Detectives in novels and on screen

I am sure many other people will have read the article in today's (13 October) Times, in which P. D. James and Ruth Rendell (who also writes under the name of Barbara Vine) discuss their lack of regard for the TV adaptations of their novels. They weren't too keen on their respective leading detectives – Baroness James says that Dalgliesh does not have a moustache (you never see a senior detective with one, according to her), and Barnoness Rendell that Wexford was ugly (she thinks George Baker too handsome). I did see a few of these adaptations years ago, and I suppose I must agree. I invariably prefer books to TV or film adaptations, so have just learnt to see them as completely different entities.

If I were an author of a series, I'd find it hard to continue once actors were firmly established as my characters. As a reader, it is bad enough – can one read a Henning Mankell now without visualising Ken Branagh as Wallander? Whatever one may think of Ken Branagh in that part, he is not the books' Wallander. Everyone liked John Thaw as Morse – I was already a fan of Colin Dexter's books long before the TV series was dreamed up – but even though I did not see all that many of them, it is impossible to detach Morse from John Thaw in my mind.

The best part of the Times article, for me, is this: "Baroness James said that she had given up trying to make sense of changes made to her stories when they were adapted for television. “I don’t read a script of adaptations because I know I’m not going to like it. They do things sometimes that are nonsensical.”
Dame Ruth said that her stories were always augmented with irrelevant action sequences. “They put a car chase in all of mine. There’s no reason for a car chase but everyone likes one. In the end you don’t care.” "

Absolutely. Fewer car chases and more plot, please (ideally, a plot that actually makes sense). I doubt this will ever happen. But it is why I tend not to watch detective programmes (or anything else) on TV -  because it is always obvious what is going to happen after the first few minutes. One exception to this rule was Cracker, which started out being about a truly unpleasant person (Cracker, played by Robbie Coltraine) and some gritty police procedural, headed up by Christopher Ecclestone. He (Ecclestone) soon jumped ship, and before you knew it, Cracker had morphed into a "loveable old rogue" and I switched off. David Jason as Frost was (is?) similar: the character on TV had very little connection with the scurrilous, politically incorrect man in the books – superficially wisecracking with very off-colour humour, bursting with obsessive energy, but a very sad, lonely person at some level. Again, I switched off after a few episodes. Not because I'm a purist about differences between page and screen, but because the screen versions were boring in their predictability and sameness to each other (both within and across series).

Last words to the Baronesses: "Dame Ruth, who has written 21 Wexford books, said that she had no creative control over television adaptations but that they were not important to her. “I think that people expect us to be far more concerned with our television productions than we are. You can say that television makes you famous and sells your books but you don’t care very much about it.” "


6 thoughts on “Detectives in novels and on screen

  1. You make such a good point here! The main reason that most television adaptations aren’t usually worth watching isn’t so much that they aren’t faithful to the novel (although that’s annoying, I admit), as that they are made poorly.

  2. I agree the TV versions are usually far more predictable than the books which is why I tend not to watch the TV series if I have read the books (I’ve never read the Frost books so didn’t mind the series). Mmy TV watching is something I generally do when I’m really tired and don’t want to think too hard – at the end of long Aussie summer days of 40+ degrees when even holding a book seems like too much effort for example. So I’ll watch an episode of Dalziel and Pascoe (I’ve only read a couple of the books) or, my favourite, Everyone’s Dead in the Village (otherwise known as Midsomer Murders). Reading for me is more of an active pursuit and is my preference for entertainment, TV crime shows are for when I just want to sit and not think.

  3. Thanks for the link, Maxine, interesting article.
    I think it must be difficult adapting a detective story for the screen, because complexity of character is what makes almost all the best detective series so compelling – and two hours of TV just isn’t as long as 500 pages of text to get that across in. I’m not so bothered about the plot being a bit lost (the Inspector Lynley mysteries are dreadful for condensing the plot beyond all sense), but if the character loses his essence, that tends to be the end for me. I think that’s why I’ve been so unimpressed with Lewis: the plots are pretty much identical to the Morse plots, but Morse was a very multi-layered character, while every single person in Lewis seems terminally miserable.
    Perhaps some genres (Dickens-style period drama?) are more plot and less subtlety-of-character driven, which makes them more adaptable? That might explain why the Agatha Christie films are generally quite good: Poirot and Miss Marple are good characters, but hardly subtle…
    In general, I love both murder mystery books and shows, and if I’ve watched and enjoyed the TV version first, will generally read the books later and love them. I watched Frost first, but the books are possibly my favourite of all time. Likewise Morse, Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders – watched all the shows first and really enjoy the books too. For me, reading the books first is the quickest way to kill enjoyment of the TV show: the Lynley and Rebus versions and the Alexander McCall Smith adaptations have all really disappointed.
    PS: Hi Maxine! I’m not really an expert on crime fiction, so normally just pick up the odd recommendation, but I’m apparently incapable of seeing a Midsomer Murders reference and not chiming in to say I love it too!

  4. Unquestionably all this is true, and yet (in my opinion) the adaptations of detective novels (especially British ones) are generally so much superior to anything else that’s going on on television, that they still tend to be the best viewing choice on any given evening.
    I was particularly amused by the evolution of Inspector Morse’s Sergeant Lewis. In the original first novel, Morse had two assistants, Inspector Lewis (who was short and stocky) and Some Other Guy Whose Name I’ve Forgotten (who was tall and thin). In the TV adaptation, the sergeants were conflated, and so we had a tall, thin, Sergeant Lewis. Instead of fighting this, Colin Dexter went with it, and in the later novels it was Sergeant Lewis all the way, without any particular physical description. Let the reader imagine him as he likes. Now the tall, thin Inspector Lewis has his own TV series.

  5. I can understand the frustration of the writer when TV producers change their manuscripts for no apparent reason. On the other hand I agree with Lars Walker that many British TV adaptations are of quite high quality. (And I DO like the film versions of Dalgliesh and Wexford).
    And ´predictable´ is not such a great problem for me as I can watch a film one, two or three times and still forget who the perpetrator was. I am just less focused when I watch than when I read.

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments – and welcome, Jo! Although I read a lot of crime fiction, there is a lot more I’ve never read or heard of, so I think it is quite hard to be an “expert” (on all of it, certainly!). I think I once saw an episode of Midsomer Murders and quite liked it but found it a bit slow. I often think that TV was created for people who aren’t paying full attention (because they are assumed to be doing something else as well, eg the ironing or just “stuff” while the TV is on in the background). So I always find myself mentally urging the story to buck up a bit. (But I’m not exactly a relaxed person.)
    Too right, Dorte – I forget it all too. But I usually have a dim recollection about 3/4 of the way through that I’ve already seen the show (read the book) and I can remember the outcome….annoying!
    Lars – thanks, I had not remembered that about the other detective in the books. But then I haven’t read or watched Morse for many, many years, and as Dorte says…..

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