What do the following characters have in common besides the fact that they are all detectives in mystery fiction? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Marjorie Allingham’s Albert Campion, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen, Kate Collins’ Abby Knight, Peter King’s unnamed Gourmet Detective, Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, and Maureen Jennings’ William Murdock.
Answer: They’ve all made the transition from page to screen . . . with varying degrees of success.
Of course there are many more examples. In fact, the second book in Kate Carlisle’s Fixer Upper Mysteries debuted just last Sunday night on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries channel as “Framed for Murder.”
There have been and will continue to be endless discussions among readers about film portrayals of favorite sleuths, especially if the material has been adapted more than once. Personally, I prefer Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, but tastes differ, as do screenplays. Some stray mighty far from the source material.
To be truthful, all screenplays take liberties. They have to. We’re talking apples and oranges here. Length alone dictates change. There is no way every detail included in a three hundred page book can be shown in a ninety minute movie. Even if the screen version becomes a TV series, there are limitations. An hour an episode translates into only about forty-five minutes of story.
Still, those who have read the books often find themselves wondering “Why did they have to go and change things?” I enjoy the Miss Fisher Mysteries, a series from Australian television, but I can’t figure out why they completely revamped the story line concerning Phryne Fisher’s sister. I like the version in the books better. On the other hand, the Canadian production variously called Murdock Mysteries and The Artful Detective, takes Maureen Jennings’s rather dark Victorian- era Toronto detective and adds humor. I liked the novels but I love the TV series.
I mentioned that the Fixer Upper mysteries started with a made-for-television movie based on the second book in the series. Hallmark did the same thing with Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden mysteries. The thing is, if you start with book two, followed by a movie based on book one, the original series timeline no longer works. Roe Teagarden’s love life, among other things, is now very different from the way it is in the books. Better? I’m not certain. You’ll have to read the novels and watch the movies and decide for yourself.
In varying degrees, movies and television series made from mystery novels all end up changing them. They sometime eliminate characters. Sometimes the screenplay even changes the ending. You’d think that if a network liked a series of books well enough to buy the rights to it, they’d keep more of the original story, but it rarely seems to work that way.
Having said all this, I have two confessions to make. One is that I’m inconsistent in my reactions to movies and TV series made from books. It depends on what the changes are and how much I liked the way things happened in the original version. The other confession is that I enjoy Hallmark movies. Yes, they are sometimes so sweet they make your teeth ache, but I prefer that to dialogue full of f-bombs and plots overburdened with gratuitous sex and/or violence.
When all is said and done, though, there is one really good thing that comes about every time a mystery novel is made into a movie or TV series. People go out and buy the book. If they like it, they read more of that author’s books. They may even end up getting hooked on the whole genre, and that benefits all of us who write mysteries.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com