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Archive for the ‘Books into Films’ Category

This is the first, published in 1996, of four crime stories by Peter Temple featuring Jack Irish. It lacks the depth of Temple’s two most recent books – The Broken Shore (2005) and Truth (2010) – see my review of the latter here. These are crime stories that in my view, qualify as literature – though this is a matter of instinct rather than definition. The Jack Irish stories, however, are good, solid genre crime stories, and as such, very well worth a read.

Jack Irish is a former criminal lawyer. After his wife was murdered by a disgruntled client, he fell prey to depression and alcohol, and in this state, gave only cursory care to his clients. So he gave up criminal law and is now a very part-time suburban lawyer, debt collector and apprentice cabinet maker. He also works on slightly shady deals in the racing industry. In this story, he is asked for help by a former client convicted of a hit and run fatality, but before he can do anything, he finds that the man has been shot by police. Irish feels guilty that he did not give the man proper support earlier, and that he has failed him again now. He decides to find out more about the man’s death, and the crime he was convicted of. Jack’s investigation makes some important people unhappy, and as the bodies pile up, he has to decide what’s really important to him. Running along side, and only tangentially connected, is a tale of the turf; have Irish and his friends discovered a hidden gem?

This is certainly a page turner, with a clever and fast-moving story. In practice, Irish acts very much as a private detective, following up from one person and one piece of information to the next, stirring things up and having to deal with the consequences. The story is beautifully put together, and there are only a couple of places where I wondered how someone knew something, or how something had been resolved, though there is perhaps just a whiff of deus ex machina about the character Cam Delray. I’ve commented before on the options for the resolution of a case by a private detective, and was pleased to see Temple adopting a combination of the possibilities. However it’s the use of these conventions that make me see the book as genre crime. Although it deals with some of the same themes as Truth, such as power and corruption, there is a predictability about it that Temple’s best books don’t have. The impression that there is a formula at work is confirmed by reading the second Jack Irish story, Black Tide, which although equally enjoyable, uses a lot of the same plot devices.

Jack Irish is an engaging character who shares some of the characteristics of the honourable detective hero like Philip Marlowe who cover their inner darkness with flippant cynicism. He is a loner, and there is an air of melancholy about him –rather like the weather in Melbourne where the story is set. He is a champion of lost causes – like the Fitzroy Football Club his father played for, though he is disparaging about the trendy and superficial, like the old Melbourne pubs that have been ‘turned into Thai-Italian bistros with art prints in their lavatories’. He narrates the story, so Temple’s dry humour infuses all his observations. This is how the story starts. ‘I found Edward Dollery, age 47, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built on a cow pasture east of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.’ How can you not want to read on?

A movie length version of Bad Debts staring Guy Pearce has recently been shown on ABC TV. On thinking about it afterwards, I had to be careful not to confuse two judgments. One was how faithful it was to the book. Answer? Four out of five. The movie takes out some characters and reduces the importance of others so that there are fewer links in the chain of investigation. This requires a little rejigging of the plot, but leaves it essentially intact. It also allows it to concentrate more on the action, particularly the violent action. Guy Pearce isn’t quite the Jack Irish I had imagined, but he is a perfectly acceptable one. I didn’t get the same sense of melancholy I found in the book.

The second judgment concerns what it is like as a movie. Again, four out of five. A friend who hadn’t read the book found the plot a bit confusing to follow in terms of who knew what when, and I can see that abbreviating the investigation might have that outcome. Accentuating the violence makes for good visual effects and fast paced drama – if that’s what you like. And being able to juxtapose scenes of impending violence for both Irish and his girl friend was a good way of creating tension – even though the girl friend scene wasn’t in the original. I enjoyed seeing how someone else handled the story, but overall still prefer the book.

You can find out a little more about Peter Temple here, and you can watch the movie on ABC iview here, though you’ll need to be quick – it doesn’t stay up for long.

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I’ve written recently about the way books by Kate Atkinson and John Le Carré have been turned into mini series or films. My acquaintance with the work of Michael Dibdin happened the other way round. I saw three episodes of a TV series based on his books before I had read any of them.

The 2011 series was called Zen, and was named for Dibdin’s Italian detective Aurellio Zen. The three ninety minute episodes were based on his first three Zen books, Ratking (1989), Vendetta (1991) and Cabal (1992). I thought the first one (which was actually Vendetta), was excellent. This was partly because of clever way Zen was pressured by one set of authorities to solve the case and another to shelve it, and by the way the different strands of the story were brought together. But it was also because Zen was such a likable character- the classic outsider who sardonically observes the frailties of the world and goes his own way, regardless of corporate power or politics. Not for nothing was Dibdin a fan of Raymond Chandler. The expressive face of Rufus Sewell, the actor playing Zen, was perfect for the part. It’s true that the second two of the series didn’t impress me as much; their plots relied unduly on coincidence. But as I’ve noted before, it seems easier to get away with chance and luck on the screen, where there is apparently less obligation for reasoned explanation than on the written page.

