A Few Thoughts: Page to Screen

Recently, I watched the DVD of the movie version of Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money, a  comic caper mystery featuring novice bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. There was a lot of online discussion about the casting of this movie and then, when it came out, about the way the actors interpreted Evanovich’s characters. Personally, I liked the results, but it got me thinking about other mystery series that have been translated from page to screen.

Comparing books to movies is like trying to make cats and dogs into the same animal. Sure they’re both popular pets, but they are and always will be different breeds. This is never more obvious than when a popular mystery novel is made into a movie or TV series. It’s a given that some fans of the book will hate the result, no matter how well it’s produced or how excellent the acting. But the thing is, you don’t have to like them both.

Writers who sell movie rights do just that: sell the rights to someone else to pick and choose what elements to take to the new genre. Meanwhile, the novels continue on the path the author has chosen, given a boost, one hopes, by new readers attracted by first seeing the screen version. This is a good thing. Case in point: after HBO launched the series True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, every book in the series hit the NY Times bestseller list at the same time. Season One stuck pretty close to the first book in the series, a paranormal mystery featuring a Louisiana waitress afflicted with the ability to read minds. After that, it veered off more and more, although the core characters are still there. The biggest difference, of course, is that on HBO, you are shown scenes you only imagine in the books (which are written in Sookie’s first person point of view). Let’s just say there is a lot more bare skin!

Our fellow Maine writer, Tess Gerritsen, is represented these days on TNT with Rizzoli and Isles. It’s a hugely popular show, but TV’s Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, Boston police detective and medical examiner respectively, are not the Jane and Maura of the novels. On the page, Jane marries and has a baby. That’s not likely to happen on the small screen, where the emphasis is on gal pals Jane and Maura with Jane’s mom thrown in for comic relief.

Bones is another show that departs radically from the novels featuring Temperance Brennan. Kathy Reichs, who wrote the books and is also, somewhat unusually, involved in the TV production, explains this by saying that the TV version of her protagonist is “a very young Temperance.”

Some classic mysteries have lots of different versions and some are far more popular than others. Sherlock Holmes stories have recently been updated to present day London with Sherlock to mixed reviews. Most Agatha Christie fans have favorite Miss Marples and Hercule Poirots from among the many actors who have taken on those roles. There was a huge negative reaction online when the latest PBS version tried to give Miss Marple a sex life and borrowed Christie stories she did not appear in to give her “new” mysteries to solve.

As both a mystery fan and someone who enjoys relaxing in front of the TV with an entertaining series episode or the DVD of a movie, I can enjoy both versions, as long as I remember that they are two different animals.

I can’t resist adding a sidebar here. The most hated adaptation of a mystery series to film is probably V. I. Warshawski, with Sara Paretsky’s creation played by Kathleen Turner. The two screen versions that deviate most obviously from the books—in other words, about the only thing that’s the same is the name of the detective—are Age of Treason, which takes Lindsey Davis’s Roman sleuth, Marcus Didius Falco, and sends him on an adventure no reader of the novels would ever recognize, and Gideon Oliver, a short-lived TV series in which Aaron Elkins’s married but childless forensic anthropologist not only turns into a social anthropologist with a grown daughter but also changes his race so he can be played by Louis Gossett Jr. The series only lasted five episodes.

Would I want any of my books to be adapted for the movies or TV? Well, someone had an option for my Face Down series (written as Kathy Lynn Emerson) for awhile some years back. When nothing came of it, frankly, I was relieved. On the other hand . . .

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3 Responses to A Few Thoughts: Page to Screen

  1. Interesting picks and thoughts. My all-time favorite movie adaptations belong to another ME writer, Stephen King’s Misery and novella The Body, both directed by Rob Reiner.

  2. Hi, Jenny,
    Yes, Stand by Me is a winner, but I never read “The Body.” Come to think of it, the only Stephen King novel I’ve both read and seen a screen adaptation of was Salem’s Lot and that was the very first TV version. I just looked it up on IMDB. It was 1979 and starred David Soul. At the time he counted as a big name on TV because he was starring in Starsky and Hutch.

  3. Paul Doiron says:

    One thing that I find interesting is how unsuccessful Hollywood has been at adapting successful mystery series novels to the screen. If you think about the most popular contemporary sleuths, from V.I. Warshawski to Dave Robicheaux, it’s hard to come up with even halfway decent film portrayals of these well-drawn characters. I have no idea why this should be so. On a personal note, I think the BBC version of “Sherlock” is absolutely brilliant.

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