As a child, I once cried on Christmas night because I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole year until the next Christmas. Television viewers have long felt a similar pang at the end of an episode. But in the post-broadcast era, freed from the tyranny of being drip-fed single episodes in a set timeslot, we can now watch as many as we like, when we like: on DVD, TiVo or the Internet, engaging in voluptuous television binges, tearing through entire seasons in a weekend.
Accordingly, the experience of viewing becomes more immersive and we find increased satisfaction in more complex and intricate characterisation and plot. We also take self-satisfied pride as early adopters of cult series long before sluggish Australian networks introduce them to the masses.
These behaviours and attitudes, however, are not new – and they are certainly not unique to television. Like post-broadcast television, serial novels can be enjoyed at a time, place and pace determined by the reader. And we devour them with a similar avidity, racing through entire books in a weekend and anxiously anticipating the publication of the next title.
Binge reading, like binge television viewing, works best when you have just discovered a long-running series; there’s more material to immediately consume. This pretty much describes my teenage reading preference for crime-novel series. I began with Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels and Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mysteries, before moving on to Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels and a veritable alphabet of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books. (Given this pinko-femmo kind of theme, it’s odd that I never touched Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books.)
But I also followed the adventures of male detectives in books by Tony Hillerman, Peter Corris and Edith Pargeter. Author of twenty Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries between 1977 and 1994 under the pen name Ellis Peters, Pargeter explicitly wound the series up shortly before her death with the final novel, Brother Cadfael’s Penance. All the main narrative threads were satisfyingly gathered together, like a much loved television series (which Cadfael indeed became) for a carefully orchestrated grand finale.
Then there’s the odd experience of reading an ongoing series of novels while the television adaptation is being broadcast. Though we can’t help comparing books and their screen adaptations, the original book is often done and dusted, a ‘closed text’, by the time the screenwriters move in. However, the simultaneous production of books and television in the same series sets up all manner of tensions.
For example, the first season of the Showtime series Dexter closely followed the plot of Jeff Lindsay’s first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and Lindsay acted as a script consultant. Yet, the two incarnations of the same lovable serial killer have since then followed divergent paths.Some characters killed off in the books remain alive in the series, and vice versa. While the books continue to emphasise that Dexter is a well trained sociopath, the television series depicts him as undergoing a slow and perverse process of recovery from terrible childhood trauma.
Which brings me to True Blood, and the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris – the source material for Alan Ball’s television series. The story goes that Ball was killing time one day before a dentist appointment by browsing in a bookstore. There he happened upon Dead Until Dark, Harris’s 2001 novel set in rural Louisiana four years after vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’.
Tellingly, Ball decided this was a viable idea for a new series when he found himself becoming an absorbed binge reader. ‘I picked [it] up on impulse and could not put it down. The same was true of the remaining books,’ Ball said in the press release announcing the series’ commission. On a panel at the 2009 Paley Television Festival in Los Angeles, Ball added that he’d consumed the Southern Vampire Mysteries ‘like crack. . . This wasn’t a book I would normally read, but I couldn’t put them down.’
Generically, the Southern Vampire Mysteries are an intriguing hybrid of crime fiction, fantasy and romance, narrated in the first person by Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, who happens to be telepathic. ‘I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline,’ Sookie says matter-of-factly on page one of Dead Until Dark. ‘But I have a disability. That’s how I try to think of it.’
The books could never be considered fine literary works; they are written to satisfy readers’ demands for plot-driven intrigue and interpersonal dramas among a lively and attractive cast of characters. At times, the prose is awkward and expository. But Harris skilfully structures the pace at which the central mystery unfurls. She introduces characters expediently, giving readers just the right amount of information to leave them thrilled by the ensuing twists.
It’s easy to be seduced by the universe Harris has created: a version of contemporary America in the midst of uncomfortably incorporating the supernatural. Aside from the physical characteristics and weaknesses she ascribes to vampires (which are fairly canonical in vampire literature), Harris sketches the various political responses to vampirism, raises civil rights issues and shows the clash between humans’ and vampires’ systems of government (and, subsequently, the relationships and conflicts between vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, demons and fairies).