So I tried End Games (2007). Zen has been sent to Calabria as acting Chief of Police in Cosenza. What began as the kidnapping of an American lawyer – ‘A traditional Calabrian crime, with its roots in the immemorial banditry of the region’ – soon turns into a very nasty murder, and Zen immediately comes up against the traditional code of silence. But he is determined to do his job; ‘this stupid, meaningless, utterly compromised job that I try to do as well as I can’. There is in addition a rather complicated sub plot about the search for the treasure of Alaric, a Visigoth who sacked Rome in the fifth century AD. Some of the same characters are involved in both plots, but others, like the peculiar American billionaire Jake Daniels and the flamboyant Italian film director Luciano Aldobrandini, belong only to the sub plot. Zen is an engaging character, as he is in the TV series; his whimsical approach is enjoyable. Dibdin writes well and there are many nice touches, such as Zen’s assessment of the notary Nicola Mantega as having the manner of a third rate tenor in a provincial opera house – ‘He had neither the range nor the volume, not to mention the subtlety, to tackle really big roles in Rome or Milan, but he could certainly ham it up and belt it out’.

Yet although it is well written and quite intricately plotted, I found it difficult to sustain an interest in the story. The sub plot is complicated to an unnecessary and unrealistic degree. The chief villain, who is always in the background, has improbable powers – even, one would have thought, for Calabria. There are arguably too many characters, particularly as a number of them carry the story for a chapter here and a chapter there, which gives them greater importance than is warranted by their role in the story. The film director, for example, seems completely superfluous.  It has been suggested that some of these characters are vehicles for Dibdin’s satire – Jake as the mindless, trendy, rich American with his evangelical wife Madrona and his Rapture Works enterprise, and Aldobrandini as the pretentious film director obsessed with his legacy. But if so, is this the only satire in the book? Is the view of Calabria satire? How is the reader supposed to know? I can’t tell if it is satire or stereotype.

Many other readers and critics would disagree with my less than enthusiastic assessment. When Dibdin died suddenly in 2007 – this novel was published posthumously – his obituaries gave high praise to his work, both his Zen series and his stand alone books. He was admired for his insights into ‘the changing face’ of Italian society, as well as the high quality of his writing and plotting. But this is one of the few times that I’d say watch the DVD rather than read the book.

You can read a different assessment of Didbin’s work here.

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I’ve now seen the Tinker Tailer Solder Spy film, and though I enjoyed it, I still prefer the book.

I think there are two different audiences for this film: those who have read the book and those who haven’t. None of my companions for the film knew the story; none had heard of the British defectors Burgess, McClean and Philby. All found it a bit confusing, largely because there were a lot of characters, and a fair bit of jumping about in time. They also commented – though not unfavourably – on the relative lack of action, compared to most modern spy films, and what they saw as a strong emphasis on George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman.

I was interested in how the film would play to someone who knew what was going to happen, and for whom therefore there was no suspense. Could the senior members of the Circus amongst whom the mole is to be found be portrayed in sufficient depth to make it possible that any one of them is the traitor? Could Smiley’s incremental discoveries that lead to the unmasking of the mole all be included? Could the ‘last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick be explained in the relatively short time available? 

I accept that the story needs to be compressed to work as a film, and overall, the compression is effective enough. Most of the dialogue, while abridged, is taken straight from the book, though the lines are sometimes given to different characters. The four possible conspirators – code named tinker, tailer, soldier, spy – aren’t developed as much as in the book, but they are all equally undeveloped, so even if you know which one is the mole, you can still admire the uncertainty and suspicion that are at the heart of the story. While my companions thought Smiley was central, I thought his role is somehow diminished. The trail he follows is compressed, some of the characters he meets with in the book having a different role in the film, but others being left out altogether. Jim Prideaux’s role is also much condensed, which further limits Smiley’s; there is no hidden pursuer for him to be half aware of. Some of the flash back scenes to Circus staff socializing together seem unnecessary, especially given that so much is left out.

My companions wanted to know the mole’s motive, which is not revealed, but then it is not really explored in the book either.

In terms of plot, the essentials are there. Smiley establishes the connection between ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Operation Testify’, though you have to watch fairly carefully. ‘The last clever knot’ is there too, though again I’m not sure I would have got it if I didn’t already know.

