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.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

April 14, 2010

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”

Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”

When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”

When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.