Harris has imagined how the US religious fringe would greet the emergence of vampires. She vividly depicts the inevitable pop-cultural infiltration and commercial exploitation: vampire bars; vampire magazines, musicians and television shows; the illegal traffic in vampire blood; and the various brands in the synthetic blood market (of which TrueBlood is only one). These are all Harris’s inventions, though Ball’s series has been praised for its imagination and allegory.
As in romance writing, Harris provides gratifyingly lavish detail about her characters’ appearance and body language. In this sense, the Southern Vampire Mysteries were excellent fodder for a television adaptation – Harris had already written the character treatments. Here is Bill Compton, Sookie’s vampire love interest (played by Stephen Moyer in the series):
He was a little under six feet, I estimated. He had thick brown hair, combed straight back and brushing his collar, and his long sideburns seemed curiously old-fashioned [. . .] his lips were lovely, sharply sculpted, and he had arched dark brows. His nose swooped down right out of that arch, like a prince’s in a Byzantine mosaic. When he finally looked up, I saw his eyes were even darker than his hair, and the whites were incredibly white.
When I watched True Blood’s first and second seasons, the invented-for- television characters and plotlines bothered me less than the smaller departures from the books. For instance, Harris evocatively describes vampires’ fangs rather like men’s erections, protruding and retracting almost involuntarily during moments of excitement or arousal; vampires will show just a little of their fangs to Sookie as a covert sign of intimidation or a sleazy come-on. However, the television vampires’ fangs have just two settings: out or in, like flick knives, and the actors tend to brandish them that way.
Sookie’s wry, folksy voice gives the novels their charm, but True Blood decided not to use voiceovers (which Dexter does, to fantastic effect). Anna Paquin as Sookie has only her dialogue and body language to create her character, and she does a decent job. But the compromise is that Sookie’s perspective doesn’t set True Blood’s tone as it does in the novels.
Hence, the prominence of particular True Blood characters is driven by particular actors’ charisma. Nelsan Ellis as Lafayette was so compelling as the flamboyantly gay short-order cook that, while the character in the book was in fact killed off at the start of Living Dead In Dallas, he lives to fry another day in True Blood Season Two. Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) is a minor character in the novels, but is Sookie’s best friend in True Blood, with important storylines of her own. And the Viking vampire boss Eric Northman takes several novels to develop into a prominent character, whereas Alexander Skarsgård’s sardonically sexy portrayal in True Blood has made Eric an instant fan favourite, with regular onscreen appearances from early in Season One.
Depicting Sookie’s ability to read minds is another vexed point for the series. In the novels, it’s a clever narrative device because it bridges the gap between an omniscient and unreliable narrator. True Blood doesn’t need Sookie’s narration, but it did face the problem of how to represent her subjective experience.
In the books, telepathy can manifest as a cacophony of silent speech which Sookie can tune into. She also experiences brief visual hallucinations. In True Blood, however, her telepathy is represented either as echoing voices or as blurry flashes of imagery, and it only seems to manifest when intrinsic to the plot. Far more striking in True Blood – but of absolutely zero interest to Harris – are the lush visuals depicting the hallucinations humans experience when they ingest vampire blood (which the television writers have absurdly decided to call ‘v-juice’).
On the whole, I’ve found True Blood surprisingly faithful to Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Living Dead In Dallas. Both incarnations inform and enrich one other, even by their contradictions and inconsistencies; the ‘real’ Bon Temps exists in a subjective space of the reader/viewer’s creation. Best of all, I can extend and enrich my binge reading and binge viewing by switching between the two. Harris is especially accommodating in this regard; she fills the gaps between novels with short stories set in the ‘Sookieverse’, some of which were anthologised in 2009 as A Touch Of Dead. And I tore through that anthology as a desperate snacker scrabbles for potato-chip crumbs at the bottom of the bag. They were okay, but they just weren’t enough.
But now it’s time for more bingeing. Harris’s latest book, Dead In The Family, was published in May, while Season Three of True Blood beganscreening in the US in June. All my Christmases have come at once.