In “Version vs. Version”, I take two (or more) versions of a particular story, see what they did differently, what’s the same, and — perhaps most importantly — which one is better. This can be about remakes of a movie, film adaptations of a book, or anything else where one franchise has more than one incarnation. First up? The novel series and television series of The Dresden Files.
The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher. For those who don’t know, “urban fantasy” means it deals with magic and mythical creatures, but is generally set in the modern world and is otherwise analogous to the Earth that we’re familiar with (technically it can be set in any city, even historical ones, but most genre examples fall under modern times). Harry Dresden lives in Chicago and operates his own business, helping to find missing people or lost items or solve other problems that people come to him with. But his listing in the Yellow Pages isn’t under “Private Investigators”… it’s the sole entry under “Wizards”. Wizards are not exactly uncommon in Dresden’s version of Earth, but practicing openly is; this is just one of many things that sets Harry apart from his fellow wizards, many of whom openly distrust him after he killed his mentor in self-defense. Most of Harry’s cases seem innocuous at first, barring the occasional murder he’s brought in to help Lt. Karrin Murphy of Chicago’s “Special Investigations” unit with. But no matter how small the case looks, it inevitably builds into something that pits Harry against evil sorcerers, vampires, or any of the numerous nasty creatures of the Never Never. The books keep ramping up the challenge factor with every novel, so that while Harry becomes increasingly skilled and formidable as time goes on, he also accumulates a crippling number of scars, injuries, and neuroses. The series has been a steady success by fantasy series standards, and recently published its 13th novel.
With a fan-base supporting the series enough to keep it going that long, and a setting that would be relatively easy to film, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would take a crack at adapting it into a TV series. In 2007, the Sci-Fi Channel (before rebranding themselves as “Syfy”) did just that, although the series only lasted for 13 episodes. As was also inevitable, there were some changes made in the transition from page to screen; some minor, some major, and some just plain odd.
The casting for the show is where some of the changes are most visible, albeit not necessarily important in all cases. I have to say that Paul Blackthorne makes a pretty good Harry Dresden. He has that same tall, lanky, somewhat-disheveled low-class look that Harry is described as having in the novels. While Blackthorne, at 6′ 3″, is about half a foot short of Harry’s staggering 6′ 9″, I can overlook that with an acknowledgement that there simply aren’t that many actors of that height. By contrast, Valerie Cruz is 8 inches taller than Lt. Murphy (here renamed Connie Murphy, reportedly to avoid using the name of an actual Chicago cop), and is also a brunette while the books repeatedly describe Murphy as a blonde. In fact, Cruz apparently had applied for the role of Susan Rodriguez originally, but wound up with the role of Murphy during auditions (Susan, Harry’s love interest in the books, was relegated to a minor character in the series). Mule-headed Warden Donald Morgan, who has been looking for an excuse to behead Harry for his “crimes” for some time, is an aging heavily-bearded Scotsman in the novels. In the television series, he is played by Conrad Coates, a relatively young and clean-cut man of African descent. Still, while the actors for Murphy and Morgan don’t look anything like their characters, both do a good job of portraying the personalities. Murphy still comes across as a beleaguered officer tasked with impossible crimes, having her sanity questioned by her fellow officers, and having to rely on an outside consultant she doesn’t entirely trust. Morgan still comes across as a Knight Templar type of personality who is only being restrained from cutting off Harry’s head “for the public good” due to his strict obedience to the letter of the law.
But then there’s Bob, the last of the major characters for the show. In the novels, Bob is Harry’s spell advisor, a “Spirit of Information” who resides in a skull. The TV series keeps the skull, but gives Bob a human appearance (in the form of Terrence Mann) when he exits it, which he does any time he wishes to communicate with Harry. On the one hand, I can see why they chose to make this change; it is difficult in visual media to portray the emotions and inflections in speech with an inanimate object, and if they had animated the skull it could easily have been as laughable as Salem the cat in Sabrina, the Teenaged Witch. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that giving Bob a human form gave the executives a strong urge to tamper with the character. In the TV series, Bob is not an inhuman spirit, but is the ghost of a necromancer, punished with eternal imprisonment in the skull for his crime of attempting to restore his lover to life. It’s a fairly drastic change from the sex-obsessed smart-aleck with a shaky grasp of good and evil that Bob is in the books.
There are other changes as well. Waldo Butters, medical examiner, is a much larger man in the television series, and we don’t see as much of his personality over the several episodes we see him in as we do in even the first paragraph of his debut in the novels. Perhaps we would have had the series lasted more than one season, but perhaps not. Further, of all of Murphy’s various partners were combined into one composite character, the newly-created Detective Sid Kirmani, and the series had Murphy’s father feature heavily in one episode (in the novels, Murphy’s father died well before the series began.) Even Harry himself isn’t completely free of alterations; while in the books he had no inheritance, in the television series he owns (but doesn’t use) a mansion inherited from his mentor. His blasting rod and staff are replaced in the TV series by a hockey stick and a drumstick (amusingly, while the blasting rod is approximately wand-sized in the novel, it’s the one that’s replaced by the hockey stick). It’s an interesting aesthetic, and it’s a good choice for an urban wizard TV series… but it’s not true to the books, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to stay true to the books in this case. (Although we would then have been deprived of one of the more amusing scenes in the show, with a rescued client asking Harry excitedly if she can get a magic hockey stick.)
It would be easy, at this point, to conclude that the producers of the television show (which, incidentally, count Nicolas Cage among their number) just didn’t care much about the source material, and that it was a lousy show. But I don’t think that was the case. There are definite changes, but it’s not just The Dresden Files “in name only”… as noted above, most of the personalities still play off each other in the same ways. The cases are smaller, but that’s more of a necessity in television; a 45-minute show can’t contain as much content as even one full-length novel. It’d take an entire season just to do Storm Front, the first book in the series. Not to mention the special effects budget it would take to truly do the novels justice; I don’t see anything less than a movie budget being able to handle the transformation of a Red Court Vampire, or the Chlorofiend, let alone Sue. (Those who have read Dead Beat know what I mean about Sue; those who haven’t, I’m not going to spoil one of the most awesome moments in fantasy fiction for you.)
And, although perhaps it was because I watched the show before I read the novels, I don’t find the changes all that objectionable. It becomes an alternate-universe Dresden Files, a description used by Jim Butcher himself, but is still entertaining in its own right. Just know going into it that it doesn’t cleave close to the continuity of the novels. It does, however, suffer a bit from the traditional “first season jitters” that sci-fi and fantasy shows all seem to go through. The actors and writers are still feeling out their paces, and there’s a certain roughness around the edges. As with most genre shows, it probably would have smoothed it out in a second season; however, it didn’t get one, leaving us with a one-season series that, while it has its strengths and charms, was also in need of some refinement.
TV Series Rating:
Version Verdict: Read the books. Watch the series if you’re tolerant of changes and early-season roughness.