The Differences Between Karin Slaughter’s Novels and The Show Will Make You Want To Read One and Watch The Other\
Earlier this year I raved among ABC’s new mystery procedural Will Trent, another in a line of superb dramas that have debuted on the network this season. In my review, I said it had the potential to be the first great new series of 2023 and my expectations were proven to be correct. I also was concerned whether ABC would let the series have room to grow or, as it has done far too often over the last twenty years, let it die on the vine. Last night, I got some good news — ABC has given the show an early renewal for a second season.
There is no question it deserves it; unlike so many network series Will Trent — both the lead and the series — have actually grown better and deeper as the series comes to an end in two weeks. So now that we know the show will be back for Season 2, I think it is worth doing something I occasionally do with TV series that are based on books — make a comparison to the source material.
My pattern throughout by career as a critic when it comes to television series based on a novel or a series of books has been to watch the show first and then read the book. This is a pattern Roger Ebert did when it came to so many film adaptations of books; he did not want his opinion to be biased because of his love of the source material. I have done the same in regard to limited series — some examples have been the Hulu adaptions of Little Fires Everywhere and Nine Perfect Strangers. I haven’t done so when it comes to series adaptations of books and the times I have, I’ve been hugely disappointed in the novel — when I read the C.W. Box novel that inspired Big Sky, I was so repulsed by every character and adaptation that not only was I amazed that David E. Kelley and his writers had managed to make something entertaining out of that series, but I also had no desire to read any further novels that Box has written in that series or otherwise.
I have since read three separate novels by Karin Slaughter that feature Will Trent as a lead character. I am greatly relieved to tell you that these books are infinitely readable and worthy of being adapted into a TV series. That said, making comparisons between the books and the series puts me in somewhat of a quandary.
Unlike Big Sky, in which the first half of Season 1 and much of the action of Season 2 had much of its plot inspired by the novel, Will Trent is essentially a procedural where each week Trent and the GBI investigate a case a week. I haven’t read all of Slaughter’s books involving Trent (there are a lot of them) so I can’t say with certainty there’s any similarity to the plot of the first two episodes and any of the stories in Season 1. In a way this is a good decision by the writers; far too many series on TV are serialized, and its bit a long time since we had a good character driven procedural anywhere on TV — the last one I can remember is Justified, which like Will Trent is based on the stories of a mystery writer. (On a separate note, I will be writing in great detail on Justified in anticipation of its return this summer.)
So instead, I shall try to compare the differences and similarities the writers have made when it comes to casting most of the characters on the show and comparing them as to how they were in the books. (Warning: spoilers for many of Slaughter’s novels are next — and they might very well influence future storylines on the show.)
Will is essentially the same person in both the books and the TV show. He spent his life in foster care and wears the same three-piece suit because he was raised in an orphanage. He bears the brutal scars of foster parents and he is dyslexic. He is somewhat blunter on the TV series than he is in the books I have read but that may be a part of his upbringing. He adopted the Chihuahua he did in the opening of the series (for pretty much the same reasons) and he is big and unwieldy in both. He also uses the undercover persona of Bud Black, which we saw him use for the first time in last night’s episode. The only real difference is that in the novels Will is blond and fair-skinned and on-screen he is played by Ramon Rodriguez. Some might moan that this is color-blind casting, but honestly there has been little sign in the series for Will to even say that he comes from a Latino background. For all we know, he may have them from his father’s side of the family; in one novel we learned Will’s mother was a prostitute.
Angie Pulaski is part of Will’s life in the novels too. It may overjoy some viewers to know that eventually Will and Angie do get married. It will disappoint those same viewers to know they can’t make it work, and that by the end of the most recent book they’ve been divorced and he has no idea where to find here. I admit I am saddened by this, in part because I have loved Erika Christensen’s work as Angie, and have loved her chemistry with Rodriguez in every scene there in. But even in the second part of the Pilot, Angie and Will both acknowledged that they had the habit of bringing out the worst in each other. And we have already seen just how self-destructive Angie can be in the last few episodes of the series.
In Slaughter’s most recent Will Trent novel The Silent Wife, Will is still recovering from the emotional scarring of their relationship. It is clear the sex between the two of them could be rough and that Angie never let him in as much as he needed too. Angie and Will may be soul mates in spirit but they are also clearly damage each other.
Fortunately in several of the novels I’ve read Slaughter has provided another love for Trent: medical examiner Sara Linton. Sara and Will met in a series of investigations not long after her first husband died and she has her own emotional scars. (These I will not reveal because you should find out for yourself.) But its clear this relationship, while rocky, is far healthier for Will than the one with Angie ever was. If the writers of Will Trent do intend to follow the basic outlines of Slaughter’s books when it comes to characters, they could do far worse than introduce Sara Linton to that world.
The two other major characters in the series are also central to Slaughter’s books. Faith Mitchell is pretty much the same person in both series: she is the reluctant partner to Will Trent, far blunter than he is to everything and abrasive to just about everyone she meets. She got pregnant at fifteen (and in later books, has another child) and is currently suffering from diabetes. There are two major differences: in the novels, Faith is white and as far as we know as no familial connection to Amanda Wagner.
Again I don’t care about color-blind casting as long as the actor is perfect and I can’t see anyone other than Ianthe Richardson playing Faith. I don’t know if Amanda Wagner is African-American either, but honestly even if she were white there is no one other than Sonja Sohn that I can see playing Amanda, who is every bit as off-putting and ball-busting in the books I’ve read than as Sohn plays her on TV. Hell, the only white women I could possibly seeing as doing a good job as Sohn would be either Ellen Barkin or Melissa Leo, both of whom played remarkable lady bosses in Animal Kingdom and I’m Dying Out Here, respectively.
But honestly, its more appropriate for it to be Sohn. You can see that this Amanda is someone who Detective Greggs might well have turned out to be has she managed to climb the ladder at Baltimore PD. (Unlikely given what we learned on The Wire.) Just like Greggs, Amanda Wagner is a woman who takes no prisoners or BS and has no F’s to give, not even for her family. I loved a moment in a recent episode where her sister (who she helped drum out of the department) tells her that she’s been getting the name of her assistant wrong for the last five years. When she asks Will to confirm this, she then asks why no one’s told her, and he simply says: “Because everyone’s terrified of you.” This is the kind of role perfect for the woman who played a detective trying to bring down Stringer Bell.
In an earlier era Will Trent would be the kind of series that got Emmy nominations for its cast and the show itself. Hell, if Will Trent had been adapted for AMC or streaming, it almost certainly would be a contender this year. But let’s be clear: Will Trent is the kind of show that, like its gangly title character, stands out on network TV and would be lost in ‘the system’ that is cable and streaming. Network television needs more shows like Will Trent than it does revivals of Law and Order and CSI. But since the latter aren’t going anywhere, I’ll settle for Will Trent settling in for a comfortable run at ABC. It’s not like there isn’t enough source material for the show to go on as long as the network allows it too.