Book vs Screen Review: True Blood Season 1 vs Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

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But First, A Brief, Non-Exhaustive Tour Through My Favorite Romantic Vampire Media

Though I have been writing reviews on this blog for more than three years, I have been keeping a dark secret from you, dear readers. I haven’t really been keeping the secret on purpose, but a lie of omission is still a lie, so please, try to forgive me. I don’t think this reveal will come as much of a shock to my regular readers.

The truth is, I have a deep, lifelong love of vampire romance. I’m open minded, and can consider other supernatural romances as well, but werewolves are so packminded that I question their devotion to their beloved. Ghosts seem so thin and superficial. Zombies are interested in brains, but I want more than just a relationship of the mind. Angels and demons both have to leave their beloveds in the lurch when they get called into service by the higher- and lower- powers they serve. A shapeshifter is an inconstant lover in so many ways, how could we ever develop trust?

There are exceptions: Oz from Buffy. The medieval ghosts of Lynn Kurland’s paranormal romance novels. The sentient zombies of In the Flesh. The married angel-demon couple from Midnight, Texas, another Charlaine Harris story. And no one is more trustworthy than True Blood’s own shapeshifter, Sam Merlotte.

As a general rule, witches and wizards are the only other supernatural beings I truly find exciting, with their wide range of abilities to charm or bewitch the pants off a girl, depending on the mood.

Since I’m a witch myself, and wizards are a dime a dozen, can you blame me for looking for a little more variety in my fantasy life?

Bring on the dark, brooding vampires, who are the epitome of devoted, romantic lovers, are immortal, manageably dangerous and adventurous, definitely where they’re supposed to be during the day, gorgeous and who can share their blood. Blood which, if used in small quantities, will heal without turning a human into a vampire, but which can also make the user immortal if desired, so they can share everlasting love with their vampire lover.

What could go wrong? Don’t answer that, we all need to discover some things for ourselves.

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I admit, this is a hereditary issue for me. My mother and older sister sat me down in front of the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows in 1966, when I was 5 years old, to watch the trials and tribulations of vampire Barnabas Collins, of the supernatural Collins family of Collinsport, Maine. Collinsport was a mysterious town on the cold, rocky shores of northern Maine, just like the small towns in coastal northern Maine my mother’s family had lived in for 300 years, until my parents moved us to upstate NY.

With the amount of inbreeding that went on in the small early populations of northern New England, I wouldn’t be surprised if I share some relatives in common with Barnabas Collins. 😉 I certainly share the vampire’s love of night and inability to handle strong light.

(Yes, I live in New Mexico, why do you ask? This is why hats, tinted glasses and long summers with warm nights were invented. True Blood is a Southern Gothic for a reason. The Twilight vampires can keep their rain soaked, cold climates.)

Dark Shadows ran for 6 seasons, through 1971. Then I moved on to films and book series, most notably Anne Rice. I received 2 copies of her book Interview with the Vampire for my 16th birthday, in 1977, because my friends and family knew me well, and I haven’t looked back since. Though the author clearly favors the character Lestat, tenderhearted Louis will always be my favorite of her vampires. He is, after all, the vampire who was interviewed.

There were other favorites through the years, such as the film The Lost Boys in 1987 and the Dark Shadows revival in 1991. There were viral vampires, such as The Strain and The Passage, descendants of Nosferatu rather than Dracula. Viral vampires are better not mentioned if you prefer your vampires to be romantic. There was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, film and series. Who could resist Angel? He was so irresistible that David Boreanaz has starred in one TV series or another continuously ever since. I definitely resisted Spike, though I know others didn’t.

There was The Vampire Diaries on The CW, which ran for 8 seasons (2009-17) and spawned 2 spin off series, The Originals (2013-18) and Legacies (2018- ). The first 4 seasons of The Vampire Diaries were as good as any vampire media I’ve seen anywhere. I lost interest when the storylines were watered down by splitting the cast to create spin offs and some of my favorite actors left the franchise, but those vampires are obviously still doing it for others.

