MEDIA COMPARISON: Sookie Stackhouse books vs. novels

written by David Steffen

Now that I have seen the entire True Blood TV series and all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that they were based on, I have been thinking about the differences between the two and was thinking about writing up a post.  This is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list–there could easily be a book written listing out all the differences, especially since after the first few books/seasons, the two plots diverge wildly in almost every respect.  So, I am only going to note a limited number, and the ones which I found the most striking, because I find it interesting to compare adaptations of a fictional universe to different media formats.

Obviously, this will be spoiler rich, as I will be covering some major plot points for the entire run of both the TV and book series.

1.  POV

Except for a few rare exceptions, mostly in the last book, the Sookie Stackhouse novels stick entirely with Sookie Stackhouse’s point of view.  That means that anything the reader knows, Sookie has to either experience or hear someone else’s telling.

The TV series, on the other hand, shifts to different characters frequently.  This gives the cast of characters much stronger backgrounds, as we see flashbacks from Sam Merlotte, we find out about Tara Thornton’s childhood, we see romantic trysts that Sookie isn’t even aware of, we see occurrences at the highest level of vampire government that Sookie will never know about.  Often this is used for dramatic tension, ending a scene with one character with a cliffhanger moment and then swapping to another character to let the viewer stew a bit.

Nothing wrong with either way of telling a story, certainly.  But the books are much more clearly just the story of Sookie, while the TV show is the story of ensemble cast.

2.  Scale of Conflicts

In the books, many of the conflicts are on a small-scale personal or very local level.  In the TV show, especially as the series progresses, many of the conflicts are on a world-stakes kind of level.

This is probably partly a consequence of the multiple POVs of the TV show, as we can see what various players are doing all over the place there, while in the books we can only see what one character who is not directly involved in major world-scale planning for either humans or vampires can see.

3.  Missing/Added Characters

There are many characters who were either added just for the TV show, or which were omitted in the TV show adaptation.  Too many to be worth listing (if I thought I could even remember them!)

But there were a couple ones I thought particularly notable:

Bubba, in the books, is the vampire who had once been Elvis Presley.  He had died like he had in our world, but the vampire working at the morgue had been a huge fan and had raised Elvis even though Elvis had really been too far gone to be fully recoverable.  As a consequence, he is sort of brain-damaged, with little memory of who he used to be, and with a penchant for cat blood.  He doesn’t like to be reminded of who he was, hence the name Bubba, (though we never actually get to see him freak out in the series, the implication is that if he is reminded he becomes very violent) but occasionally will sing for people, at which point he is every bit as talented as he had been in life.  The oddest thing about his character, which I thought was never explored as fully as it could’ve been, is that apparently because of Bubba’s nature being sort of a broken vampire, at least one of the vampire rules does not apply to him.  He can enter homes without an invitation.  This happens several times in the series before it is pointed out in the narrative–I spotted it as it happened and thought it might’ve been a writing mistake, and maybe it was one that Harris corrected later?  In any case, I thought that detail begged more investigation–is the barring of entering a home somehow a psychological block common to all vampires, and somehow because Bubba is mentally handicapped he is lacking the block?

Jessica Hamby is a character invented entirely for the TV show.  When Sookie spotted Eric’s embezzling bartender Long Shadow, the accused tried to kill her and Bill staked Long Shadow to defend her.  As punishment for murdering a vampire, Bill was sentenced by the Vampire Authority to make a new vampire, and was given a high school girl who had snuck out after curfew.  He carried out the sentence and so had to raise Jessica, who soon takes to the life of freedom compared to her oppressive Catholic parents.  She continues to be a major character for the rest of the series, including romantic relationships with Hoyt Fortenberry and Jason Stackhouse.  She is a particularly interesting character in the series because she is the only “baby vamp” we get to follow very closely in either incarnation–as she struggles with her newfound vampire bloodlust she has to decide where she wants to place boundaries on herself, and if she wants to be romantically involved with humans, how she can work that out with her more primal vampire nature.

4.  Sookie’s Romantic Relationships

Both the book series and the TV series begin with Sookie’s romantic interest in Bill.  He is the first vampire she meets, and much of it is the newfound novelty of meeting someone whose mind is not an open book to her (there are other reasons too, but that’s the biggest one).  In both series, she ends up hooking up with Eric, first while his memory is missing (thanks to a witch curse) and then later without the amnesia.

In the books, she also hooks up with Quinn, a weretiger for a few books(who is not a character in the TV series, I don’t think, unless he’s a very minor bit part I didn’t notice), but ended up breaking up with him because he is too unreliable because of issues with his mother requiring his attention and repeatedly drawing him into bad situations.

In the show, she dates Alcide Herveaux for quite a while.  In the books there is some romantic interest between the two, but they never really become close like they do in the show, in large part because Alcide constantly calls on her for one-sided favors without even doing her the courtesy of explaining the situation.

