Fri
Mar 2 2012 11:00am

Not Quite NeverNever: The Dresden Files

The Dresden Files TV show

When I first took up this Rewatch-in-One series I knew that there would be a variety of reasons for cancellation of shows. Some were just bad to begin with. Some suffered from poor programming or marketing decisions. Some had writing or acting issues. And some? Well, I knew going into this that there would be a few I just couldn’t quite explain, shows without any weakness that I could tell, cut down for no good reason.

Case in point, The Dresden Files. Solid acting, cool set design and cinematography, what seems to have been a high budget and good effects, a load of excellent source material from which to draw. Why the hell was this only one season? A mystery indeed. Maybe it was cursed?

Refresher Course: Adapted from Jim Butcher’s long running paranormal investigation series, The Dresden Files is about a Chicago wizard for hire (Paul Blackthorne), part detective and part bodyguard depending on the assignment. Harry Copperfield Blackstone Dresden (named for various stage magicians) has a shady past and the Powers That Be (or wait, that’s in Buffy) called the High Council keeps him on a shortish leash. He often partners up with police detective Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), a tough cop who is mostly willing to work with Harry. Harry lives with Bob (played by Terrence Mann, a hybrid of Hugh Laurie and Tim Curry), the trapped soul of a once-powerful magician, Hrothbert of Bainbridge, who functions as an advisor. Together they keep bad guys from doing bad stuff and solve supernatural crimes.

The Dresden Files TV showBob is totally different in the show and the books. And I could take this opportunity to list all the ways in which the show and the books don’t line up, but I’m not going to, because that’s tedious. Read the books; they’re a hell of a lot of fun. Watch the show; it’s cool, too.

I should mention that Nicolas Cage was one of the producers. Is that significant? I really can’t say. I know that Cage is a geek through and through. How much influence he had on the show I don’t know and don’t much care. I have mixed feelings about him. I generally think of him as a very talented person who frequently forgets that he’s very talented and ops for half-assed parts in unremarkable (or remarkably bad) films. But still, he was perfect in Adaptation and for his role as Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart I will forgive him for a great many mistakes. But that’s all acting. As I said, he was the producer, here. So, um, never mind.

The Best and the Worst: Paranormal investigation stories are mysteries, first and foremost. The paranormal aspect is generally a substitution game. Harry has magic instead of forensics, for example, a blasting rod instead of a pistol, etc. Bob functions at times in ways a computer or informants would in a regular mystery. The Dresden Files works because it’s mostly a detective show without being reliant on the supernatural as a get-out-of-plot-conflict-free card.

My favorite episode focuses particularly on investigation. In “The Other Dick,” Harry has to get a proper private investigator license, and teams up with Claudia Black (whose décolletage gives me amnesia about how much less convincing her American accent is than Blackthorne’s) after the course instructor, a likable old crusty PI, is killed. Along the way they have all sorts of flirty “I hate you but you’re hot” banter and find out that the killer is an incubus using a fertility clinic for nefarious reproduction. What a great, icky idea! The episode reinforces the detective fiction and noir traditions from which Harry Dresden comes and is a lot of fun in the process. Also, this was written by George Mastras, who also wrote my second favorite episode, “The Boone Identity.”

The worst? “Things That Go Bump.” This is a locked room “One of us is a secret bad guy” set up, in which Ancient Mai and Morgan (the leader and enforcer of the High Council) seek refuge in Harry’s shop, which later gets surrounded by a cloud of black swirly evil sauce. It’s not really a bad episode, but it doesn’t fit, either. Had the show gone another season, it would give us time to care about Ancient Mai or Morgan, or understand why they’d have come to Harry even though they don’t trust him. Tensions don’t mount as they could have because fairly unsubstantiated characters are at risk.

The Dresden Files TV show

What Went Wrong?: Some have said the show deviates too much from the books and waters all the magic down and Harry is sanitized. I suppose there’s something to that, but though the series isn’t as dark as the books are, I do think that, in a broad way, they tried to retain something of the original ambiance.

