The 'Halo' Team on How Their Paramount+ Series Expands But Honors Video Game Canon

From getting to know John, the man, as well as Master Chief, the soldier, to entering new characters into the Halopedia, Paramount+'s 'Halo' expands the franchise.

Scott Huver

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in 'Halo'


More and more new television series are concerned with expansive, immersive world-building as storytelling, creating richly drawn, multifaceted backdrops for their characters to explore to degrees rarely attempted before on TV. But Halo, the handsome, lavishly budgeted Paramount+ adaptation of the wildly popular military/sci-fi video game franchise, comes in the door with two decades worth of elaborate mythology and sumptuous visuals spanning the games, novels, comic books, and other licensed fare to draw from, and a devoted fandom to serve. And as the creative team explains, that meant striking a delicate balance of giving the audience what they loved, but in ways they hadn't seen before. 

"The first thing you is you think, 'Well, why do a TV show?'" showrunner Steven Kane, who along with executive producer Kiki Wolfkill developed the adaptation, tells Metacritic. "You don't just want to put the game on TV. We knew we were going to be telling a story, and they've done 17 novels; this was going to be our story." 

Still, zeroing in on exactly which elements of the mythos would best lend themselves to a faithful but largely original take was a daunting task. 

"The canon is both deep and wide and 20 years long, and so how to carve out of that a story was always a challenge," admits Kane, who recognized key elements were necessary for an authentic Halo feel. That included "things like the sounds and the sights and the imagery — certain things like how the shields sound when they recharge or using certain weapons that you'll see come out through the game. The hardest part was having restraint, not trying to put it all into Season 1." 

The next challenge was determining what kind of story felt right for both Halo and its franchise's new medium. With the focus on the characters, because that is quintessential in television, Kane says it was important to "also take the Halo and have it turn into a metaphor for everything that these people are searching for. Halo represents this thing just out of reach that all of us could be reaching for. And the heroism doesn't come in reaching the goal and getting it: the heroism comes in just reaching for it." 

To that end, the franchise's most prominent character, the Spartan super-soldier Master Chief, whose mystique is centered on being nearly always hidden beneath his perpetually worn battle armor and face-obscuring helmet, became the series' central character, ripe to be explored and exposed in ways the video game only rarely dared. He is played by Pablo Schreiber.

"We wanted to focus on Master Chief as a character to get under the hood and explore his humanity, and so, that became our guiding principle and everything else tacked onto that," said Kane. "He's a man of few words, so he doesn't share a lot, but if you know the canon, he's a mystery to himself. So, we get to go along for the ride and learn about him as he learns about himself."

Schrieber admits that while he was certainly aware of Halo in video game form, he faced a steep learning curve when he was cast as Master Chief because he hadn't grown up playing it. So he quickly traveled to Seattle, home of the game's developer 343 Industries, where he underwent an intensive "boot camp" in franchise lore. 

"They taught me everything Halo-related and then sent me away with all this research, and I just dove into that," he recalls. "The more I dug into it, the more it unspooled itself in front of me in beautiful ways. It's really deep and rich and well-thought-out. Over the past three years, I've become a huge fan of the Halo franchise, even though I'm not a gamer. But I'm a fan in terms of story and mythology." 

Knowing that much of his performance, at least early in the series, would need to be effectively delivered vocally from under Master Chief's helmet, Schreiber paid close attention to the sound and style of Steve Downes, who'd provided the video game voice of the character for two decades. 

"He really created an indelible character with Master Chief that will survive the test of time, and nothing that we're doing here takes away from that: Steve Downes' Chief is still Steve Downes' Chief, and nothing will change that," Schreiber says.

But Schreiber also recognized that the TV series would require greater degrees of vocal subtleties married with his full physical performance. 

"One of the big choices we've made is taking the helmet off and having access to how Chief feels about things and his emotional life," he explains. "We want to go on the journey of learning about John, the human [underneath], as much as we do Master Chief, the soldier. A huge part of the tension of the series is the dynamic between those two: the effect that being a soldier has on John, the human, and the effect that discovering his humanity has on Master Chief, the soldier." 

New to the Halo-verse are a wealth of freshly created characters unrooted in existing canon, most notably Kwan Ha Boo, a teenage insurrectionist who loses her family in an assault by the alien Covenant on her colony world and emerges as an unlikely protégée to Master Chief. 

"Kwan's story gives us a chance to tell some new stories that are not canonical," says Kane. "Every character that comes up that you haven't seen in the game, I'm just glad to [have] be part of the Halopedia now. 

Evolving the world of the franchise for the show also includes its soundtrack. Composer Sean Callery wanted to make sure to connect his music with the "foundational parts" of the universe. So, he was keen to include the video game's now-iconic Gregorian chant-style intro, but with an instrumentation twist. 

"We didn't want it to be a video game copy, and at the same time, we wanted new and original theme, so the first few bars of the main title is the original Halo theme that opens the games, played by a cellist and a sung by a female singer, and then it segues into the Master Chief theme that I wrote for the series," he says. "It's a bit of a of a nod to try to connect the worlds in a way that says, 'We're all Halo.'" 

Halo is