In the show she realizes that her distance in other relationships is that she never really got over Bill, but Bill wasn’t right for her, but his constant presence has always made her second-guess herself.  In the last episodes of the series, Bill has advanced far enough in Hep-V that he has reached a stage where he has apparently started to become sort of human again, to the point where Sookie can read his thoughts.  He asks her to help him die, and she does so.  The final scene of the show then jumps ahead into the future, with Sookie at a dinner party, pregnant and with a boyfriend/husband whose face we never even get to see, so we know she ends up with someone in that time, but we don’t know anything about him.  Although it was disappointing to not even get to meet the guy, it was good to see her move on from being trapped in that loop of a relationship.

In the books she ends up in a relationship with Sam Merlotte, triggered in part by her using her cluviel dor artifact to save his life when he would certainly have died.  This was one of the more satisfying differences in favor of the book, because there was always some tension between the two that never really got to be resolved until that final book, and they were always such good friends, sharing secrets with each other that almost no one else knows.

5.  Jason’s Change

In both versions, Jason is held captive by the interbreeding family of werepanthers of Hot Shot, and Jason suffers some bites from them and wonders if he will become a werepanther.

In the books, he does!  Bitten were-animals are different from genetic were-animals, only able to half-transform into animal forms, and they end up weaker, but he becomes a werepanther of a sort, joins the family of Hot Shot somewhat informally, and has to deal with his new state of being for the rest of his life.

When something like this happens in the show, the readers know he will become a werepanther.  But they’re wrong.  Nope, in the show’s version of the universe, that’s not how it works–bites don’t transfer the were-ness of a were-animal.  So Jason’s still a regular human.

6.  The Maenad’s First Victim

In the second book, a super-powerful creature known as a maenad visits Bon Temps, holding huge drunken orgy parties and murdering people, poisoning Sookie.  One of the first signs of her involvement is a corpse in Andy Bellifleur’s car found behind Merlotte’s–the corpse of Lafayette Reynolds, part-time cook at Merlotte’s who had been Sookie’s friend, and who had attended some of the maenad’s parties and was apparently murdered there.

Where this gets really interesting, if you think of alternate adaptations of fictional worlds , is that the show starts out appearing to be happening the same way.  The corpse is discovered in Andy’s car behind Merlotte’s, and the viewer can see a dark-skinned foot with painted nails sticking out of the back seat.  Sookie screams, and that’s the end of season 1, leaving the viewers on that cliffhanger until next season.

Now of course, the faithful readers of the Sookie Stackhouse novels are smugly saying to themselves that they know who the victim was, recalling Lafayette’s death in the books (the dark skinned foot with nail polish meshes with that because Lafayette does wear makeup).  BUT THEY’RE WRONG.  In another switcharoo, even bigger than the last one, it is a different character entirely–a scam artist who pretends to be a witch, selling exorcisms and the like (which might sometimes work).  Lafayette is still alive, and in fact lives through the rest of the series and is one of the more interesting characters in the series, and even develops powers as a medium to talk to spirits, especially as a rare gay black man, something you don’t see represented too often in science fiction and fantasy.  Having read the books after watching the show, I was very disappointed at Lafayette’s death without him having played more than a background role.


BOOK REVIEW: Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

written by David Steffen

Club Dead is a romance/mystery/horror novel from 2003, the third in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris, which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood–this book was used very loosely as the basis for season 3 of the show.  The first book in the series is Dead Until Dark, (reviewed here), and the second book was Living Dead in Dallas (reviewed here).

Sookie’s vampire boyfriend Bill has been working on a project to the point of nearly total distraction.  Now he has disappeared under mysterious circumstances and Sookie sets out to find out what happened to him. The clues lead to Jackson, Mississippi where it appears that Bill’s former lover and maker Lorena has summoned him (maker as in the one who turned him into a vampire).  Clues seem to indicate that he is being held there against his will and their first stop is “Club Dead” the nickname for a major hangout for the supernatural in Jackson.  Sookie enlists the help of Bill’s boss and local authority in the vampire hierarchy Eric Northman and newfound ally the werewolf Alcide Herveaux.

After being pretty disappointed overall by the previous book, I was happy that this one was much more satisfying.  It still tends to suffer in comparison to the TV show, IMO, but this one differed from the TV show in enough ways to keep things more fresh which made it easier to keep interest (Since there are more books than seasons of the show I’m hoping that some of the books will be entirely new so that I can view those books at least with fresh eyes).

There was plenty new here to keep me interested, from Bill’s secret project, to how the attempt to break Bill out of Russell’s compound, and it kept me reading to the end.

