“If things get weird, or weirder, or strange, or just if you’re not sure what’s going on, just… you just call me, all right?”
–Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files
Weird, weirder, and strange are exactly what Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden deals with best. (Yes, that’s his full name.) If things aren’t quite what they seem, then he’s the one with the magic touch to figure them out. And when I say magic, I mean Grade-A sorcerer-type spells and magick that could put Harry Potter to shame. Because Harry Dresden is the only Wizard in the Chicago phone book.
Based on a series of novels by author Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files was a 2007 Sci-Fi Channel series relating the adventures (both magical and mysterious) of Harry Dresden (Paul Blackthorne). A private detective by trade, he’s blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with the ability to do magic in our ordinary world. And he’s not the only one….
Harry is assisted by Bob (Terrance Mann), a ghost who walks through walls, can’t interact with anything physically, and whose essence lives inside a skull that Harry keeps. Bob is well-versed in the knowledge of arcane magic, but has to rely on Harry to actually create and perform the actual spells and such (due to his inability to manipulate things physically). Although rather snarky (and who wouldn’t be after hundreds of years stuck in a skull), Bob is a source of information and insight to Harry, which comes in handy when dealing with the aforementioned “weird” happenings all around him.
Harry also has to deal with the magic hierarchy, personified by Morgan (Conrad Coates). Morgan is a Warden of the High Council, who is the enforcer of rules for those who have magical ability. Since Harry often has to deal with rather negative elements in his investigations, he and Morgan often clash on methods, but they also have a grudging respect for one another, and are as likely to be on the same side in a fight as they are in opposition.
All this magical stuff is a bunch of hogwash for Chicago Police Lt. Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), but she knows Dresden is good in a pinch, especially during some of her stranger cases. She’s trained to find evidence, not believe in hocus pocus, and she’s very good at her job… and although (like Morgan) she can sometimes be antagonistic to Harry while trying to do that job, she sees him as an ally and a friend. But she doesn’t see magic, and Harry tries to keep it that way… with limited success.
“You have all of this fantasy element coupled with these really real people, so it almost makes it more believable. You don’t feel like it’s a fantasy, you feel like this is really stuff that could be happening.”
The Dresden Files is really a detective show masquerading as a SF/Fantasy series. Whereas most private eyes would deal with missing persons and cheating spouses, Dresden gets to deal with bringing an already dead murderer to justice and spectral dragons invading his combination home/office. Harry is a reluctant hero, with darkness in his own past, and he just wants to get through most days with as little hassle as possible… but he also wants to do the right thing for those who can’t help themselves, especially when he’s the one with the “power”, quite literally, to do so. But again, it’s a power that Harry has to keep hidden from “ordinary” people (like Murphy), thanks to the edicts of the High Council.
Of course, magic has always been about creating something that isn’t necessarily real to the rest of the world. Sort of like television, really. And the magic of television is ever-present in the making of The Dresden Files.
“The show is not the books. It is not meant to follow the same story. It is meant as an alternate world, where the overall background and story-world is similar, but not all the same things happen. The show is not attempting to recreate the books on a chapter-by-chapter or even story-by-story basis.”
–Jim Butcher, author of the books on which the series is based.
“As much as I love demonic monkeys flinging flaming poo at people, which is the opening scene in one of Jim’s books… that doesn’t quite play as well on television.”
–Executive Producer Robert Hewett Wolfe of The Dresden Files
The changes between the books and the series are significant, focusing on different needs and different strengths for a different medium. The Dresden Files took many of the best qualities of the books, using them to make a great television series. The world of magic is much more elaborate in the novels, yet streamlined for television. Budgets forced more emphasis on characters instead of action and spectacle. Even small details were changed, like Dresden’s wooden magic staff becoming a hockey stick in order to look less out-of-place in a normal world, or his trademark long black duster becoming more of a rumpled worn leather jacket. But that adaptive process was magical in its own way, considering what the creative team had to do in order to portray that world on our screens every week, especially with the limitations of budgets and real-world locations.
Here are a series of quotes by Executive Producers Robert Hewett Wolfe and David Simkis on how their creative “magic” adapted the show for television. For example, in casting process:
“We had a very long process to find Murphy. In the books Murphy is a 5-foot tall Irish blonde… and so there was quite a bit of controversy when we cast a Cubana, a Cuban-American actress. But we just thought that she brought the best qualities of, again, both that sort of humanity, but also the strength. I believe that Murphy knows how to fire a gun, and wouldn’t hesitate to if you were a ‘perp’.”
The character name also had to change to Connie (from Karrin in the books) due to legal reasons, as there was at the time a real Chicago policewoman named Karyn Murphy!
The production adapted sets:
“Our Police District, which is actually an old Mercedes-Benz dealership in a different part of Toronto from the main sets. We just took over the lease, I think, and we put all these dividers in. (…) The whole place is basically just a reclaimed and remodeled car dealership that we grabbed the lease on, and it saved us from building any walls and was a really nice and economical way of creating that environment.”
