Happy! and the Art of Adaptation with Patrick Macmanus

As Happy! season 2 nears its finale, executive producer Patrick Macmanus spoke about adapting the comic and taking on Vonnegut next.

Patrick Macmanus serves as executive producer on Syfy’s Happy!, but he gives the bulk of the credit for the show’s quirky dark comedy to co-creators Grant Morrison and Brian Taylor. However, with Macmanus steering steering the ship through two seasons, Universal Content Productions (UCP) decided to give him an exclusive overall deal to develop other properties for distribution on television. Macmanus spoke to us about the evolution of Happy! beyond its original source material and how his upcoming adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five presented a particular challenge moving forward.

As Happy! prepares to wrap up its second season on May 29, 2019, Macmanus reflected on Taylor and Morrison’s choice to make season 1 centered around Christmas and season 2 around Easter. “From the very beginning when I got involved with it, they had said that they wanted each season to revolve around a different holiday,” he said. “The fact that it’s about Easter wasn’t just because we were trying to pick one of the more boring holidays that’s out there and trying to figure out a way of distorting and destroying it. We also felt like it spoke a lot to Nick Sax’s journey. If season 1 was about him finding that he has a family and he actually has a reason to live, it made a lot of sense for us to try to figure out a way to resurrect Nick and have him attempt to find new life… We found it extraordinarily helpful to look at season 2 as a form of resurrection for all of our characters.”

This idea of rebirth even applied in some ways to the title character of Happy!: an imaginary flying unicorn who changes the longer he’s with Nick Sax. “Happy goes through his own death and resurrection of sorts this season. We couch it in the season along the lines of his puberty really. By him removing himself from Hayley… and attaching himself to Nick who does believe in him, Happy begins to be influenced by this new best friend that he has in Nick Sax,” Macmanus said. “And through doing so, the only thing that we could imagine is that he has to go through his own adolescence this season… We have a lot of fun with the fact that Happy has a girlfriend this season, that he loses his virginity this season, that he begins to grow feathers and hair in places that he didn’t expect them to grow, but also that he himself becomes a little bit darker.”

Macmanus also praises Happy! star Christopher Meloni, who plays Nick Sax, with taking a vested interest in the direction the show has taken. “Christopher Meloni, our star, was in the writers room every single day… for both seasons. And often times as writers, that can be a little bit scary… because you want it to be this space where you can explore and hope that the star of the show isn’t putting his egotistical thumb on the scale in any way, shape, or form in terms of the storytelling. And the truth of the matter is that the combination of Brian Taylor, Grant Morrison and Chris Meloni in the writers room is what made this show as successful from the creative side as it is.”

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Further Reading: Happy! Season 2: How Christopher Meloni Brings Nick Sax to Life

Hopefully, Macmanus will be able to assemble another crack writing team for his next project for UCP, an adaptation of the anti-war sci-fi classic from Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, which he read and loved as a teenager. “After reading and re-reading it a dozen or so times in the last year or so, I realized that it really is a book that you don’t fully understand until you’re a little bit older in life, and even then I think there’s a little bit of hubris involved in thinking that you really understand it,” Macmanus admitted. “As a 42-year-old, I find it to be an extraordinarily impactful work, and especially now that we’re on the fiftieth anniversary of it, I think now more than ever we’re at a place where people need to revisit it. And for those of us who have never visited it, I’m hoping that this TV show is going to open up some new fans of Vonnegut at the same time.”

Macmanus was enthusiastic about the project from the start but realized how daunting the task of telling Billy Pilgrim’s World War II era tale would be. “I’m both lucky and cursed to have been given this project. When UCP originally asked me if I wanted to do it… I gave them a laundry list of 24 shows that were my own original ideas that I’ve desperately wanted to do over the course of the years. And they said, ‘Well, those are all nice and everything, but what do you think about Slaughterhouse-Five… do you want to create it?’… And I immediately jumped at it and said, ‘Of course I do!’ And then I sat down and really thought about what I had done and realized that I may have just shot myself in the face! How do you do Vonnegut?”

Later in the process, Macmanus became confident that his version of Slaughterhouse-Five would be faithful to the original and appealing to fans of Vonnegut’s work. “I realized that one of the biggest challenges of it was taking a little less than 300 page book and expanding it into what could potentially become sixty hours of storytelling, and so a lot of it was me looking for little clues in the book as to how I could expand the world while still not offending everyone and anyone that is a fan of the work and his world,” Macmanus said. “So that’s what I set out to do, and we created a bible for it that is fundamentally linked to every aspect of that book. And we do leap between the 20s and all the way to 1976 and back and forth within the pilot itself. And I hope that we’ve done it in a way that Vonnegut would have been proud of.”

Fans of Happy! will no doubt tune in for the season 2 finale on May 29, 2019, and perhaps those who have enjoyed his adaptation of Grant Morrison’s comic will follow him to his future projects for UCP, including not only Slaughterhouse-Five, but also a televised reimagining of the Dr. Death true crime podcast, which tells the story of Christopher Daniel Duntsch, the criminally negligent neurosurgeon whose malpractice killed and maimed many of his patients. Subscribe to the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast for the full audio of this interview, coming in June.

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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.