Had the show gone on, and continued to translate Butcher’s world into TV, we’d have seen, I think, a fuller and more engaging story all around. With one season, they’ve barely introduced the High Council, the vampires, scarcely touched on the Never-Never, and there were no fairies to be found. Eventually, we’d have had all the above. Instead we got one season that did a good job of introducing the viewer to a world we haven’t been allowed to return to on the screen.

Also, as so often happens with sci-fi and fantasy shows, it was aired out of order. The pilot is episode eight. Why? Because the universe hates us, probably. The show is mostly episodic but there is a larger arc as well as exposition that’s thrown all wonky when you do this sort of nonsense.

I hope that there will someday come feature film adaptations of the books. And, no offence to Blackthorne, I say the man for the title role (as Dresden, not as the files) is James Marsters, who was offered the role once, and has narrated the audiobooks. Plus, he’s freakin’ cool and would nail the part, right? Who’s with me?


Jason Henninger has a skull on his desk, too, but is not a wizard.

32 comments
Alexandre X. Duchateau Navarrete
1. Lexiel
I love the books and really enjoyed the show. And the only divergeance I didn't like was his car. I feel like a lot of the changed elements (hockey stick instead of staff for example) actually worked quite well to transition the books on the screen.

But I can't really agree with you on James Marsters as Harry for potential movies. Yes it would be cool. But imho Blackthorne worked really well, and my brain now did that thing where he became Dresden when I read the books, and it's also quite confusing when I see him in other stuff.
Bittersweet Fountain
2. Bittersweet Fountain
It was actually the show that got me into the books. I watched it when SyFy (then SciFi) aired it and thought it was a really interesting concept and then I discovered it was a book series. I have since read the entire series.

Overall I always thought it was a good show with strong potential. It seems shows I like always get cancelled. *sigh*
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
@1
Have you heard Marsters perform the audio? He does a great job. I like Blackthorne, too, but they each play the character in their own way. Marsters' version is a little more jaded feeling (until things really hit the fan) than Blackthorne's more enthousiastic take. Both are good, I just think Marsters would do really well.

@2
Yeah, I know the feeling!
Bittersweet Fountain
4. helbel
I love the books, but I loved the show too. You do have to mentally divorce the two. I think they interpreted Bob in a great way for the screen and I didn't mind that.

Was very disappointed this didn't do better as I thought (having read the books) it had a lot of potential. Disagree about Marsters - though that might be my inability to see him as anyone but Spike.

Agree with Lexiel #1 Blackthorne is now the Dresden in my head when I read the books.
Bittersweet Fountain
5. Dogshouse
I really enjoyed the show when it was on, and am still curious why it wasn't renewed. Could be something to do with SciFi/SyFy having the WORST PROGRAMMING MINDS IN THE UNIVERSE, but we'll probably never know. I didn't start reading/listening to the books until recently, so I wasn't bothered by deviations in the TV show (though I recall many on the interwebs were). I try to let TV/film adaptions stand or fall with me on their own merits (hi, Peter Jackson), so I think I'd still enjoy the show.
Kristoff Bergenholm
6. Magentawolf
The hockey stick made me cry inside, and so did the missing Blue Beetle. :(

Starting the series with 'Birds of a Feather' didn't do them any justice, either, as I felt they could have used with a bit of additional world-building or backstory before that.
Joanna Slupek
7. Spriggana
I read somewhere that they did try a Blue Beetle first, but Blackthorne, being 6' 3½" inches tall (according to IMDb), had some trouble getting in/out fast.
The Jeep had been a logical replacement – still oldschool car not-so-easy mungled by Dresden’s magical interference, and with no upper limit for driver’s height… Well, I suppose they could paint it blue (and soem other colours) ;-)
Keith DeCandido
8. krad
Lexiel: According to Robert Hewitt Wolfe, one of the producers on the show, there were two issues with the VW Beetle. One is, as Spriggana said, one of height. Blackthorne is way too tall to comfortably fold himself in and out of so tiny a car.

