Adapting literature has a few issues that don’t appear when adapting other media. The major one is time; writers don’t have many limits on how long a story can be other than those imposed by format. Short stories can run up to 7500 words; novellas 17 500 to under 40 000 words, and novels 40 000 words or more. Getting a story to fit the time available in another medium requires bits to removed. Film is the main culprit. Few films break 120 minutes; longer books will still lose details. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lost key plot points needed in later movies. Blade Runner dropped two major elements – the loss of real animals and the rise of Mercerism – just to get the main plot into the running time. And even when the full novel gets adapted, the restriction of the running time makes the result feel flat, losing the depth of work, as with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
Television today provides an alternate approach when it comes to adapting novels. While each individual episode doesn’t provide much time, typically about 42 minutes interrupted by 18 minutes of advertising, a season in the US or a series in the UK can provided up to 22 episodes, enough time to get into the depth of a novel. While television was once a wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, the three channel lineup has given way to competition between hundreds of cable channels and streaming services. A Game of Thrones is the exemplar, in both how a novel can be adapted well and how a series of novels can be outpaced by its adaptation. The adapted series is subject to the whims of the audience, though.
Let’s look at a specific example, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series of novels tells the story of Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago and possibly the entire country. Starting with Storm Front published in 2000, there have been 15 novels and a book of short stories written starring Harry. He has dealt with a number of natural and supernatural threats to Chicago, including “Gentleman Johnny” Marcone and the Mob, werewolves, the Red and Black vampire courts, the Summer and Winter Courts of the Sidhe, and various other paranormal entities. Harry isn’t alone, though. Despite himself, he has a number of allies, including Bob, spirit bound to a skull to assist the wizard who owns it, Karrin Murphy, a member of the Chicago Police Department who initially tossed a few cases Harry’s way; the Knights of the Cross, wielders of magical swords charged with defending humanity; Waldo Butters, the Assistant Medical Examiner who picked up on magical doings because of the bodies passing through the morgue; and Mouse, a temple dog the size of of a Tibetan mastiff. Complicating things is the Wizards Council, who distrust Harry after he killed his uncle in self-defense. In particular, Morgan is waiting for Harry to make one mistake.
The novels find Harry taking on what should be a simple case that get him in over his head against something far more dangerous. Nothing goes easy for Harry, either because he’s so far behind in the plot that he doesn’t realize what he’s up against or because, being human, he makes mistakes. Yet, he still gets the job done with the help of his friends. Cases are solved.
In 2007, the SyFy Channel began airing an adaptation of The Dresden Files. The hook is obvious; a detective show crossed with urban fantasy fits perfectly with the cable channel’s mandate and doesn’t stretch a special effects budget like a science fiction series would. Lasting one season, the series starred Paul Blackstone as Harry, Terrence Mann as Bob, Valerie Cruz as Murphy, and Conrad Coates as Morgan. The show didn’t adapt any of the books, but took the characters and situations and created new cases for Harry to solve. The feel of the show – the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago trying to maintain the masquerade while dealing with supernatural threats – kept close to the books. The details, though, are another matter.
Blackthorne as Harry worked; the actor is tall and lanky. He just didn’t wear the same outfits Harry did on the covers of the books. Harry’s blasting rod became a drumstick and his staff became a hockey stick. His mother’s bracelet, allowing him to defend himself against magical attacks, remained. His car, a vintage Volkswagen Beetle nicknamed “The Blue Beetle” despite having a patchwork of colours thanks to Harry’s tech bane and various damage from his work, became a war surplus Jeep. Continuing with the cast, the Irish-American Murphy was portrayed by a Latina. That aside, Cruz was a convincing Murphy in all other aspects. Bob went from a spirit in a skull to a ghost cursed to be tied to a skull and its owner. Again, Mann did get Bob’s personality correct.
Some of the changes came about because of the switch in medium. Television is very much a visual medium. Bob being stuck in a skull in the books isn’t a problem; Butcher showed the interaction and relationship between Harry and Bob using narrative. On TV, though, the narrative is carried by the actors, not a narrator, and body language becomes key to informing the audience. An inanimate skull won’t have that. An actual actor playing to Harry’s can show the chemistry and relationship far better.
With Murphy, Cruz wasn’t originally meant portray her. Instead, she was supposed to play Susan Rodriguez, Harry’s girlfriend. However, Cruz switched her role with Rebecca McFarland, who was supposed to play Murphy. Cruz brought the essence of Murphy, except for the Irish-American part. Watching Cruz on screen as Murphy, she is the tough, no-nonsense cop from the books.
The Blue Beetle became a casualty of pragmatism. Volkswagen Beetles are now collector items; few owners are going to let a studio turn a valuable car into a banged and battered vehicle with a pathwork of colour and primer. Older Jeeps, though, are easier to get, thanks to Hollywood making war movies, and a battered Jeep is natural for those films. Another issue is that Blackthorne stands 6’4″, making getting in and out of a Beetle interesting, especially when resetting between takes.
The Dresden Files TV series manages to get the tone right, but flubs the details. Renaming the characters doesn’t work; the show is very much like the books. The little details, though, hurt the adaptation and can throw fans out of the narrative.