All I Need is a TV Show*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Erle Stanley Gardner, Peter Temple

24 responses to “All I Need is a TV Show*

  1. Can’t wait to see the Louise Penny series. I have good vibs about it.

  2. I totally agree about the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes. Definitely the truest Holmes and depiction of the stories.

    The later stories were changed because they didn’t have enough material to fill an hour-long show, but the changes were always true to the spirit of the show.

    I watch ELEMENTARY, but I ignore the Holmes element of the story because only the names, not the spirit of the stories, is there.

    • Marilynn – You put that very well about the later Jeremy Brett Holmes stories. Even when things were added, etc.., the show stayed very true to the original stories. I’ve heard that Conan Doyle’s family was involved in that production, ‘though I don’t know if that’s true and if so, to what extent. Still it makes sense that they were given the quality of the show.
      And honestly, I think people who enjoy Elementary like it on its own terms, not because of any resemblance to the stories.

  3. Now that I am proud of, a bit of blog cross-ruffing – yay I say! The Montalbano series is unusual in that the author has worked on many of the scripts while the Morse books were later amended in part to reflect the show by changing the Inspector’s car on TV – and I think Ruth Rendell said that once George Baker started playing Wexford she couldn’t see anybody else in her mind when writing about him anew. I think it is absolutely right to question WHY changes are made as often they are for poor reasons that reflect badly on the producer’s view of the audience – the new ELEMENTARY show is something I am curious about but I think part of the success of the BBC’s new SHERLOCK is that the affection for, and devotion to, the original Doyle stories is never, ever in doubt. That does not seem to be the vibe emitted by ELEMENTARY …

    • Sergio – Oh, my pleasure. And yes, you make a well-taken point about the way the Montalbano show has been written. That’s undoubtedly a good bit of the reason for which it’s so close to the novels in look, ‘feel’ and characters. And I don’t blame Ruth Rendell for saying what she said about Baker – a great choice for Wexford. You’re right too that all too often, changes are not made for reasons that add to the story. They are either made as you say because that’s the producer’s view of what’ll sell, or for some other reason not related at all to the quality of the story. But I admit to being a bit of a fussbudget about that. You also make a really interesting point about the difference between Sherlock and Elementary. The former is clearly inspired by and devoted to the original stories. Of the latter I’m not sure, to be honest.

      • I do look forward to finally getting a glimpse of ELEMENTARY – I do like the actors which is half the battle – of course, many things are only half the battle … Also, to pick up on another point, I love Peter Ustinov as Poirot but there is no doubt that Suchet’s is much more faithful to the character created by Christie.I’m grateful that we are in the position of being able to chose. However, the updated adaptation of ORIENT EXPRESS with Alfred Molina was unspeakably awful – even gave Poirot a belly dancer girlfriend!

        • Sergio – I have to say that I didn’t see the Alfred Molina version of Murder on the Orient Express. And your comment about it just reinforces what a wise decision that was on my part. I mean really – a belly dancer? Really? OK, rant over. You’re right that it is very nice that we can choose which Poirot we’ll watch – that’s a good thing. Now for my money it’s Suchet but you’re not alone in liking Ustinov in the role. And I will be very interested to see what you think of Elementary if you see it.

  4. I saw the TV show before I read the books, so of course, David Suchet IS Poirot for me. Even now, if I shut my eyes, and picture him, it is that flesh and blood character that I see (as opposed to seeing a watercolour portrait of Miss Marple).
    Ditto, Peter Whimsey- I loved the TV series when I was a teen, but started reading the books only a quarter century later. “Murder She Wrote” was another TV series I loved, but since I haven’t got down to reading the books, can’t comment on the adaptation.
    Holmes, is a different kettle of fish. I loved the stories, before I saw the TV series. But strangely, Jermey Brett WAS him. Rarely happens, but the moment I set eyes on JB, I knew he was Holmes.

    As for adaptations in general, I like them to be either absolutely true to the original (which is always hard, because when you read a book, you picture it YOUR WAY). But, I am sure I would also like something like Elementary, which takes the essential elements and plays with them openly. Joan Watson can never be John Watson, so it would be fun to watch something that seems totally new, but is actually just a twist on the old – not being too articulate, but I know exactly what I mean.

    • Natasha – Oh, I agree about David Suchet. He is Poirot to me too although I read the books before seeing the television films. And it’s interesting you had the same feeling about Jeremy Brett even after having read the books first. I did too actually; as soon as I saw him I knew too that he was Holmes. Some actors are just born for their parts I guess you could say.
      I’ve seen the TV show Murder She Wrote too but like you, I’ve not read the books that were based on that series, so I don’t know if they’re well-written. It’s interesting that this is one of those cases where the television series came before the books.
      And I know what you mean about Elementary. You’re not the only one either. A series can be worth watching even if it’s not at all the same as the original books (except for the names). When that happens, if it’s a very, very good series, I often think it’s best to take it on its own merits instead of compare it to the original.

      • Have you read Jasper Fford, Margot? He takes popular fictional characters and weaves crazy stories with them. That’s what I was subconsciously thinking of when I read about Elementary.

        • Natasha – I’ve only read a bit of Fford, but now you mention his name, you’re right that he has that way of creating some pretty wild stories. Thanks for reminding me of his work.

