Friday, March 12, 2010

Pictures Came And Broke Your Heart*

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.


  1. Turning a book into a TV show or movie can be good and bad. If the book has done well and the show/movie follows the book that can be a plus for more readers to follow the series. However, if the book has done well and the show/movie is nothing like the book, it could turn people from reading the series or the author.

    One example I can think of is the Kathy Reich books about Dr. Temperance Brennan. I had never read any of her books, but I saw an episode of "Bones" on TV and decided to read one. The show and book don't have that much in common in my opinion. I enjoy the books, but I love the show.

  2. Mason - You do have a good point. When viewers get used to watching a particular show, and then try the books, thinking that they'll be the same, they may very well be disappointed. On the other hand, of course, they could discover a terrific new book series. That's one argument (at least to me) for making sure that films and television shows stay faithful to the book.

    I'm glad you brought up the Kathy Reichs books. You're absolutely right that the show isn't very much like the books; still, both the show and the books have eager audiences. That's an interesting case where the show not being faithful to the books has been quite successful.

  3. I definitely think it depends on the director and the actors. I've seen absolutely wonderful versions of Christie's books and some really wretched ones.

    I doubt I'll see the "Dragon Tattoo" movie. I enjoyed the book too much. :)

  4. Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean! It really does depend on who's doing the movie. I think it may also depend on how involved the author is in the movie's creation. And you're right; I've seen some terrible adaptations of Christie's work - and some terrific ones.

    I'm not sure about ...Dragon Tattoo, either. It really was a good book, and I'm just not sure how the movie will do justice to that long a book. On the other hand, I can't help but be curious...

  5. Most of the time in crime movies that came from books (that I see and read)the books are different. And so far, I like the books better than the movies and TV shows. Then I wonder why not just followed the book?

    Great post.

  6. Journaling Woman - I know exactly what you mean! Perhaps it's because I'm a bit of a purist, but I often prefer films and television shows that stay very close to the original book. When they don't, I usually prefer the book, too. I know there are some changes that film-makers feel they need to make, in order to have more visual "punch," but I honestly prefer a more true-to-the-original approach.

  7. Interestingly enough, I'm the polar opposite of Mason Canyon. I like Kathy Reich's books much more than the TV series, which I do like as well. I suspect that this is because I read the books first. Maybe a person's "first love" is the sweetest. No matter how descriptive the author is, the reader supplies his or her own characteristics to the novel's cast and settings. TV's Temperance Brennan is quite different than my Temperance Brennan, but I suspect that when Mason Canyon read the books after seeing the show first, his Temperance Brennan was Emily Deschanel. David Baldacci's novel "Absolute Power" had this effect on me. I read the book after seeing the movie and the book's hero, for me, was Clint Eastwood in voice, appearance, and mannerisms.

    I almost always prefer the book. One exception was the A&E series "Nero Wolfe." This production was very classy and stylish; which, I suspect, is what doomed it on American TV. I'll bet Rex Stout would have loved it, though.

  8. Bob - You may very well have a strong point: we tend to prefer (or least be more comfortable with) what we experience first, whether it's the book or the film/television show. I agree with you, too, that whichever we experience first leaves a strong impression. So, for instance, for you, Clint Eastwood is Luther Whitney, regardless of what Baldacci may have had in mind when he wrote the novel.

    As far as Nero Wolfe goes, I agree that that's a classy series, and although I didn't watch all of the episodes, those that I did watch were quite well-made. I like the books very much, though, so I'm not sure I liked the series better. Still, I think you're right that Stout would have.

  9. I can't think of one dramatised version that I prefer to the book. Most of them disappoint me - I'm a purist too - some are OK, but I really prefer to keep my own images from the book intact and I get really annoyed when the plot/characters are changed.

    That said I do like David Suchet's Poirot and Joan Hickson's Miss Marple.

    I can't think of any crime fiction that I'd like to see serialised, but if any lead to people reading the books then that's a good thing. I suspect it doesn't work that way very often.

  10. Margaret - Oh, I agree with you about David Suchet and Joan Hickson. Those really are my favorite portrayers of Christie's sleuths. You're not alone, either, in your preference for your own mental images as far as the other characters and events in a story go. Sometimes, film-makers feel that they need to change a name, an appearance or an event in order to give a filmed story more appeal. However, that can be very off-putting if those changes stray too far from the original, especially if there isn't an apparent reason for it.

