Friday, October 28, 2011

Casting the Detectives

When a mystery book's character moves from the page to the screen, a lot of changes may occur. I was reminded recently of the casting issue when discussing the late Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series with some friends. You may have seen the three-part adaptation on Masterpiece Mystery! last season, with Rufus Sewell playing Zen. This casting provoked a lot of howls from the more ardent fans of the Zen books. My good friend Georgette opined that Rufus Sewell was as much Aurelio Zen as Owen Wilson would be Josef Stalin. Hmm.


What do you think?
Were these two separated at birth?

Caterina Murino & Rufus Sewell
Me, I was fine with Rufus Sewell as Zen. He smoldered nicely, looked great in Italian suits and had explosive chemistry with Caterina Murino, who played Tania Moretti. But I've only read a couple of the books in the series and that was a long time ago. Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd read them all and they were dear to my heart.

What makes for a successful acting portrayal of a beloved mystery book character, then? One thing I do know is that a physical resemblance between the actor and the character isn't a prerequisite. Here is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon:
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
Humphrey Bogart
David Suchet
That doesn't sound even remotely like Humphrey Bogart, does it? And yet wasn't Bogie near perfection as Spade? Obviously, we need to forget about looks. Instead, the actor must express the essence of the character or make the character his own.

Could there be a better Hercule Poirot than David Suchet? For me, he's Poirot to the life. I didn't dislike Peter Ustinov the many times he played him, but he didn't seem quite right. Albert Finney and Alfred Molina really didn't do it for me. I just hope Suchet gets the chance to achieve his stated ambition to play Poirot in every one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Margaret Rutherford
Joan Hickson
Agatha Christie's other best-known protagonist, Miss Marple, has also been played by many actors. Just in recent years, PBS has shown productions with Julia McKenzie, Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson. They all were appealing to me, though I liked Joan Hickson the best. Going back to the old movies, I just loved Margaret Rutherford, even accepting that she wasn't true to the books' descriptions. She was just so far from even a façade of a retiring nature, and every time I'd see her knitting I'd think that about the only thing I could truly imagine her doing with the needle was tenderizing the rump of a fleeing suspect.

Heston: worst Sherlock ever?
Look on Wikipedia to see the list of actors who have played Sherlock Holmes. The list is something like 70 names long, including such unlikely choices as Charlton Heston and George C. Scott. I remember Rupert Everett's 2004 portrayal of Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stockings was downright painful, though that had a lot to do with the film itself. I think most Holmes aficionados are satisfied with the portrayals of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. They've formed many people's mental pictures of Sherlock Holmes for decades.

Benedict Cumberbatch
The current Holmes depictions by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr., are a little more controversial. I thought Cumberbatch captured the Holmes disdain for conventional behavior and all lesser mortals (pretty much everybody, in other words), while Downey's willingness to do and try anything was appealing even if he didn't seem all that much like Holmes. But I'm not a hardcore Holmesian, so maybe I'm too easygoing on the subject.

Roy Ridley
I am, however, a hardcore Lord Peter Wimsey-ite. It's commonly said that Dorothy L. Sayers modeled Wimsey's physical appearance on Roy Ridley, who was a Fellow and Tutor of Oxford's Balliol College. In Whose Body, Sayers describes him as having "rather hard grey eyes [and a] long, indeterminate mouth" and adds to that "a long, narrow chin, and a long, receding forehead, accentuated by the brushed-back sleekness of his tow-coloured hair." Wimsey's appearance wouldn't stop a clock, but he's no oil painting, either. As Sayers would put it more elegantly, "[a]t no . . . time had he any pretensions to good looks."

Ian Carmichael
On the screen, the two most well-known depicters of Dorothy L. Sayers's creation are Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge. I don't downright dislike Carmichael's portrayal, but he's too bumptious for my taste. And I can't get the picture out of my head of his somewhat pudgy body in a harlequin costume in Murder Must Advertise. It was just not right.

Jeremy Sheffield
Edward Petherbridge
On the other hand, Petherbridge seemed a closer physical resemblance to Sayers's Wimsey, though I'd say a touch too effete. More important, Petherbridge conveyed Lord Peter's yearning for Harriet Vane and his occasional angst about the consequences of his detective work. I'd love to see a remake of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but I don't know whom I'd cast as the lead. Maybe Jeremy Sheffield, a British actor who caught my eye recently.

Jason Isaacs
Right now, PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! is televising a three-part series based on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mysteries. Jason Isaacs, looking very different from his well-known part as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, plays Jackson Brodie. First off, he looks great, with his penetrating blue eyes and weather-beaten but handsome face. He has a voice as warm as a peat fire and personality that's an irresistible mix of wry humor leavened with an air of lifelong loss. Since I've never read the books, I have no way to compare his portrayal to Kate Atkinson's creation. Thoughts about that or other crime fiction characters portrayed on screen?


  1. Sister, you wrote:
    "Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd read them all and they were dear to my heart."

    That's so true! I had no or minimal previous investment in Aurelio Zen or Jackson Brodie, so the characters were fine with me. Same with Kenneth Branaugh as Kurt Wallander.

    Suchet was perfect as Poirot, and Hickson the best Miss Marple (pity she made so few.) And no one has done Lord Peter right yet.

    I enjoy the Young Holmes stories with Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the mature ones with Jeremy Brett; they do the irritable genius thing very well.