  5. Margot: David Suchet’s refined tones are the voice of Poirot in my head.

    I liked A & E’s Nero Wolfe shows. Maury Chaykin was suitably brilliant, bombastic and irascible. His girth was also Wolfesque.

    On the other hand, I was never more upset with adaptions than the T.V. movies of Gail Bowen’s books that moved the settings from Saskatchewan to Toronto or generic Ontario. I did not finish watching the first adaption and have refused to watch the others!

    • Bill – Thanks for mentioning the Nero Wolfe series, which I neglected to put into this post. I liked Chaykin in the part myself, and the stories are well-crafted.
      Thanks too for your comments about the adaptation of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. I’ll admit I haven’t seen them, although I heard they were available. I think now I won’t bother. Bowen’s stories are uniquely Saskatchewan. They belong there. I can see why you decided not to continue watching.

  6. I’m watching the Montalbano series at the moment and enjoying it very much but interestingly I don’t know the books that well so I’m really seeing the character through the eyes of the TV.
    I like David Suchet was Poirot but the departure from some of the books make me turn off the TV sometimes. ‘Cat Among the Pigeons’ was a travesty of the original plot. I loved Miss Marple starring Joan Hickson and for me, she was Miss Marple. i thought the TV series of Morse was better than the books and I think Colin Dexter wrote his later novels with John Thaw in mind.
    Can I mention Alec Guiness as George Smiley………

    • Sarah – Oh, that is interesting that you’re discovering Montalbano on TV first really. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. I like it myself very much.
      And I don’t blame you for your feeling about some of the TV versions of the Poirot series. I agree completely about Cat Among the Pigeons and I felt much the same way about a few other episodes too. And yet, Suchet really is Poirot for me. And yes, I loved Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Other people prefer other actresses in that role but for my money it’s Joan Hickson. You’ve reminded me that it’s been too long since I saw those stories…
      I’ve heard too that Colin Dexter wrote his later mysteries with Thaw in mind and I don’t blame him. Master casting if you ask me. I read the books before seeing the adaptation, so I have a fondness for them, but I can see why you like the TV series better.
      And you are welcome to mention Alec Guiness as George Smiley – again, excellent casting. He captured the character quite effectively I think.

  7. Thanks for the kind shout-out Margot – I have finally been able to unpack all my books and DVDs so hope to do more regular posts for Books vs Adaptations. It’s a subject that usually gets lots of discussion going.

    I’ve yet to see any of the Montalbano movies but I did acquire the first couple on DVD so will look forward to them.

    I think my least favourite kind of adaptation is where they haven’t really been faithful to the source material but neither have they deliberately made changes for story telling purposes or to account for the different medium – the ones where they seem to have said “near enough will do”. The example that springs to mind is the Inspector Lynley series based on Elizabeth George’s novels. The characters are all wrong, the changes in the stories are arbitrary and they are a lot sillier than they ought to be.

    I don’t mind an adaptation that takes one or two elements from the source material and does something very different with it – e.g. the modern Sherlock (though I’ve not seen Elementary but quite like the new English series and even the recent movies)

    • Bernadette – Oh, my pleasure. I hope too that you’ll be adding to your Book vs Adaptation posts. Mostly though, I’m glad you’re unpacked and settling in. Moving house is always a major, major project and really exhausting.
      I hope you’ll like the Montalbano series. My personal feeling is that they’re quite nicely done and fairly faithful to the original. And I have to admit, I absolutely love the scenery in the television series. One really gets a sense of the beautiful location.
      And I know just what you mean about adaptations that make changes for no purpose. To me it sometimes seems that whoever’s doing the adaptation has never read the books and doesn’t even know what the essence of them is, let along portray that essence with any kind of accuracy. Harrumph! I’ve only seen one or two of the Inspector Lynley series. That was enough, to give you my honest opinion…
      As for Sherlock, I like that series myself. As you say, the folks who made the series have done some different and very interesting things with the stories and I do like Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Holmes. I think what I like about the series is that although it’s set in the modern era and all that, there is obvious respect for the original stories. It’s a creative way to pay tribute to them.
      I’ll be really interested to see what you think of Elementary if you get the chance to see it.

  8. “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.” That’s me! For instance, I can never accept Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in Spiderman because he doesn’t look anything like him in the comic-books. Likewise, of all the characters who played Bruce Wayne/Batman, the one who resembled the orphaned billionaire the most was Val Kilmer. Not George Clooney, not Christian Bale, and definitely not Michael Keaton. On the other hand, Christopher Reeve looked as if the role of Clark Kent/Superman was tailor-made for him. It’s amazing how each of us see these things in different light.

    • Prashant – Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more about both Christopher Reeve and Val Kilmer. Both of those actors really brought their characters to vivid life I think. I will confess I’ve not seen the Spiderman movies, but I know exactly what you mean about wanting a character to look and behave like the orignal character. That’s why I so much like David Suchet as Poirot and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, among others. They really capture the characters so very brilliantly.

  9. I like the television series that debute this year based on Craig Johnson’s novels. I this the Walt Longmire part is well-played, although I had a different picture in my mind for him as well as for his tough-talking female deputy Vic.

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