Archive for the ‘Books into Films’ Category

Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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I read the late P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley when it came out in 2011. I enjoyed it – how could I not, being both a fan of P.D. James and Jane Austen? (Does this make me a Janeite? Probably. Too bad.) But I nevertheless felt that the problems of marrying a murder mystery to a story about early nineteenth century social relationships were too great even for P.D. James, and that in order to be true to Elizabeth and Darcy, the crime story had to suffer. You can read what I said here. But of course I was interested to see how the TV series deals with it.

The problem I find with adaptations of books for film or TV is how far the adaptation should be viewed as a stand-alone product. I can’t stop myself comparing them. Here there is the additional complication that the book is an adaptation of sorts of the original Austen characters and some of the original situations. A double level of comparison! So not only do I compulsively compare the TV series with the book, I also compare it with the world of the original. This is unfortunate, as I would probably enjoy the TV series more if I didn’t constantly find myself muttering ‘Yes, but …’

The facts of the murder are essentially the same as in the book. Elizabeth and Darcy’s brother-in-law, George Wickham, is accused of killing his friend Captain Denny in the Pemberley woods on the eve of the annual Pemberley ball. What were they doing there? Why would he kill his friend? Will he be found guilty and bring dishonour on Pemberley? As the story progresses, some of what is only hinted at in the book is made much clearer on the screen, and I think this actually strengthens the plot. And in the TV version, Elizabeth is given a major role in the resolution, which takes away some of the deus ex machina element in the ending of the book. Naturally it is played for all the tension that can be screwed out of it, and quite successfully, too. But is this clarity is achieved at the expense of a violation of the social conventions operating in Austen’s world?

The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy differs markedly from that in the book. In the book, Darcy has no doubts about his love for Elizabeth. In the TV version, they fight, and begin to question each other’s commitment. This version chooses to stress Darcy’s pride in the traditions of Pemberley, which is something present in the book, but not a matter of contention between Elizabeth and Darcy. On screen, the unpleasant side of Elizabeth’s family is played up, so we are reminded of how much he has married below himself. In both the book and the TV series we are shown Lydia Wickham as a hysterical and foolish woman – but her shallowness is more marked on screen (though I have to admit she has a moment of redemption). The TV series also gives us Mrs Bennett as a much more unpleasantly insidious character than in the original. She doesn’t actually appear at Pemberley at all in the book, where only Mr Bennett is present, as a source of calm and support. In the book, Jane, the presentable sister, and Bingley are present from the first; on screen, Jane comes in only briefly later. And the element of family pride is added to the relationships between Darcy’s sister Georgiana, her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam who wants to marry her and Henry Alveston, the man she loves. Having Darcy and Elizabeth quarrelling, Georgiana torn between her suitors and contemplating putting duty to Pemberley before love, makes for high drama and good visuals. But it’s not in the book, and doesn’t add to the murder side of things – well not much, anyway. And having Elizabeth and Darcy at each other’s throats has more in common with one of the weaker romantic sequels to Pride and Prejudice than it does with the spirit of generous accord reached between them in that book.

The production is visually attractive, and the acting perfectly acceptable. Elizabeth seems to have risen to the occasion as mistress of Pemberley, but there is almost no place for her wit and playfulness – though there wasn’t in the book, either. We get a touch of it in her meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which is nice, as we only get a letter from her in the book. We can probably agree that Elizabeth would never be showy in her dress, but would she really wear more or less the same thing every day? A few bits of modern dialogue creep in, as when Darcy says ‘He’ll be fine’, but overall, the surface conventions have mostly been respected.

The deeper problem for me concerns Elizabeth’s role. P.D. James clearly felt that as Darcy’s wife and mistress of Pemberley Elizabeth couldn’t take an active part in the murder mystery. By limiting what Elizabeth can do, James has also limited the crime story. By expanding her role, the TV version has strengthened the crime story, but at the expense of the conventions of the time.  As for Darcy’s role in the TV version, it’s not hard to imagine that all that pride from the original book was still lurking around somewhere …

You can read more about P.D. James here, and see some of the tributes to her after her death in November 2014 here.