The other is that apparently the single most difficult car to film on and around in the history of motor vehicles is the VW Beetle. Too many curves and nowhere to mount the camera....

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Jack Flynn
9. JackofMidworld
Like Bittersweet, I saw the show and then joined the reader's club. All it took was one crazy, Netflix-fueled Dresden marathon weekend (I always try to stretch them out but "just one more" takes over and then * poof * all gone). I grabbed up my laptop and hit the interwebs, looking forward to "Season 2 begins _____" and found "canceled" instead. Then my wife said, "Well, I've got the first couple of books in the bedroom..."

Files is still in the queue, tho. Nothing like a late Sunday afternoon in an empty house, just me, Harry, & Bob, investigating ginger werewolves.
Jack Flynn
10. JackofMidworld
And great rewatch choices, btw. Really enjoying this series of articles.
Jonah Feldman
11. relogical
It never got to be more than a magic-infused detective show, but it was okay. Blackthorne didn't have the personality of book Dresden, but he was good. Definitely an odd choice to cancel it.

About Nicolas Cage: I'm pretty sure he wanted to play Harry Dresden, but 1: he was too old, and 2: he wasn't going to do it on SciFi's budget. He worked out his wizarding dreams by doing The Sorcerer's Apprentice a few years later.
Jason Henninger
12. jasonhenninger
@11
I had the same suspicions about Cage wanting to play him. I remember when I saw the trailor for The Sorcerer's Apprentice that his outfit looked more than a little like the cover art for the Dresden books.
Michael M Jones
13. MichaelMJones
My thoughts upon watching The Sorcerer's Apprentice: "Dear Nicholas Cage: Harry Dresden called. He wants his coat and shtick back. Thanks." So it makes perfect sense that Cage might have wanted to play Dresden but been thwarted.

I love the statement that the VW Beetle is perhaps the hardest car to film on and around. Since, y'know, Herbie. One of the great iconic cars of the big screen. :)

This show deserved so much more of a chance. Just like Middleman, Firefly, and (insert your personal Holy Grail here).
Tomas Gerst
14. IamnotSpam
Read the first few books first and eagerly awaited the season only to see it go away like others before it. Always kept to my own mental image of Harry vs Blackthorne (He was great but physically he needed be a little broader in the shoulders and a little younger) but no matter what Bob in the books sounds like Bob in the series now and I dont care that she's not blonde but Murphy has been Valeri Cruz ever since. I recently saw her on something else cant think what at the moment but she is still awsome. Sorry to see the show go would have loved to see where they could have taken it.
Bittersweet Fountain
15. James Davis Nicoll
People looking for a Paul Blackthorne fix could do worse than to watch Lagaan, in which Blackthorne plays antagonist Captain Andrew Russell.
Bittersweet Fountain
16. jason swan
Marsters is far too dinky to play Harry on the screen - given how often it is reiterated in the series how tall and lean harry is.
Chuk Goodin
17. Chuk
I gotta say, when I first heard of the changes for the show I didn't agree with a few of them (I realized Bob as an actual talking skull would probably be silly or too easy to play for laughs). I came to like most of it though and although she doesn't look much like the description of the book Murphy, I thought the actress did a great job in the part.
Yeah, maybe a bit more continuity (like maybe 3-4 episodes for each book or book-sized new story) would have given more impact, like the books have, but I still enjoyed the series.
Bittersweet Fountain
18. Shellywb
My husband and I hated this show. HATED it. H.A.T.E.D. I.T. It completely revised Harry into a hapless wimp who was unwilling to use his magic and had to be rescued constantly. That is not Harry Dresden. We tried it. Three episodes. But we kept getting madder in every scene because none of it could ever happen in the book, be it because of the characters or the world they lived in. They took all that was fun about the stories and removed it. What was left only enraged us.

