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Monday, 30 May 2011

The Vampire Diaries. What's changed?

In 1991, author L. J. Smith published The Awakening, the first in a 4 book sequence called The Vampire Diaries. Years later, another author, Stephanie Meyer, began releasing her own 4 book sequence, The Twilight Saga. This series would propel Meyer to the top of the bestseller lists and the books themselves were soon adapted by Hollywood into a series of movies, each a bigger smash hit than the last. As is usually the case, where the movies go, TV follows, and before you could say "I smell a cash cow", The Vampire Diaries(TVD) was winging it's way to the screen.

Of course, the TV guys could just have created their own version of Twilight; changed a few names, cast a blonde instead of a brunette, claimed "they're all archetypes really aren't they" and "certain elements are generic, that's why it's called a genre" and put out a show that was basically Twilight with the serial numbers filed off. No-one could have touched them. Instead they shelled out for the rights to TVD and thus saved themselves the bother of having to make excuses; after all, TVD pre-dates Twilight by a number of years so if anyone was copying anyone...

Kevin Williamson, whose work I've admired for a number of years, and Julie Plec, whom I was completely unfamiliar with, were responsible for transferring Smiths characters to the screen. To their credit, while recognising that fairly major changes would need to be made, they didn't engage in the kind of scorched earth, 'baby with the bathwater" approach that is so often utilised when attempting to mold a finite text story into a viable continuing drama. In fact, I've been shocked by how faithful they've actually been, with many elements of the books story being present right up to the recently aired S2 finale, although in a tweaked fashion.

Some of the changes do seem somewhat arbitrary, at first glance. For instance, while most of the characters, though not all, that appear in the show have their genesis in the books, they are often bastardised or amalgamated versions. Take the two best friends of lead character Elena. In the books they are ditsy, scatterbrained witch Bonnie and far more sensible Meredith. In the show, Merediths sensible personality is given to witch Bonnie, while the 'dizzy' role is given to the character of Caroline, who in the books is much more of an annoyance/nemesis for the core group, while Meredith doesn't make the transition to the screen at all.

Random as the alterations may seem they make perfect sense on closer inspection. In the books, Elena is written out for most of the final novel, which forces Bonnie to step up and become the heroine. In that scenario, it made sense for her to start off as a lightweight character, in order that her arc, as she grew in confidence, should hold more weight. Since they had no intention of writing Elena out of the show, even temporarily, they didn't need Bonnie to go on that journey so she was pretty self assured from the get-go. Instead, they gave Caroline the strong, maturing in the face of adversity storyline, albeit intended to get her to a very different endpoint. Watching her develop from stereotypical self absorbed teenager into a strong willed, loyal heroine, by way of unwilling pawn of a vampire and then terrified girl struggling to control her vampire urges, has been one of the most compelling and affecting throughlines of the shows two seasons to date. Much credit is due here to actress Candice Accola, so often overlooked by those clamoring to heap praise on the three leads. As for why they chose to call the character Caroline rather than Meredith, I can't really say, other than the fact that Meredith does sound a little, well, old fashioned, doesn't it?

Other changes continue in a similar vein. Elena loses the baby sister of the books but gains a sulky teenage brother. Presumably their desire to constantly put Elenas sibling in harms way prompted this change, given that they may have been on dodgy ground threatening the life of a toddler on a weekly basis, and anyway, it allows them to cast one more hunky young dude than they could have otherwise. Not to mention widening the number of possible romantic entanglements between the young cast (and the lad has done well for himself).

Elenas Aunt, as well as getting a name change from Judith to Jenna (possibly for the same reason as the Meredith/Caroline shift), also manages to lose a fiance in the transition from page to screen, making her nicely placed to form a romantic entanglement with hunky supply teacher/mysterious vampire hunter Alaric. Be glad they did this, because in the books that honour went to Meredith, in a plot development that never seemed anything less than creepy. (Yes, I'm well aware of the irony of being uncomfortable with a teenage girl having an affair with a teacher when another teenage girl having an affair with a centuries old bloke doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow.)

