Text-to-Screen Ratio: Dexter

May 12, 2010

(Editor’s note: there will be spoilers here, but the only things I intend to spoil are plot threads that deserve it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the good stuff hidden in a rosewood box inside the air conditioner)

Due to the difference in each medium’s scope, it isn’t often you see books adapted for television. Novels – and films to some extent – are self-contained works with a set beginning and end, while a television series that airs multiple episodes a season is a living entity that often evolves weekly with changes in cast or writers. Additionally, books aren’t usually facing up against yearly battles for renewal, and shows rarely have the luxury of limiting themselves to one source of material unless they’re committing themselves to a limited run or miniseries.

Consequently, mainstream television shows that do use books as their inspiration have a few options if they want to stay alive. They can either leap away from their origin story and create a new world to operate in, such as FOX’s “Bones” (based on Kathy Reichs’ series of novels); they can rely on an extensive library of source material to keep a story rolling, such as the “Jeeves and Wooster” series; or they can bank on a really interesting main character to push it through, as is the case with Showtime’s “Dexter.” Likely the most successful contemporary show based on a book (specifically, Jeff Lindsay’s series of thriller novels), “Dexter” is interesting because it manages to show not only how an adaptation can be hampered by its source material but also how it can rise above it.

Both versions of the story maintain the core plot structure. Dexter Morgan, a forensic scientist with the Miami Metro Police Department, is a completely normal citizen except for one rather glaring difference: he kills people. Traumatized in his youth by an unknown horror, Dexter is a sociopath devoid of emotion who only feels alive when taking someone’s life. Nurtured closely by his cop father Harry, Dexter has channeled these urges into a form of community service, only killing those who are themselves killers, and arranging the events so precisely that he is never even considered a suspect.

Only the first season and the first book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” have major similarities and plot threads, focusing on an uprooting of Dexter’s status quo when a new serial killer enters the picture who seems to have very detailed knowledge of his bloody activities. Dexter’s chameleon-like life and bloody extracurriculars are adapted faithfully, though (understandably) with a bit less emphasis on torture – kills are handled swiftly and mostly out of sight, with a more orderly cleanup rather than the improvisation of the book. All main characters are also present, including his foul-mouthed ambitious sister Deborah, his loyal and damaged girlfriend Rita, the suspicious Sergeant Doakes, man-eating Lieutenant LaGuerta, dutiful homicide detective Angel Batista and smarmy lab assistant Vince Masuka.

But fittingly for a show and novel with a titular character, it’s that character that makes or breaks the story – and it’s hard to think of how “Dexter” could do better than Michael C. Hall. I’ve preached on his merits in my Capturing the Voice column, but suffice to say he continues to prove his worthiness to stand alongside the strongest central male leads. Slightly goofy when interacting with the rest of the world, coldly brutal when hunting and detached in inner monologues, Hall delivers on each side of Dexter’s persona in a very convincing manner. The monologues in particular exhibit the flow of words that make Lindsay’s novels devourable, particularly the first book and its sequel “Dearly Devoted Dexter.” In fact, Lindsay has gone on record as saying that seeing Hall’s performance was “a jaw-dropping experience… he really nailed it” and that he consults the actor while writing new books.

Of course, Hall’s position as the show’s center has also been accentuated by a frequently limp supporting cast – an issue that highlights the core problem with making a TV show (or even a movie) out of a first-person book. The novel focuses solely on one character’s views and actions, with other characters defined only in their interaction to the narrator, while the B story and C story subplots that form the structure of conventional television have to develop those characters independently. As a consequence, characters have to branch out in ways their creator never intended them to, and in “Dexter’s” case they never quite seem to escape their one-dimensional nature.

The show makes an effort to expand these characters beyond the templates Lindsay created, but the results tend to be hit-or-miss. Dexter’s sister Debra, portrayed as a more soured individual in the books, is carried competently by Jennifer Carpenter as “dearly damaged Debra,” her constant swearing betraying the damage of an absentee father. However, when they try to push her too heavily out of her comfort zone, such as her dalliance with a much older FBI agent in season 2 that has some seriously cringe-worthy scenes (I don’t need to see Keith Carradine smacking the ass of a woman half his age).

Again, the characters that work do so because of their defined reaction to Dexter and how much that relationship diverges from the book. Erik King as Doakes makes an excellent “panther” stalking Dexter (if only because I feel he needs his own blacksplotation film on the strength of how he says “motherfucker”), and Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is smarmy enough that he matches Dexter’s book observation that he also seems to be pretending to be normal. Conversely, David Zayas and Lauren Velez never seem to have enough to do as Batista and Masuka respectively, and their subplots feel scattered like bags of body parts thrown into the Atlantic. Julie Benz as Rita probably gets closer to him than others, but when her ex-husband or mother come in there’s a lot of angst that seems to detract from the way the character works.

But while “Dexter” as a show has its share of storytelling cracks, in many ways it’s still stronger than its source material, chiefly because that source material has been on a downward slope. The “Dexter” novels, after two very entertaining outings, fell victim to what video game journalist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw dubbed Indigo Prophecy Syndrome in his video review of “Condemned 2: Bloodshot”:

“The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy Syndrome is a plot that in the second half goes what is medically known as ‘snooker-loopy,’ with lesser symptoms including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their ass.”

This description could almost verbatim be defining the critical failures of “Dexter in the Dark,” the third book in the series, which decides on a new twist for the “Dark Passenger” metaphor Dexter gives his murderous urges. In this book, it turns out that his Dark Passenger is in fact a shard of the dark god Moloch, and a cult that worships the god is tracking him in an effort to recapture this entity, and they do so by bringing him to their temple on an island to be sacrificed in a flaming pit – okay, I’m going to break character and stop here because now that I’ve typed it it sounds even stupider than it did upon first reading. Anyways.

The fourth book “Dexter by Design” tried to remedy this by treating the earlier book as if it didn’t happen, but Dexter felt like he’d lost something as a character, stumbling when he came to difficult circumstances and without the cool patience and resourcefulness that had been one of his strengths in the earlier books. Plus, with a fifth upcoming volume that will be using cannibalism as a main plot point (titled “Dexter is Delicious”), the books are quite clearly trying to push the envelope a bit too far in an effort to keep the character interesting.

“Dexter” on TV, meanwhile, never took that tact with the character’s homicidal leanings but rather took on aspects of a psychological study. Season 2 dealt with several jars to Dexter’s previously unflappable perception of himself and his code, while Season 3 saw him dealing with his impending fatherhood and the fact that another man had discovered his secret. Thanks largely to Hall’s performance, the show takes on elements of a character study that deals with questions of addiction and parental obligation, never divorcing itself from reality or going to the pulp extremes of the book. Dexter feels more like a character that can be rooted for despite his horrific acts, someone you want to come out on top and keep doing what he does – a depth his novel incarnation always felt divorced from.

At the close of “Dexter’s” second season finale, Dexter makes the observation that his experiences have changed him from the template killer he always saw himself as, “an idea transformed into life” – and that descriptor applies neatly to what the show has done for the character and storyline. Despite the burdens of poor plotting, Hall and the writers have carried Dexter to a new dimension past the alliterative killer the books introduced him as. Several critics have complained that the show feels somewhat strained the longer it goes on and the more situations Dexter gets out of, but it’s a world worth immersing oneself in – as long as they can avoid the Babylonian gods.

Extra Credit:

  • For exceptionally solid writing on “Dexter” the show (including examples of that critical complaint I mentioned in the last paragraph), check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog and the A.V. Club’s reviews. Spoilers abound, so be cautious.