You Ought to be in Pictures*

TV and Film AdaptationsIt’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction fans also watch film and TV adaptations of series and novels they like. Film allows for all sorts of visual impact that’s harder to communicate in print. Even something as simple as a facial expression can mean a great deal, and it can be very powerful to communicate that meaning through the visual media.

But books often have background information, psychological details and so on that aren’t so easily portrayed on screen. And print and film are simply different media for communicating stories. So those who adapt novels and stories for the screen often have to make some changes.

And there, as the Shakespeare quote goes, is the rub. Film makers (whether for the big or small screen) have a few options. For instance, they can be completely faithful to the printed story in all ways. But that may mean a film that moves too slowly in some parts, or in other ways is a bit clumsy (because of the differences in media). They can make some changes, so as to make the story a better fit for film. That, of course, means that the adaptation is no longer as true to the book. A third option is that film makers can create an entirely new story, but using the original characters. This frees them from the confines of the original story, but can upset dedicated fans of the novel or series. Or, they can make some big changes, but keep some elements of the original story. For instance, one big difference between Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series and the television adaptation of it is its location. The book series takes place in Saskatchewan, but the TV films take place in Ontario. What’s more, in the book series, Kilbourn is a political scientist and academician. In the TV series, she’s a former cop. All of these options have both negative and positive consequences.

Speaking as a card-carrying, cranky, fussy purist dedicated reader, my preference is for adaptations that stay more or less true to the original story. That’s why, for instance, I very much liked Granada Television’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with Jeremy Brett in the lead role. Some details of those stories were changed for film, but the basic plots, characters and so on reflect the original adventures. And to me, at least, Brett was Holmes.

There’ve been many, many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work; some are more faithful than others to the original. And it’s interesting to think about the kinds of changes that have been made. For instance, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney takes the role of Hercule Poirot here) was well-received. Even Christie herself, who in general didn’t care much for adaptations of her work, gave her rather reluctant appreciation for this one. And yet, there are some (to me, anyway) important differences between this film and the novel. To give just a few examples, in the novel, one of the passengers on this fabled train ride is a rather frumpy, middle-aged American matron named Mrs. Hubbard. In the film, her character (Lauren Bacall had this role) is much more sophisticated and stylish; other elements of her backstory are changed as well. And some of the other characters’ names and even elements of their personalities have been changed from the original story. As fellow passenger Mary Debenham, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave is more flirtatious and less aloof than the character is in the novel. And the murder victim’s valet (played in the film by Sir John Gielgud) is called Masterman in the novel, but Beddoes in the film. Did those changes make the film better than it would have been if it were exactly faithful to the novel? That’s a matter of taste, of course.

W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which features PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, is in some ways quite true to the original novel. A lot of the elements of the plot are the same, and most of the characters as well. But the film has a much lighter touch than the novel does. And interestingly enough, the film was so well-received that several more Thin Man films followed, although Hammett himself only wrote one novel about Nick and Nora Charles. Many people feel that the comedic elements in the film were positive changes; certainly they were popular with filmgoers.

One possible reason for which the Thin Man franchise has been so well-liked is that Hammett himself played a key role in the films’ production. I don’t have research data to support myself here, but I think there’s an argument that film and TV adaptations of novels benefit greatly from the original author’s input. When the original author is heavily involved in decisions such as screenplay, cast choices, and the like, the adaptation is more likely to reflect that author’s intent. So even if there are some differences between the screen version of a story and the print version, the soul of the story is there.

For instance, Kerry Greenwood insisted on being deeply involved in the production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a series based on her Phryne Fisher novels. Here’s what she says:


‘So when I was asked to SELL her [Phryne Fisher] to the film people, I was firm. I had to choose the Phryne, I had to vet all the scripts, otherwise, no deal.’


That decision has proved to be a wise one. The television series, with Essie Davis in the title role, has been very successful (a third series is about to start soon!).

