Growing up, I was a massive L.J. Smith fan. Sometime in elementary school, I read Christopher Pike‘s Last Vampire series, which led to my grandmother (I know) picking out Daughters of Darkness from the shelf at the Benton, Arkansas Hastings.
I not only gained a lovely new book, but it came with an obsession for free! I hunted down as many Night World books as I could find, and as I was a part of Hastings’ summer reading program, I think I managed to buy all of them that summer. It wasn’t long before I started searching out L.J. Smith’s other books. I devoured The Forbidden Game, Secret Circle, and the Dark Visions trilogies and waited impatiently for the conclusion of the ten book Night World series — which, by the way, I’m still waiting for thirteen years later.
And then I read the Vampire Diaries.
And hated them. All four of them. I loathed them. I found Elena Gilbert to be vapid, unsympathetic, and pointless. Stefan Salvatore was stuffy and obnoxious, and the only interesting characters in the books were Bonnie and Damon. And did I mention that Elena was as interesting as a paper doll? Years later I would think something similar about another character whose initials conveniently happen to be B.S.
When I heard the CW was making The Vampire Diaries into a series, I was skeptical to say the very least. It took two seasons of ignoring its presence for me to give it a shot, and then I watched the first couple episodes and got annoyed for several months before I started watching more.
And then this happened:
Part way through season one, I was hooked. And I promise (I PROMISE!) it wasn’t just the allure of Ian Somerhalder and his various perfections.
First of all, the writers did something very smart when they switched things up and gave Elena a brother. Not only does that give her someone to love automatically, but it functioned in essence as a “save the cat” scene. You have to sympathize with her because she’s not only grieving for parents we don’t care about, but because we see her caring for a brother who is clearly devastated by the loss of his parents. We might not know them, but right off the bat you see Elena, Jeremy, and their very young aunt Jenna struggling.
Elena quickly becomes a more complex character than she is in the books by about a gazillion light years. In the books, she was consumed by petty popularity contests and competing against Caroline. In the series, not only is Elena not enthused about the multitude of Mystic Falls Founders Day/Founding Families/Civic Duty shenanigans, but she doesn’t need to beat Caroline just to beat her.
Speaking of Caroline, her arc becomes something truly fantastic. It deserves its own post, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but they took a dramatic beauty queen and made a strong, competent woman out of her. And she’s still sort of the beauty queen, which is part of what makes her such a special character.
Bonnie is beyond powerful, and her motivations are given depth and complexity as she struggles to choose how involved with the vampires she wants to be and how to reconcile her extreme discomfort around vampires with her love for her best friends who are firmly ensconced in the vampire world.
If there’s one thing the writers have down in this series, it’s taking two seemingly opposite characters and flipping your stereotypes on their heads. Matt is the nice guy and dumped lover of Elena, while Tyler is the arrogant, pissed off jock who is nasty to his quasi-girlfriend Vickie. However, when Caroline finally comes out to Matt as a vampire, he can’t handle it. And when she risks her life repeatedly to help Tyler come to terms with becoming a werewolf, he falls for her and shows himself to be a decent person. I think I could write a whole post on the Caroline-Tyler relationship, and I might. It’s one of the most impressive story arcs I’ve ever seen on television.
And you can’t discuss this show without mentioning the Salvatore brothers.
One thing that has disturbed me in the urban fantasy genre (or paranormal romance, or whatever you want to call Twilight and the Southern Vampire books) is that the male alpha vampires refuse to allow the women to make choices for themselves. Edward doesn’t respect Bella enough to even concede that she’s intelligent, let alone allow her to make her own decisions about becoming a vampire. Bill and Eric constantly lie to Sookie “for her own good.” Both Bella and Sookie pretty much just take it.
Elena doesn’t. And not only that, but the Salvatore brothers concede (sometimes after a big hullaballoo) that she is intelligent enough to make her own decisions. On the occasions when they do take her choices from her (and both of them do it — not just Damon), she let’s them have it. And they apologize and try to make amends for it (especially Damon).
Stefan Salvatore is a much more complex character in the series than he is in the books. There’s a fascinating juxtaposition between his character and his brother’s. For all Stefan is the “good brother” and Damon is the “bad brother” when we first meet them, the depth of their development begins to come across quite quickly.
Stefan is shown to have been a monster when he first turned, forcing Damon to join him as a vampire against his will. Damon was truly in love with Katherine, who betrayed him because she loved his brother more. As we see in season two, not all the monster is gone from Stefan.
There are seldom outright bad guys in the show, which is something I enjoy. Granted, Klaus is just about as villainous as it’s possible to get, but before that Katherine and the tomb vampires had their own motivations, many of which were understandable. Almost all the people you see in the series are fighting for those they love or are bonded to, and that makes the antagonists both more effective and often sympathetic.
The literary world may have grown bored with vampires, but I don’t think I ever will. Especially when they are written as complex, well-rounded characters. Damon, Stefan, Lexy, Caroline, Pearl, Anna, Harper, Rose, Isobel, Katherine, Elijah — all of the vampires of the Vampire Diaries so far have had more than one layer to them. I can’t wait to watch season three — and four.
It’s been a while since a show captivated me enough to make me watch an entire season in a week. Bravo, CW — you took a mediocre book series and made it into something special.
And just because I can…
What do you think of The Vampire Diaries? Have you read the books? Do you agree with my comparison? Who is your favorite character? (I know I left out Alaric and Jenna, but it’s not for lack of love.)
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