An interesting post from Sergio at Tipping My Fedora has got me thinking about happens when fictional characters are brought to television and film. Most people will say that because film is a different medium, stories and characters have to be adapted and that means there have to be differences between the original story and the television or film version. And that makes sense. Film of any kind has a visual impact and sometimes an audible one and that’s bound to affect the way one experiences a story. But what happens when a character (especially the protagonist) is substantially changed in a film or television adaptation? What happens when other characters are eliminated or changed, or when events happen very differently in the adaptation? Some folks are purists; they like their adaptations to be as similar to the book as possible and they get very cranky if the adaptation isn’t pretty nearly identical to the original. Other folks see it as a matter of telling two different stories. There doesn’t need to be much similarity between the book and the adaptation because it’s like the proverbial apples/oranges comparison. Others would rather watch made-for-television series than adapted series because of the frequent differences between the two. For still others, certain differences are fine but others aren’t. There are far too many adaptations out there for me to mention them all, so I probably won’t mention the ones you like the best. But here are a few examples to show what I mean.
There’ve been many, many adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The television series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and (for much of the series) Edward Hardwicke as Watson is usually regarded as the most faithful to the original stories. There were some changes in plot points and some of the characters, especially in the series’ later years. But in general, the context, the major characters and so on are very much taken from the stories.
That hasn’t been the case with all of the Holmes screen adaptations. There’s now even an American series called Elementary in which a modern-day Holmes moves to Brooklyn after a stint in a drug rehabilitation program. His associate in this series is Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon who lost her license and has been hired to be Holmes’ sober live-in companion who’s there to help make sure he stays drug-free. Speaking for myself, I think Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is the closest I’ve seen to what the books portray and to be honest, I like that. But many, many people like to have those classic stories updated; hence the positive reviews for the modern-day series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. For those folks, the fact that the series is well-planned, well-acted and so on matters more than does the fact that it’s not completely faithful to the original. And they like the modern-day feel of the series.
Sergio’s post focuses on another classic fictional sleuth Perry Mason. Among other things, he makes the point that the literary Mason comes across as somewhat hardboiled and even a little scruffy at times. The filmed Mason though is almost dapper in his bearing and less hard-edged. I’ve noticed that about the U.S. series featuring Raymond Burr too. One thing the television series and the novels share is an emphasis on Mason’s courtroom skills. He knows the law very, very well and that comes through in both the original stories and the television series. I’m less familiar with the films than Sergio is, so I will defer to his judgement that the courtroom aspect of Mason’s work is less a factor in the films. Many people prefer less emphasis on courtroom scenes and the twists and turns of the law, as they’re more interested in other aspects of Mason’s way of solving cases. And their vision of what a lawyer ought to be is less hardboiled than we see in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels. But others like those courtroom scenes and find the legal aspects of Mason’s cases to be really interesting.
And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Again, there’ve been lots of adaptations of the Poirot stories, so space won’t permit me to mention all of them. The Poirot series starring David Suchet in the title role is, in some cases, fairly close to the original stories. And in my opinion (so please feel free to disagree with me if you do), Suchet is Poirot in terms of mannerisms, outlook, bearing and so on. But in several of the stories there are major departures from the original books. For instance After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) tells the story of the Abernethie family and what happens when patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. Shortly after that death, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora is murdered. The television adaptation of this novel portrays the Abernethie family very differently from what we see in the novel. Several of the characters have different relationships to each other and their personalities are also quite different. There are several differences in plot points too. If you’ve watched Poirot episodes then you could probably name lots of other examples of that sort of departure from the original. For some people that’s not a problem; they like Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot and the differences in character, plot and so on don’t bother them so long as the story is engaging. For other people the stories stray very much too far from the original and lose what to them are essential parts of the story.
Colin Dexter was closely involved with the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television, so it makes sense that those episodes capture the essence of his novels and (again, this is just my opinion) John Thaw was Inspector Morse. In fact, Dexter fans will know that The Jewel That Was Ours was actually a book adaptation of the Morse episode called The Wolvercote Tongue. In that series, there are some departures from the original novels, but arguably fewer than there are in series where the author isn’t as closely involved in the creation of the television adaptation.
There’ve been several more recent adaptations of novels and series. For instance, Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series has been brought to television and features Guy Pearce in the leading role. I admit I’ve not watched that yet as it’s not (yet) available where I live. But sources I trust tell me that it’s a faithful adaptation and captures what makes the print series so well-regarded. I very much look forward to seeing this if/when I can.
Another more recent series based on novels (at least, recent for English-speaking audiences) is Montalbano, which is based on Andrea Camilleri’s highly-regarded series. That television adaptation stays quite true to the original stories, although there are of course some differences. The characters of Salvo Montalbano, Sergeant Catarella and Livia Burlando, among others, are very much the characters depicted in the novels. And those for whom the Sicilian setting is a major attraction may particularly enjoy the adaptation because the series is filmed in Sicily so the physical setting is a major part of it.
There’s also Vera, the adaptation of Ann Cleeves’ well-regarded series featuring Yorkshire DCI Vera Stanhope. This series features Brenda Blethyn, and (here we go with my opinion again…), she captures the Vera Stanhope character quite authentically. In fact, Cleeves has said she’s delighted with Blethyn as Stanhope, so in the sense of protagonist, this series is quite faithful to the novels. The stories are filmed in Northumberland so readers who enjoy the novels’ sense of place get the added benefit of seeing the physical setting of the stories in the adaptation. There are differences in the storyline of the adaptations, but they don’t depart really significantly from the novels.
There’ve been lots of other adaptations that space doesn’t permit me to discuss here (I know, I know, fans of Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders…). Some are very faithful to the original novels; some are not. Does it matter to you whether a series is faithful to its source? How much does a series have to depart from the novel before it’s too much for you? If you’re a writer, what’s your take on this? Would you want your stories meticulously adapted? Or do you see a lot of room for flexibility?
Want more on this topic of adapting novels? Sure ya do! Please check out Book vs Adaptation, a really interesting feature by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Want more about crime fiction films? Check out Sergio’s Tipping My Fedora.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Turn it on Again.