Should you read the book before the movie? Conventional wisdom says BUT THINK OF THE PURITY OF YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS, UNFETTERED BY THE SCREEN. Codswallop. We’ve always got stories and images running through our heads, and you aren’t a blank slate during your first encounter with any text, ready to form impressions based solely on a media-free life in the splendid isolation of the Orkneys, the Canadian tundra, etc.
Take Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. My wife got me hooked on the TV series with little effort, and it hits plenty of my sweet spots, from the Roaring Twenties to unconventional P.I.s. The stories tend to be good, from the setups to the dialogue, and each episode blends genuine acting and light, set-piece banter, in the manner of Buffy et al. The Honourable Phryne Fisher takes on a range of standard and novel cases, from stolen paintings to occult gobbledygook, but each is given new life, typically springing from something in Miss Fisher’s character, or that of other recurring characters.
Subsequent to watching the first season (all we Yanks can get at this point, legally anyway), I started reading the books. The screen adaptation is good, and it reaffirmed my view that you need to be a good conductor if you want to translate a story. Here bring the strings up, there back the horns off, all in service of creating something that works in the new medium. Had the books been adapted with no sensitivity, the show would not now be on Season 2. The dialogue works on the page, but Kerry Greenwood‘s novels are decidedly written for history nerds. We can relish her deployment of slang and period terminology, going to look up (and learn from) her word use at need, but too much of that on the screen would be deadly. In similar fashion, the characters are well drawn on the page, with backstory, motivation, and personality galore—they have more complexity than backup characters can hold, particularly given each episode is usually distilled from en entire novel.
I’m neither glad nor sad to have seen the TV series first. Each has its own merits, and I don’t count myself poorer (!) for having Essie Davis in mind while reading. If anything, I’m grateful for the interest that the television series piqued, in the same way that watching Mystic River ultimately led me to read Dennis Lehane. The joys and flaws of adaptation aren’t particular to mysteries, but for some reason I notice them with more interest than I do when watching mainstream, fantastic, or whatever other kind of stories. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Plenty of changes—some I loved, some I hated—but none that caused my noticing machine to start clicking. Dexter? A completely different story… but that’s one for another day.