Nothing gets crime fiction fans more worked up than the news that a favorite book or series is about to become a movie or TV series.
First reaction: They’ll ruin it, of course. Second reaction: They’re casting WHO in the lead? You’ve gotta be kidding!
All too often, our worst fears are borne out by the finished product. With rare exceptions, the people who make movies and TV shows have no respect for the written word and no understanding of the deep connection many readers feel with familiar, beloved characters.
The latest travesties-in-the-making are a movie starring Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and an American TV version of Prime Suspect. Folks on various mystery discussion listservs are throwing a lot of insults at Cruise these days, but the worst is: He’s short. In Child’s novels, much is made of Reacher’s massive, intimidating size. Way over six feet, huge hands. The very sight of him strikes fear into the hearts of lesser men. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, is shorter than his wife. He was shorter than his first wife too. After their divorce, Nicole Kidman joked about how nice it was to be able to wear high heels again without worrying that she would tower over Tom. I happen to think Cruise is a reasonably good actor, but he can’t act his way into Reacher’s shoes.
As for Prime Suspect, I have no quibbles with the casting of Maria Bello as Jane Tennison. She’s a talented actress. What I object to is the jokey, hokey tone of the previews I’m seeing on TV. They seem to have turned Prime Suspect into one of those female-oriented cop shows where every second line is played for laughs and the little lady makes jokes while she kicks the crap out of the bad guys. Spare me. Why did they have to put the Prime Suspect title on the show and name the character Jane Tennison when neither the stories nor the character will bear any relation to the original?
Which brings me to Rizzoli and Isles. I love Tess Gerritsen’s books. I love Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. I do not see anybody I recognize on the TV show. Again, a somber, thoughtful series has been turned into a breezy, amusing little show in which women run around solving crimes while gossiping about men and taking care (in Maura’s case) not to get their nice shoes and clothes dirty. Angie Harmon is a terrific actress, but the second she was cast in the role the character ceased to be Jane Rizzoli. Jane is frumpy and plain, and her appearance is an important element of the character. Angie Harmon wouldn’t be plain if you put a bag over her head.
Speaking of frumpy and plain, did anybody ever accept Sharon Small as Barbara Havers in the British TV version of Elizabeth George’s novels? The actress is... well, cute, no matter how messy her hair is or how sloppy her clothes are.
I can think of two movies from the past few years that did justice to the books they were based on, and both books were written by Dennis Lehane: Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. These films demonstrate that it is possible to transfer a great story and great characters to the screen without mutilating them or doing a lot of prettying-up. Dexter, as a character, made a successful transition to TV, although the series doesn’t closely follow the books. I don’t watch True Blood, but fans of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books seem to think it’s great. This kind of success re-imagining of the source material is rare indeed.
Sue Grafton says she would “rather roll naked in ground glass” than see her Kinsey Milhone novels turned into a movie or TV series. Unfortunately, most writers can’t resist the glamorous allure of a film or TV option. They take the money (surprisingly little in most cases), they tremble with excitement, and in the end they see something that barely resembles what they created. Maybe they can draw the distinction – “The movie/TV series is a different animal and has nothing to do with what I wrote” – but a lot of readers can’t do that. We keep hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and the worst is usually what we end up with.