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When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.

You can read more about Lawrence Block and his books here. And here’s another review of the film.

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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The Broken Shore (2005) is a highly acclaimed crime story by probably the best crime writer in Australia: Temple has won a number of ‘best crime story’ awards for his work. But he is more than a crime writer. The Broken Shore was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, and his next book, Truth (2009), won it in 2010.  This award is given to the book which in that year shows ‘the highest literary merit’ as well as presenting ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. He has also won other awards for literary merit. He uses some of the conventions of crime writing, but at a level that takes his work outside the narrowing confines of genre. And now they’ve made a TV movie of The Broken Shore.

Homicide detective Joe Cashin is back in his home town on the Victorian coast, recuperating after being badly injured in the line of duty. ‘I’m the cripple running Port Monro,’ he says. A loner, in constant pain and reliving in dreams the operation gone wrong, he is ‘broken’ like the rugged limestone cliffs he lives near. ‘Life was weakness,’ he thinks, ‘strength was the exception.’ When a local landowner is bashed and robbed, Cashin is given charge of the investigation by the Homicide branch in Melbourne. But is the case as open and shut as it first looks? Why are the police in Cromarty, the nearest large town, so uniformly hostile? Could there be other motives for the crime?

At one level this is a clever crime story based on careful misdirection. It is up to Cashin to arrive at the answer no one else has seen, ‘delivered to him by some process in the brain that endlessly sifted, sorted and shuffled things heard and read, seen and felt, bits and pieces with no obvious use, just clutter, litter, until the moment when two of them touched, spun and found each other, fitted like hands locking.’ (And what a great statement of the way great detectives operate – in books, at least.) As Cashin finds his way towards the truth, the tension mounts to a dramatic climax; is Cashin’s worst nightmare about to be repeated?  This is a good but fairly standard plot structure. What makes the book rise above the constraints of the crime story?

There are two things. One is the writing. Temple has a wonderful ear for dialogue; it has been rightly described as ‘brutal and spare’. Some readers find it unnecessarily coarse, but that’s how people speak. Homicide detectives see the worst of things, but cover their feelings with banter. ‘How is it that wogs have taken over this force?’ asks one detective. ‘Natural selection,’ says Cashin. ‘Survival of the best dressed.’ Cashin feels deeply, but hides his feelings. You ‘turn it into a joke,’ says his mother. ‘Even a tragedy’s only a tragedy for five minutes, then it’s a joke.’ Has he made an error of judgement? ‘With hindsight,’ he says, ‘I see most of my life as an error of judgement.’ ‘There was no firm ground in life. Just crusts of different thickness over the ooze.’ Cashin’s bleak view is reflected in the urban landscapes he visits – ‘a street of rotting weatherboards, dumped cars and thin front yards silting up with junk mail’.

The second strength is Temple’s ability to write about tragedy in a way that is neither dismissive nor melodramatic. His work reveals the underbelly of life in Australia – in this case in small country towns. Too many lives, too many relationships, both personal and social, are broken. Prejudice and racism are rife; whatever goes wrong is blamed on the Aborigines who live there. ‘You’d think the white trash were all at choir practice of a Saturday night.’ There is other theme that is equally disturbing and perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 2005, but to say what it is would be to give away the plot. However just as the bleak landscape can also be beautiful, Cashin finds friendship and purpose where least looked for.

So what do they make of this in a film? Despite a previously stated preference for the written over the visual, I found the film very satisfying. Don Hany makes a great Joe Cashin, clearly in pain but taking no bullshit; he is now my mental image of Joe Cashin. All the other casting works well, though Erik Thomson as Joe’s boss, Inspector Villani, wasn’t what I expected. He’s fine in this, but if they make a film of Truth, I hope they choose another actor because I can’t see him as the main character (which he is in Truth). There is plenty of the black humour that characterises the dialogue in the book.  The film has a strong visual impact with suitably bleak and beautiful scenery as a backdrop. The story has been simplified by the removal of one possible motive and a sub plot, and the shortening of the chain of evidence that leads to the climax. I think something is lost in doing this, but I can see that it works well enough in this context. You would have needed a mini-series to get it all in. There is a strong hint at the beginning about the motive for the crime; so much for me saying the plot is based on misdirection. But I recommend the film – even if you don’t read the book first, though naturally I also recommend you do that too.