We aren't those fans who need movies to be copies of books. We prefer that the spirit is followed as opposed to the letter. Here, they damaged the spirit and heart of the stories to such an extent that they were no longer recognizable and we just couldn't watch anymore.

I hope to god if they try again they have the sense to use Marsters. Who cares if he's small? He's got the spirit and that's what counts. His Dresden File readings are among the best audiobooks I've ever heard.
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
@18 Shelly
I think they were trying to show Harry being careful because of the Council, but that background was still being developed. I rather liked Paul Blackthorne in the show. Physically, he is just about perfect and I was ok with them aging him a few years. I liked the actress who played Karen too.

There is a ton of material with Harry and it had just scratched the surface. Right now all the shows with magic are all about the girls, Supernatural being the one exception.

I really enjoyed it even if it wasn't the same as the books. It's hard to judge a series based on the first year, and it didnt' even get a whole run.
Polenth Blake
20. Polenth
I found the books because of the show. There are differences, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The books and the show are each their own thing.
Scott Abbott
21. Scott
I enjoyed the show, mourned its passing, and became addicted to the books. Everytime I see Blackthorne or Cruz I feel a pang for the show and get impatient for the next Dresden book.
Michael Green
22. greenazoth
Like others here, I came to the books only after having seen the show. I always rather liked the conceit that Harry's mystic doodads were adapted from things like hockey sticks (and wasn't his wand a drum stick here?)

Weirdly, when I read the book, I never saw Blackthorne in my head as Harry -- though similarly to IamnotSpam, Valeri Cruz seems to slot into Murphy's place, albeit shorter and blonde.
Alex Brown
23. AlexBrown
"Case in point, The Dresden Files. Solid acting, cool set design and cinematography, what seems to have been a high budget and good effects, a load of excellent source material from which to draw. Why the hell was this only one season? A mystery indeed. Maybe it was cursed?"

I feel like you (and apparently the rest of the commenters) and I watched two entirely different shows. The only reason I finished off the series on Netflix was out of loyalty to the books and because I hate leaving things undone. Outside the premiere, the effects were pretty awful, even for 2007 Syfy standards. And I'll be damned if that theme song wasn't the worst thing ever created. Dresden Files was right up there with Moonlight (CBS's vampire version of Dresden from the same year that was likewise axed) as "fun paranormal stuff to kill some time with," except Alex O'Loughlin took off his shirt more.

I definitely didn't hate the show. There were flashes of brilliance - mostly when they fell back on the source material, mostly because that was well thought out and the show just seemed to be throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck - but "good" never entered into my vocabulary when discussing it. Decent? Sure. Better than reality tv? Totally. A mystery as to why it was canceled? Hell no.
Ian Gazzotti
24. Atrus
I loved the show and was sad to see it hadn't been renewed. While it certainly wasn't going to win any awards it was a solid good piece of fun. And Claudia Black makes everything better.

I must be one of the few that tried the books after watching the series and couldn't get past the first. Different expectations, maybe.
Bittersweet Fountain
25. Nosgoth1979
Hearing nothing but bad things about the show, and loving the books, I avoided seeing the adapted version for a long time. Then the other day I came across it while browsing dishonline(dot)com, which is a free streaming site run by my employer, DISH, and decided to finally give it a try. It’s not half-bad. It’s not incredible either, but like you said there was room to grow and enough talent involved to make that happen. I’m about halfway through the season now and I have to say I kind of like watching shows on dishonline. There’s a ton of content, the interface is easy to use, and everything looks great. Plus, a lot of the content is available to anyone, so even if you’re not a DISH-customer, or don’t feel like logging in, you can still check out a lot of different shows.
Bittersweet Fountain
26. Brownmecha
Just saw this show for the first time on netficks. It was so great and I am very very very upset that there is no season 2. Why? It was great and there was no reason for it not to go on. There is so much bad tv now and we need shows like this to be on. I am sick of reality tv, we need shows with great actors like this show back!!!
Bittersweet Fountain
27. Dasinterwebs
Its not a mystery why this show died. Little things that would not have been hard to get right were unnecissarily changed (the coat, Murphy not being blonde/short while Susan was) which seemed to highlight the bigger things that were unnecissarily changed (the Council, Bianca, Harry being a lady's man?!). I get that technical difficulties prevent having the right car or Bob the Skull (I think they did a briliant job working around that), but some things were changed that would not have made a difference to new viewers, but only serve to piss off the avid readers.

