Characterization, as taught by the Dresden Files (television vs books)

Quick review of The Dresden Files television adaptation after two episodes this morning:  I have never seen an adaptation simultaneously get so much right AND wrong.  If you’ve read the books and if you’re a writer, it’s worth watching for this simple fact alone.

See, a lot of adaptations change things about the characters (or don’t, even if “fans” think they do).  And that’s okay, to an extent.  I actually like Paul Blackthorne’s take on Harry’s demeanor.  And that’s a huge part of what is right about the series so far.  Again, I’m only two episodes in, but this is where I would normally decide to stick with it or not.  That and I’ve seen a few jarring things about the characters.

There are some serious changes, though – and while they seem cosmetic, they’re not.  Harry’s shield bracelet doesn’t actually … well, shield.  (It does the pocket protector trope instead.)  Bob the skull (Terrence Mann) is walking around Harry’s combo office/studio apartment (that’s right, no basement, no sub-basement) and talking with folks right off the bat, and apologizing instead of being a sarcastic ass.  Karrin Murphy (Valerie Cruz) doesn’t look like Murphy (though she is shorter than Harry, we don’t see the combination of small stature and awesome fighting ability that defines Karrin right off the bat in the books), and suddenly has kids as well.  The duster is … well, a slightly oversized leather jacket.  There’s no staff – at least not so far, and no blasting rod, and Justin is suddenly his uncle?  And where the hell is Harry’s pentacle from his mother?

Admittedly, these might seem like small details – and in one sense, you’re right.  The series (so far) captures a lot of the mood of the books pretty well.  But those items up there aren’t just eyecandy – they actually make a difference in the plot and characters over the course of the series.  (Apparently only Valerie Cruz read any of the books prior to filming, and I’ll say that I think her take on Murphy’s persona is pretty damn good too.)

But despite the skill of the actors, omitting and changing those details makes this a different series, not an adaptation.  In contrast, while the Lord of the Rings movies aren’t the same as the books, the characters are still recognizably the same as they are in the books.  With The Dresden Files, I’m constantly in the uncanny valley.  I think I know these people… but I don’t… but they’re too damn familiar to treat them as wholly separate characters.

It’s a shame, but also a boon for those of us involved in storytelling.  By contrasting what makes a character recognizably the same person from adaptation to adaptation, we learn what parts of characterization are important.  It’s one thing to hear it from a panelist or teacher, but another to actually experience it.  If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can watch the episodes for free here, or find them on Netflix here.

I do, however, recommend reading the books first.