You can read more about Peter Temple here, and some rather sketchy details about the film here. You can catch up with it on ABC ivew for the next couple of weeks.

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This is the most recent – 2012 – in a long series of British police procedurals featuring Detective Chief Inspector Banks and set in the fictional town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. I’ve read a number of others in the series over the years, and have found them competent and readable. But what drew me back to this one was seeing the first two 90 minute episodes of the TV series DCI Banks, which were based on two of the earlier books. I wanted to refresh my view of Banks and see if it fitted with the TV version.

Inspector Bill Quinn is on sick leave when he is killed in what looks like a professional hit. Could it be related to the case he was working on, which involved surveillance of a shady money lender who might have had links to people trafficking? Or could it be connected to the case of a missing girl which had haunted him for years? And Professional Standards would like to know why compromising pictures of Quinn and a young girl were found in his room, though everyone knew that he was devoted to his recently dead wife. Then there’s the personal side of things. Inspector Annie Cabbot, Bank’s long term off-sider, is just back from sick leave herself, after getting over injuries sustained in the previous book. Is she up to the hard grind of a murder inquiry? And how will the attractive but cold Inspector Joanna Passero from Professional Standards fit into the investigation?

This is all fairly standard stuff. Banks is a likeable enough character, in something of the same mould as Ian Rankin’s Rebus: divorced, a loner, but without the aggression. He doesn’t always go by the book, and thinks most detectives ‘didn’t know the right questions to ask’. Like Rebus, he sees connections that others miss. Robinson humanises him partly through his musical tastes; here he finds himself starting to like Mahler’s symphonies. ‘Was this something that happened when you got older? Failing eyesight, mysterious aches and pains, enjoying Mahler? Would Wagner be next?’ Coming in at the end of the series, a reader might miss the depth of the rapport between Banks and Cabbot, who have had an on-again off-again relationship in earlier books. The investigation itself relies rather too much on what people are conveniently prepared to tell the detectives, and I think some of the earlier stories were stronger. But there is some good social realism in the people trafficking element of the story. It’s no surprise that the endorsements on the covers of most of Robinson’s books are from Ian Rankin and Michael Connolly.

So how does this sort of character, and this sort of book, come out on TV? Banks is played by Stephen Tompkinson, a fairly common face on British TV, who has played both comedy and drama (and was a police constable in Minder, for those who remember). He plays Banks as rather tougher and more conflicted than I had pictured him. I sometimes find the TV characterisation adds to the one in the book, as with Alec Guinness and George Smiley, or George Baker and Reg Wexford. I don’t feel that here; the kind and compassionate side of Banks isn’t really developed in what I’ve seen of this series.  Annie Cabbot, however, is a pleasure; she is played by Andrea Lowe with rather more cheekiness and verve than I remember from the books. Not surprisingly, the stories themselves are made more dramatic than they seem in the books, where the careful accumulation of evidence is important in building tension. On TV, the spectacle is more important, so there the more vivid events like fires or car chases get a lot of air time. The violence is also emphasised more than in the books, simply by being visual. Reading about a burnt body is quite different from seeing one close up. I also find that with TV, any ambiguities or weaknesses in the plot can be glossed over by concentration on the action. It’s only afterwards that you wonder, for example, just how Banks knew where he had to go in order to save Annie from her headstrong pursuit of the baddie in Playing With Fire.

Overall, I certainly enjoyed the two programs I’ve seen, and went to bed after them feeling more disturbed than I had reading the books. I’ll certainly watch any further episodes. But if I had to choose between TV and book, I’d choose the book every time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DCI Banks here.