Fans of Colin Dexter’s work will know that he was very much involved in the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television. In fact, he based one of his novels (The Jewel That Was Ours) on an episode of the series, rather than the other way round, as is more usual. And Dexter has it written into his will that no actor other than the late John Thaw will be permitted to take the role of Morse. The only reason he’s consented to having Shaun Evans as Morse in the Endeavor series is that that character doesn’t compete with Morse as he (Dexter) wrote the character – older and (hopefully) more mature. Take it if you will as just my opinion, but that’s part of the reason that the Inspector Morse series was so well-made. John Thaw really was Inspector Morse, at least to me.

Ann Cleeves is less involved with Vera, the television series that features her DCI Vera Stanhope. But she is involved with the script writers, and,


‘I take the production team out to all the sites in Northumberland so they can see it for themselves.’


She also says that she has a good relationship with Brenda Blethyn, who has the title role.

And then there’s RAI’s Montalbano, based on Andrea Camilleri’s work, and starring Luca Zingaretti in the title role. Camilleri actually worked for RAI for several years, and has writing credits for 18 of the television episodes. And in an interesting twist, in Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano and his long-time lover Livia have a disagreement about where to go for a getaway trip. Montalbano doesn’t fall in with Livia’s ideas because,


‘‘They film them around there, you know….And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me?…What’s his name – Zingarelli.’
‘His name’s Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know.’’


Again, this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. But I think the series benefits a lot from Camilleri’s close involvement.

Space only allows me to mention a few of these adaptations (I know, I know, fans of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as, respectively, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin). There are a lot of others.

What do you think of all of this? Is it important to you that the series be very faithful to the original? Are you willing to ‘buy’ certain differences? If you’re a writer, which aspects of your story would you hold out for if it were filmed? Which would you be willing to give up?

ps. Want to read more about film and TV adaptations? Do visit Tipping My Fedora. It’s an excellent blog, and Sergio knows more than I ever possibly could about crime fiction on film. Also visit Book vs Adaptations, a regular feature at Reactions to Reading, which is one of the finest book review blogs there is. You need these blogs on your roll if they’re not there already.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dana Suesse and Edward Heyman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Gail Bowen, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout

34 responses to “You Ought to be in Pictures*

  1. Thanks for the kind nod in my direction Margot – really enjoyed your post. MORSE is certainly a very unusual case as so much was changed (both in terms of plot and character) and yet Dexter ended up retrospectively altering the books to make them match (like switching his Lancia for the TV Jag). But as you say, he was actively involved and wrote several original stories for the show (including the one for THE WOLVERCOTE TONGUE that became THE JEWEL THAT WAS OURS). And yes, love the nero Wolfe TV show (especially the first season).

    • It’s a pleasure to plug your blog, Sergio – and thanks for the kind words. You really make an interesting point too about the symbiosis between Dexter’s written series and the series as it was filmed. In some cases it really is hard to say which inspired which, if that makes any sense; the Jag is a great example of that too. And I did enjoy the Nero Wolfe series with Chaykin and Hutton. It just worked very well on a lot of levels (for me anyway).

  2. @janf06

    I was once told because books are so rarely adapted faithfully it was much better to read the book before seeing film/TV adaptation and so the characters, characterisation and storyline could not be ruined by a lesser medium! I’m not sure that they are lesser mediums, I love film and TV nevertheless, For all the reasons you say in your blog, I do agree it is very difficult to make a good film or programme from a book. Whilst I do prefer adaptations in which the writer has involvement, as you say they are more representative of the writers thoughts, I still can enjoy those that don’t because I have no preconception or expectation of it being faithful. Taking the mediums for what they each are brings different kinds of enjoyment. And, sometimes, there needs to be a good ‘pinch of salt’ taken with them.