    In the end, though, if people do get drawn to a series of books because of television or films, then you're right; that's a good thing. I'd be interested to find out how often that actually happens. Maybe I'll try to get my university to sponsor some research in that area. I'd love to get funded for interviewing people about their taste in crime fiction books, films and television *wistful expression.*

  11. I prefer reading the book first because then it doesn´t matter that the film skates over so much information in order to leave the viewer breathless :D

  12. I keep meaning to get the Poirot and Miss Marple series on DVD from the library - I should just put a hold on some of them now that I've read this post! I've always enjoyed mystery series on television. We made a the decision a long time ago not to go the cable or satellite route, so we don't watch a lot of tv at home, but we love buying seasons of specific series in DVD to watch for family night.

    I really enjoy the Bones series, and I watched the shows after reading some of Reich's books. I actually enjoy the television shows far more, but that's because the team approach has always been more to my taste, and I've never really liked mystery series where the main character is always put into jeopardy at one point or another. There's also a lightness and sense of camaraderie about the Bones series that I find very enjoyable.

  13. Dorte - I know what you mean : ). Very often, films and television shows really do skip so much. Either that, or they change many of the details. The book anchors one to the real story.

    Belle - Oh, I do hope you get a chance to see the Poirot and Miss Marple series. They're not strictly faithful to the stories, but they are well-done.

    As far as Bones, I understand what you mean about the teamwork and the camaraderie. I like that aspect of those investigations, too. On the other hand, I like Kathy Reichs' books, even though they're quite different from the shows. For me, it's a little like two separate stories, although they've got the same protagnoist.

  14. A very good book, The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing, was adapted into an equally fine film. What is unusual is that there was then a re-make, No Way Out, which made major changes to the story-line - but which was also excellent.

  15. Martin - Thanks for mentioning The Big Clock. I admit that I haven't read that, although I have heard good things about it. It is, indeed, unusual that both the orignial film and the remake are as well-done as the book. You've added to my TBR list as well as my TBW list : ).

  16. I am confident you will not be disappointed!

  17. Oooh, I do so agree about The Big Clock/No Way Out. The remake - wow, an adorable Kevin Costner, he was just so handsome ;-)
    It was a good plot and a good movie, too - I even have it on video somewhere..

    I hardly ever watch TV but I did see some of the Swedish and English Wallenders. The English ones are not very good, definitely compared with the books. The Swedish ones are better but I still prefer the books - they introduce lots of clunky plot-devices and sudden changes of character in the TV version. Mind you, the books weren't without flaws (including the plots) but the byplay between the police was very strong in the books and not well done on TV ( definitely awful in the English series, a bit better in the Swedish one apart from the sudden seismic shifts in dynamics, presumably as certain actors wanted to leave the cast, etc.)

  18. Maxine - Kevin Costner is handsome, isn't he? Did you know that his first film role (in 1983's The Big Chill) was as a dead person? The film is about a group of college friends who re-unite fifteen years after graduation to attend the funeral of one of their number (Costner) who's committed suicide. It's actually one of my favorite films.

    But back to the matter at hand ; ), I know exactly what you mean about TV versions of books. For reasons I don't know (maybe I just don't understand how TV directors, producers, etc., work), TV versions of novels always seem to change events, characters and so on, so that they're sometimes nothing at all like the original. I'm an admitted purist, but I do think it works best when filmed versions don't stray from the book if it's possible. As you say, though, authors don't have to worry about one of their characters being dissatisfied with a contract and leaving ; ).

  19. Kevin Costner got left on the cutting-room floor in The Big Chill - all that is left in the final cut is his big toe. But he got a good role in the director's next movie in compensation (forget what that was) and never looked back --- well, he fell by the wayside later on in his career but he did make some nice movies in which he was extremely handsome ;-)

    One film which I think is equal to the book is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But this is very rare, I agree. The TV version of "Frost" (Rodney Dangerfield) was nothing like as funny or rude as the books, for example. (I only saw a few episodes, then gave up in disgust.)

    Another film that is very good compared with the book, even better possibly, is the french version of "Tell no One" by Harlan Coben.

  20. Oh, I have remembered that second movie= The Untouchables (Costner played Eliott Ness). I don't think it was the same director though - maybe the same producer. Anyway, it did very well and made Costner's career. (Brian de Palma - Sean Connery was in it also).