The main thing that paled in comparison to the book was that Lorena, while playing a pivotal role in drawing Bill to Mississippi, was barely onscreen and we never got to learn much of their backstory together.  That backstory is explored in much greater depth in the TV show during this season, through flashbacks from the point of view of Bill.  The novels stick strictly to the point of view of Sookie, which misses a lot of opportunity for finding out more about the lives of other characters and this was one case where that was especially true.  If you like the books, I would highly recommend you check out the TV show to dive much much deeper into the backstory of secondary characters.

All the books are quick reads, and I can burn through them much faster than I can most novels.  They do have a tendency to over-summarize the events of past books, which might be helpful if I were reading them at the rate they were published or if  I was jumping randomly into the middle of the series. But I think that might be an expectation of the mystery and/or romance genre readers, so that the books are easy to pick up in any order, so it may be an effect of the marketplace rather than the writing.

Overall, I was happy that this one was much better than the previous book, lots of action and mystery to keep things going, as well as a new potential romance element with Alcide.  Looking forward to where the TV show and books seperate from each other entirely, so that I can just focus on the happenings of the book without mentally comparing every element to the TV show.


BOOK REVIEW: Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

written by David Steffen

Living Dead in Dallas is a romance/mystery/horror novel from 2002, the second in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris, which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood–this book was the basis for season 2 of the show.  The first book in the series is Dead Until Dark, which I reviewed previously.

In the previous book, Sookie met her first love–the vampire Bill Compton.  She’s a telepath and her ability to read minds has proved disastrous to her love life, but she can’t hear vampire thoughts.  They are together now, and he is teaching her new things about controlling her powers, as she learns more and more about the supernatural world.

In this book, after a car breakdown and a fight, Sookie is attacked by a maenad, yet another of the supernatural creatures that secretly exists in this world.  Bill takes her to Fangtasia, the vampire bar in Shreveport, where the owner Eric Northman has only a little time to save her from certain death.  Soon he negotiates with Sookie for her to do some work for him–Eric is the sheriff of area 5, a position of authority to vampires in the local area, and as a favor to another area he has promised Sookie’s mindreading abilities to help  with an investigation in Dallas where the vampires suspect one of their human employees of betraying them.  Dallas is also the headquarters of The Fellowship of the Sun, a newly founded church dedicated to revealing vampires for the monsters that the church believes them to be.  Back in Bon Temps, the maenad’s influence is spreading–she demands tribute to her god, and will drive people mad if her demand is not met to her satisfaction.

This book was decently engaging and action-packed, with Sookie undercover in a strange city, surrounded by both supernaturals that she doesn’t fully understand, and by people who have dedicated their lives to trying to destroy the supernaturals.    The plot in Dallas was all interesting and engaging, though I thought it was weird that Sookie didn’t immediately ask why the Dallas vampires didn’t just glamour (a kind of hypnosis) their employees to get the answer.

I found the maenad subplot extremely disappointing in the book.  I’m not sure what it added at all, apart from giving us a sense of other kinds of supernatural things out there.  The resolution to that subplot just felt like the writer had gotten themselves into a corner and just gave up trying to find a satisfying or epic way to resolve it.  I was probably spoiled for it ahead of time because the maenad plot in True Blood Season 2, which was loosely based upon this book, was crazy and epic and freaky and really really good with a really cool resolution.

And, another thing that happened right at the beginning of the book that was extremely disappointing was the death of Lafayette Reynolds.  Again, I have probably been spoiled by watching the TV show first, but he was one of my favorite characters in the show, in part because you don’t see a lot of queer people of color in SF/F/H shows.  So it was a big letdown for him to play basically no important role in the books at all.

This book was okay.  It’s possible that I’ve been spoiled by the higher stakes and engaging nature of the TV show that’s based on it, which probably isn’t fair since the TV show wouldn’t exist without the book.  This one soured for me at the beginning with the death of Lafayette and only went down from there.


BOOK REVIEW: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

written by David Steffen

Dead Until Dark is a romance/mystery/horror novel published in 2001, the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris, which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood (I reviewed the 7th and final season here, though keep in mind that will be spoilery if you’re just getting started)

Sookie Stackhouse is a twenty-five-year-old waitress living in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana.  She is also a telepath–she can hear people’s thoughts, whether she likes it or not.  This has not been as useful as you might think, and has mostly served to make her a bit of an outcast.  Among other things, she has found any semblance of a romantic life is impossible with this ability, since she can hear her date’s hidden thoughts, not great for a first-date kind of situation.

Not too long ago, science perfected the production of synthetic blood.  Designed as a medical product, its announcement had wider effects than anticipated, when vampires all over the world revealed themselves to be real.  The synthetic blood allows them to survive without feeding on humans,  and so many vampires have chosen this time to reveal themselves and integrate into human society.

