The Dresden Files
(Lions Gate, 2007)

Constantine has much to answer for.

It's bad enough that the movie took the concept of Vertigo's groundbreaking Hellblazer series and diluted into an uninteresting shadow of itself. It's bad, too, that British mage John Constantine was transformed into a California wizard played with a single note by Keanu Reeves. It's worse still that the movie, even standing apart from the graphic series that spawned it, is a soulless mess.

Now I learn that the short-lived Dresden Files TV series, which lasted only one season on the Sci-Fi Channel, would have been a feature film if Constantine hadn't beaten it to the punch and cornered, undeservedly so, the supernatural detective market.

Even banished to cable and a lower budget, however, The Dresden Files stands head and shoulders above its competitor.

Based loosely on a series of novels by Jim Butcher, the series stars Paul Blackthorne as Chicago wizard Harry Dresden, Valerie Cruz as Chicago cop Connie Murphy and Terrence Mann as Bob, the shade of a long-dead sorcerer contained within his own, intricately carved skull.

Whoa! Fans of the novels are probably wondering already how Bob, an ancient air spirit, had become a ghost. Know up front that the TV series takes liberties, as the visual medium so often does. Some are minor -- for instance, Dresden never wears his trademark coat or hat, his dilapidated VW Bug has become a Jeep, and his wand and staff were replaced with a drumstick and hockey stick. Others are more significant -- Dresden's apartment, an integral part of so many of Butcher's stories, has been combined with his downtown office, and Bob is now a ghost. The matter is easily explained by the differences between the written word and television; a talking skull, which works so well in the books, would be much sillier in a live-action show.

Differences aside, the series captures very nicely the spirit of the books, and the chemistry of these characters -- particularly Dresden/Bob and Dresden/Murphy -- works admirably well. Blackthorne has the Dresden attitude down just right, especially when the chips are down and he's forced by his own willful conscience to save the day. Mann tailors this ghostly Bob into a solid role that easily won over many skeptical fans.

Cruz, however, works wonders with what could have been the most thankless part. The role of the doubter in any supernatural setting is at best cliched, but she works it. Murphy might not believe in magic, but she knows the city's only wizard is often her only recourse when faced with strange, inexplicable cases -- and when push comes to shove, she is a true friend and staunch ally.

All combined, The Dresden Files deserved better from the network but -- sadly, in a society where reality television flourishes -- was canceled after a single, 12-episode season. Still, this collected set is worth viewing, even if it is an all-too-brief glimpse into Dresden's mystic Chicago.

review by
Tom Knapp

31 October 2009

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