    • You make such a good point, Janet, that in some cases, it’s just most productive to take book or film on its own merit. One’s definitely less liable to be disappointed that way. Interesting point too, about reading the book before seeing the adaptation. I try to do the same thing, although it doesn’t always work out that way. As far as writer involvement goes, I suppose my thought it, the writer knows what her or his original intent was. If that can be integrated into the adaptation, the it’s more likely it can be conveyed to the viewer.

  3. Kathy D.

    Great post. Some of my favorite movies or TV series are listed here. What is better than Montalbano ranting at Catarella and telling Fazio to stop all the details and get to the heart of the case? The books are wonderful; so are the TV shows.
    I have seen the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin TV series twice and will see them again, I’m sure. They are delightful episodes.
    And The Thin Man, a favorite. But I’d oppose remakes because who could outshine William Powell and Myrna Loy. And yes, the book is more serious than the light-hearted movie.
    So glad to hear Kerry Greenwood is involved in the Phrynne Fisher TV series, which is lovely. Essie Davis is Phrynne Fisher. And the clothes, worth watching just for the fashion.
    Although I haven’t read Ann Cleeves’ Vera books, I love the TV series.
    This post is reminding me of episodes I must see.
    And, too, I’d add The Maltese Falcon where the movie is true to the book and has the additional assets of Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet — a wonder!

    • I agree, Kathy; the original Thin Man films are terrific – no need to re-make them. And yes, the Montalbano television series is very well made, and I’d say part of the reason for that is that Camilleri has had a lot to do with it. You have a good point too about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The wardrobe alone is enough to draw an audience, isn’t it?
      Thanks for mentioning The Maltese Falcon, too. I thought that was a fabulous film as well, and it do es indeed stay faithful to the book. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  4. Margot: Let me rant about the Joanne Kilbourn movies. There was nothing positive about setting them in a generic Ontario location and making Joanne a former police officer. They lost the heart and soul of the books. The plots were made bland. There was no spark to them. They became indistinguishable from every other mediocre T.V. mystery series. I am grateful hardly anyone watches them. Thanks. I feel better.

    Overall the biggest question for me is whether the film/T.V. sleuth fits my image of the book sleuth. Leo McKern was perfect as Rumpole while Nathaniel Parker was wrong as Inspector Armand Gamache. (I did like Parker as Inspector Lynley.)

    • Rant away, Bill. It’s a real shame when a well-written series like the Joanne Kilbourn series is warped and bent all out of shape to make it fit some sort of image of a what a TV mystery series ‘should’ be. I honestly don’t know why the series would’ve been set in Ontario; its Saskatchewan location is part of the fabric of those stories. And the former police officer layer? It just doesn’t work for me, either. As you say, those things take away from the heart and soul of the stories.
      You do have a point about Leo McKern (must put a Rumpole story in the spotlight) and Nathaniel Parker. Interesting how Parker fit your image of Lynley, but not Gamache. I think it does add to the quality of a TV/film series if the film sleuth really embodies the sleuth in the books. That’s part of why I like Essie Davis so much as Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. She really fits my image of what Fisher is like.

  5. Kathy D.

    I loved Nathaniel Parker as Inspector Lynley. (I must watch this series again.) But I can’t imagine him, a strongly British actor, as playing the Quebecois, Inspector Gamache.

  6. Thanks for mentioning some of my favourite TV adaptations. And then there are the ones that didn’t quite work. I see above that some liked Nathaniel Parker as Lynley (and a great choice of Havers too), but I really thought the actress who played his wife Helen was badly cast, and Elizabeth George herself has said she was disappointed with the adaptations and hopes that at some point someone might attempt to do them again more thoroughly. I didn’t like the adaptations of Sophie Hannah’s novels either – so much was missed out or even changed.
    But there was one that I rather enjoyed and that, inexplicably, sunk like a lead balloon and was not recommissioned: the Aurelio Zen series based on Michael Dibdin’s books. Only 3 were ever made and the rather scrumptious Rufus Sewell plays Zen.

