Thursday, February 25, 2010

Screen versions of favourite book-born detectives: good or bad?

Inspired by the recent-ish news that several fan favourite detectives from crime and mystery fiction are being brought to big or small screen life (e.g. David Morrissey to play Mark Billingham's Tom Thorne in a series of telemovies, Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl to play Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum in the first of what could be a series of feature films, Angelina Jolie to play Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta in a feature film not strictly based on any of the books, and Wild at Heart's Stephen Tompkinson to play Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks in a 2-part ITV series), I have been thinking about whether it's a good or bad thing to have our favourite book detectives adapted for film or TV.

While successful films or TV shows can bring fascinating detectives to much-deserved wider attention, and perhaps lead to more people reading good books, they also run the risk of alienating some (or many) fans if they don't potray the lead character in 'the right way' (which of course is incredibly subjective, and will vary from fan to fan, reader to reader).

Film and television history is littered with good and bad adaptations (and of course some people will dislike those generally thought of as good, and some will love those generally thought of as bad). One of the most recent book-to-screen detectives (the latest in a long line, in this particular case) was Robert Downey Jr's much-lauded performance as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Although there is general consensus that Downey Jr was great in Guy Ritchie's 'new take' on the famous Baker Street-dwelling detective, some crime fiction afficianados weren't impressed.

Like Holmes, Agatha Christie's books and characters have received various on-screen treatments. In fact, despite appearing in dozens and dozens of films, TV shows, and theatre productions, over the past few decades, British actor David Suchet is perhaps almost synonymous, in a visual sense, with Christie's eccentric Belgian investigator, Hercule Poirot. British television does of course have a grand tradition of bringing book-born detectives to life on screen, from John Thaw's longstanding portrayal of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, to Robson Green as Val McDermid's Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood, to Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan teaming up as Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe.

It is also interesting to see the different perspectives and attitudes many modern-day mystery and crime writers take when it comes to any potential adaptations of the characters they've created. For instance, award-winning LA crime novelist Robert Crais has had standalones made into movies (e.g. Hostage, starring Bruce Willis), but says he will sell the rights to his popular series characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Another famous LA crime writer, Michael Connelly, has had one of his standalones, BLOOD WORK made into a 2002 movie starring (and directed by) Clint Eastwood, but his most famous character, Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, hasn't yet made it to the big screen (despite several Hollywood studios being interested, and taking initial steps).

Robert B. Parker's famous Boston detective Spenser was adapted for the 1980s TV series Spenser for Hire, while his Jesse Stone books have become a series of quality telemovies starring Tom Selleck in the lead role. Kathy Reich's Tempe Brennan has received a loosely-linked-to-the-books portrayal by Emily Deschanel in the TV series Bones. And Tommy Lee Jones recently stepped into the shows of James Lee Burke's iconic Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, in the award-winning but little-seen film In the Electric Mist.

From a New Zealand perspective, in the early 1990s, Dame Ngaio Marsh's books were turned into the BBC TV series, The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, with Patrick Malahide in the lead role (after Simon Williams played Alleyn in the pilot). Paul Thomas's recurring detective, DS Ihaka, was portrayed by Temuera Morrison in a TV movie adaptation.

Recently, it has been announced that Alix Bosco's heroine Anna Markunas, who featured in Bosco's debut CUT & RUN last year, and is tapped to appear in further books, such SLAUGHTER FALLS later this year, will be played by well-known (in Australasia) TV actress Robyn Malcolm in a 2-part miniseries. There have also been murmurs about some of Paul Cleave's books being turned into movies, although nothing has come to fruition yet.

Personally, I don't mind book detectives being portrayed on the big or small screen - I enjoy TV and film murder mysteries and thrillers, whether they are based on books or not - as long as it is done well. It sucks when interesting characters and stories are poorly transferred to the screen (as can happen with some adaptations), because you feel like the film makers/TV producers have wasted a great opportunity.

What are your thoughts on screen adaptations of book detectives? Who are some of your favourites you would like to see onscreen? Do you have some you never want to see onscreen? Which actors can you envisage as your favourite characters? What crime fiction screen adaptations have you loved/hated? Thoughts and comments most welcome.


  1. Craig - Thanks for such interesting "food for thought." I have to admit to being somewhat of a purist when it comes to adaptations of books for screen. They can be very enjoyable - truly. But I have to admit I don't care for it when the makers of the movie take too much liberty with the book. For instance the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was different in many ways from the novel, and in ways that weren't necessary, at least in my opinion, to make the screen story better. Admittedly, I didn't care much for Albert Finney as Poirot, but besides that, some of the characters had been un-necessarily changed. Perhaps because I'm an old stick-in-the-mud, I really like it best when films stick as close as possible to the book. It'll be interesting to see what ITV does with Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope...

  2. What a great post Craig.

    I try to remain non-plussed by screen adaptations - it's a different medium and all that. Though I have been known to have a rant or two about how utterly wrong the TV series got Barbara Havers in the recent-ish adaptations of Elizabeth George's Lynley and Havers books. I've deliberately avoided adaptations of some favourite books (though I can't think of a crime fiction one that fits in this category).

    There are a couple of book series that are forever ruined for me though because I saw the TV version first. I saw TV Jack Frost before I ever read any of the books and also saw John Nettles as Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders before I read one of Caroline Grahame's books. In both cases I had far too clear a picture of the protagonist in my head to be able to cope with the quite different depiction in the books (both characters are darker in print than their TV alter-egos). I've only ever managed to read one book of either series.

  3. Which is worse having a much admired series you have read spoiled by a poor TV adaptation, or watching the TV series first and then finding the books have totally different characters?
    I haven't read Elizabeth George, but have no doubt that the character of Havers is so badly treated in the TV series she would have left the police and gone to work as a PI.
    The superb ones, John Thaw, David Suchet and Warren Clarke all fitted my image of the characters perfectly, not surprisingly in Poirot's case as Suchet had done so much research. But George Baker was not my idea of Reg Wexford, and whoever cast John Hannah as Rebus had never read any of the books.
    But the recent BBC Kenneth Branagh/Wallander series made the case for those authors who are reluctant to turn their creations over to TV or movie makers.