Over the years, Ann Rice has written more than a dozen books on vampires, plus other series on other supernaturals, some with her son, Christopher Rice. She managed to make a mummy sexy. Her original vampire trilogy was turned into two mediocre films. I also had a fling with Katie MacAlister’s Dark Ones book series in the 00s, a fun vampire soulmate series. Now I notice she’s added a few installments since I last checked in with it about 10 years ago so, yay! Something else to read over the winter.

The big vampire story of the 00s was Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series, which my kids and I shared the way I’d shared Dark Shadows with my family as a child. The Twilight films were terrible, terrible things. I recommend skipping them. But as with so much that’s perceived to be originally aimed at teenage girls, the Twilight books have been unfairly maligned. They are full of universal themes and vivid characters.

Bella is a great character for anyone to follow and she has a romance to die for. She does so much more than have a boyfriend and a baby in her books, but even if that’s all she did, it would be enough. Navigating personal relationships is a huge part of life, and for someone from a background of abuse and neglect, like Bella, learning how to have healthy relationships when you are older is a long term challenge.

If it takes a vampire family to show you what real love, care, equal relationships and decent parenting look like, there’s nothing wrong with that. There are very good reasons why Bella’s romance is in love not just with Edward, but with his entire clan. Because of her childhood experiences, she’s in love with the idea of transforming from a human who has difficulty defending herself against the human monsters in her world, who include her parents, into a vampire who can protect herself and her entire devoted vampire family from even the fiercest of supernatural monsters. After a youth full of struggle, she finds her own power and uses it on her own terms to win a war, in addition to conducting an epic vampire romance.

There was a last, forgotten, one and done vampire TV series of the 00s, Moonlight, on CBS, starring Alex O’Loughlin, who quickly went on to become better known as Steve McGarrett in the Hawaii Five-0 revival, and Jason Dohring of Veronica Mars. Moonlight aired during the 2007-08 season, so it was affected by the infamous, endless writers’ strike which killed more than 1 show that year. It was just hitting its stride when the season was cut short.

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As a vampire romance noir which explored multiple historical time periods plus the present day, it was sadly ahead of its time for broadcast TV. Plus, though the show had already been completely recast after early sample filming (except for Alex O’Loughlin), the writing still focused too much on the relationship between O’Loughlin’s main vampire character, Mick St John, and the lead ingenue human female, Beth (Sophia Myles), rather than the much more interesting and complex relationship between Mick and his ancient vampire, on again-off again wife and maker, Coraline (Shannyn Sossamon).

The show was course correcting in that direction when it ended after 16 episodes, an unusually short season in those days. I would be thrilled with a reboot of Moonlight that was done right. (It’s currently streaming on cwseed.com.)

Alas, the media deities rarely listen to my brilliant ideas, so we are subject to the slings and arrows and fangs of outrageous fortune. But just 4 short months after Moonlight went off the air, a new vampire romance rolled into town, and it wasn’t shy about telling us what it wanted. True Blood was the answer to all my vampire romance prayers.


Let’s Finally Review True Blood Season 1

True Blood aired on HBO for 7 seasons, for a total of 80 episodes, from the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2014. It’s based on the 13-14 book series The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris. The TV series was created by Alan Ball, who was handpicked by Charlaine Harris because she felt he understood what she was trying to do with the books. He stayed on as showrunner for the first 5 seasons, which were all critically acclaimed.

The TV series stars Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who lives in Bon Temps, a small town in rural Louisiana. Sookie sees her telepathy as a disability because she has a hard time turning it off, which makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else or to have normal human relationships. As a result, she’s socially isolated, other than a few close friends and her family- the warm, generous grandmother she lives with, Adele, known as Gran (Lois Smith), and her charming but selfish, promiscuous brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten).

Sookie works at her friend Sam Merlotte’s bar and restaurant (Sam Trammell), where she’s also friends with much married fellow waitress Arlene (Carrie Preston) and fabulous short-order cook and hustler, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). Her best friend and Lafayette’s cousin, Tara (Rutina Wesley), begins working at Merlotte’s as a bartender at the beginning of the series. Most of the town passes through Merlotte’s at one time or another, since it’s a popular local hangout.

