Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted February 9, 2012
Actually, you should probably always leave a talking skull well enough alone, but that’s not exactly what I was getting at. I’m thinking of Bob from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels, and the unfortunate transformation he underwent in the tv adaptation, The Dresden Files. In the books, Bob is an incorporeal spirit trapped in a human skull. He’s sarcastic, amoral and lecherous, and has a fondness for trashy romance novels. In The Dresden Files, he’s a poncy British guy in a black suit who materializes out of a skull like some kind of genie butler.
Okay, they changed things for the tv show. No big surprise there. In the realm of screen adaptations of novels, studios always change things and fans always find things to hate. It’s probable that I was destined not to like The Dresden Files simply because I like the books and the show is only loosely based on them. In fact, they’ve changed so many fundamental points that it’s basically not the same thing at all, and while I’m usually able to get past that and have an opinion about whether a show stands well on its own, in this case I just can’t.
Having a talking skull as a character could have worked really well. It’s unusual, cheap, and has a lot of potential for humor. The original character of Bob is complex, part court jester and part frighteningly powerful magic ghostie. Harry is Bob’s master, and while Bob helps him and treats him like a friend, he also mocks Harry and gives him a hard time. Bob’s basic amorality offsets Harry’s existential obsession with ethics, and his vast supernatural knowledge allows Harry to accomplish magical feats that would otherwise be beyond him.
Bob’s skull sits on a shelf next to a stack of his favorite romance novels, and his buffoonish banter makes it easy to forget how dangerous he is. When he’s awake, he appears as an orange glow in the skull’s eye sockets, and when he’s released from the skull he materializes as a glowing orange energy cloud. Harry is always very specific regarding how long and for what purpose he lets Bob out of the skull.
The Bob of The Dresden Files coalesces out of his skull in a puff of black smoke, like a genie out of a bottle. He is only occasionally shown inside his skull, which is covered in writing and sits on a table looking cool. Bob is nattily dressed, very much human in form, and behaves like a hologram. He reminds me of Al in Quantum Leap, or Rimmer in Red Dwarf. He seems to be able to get out on his own, or perhaps Harry just never puts him away. In the first episode of the series, Harry comes home to find him standing around working on plans for a “Doom Box”, which immediately struck me as odd since original Harry would never be foolish enough to let Bob the Skull wander around making doom boxes.
Hologram Bob is sarcastic up to a point, but it keeps tipping over into saccharine concern. His basic attitude toward Harry is vaguely servile and fatherly, like a supernatural butler. Terrence Mann’s performance as Bob makes me think of Michael Caine’s Alfred to Bruce Wayne, or Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. In a later episode dedicated to Bob’s backstory, he appears to have betrayed Harry but it turns out it was a ruse when he sacrifices his chance at freedom to save Harry’s life. The ensuing don’t-leave-me deathbed scene is entertainingly homoerotic, and I thought the fact that Hologram Bob poofs back into existence teasing Harry about how touching it was struck the right note, but then there’s more sincere fatherly concern and we’re back to Alfred.
I’m not just complaining that the writers changed things I liked, although they did. What interests me is this: what makes people think it’s a good idea to change those kinds of things? It’s not like they could have been worried that the special effects would look cheesy. All of the special effects are cheesy. And it can’t be the expense, ‘cause casting a skull with glowing eye-sockets and a voice-over has to cost less than an on-screen actor. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination, or a belief that a visual medium has to make everything visible. Sadly, I think it’s mostly about what they thought would make Harry cooler, which is ironic given that the show does not have the budget to be cool.
In fact, part of the point is that despite being a wizard, Harry Dresden is not cool. He lives in a ratty basement apartment, drives a beat up, multicolored VW Beetle, wears a black duster, and carries a wizard’s staff and blasting rod that make him look like he’s role-playing. He has a few relationships, but partway through the series he inadvertently fends off a vampire succubus by virtue of not having gotten laid in 4 years. In the tv show, though, Harry drives an old Jeep and wears a leather jacket, his magical equipment is a hockey stick and a drumstick, and he loses Bob’s skull to a one night stand who leaves him handcuffed to the bed.
So what did eliminating Bob’s trashy romances and embarrassing sexual innuendos in favor of brocade vests and brooding on the design of doom boxes do for The Dresden Files? I’d argue that by taking out everything they thought wasn’t cool, the writers ended up creating something much more clichéd and two-dimensional. In short, they really should have left the talking skull alone.
*Bob the skull sketch by tentaclees
if alex macfadyen ever gets himself cursed to an eternity trapped in his own skull, please put him on a shelf full of Jennifer Crusie novels.