So what did the visuals add to the story? I liked the moody interior shots of the Circus – seeing made it much more real. It made more sense of senior staff being an exclusive club on the fifth floor if you could see the rest of the rather rambling offices populated with all the lesser Circus workers. Because tinker, tailer, solder and spy can’t be as fully developed as in the book, their appearance and actions have to do the work for them; all do a good job. I didn’t think Lacon looks like the prim senior civil servant he is in the book, and I didn’t warm to Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux – too sinister, rather than rugged. The shots of ill-lit streets and dingy interiors capture the mood of the early nineteen sixties, reflecting Britain’s struggle to keep its great power status alive in the depths of the Cold War. The politics of espionage, and role of the Americans in it, are clearly brought out.

And what of Smiley? I wrote in an earlier post that for me, Alex Guinness, of the TV adaptation, is Smiley – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’. Oldman clearly had to differentiate his performance from Guinness’s.  He is a younger, less eccentric Smiley, an almost self-effacing presence in the film, for all his central role. His old boss, Control (John Hurt) is a more colourful character. I suspect John Le Carre, who advised on the film, would have been happy with Oldham’s low key performance; he argues that espionage is not a flashy business. I think I still prefer Guinness – but go and see for yourself.

You can read some reviews of the film – all pretty favourable – here.

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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.

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A film version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) has just been released, and is being greeted with critical acclaim. I always thought it was a great book, so I’ll be very interested to see what they have done with it.

George Smiley has retired from ‘the Circus’ – le Carré’s name for British Intelligence – after a scandal involving a failed incursion by a British agent, Jim Prideaux, into communist Czechoslovakia, organised by Control, the former Circus head. The story starts with Prideaux taking up a teaching job in a prep school; he plays a crucial role in the story. But the main thread follows Smiley, who is called back to clandestinely investigate whether a mole has been planted by the KGB at the heart of British Intelligence. A mole, explains a Russian agent, ‘is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism’. Control had narrowed the possibilities to five senior officers. Smiley finds himself on the same investigative road as Control was travelling before the Prideaux affair – Operation Testify – derailed him. Can he succeed where Control failed, and figure out the ‘last clever knot’ that has turned the Circus inside out?

The main interest of the book is its very clever plot – that is, how Smiley works out who is the mole.  He goes back over the recent activities of the Circus, meeting a number of people who all add something to his understanding of the KGB conspiracy.  Unlike the action thriller type of spy story, there is relatively little violence; there is no ‘bang, bang, kiss, kiss’.  However there are other things apart from the cleverness of the plot that make the book special.  Le Carré has brilliantly drawn the cast of characters, so that even those with only cameo parts seem like real people.  Smiley himself – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’ – is a fully rounded and very sympathetic creation. And the atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that grips the Circus is palpable. Le Carré’s writing goes well beyond what is normally found in the ordinary espionage genre, as witnessed by his inclusion on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize for 2011 (over his protests, it must be said).

Le Carré was himself a spy, working for MI6 under diplomatic cover for about eight years, so it is no wonder he seems at home in the world of espionage. He probably worked under the British spy Kim Philby who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963; double agents, treachery and betrayal were much in the public mind at the time of writing. Smiley’s world seems so authentic that even its vocabulary has seeped into the language of espionage, the term ‘tradecraft’ for the mechanics of spying being a case in point. For all that, le Carré says he makes most of it up: ‘A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself,’ he says; ‘… nothing that I write is authentic’. I find this claim a bit unlikely, given his background. But perhaps it is the complete coherence and consistency of world that is so convincing; there is no need, as in so many other espionage stories, to suspend disbelief.

The new film is not the first screen version of the book. In 1978 it was very faithfully televised in a BBC production, recently re-issued, starring Alex Guinness as George Smiley. I love that series. For me, Guinness is Smiley. Le Carré himself acknowledges that Guinness’s portrayal of Smiley informed his writing about him in a sequel, Smiley’s People (1980). Given this, I’m not sure how I will react to a different Smiley. The new one is Gary Oldman, recently seen as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films, and as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series; in none of these was he ‘small, podgy and at best middle aged’. But maybe he can rise to the occasion. I gather he is considered one of the best actors never to have been nominated for an Academy award. Perhaps this is his moment.

You can read more about John le Carré here, see a review of the film here and a trailer here.

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I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Agatha Christie’s cleverest books, so I was interested to see how it has been translated onto the TV screen in the latest film version, starring David Suchet as Poirot. Unfortunately I can only give it five out of ten.

