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 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.