The saga of the Vampire Chronicles’ tv series has had almost as many installments as the series it’s based on. The movie rights were with Universal Studios, tentatively (as of 2014) to be adapted by Josh Boone. Then that fell through for unknown reasons (Anne Rice’s Facebook page has a tendency to go back and delete posts that no longer gel with the current narrative, y’see), and after a period of silence it was announced that the series would be shopped as a TV series instead.
That TV series started out on a strong note with the announcement that Bryan Fuller would be the series showrunner, which is about as perfect a choice as I could name. His series Hannibal is already about the closest thing to capturing the spirit of the Vampire Chronicles on film, including the actual films based on the series, and his eye for updating and remixing problematic texts into something more inclusive and suited to their medium is something the series badly needed. Not to mention Fuller pegged adapting the books as his dream project way back when he was a teenager, which is just cute as hell.
Unfortunately, Fuller has a bad habit of flouncing off of projects when he loses creative control (see most recently American Gods and Star Trek Discovery); and Anne Rice has legendarily refused to use an editor on any of her books since the late 80s (it shows), considering her first drafts to be untouchable masterpieces. The meeting of these two control freaks was predictable, and Fuller left the project only two months after signing on (though the news wasn’t announced until almost six months out, possibly to draw attention away from the lightning-fast turnover).
The project went back to development hell until about two weeks ago, when it was announced that Hulu had picked up the rights with Anne and her son Christopher as two of four producers. The pilot script, titled “The Wolf Killer,” has been written by Christopher Rice but otherwise there’s no production news forthcoming.
Whew. Now, readers may or may not know that these books were quite formative for me, both in my professional and personal life, and I’ve talked about them a lot. That decade-plus of influence has also left me a lot of time to think about how this series, both crucially important to the horror genre and quite badly aged in some regards, might look in adaptation. And that’s left me with five major questions about the new series.
- IS IT A PERIOD PIECE?
The pilot script and multiple interviews have made it clear that the series plans on starting out with the second book in the series, The Vampire Lestat (or at least “Lestat’s biography”). And a big part of that story is that Lestat woke in the then-modern day of the 1980s, seeking to become a rock star, piss off the older generation of vampires; and get his ex, Louis’, attention.
It’s a major part of the conflict of the initial three books (the edited ones), which form a cohesive trilogy of sorts around Lestat and Louis’ romance. Sometimes for the cheesy better and sometimes decidedly for the worse (particularly in how the book pointedly doesn’t address the AIDS crisis despite having a bunch of psychic queer men out drinking the blood of society’s outcasts), the 1980s is steeped into how a big part of the story is told.
So, does the show keep the original tale and make it into a period piece, hopefully correcting for certain narrative elements? If it doesn’t, how far does that change go? Social media would mean world-shaking changes in how Lestat’s rise to fame could and should be written, in addition to opening up all kinds of options to other characters. More than that, the sensibilities and reactions of the public would be totally different. As another recent adaptation of a famous 80s property is finding out, modernizing a story is more than just its aesthetic elements—it’s taking a hard look at the tropes that were taken for granted in the era, and who is or isn’t allowed to speak. And doing a half-assed job can do more harm than good.
- WHAT HAPPENS TO THE META ELEMENT?
One of the most unique things about the Vampire Chronicles trilogy is its meta narrative—the first two books exist in the world of the story, and The Vampire Lestat is a written response to Interview with the Vampire. The characters in the story are using the story itself to communicate with one another, each with their own biases and agendas. It’s a heady bit of high concept, if one that lost its cohesion as the franchise went on, and it means both Louis and Lestat are utterly unreliable narrators.
However, starting with TVL means that Lestat’s rise to rock stardom comes with nothing to respond to. And if the audience doesn’t start with Louis and his (extremely internal, extremely personal) account of his and Lestat’s disastrous and often abusive first marriage, then how is the audience meant to sympathize with him? How does he become a fully rounded character, which the original story progression afforded him, rather than “Lestat’s Boyfriend?”
I fear the answer to this one is simply “he doesn’t” – IWTV was written while Rice was in a deep depression, and her recovery from that time in her life seems to have formed itself into a deep contempt for Louis as a character. He never received a position as narrator again, even in the book allegedly about him.
Still, the idea that the series houses a cast of petty assholes all jostling to get their version down as official record is one of the series’ most charming elements, and it would be a shame to see it lost in translation.
- IS THE STAFF INCLUSIVE?
I mentioned up top that the VC series is a big ol’ pile of problematic issues. While it excels in emotionally resonant depictions of depression and anxiety and provided queer romance for a lot of nerds in the 80s and 90s (when Rice wasn’t waffling over or outright denying that element of the books in one of her back-to-Catholicism phases), it also has glaring issues that have only gotten worse with time.
First, the series has issues with race. Like, huge issues with race. From the eurocentrism of the cast and the narrative’s philosophy to the use of non-white nations as “exotic” set pieces for white European characters to tour through, to literal white saviors and the statement that vampires become whiter as they age, it’s a basket full of yikes.
Likewise, while the series contains many queer characters and several opportunities for non-cis headcanons…but they also have a disturbing problem with sexualizing young teenagers and painting sexual predators as romantic figures. At the end of the day these are books written by a wealthy, white, cis straight woman, and they come with accompanying baggage.
While some of that will always remain, a great deal could be helped by hiring non-straight and non-white creative staff. In fact, more than anything this is something the show needs, from writers to production team to casting. And speaking of…
- HOW DO YOU HANDLE CASTING?
Series about immortal beings have always been plagued by that pesky human tendency to age. Sometimes this affects whether an actor who matches a character’s apparent age can grapple with the emotional range of the character’s experiences; sometimes, especially with TV, it’s just a matter of a young actor’s looks evolving over the months or years filming takes. In VC terms this predominantly affects two characters: the child vampire Claudia (already played masterfully by young Kirsten Dunst) and perpetual teenager Armand (also played masterfully by Antonio Banderas, despite the shit he gets for not matching the physical profile). These characters’ life experiences are impacted by their young-looking bodies, and part of the visual impact is in conveying that.
What sacrifices are made for performance versus visual aesthetic? Thank God anyway that 46-year-old Jared Leto was shot down as the frontrunner for perpetually-20-year-old Lestat.
- WHICH VERSION OF THE CANON ARE YOU GOING TO USE?
Maybe the most crucial question of all when discussing these books, because the post-editor books did a whole lot of retconning in order to shore up or demolish the reputations of certain characters. If parts of the story from the first three books are rewritten to conform to Anne’s later rewrites, it could mean undermining the core appeals of the series.
Teenage Armand’s backstory, for example, has changed multiple times: originally turned as a teenager basically because his owner Marius couldn’t wait for him (read: didn’t want him to) finish puberty, later novels shored things up in Marius’ favor by introducing a dire stab wound and also insinuating Armand as a conniving flirt.
Meanwhile antagonist Akasha, while always a bit of a straw feminist motivated by MISANDRYYYYYY, became an almost cartoonish villain by Prince Lestat, with motives completely counter to the ones she started out with.
This is all in addition to various canonical errors like character names being misspelled, characters dropping out of the plot because the universe is overstuffed, and important organizations in the world of the story just plain changing names. It’s a mess to be sorted out, and hopefully not with the newer stuff as the guiding light.
This is why editors are your friends, kids.