    • Oh, Marina Sofia, I must try and see if I can watch those episodes of the Aurelio Zen series! I’d be really interested in seeing how they turned out, even if the public wasn’t that much interested…
      That’s interesting that Elizabeth George wasn’t overly fond of the way the Lynley series was done. I liked Sharon Small very much as Havers, but wasn’t very fond of the casting for Lady Helen, either. As wildly popular as those books have been, I wouldn’t be shocked if there was another Lynley series at some point.

  7. I don’t tend to watch a huge amount of TV or films but I did watch Poirot played by David Suchet and he is Poirot for me although I’m glad I’d read the books first. I’m glad you mentioned Morse, that really was an excellent adaption and of course John Thaw was perfectly cast. One of the reasons I don’t tend to watch screen versions is the subtlety and nuances are lost but you’ve reminded me that with the right direction some can make the leap.

    • Suchet is Poirot to me as well, Cleo. I must say, I prefer the earlier episodes of that series, that stayed closer to the original stories. In my opinion, SUchet embodies Poirot, and Hugh Fraser did a fantastic job as Hastings. But I didn’t care as much for some of the plot changes that were made from the original stories.
      The Inspector Morse series really was very well done, wasn’t it? And there, for some reason, I didn’t mind as much the occasional differences between book and screen versions. I think it was excellently written.

      • I must admit I prefer the earlier ones in the series of Poirot too, for much the same reason but I do find I can’t read a Poirot book now without hearing Suchet. Morse was always my favourite so much so I couldn’t abide Lewis, it just wasn’t the same.

        • No doubt about it, Cleo; Thaw is much, much missed as Morse… And yes, Suchet was the absolutely perfect choice for Poirot. My re-reads of the Christie stories conjure up his image too.

  8. Pingback: Reading/Writing Summary for April | findingtimetowrite

  9. Another great post,Margot. I can pretty much tolerate any adaptation to a story line if it’s believable, entertaining, and, here’s the rub, the main character is as close to the book as possible. There are still a few TV adaptations I can not watch; the ITV series Inspector Banks taken Peter Robinson’s books is a prime example. It’s all wrong, wrong I tell you!

    • I think you’ve hit on something important here, D.S. An important part of whether a series works is whether the main character is really like the fictional sleuth. In some cases (like David Suchet as Poirot) there’s a terrific match. In others…not so much. And that’s when a show can fail miserably.

  10. So much food for thought in this one, Margot! I find it depends on whether I read the books or see the TV/film first. I’ve been reading a couple of the original books of films I know really well recently – The Maltese Falcon and Psycho – and have been enjoying seeing where they differ. But when I see an adatation of a book I love and know well, I get irritated and nitpicky. On Agatha Christie, I love the Joan Hickson Marple’s, even though I don’t think she’s really like the Miss Marple in the books, but they do stick closely to the stories. The Margaret Rutherford versions are great fun, though they have almost nothing to do with the books. But the ones that have annoyed me are the recent Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie versions – both actresses I absolutely love, but they’ve taken so many liberties with the plots I find them almost unwatchable.

    Then there’s Dalziel and Pascoe – I loved the TV versions in the early ones, but when Elly and Peter split up, it killed the series for me. The Elly/Peter relationship is so important to the books. I realise it must be hard for the producers when a cast member decides to leave, but I think it would probably be better to replace them rather than change a fundamental part of the storyline. Oddly, though, I didn’t react quite as badly when Carol disappeared from the Tony Hill series, possibly because I was never a great fan of how Hermione Norris played her.

    Oh, and… Basil Rathbone!!!

    Oops, sorry! I seem to have written an entire post! 😉

    • No need for apologies, FictionFan; I always enjoy reading your opinions. I think you’re exactly right about the impact of reading a story before vs after seeing the adaptation. It does make a difference.
      Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan were so well cast in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, in my opinion. But yes, after Susannah Corbett left the show, it did indeed lose a big part of the connection it had had with the books. As you say, the Ellie/Peter dynamic really matters in the novels.
      I’m right with you, too, about the Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie versions of the Miss Marple stories. They themselves are fine actors, but the stories? Nope, not even close to the originals, and that irritates me no end at all. I have to admit to a real fondness for Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Something about her (or perhaps about the casting/setting/etc.. of that series) just worked beautifully for me. I still re-watch those from time to time.

