It seems fitting that following my comparison of Jack Torrance from The Shining I should move on to another killer (though to be honest, Jack Torrance in the novel/mini-series didn’t kill anyone). Today, therefore, I’m going to take a look at one of my favorite characters and his depiction on screen versus in print. That’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to talk about Dexter.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you may not have heard of Dexter. Created by Jeff Lindsay as the titular character in Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004), Dexter is a lovable serial killer who lives in Miami, Florida, works for the Miami police department, and tries his very best to only kill people who deserve it. The books are told from Dexter’s point of view, and you really get to crawl around inside his head. That might seem like a bad thing, considering he is a serial killer, but you quickly come to find out that Dexter is a killer with a code, the Code of Harry, his foster father, and he only kills other killers. Referred to many times as the Dark Avenger, Dexter prowls the night in Miami, finding proof of his victims’ crimes and forcing them to see what they have done before he kills them. He also ends up helping his adopted sister, Deb, in her work as a homicide detective.
There are six Dexter novels to date, and I admit to only having finished the first three so far. However, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the character. The TV show, Dexter, has been on the air now for six seasons and will be back for another two as of this writing.
So how does the TV Dexter stack up to his literary counterpart? Usually the transition from print to film means a character is narrowed, slimmed down to fit into a perfect package for movie or television consumers. This is not the case for dear Dexter. In fact, his character expanded as it was translated and the story line of the original novel was decompressed to fill a twelve episode season. More backstory, expanded characters, and in general a better sense of who Dexter is, is all part and parcel of the series. This leads to a more well rounded Dexter than the one presented in the novels.
It helps that Michael C. Hall was a perfect choice for the daring Dexter. He makes Dexter at once both an intense agent of vengeance and a goofy guy trying to understand a world of emotion that he doesn’t feel. He also conveys the fact that Dexter DOES have emotions, but doesn’t understand them, better than the novel version does. Dexter in the novels is conflicted about his relationship with Rita, the damaged single mom whose abusive ex-husband made her fear men, but only in how it fits in with his disguise as a normal, well adjusted individual. The Dexter of the television show also has this issue, but has to come to grips with the fact that he begins to like having Rita around, and when she finally initiates a sexual relationship, and doesn’t run screaming from him afterwards, that he really does have something resembling feelings for her. So much so that he helps set up her ex to send him to jail so he will no longer bother her or her children.
That’s not to say the Dexter of the novels isn’t appealing. In fact, he feels like the leaner version, more focused and razor sharp. His issues with Rita are there, but not nearly as apparent. His feelings for his sister are explored almost as much as in the series, but mostly Dexter is focused on whatever issue is at hand, from a mysterious serial killer who turns out to be his long lost brother to a crazy ex-military doctor who cuts up his victims but leaves them alive in what can only be described as the Princess Bride’s “to the pain”. The literary Dexter slices through the pages like a finely honed scalpel, while his television counterpart is a slow burn through swampy Everglades of a killer with a conscience.
It’s rare to find two versions of a character that so neatly line up. Novel Dexter is like a dark vein inside the television version. The two lines overlap and never separate, creating two compatible versions of the same character. Indeed, it’s in the side characters where the overlap slips and suddenly you have divergent versions. Angel Batista, for example, is a major character in the series, but only a minor background character in the novels. There are also, of course, certain story changes. Dexter’s brother, Brian, also known as the Ice Truck Killer, dies by Dexter’s hand in the first season of the series. In the novels he’s alive and well. In the series, Deb never learns what Dexter really is. In the novels, it’s assumed she knows after the first book. These may seem like major changes, but honestly they work well with the television series. The guilt Dexter felt over killing his brother, for example, made for a large part of the second season story arc. And Deborah knowing about Dexter doesn’t really work all that well – the novels sort of pave over it, but the series has a funny scene showing what her potential reactions would be.
All in all, unlike the Torrance twins, the darkly demanding Dexters are two of a kind. It’s easy to pick up the novels and hear Michael C. Hall’s low voice speaking to you from the pages. And that, honestly, is all that matters. The characters both have the same voice, and that is a rarity when translating a character from page to screen. The writers of the Dexter series have done so, and even better, expanded upon the character in impressive and worthwhile ways.