Sookie’s parents died in a flash flood when she was a child, but other than that and her telepathy, her life has been normal, even humdrum. Until vampires came out of the coffin a few years ago, as far as she knew there was nothing extraordinary about the world. She still has no idea why she’s psychic.

A synthetic blood which can sustain vampires, known by the brand name Tru Blood, has encouraged vampires to take the controversial step of revealing themselves as a species to humans. Amongst both vampires and humans, some have embraced this revelation and some fear what it will mean for the future. Sookie makes her very first vampire acquaintance, with the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), when he stops by Merlotte’s to try a Tru Blood. Bill is attempting to mainstream, meaning he’s trying to blend in with humans as much as possible, rather than living the full vampire lifestyle, which naturally disregards human manners and customs. Normal vampire ways tend to alienate normal humans fairly quickly. They can even be deadly for humans.

Vampire blood can be used as a recreational drug, so there are dealers who capture vampires, drain their blood, then sell it. Sometimes they kill the vampire in the process. In the first episode, an unethical couple lure Bill into the parking lot to drain him, which Sookie overhears using her telepathic ability. Sookie is surprised to discover how easily some silver and the promise of a tasty snack can disarm a vampire. She rescues Bill and their relationship is born.

Due to the images her telepathy puts in her head, Sookie has never been able to date human men, so Bill is her first boyfriend. His main attraction is that she’s unable to read his mind. Perhaps because they are technically dead, vampire minds are a blank to her. For a telepath who’s always “on”, this is soothing.

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True Blood season 1 is a Southern Gothic, paranormal, horror, mystery, romance, urban fantasy, much the same as the book it’s based on, Charlaine Harris’ Dead Until Dark. Though the subject matter is intense, the writing is relatively fast-paced and there’s a dark comedy element to it that keeps the horror aspect from becoming overwhelming. The show isn’t as light and breezy as the books; in addition to the book’s humor it uses visuals and a heightened reality to emphasize the outrageous nature of Sookie’s world. The characters frequently comment on that outrageousness and on the ironies taking place around them.

In season 1, there’s a serial killer on the loose who provides the season long mystery arc. The killer is after young women who’ve been with both vampires and human men. Since Sookie has a vampire boyfriend and is frequently around other men, she eventually becomes one of the targets.

The show’s theme song, Bad Things, by Jace Everett, perfectly encapsulates the mood of True Blood. It’s an upbeat country song that promises an out of control romance, which plays over the opening credit sequence of each episode. Humans and animals experiencing intense situations flash by, while names are superimposed over them. The activities in the visuals aren’t necessarily even immoral, they’re just filmed in a way that makes them feel creepy, until you aren’t sure anymore what’s actually bad and what’s just making you feel bad.

Like an insidious vampire who wants to have his way with us, the opening credits act to lower our boundaries and confuse us, so that we’re disoriented and easily taken out of our normal lives. Whether we’re being glamoured, romanced, drugged or conned, the first step is to convince us to leave our previous concept of normal behind.

The first year I watched True Blood, I thought the opening sequence was the grossest, most horrible opening credits sequence ever made. Now I love it and think it’s one of the best. Is that a good development or a bad one? *shrug* I still can’t watch the maggots though. The vampires haven’t completely taken me over.

True Blood continues to lower our defenses and push our boundaries once the opening credits end. Vampires and shapeshifters are welcomed into normal society. They take part in panels on CNN, discussing legal changes which have been proposed to help or hinder their assimilation. They stop at the 7-11 to pick up a 6 pack on their way home. They have difficulty getting a contractor to come out to their rural home and need a referral from a friend. They are business owners, employers and employees.  They worry about getting blood stains out of their laundry. Possibly a little more often than most of us, but still.

They sleep underground in the graveyard when they can’t make it home before dawn. It’s sort of like crashing at a friend’s house. Okay, that one is pushing the boundaries of normal human culture. There is an entire vampire culture that exists outside of human sight, but we only touch the surface of it in season 1.

