After indulging in all four seasons of Dexter last fall, and having had the book stare at me from the shelf for five years now, I decided it was time to try it out. The show was a pleasing, morally ambiguous guilty pleasure, and I figured the source material would be the same. Intense plots, stupid characters who are somehow fascinating, grisly-yet-sanctioned violence. It was my understanding that the first season of the show closely followed the plot of the first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and so I read it.
Quick answer: I will never again refer to the show as a guilty pleasure. Clearly it is the superior work featuring deft writers, talented actors, dark humor, and subtle plotting.
Long answer after the jump.
It seems that Jeff Lindsay, the no doubt hard-working author of the series, pitched his idea, a serial killer who ONLY preys on serial killers, and the editor said, "OK!" and that was that. I remain in doubt that the novel was developed, discussed, or even edited at all.
The novels are first-person narratives, steeped in Dexter's sarcastic voice. And while his character still encounters the sort of awkward, real human interactions that appear in the show, they hardly seem dramatic or tense when filtered through his omniscient perspective. While a voice-over dominates many scenes in the show, the viewer still is allowed the pleasure of watching Dexter try to maneuver through emotional human beings that he cannot understand. In the book, he sounds like an asshole.
And that's just it. I couldn't believe for one second that the things he says in the novel make him seem normal. If the guy portrayed in the book worked with me I'd be freaked out by him. Or at least think he was a phony. Unlike Michael C. Hall's fit and smiling and terribly dressed creation in the show—watching this affable and boyish actor stand by and observe, always calculating his next move, is thrilling television. In a scene in season one he passively watches his sister freak out following the revelation of a shocking family secret. Dexter of course feels nothing and cannot share her panic and frustration. He doesn't know what she wants from him, and she can't understand why. It's compelling, it's emotional, and it's challenging.
Dexter in the book is far too savvy and sophisticated for that. The closest the novel gets to that is a scene where Dexter clumsily shrugs off the advances of his lieutenant. It's awkward but brief, and completely believable in that anyone might run away when cornered sexually by a superior at work. In short, nothing is at stake. It reminded me of detective novels where the hero makes insanely accurate leaps of guess work, making up the plot as they goes along, smarter than everyone else in the story because they embody the author's voice.
There are three more books in the Dexter series (with book five due this fall) that diverge heavily from the TV show. I don't think I'm going to read them, but if they get better, please let me know. Sometimes it takes authors of ongoing series a few books to find their stride. But for now, I'll wait for season five.