I agree that this series was different and discrete from the books, and I enjoyed it before I ever picked up Storm Front, but even without having read the books, I could see why it died. It was a SciFi original series in a bad time slot against other popular shows. It had very little direct magic "shootouts," clunky rules for magic, and violated the source material in a way that left even Dresden virgins scratching their heads (the three-eye drung made vampires really angry? really? not third sight?)
Bittersweet Fountain
28. Audience of One
The problem with the series was poor season construction. Episodes were shown out of order, the pilot was mangled, cut down and shown halfway through, and the episode writers were obviously not told how the relationships of the core characters were supposed to evolve over time. So, we have episodes where Dresden says "No one can know about the supernatural" and one episode later he's telling Murphy about thaumaturgy and black magic and the Council. And we have an episode where Murphy says she can't join Dresden in his world and one episode later she tells her father he's the one person she trusts.

The annoying this is they got a lot of good stuff right. I'm no big fan of the books so the differences aren't going to annoy (is Dresden's blue beetle and his duster really more important than characterisation or plotting?) and at least half the season was really good - as long as you stuck around after the crap ones aired.

The unaired pilot should have had a few scenes changed (to edit the hunan-form Bob in, for example and remove the Dresden/Murphy kiss) and then aired as is. If people had had a proper, well-constructed intro to the series they would have stuck around longer to see the quality significantly pick up.

Good-quality consistent season planning is more important than you'd think and the Dresden files seriously messed that up.
Bittersweet Fountain
29. nawick
Only the good die young, the evil seems to live forever. Look at this
and firefly and all the other penultimate series that they cut short,
and yet we get 900 episodes of Hercules in Space.

All that is good SiFi kills off.
Bittersweet Fountain
30. TVanimal
As usual I agree with most of these comments. Blackthorne for me fits the character better than Marsters when I picture him and his size is closer to the books. what they should have done was cover his childhood (raised by and fought DuMorne) and the first book in the pilot, then extend it to 2-3 books per season; even deepening his subsequent relationships/alliances with friends and foes.
When will networks get that an adaptation of a successful book can only be successful if they stick to it as closely as possible (look at Game of Thrones, LOTR, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games etc).
Bittersweet Fountain
31. Djkoz78
I love the Dresden books still my favorite series. HATED the show. Felt they lost the spirit of Dresden completely chased too many characters. Dresden was a sissy in the show. Listening to the audio books now and I like what Marsters has done so far as Dresden and the voices except for Bob. Bob in the books was never described with an English or British accent. I know Bob takes on the personality of whoever owns him, but Marsters gives him a ridiculous accent and to be it doesn't work. I hate it actually. I feel Bob would be more like Dresden except more sarcastic and of course anybody who's read the books knows Bob is a huge perv that's what makes him funny and ridiculous. No genitalia but still a horn for the ladies. Marsters accent for Bob just seems snarky, silly, & ridiculous. Other than that he did a tremendous job.
David Foster
32. ZenBossanova
I am still a Dresden newbie, but rapidly tearing through the books as fast as I can.
And for those who hated the show... I can only agree. Some changes were not terrible (Murphy, Bob, Blue Beetle) but the whole thing had a low budget feel to it. I can't even put my finger on it, but things like Murphys office just looked silly. Harry's apartment looked far nice than in books.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment