Capitalism, Money, and the Sookie Stackhouse Novels

17 Jul

I have written a previous post that mentions the Sookie Stackhouse novels, by Charlaine Harris. Well, the post does more than mention the novels. I actually devote a paragraph-long footnote defending my assertion that characters in the HBO series True Blood are more complex than  their Sookie Stackhouse novel namesakes.

As I said in February, the main exception to the TV Complexity Rule is Sookie’s character. Alan Ball explains why Sookie is more complex in the novels in an HBO sneak preview for season five, saying that the reasons are mostly logistical. The books are entirely narrated from Sookies perspective, but if the TV show tried to replicate this Anna Paquin wouldn’t ever get a chance to rest. By foregrounding other characters and adding subplots, the actress that plays Sookie has time to sleep. I think we can all agree that this is important.

However, one of the things that disappears when we lose Sookie’s narration is her concern with money.

I find Sookie’s interest in money to be one of the most fascinating, most humanizing, and most interesting things about her. In the novels, Sookie Stackhouse is very aware that she did not go to college, she’s a waitress, and she can’t always afford to make payments on things. Her character is loaded with the concerns and insecurities that these facts entail.

In the first novel in the series, Dead Until Dark, characters mention money 27 times. In fact, money is a major plot issue. Sookie is called into Eric’s bar to solve a theft, much like in the HBO series. Long Shadow, whom Eric and Pam knew for a hundred years, stole $60,000 from Fangtasia. Sookie observes that, “Sixty thousand dollars ins’t a lot of money to a vampire, surely. You all seem to have plenty of money” (233). Bill then spends a whole page describing how vampires earn or steal money, and what they do with money once they have it.

S00kie is always aware of money, who has it, and who doesn’t. When her brother mentions that he needed to replace the water heater, Sookie asks if he needs any money for it. She notes that though both she and Jason have jobs, the jobs aren’t enough. They rely on some investments their parents made years ago– money which eventually runs out by book 3. Sookie says:

“I don’t know how Gran could have raised us, if it weren’t for that money. She was determined not to sell any land, but her own income is not much more than social security.* That’s one reason I don’t get an apartment. If I get groceries when I’m living with her, that’s reasonable, to her; but if I buy groceries and bring them to her house and leave them on her table and then go home to my house, that’s charity and that makes her mad” (21).

The line between charity and payment for services is a huge issue in the novels, further emphasizing Sookie’s Southern belle values. After Gran dies and Sookie takes on paying land taxes and maintenance costs, she struggles to keep the property. She starts bargaining to be paid when vampires request her mind reading services– and not just for power. She really needs the money.

A constant point of tension in book 3, Club Dead, is Sookie’s driveway. She can’t afford to re-gravel it, and she thinks about it often throughout the novel. She orders gravel, then cancels it because she can’t afford it. Then every time she drives up the driveway she thinks about it. Finally Sookie bursts when Eric asks:

“Why the hell don’t you get your driveway fixed?”

“Because I can’t afford it, that’s why! I don’t have any money! And you all keep asking me to take time off my job to do stuff for you! I can’t! I can’t do it anymore!”

“Bill…” Eric began cautiously . . .

“He’s spending all his money on the freaking Bellefleurs . . . He never thinks about giving me money. And how could I take it? It would make me a kept woman, and I’m not his whore . . .

“What happened to the money you earned in Dallas?” Eric asked . . .

“I paid my property taxes with it.”

Sookie draws a distinct line between asking for money (charity) and receiving gifts or earning money. If Bill gives money to the Bellefleurs, that’s fine. But she can’t ask for money (and neither would the Bellefleurs, for that matter). It grates on her that Bill sees the Bellefleurs struggling and helps them, but doesn’t notice that she’s also struggling. When Eric silently hires men to fix her driveway, Sookie doesn’t protest.

And Sookie isn’t the only person concerned with money in the novels. Finance seems to be a running theme in Sookie’s world. Eric is very protective of his business, and one of Sookie’s major concerns is that Eric protects himself and his interests above all else. Pam moves to Louisiana to help Eric with his new business venture, and when the new king wants to hurt Eric, he attacks Eric’s financial interests by opening a bar down the road.

In the HBO series we see a little of this capitalism, with vampire blood dealers and stake shops dedicated to selling vampire killing weapons, but the book offers a more nuanced, rich picture of the world with vampires. There are several brands of blood, of which TrueBlood is only one. Many bars provide real bottled blood, donated willingly by humans (who get paid for their services). The wealthiest vampires drink the bottled blood of royalty. Hotels open that cater solely to vampires, and special planes cart vampires around in coffins. Eric has a day manager that handles his affairs during the day, a supe cleaning service, and a fancy safe house. He and Pam do not sleep in the basement of Fangtasia. Even the fairies have a special lawyer for passing along assets and managing affairs.

The point is, in the novels everyone wants something. Everyone has real material concerns that factor into their decisions. When Claude moves from his supernatural strip club to Sookie’s home, she is immediately suspicious of her cousins motives. It does turn out that Claude senses (and wants) a jeweled item that can open faerieworld. Sookie must be extra careful to never say “Thank you” to Claude (or any fairy)– the phrase is taken as an admission that the speaker owes something and will eventually repay.

The TV show takes pains to hide these realities. Characters take off work without a second thought, and when Sookie is fired she is less upset about money and finding a job than Sam being mad at her. Even Sam has wads of cash in his safe. The only character really concerned with money, Layfayette, seems to lose that drive for capitalism after the first season. Although the panther pack is shown as being poor, there’s not a whole lot of information about  how they’ll survive.

Admittedly, TrueBlood exists for entertainment, and worldly material concerns like food, clothes, and money are often hidden to complete the fantasy. But I can’t help but wonder if the show would be stronger and more grounded if characters did worry about where their next paycheck was coming from.

Notes:

*Keeping land seems to be another theme in the novels that is less prominent in the HBO show. Many of the Southern characters in the novel lack money but are proud of their heritages, and the houses that come with that heritage. Selling simply isn’t an option. I have to wonder how novel-Sookie would have reacted if Eric would have bought her house, as he does in the HBO series.

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