Any strong adaptation is bound to make polarizing changes. Even adaptations regarded as faithful, like Hunter X Hunter and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, still tweaked story beats on occasion. The first season of the popular horror anime The Promised Neverland did this too, but season 2 is making severe enough changes to be called something else entirely. If it pulls it off, we may have a reverse Fullmetal Alchemist in our hands, a show that switches gears from a faithful adaptation to a successful original story that still captures the intention of the source material in a satisfying way.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers through the most recent episode of The Promised Neverland season 2.]
Season 2 picks up shortly after the end of the first, with our group of brave young kids having escaped the farm they lived on their entire lives thinking it was an orphanage. For the first two episodes, The Promised Neverland seemed to be doing a good job of adapting the essential parts of the manga written by Kaiu Shirai and illustrated by Posuka Demizu, while quickening the pace. Then episode 3 makes a series of fundamental changes to the story, removing the fan-favorite character known as “Mister,” who serves as a catalyst for major story arcs.
Now, adding or even rearranging characters and events isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like how the first season expanded the backstory of Isabella and her time preparing to become a Mama. But fans took notice of how the show seemed to actively play with readers’ previous knowledge of the story before changing it. In the third episode, one of the kids starts playing a piano inside the bunker, and the camera lingers on for an extended sequence, building up tension with the assumption that the tune will attract an enemy — but it winds up opening a secret compartment in the wall. In the manga, this compartment is shown to the kids by the mysterious “Mister,” who reveals a big room full of firearms left behind so the kids could defend themselves against the hordes of kid-devouring demons who rule this part of the world. The anime still includes this reveal, but rather than racks full of weapons, it’s an empty room that the kids abandon just as quickly as they discover it. The creators of The Promised Neverland make one thing clear: all bets are off.
Episode 4 doubles down on this thought, rearranging events so that the first scene in the episode gives the kids a resolution to the mystery of their benefactor, and a set of coordinates that could mean a much quicker way to freedom than in the source material. It also introduces the idea of armed human soldiers sent to capture or kill the kids much earlier, and quickly tosses that idea aside. As if that wasn’t enough plot and world-building, the episode ends with the surprise return of Isabella, the kids’ caretaker and very first villain in a reveal staged much, much earlier than in the source material.
The decisions have caused an uproar in certain manga circles. Fan complaints suggest the show seemingly skipped one of the more popular story arcs, “Goldy Pond,” or at least changed enough of what comes before it that, even if the arc is adapted, it would be substantially different. But what’s missing from the debate is the idea that this wouldn’t necessarily hurt the anime version of the story. On the contrary, it gives it a chance to be even better.
Up until this point, the show’s biggest changes related to the complicated lore of the latter half of the manga, which is known to be overwhelming, rushed, and full of plot holes. The manga never achieves the tension or creative heights of the first arc of the story (told in the first season), trading the initial survival horror tone for Just Another Battle Shōnen story. This has led to assumptions that the show will end after this second wave of episodes, a rumor fueled by the widely reported involvement of the manga’s creator with this season.
By doing away with the Goldy Pond arc and the more “out there” lore of the story, as well as bringing Isabella back, The Promised Neverland season 2 feels like it’s course-correcting the manga to recapture the tension and horror of the first season. Rather than following a cast of 50, the show is sticking to just 15 kids. Rather than arming the kids with guns and having them start a revolution against an entire world of demons, the anime so far contains the story to another thrilling cat-and-mouse game, with Isabella as the main villain.
The fifth episode puts the entire approach in question, bringing one of the worst parts of the manga at the worst possible time: the time jump. So far, every episode of the season has ended on a strong cliffhanger, only for the next episode to completely disregard any tension from that reveal. A morbid room with “HELP” written on the wall over and over, as well as the names of unseen children? Not brought up again. The invasion of the bunker by armed humans? Nope. The return of Isabella? Nada. Instead, the episode jumps forward in time a whole year, breaking the pacing of the previous episodes, as well as the tension. Now the kids are grown up, they’ve been roaming the demon land, and are now so well-prepared they can easily blend in amongst the crowd in a demon village. Did Isabella not do anything for a whole year? Weren’t more soldiers sent to find the kids? If the show is going anime-only and telling an original story, why skip all the way to a part of the manga we have no connection to, rather than pay-off the twists you introduced in your own story?
This episode continues the trend of merely hinting at plot points or lore from the manga, while skipping them. The kids are staying at a temple that plays a pivotal role in the manga’s story, but here it’s just an abandoned shelter. There is mention of something called “evil-blood” that becomes important in the world-building of the manga, but is used as a throwaway line in the anime. Yet, they still seem to be following the main story points from the manga, only much, much, earlier. Near the beginning, we hear two demons talk about farms being attacked, and their cattle (kids) getting stolen. Then, the episode ends with the shocking return of Norman, one of the main characters who supposedly died back in season 1.
Norman’s return in the manga is huge because we’ve spent way more time thinking he’s dead than getting to know him. When he returns, it’s an emotional scene that kicks-off the third act of the story. Here, we’ve spent less time without Norman than we did with him. The pay-off isn’t that big. His inclusion in the anime’s version of the story gives way to the idea that maybe The Promised Neverland isn’t planning on telling its own story a la Fullmetal Alchemist, but rather burn through the manga chapters in order to be done with the story as soon as humanly possible — still telling enough of the story that it resembles the original, but taking way whatever made it impactful in the first place. This brings back the way the last season of Game of Thrones allegedly reached the same ending as the books, while treating its story as just a series of bullet points to check off, while skipping all the build-up and pay-off.
The Promised Neverland is at a crossroads. There are only a few more episodes to go before the season (series?) ends. Right now, the show has the opportunity to build up its own story free of restraints from the source material, a chance to correct the mistakes of the manga and forge a new promise with the audience. There’s also the chance to treat the story as an obligation by rushing to get to the end and skipping everything that makes the story worth telling. While the anime might be pulling a reverse Fullmetal Alchemist, the gamble feels as big as Game of Thrones.