Thursday, August 30, 2012

Charlaine Harris, Sookie Stackhouse, & True Blood

Elizabeth Zelvin

There’s been a lot of indignation in the mystery community about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s wildly popular thriller protagonist, in a movie due out right before Christmas. Charlaine Harris’s vampire-loving protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, has been similarly transformed in the TV series True Blood, not by actress Anna Paquin but rather by the show’s creator, Alan Ball, and his team of writers. And that’s okay.

I’m a big fan of Charlaine Harris, who gets my vote for most beloved success story in the mystery world.
She spent 27 years soldiering on as an exceptionally talented midlist author, creating the model-cozy Aurora Teagarden series, the highly original Lily Bard, and the brilliantly conceived Harper Connelly books as well as the genre-bending Sookie opus before catapulting into superstardom with the success of True Blood. She deserves the recognition she’s getting, and she remains friendly, unpretentious, and approachable when sighted at Malice or Bouchercon or posting on DorothyL.

I’m still enjoying Sookie’s story as it unfolds in the books Charlaine is writing, and I’m also enjoying the very different story that is being offered to TV viewers.
Charlaine has said in public that she’s okay with the discrepancy, and I don’t think she’s just laughing all the way to the bank. She knows Alan Ball is inventing the developments in his story without reference to hers, and she continues to develop hers in the later books without reference to what’s happening on TV. In commercial terms, each success fuels the other, and readers who are also viewers get a double dose of enjoyment.

One of Charlaine’s greatest strengths as a writer is her gift for characterization. You’ll never meet more convincing, utterly down-to-earth characters than Lily, the traumatized but gutsy night-owl cleaning lady sleuth; Sookie, the telepathic barmaid who finds it a relief to date vampires because she can’t read their thoughts; and Harper, the lightning survivor who can find the dead and knows how they died. On TV, the actors do a fine job of inhabiting Sookie and those around her, although not all of them are quite the same characters as in the books. I like some of TV’s variations on the theme very much. Sookie’s brother Jason, for example, is more likable and is developed much more fully in True Blood. This season, he’s really growing up, and he’s played by a terrific actor (Ryan Kwanten) who’s moving quite subtly from being naïve, self-centered, and not too bright to a guy who’s thoughtful and wants to change. I also find vampire Bill’s “progeny” Jessica, who’s not in the books at all, tremendously appealing.

I’m not saying I like everything about the story line in either version of Sookie’s adventures. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be just as happy without some of the gore and sex that Alan Ball puts onto the screen. But both author and creator have done a fine job with a character who’s both complex and original—Harris broke new ground when she started writing vampires with a sense of humor—and whom we care about as she pursues her destiny in two alternate worlds.


Joni said...

Well, Liz, Ii think you took the words right out of my mouth. We were somewhere in the second season of True Blood, and I shouted at the TV (for the umpteenth time) "That's not in the books!". My daughter said, "Mom, you're just going to have to enjoy the show on its own merits, and keep loving the books for what they are, too." Um, yeah, you're right, Child.

Sandra Parshall said...

The TV version of Dexter has also taken its own path, and I like the screen version so much that I don't enjoy the books anymore, unfortunately. Once I got used to Dex's wife being dead on TV, it was jarring to find her still alive and as ditzy as ever n the books.

I'm not a fan of vampire stories, but I love Charlaine's Harper Connelly books and would like to see them adapted for the screen.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

There was talk about CBS doing the Harper Connelly books as a TV series. Does anybody know the status of that?

Leigh Neely said...

I love Charlaine's Sookie and really get disgusted with Alan Ball's version. I watch every episode, but I fume at his lack of appreciation for the beautifully crafted world Charlaine created. I wish he would give the book lovers at least one story line that follows her book.

The Cat Bastet said...

Like you, I enjoy have two versions of the Sookie stories. The actors are great and a pleasure to watch (though I, too, could do with less sex and gore). I'm so happy for Charlaine! She deserves her hard-earned success and the new readers the TV series bring to her books.

Cathy AJ

Sheila Connolly said...

Love the books, and Charlaine is one of the nicest people you could hope to meet and deserves all her success.

Yes, it is difficult to have read the books and to then try to follow the plot(s) for the series. At some point you just have to treat them as distant cousins and go with the flow.

On a related note, last night I heard Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli and Isles series (as well as other books), speak about the evolution of the successful television series of the same name. She said that the scriptwriters for the series chose to emphasize the characters and their relationships, rather than the crime-solving aspects of the stories, because that's what viewers want to see. If you want procedure, watch Law & Order. And she's okay with that, although she keeps her distance from the scripts.

Would (non-writer) viewers be happier if the scriptwriters stayed faithful to the books? (And how soon would they run out of stories?)

Sandra Parshall said...

What I can't stand about the Rizzoli/Isles TV show (which I've watched only once; that was more than enough) is that they've totally changed the characters. They have the same names and jobs as the characters in the books, but all resemblance stops there. They took away everything I love about Tess's characters and turned them into two ditzy gal pals. I hate it.

The Longmire TV series, by contrast, has kept Walt Longmire as he is presented in the books. He's a great character. He doesn't need tarting up.

Leslie Budewitz said...

At Malice in late April, Charlaine said that the ScyFi channel had bought the rights to the Harper series.