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When I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, I noted that one of his characters has the same ‘comfort book’ as I do – I Capture the Castle (1948). A friend asked me what a comfort book was, and I explained that it is a book you re-read when you feel in need of cheering up. I have several, and suspect I share some of them, such as Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings, with others. But most people I know haven’t ever heard of this book (though I gather that it was voted eighty-second out of the 100 best-loved novels in the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’  in 2003 – the year the film came out – see below).

The story is set in the 1930s and is in the form of a journal written by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. ‘I write this,’ she beings, ‘sitting in the kitchen sink.’ She lives in a semi-ruined castle with her eccentric family. Her father is a writer suffering from chronic writer’s block, so they have almost no income; they have had progressively to sell off all their ‘good’ furniture and books. Her stepmother Topaz is a former artist’s model who plays the lute and communes with nature. Her older sister Rose is beautiful, ‘hates most things she has and envies most things she hasn’t’, and is desperate to escape their poverty. Her younger brother Thomas is all ‘appetite and homework’. And then there is Stephen, the son of their former maid who simply stayed on when she died. It is these characters Cassandra intends to ‘capture’. Enter the Cottons, two American brothers, the elder of whom has inherited the nearby Scoatney estate. ‘Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened?’ Cassandra asks Rose. ‘I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs Bennet says Netherfield Park is let at last.’ But things don’t turn out quite like an Austen story.

This is a quintessential coming of age novel in which Cassandra learns to think differently about herself and all her family. This is reflected in her attitude to her writing. ’How arrogant I used to be,’ she says. ‘I remember writing in this journal that I would capture father later – I meant to do a brilliant character sketch. Capture father! Why, I don’t know anything about anyone.’ At the end: ‘I don’t intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself.’ And she comes to understand how difficult it is to explain ‘how the image and the reality merge, and how they somehow extend and beatify each other’. And as events play out, Cassandra learns a stern lesson about love and life, and ‘the game of second best we have all been playing.’

Why do I enjoy the book so much? I think it’s mainly because I really like the way Cassandra looks at the world. Smith has captured the enthusiasm and buoyancy of youth, even if Cassandra is, as one character suggests, a bit ‘consciously naive’. She is observant; she notices, for example, how when her father is asked what he is working on, he ‘somehow deflated’: ‘the carriage of his head changed, and his shoulders sagged.’ Her judgements aren’t always correct though. She has a good sense of humour, and can laugh at the family’s misfortunes. She and Topaz are trying to work out how to return the Cotton’s hospitality when they don’t have any dining room furniture. Lacking chairs, Topaz wonders if they could sit on cushions on the floor. “‘We certainly don’t have enough chairs.” “We haven’t enough cushions, either,” Cassandra replies. “All we really have enough of is floor.” We laughed until the candle wax ran down onto our hands. After that we felt better.’  She takes an infectious pleasure in the simple things around her –drinking cocoa, hearing school children singing, looking at the light on the castle walls. Despite periods of misery, she ultimately has a refreshingly optimistic outlook on life.

If I’m honest I also have to admit that there is a degree of nostalgia in my pleasure. Smith wrote the story when she was living in America and feeling homesick for England; this has no doubt produced a romanticised view. But more important, this closed little domain, with its unquestioned attitudes to class and sex, untouched by the realities of the Great Depression, or the rise of Fascism in Europe, is amazingly restful. Cassandra and her problems exist in a more comfortable world.

While relatively few people seem to know this novel, most will have heard of another of Dodie Smith’s books – The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956).  This became even better known after the 1961 Disney film. Disney also bought the rights to I Capture the Castle, but nothing came of this until Smith’s literary executor – none other than Julian Barnes – bought them back, and the story was filmed in 2003. I enjoyed it, but it couldn’t match the magic I find in the novel.

I came across another of Smith’s books – It Ends with Revelations (1967). I thought it was awful. That’s the way it goes.

You can read more about Dodie Smith here, and about her status as a ‘forgotten author’ here

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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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