Tyler Lockwood, who in the show starts off as a bit of a tit but shows himself to be a decent bloke as he struggles with his burgeoning werewolf-ism, is never more than a cliched 'baddy' in the books, so that's another one in the plus column. To be fair, it's hard to see how the character would have remained viable as a continuing presence were he to be portrayed as one dimensionally as he is in the books.

Unfortunately we then come to Matt. Now, in the books Matt is right there in the thick of it from day one. He's been thrown over by Elena; spoiled, selfish little bitch that she is in the books, when she decides to set her sights on Stefan, but he nevertheless manages to be the bigger man, sticking by the girls throughout their troubles and forming a strong bond of friendship with Stefan (in one of the few friendships in the books that actually 'feels' genuine to the reader). He's with them all the way and is right there in the thick of the final confrontation. The TV show gives him another reason for getting involved, by making him the brother of early vampire victim Vicky. (Vicky is in the books, but isn't related to Matt.) Why then, does he manage to fade so completely into the background for almost the entirety of the first two seasons? It's a waste, frankly, although I'm tempted to say that it may have had something to do with the actor being a wee bit, er, bland.

On top of those we see the town all of these characters live in changing it's name from Fells Church to Mystic Falls. While Mystic Falls does sound cooler, I can't help thinking it may have been a little bit too on the nose.

A lot of changes then, but none of them massive and none of them doing anything to radically alter the premise, nor, I would imagine, piss off any rabid fans of the books. Although to be honest, it's difficult to imagine any of those actually watching the show in the first place. The books are well over 20 years old. So if we assume that the majority the teenage girls (and make no mistake, these books are very much aimed at teenage girls, and don't I know it) who read these books at the time are now well into their 30's or 40's and are therefore not really the target audience for a teen oriented show of this type, I don't think the producers needed to worry too much about them. And anyone who reads them now, on the strength of the show, has plenty of bigger dissapointments in store than these differences.

I haven't mentioned the main trio yet though, have I?

Well, I called Elena a selfish little bitch, but apart from that... The Salvatores have been vampires a lot longer in the books but the circumstances of their turning, with the love triangle involving Katherine, plays out very similarly, and in casting Nina Dobrev as Elena they actually went for someone who looked like a normal girl (albeit a beautiful one, but then this is US TV) rather than the frankly ridiculous 'Disney Princess' or 'Barbie Doll' wish fulfillment figure of the books. These are cosmetic changes though. In truth, the biggest change they made to the 'big three', and the most necessary, was in completely re-writing Elenas character. To attempt to have put the Elena of the books on screen as a lead heroine would have been madness. Have a read of this:

He'd walked right by. Without a glance. She couldn't remember how long it had been since a boy had done that. They all looked at least. Some whistled. Some stopped to talk. Some just stared.
And that had always been fine with Elena.
After all, what was more important than boys?

It goes on for a while about why boys are important before we get this gem:

Most boys, Elena reflected, were like puppies. Adorable in their place, but expendable.

Pity me people, for I have read 800 pages of this nonsense and have another 1500 to go. Yes, that's 1500. Curse my completist OCD. And that right there is what I believe to be the biggest positive contribution made by Williamson and Plec; an Elena that you didn't want to slap every time she opened her mouth.

Now that I've told you all the ways that the show is different from the books I'll sign off, because frankly this is far too long and rambly (and ultimately pointless, now that I read it back) to be allowed to go on any longer.

I hope you won't be dissuaded from joining me on Friday, over at my book blog, for part 2, in which I talk about how I feel the show and books compare in terms of quality. See It Here

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Without Whom Television Would Be Rubbish

It's that time again, when I bore you all senseless with another of my Top 5 lists. I've done my favourite actors, and I've done my favourite actresses but now it's time for the big one. The one that you've all been waiting for:

Faplads Favourite Showrunners. Oh Yes.

Usual caveats apply. Not restricting myself to genre stuff here and this is all based entirely on how I feel right now; ask me again in a week and I could well have changed my mind. Although that's less likely with this one than the other two. And so, without further ado...