It even re-designed characters, considering in the novels Bob is just a disembodied voice housed in a skull:
“It just became pretty obvious early on that if Dresden was going to have a confidante, that if he was going to have a friend, if he was going to have a ‘Watson’ so to speak, somebody who he could share these mysteries with and sort of bare his soul to, that you just can’t get any sort of expression or any sort of sympathy from a skull, whether it’s flaming or not flaming or whatever it was doing. Or however intriguing the voice is, or the voice artist would be. So the decision was made very early on once we all sort of had the pilot in hand to re-cast that role, or cast that role for the first time.”
Here is one of the best bits of magic human actors can make. Paul Blackthorne is actually English and Terrance Mann is American, but whenever the cameras started to roll they both had to switch accents so Dresden was the Chicago detective and Bob was the ghost who had originally lived in Britain!
Not only did the producers not follow the same story elements, they really didn’t even follow the same city:
“One of the nice things about [filming in] Toronto actually is those kinds of locations that really you don’t necessarily have the same quality of in Los Angeles that don’t look like Chicago. (…) It was really important to us, if we weren’t going to shoot in Chicago, to shoot in someplace like Toronto. That looks a lot like Chicago, where we could actually pull off a credible Chicago, to the point that we showed the pilot to a critic from WGN she didn’t realize that we shot in Toronto.”
They even went so far as to cheat the weather:
“The first morning of the first day, pouring rain. In fact, the single rainiest October day in Toronto history! (…) We’re actually at the lakeshore to “play” the water, but you can’t see it (…) and [Harry and Morgan] are under a tarp to catch the rain so they don’t get soaking wet, which I like to think is a little subtle bit of wizardry. Neither one of them wants to get wet in the rain, so Morgan puts up a little magical umbrella, but you can see the rain occasionally in the foreground and they’re clearly dry as a bone. So weather-wise it works for Chicago, unfortunately it just obliterated our background, and you look at the two of them, they’re sitting there in the rain, completely dry.”
So, the trick here isn’t that Harry Dresden is capable of magic, or even that his magical world interacts so often with our mundane one. The trick here is that producers, directors, writers, actors, and an army of crew members can take those worlds and create them on television for us to enjoy and marvel at, and although we all know many of the obvious “special effects” that are used, it’s the magic of television that creates even more we never notice, all in the service of telling us a great story. And that’s really the best magic trick of all.
PAUL BLACKTHORNE (Harry Dresden) starred in a couple of series in his native England (Peak Practice and Holby City) before plying his trade in Bollywood (in the film Laagan) for which he learned to speak Hindi. Coming to America, his regular roles included the series ER, Lipstick Jungle, and a villain on season 3 of 24. He is in demand as a guest actor as well, having recently appeared on Leverage, White Collar, and Warehouse 13. An avid photographer, his work has been exhibited in London and New York.
TERRANCE MANN (Bob) has a Broadway résumé that reads like a “greatest hits” collection, including 2 Tony nominations and starring roles in Cats, Le Misérables, Assassins, Beauty and the Beast, The Addams Family, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. His first big movie role was in the film adaptation of the musical A Chorus Line. On acting, he said, “Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”
CONRAD COATES (Morgan) is a Canadian actor and has appeared in recurring roles in Kyle XY, The Zack Files, and La Femme Nikita, and Degrassi: The Next Generation. He has guested on numerous Canadian-based productions, including Warehouse 13, Slings & Arrows, Earth: Final Conflict, and War of the Worlds. He also landed a part in the recent Tron: Legacy feature film.
VALERIE CRUZ (Connie Murphy) has been seen as a regular on Dexter, True Blood, Hidden Palms, and the first season of Nip/Tuck. Guest shots have included roles on Crossing Jordan, Grey’s Anatomy, Invasion, and Dollhouse. Her Cuban ancestry helped her gain the role as Dr. Zita Alvarez in the upcoming ABC medical series Off the Map.
The Dresden Files is available on DVD, with a couple of commentaries and a behind-the-scenes featurette that details some of the process of turning the book series into the TV version, and the episodes are also available at Hulu. The books are still going strong, and you can find them in various formats at Amazon.com as well as most popular booksellers. Author Jim Butcher has his own website where you can find out about upcoming books and more, including comic/graphic novel adaptations, the audio book versions read by actor James Marsters, and even a role-playing game so you can enter the world of The Dresden Files yourself.
If you ever hear mysterious sounds that go “bump” in the night, or a long-dead acquaintance suddenly re-enters your life, there’s really only one place to go, and only one man who can help. I happened to stumble across a business card once that might do you some good. It says:
“Harry Dresden – Wizard. Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.”
Just call him up. Because although he’s not on TV anymore… he’s in the book.
12 aired episodes – none unaired (although the pilot was lengthened to 2 hours at one point and shown as a movie version.
First aired episode: January 21, 2007
Last aired episode: April 15, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Sunday at 9/8 actually, garnering decent ratings in a highly competitive timeslot, but it likely would have done better with Friday airings since Sci-Fi had developed an audience there already.
Comments and suggestions encouraged, as always.