Friday, November 9, 2018

The Friday Discussion: Midnight Texas - TV series & Book Series

There are a lot of book to TV show adaptations - they’re popular in the same way reboots are: they give you a built in fanbase to carry over and a quick and easy plot. Naturally these vary a lot in terms of quality and faithfulness to the source material (Vampire Diaries barely resembles LJ Smith’s books, while the Dresden Files was moderately faith but poorly executed), sometimes those adaptations and changes deserve some more scrutiny

When Midnight Texas was announced as being adapted I was intrigued: I consider it to be one of Charlaine Harris’s better book series with better rounded characters and certainly better (if flawed) treatment of minorities and slightly less of a single, slightly Mary Sueish, focus. (If this sounds like damned with faint praise… it kind of is. We experienced the horror that was the Aurora Teagarden series).

When the show started I was happy to see it was pretty faithful to the book series - the first season parallels the original trilogy of books (so I have no idea where the story progresses from here) but there are some noteworthy changes that really need analysing

Firstly several characters have have their race changed for the adaptation Lemuel and Fiji were both white in the books. This is not uncommon in book to TV adaptations - look at Tara on True Blood and Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries both of whom were white in their original book series. There are several possible reasons for this but, cynically, I tend to think that in the visual medium of television it becomes much more glaringly obvious when your cast is whiter than a Republican camping trip in Maine. That, coupled with the wider consumption (and a desire to be consumed by POC as a marketable demographic which seems to be less of a concern in publishing), means I think we tend to be MARGINALLY less tolerant of a completely racially erased cast - though usually one or two tokens is enough to placate this minimal objection. In the third book, Fiji does remark on how rainbow and progressive her little town is… and it’s slightly embarrassing since it includes Madonna and Teacher who are vanishingly minor characters, an Asian woman who used to live there but hasn’t for a while and a Native American character who just moved into the area who was, probably wisely, not included in the TV series (she also forgets several latino characters)

In the books this character arrives to explain that Manfred has his powers because of distant Native American ancestry and demons. Which is just an AWFUL trope. In the TV series instead they went for Romany con-man/psychic heritage instead. Which is another awful trope. Honestly this is just pick your poison.

I, naturally, do not object to these characters becoming POC but it is interesting how this has caused the characters to change elsewhere. Like Lemuel - he’s an absolutely excellent character in both the books and on television but the most dramatic change is that in the books he was a cowboy when he was alive. On TV that has changed to him being a slave. Neither storyline is particularly bad, but I can’t help but think that too much of our media is incapable of seeing Black people in historic roles that don’t involve slavery. Especially since the mythos of the cowboy in the US has missed just how many of them were Black - and how many more were Latino for that matter. The TV storyline isn’t bad, but it speaks volumes of how historic Black characters are too often limited to this single narrative.

I have more issues with Fiji - and how she and Manfred’s roles have changed. In the books I would say it’s difficult to point to one character as protagonist - Manfred starts prominently in the first book, but by the final confrontation with Kolkonar Manfred is definitely a much more minor character - not insignificant but certainly not the protagonist or the main fighter against the demon. If anyone is central to this conflict, it’s Fiji. This is Fiji’s fight, not just as someone who needs rescuing. It is Fiji’s… ritual that defeats Kolkonar, not Manfred’s epic confrontation with dark spirits.

While I certainly appreciate Manfred’s providing of some very very nice eye candy on this show (there’s certainly a lot less of Manfred wandering around in his underwear in the books, so thanks for that) it is noteworthy that in transitioning from book to TV, a man was elevated to protagonist and the former lead female character was considerably demoted. It’s doubly worth noting that when a female character is changed from white to black she also takes a step back in importance to the plot line

Which also brings me to Creek. Creek is a relatively minor role in the book, yes she is Manfred’s love interest - but she leaves very quickly in the books and is not a presence in the second or third books - and certainly gone by the time Kolkonar is a thing. Now I would generally say adding more female characters to a Charlaine Harris book is a good thing since many of these series have… issues with female characters who are not the protagonist. But Creek isn’t a character. She is Manfred’s love interest - this pretty much describes her, there’s really nothing more to add. This makes it feel less like a female character has been given an expanded role, but more because Manfred has been promoted so needs a love interest. Like we can’t possibly have a male lead without a female love interest - either in a relationship or to play will-they-won’t-they (they will) with. Creek isn’t a character, she’s an accessory to Manfred’s character.

While these are the major changes, I think we also have to mention Joe and Chuy. On the one hand, Joe is far far more prominent in the TV series than the books - in the books both these characters barely make an appearance (and when you have a demon attacking, the angels deciding to hang around in the background is just weird). In the TV series Joe has his own storyline, a much more developed background, a lot more involvement and is directly involved in the action… but only Joe. Sharp readers will have noticed I wrote “angels” above - because in the books both Joe and Chuy are angels - Chuy is not a demon like he is in the TV series. This change meant that Chuy was given a reason to be put on a bus and sent away from the plot. This both removed a POC from the main cast - but also meant while Joe was getting more attention, he was also separated from his partner and therefore, ongoing representation of his sexuality. This is all too common and, again, probably something to do with the visual medium of TV - a book can have two gay characters in the background and have them passed over or be a footnote: on TV they have to be there, have to be visible - and visibly a couple. Especially since Midnight Texas has considerably sexed up the tv series as opposed to the book (again, thank you for the underwear clad Manfred).

It is interesting to look at the changes from book series to tv series, especially in series that are as faithful to the source material as this is. It’s hard to draw parallels between the Vampire Diaries books and TV series because they are (thankfully, as the books were truly awful) very different. But here they are close, which makes the changes significant and provides an excellent insight into how diversity and marginalised characters varies between books and television and what is tolerated - and demanded - by each medium