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Sookie is drawn into this world as she seeks to solve the murder mystery and enlists Bill’s help. She visits a vampire bar run by the ancient vampire sheriff, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) and his vampire progeny, Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten). They learn of her telepathy and seek to use her talents to solve their own mysteries.

Shenanigans ensue for 7 unparalleled seasons.


True Blood Season 1 vs The Southern Vampire Mysteries Book 1 (Dead Until Dark)

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True Blood season 1 follows Dead Until Dark, the first book in the series, closely, using the same serial killer plot as the main mystery storyline and Sookie’s romance with Bill as the supernatural focus. The book was originally published in 2001 and my 2008 paperback copy is a quick 292 page read.

Neither the TV season nor the book are my favorite of their respective series, mainly because I am emphatically not a fan of Bill Compton and eventually I start to gag over the way Sookie continuously drools over him. But they are both entertaining and introduce the world of Sookie and Bon Temps with enough suspense, heart and humor to draw you into the next book and season.

In season 1, the TV series faithfully recreates Charlaine Harris’ version of Sookie’s world, from Gran’s old but well-loved farmhouse to Eric Northman’s vampire tourist bar, Fangtasia. The series also included mainly the same characters and subplots as the book, with a few alterations. The main difference is that the TV show expanded on plotlines that were only briefly mentioned in the book, such as recreational V(ampire blood) consumption by humans, Lafayette’s off hours activities and the vampires’ struggle for equal rights.

Many of the supporting characters and their backstories are much more developed in True Blood season 1 than they are in book 1. This is an unusual difference between a book and a movie, but it’s not as surprising when you realize that the Sookie Stackhouse novels are narrated in the first person by Sookie herself. Expanding on other characters isn’t a priority for her, even though it could be aided by her telepathy. She’s basically obsessed with Vampire Bill and the murders in this book, whereas she’s known the other characters her whole life. It’s natural for her to have little interest in providing extra details, so she tells us enough, but we don’t get a full biography.

Two characters who go on to appear in multiple books are left out of the TV series, Bubba and JB du Rone. Bubba is based on a very famous real life singer, so they probably figured he’d be distracting, as he typically is in the books. JB du Rone is a sweet man-child who shares some similarities with Lafayette and eventually becomes close to Tara. I suspect the Lafayette we see on screen is actually meant to be a composite character, with many tweaks and Lafayette’s brains.

The biggest change from Dead Until Dark is the addition of Tara Thornton to the cast. In the books she doesn’t appear until the 2nd installment, Living Dead in Dallas. Several major season 1 subplots revolve around Tara, including the set up for the main storyline for season 2, and she’s heavily involved in other characters’ plot arcs as well. Rutina Wesley is such a vibrant presence that it’s hard to imagine Bon Temps without her version of Tara, so this was certainly a welcome change. With Tara comes her alcoholic mother, Lettie Mae, played by one of my favorite actresses, Adina Porter.

Another notable change is the expansion of the storyline for book character Amy Burley, played by Lizzy Caplan. She and Jason become involved with a vampire played the Man in the High Castle himself, Stephen Root, with disastrous consequences, but it’s fun while it lasts. The Amy-Jason-V subplot is particularly effective, with its psychedelic visuals, sometimes subtle violence and obsessive relationships.

The actors and the visuals drive home the multiple abuse aspects of this plotline in a way that would be much more difficult using only words. The genius of True Blood is that the writing, acting, music and visuals come together to make an entertaining, memorable show while showing the dark side of society and how that dark underbelly can bring pain and pleasure. But True Blood wouldn’t exist if Charlaine Harris’ genius hadn’t already given us the snarky, bold, scandalous world they are elaborating on.

True Blood is streaming on HBO’s websites and Amazon Prime. Charlaine Harris has a new book in her current Gunnie Rose series, A Longer Fall, coming out in January 2020. Until then, I’m amusing myself by revisiting Sookie Stackhouse.

Images belong to those who created them.

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