I can only explain my misgivings by revealing the plot, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now. However even if you do know who done it –by watching the TV version, or seeing it here – I think the book is still a pleasure to read because the plot is so cunningly handled.

As is typical of all Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, there is a murder and a group of suspects, all of whom have something to hide and some motive for killing the victim. Poirot, by noticing more than the police, and by drawing inferences no one else has thought of, succeeds in identifying the true criminal.

In this book, however, there is a departure from the norm in that it is related in the first person by Dr Sheppard, a friend of Ackroyd’s. He takes the place of Poirot’s usual rather obtuse foil Hastings, in that he accompanies him during the investigation and is privy to all that Poirot discovers about the motives and opportunity of all the suspects. Sheppard seems to be a typical country doctor, bluff and well-meaning, and has no apparent motive for killing Ackroyd. The reader trusts him, and the information he conveys – or at least I did. But this is Christie at her cleverest, using the trick of the ‘least likely person’. Poirot works out just how and why Sheppard did it, and confronts him. The first person account turns out to be a confession. Much of the narrative takes on a new meaning when read from the perspective of Sheppard’s guilt.

So how did the TV series manage this piece of masterly misdirection? Well, it didn’t really. Sheppard is just another character, albeit one who has the ear of Poirot, and unlike others, no apparent motive for the crime. There is a written confession, but it only shows the unnamed murderer to be malicious and vengeful, quite unlike Dr Sheppard in the book. And it doesn’t say what happened. That is left to Sheppard at the end. He is accused by Poirot, and then explains how he did it. This is the opposite of the book, where Poirot explains to Sheppard how the murderer must have done it, and that only one person – the doctor – fits the bill. His triumph is much lessened in the TV series. Dr Sheppard is still the least likely person to be the murderer, but the ‘it can’t be him, he’s telling the story’ factor is completely lost. The misdirection is less complete.

There are some other changes, such as characters left out, which reduces the complexity of the plot, and characters added, as in the person of the series policeman, Inspector Japp. Being TV, there also has to be more action, so there is another murder – quite unnecessary to the plot in my view – and a rather contrived shoot-out at the end.

Having said all this, David Suchet makes an excellent Poirot and the TV version is still beautifully done in terms of period and setting. It makes pleasant watching on a Sunday evening.

It is hard to see how the book could be translated into film in a way that is completely faithful to the book, particularly given the constraint that this is an episode in a series. And it’s true that the experience of reading a book and watching TV are different, and require evaluation on their own terms. I might have scored it higher as a program if it had not been based on a book I like. But I can’t help making the comparison, and coming down in favour of reading the book.

You can find out more about the fascinating Agatha Christie here, and more about the TV series  here.

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Roman Polanski has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. But being under house arrest in Switzerland – from which he has now been released – didn’t stop him making an excellent film out of Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost.  Harris worked with him on the script, and the film, called The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, was recently released to general critical approval. Polanski won ‘best director’ at the Berlin Film Festival for the film.

In my view, it’s Harris that should get most of the credit, because the original book is so good. No doubt you can make a good film out of a bad book – though I can’t think of one – but it is much easier to make a good film if the story has good bones to start with.

The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed protagonist who is employed to finish a manuscript which purports to be the memoirs of Adam Lang, a recently retired British Prime Minister. The original ghost writer has died, but the book still needs work. He sets about reshaping what he considers a rather boring account, only to find that information left behind by the original ghost writer doesn’t tally with the public record. He investigates further, and finds that all is not as it seems. What will happen if he pokes around too vigorously in Lang’s past?

There are no prizes for guessing that the retired PM is meant to be Tony Blair. Alongside the protagonist’s investigation runs the account of an attempt to indict the ex PM in the International Criminal Court for war crimes in relation to the invasion of Iraq. Harris said he half expected a writ against him when to book was published in 2007. 

The story is presented in a relatively low key way, an intellectual puzzle rather than a blood and guts action thriller, though of course there is action and blood. There is also a twist in the story, which isn’t that surprising to readers of Harris’s work; all his thrillers have plots that are carefully constructed and contain surprises. But in this one, the greatest surprise to me came at the end – a real sting in the tail.

There are a few points where the film and the book differ, but not to any material degree. The film captures the bleak winter landscape of the book, and for me succeeded in building a high level of tension, even though I had already read the book. But if you have the choice, read the book first. The first person account in the book seems to me to give the story – and especially the ending – more punch than a film about the protagonist can do, however well acted and directed.

Polanski originally wanted to film Harris’s book Pompeii (2003), even though it would have been an incredibly expensive project. Now he’s free, maybe he’ll look at it again. Get in first and read the book. Robert Harris rarely disappoints, whatever you think of Polanski.

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