This is a six part series based on three of Kate Atkinson’s books – Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? Each episode is an hour long. Knowing how much I like Kate Atkinson’s writing, my daughter gave me the DVD for Christmas. But I approached it warily; compressing three complicated books into six episodes seemed like a big ask.
I like the series, but for reasons rather different from why I like the books. In my post on When Will There Be Good News? I noted that the TV series is coming, and hope that it wouldn’t concentrate too much on Jackson Brodie, who in Case Histories (the book), is working as a private detective. This was because I like the way that Atkinson gives weight to other characters who star in their own part of the larger narrative, sharing the limelight equally with Jackson Brodie. Since all Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels contain several loosely linked stories, as well as his own story, each book has several well drawn and often appealing characters from whose view point the plot periodically unfolds. These different perspectives are important, in my view, in positioning Atkinson’s work not as genre crime fiction but as literary ‘state of society’ novels.
Well of course the TV series focuses on Jackson Brodie. Other characters do carry the action forward, but he is central. The story has been changed to keep him working as a private detective, rather than falling into the role by accident as he does in the second and third books. This means that he is the key figure in all the cases and the primary link between them. While the changes that have to be made to accommodate this are relatively minor in terms of the plots of the episodes, it gives a whole different orientation to the series. His centrality is re-enforced by the ongoing flashbacks to the tragedy that destroyed his youth and shaped his adult life. His daughter also plays a more central role than in the books.
I really like the way Atkinson writes; she has what I describe elsewhere as ‘humour, a lightness of touch and a matter-of-fact style’. Some of this is conveyed in conversation, but the interior monologues that characterise her style are necessarily missing. Still, the screen Jackson Brodie is very much the character she has created.
Another thing I like about the books is their complexity, and the subtle way the plot strands are linked together. There is perhaps a bit too much coincidence, but Atkinson can usually write her way out of this. ‘You say coincidence, he thought. I say connection.’ The strands of the various cases in each episode still make for complexity, and I wonder whether if I didn’t know what was going on, I would always have been able to follow the action. This is really a question for someone who has seen the series but not read the books. I also find that TV series often get away with a good deal more looseness of plot than is possible in a book, no doubt because of the visual speed of the action, so maybe coincidence and unexplained connections aren’t seen as much of a problem in this medium.
So what did I like about the series? Well Jason Isaacs (aka Lucius Malfoy) makes a great Jackson Brodie. He has the physical presence, the toughness but also the gentleness and vulnerability required for the part, and I don’t think he puts a foot wrong. Good use is made of the dramatic Edinburgh landscape. And the cases are of course just as interesting as in the original books. It is probably true that this format even heightens the theme that runs through them all – the lost girls that haunt Jackson because of the loss of his own sister. ‘Sometimes it seemed to [Jackson] as if the entire world consisted of one accounting sheet – lost on the left-hand side, found on the right. Unfortunately the two never balanced’. But there is considerable satisfaction in following the stories of the ones that Jackson does manage to recover.
I think the trick, which I’m not good at, is to realise that reading and watching TV are different kinds of experience, and each can be enjoyed in its own way. Read the books, but also have a look at the DVD.
You can read my earlier posts on the books Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? here, here and here. A further two episodes of Case Studies based on the fourth Jackson Brodie novel Started Early Took My Dog are in the pipeline. You can read my post on that book here. You can read more about Kate Atkinson here.