May 18th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

True Blood is HBO’s new series based on the Southern Vampire mystery series by popular author Charlaine Harris, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  The main character, Sookie, is a young woman who has the ability to read minds.  Rather than being a blessing, however, this is more of a curse, as it’s alienated most of the people who’ve found out about it over the years, and it’s made people treat her as a weirdo because of the way she’s always reacting to things that other people cannot perceive.  When the new vampire in town, Bill Compton, walks into the bar where she works one night, she discovers that she cannot read his thoughts like she can with everybody else.  This fascinates and attracts her and she becomes drawn into the world of vampires and other supernatural beings.

I had started reading the books several months before they announced the TV show, and had read all but the most recent volume when the TV show came out.

It’s an interesting conceit of TV producers that no matter how much they tell you they love a particular book (or series), they’ll still change things quite drastically when adapting them for the screen.  Of course, some amount of change is pretty much inevitable when you convert a book into an episodic format.  The pacing of the storyline gets changed… some things get removed, others get expanded, and in most cases, new content is added.  That last point is usually the main place where things go wrong.  Sometimes the new content fits in seamlessly and other times it’s just bolted on and just doesn’t work.

With True Blood, what we are getting is about half of the author’s original story mixed in with producer Alan Ball‘s notion of how to improve that story, and how to make it more suitable for television.   The main difference from the original books is how the supporting cast fits in. The books focus much more tightly on Sookie Stackhouse, but the TV show brings several characters from the background of the books into co-star status and gives them a couple of new secondary storylines to keep them busy.

In the book, Sookie didn’t really have a best friend, but apparently that’s not allowed on TV.  To fill this void, the producers have elevated the role of Tara from a brief cameo all the way to co-star status.  Tara is basically a completely new and different character from the Tara who appears in the books.  In fact, they could bring in the original Tara at some point without any conflict other than having multiple characters with the same name.

Sookie’s brother Jason is a mid-level character in the book but is also promoted to co-star status for TV.  Partway through the season, he also gains a regular girlfriend, a new character named Amy Burley.

Other characters are tweaked around a bit here and there, but for the most part remain similar to the original versions.

My guess would be that the producers are afraid to focus a TV show on a single character the way that the books do. If a show focuses on one character, and a viewer doesn’t like that character, they won’t watch the show. But making the supporting cast more prominent gives viewers more choices to find a character they will keep watching. Or at least, I guess that’s the theory.

Anna Paquin, known lately as Rogue in the X-Men movies, is Sookie.  She’s a good actress (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano in 1993), but she occasionally trips over the Louisiana accent.  She was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand and normally speaks with a light Kiwi accent.

Paquin is undeniably quite attractive, but doesn’t quite fit the book’s description for the character.  The book describes Sookie as a bit taller and more buxom, while Paquin is a bit more girl-next-door.  This is significant insofar as part of the drama with her mind reading ability is the way she’s always hearing men’s thoughts when they look at her.  The fact that vampire Bill doesn’t project such thoughts is a major part of the attraction she has for him.

Plotwise, the first season of True Blood is a combination of the first book of the series with a pair of new storylines that feature the newly prominent supporting cast.  The first of these new storylines is basically “Tara’s Life” and it’s not so much a story line as a series of unfolding events that tell us all about Tara, and her mother, and her cousin, and establishes a link into Voodoo stuff.

The other new story line is Jason Stackhouse’s addiction to “V”, or vampire blood, and his relationship with fellow addict Amy Burley.  The concept of “V” was introduced in the beginning of the first book, but Jason’s addiction is new, and “V” in general never played such a major role in the storyline there.

Overall, I really liked this show, but I liked it best when they stuck to adapting the original story.  I could have done without the new storylines. They’re really just filler and do nothing to advance the main plot. In fact, I think I would have rather watched half-hour episodes that just focused on the original storyline.

Season 2 will undoubtedly follow the second book of the series, and undoubedly there will be more changes.  In particular, since the book takes place in Dallas, we can expect more fiddling around with the original story in addition to whatever new storylines are introduced for the secondary characters.

Season 1 of True Blood is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  The season 2 debut is June 14.

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April 11th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

“Religulous” follows the travels of comedian/talk show host Bill Maher as he travels the world speaking to a variety of regional religious leaders and members of the faithful including a U.S. Senator.  The premise is that religious beliefs, regardless of where they’re coming from, are ridiculous.

How you feel about this movie will depend, first and foremost, on your own religious beliefs.  If you have any significant degree of faith at all, you will most likely view this movie as sacreligious and blasphemous.  This should come as no surprise, because Bill Maher really is preaching to the choir here, only this time it’s the Atheist Choir.  If you’re a member, or if you at least hum along on occasion, then you may find bits and pieces here to be amusing.  You may also be amazed at things like the Christian amusement park in Orlando, Florida, just down the road from Disney World, where one of the featured attractions is a re-enactment of Christ’s walk to his own crucifiction.

Bill Mayer Finds Jesus... at an amusement park in Florida

Bill Mayer Finds Jesus... at an amusement park in Florida

The faithful here include a wide variety of personalities from the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths.  Other religions such as Hinduism aren’t included but that’s probably for the best.  The big three faiths cover most people and have so much overlap between their core writings and beliefs that we never have to worry too much about understanding what exactly it is that Bill Maher is challenging.  If he had got into a debate with a Hindu priest, on the other hand, it wouldn’t have made much sense to most of the audience without first providing a significant overview of the Hindu faith.

The faithful being interviewed include some who have previous knowledge of Bill Maher through his television show and therefore have some idea of what to expect, and others who initially have no idea that his goal is to challenge and ridicule.  Among the former group, most are anxious to defend their beliefs and convince Maher that he’s the one who’s wrong, but there are those who simply get upset and refuse to take part in any sort of debate.

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It’s the latter group that is more entertaining to watch here.  Most of them seem to start off thinking that Mayer’s interview is going to be some sort of good publicity for them, and then once he starts asking his pointed questions you can see the smile on their face slowly disappear.

To their credit, most of those interviewed don’t simply immediately quit or have Maher kicked out once they figure out what’s going on.  In Salt Lake City, however, he was actually physically chased away from the Mormon Temple before he even got a chance to start interviewing anybody.

One of the scarier bits of the film, to me, was when Maher interviewed Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas. 

It may be the basic gimmick of the entire movie, but I really don’t think Maher’s primary interest is simply making his interviewees look bad.  That’s just an extra bonus that falls out of his search for a true debate.   The problem is, he doesn’t seem to have yet realized a basic truth: you simply cannot expect to have a rational conversation about an irrational belief.

Religious beliefs are always irrational at the core, in that they are not based on anything that is provable.  “I believe it because the bible tells me so.” is about as rational as most religious beliefs ever get, so such arguments virtually always come down to “what you believe is stupid and makes no sense”  versus  “I believe it because the bible tells me so”.  There’s an inherent insult in the anti-religion argument that sooner or later is going to generate anger in the religious half of the argument.

This movie is hard to classify.  It’s not a documentary, exactly.  And it’s not really a comedy either, although you will find some funny bits here and there.  (Assuming that you’re not simmering at a slow burn the whole time over Maher’s blasphemy, that is.)  But regardless of how you classify it, the important thing is that it’s thought-provoking… if you can keep an open mind.

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