People as a whole are still getting used to the idea. There are plenty of humans who think vampires are monsters no matter their claims to peace.  There plenty of vampires who would have rather remained hidden.  When a vampire comes to live in Bon Temps, Sookie finds herself immediately drawn to him.  His name is Bill Compton, and has taken up residence in the Compton house across the graveyard from where Sookie lives with her grandmother.  When she meets him she is shocked to discover that she can’t hear his thoughts.  With him, she can finally just be a normal person and not have to deal with every little thing he’s thinking at every moment.  Shortly after, she discovers him behind the bar where she works about to be drained of blood (which fetches a pretty price as a drug), but Sookie manages to scare them off, and befriends Bill.

Meanwhile, women who have sex with vampires start turning up dead, and Sookie’s brother Jason is the prime suspect.  He’s always been a bit of a womanizer, but Sookie knows he didn’t do it, so she agrees to help him clear his name.

This first book in the series matches the main events of season 1 of True Blood pretty closely.  There are some major characters from the TV show missing, and some other ones are drastically different, but overall the main throughline is pretty close.  The main thing that has taken a lot of getting used to in switching from the TV show to the books is that Sookie is the only POV character.  This means that many of the other characters are barely onscreen at all and don’t have nearly as rich of backstories as they do in the books.  Even Jason, who is the prime suspect and the brother of the protagonist, does not play a huge role in the books.

The tone between the books and TV show do feel drastically different to me.  The TV show feels like a drama/horror show while the book feels mostly like a romance in the style of narration it uses.  I find that I like the Sookie of the TV show better than the one in the book–she seems generally more engaged and competent on that side of things while the version in the book.

I don’t mean for this to be only a comparison between the TV show and the book.  After all, the TV show wouldn’t exist if the book hadn’t already been successful.  But having seen them both, and when a book and a season have a closely aligned plot, it’s hard not to draw comparisons.

There are sex scenes and…  Well, I know that sex scenes are super hard to write.  Make them too purple and they can get a little bit absurd, but push too far the other way and they can be too clinical.  The sex scenes in this book can tend a bit toward the absurd side.

Overall, I enjoyed it, though the romance book narrator voice has taken some getting used to.  I wouldn’t say it’s overly profound, but it’s an easy and relaxing read and this is the book that started the whole franchise.  If you have seen the TV series, you should consider reading this to see where it all started.  If you haven’t seen the TV series but have read the book, then you should consider watching the TV series to see a different interpretation of the characters and events, with a lot more backstory on the secondary characters.


TV Review: True Blood Season 7

written by David Steffen

True Blood was an HBO horror/mystery/romance series based on the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris.

The series as a whole follows Sookie Stackhouse starting shortly after the major world event of vampires “coming out of the coffin”.  Where, after a Japanese company perfects the production of synthetic blood branded Tru Blood, vampires reveal themselves to be real and begin to integrate with mainstream society.  Sookie has always had mind-reading abilities which has made it difficult to keep a human relationship, so she is immediately drawn to the vampires which she can’t mindread.

True Blood Season 6 ended with a world-changing event, the release of the bio-engineered Hepatitis V virus.  Based on a mutation of the Hep-D virus, which only weakens a vampire for a time, Hep V is a much more contagious and much more deadly strain.  Humans who contract the virus show no symptoms, but any vampire that drinks their blood will also catch the virus which causes extreme weakening and eventually the true death.  It was originally spread using tainted Tru Blood so not only are vampires in danger from the virus, they also have lost their synthetic food source.

The season starts 6 months after the end of the last season. Sam Merlotte has become mayor, and Hep-V infected vampires are roaming the countryside in packs.  The human and vampire residents of Bon Temps make a pact to try to get through this difficult time in the hopes of finding a Hep-V cure and untainted Tru Blood production begins again–healthy vampires will protect humans from the ever-hungry Hep-V infected vampires, and the humans will in turn provide their own blood as a food source for the vampires.  This situation, predictably, comes with a lot of tension built into it as many humans and vampires are not satisfied with the arrangement.  A band of H-vamps crashes a human-vampire gathering in Bon Temps as the season begins, and drags away some humans for food.

Meanwhile, Eric Northman has been run off and hasn’t been seen again since the events of last season, and his progeny Pam is looking for him.

This being the final season of True Blood, the show does not pull any punches.  Major characters die, and not always when you’re anticipating or in a way you might guess.  There’s no telling who might survive and who won’t.  The stakes are high as the rampaging H-Vamps are killing humans en masse just to survive, and any of the main vampires in the show could become infected and with no cure available that’s a death sentence.  So much happens in just 10 episodes, and generally I thought they did well giving satisfying conclusions to the characters that felt internally consistent with their history.  I’m not going to lie–I did cry in the final episode, and I’m not much of a crier.