Thursday, 14 June 2007

Feeble Endeavour

A TV or film adaptation of an admired novel is often judged not on its merits but by the extent to which it is faithful to the original. It rarely happens that reading the novel after first seeing the adaptation is a disappointment: more often, you discover that the original has riches which the adaptation lacked.

But the reverse can sometimes happen. In the eighties and nineties I watched an occasional episode of Morse and found the character of the detective unattractive: he was pretentious, arrogant and patronising and his love of crosswords, beer and classical music struck me as attributes tacked on in a feeble attempt to make him interesting. The esteem in which he was held by his sidekick Lewis—and the viewing public—was inexplicable.

Of course it was John Thaw's brilliant characterisation that did the trick; that, coupled with good writing, enjoyably preposterous stories and high production values, made the series watchable and even memorable.

The other day I came across a copy of Last Bus to Woodstock, the first in the long series of Morse novels by Colin Dexter, and read it. It was not easy to finish, for it tells a dull and confused story in flat, turgid, cliché-ridden prose, and Dexter's Morse is desperately uninteresting. In the adaptations he may be unlovable but at least he is a character. Here he is quite unlike the TV Morse: the original is an unconvincing, boring, cigarette-smoking cipher, given to vulgar chat-up lines and younger than Lewis.

There must have been something in the novel—or perhaps in its successors , which I don't want to read—to inspire the creation of a TV series, but it is difficult to imagine what it was. Their undistinguished author was lucky to have been made extremely rich by the work of the talented scriptwriters, directors and actors who contrived to give his oeuvre what it so conspicuously lacked: style.

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