The perpetual temptation with reviewing Fullmetal Alchemist is to put it on one pan of a scale, with either Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or the original Fullmetal Alchemist manga, on the other pan, and watch the scale go plonk. Doesn't matter which pan hits bottom first, as long as one of them outweighs the other and the resulting imbalance can be labeled Suitable For Discussion.
You tell me what purpose such an (un)balancing act serves. Where is it written in stone that all three (two anime, one manga) incarnations of this story can't do different things well? And to declare which one of them is the unilateral best seems more about providing the material with a defense it doesn't really need, and doesn't tell us about why each one works the way it does. That why, to me, has always been more interesting than a mere which.
I've seen FMA once and FMA:B twice now, albeit with each viewing separated by a fair amount of time. In truth, I held off on watching FMA entirely when I heard it didn't track the original story closely at all; at the time I was just immature enough to think that was proof of its irrelevance-at-best and incompetence-at-worst. A mind like that would have made it impossible for me to talk about FMA in any other terms except how it deviated from its source material. Unfair, to say the least, since FMA is remarkably good at being its own work — and yes, that includes the absolute mess of an ending it's been saddled with. It may be one of the most conspicuous exercises in how an anime adaptation can be an adaptation, with all the implied mutability and creative license. Now, with FMA back out in a single Blu-ray Disc set, courtesy of FUNimation, it invites another look, even more so perhaps from the audiences that may only know Brotherhood as the anime incarnation of the material. I don't ask such an audience to rank the two shows, but rather to look at how each explores their chosen topics, and how FMA might even have the upper hand in terms of how freely it contemplates some of the things it brings up.
In all its incarnations, the world of FMA roughly parallels that of WWI-era Europe, a pan-Germanic-Gallic culture butting up against something akin to the Persian Empire. Alchemy, the free transmutation of matter between forms, is real and widely used, but also subject to strict scrutiny — it's illegal to use it for fraud, and both criminal and immoral to use it to play god. But when faced with the death of their mother, that's what young brothers and budding alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric elect to do. Gifted as they are — and also naïve — they believe they can succeed where others might have failed, and they set about using their skills to bring their mother back from beyond the pale.
The plan backfires horribly. From Ed, it extracts a cost that is not only a metaphorical but a literal arm and a leg; from Al, the cost is the whole of his body. All that stops Al from being entirely destroyed is Ed's quick thinking: he bonds his younger brother's soul to a suit of armor. Al will never age, never suffer from hunger, never be wracked by disease — but he will also never enjoy earthly pleasure, never sire children, never participate in the parade of human life as anything but an observer. And while Al may not age or sicken, but erase the transmutation glyph written in blood on the inside of his armor, and it will certainly kill him; immortality isn't a free lunch. Ed's missing limbs can be replaced with "automail", courtesy of his childhood friend and compulsive tinkerer Winry Rockbell, but for Al the only thing that might return him to normal is a miracle.
This being a world where alchemy exists, maybe there is a better-than-zero chance of miracles also existing. One possible such miracle is the fabled Philosopher's Stone, which can work wonders off-limits to even the alchemists. Ed's plan is to make use of the resources provided by the State Alchemists — the "dogs of the military", as they are spitefully referred to — find a Philosopher's Stone, and restore both of them to normal. He learns soon enough that yes, the Philosopher's Stone is more than myth, but the cost of creating one — and the cost of using one — is far more than any human being, any group of people, any nation would ever want to bear. Since the foundational principle of alchemy is "equivalent exchange" — you can't create anything without using something somehow equal to it — it only stands to reason that the one thing you'd need to transform human life would be human life itself. Or a great many human lives.
No turning back
The real subject of FMA is not the bonds of brotherhood, although that's a vital ingredient without which you wouldn't have anything like the same story. What it is most about in this incarnation, I think, is the the way the sins of the past form the fabric of the present and the atmosphere of the future. The world we live in is made out of the decisions we make — good and bad, fleeting and long-pondered, consequential and inconsequential alike. There is no stepping back into the same river, no un-choosing. But despairing over the fact that you can only go forward achieves nothing; what matters is how well you face what's in front of you, even if it's made up entirely of things from behind you.
How this is set up is by way of elements in the plot that are not found in Brotherhood, and which are routinely singled out to demonstrate how deeply the two stories diverge. Both stories contain the Homunculi, artificial humans created by way of a Philosopher's Stone. Terrifyingly strong (one of them regenerates a severed head without too much sweat), profoundly amoral, their goals in this incarnation of the story parallel Al and Ed's: they want to be fully human (again).