  11. I don’t mind the writers deviating from the original novel(s) to produce a movie or TV series, but I stand pretty firm about reading the book(s) first before watching a movie or the first shows in a series. I want to form my own idea of what the characters and setting look like first. Which is probably why I’ve never been able to see Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher…. 😀

    • 😆 To be perfectly honest, Pat, I don’t think you’ve missed anything by not seeing Cruise as Reacher. Really. And actually, I agree with you about reading the book first. I like to do that too, and get my own mental image of the characters, setting and the like.

  12. Col

    Usually I have found myself disappointed with the TV or film version of books I have read, with exceptions….LA Confidential for one. I do enjoy adaptations when I haven’t read the books….Morse, Vera etc.

  13. Well I got excited at the idea of a Joanne Kilbourn series, but you and Bill have convinced me I don’t need to see it. My other half likes to watch Montalbano and Young Montalbano on TV – I have no real interest in the stories, but the locations, and his apartment, are beyond fabulous, so I life my head up from my book now and again to look at them!

  14. Kathy D.

    I liked Sharon Small as Barbara Havers, and, of course, Nathaniel Parker as Inspector Lynley. Another favorite series with a great cast is Foyle’s War. I love Michael Kitchen and also Honeysuckle Weeks — and she has the best name in all of TVdom.
    And I agree on the dreamy Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen. But I also think Michele Riondino as the Young Montalbano is a reason to watch the series, along with some of the other young Italian actors. And I do like the older curmudgeonly Montalbano, too.
    And David Suchet is the Belgian detective, I think, even more than Poirot is!
    And another good casting move was for Brenda Blythen to play Vera; she channels her quite well.
    And what about Jason Isaacs playing Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie? i think it’s a good choice.
    And Olivia Coleman and David Tennant were terrific in Broadchurch, in my opinion. (Of course, the U.S. version substituted someone else for Coleman, which I disapproved of, although the actor was fine.) And David Tennant and Sophie Okenado were brilliant in The Escape Artist.
    One would think we all sit around eating chocolate and watching TV episodes all day. Not! Sometimes I wish we were. Or I was.

    • You’ve definitely mentioned some very good examples of casting choices that hit the mark, Kathy. I think that it’s really important to consider how closely the actor resembles the fictional character. I don’t necessarily mean physically, so much as in temperament and so on. An excellent cast can carry a show. Not that good writing and so on aren’t also important, but the cast really does matter. And yes, it would be nice to have the time to sit and watch good crime dramas all days – at least once in a while.

  15. I really like this, especially Colin Dexter’s involvement with the Morse series! And I agree so much about Jeremy Brett, etc. I “like” the present TV series, ELEMENTARY where Watson is a woman … but I found myself going, “erm, what?”


    On Sun, May 3, 2015 at 2:30 PM, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… wrote:

    > Margot Kinberg posted: “It’s not surprising that a lot of crime > fiction fans also watch film and TV adaptations of series and novels they > like. Film allows for all sorts of visual impact that’s harder to > communicate in print. Even something as simple as a facial expression can > m”

    • I always liked the involvement that Dexter had with the show, too. You could really see it in the show’s execution. It was so well done and quite true to the books. I liked the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett on that same score too.

  16. A very interesting post, Margot. Sorry to be so late to see it. I agree with you that Bernadette’s and Sergio’s blogs are excellent.

    • Aren’t they fabulous blogs, Tracy? And it’s interesting to me to see how film makers portray stories. Sometimes they make changes that are logical, especially given that film and books are different media. Sometimes, though, I have to admit I wonder about it…

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