Thursday, August 26, 2010

But have you read the book?

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was out in Seattle a couple of years ago, I spent some time with a girl who’s my first cousin once removed. Now she’s a young woman who’s planning to be a veterinarian and has enough focus to have achieved the grades to get her into school. But back then she was a soccer girl with no intellectual pretensions whatsoever. The movie Troy had recently come out. It made a total hash of the Iliad, with the Trojan War reduced from ten years to three days and a bi Colin Farrell as Achilles running around in what my memory is telling me looked like a tennis skirt. My young cousin and her dad (my own first cousin, hence the “removed”) hadn’t seen it, but my husband and I had. The actual topic under discussion was how what distinguishes a good historical (or fantasy) epic with brilliant special effects from a bad one is the script. Yeah, the part that writers do, which never got any respect in Hollywood and has now become optional on TV. But my young cousin delivered the punch line of the conversation when she asked innocently, “Have you read the book?”

I found myself thinking of this incident while watching and enjoying the TV series True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, as every mystery lover knows. As a result of having her characters translated to TV, Charlaine Harris’s books, I’ve heard, outsold James Patterson’s last year—and he’s the guy who wrote (or co-wrote or had written under his name) one out of every seventeen books sold in America. So a lot of Americans are reading the books. But what’s interesting is that the story line of the series is not the same as the story that’s still continuing in the books.

I’ve heard Charlaine Harris herself comment on this difference. At some point during Season One, she said, “They’ve already established a backstory that’s different from mine, and that’s fine. I’m just going ahead and writing my story.” When asked how she felt about all the upfront sex that producer Alan Ball put into the first five episodes of Season One, she said, “I was taken aback at first, but now I’m used to it.” In fact, there’s always been a mildly erotic thread running through her novels. She doesn’t belabor it, but she doesn’t slam the bedroom door in the reader’s face either.

The overall story line of Season Two of True Blood was invented for the series, with a key character, Marianne, who didn’t exist in the books (unless my senior memory is a lot worse than I hope it is). I wasn’t crazy about that particular plot, which I thought got overelaborate and a bit silly. But in Season Three (writing this after seeing Episode Ten), they are using a lot of elements of the novels: Sookie’s cousin Hadley and her little boy, her brother Jason’s relationship with Crystal out in Hotshot, the introduction of Claudine and the revelation of “what Sookie is.” This last is done more subtly in the books, and TV has given her extra powers she didn’t get from Charlaine.

I’m not complaining. I understand that what’s on the screen has to be more dramatic than what’s on the page, since the drama can be supplied by the reader’s brain. I’m still reading the books, and I love the series. But by using the material from the books, the show has created a subset of viewers (and a huge one, considering what bestsellers the books have become) who know what’s supposed to happen next. The suspense, for me, has become about whether they’ll go ahead and do it or resolve it differently. Will what’s supposed to happen to Jason actually happen? (Trying to avoid spoilers here.) I’m guessing it will, and it sure will be an interesting twist. Will what’s supposed to happen to Hadley happen? I’m hoping it won’t. And most important, will the secret Bill’s still keeping from Sookie (if there is a secret and not just Eric being competitive) be the one that, in the books (at least so far), drives a stake through the heart of that relationship? They’re already offering “Who will survive?” teasers for the season finale coming up. I wouldn’t mind betting on two of the deaths, and in one case I’m glad, in the other I’m sorry.


Anonymous said...

The film Forrest Gump was quite different from the novel. I had a professor in grad school who lectured on this kind of thing and argued that if you only knew the film version of the story, would it stand up as a solid, worthy piece of fiction? If so, then it was a valid creative work. It is a different medium, as you noted, often with a different set of participants.

In a way, comparing a movie to its original novel is like the intentional fallacy. It perhaps doesn't matter at all what the book had to say. How does the film stand up?

Having said all of that, I've nearly always liked the book much more than the film (except for Dances with Wolves).

Sheila Connolly said...

My husband works with an intelligent thirty-something woman who loves the HBO series. They were talking about it the other day and he asked, "have you read the books?" And she said, "oh, there are books?"

I'm not sure what the message is. The stories are compelling, and at least Charlaine Harris has a hand in the ongoing versions, but obviously there's a disconnect somewhere.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I don't think Charlaine is consulted about the plot and characters of True Blood. I've heard that they're welcoming to her on the set, and she's had at least one bit part, sitting at the bar in Merlotte's and saying her line. The main thing is the popularity of the series have made her book sales soar, and she is presumably making money as the series continues.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think we have to expect differences between the book(s) and a filmed version, and usually I don't care, but I am irritated enough by the silly way Maura Isles is portrayed in the TV show Rizzoli & Isles that I've stopped watching. And I like the TV version of Dexter so much that I don't enjoy the books anymore! However I personally feel about it, I'm always happy to hear that a movie or TV series has boosted sales of the original writer's books.

Anonymous said...

Maryann Forrester was known as Callisto in the book.

Cea said...

I have read all of Harris's books, the Sookie Stackhouse series a couple of times. Friends of mine love the HBO series (they've also read the books.) One of them lent me her DVDs of the first season and I was amazed at the difference between the stories in the two media. I appreciate the dramatic value of Trueblood but I missed the humor of the written Sookie. I think Trueblood can stand on its own but I see them as two, very different story lines and prefer Harris's written work myself.