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Just Leave the Talking Skull Alone

alex macfadyen
Posted February 9, 2012

Sometimes you should just leave a talking skull well enough alone.

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.

Comments

9 Responses to “Just Leave the Talking Skull Alone”

  1. Keith
    February 13th, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    With the disclaimer that I’ve only read the first three Dresden books AND saw the TV series before I read any of the book — I like TV Bob. Maybe it’s just because he and I have similar tastes in clothing. So far in the books, though, Bob has been little more than kind of a sleazy, lascivious roommate. I don’t have anything against that — had my fair share of them in my lifetime, and none of them also came with a vast store of magical powers and lore. But he grates on me, and not in a way that is endearing. His part part so far came in Grave Peril, when he beseeches Harry not to drop him behind a rock if Harry gets killed.

    The change is most likely because TV producers feel that a human (even a poncy British one) is more relatable for viewers than a skull. I don’t think it has to do with cool per se — after all, I agree that there’s very little about Dresden in any incarnation that is “cool” — but just that they feel a wise-ass skull won’t make as much sense to viewers (most of whom probably were like me, and hadn’t read the books) as would a snarky dandy.

    Coming off the show and into the books, I was surprised by how sleazy the books could be. Again, not a criticism, just an observation. That I came in backwards probably makes it easier for me to enjoy both the show and the novels. And I would pay good money to see the continuing adventures of Bob and Jeeves. Fry and Mann sashaying about the world, solving supernatural crimes and getting into and out of romantic hijinks?

    I do prefer the vicious, hateful Bianca of the book to the “Ain’t we a pair, Raggedy Man?” ally of the show. And I definitely like that book Dresden is a much bigger, slobbier loser than TV Dresden. Seriously…a duster, sweat pants, and cowboy boots? THAT is the scariest thing that has ever appeared in any of the books.

  2. Carol Borden
    February 13th, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

    Bob in the show reminds me very much of Lacroix, the helpful evil French vampire played with an English accent from Forever Knight, a show relentlessly played on Canadian tv for a while. He was also a dandy and though supposed to be terribly dangerous and evil, somehow was not. I do not know if there are Forever Knight novels. I hope not. This also makes me wonder if the dandy with the English accent is a staple of shows shot in Canada.

    I suspect that relatability of skulls aside Bob the Skull is a human being in part because any practical effect would be too easy to mock or too expensive to animate in a cool way that would not be easy to mock.

    But years of anthropology have meant that my sympathies lie with skulls and I am always looking for greater osteological representation on television.

    And, full disclosure, I kind of want Bob to be a skull because of very fond memories of the cigar-chomping skull that was swung around on wires as a sidekick to Sven on Son of Svengoolie back in the day.

    However, I demand that Keith’s show be made this instant.

  3. alex MacFadyen
    February 14th, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    i agree, the adventures of Bob and Jeeves would be a great show!

    i’m afraid i don’t remember how far into the book series it is that Bob the Skull gets more complicated than just skeevy, but i do recall finding him irritating at first. in fact, it’s not even that i particularly like Bob’s character, just that i found his story in the books much more unusual and interesting.

    i had actually thought of comparing tv Bob to Lacroix as well – he reminds me of a number of different characters i’ve seen before. i assume it’s generally accepted in screenwriting that a human character is more relatable than something like a talking skull, but i don’t actually think that’s true for me. i also think that a lot of viewers might relate pretty well if given the chance.

  4. Keith
    February 15th, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    It’s the same thinking that insists that Spider-Man has to take his mask off constantly, otherwise, audiences won’t relate to him. Or that the lead actor has to be a white guy. It’s almost certainly wrong much of the time, but TV and movie producers never let that get in the way of things.

  5. Just Leave the Talking Skull Alone | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    February 18th, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    […] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Literature and tagged Skeletons in the Closet. Bookmark the permalink. ← Bloody Pit of Horror […]

  6. DeMoss (@aytiws)
    February 26th, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    I think every “property” goes through a general flattening and distorting of its unique elements before it gets through TV Development Hell. Hence the weekly character assassination parade, “Once Upon a Time.” Though I’m probably biased due to my obsession with 70s made-for-TV superhero movies, where we counted ourselves lucky if the protagonist made it to screen with his original first name.

  7. Carol Borden
    March 15th, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    I finally tracked down footage of Zallman T. Tombstone, Talking Skull of my childhood:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnW3qQeCyJo

    While Tombstone is apparently helping out on the new Svengoolie show that I cannot watch, I’m sure he’d be up for playing Bob. Then again, he might have to lose the ‘stache.

  8. Carol Borden
    June 27th, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    And a friend just pointed me to this talking skull that is both English and a Talking Skull. Bifecta! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKaR0C2Qb4M&feature=related

  9. Nothing Ape Is Strange To Me | Monstrous Industry
    March 18th, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

    […] could be anyone or anything. In practice, a relatable character is usually a straight white guy. In alex MacFadyen’s piece about The Dresden Files, he notes how bland Bob as a genie Jeeves is in the tv adaptation compared to Bob as a […]

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