Baring the Bones of Temperance Brennan



Kathy Reichs is an academic, a forensic anthropologist, and author of eighteen novels, who is particularly known for a best-selling crime series that follows the career and exploits of fictional heroine, Dr. Temperance Brennan. The novels were turned into a crime drama on television called Bones, but the changes are significant: in the books, Brennan is an anthropologist who assists authorities in Montreal and North Carolina with criminal investigations. But on screen, in addition to her skills as a anthropologist she is also a best-selling author and assists the FBI.

In the process of adapting the books to the silver screen, certain creative liberties have been taken with the character of Temperance Brennan. The result is two completely different women who just happen to share the same career and name.

On Kathy Reichs’ official website, the Dr Brennan of the television series is described as having just “a sprinkling” of Dr. Brennan from the books. Kathy Reichs said it was important for the heroine of the series to differ from the character in the books: “If the two were identical, how would that impact future novels?”

Let’s get to the bones of it all: who is Temperance Brennan? To avoid confusion, the literary figure will from this point onwards be referred to as “Brennan” while the character played by Emily Deschanel will be referred to as “Bones.”

Déjà Dead, Kathy Reichs’ first novel, is written in first-person narrative from the view of Brennan. She describes herself as “a woman whose moods are influenced by the weather, my outlook rising and falling with the barometer,” and the reader soon agrees. Reading Déjà Dead, it is clear that she is an unhappy, perhaps even depressed, person. She is a workaholic and a perfectionist who prefers to work alone. Her only company at work are corpses and the only warm body at home is Birdie, her frequently neglected cat.

In Brennan’s line of work, when you are surrounded by so much death it’s normal to be disappointed with the monotony of life. Still, you can’t help but notice that she is particularly down and self-deprecating most of the time.

Whether or not it was a deliberate reflection of her first name, Brennan is quite temperamental, particularly when she feels dismissed, underestimated or undermined. As she arrives at the first crime scene of the book she interprets a waiting police officer’s sullen face as disappointment in her own appearance: “My appearance was not convincing… faded brown jeans, a denim short, sleeves rolled to the elbows, Topsiders, no socks. Most of my hair was bound up in a barrette. The rest, having fought against gravity and lost, spiralled limply around my face and down my neck… I must have looked more like a middle-aged mother forced to abandon a wallpaper project than a forensic anthropologist.”

There are hints that her demanding job is a welcome distraction from the rest of the world, which prevents her from dwelling on painful memories and allows her to push away anyone that might come too close. Scant details of Brennan’s personal life are littered occasionally through the novels, through internal monologues or conversations with guest characters. In Déjà Dead this character is Gabby, her close friend from grad school. One thing that is quickly divulged is that Brennan, who is in her 40’s, is a divorcee with a grown-up daughter. “At first I’d wondered if I’d like living by myself. I’d never done it. I’d gone from home to college to marriage with Pete, raising Katy, never the mistress of my own abode.”

There are also hints that Brennan may have played a key role in her own isolation. Although she hasn’t had a drink in 6 years, Brennan is very open in her narrations that she is an alcoholic. Red wine, she reveals, is her “weapon of choice.” She is flawed but this makes her interesting and believable. Through first-person narrative, we are able to see all of Brennan, warts and all. She is passionate about her job and apologetic about her faults and the reader comes to like her, and cheer for her, despite them.

By contrast, the opening scene of Bones has her arrive on a plane from Guatemala, fresh from “diving headfirst in a pit of cadavers.” Bones is a kickass character that is also a little rough around the edges—within moments she takes down a heavy-set guy from homeland security that is suspicious of the human skull in her carry-on luggage (she is trained in three types of martial arts).

The premise of the series is that Bones’ workplace, the Jeffersonian Institute, has begun working closely with the FBI to solve criminal cases. Bones is teamed up with Homicide Detective Seeley Booth. It doesn’t take her long to get a taste of life outside of the lab, and she becomes desperate to prove her worth as an investigator as well as a forensic anthropologist.

The show is beautifully shot, with a majority of the scenes set amongst the silvery, scaffold-like surrounds of the labs. Bones is in her element in this environment—she is abrupt, brash and respected by the team of scientists she works with. Outside the lab, she is a duck out of water; she is awkward, emotionally distant, and finds it hard to relate to people that haven’t memorized the same textbooks. In addition to her difficulties relating with people on a personal level, Bones also has difficulty communicating; she often misunderstands pop culture references, misinterprets sarcasm, and takes metaphors too literally.

Bones is in her 30’s, lives alone, hasn’t been married and aside from the occasional hook up and her ever-present chemistry with Booth, she is perennially single.

It is soon revealed that Bones only seems cold and distant because she is not accustomed to giving of herself in any personal way. Her parents vanished when she was young and her life in the foster care system was not conducive to developing a real understanding of interpersonal relations.

Whether on the page or the screen, Temperance Brennan is a strong, attractive, fiercely independent, intelligent woman. She certainly has her share of faults, but she also commands her share of respect. Is she an ideal role model for young women? Not quite sure. Should she be admired? Definitely. ■



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