5 Joe Straczynski

Years ago, when I was but a wee teen, a show arrived on Channel 4 that was set to change the landscape of televisual science fiction completely, revolutionising the way we looked at our shows and raising the bar for what we were going to expect from them. It wasn't very good, and I stopped watching. That show was Babylon 5, and I very quickly came to regret that decision. (It wouldn't happen now, but back then the Quest hadn't quite taken as thorough a hold over me as it would.)

Of course, we all know that the reason Season 1 of Babylon 5 seemed so lifeless and dull was that it was essentially 22 episodes of expository set-up, designed not to entertain (at least not primarily) but rather to prepare the way for future episodes that would entertain; and would do so on a much grander scale than they could ever have achieved without that massive amount of background detail. Was it a flawed way to write a television show? Of course it was, but it was also the first time anyone had tried to do anything on anywhere near this scope in televisual sci-fi. The creator of the show was on a very steep learning curve, and it was one that would almost kill him.

That creator was of course Joe Michael Straczynksi, or JMS as he became known to fans. (Yeah, and you whippersnappers thought you were so clever with your RTD nonsense. Well my generation got there first. Ha) JMS would go on, after B5, to write a few telemovies based on the concept, as well as creating spin-off series Crusade and later the - very good but sadly under appreciated - series Jeremiah, starring Luke Perry.

These days he mostly spends his time taking absolutely ages to write comic books of variable quality, but it shall be for the classic, epic masterpiece that was B5 that he shall forever be remembered. Even if his dialogue is pants.

"Get the Hell out of our galaxy"

4 Howard Overman
(There would be a photo here of Howard Overman but he is religiously opposed to anyone capturing his likeness. Either that or I'm just useless at finding pictures of people on the internet. Feel free to believe whichever seems most likely.)

Vexed is (or was; I'm not sure of the status of any potential second run) a decent enough little comedy but it wouldn't get you on this list. Oh no, I am far more exacting than that. Luckily, Vexed is not the only show Howard Overman has gifted us with.

Misfits. That is all.

3 Aaron Sorkin

Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Two of those would be on my top 10 (possibly top 5) best US shows of all time; one of them was at No.1 for a long time before it was knocked down a peg, by a show created by the next guy on this list funnily enough.

Sports Night even managed to make me a fan despite having the two seemingly insurmountable drawbacks of A) heavily focusing on sport and B) heavily featuring Peter Krause.

Responsible for one of the most standing ovation worthy, "you tell 'em", moments in recent television history (in the Studio 60 pilot; shame no-one listened), Sorkin is nevertheless most famous (in television terms at least), for The West Wing. The show that gave us the White House we all wanted to believe existed but knew didn't, and likely never would. It also gave us Martin Sheen as President Bartlett, Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler and the late John Spencer as Leo McGarry (great characters all) but the shows, and Sorkins, greatest contribution to popular culture was the one, the only, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford).

Whitford was on my list of top actors and when I get around to doing it, Lymon will be on my list of top characters. And I'd not have heard of either were it not for Aaron Sorkin. If he didn't deserve his place on this list for anything else, although he clearly does, he'd deserve it for that.

2 David Simon

No big spiel about David Simon. Have you watched Homicide : Life On The Street, The Corner, Generation Kill and the sublime The Wire (the show that knocked The West Wing off the top show ever spot)? If you have, you know why David Simon is on this list. If you haven't, you need to go and watch them. Now.

Can't speak for Simons latest show Treme, because I haven't seen it yet but I'd say that it being a quality production is probably the safest bet I'd ever make.

1 Steven Moffat

My first encounter with the work of Steven Moffat was Press Gang, one of the seminal shows of my youth. The show starred Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher as the perennially sparring but obviously meant for each other Linda and Spike (think David and Maddie if they'd met at school and had to run a newspaper together).

Nowadays he is the big cheese on Doctor Who and new kid on the block Sherlock (this with Mark Gatiss).

He's done other stuff in between of course. Coupling was his, and so was Chalk and of course Jekyll, but really, none of that matters*; he wrote Press Gang and he saved Doctor Who.** Those two achievements alone would earn him this most coveted of no.1 spots.

*It does really. They were great.

**He won't thank me for saying that, given that he has often (and vigorously) defended the work of his predecessor on Doctor Who. At first I thought that was simply professional courtesy. Over time I've become convinced he actually means it!