In 1991, author L. J. Smith published The Awakening, the first in a 4 book sequence called The Vampire Diaries. Years later, another author, Stephanie Meyer, began releasing her own 4 book sequence, The Twilight Saga. This series would propel Meyer to the top of the bestseller lists and the books themselves were soon adapted by Hollywood into a series of movies, each a bigger smash hit than the last. As is usually the case, where the movies go, TV follows, and before you could say "I smell a cash cow", The Vampire Diaries(TVD) was winging it's way to the screen.
Of course, the TV guys could just have created their own version of Twilight; changed a few names, cast a blonde instead of a brunette, claimed "they're all archetypes really aren't they" and "certain elements are generic, that's why it's called a genre" and put out a show that was basically Twilight with the serial numbers filed off. No-one could have touched them. Instead they shelled out for the rights to TVD and thus saved themselves the bother of having to make excuses; after all, TVD pre-dates Twilight by a number of years so if anyone was copying anyone...
Kevin Williamson, whose work I've admired for a number of years, and Julie Plec, whom I was completely unfamiliar with, were responsible for transferring Smiths characters to the screen. To their credit, while recognising that fairly major changes would need to be made, they didn't engage in the kind of scorched earth, 'baby with the bathwater" approach that is so often utilised when attempting to mold a finite text story into a viable continuing drama. In fact, I've been shocked by how faithful they've actually been, with many elements of the books story being present right up to the recently aired S2 finale, although in a tweaked fashion.
Some of the changes do seem somewhat arbitrary, at first glance. For instance, while most of the characters, though not all, that appear in the show have their genesis in the books, they are often bastardised or amalgamated versions. Take the two best friends of lead character Elena. In the books they are ditsy, scatterbrained witch Bonnie and far more sensible Meredith. In the show, Merediths sensible personality is given to witch Bonnie, while the 'dizzy' role is given to the character of Caroline, who in the books is much more of an annoyance/nemesis for the core group, while Meredith doesn't make the transition to the screen at all.
Random as the alterations may seem they make perfect sense on closer inspection. In the books, Elena is written out for most of the final novel, which forces Bonnie to step up and become the heroine. In that scenario, it made sense for her to start off as a lightweight character, in order that her arc, as she grew in confidence, should hold more weight. Since they had no intention of writing Elena out of the show, even temporarily, they didn't need Bonnie to go on that journey so she was pretty self assured from the get-go. Instead, they gave Caroline the strong, maturing in the face of adversity storyline, albeit intended to get her to a very different endpoint. Watching her develop from stereotypical self absorbed teenager into a strong willed, loyal heroine, by way of unwilling pawn of a vampire and then terrified girl struggling to control her vampire urges, has been one of the most compelling and affecting throughlines of the shows two seasons to date. Much credit is due here to actress Candice Accola, so often overlooked by those clamoring to heap praise on the three leads. As for why they chose to call the character Caroline rather than Meredith, I can't really say, other than the fact that Meredith does sound a little, well, old fashioned, doesn't it?
Other changes continue in a similar vein. Elena loses the baby sister of the books but gains a sulky teenage brother. Presumably their desire to constantly put Elenas sibling in harms way prompted this change, given that they may have been on dodgy ground threatening the life of a toddler on a weekly basis, and anyway, it allows them to cast one more hunky young dude than they could have otherwise. Not to mention widening the number of possible romantic entanglements between the young cast (and the lad has done well for himself).
Elenas Aunt, as well as getting a name change from Judith to Jenna (possibly for the same reason as the Meredith/Caroline shift), also manages to lose a fiance in the transition from page to screen, making her nicely placed to form a romantic entanglement with hunky supply teacher/mysterious vampire hunter Alaric. Be glad they did this, because in the books that honour went to Meredith, in a plot development that never seemed anything less than creepy. (Yes, I'm well aware of the irony of being uncomfortable with a teenage girl having an affair with a teacher when another teenage girl having an affair with a centuries old bloke doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow.)
Tyler Lockwood, who in the show starts off as a bit of a tit but shows himself to be a decent bloke as he struggles with his burgeoning werewolf-ism, is never more than a cliched 'baddy' in the books, so that's another one in the plus column. To be fair, it's hard to see how the character would have remained viable as a continuing presence were he to be portrayed as one dimensionally as he is in the books.
Unfortunately we then come to Matt. Now, in the books Matt is right there in the thick of it from day one. He's been thrown over by Elena; spoiled, selfish little bitch that she is in the books, when she decides to set her sights on Stefan, but he nevertheless manages to be the bigger man, sticking by the girls throughout their troubles and forming a strong bond of friendship with Stefan (in one of the few friendships in the books that actually 'feels' genuine to the reader). He's with them all the way and is right there in the thick of the final confrontation. The TV show gives him another reason for getting involved, by making him the brother of early vampire victim Vicky. (Vicky is in the books, but isn't related to Matt.) Why then, does he manage to fade so completely into the background for almost the entirety of the first two seasons? It's a waste, frankly, although I'm tempted to say that it may have had something to do with the actor being a wee bit, er, bland.
On top of those we see the town all of these characters live in changing it's name from Fells Church to Mystic Falls. While Mystic Falls does sound cooler, I can't help thinking it may have been a little bit too on the nose.
A lot of changes then, but none of them massive and none of them doing anything to radically alter the premise, nor, I would imagine, piss off any rabid fans of the books. Although to be honest, it's difficult to imagine any of those actually watching the show in the first place. The books are well over 20 years old. So if we assume that the majority the teenage girls (and make no mistake, these books are very much aimed at teenage girls, and don't I know it) who read these books at the time are now well into their 30's or 40's and are therefore not really the target audience for a teen oriented show of this type, I don't think the producers needed to worry too much about them. And anyone who reads them now, on the strength of the show, has plenty of bigger dissapointments in store than these differences.
I haven't mentioned the main trio yet though, have I?
Well, I called Elena a selfish little bitch, but apart from that... The Salvatores have been vampires a lot longer in the books but the circumstances of their turning, with the love triangle involving Katherine, plays out very similarly, and in casting Nina Dobrev as Elena they actually went for someone who looked like a normal girl (albeit a beautiful one, but then this is US TV) rather than the frankly ridiculous 'Disney Princess' or 'Barbie Doll' wish fulfillment figure of the books. These are cosmetic changes though. In truth, the biggest change they made to the 'big three', and the most necessary, was in completely re-writing Elenas character. To attempt to have put the Elena of the books on screen as a lead heroine would have been madness. Have a read of this:
He'd walked right by. Without a glance. She couldn't remember how long it had been since a boy had done that. They all looked at least. Some whistled. Some stopped to talk. Some just stared.
And that had always been fine with Elena.
After all, what was more important than boys?
It goes on for a while about why boys are important before we get this gem:
Most boys, Elena reflected, were like puppies. Adorable in their place, but expendable.
Pity me people, for I have read 800 pages of this nonsense and have another 1500 to go. Yes, that's 1500. Curse my completist OCD. And that right there is what I believe to be the biggest positive contribution made by Williamson and Plec; an Elena that you didn't want to slap every time she opened her mouth.
Now that I've told you all the ways that the show is different from the books I'll sign off, because frankly this is far too long and rambly (and ultimately pointless, now that I read it back) to be allowed to go on any longer.
I hope you won't be dissuaded from joining me on Friday, over at my book blog, for part 2, in which I talk about how I feel the show and books compare in terms of quality. See It Here