One of the most profound influences on the way we think about crime fiction has arguably been the advent of films and television. Crime fiction films and television shows have introduced the genre to millions of people who might otherwise not have been interested in it. The television and film industries have also widened the appeal of many crime fiction authors and marketed their books to whole new audiences. On the other hand, many people say that film and television also have negative effects on the genre. If a movie or a television show isn’t well-made, it can be hard to convince viewers that the genre is also full of well-written books. There’s also pressure on crime fiction writers to make their books appealing to a film- and television-watching audience, and that certainly affects what many crime fiction authors write. For better or for worse, films and television have, in their own way, revolutionized the way crime fiction is created and enjoyed.
One of the best-known fictional sleuths to be portrayed on both film and television has been Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has been portrayed by many actors as diverse as Basil Rathbone and Robert Downey, Jr., and his adventures have been shared with film and television audiences all over the world. The first filmed Holmes adventure, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1903) was a 30-second short that was actually filmed after Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem, and before The Return of Sherlock Holmes, so Holmes was very much a “current” fictional character. The film is much more of a curiosity piece than it is an actual Holmes adventure, but it did introduce a film version of Holmes to the public. You can view that debut film here. You’ll notice it’s a far cry from the 2009 release that starred Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. There are many debates as to who’s been the best portrayer of Holmes; I have my personal favorite, but the point isn’t really who’s done it best. Rather, the point is the wide appeal that Holmes has always had, and the fact that he and his creator still draw in audiences. The film and television versions of Holmes’ adventures have, in their turn, attracted many people to the original Conan Doyle stories.
Agatha Christie’s novels and stories have also been immortalized in film and television. In particular, her sleuths Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have gained millions of fans from the filmed versions of their adventures. Hercule Poirot has been played by actors such as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and of course, David Suchet, and Miss Marple by Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson, among others. Poirot was first played by Austin Trevor in 1928’s Alibi, an adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Margaret Rutherford was the first to portray Miss Marple in 1961’s Murder, She Said. That film was an adaptation of Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!).
It’s said that Christie was not particularly happy with the way her work was adapted for the stage, both in theater and in film. In fact, that’s said to be the reason for which she began to write plays. She wanted to have more say in the way her characters were brought to life. Christie’s dissatisfaction brings up a very interesting question about filmed versions of crime fiction books. How important is it that the filmed version stay true to the original? Some argue that film versions of stories and novels should be as much as possible exactly like the originals that inspire them. Others disagree, saying that so long as the story is well-made and the acting well-done, it’s less important whether the story is exactly like the original. That question doesn’t really have an answer, as there are strong arguments to both sides of it. It makes for a good debate, though.
More recent crime fiction has also been adapted for film and television. The BBC, for instance, presented the widely-acclaimed Inspector Morse series starring John Thaw (in many people’s minds, the Inspector Morse) and Kevin Whately. In fact, this series is interesting in that it includes an example of a television episode coming before the book. The episode of Morse called The Wovercote Tongue was later adapted and became the novel The Jewel That Was Ours. This series brings up another interesting question about filmed and televised crime fiction: What happens when the main character dies? In the Colin Dexter series, Inspector Morse’s last case is The Remorseful Day; Morse dies at the end of that novel, and Dexter didn’t go on to either write more Morse novels or to feature Sergeant Lewis in his own series. The BBC, though, created a series for Lewis, in which he’s now Inspector Lewis. Some purists aren’t fond of that series, because it’s not true to the original books. Others, though, enjoy the new cases.
Henning Menkell’s sleuth, Kurt Wallander, has also been brought to the screen in both a Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson and a British series starring Kenneth Branagh. Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby has been brought to film in the Midsomer Murders series. Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope will also be coming to the screen as a two-hour ITV dramatization of Hidden Depths, and will feature Brenda Blethyn as Stanhope. There are many other examples of televised series, too. As with the Inspector Morse series, the question is often raised: how true to the stories should these series be? Do they need to mirror the novels?
One of the most eagerly-anticipated film versions of crime fiction is the film version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Since their publication, the three novels in this Millennium trilogy have enjoyed great popular and critical success, so it didn’t come as a surprise that a filmed version of the first novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo followed quickly. It hasn’t opened in the U.S. as I write this post, so I haven’t seen it. It’ll be interesting to see how it is received. Reviews of the film haven’t been overwhelmingly positive, and this brings up yet another point about film and television adaptations. If a novel is tremendously successful and generally regarded as superior, it’s often tagged for a film/television adaptation, because of the wide appeal of the novel. Yet, for a particularly fine novel, it’s difficult to make a film that equals the novel. So viewers of the film or television show may be disappointed; hence, the common reaction, “The book was so much better!”
Because television and film have such an impact on viewers, they also affect viewers’ expectations of the books on which the films are based. We have mental images of the characters that are based on the actors’ portrayals, and that affects the way we see the characters in the book. Films and television shows may feature more action sequences and other devices to hold the attention of the viewer, while the book may not. That may disappoint viewers when they read the book. On the other hand, viewers may enjoy the greater depth and character exploration that’s possible in a book.
You’ll notice that I haven’t made mention of the many fine crime fiction movies and television shows that are not based on books. In some ways, those films and television shows don’t have the restrictions that novel-based films and television shows have; there’s nothing to “stay true to,” and this can allow a great deal of creativity on the part of the director and actors. These films and shows, too, have won fans for crime fiction.
What do you think of filmed and televised versions of crime fiction novels? Do you see them as a detriment to good crime fiction? Do you see them as an alternative way of experiencing a novel? Which are your favorite adaptations? Which crime fiction novels/series would you like to see filmed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, which was the first song filmed as a music video.