At first their aspirations don't make sense. Why, if you have such immense power, would you want to trade that in for a puny human frame that guarantees only eventual decrepitude and death? (Edward himself makes this point, albeit in blunter language.) Because, as we find out, this longing is in fact a longing for their true origins — all the Homunculi were — again, in this version of the story — created when someone tried to bring a human being back to life by way of alchemy. For them, this is as legitimate a longing as Ed and Al's need to become what they too once were. From the standpoint of pure logic, such longing seems foolish; from the standpoint of the story's larger themes of the future being inexorably composed out of the past, it makes sense.
The same thing applies to another wholesale invention of this version of the story, one that involves Al and Ed's mentor, Izumi Curtis. Steely-eyed and blunt, she gave the boys the kind of training and discipline that would make Shaolin monks wince. She gives the boys hell's half-acre itself when she finds out what they attempted to do with their mother. It later turns out her fury stems from personal experience: she, too, tried to bring the dead back to life — in her case, her own child — and paid dearly for it with a good portion of her own innards. She knows all too well this is a cost nobody should even think of paying. But the fact she paid it opens up one of the plotlines for the latter half of the show, involving the appearance of a quasi-feral young man who is ostensibly a Homunculus, who seems to have Ed's arm and leg, and who is tied intimately to Izumi's own past transgressions.
Another aspect of the Homunculi present in only this version of the story hooks back once again into the theme of the closed circle: the one weakness a Homunculus has is when confronted with whatever is left of the original human being used to create it. Aside from being thematically fitting, it provides some opportunities for storytelling that don't present themselves in Brotherhood. Lust, the tall, dark, and seductive femme fatale Homunculus, manifested in Brotherhood as little more than an antagonist for the Alchemists to tangle with and dispatch. She's mostly there to demonstrate how deadly State Alchemist Roy Mustang can be when he's pissed. Here, her origins as a human provide her with a backstory that make her far more interesting as a character; she once taught alchemy to a man who was trying to rid his land of a plague, and when she died he made the mistake of trying to bring her back to life with his newfound power. She's the best example of this story wandering from its original plan, but in a good way.
A dead end, but not the wrong way
Where FMA goes wrong — indelibly, inexcusably wrong — is right at the end. Here, I am completely in agreement with all those who have torn out their hair and screamed at the screen; it's hard to find a show that so willfully and thoroughly squanders the good will built up in its audience. The ending involves Ed performing a sacrifice to allow his brother Al to be reborn into his original body, but the cost is for Ed to be projected into an alternate universe that is implied to be a close analogue of our world, post-WWI and pre-WWII.
What's sad about this is how the meaning behind the end is actually sound: a sacrifice allows both brothers to be whole, but at the cost of them possibly never seeing each other again. It's how it's executed that's the miscalculation. I'm not even all that upset about the ending also being not-so-subtly designed to allow any number of future chapters (among them, a feature film). But the gimmick of explicitly linking their world with ours, or something so much like ours it makes no practical difference, is awkward and arbitrary. It's no fun watching the show contort itself into all sorts of ridiculous positions to justify it. As far as conclusions go, it's on a par with a painter signing his work by whipping out a grease pencil and adorning one of his subjects with a cartoon mustache and goatee.
Somehow even this doesn't completely ruin the experience of watching the show for me, and I suspect that stems from me already having grown to love variant incarnations of other works I'd been attached to before they were adapted into other media. One of the works of science fiction that had the greatest impact on me as a kid existed in two incarnations, each radically dissimilar from the other: Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted into the film Blade Runner. Since I had read the former before seeing the latter, it was impossible to watch the film and not notice how much from the book never made it to the screen: the religion Mercerism and its "empathy boxes", the "mood organs" used by the populace to feel something in the face of post-nuclear devastation, the "chickenheads" and "antheads" created by said ruin, and so on. What I did not feel, though, was that the movie was unworthy of the book; the book had inspired a film that was about many of the same things, just in different ways. I keep them side-by-side on the same shelf in my mind, and the two comment on each other.
What's most fascinating about FMA and all its alterations is how those things were not imposed upon it by a screenwriter or a director as a way to make the material fit its new medium; the changes were essentially demanded by its original creator. Manga creator Hiromu Arakawa went on record to ask that the animation staff (including screenwriter Shō Aikawa) do their own thing and not duplicate her work, despite her own involvement with the show, so that the two experiences would be different by design. Western viewers watching (and reading) Game of Thrones are experiencing something vaguely analogous to this right now, as the books and TV series continue to unfold in parallel with each other. The goal isn't to simply have one replicate the other, but to have both of them become their own creations, both inspired by the same basic conceits.
None of this means the results ought to be immune to criticism. It's impossible not to see FMA's flaws; they were prominent on their own, and they stand out all the more when compared to Brotherhood and its source material. But the strength of the underlying material, and the fascinating ways it decants that material and runs its own experiments on them, give it a life of its own. We live in a world where our entertainments are plural and mutable by definition, where something no longer has to live in a single, canonical, absolute incarnation to be interesting, and the way FMA survives alongside its brothers is a suitable test case.