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Find more Reading the Screen
Some Bones about It
Just imagine the confusion. It’s the middle of September, 2005. Fans of Kathy Reichs’ novels about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (there are eight of them at this point, beginning with 1997’s Deja Dead) tune in to watch a new FOX series, Bones, that appears to be based on the books.
But what’s this? Brennan is younger—a good 10 or 15 years younger—and she is working in Washington, D.C., at the (fictional) Jeffersonian Institute, not commuting between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Montreal, Quebec. She has never been married, she doesn’t have any children, and she isn’t a recovering alcoholic. And who are all these people around her, the conspiracy-minded lab guy, the awkward but brilliant grad student, and the sensitive facial-reconstruction expert? What have they done with Brennan’s usual gang, Luc Claudel, Pierre LaManche, Tim Larabee, and Skinny Slidell? Who is this FBI guy, Seeley Booth, who insists on calling Tempe “Bones,” and what have they done with Andrew Ryan, Brennan’s partner, lover, and friend?
And why, for crying out loud, is Tempe so . . . different? She’s still smart and outspoken, sure, but put her in the room with other people—colleagues, suspects, grieving family members—and she looks like someone who’s only marginally familiar with the fundamentals of social interaction. Not to mention her baffling inability to recognize even the most common pop-culture references: in early episodes, we learn that Tempe has never heard of either the Grinch or, if you can believe it, Hannibal Lecter. It looks as though there are two Brennans: the one in the books and the one on TV.
Reichs herself provides the explanation for this seeming disconnect. In the afterword to Break No Bones (2006), she writes, “In the [TV] series, Tempe is at an earlier point in her career, employed by the Jeffersonian Institute, and working with the FBI.” She has repeated this in various interviews, at one point adding that the Brennan we see on television is “less sophisticated and definitely needs work on her people skills.”
As television adaptations of popular novels go, Bones is definitely one of the more extreme makeovers. Take a look at Perry Mason (1957–1966), the series based on the Erle Stanley Gardner novels about a crime-solving attorney. This was an exceedingly literal adaptation of the books, adhering closely to the format of the novels and featuring the same familiar characters for the entire run (with the exception of Lieutenant Tragg, who left the show in 1965, after the death of the actor who played him). Watching Perry Mason—and this was a very good series, top of the line in every respect—was very much like reading the books.
But here’s the thing: a typical Brennan novel runs between 350 and 400 pages. A typical episode of Bones runs about 42 minutes without commercials. There really is no way to cram Reichs’ complex stories, with their multiple plotlines and shifting locations, into a 42-minute show. And although the producers could have created a mystery series about a fortysomething genius whose history includes a failed relationship and substance abuse, FOX already has one of those—it’s called House.
So the creator of Bones, Hart Hanson, with input from Reichs herself, took a different approach. He lopped a decade or more off Brennan’s age, gave her an entirely different history (on TV, her parents disappeared when she was 15 years old, and that’s just the beginning of that story), and plunked her down in an entirely different environment. Reboot is an industry term usually reserved for instances where a tired old franchise needs a shot of adrenaline (think Star Trek or Batman), but it applies here, too: Hanson rebooted the Brennan series, starting from scratch, with a stripped-down protagonist and a fresh new setting.
Despite all these differences, there are some important similarities between the books and the series. “TV Tempe,” as Reichs has referred to her, may be younger than her literary counterpart, but she is just as outspoken, just as dedicated, just as willing to take big risks in order to solve a case. And she still has serious problems with people in positions of authority who aren’t as smart or as well informed as she is. She is still Tempe, in other words. The show’s creator changed a lot of superficial details, but he kept her essence.
The most interesting element of the series, for fans of the books, may be the relationship between Brennan and her partner, Booth. They are not lovers, the way Brennan and Ryan are, in the books. At the beginning of the TV series, they are polar opposites: he is an impulsive cop and she is a rigid scientist. But, as their relationship evolves, as they develop first a working partnership and then a friendship, they begin to settle into a teacher-student relationship that goes both ways: she shows him the value of scientific discipline, and he shows her how to deal with the parts of the world that don’t operate along scientific principles. “Just for once, Bones,” he tells her in a second-season episode, “do what people do. See how it feels.”
So there really aren’t two different Temperance Brennans—just one, at two different points in her life. Watching the series, we’re seeing her evolve into the Brennan we already know. The twelfth novel, 206 Bones, comes out this month. The fifth season of Bones begins in the fall. Check them both out, and enjoy.
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