Article on Boxofficeprophets.com by Eric Hughes
Three years after bringing his superb drama, Six Feet Under, to a close at HBO, Alan Ball resurrected himself on the pay cabler with True Blood, a TV show based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. The book series kicked off in 2001 with Dead Until Dark and continues strong to this day with book nine, Dead and Gone, slated for release in May.
Both the book and TV series, set in a fictional Louisiana town, focus on an unlikely romance between a young woman, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), and vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) at a time when vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are more or less looking to peacefully enter into mainstream society.
After debuting to a disappointing 1.44 million viewers – considering the extensive marketing campaign HBO undertook in promoting the series – True Blood’s audience grew week-to-week, with its season finale airing in front of 2.4 million pairs of eyeballs. (That number grew to over six million viewers once HBO took into account the series’ multiple airings in the same week). Not bad for the struggling network, which was in need of some fresh programming after most of its 2007 programming slate, including Tell Me You Love Me and John From Cincinnati, failed to live past its debut season.
Though initial impressions of True Blood were mixed, critics grew to like the new HBO series, which even earned award nominations from the WGA and the Golden Globes. But which is better: the book or TV show?
Sookie Stackhouse, a parentless 20-something who resides with her grandmother a few miles from work, narrates Dead Until Dark in the first person. Her only sibling, Jason, lives close by. And unlike nearly everyone around her, Sookie likes vampires. She’s attracted to them – especially to Bill, whose mind she fortunately cannot read. That’s right. Sookie can read what people are thinking. Well, everyone except Bill, which is one of the reasons she enjoys hanging out with him. Because with Bill, Sookie’s mind is at peace.
Soon after they get acquainted, a series of seemingly innocent people are murdered. At first the cases appear to have nothing in common, save for the method of death: strangulation. It’s then discovered that the victims are people who have ties with the vampire community (be it a relationship, casual sex or some other connection). That’s when the string of deaths hits a bit close for Sookie Stackhouse. Does her friendship with Bill put her in the line of fire?
In the book, which is the basis for the first season of HBO’s True Blood, Harris developed an interesting idea and firmly wrapped it inside a tightly written narrative, helping to move the plot along at a rapid pace. Harris’ language is simple, yet engaging enough to maintain a reader’s attention throughout the course of the story. There are no dead spots here. Actions lead to successive actions. A person winds up dead, and then another. The story relentlessly keeps moving.
Discerning readers will pick up that The Southern Vampire Series sounds a bit like Twilight, at least in its central love affair between a female human and male vampire. But if any copied premises are at work, Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer is actually at fault here, given that Charlaine Harris’ Dead Until Dark debuted in bookstores four years prior to the first Twilight novel.
The TV Show
Alan Ball remains rather faithful to Harris’ first book by translating nearly all of the story’s main actions to his HBO series. At the same time, however, the creator smartly opens up the Bon Temps world a bit, eliminating Sookie as series narrator and breathing life into the novel’s secondary characters (and some of his own, too, like Sookie’s new childhood friend, Tara).
Given that Dead Until Dark clocks in at just under 300 pages, Ball also was forced to create original storylines to help fill in his episodes. Some of them, like Tara’s struggle to eliminate a demon harboring within her wicked mother’s stomach, were just as ridiculous as they sound. But others, like Jason’s relationship with the not-who-she-seems Amy (including their bizarre sex scenes under the influence of vampire blood) or cook Lafayette’s business outside of the restaurant where Sookie works, were some of my favorites of the season. Admittedly I was shocked to find out they never appeared in the debut novel.
Whether intended or not, perhaps what I appreciate most about Ball’s adaptation is how his series can be used as a stand-in for an underlying message about gay rights (Harris merely hints at this detail when her vampires are said to “come out of the coffin” at the top of Dead Until Dark). Ball has refuted any such message. But given that he is openly gay and a strong voice within the LGBT community, I find his denial hard to believe given positive evidence from the series.
It’s there every week in the opening title sequence – a sign proclaiming, “God hates fangs.” And all season long, the most vocal of vampires are trying to pass the Vampire Rights Act (similar to a Human Rights Act). Yet they face strong opposition from conservative humans, especially those who attend church.
Again, whether it’s intended or not, the supposed parable merely adds to the depth of the TV show, which for me is about a lot more than a waitress’s strange attraction to a being that typically kills her kind. One on level, True Blood is entertaining popcorn television. But given that the series comes from Six Feet Under alum Alan Ball, something tells me that the exterior storyline of girl meets vampire only scrapes the surface.
True Blood is the better product, though I’d have no problem recommending the book, too, considering most of its main actions are found in the adaptation as well. In the end, I found more to like in the TV show, which admittedly takes a few episodes to find its footing. But once this happens, the series hits the ground running and develops into something more entertaining (and deeper) than its predecessor.