Let's talk Dexter.
This is one of those instances where I've ended up reading a book after having seen its film or TV adaptation. Usually I prefer to read the novel first – indeed sometimes I'll make a point of reading a novel before I get to see the adaptation, as with Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island – but that's not always possible, especially if I'm not even aware of a particular author's work at that time (I'm not as widely read as I maybe should be). I can think of a few instances off the top of my head where that's happened: I saw the films of both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley's Game before I ever got near Patricia Highsmith's novels, and Point Blank many years prior to getting hooked on Richard Stark.
What is generally true, though, is that movies or TV shows are rarely better than the novels they're adapted from. They may approach a book in terms of quality, they may even equal it on occasion, but they very rarely better it. What's more common is that a film adaptation will go in a different direction than the source material, and may even end up being something quite extraordinary and transcend its origins, but as a consequence make any meaningful comparison with the original novel redundant. Slavishly faithful movies and TV shows do happen – Watchmen, say, or the aforementioned Shutter Island, both of which only slightly tampered with the originals – but there, often as not, something is lost. With Watchmen it was the intelligence and the formal complexity of the comics; with Shutter Island it was, I think, the book's soul – it wasn't a terribly deep novel, but Teddy's pain came across much more vividly in the novel.
And then there's Dexter, the TV show. Based on Jeff Lindsay's (a.k.a. Jeffry P. Freundlich) series of books about serial killer/blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan, each season of Dexter is akin to a complete crime thriller. There are individual episode stories, sure, but there's always an overall arc for the series. I'd seen all four seasons of the show (season five starts soon) by the time I got round to reading the first book in the series, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I was struck by how similar the novel is to the first season. The plots of both are almost identical, and the characters are instantly recognizable. Thereafter the two diverge, but having recently read the fourth book in the series, 2009's Dexter by Design (I've yet to read numbers two and three), I realised that, for me, the TV show has become the definitive experience.
Now, this could well be because I saw so much of it before I read the books, but I don't think that's the whole reason. As ever with novels versus adaptations, the Dexter I saw in my head when I read Dexter by Design didn't quite match the telly version... but he also didn't quite match up to the screen Dexter, as portrayed by Michael C. Hall. Good though a lot of Dexter's internal monologue is in the book, it wasn't quite as zingy as Hall's voiceovers in the TV show, and sometimes the narration even dragged a bit. More than that, however, the print Dexter lacks some of the extra layers of the TV Dexter.
In the books (at least the two I've read), by the time of Dexter by Design, Dexter himself is essentially unchanged. He's discovered more about his Dark Passenger, sure, but other than that he's pretty much the same emotionless murderer he always was, except perhaps with some small sense of obligation to his adopted – and now in turn also homicidal – children. But on the TV show, the writers – Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and Melissa Rosenberg – and in particular Hall have imbued Dexter with real depth, making him more human and more sympathetic – at least as sympathetic as a serial killer can be, anyway.
I guess fans of the books might complain that the television show dilutes Dexter, but I'd argue it actually enhances him, makes him a more rounded character, as it drills into what makes him tick and how inevitably he can come to question his existence. That's thrown into sharp relief by two similar plot strands in Dexter by Design and the TV show. In both that novel and in the season 4 episode Slack Tide, Dexter makes a mistake and kills an essentially innocent – if disagreeable – person. But whereas in the book this does little more than slightly trouble him, in the show it really has an impact and leads to something of a crisis. The same goes for the plots too. It seems to me that while the Dexter novels are fun, the show has more depth; it's a lot more gripping, with real consequences for Dexter and the other characters.
I picked up a first edition of the recently published fifth novel, Dexter is Delicious, the other week, so I'm intrigued to see how that one stacks up, particularly as it sees the return of an important character who shuffled off this mortal coil in the TV show but is very much alive in the books. But on the evidence thus far, in the case of Dexter books versus Dexter telly, I reckon that, for once, you could make a strong argument for an adaptation turning out to be better than its inspiration.
Er, which I guess is what I've just tried to do.
(* This is the dance that me and Rachel do to the theme tune of Dexter when we watch the show. Yes, we do a Dexter Dance. Demonstrations upon request.)