Most books follow a pretty straightforward path from page to screen: traditional publication by a major publishing house, followed by an option from a production company, and, if one is very lucky, a finished film or TV show. Zoe Aarsen’s YA horror novel Light as a Feather took a different route. The author self-published the initial version of the book—then called Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board—on Wattpad in 2013. Around the same time, she self-published a print version. The Wattpad text was read by millions, which caught the attention of Wattpad Studios, the online community’s TV and film production arm. The first season of the TV series adaptation finally appeared on Hulu in 2018—just three days after an edited version of Aarsen’s book, now simply titled Light as a Feather, was published by Simon & Schuster. The TV show’s second-season premiere bows today.
In the original novel, a group of high school girls play the kids’ game Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. Violet Simmons, a new girl in school, adds a new wrinkle to the game, predicting with great specificity how some of the players are going to die. When one of the girls later dies in a car crash, it becomes clear that Violet’s predictions are coming true. One of the remaining girls, McKenna Brady, starts having odd, supernatural visions, and she and her friends become determined to get the bottom of the paranormal mystery.
All of these elements are the same in the TV series, but the devil (or other evil entity) is in the details. The book, which takes place in a fictional Wisconsin town, focuses mainly on narrator McKenna, but the California-based show is much more of an ensemble piece; in fact, the dynamic between the friends is appealingly reminiscent of the TV show Pretty Little Liars (itself based on a book). As a result, the show’s characters are much more fully developed. For example, one of the girls, Alex Portnoy, brightly portrayed by Brianne Tju, is established as being a recovering pill addict, as well as openly gay—neither of which are mentioned in the novel, where she has a different name (“Mischa”) and is little more than McKenna’s nervous pal. There are other changes for the better, as well. In the book, a death by drowning happens offscreen and half a continent away, while in the show, it takes place onscreen, under a pool tarp—a visceral, unforgettable scene of horror.
The biggest changes, though, involve the nature of the supernatural threat. The book has the feel of a straightforward ghost story, complete with by-the-numbers haunting scenes. In the show, the deaths are caused by a much more complicated curse, which brings to mind elements of the Final Destination film series—and it’s much more satisfying, as a result. The book’s anticlimactic climax has McKenna throwing an allegedly haunted locket into a lake. The final episode of the TV show’s first season is much more lively, with the spirit of McKenna’s dead twin apparently taking the curse away to the afterlife. However, it turns out that the curse also transferred to the still-living McKenna, which sets the events of the second season in motion.
There’s a print sequel to Light as a Feather that involves Wiccan magic, which Kirkus recently reviewed, but the first episodes of the new season seem to ignore it entirely, instead blazing their own trail—just as Aarsen once did. The relative lack of mystery this time around makes the show a bit less engaging, as does the absence of a few characters—an occupational hazard on a horror series. But Tju, and the talented Liana Liberato as McKenna, are still around, and the show remains a lot of fun. As in the first season, it has a much more appealing sense of humor than its source material. At one point, for example, Violet, wittily played by Haley Ramm, says in exasperation, “Why is it every time something horrible happens, everyone always assumes it’s me?” When Alex must write a college admissions essay, her first draft begins: “By far, the most significant experience of my high school career has been playing a cursed game of Light as a Feather that COMPLETELY RUINED MY LIFE.” The second season, like the first, also makes great use of flashbacks in later episodes, which fill in chilling details. Horror fans—and aficionados of CW and Freeform teen dramas—are sure to love the games that this show plays.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.