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From books to TV : The Dresden Files TV Series review

When adapting a book to the screen, things can get lost in translation and long-term fans of the book can get pretty cross. The Dresden Files TV series managed to avoid too much gibberish and gave fans a different perspective on the only wizard in the Chicago phone directory.

I was introduced to the Dresden Files book series by a friend who thought the sarcastic humour and urban fantasy elements would interest me. He was quite right, and I was utterly hooked. He then told me he had located a TV series adaptation, and my automatic reaction was to cringe; in my experience books-to-screen adaptations have not worked for me (I’m not a fan of the Harry Potter film series, for example, though I adore the books). I was expecting a wince-worthy hodgepodge of poor CGI “magic” effects, and mutilation of my favourite storylines, as I am well aware that what works for a 500-odd page novel doesn’t always work on-screen, nor can they keep all the elements of the novel for time and budget’s sake (Peeves in the Potter series, for example). I went into a viewing of the first episode expecting all my fears to be confirmed.

I was determined not to enjoy this.  (c) Sci Fi/SyFy
I was determined not to enjoy this.
(c) Sci Fi/SyFy

I was wrong.

Very wrong, in fact Apart from a few elements changed that didn’t make sense to me (I will address those things later in this article) the series was good. Not just good, actually, enjoyable. I was most unimpressed that this show only lasted one season, as I had been thoroughly enjoying watching it. I feel that, had it been released in today’s climate rather than 2007, it would have had a wider following and would have been less likely to be cancelled. Unfortunately, Dresden wasn’t released to a hugely welcoming audience, and for that it suffered. According to Tvguide.com’s Matt Roush, SyFy and NBC didn’t renew the series due to viewer ratings:

In their world, it’s all about “running the numbers” (in other words: looking at the ratings and budgets, etc.) and to them, Dresden just didn’t seem to measure up.” (http://www.tvguide.com/roush/dresden-sci-fis-9835.aspx)

Today’s viewers are more accepting of outre shows, as demonstrated by the influx of urban fantasy style series gracing screens across the globe: In The Flesh, Bitten, True Blood, to name but a few. Having a crime-fighting wizard today would be more welcome.

Personally, I feel that the main redeeming factor to the series was that, apart from taking plot devices from two of the novels, it didn’t try too hard to be the books it was based on. In the episode “Storm Front” (which, readers who are fans of the book series will recognise as the first book in the series) the main plot elements were there: a killer is striking during thunderstorms in a gruesome and messy manner, and the police want Harry Dresden’s help finding the perpetrator before they strike again. This is very like the book itself, following – as best it can in a limited medium – the plot progression of the novel. It was used as the pilot episode, then edited down to be used in the series later.

Some of the major differences between the series and the books are as follows:

  • Bob the skull is not a spirit of intellect as in the books, but instead the ghost of a sorcerer trapped in his own skeletal skull.
  • In the books, Lieutenant Murphy is cute, petite, and blonde. In the series she is tall and dark.
  • In contrast, Susan Rodriguez is Hispanic of features in the books yet petite and blonde in the series.
  • Harry’s personality in the series is, in some instances, quite unlike his book personality.
  • Harry is not allowed, in the series, to disclose his use of genuine magic and the White Council (called the “High Council” in the series) whereas in the books he is more able to disclose his abilities.
  • His uncle, in the series, is able to – in some degree – come back from the dead and try to kill Harry a second time.
Terrence Mann as Hrothbart of Bainbridge, or "Bob".  (c)Markus Klinko and Indrani/Sci Fi Channel
Terrence Mann as Hrothbart of Bainbridge, or “Bob”. (c)Markus Klinko and Indrani/Sci Fi Channel

The switch of Bob-The-Skull to Bob-The-Ghost makes sense to me; it is much easier to film an actor, rather than have someone CGI in a moving skull and orange motes every time Harry needed advice/assistance (spoiler: It happens a lot). The use of popular Broadway star Terrance Mann was a good choice, as he gave the role both the gravitas and the sarcasm required.

Valerie Cruz as Lieutenant Murphy.  (c) Sci Fi/SyFy
Valerie Cruz as Lieutenant Murphy. (c) Sci Fi/SyFy

I personally cannot understand the reasoning for switching the physical appearance of the two main female protagonists Susan Rodriguez and Lieutenant Karrin Murphy (or, for that matter, why they renamed Karrin to “Constanza”), as it is repeatedly mentioned in the novels that Karrin Murphy is tough as nails and able to keep up with the ‘boys’ in the police force, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her as she is blonde, adorable, and button-nosed. It is one of the small things that I didn’t agree with with the series.  Susan is much less involved in the TV series than in the books.

Harry’s personality changes are something that grate slightly on me as a foremost fan of the books; as a novel protagonist Harry is both sarcastic, chivalrous, and a little dorky. He has very little luck with the fairer sex, and is frequently flying by the seat of his pants. Series Harry, however, is blunter than his novel counterpart, has much better luck in relationships, and generally appears more collected. One personality trait I am glad they kept is Harry’s inability to lie well, especially to those who know him.

The decision for Harry to not be allowed to disclose that magic exists, that he is governed both by ‘mortal’ law and the law of the White Council, confuses me slightly as Harry advertises he’s a wizard – as he does in the books – so the addition of a gagging order from the “High Council” seems illogical. Although in the books, it isn’t encouraged to go shouting from the rooftops what he can do (indeed Harry is often reprimanded and/or ridiculed about his openness) it is not as expressly forbidden as in the TV adaptation.

In the book series, Justin DuMorne adopts the young Harry in order to train him up as a black wizard, and is killed in self-defence by Harry during an enthralment spell. He is the reason Harry was on a “performing anything like black magic = instadeath” probation. In the adaptation, Justin Morningway was Harry’s uncle, who killed his brother-in-law in order to gain custody of Harry. When Harry found out, he lost his temper and the pair fought, cumulating in Morningway attempting to use black magic on Harry and the young wizard retaliating and accidentally causing his death. Though as in both cases, Warden Morgan became his antagonistic probation officer, the end result differs slightly insofar as TV-series-Harry was not under the Doom of Damocles, and that Justin Morningway had created a magic-based clone of himself that just needed Harry’s death to bring the real Morningway back to life. I certainly felt it was an interesting twist on the tale, and it was a nice ominous plot thread through the TV series.

Though The Dresden Files TV series only lasted one season, it is definitely worth a watch for anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, magic, and interesting characters. For fans of the book series, I advise giving the show a chance, but I suggest you go into it with the mindset of it being an alternative universe, and not expecting a carbon copy of the books.

All images belong to Syfy

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