movement made a huge impression on young comic artist Jean-Marc Rochette, who was a participant in the battle. When Jacques Lob asked him to work together on Le Transperceneige, the links between the story and his lived experience of the global struggle over resources and energy resonated, even if their politics diverged somewhat.
When he offered me his story, I immediately felt the power of this fable for adults. A simple story, like no one had ever quite done. A train as social metaphor. The “Holy Loco,” the perpetual engine, like a parable of power. . . . The notion of class struggle was more marked with Jacques than with me. I was more of an anarchist, I wanted to escape the system, not work in a factory, not be a civil servant.
A Pierre Messmer–type figure manifests in Le Transperceneige in the form of Alec Forrester, an elite “man behind the curtain” with a technology fetish and a Malthusian attitude to the lower classes. The artists’ all-too-real experience of megalomaniacal men, greed, resource struggles, and political defeat informed their tale’s dreary outlook.
The production of the comic also coincided with the 1979 World Climate Conference in Geneva, which concluded that “it is now urgently necessary for the nations of the world to foresee and to prevent man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.” As Rochette puts it, Le Transperceneige “was a cynical way of saying ‘we’re all going to die.’”
“You Suffer From the Misplaced Optimism of the Doomed”
Le Transperceneige chugged along with a cult following for decades before becoming Snowpiercer. Jacques Lob rejected several adaptation proposals due to conflicting visions. The now well-loved Bong Joon-ho version itself only came about through a mixture of serendipity, sneakiness, and confrontation with the studios.
In 2005, Bong found a translated copy of Le Transperceneige in a comic bookstore in Seoul. He read it on the spot and became determined to adapt it. This “act of love,” as Jean-Marc Rochette put it, set things in motion: “Unlike all those filmmakers or producers who buy the rights to a successful comic thinking the storyboarding is already done, [director Bong] went to find an old radical comic strip, forgotten under a dusty pile.”
It is not surprising that something in this sunless tale of claustrophobic hierarchies struck a nerve with Bong. As a student at Yonsei University in the late ’80s, Bong participated in the fearsome struggles for democracy and reunification against military strongman Chun Doo-hwan’s regime. Bong was a cartoonist for the student newspaper and, like the young Jean-Marc Rochette, also participated with his comrades in making Molotov cocktails to fight off the brutal attacks of the police. These mass protests eventually led to democratic elections in South Korea. It was a time of extreme turmoil and hope. As Bong describes it:
We hated going to class. . . . Every day was the same: protest during the day, drink at night. Except for a few people, we didn’t have much faith in the professors at the time. So we formed study groups of our own covering politics, aesthetics, history. We’d drink until late at night, talking and debating. . . . I’m not the kind of person who likes to be stuck in a group, so even while we were protesting, I would leave and go watch a movie. The lead organizers probably thought I was a bad activist.
Bong worked closely with Rochette to adapt Le Transperceneige, keeping and updating the madcap pace and dreamlike feeling of the original. The tail-end and worker passengers remained the protagonists, something relatively nonnegotiable for Bong, who proudly admitted that “99 percent of my heroes come from lower classes, and I think it’s an honest way to treat man in that it’s universal.”
In place of an elite engineer-tyrant, Bong created Mr Wilford — a capitalist “visionary” with a murderously large sense of self. Tilda Swinton famously features as Wilford’s gruesome sycophant Minister Mason. The actress envisioned the now-legendary character as Margaret Thatcher before the elocution lessons, “mixed in [with] all of the crazy clown megalomaniac cowards that the news channels show us every day.”
Jacques Lob wanted workers to seize control of the system; Jean-Marc Rochette wanted them to escape it. Bong explained that his adaptation wrestles with precisely these questions: “Is it more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” The film ultimately favors the latter, though its politics are painted in broad brushstrokes. Whether its conclusion is communistic or nihilistic will depend on the viewer’s interpretation.
Harvey Weinstein — the film’s producer who, like Mr Wilford, enjoyed stamping his name on things — hated it. He insisted on cutting the more extreme elements. Test audiences ultimately preferred Bong’s expressionist vision to Weinstein’s literal one, and the now-disgraced producer punished Bong with a limited theatrical release. In a gloating press conference, Weinstein maintained Bong’s version made him look like a genius in comparison. Asked if he was planning on retiring, Weinstein displayed Wilford-worthy levels of menace and delusion in saying that he “would like to run a small Caribbean nation. Something with a military.”
This was not to be Snowpiercer’s last clash with control freaks. One year later, South Korean president Park Geun-hye — whose military dictator father was the mentor of Bong’s old president-nemesis Chun Doo-hwan — blacklisted Bong alongside ten thousand other South Korean artists. Park’s paranoid censors claimed — not altogether inaccurately — that Snowpiercer “denies the legitimacy of the market economy and provokes social resistance.” Bong describes the blacklisting of left-wing authors as “a nightmarish few years” that “left many South Korean artists deeply traumatized.” But it also became one of the sparks of the mass protests that brought down Park’s corrupt regime in 2017.
“First, the Weather Changed . . .”
The original graphic novel was produced in the midst of ferocious global and local battles over energy and resource distribution, dire warnings of looming ecological catastrophe, and a confident new batch of capitalist realists declaring that “there is no alternative.”
Four decades later, Snowpiercer’s link between environmental and class struggles seems more mainstream. Its depiction of the ruling elite — sickeningly delighted prisoners of their own system’s momentum — rings truer than ever. The latest iteration of the franchise is the TNT series, now in its third season. Showrunner Graeme Manson argues that Snowpiercer “has a deep story of class divide at its core”:
It’s about imbalance, privilege, incarceration, and immigration. These things just ring really true right now. They should ring true in any age, but here now in this time of COVID we can see the divides as plain as day. It’s the underprivileged that pay the heaviest cost for these disasters, and it always has been. We see the machinations of disaster capitalism moving right now. Didn’t think we could be so callous? Think again.
Despite its production in a time of generalized cynicism and despair, the new Snowpiercer is more hopeful than its predecessors. It toys with “escaping” the system like Rochette and Bong but is also more willing to stage the democratic experiments of a working-class movement that has seized power for itself. Its portrayal of second-class waverers — attracted to both first-class dominance and “third-class revolution” — is without a doubt the most Marxist thing on Netflix.
Snowpiercer asks what happens when we say no to the domination of resources and people by the elite, knowing full well that the Messmers, Parks, Weinsteins, and Wilfords of the world will not be happy. If brow furrowing’s not for you, just embrace the genre: experience it as a Great Train Robbery for the climate strike generation or an action-adventure version of the Trolley Problem. In 2022, it may well be easier for all of us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; this winking new Snowpiercer teases us to try both.