In well-written crime fiction, readers develop very clear mental pictures of what the characters are like. That can include their physical appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns and lots more. And that’s what can make it very difficult to bring a sleuth to television or films. Crime fiction fans want their favourite sleuths brought faithfully to the screen; after all, that’s often why they see films or television series featuring those sleuths. At the same time, film and television are different media from the printed word. For instance, if a “bankable” star portrays a sleuth, film-makers and television producers often find that more people tune in or go to see the film. And some things translate to the visual better than others. So bringing a sleuth to the screen is not easy. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, though; as we all know, there’ve been lots of films and television shows based on crime fiction novels. They’re not all very high-quality, but it’s really interesting to see how film and television producers and directors conceive of some popular sleuths.
For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed by many different actors as diverse as Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch. Conan Doyle describes Holmes as
“… rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.”
Although Holmes has a distinctive appearance, it’s really his manner and habits that make him unique. Feel free to differ with me if you do, but Jeremy Brett was especially skilled at bringing that character to life.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has an even more distinctive appearance, as we read in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Here’s how Captain Arthur Hastings describes his friend:
“He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible.”
In other stories we learn that Poirot has “suspiciously black hair” despite being no longer young. Because of Poirot’s distinctive appearance, it would be hard to imagine him, for instance, as a tall man with blond hair and no moustache, so there are some limits as to the kind of actor who could faithfully portray him. And yet, several actors, including Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney, have portrayed him. For me (so feel free to disagree if you do), David Suchet is Poirot. I even forgive the differences (most of the time ) between Christie’s novels and the filmed stories if Suchet is in the lead role.
Christie’s Miss Marple is described in slightly less specific detail, and lots of different actors have portrayed her. For example, Geraldine McEwan, Angela Lansbury and Margaret Rutherford have taken that role. Who do you “see” as Miss Marple? For me, it’s Joan Hickson. But that’s just my view…
For many people (including, so it is said), Colin Dexter himself, John Thaw was Inspector Morse. The two became much more closely associated than actors and their roles often are. In fact, Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours actually started life as a televised episode of the Morse Series, The Wolvercote Tongue. The final Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, was brought to television just a couple of years before Thaw’s own tragic death from cancer. It’s said that Dexter has determined that no other actor will reprise the Morse role. I can see why.
Sara Paretsky’s Chicago private investigator V.I. Warshawski is a fit, athletic character with wavy brunette hair. Not much is made of her physical appearance, but she’s a tough yet feminine sleuth. It’s hard to get that balance on film, but in Jeff Kanew’s 1991 film V.I. Warshawski, Kathleen Turner took the role. If you’re a Warshawski fan who saw the film, what do you think of her performance? Did you believe her in the role? I must confess I wouldn’t have thought of that casting, and it was hard for me to “buy” Turner as Warshawski, much as I respect Kathleen Turner as an actress. But perhaps that’s just me…
There’ve been at least two major portrayals of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. In the Swedish series, Krister Henriksson took the title role. In the British series, Wallander was played by Kenneth Branagh. What do you think of these actors in that role? What about Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara in the role of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander? For me (again, just my opinion, so nothing’s to say I’m right), Noomi Rapace does a highly effective job at making me believe her as Lisbeth Salander. So does Krister Henriksson as Wallander. Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed Jill Scott as Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe.
It’s very likely that Tom Cruise will take the role of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher in an upcoming film. Do you see him in that role? What about Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum in the upcoming filmed version of Stephanie Evanovich’s One For the Money?
The thing about well-written sleuths is that we almost feel that they’re real people – or could be. That means that we notice it when an actor doesn’t portray those characters faithfully. We also get drawn into the film or television production when an actor does “become” that sleuth. What about you? Which actors have done the best jobs of “becoming” your favourite sleuths? Which of your favourite sleuths would you like to see on film? Who’d play their roles? If you’re a writer, who would you want to play your sleuth(s)?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s TV Movie.