  2. Fantastic blog this morning, Sister Mary.

    Owen Wilson as Stalin. Picturing OW onscreen ordering purges of his enemies. Beyond Oscar-worthy performance if he could bring it off.

    Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes for me although I've enjoyed Downey and Brett in the role. Charlton Heston as Holmes. Was that movie a comedy?

    Agree with you on Rutherford and Hickson for Miss Marple. Suchet as Poirot.

    That picture of Roy Ridley IS Lord Peter. Carmichael was a problem as you sy.

    I liked Isaacs as Jackson Brodie but Case Histories is a nonlinear book that didn't travel well to the screen.

    What about Lee Child's Reacher? Connelly's Harry Bosch? Will they be onscreen soon? Nikki

  3. A great TGIF.

    In one of Connelly's books a woman says that Bosch looks like Hugh Laurie. I've alwwys pictured Bosch as Billy Bob Thornton.

    I like M. Rutherford as Jane Marple. And Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles in the spoof Murder by Death. Nobody else could have played the bride of Frankenstein. Her eyes were made for the part.

    Don't like Daniel Craig as James Bond. He's got a walking woundedness about him whereas I see Bond as tongue in cheek. Nobody did it better than Sean Connery. Kev

  4. Nikki, did you enjoy reading Case Histories? I'm thinking about picking it up.

    Charlton Heston played Holmes in a made-for-cable movie, adapted from a theatrical play, called The Crucifer of Blood. It didn't get good reviews, and most reviewers thought Heston was horribly miscast. His son was the movie's producer and director. 'Nuf said.

    Periphera, even though I've read all the Wallander series, I didn't have a big problem with Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. He didn't seem right to me, but it didn't really get in the way.

  5. I'd also like to see Harry Bosch move off the page. Mickey Rourke, Robert Downey Jr. for the role? Robert Crais's Elvis Cole and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone won't be appearing in movies any time soon. Their writers want to keep them inside their books.

    If you can separate the onscreen offering from the book it helps to avoid disappointment or outrage but sometimes it's hard to avoid when you know the book well. I agree that Peter Wimsey has yet to be perfectly cast. All of the James Bonds have been different. I like Daniel Craig even though he is less tongue in cheek than Sean Connery and Roger Moore.

  6. Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire is coming to TV on A&E. Robert Taylor from the Matrix is playing Walt. While Lou Diamond Phollips will be playing the 6'6" Henry Standing bear.

    There is always a problem when you have a preconceived notion of what a character should look like. But a well acted drama or comedy can make you forget for a little while that if only he was twenty years older Josh Hartnett could be a young Gary Cooper and thus great for the Longmire role. I am happy we don't have to wait too long for the ten episode series.

  7. The 'nit' is not picking any more!

    Now I can talk. Yippee!

    ****Holmes depictions by Benedict Cumberbatch****

    Although Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone can't be beat in my memory----- I absolutely loved Cumberbatch.

    SMM's description of him ***I thought Cumberbatch captured the Holmes disdain for conventional behavior and all lesser mortals (pretty much everybody, in other words)*** was spot on! I certainly hope that he's brought back for more Sherlock Holmes roles.

  8. Sister Mary, I did like Case Histories. Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series is a good one. Interesting characters. The books aren't swiftly paced but the plots are complex enough for me to enjoy Atkinson's voice. I think you'd like them.

    Thanks for the info about Heston's Holmes. I cannot imagine that performance. Nikki

  9. Della,
    I have listened to all of Sue Grafton's books on audio. There is no Kinsey Milhone but Judy Kaye!
    Unless Judy Kaye plays her in a movie, I can't see anyone else as Kinsey!

    Just like there is no Travis Magee but Darrin McGavin!

  10. Kathy, if Kinsey Millhone does make the jump from page to screen and Judy Kaye doesn't play Millhone, you'll have to watch the movie wearing a blindfold.

    I read that Don Johnson wanted to play Travis McGee in a movie when Miami Vice ended but no movie was made. Rod Taylor starred as McGee in Darker Than Amber and Sam Elliott was McGee in the 1983 TV movie The Empty Copper Sea. Recently there's been talk of filming THE DEEP GOOD-BY with Leonardo DiCaprio as McGee. I can't quite see DiCaprio as McGee. When I close my eyes I see him on Shutter Island.

  11. I vote for Laurence Fox as the new Lord Peter Wimsey.

  12. I'd actually suggest Benedict Cumberbatch as playing Lord Peter. I didn't know anything about him until a couple of weeks ago when I saw Sherlock for the first time, and clearly he's a very versatile actor. He does an extraordinary amount of different voices and has a more period look to his face. The parroty nose Lord Peter has isn't 100% on Cumberbatch, but I honestly think he could pull off Wimsey. This is coming from a longtime Sayers devotee. ;)

  13. I concur completely with aliceteepleart on Benedict Cumberbatch playing Lord Peter Wimsey. The only thing I can see playing against him would be his height! Wimsey I believe is only supposed to be about 5'10" or so, but Cumberbatch could pull off the "wiry strength" to perfection. They'll have to find a match for him as Harriet Vane. I adored Harriet Walter's performances immensely, as well as Edward Petherbridge's, but I'd love to see the stories more fleshed out. Sayers included so much interesting information in her stories of her time, so that they're rather a history lesson with an absorbing detective element and the ones with Harriet include some of the best depictions of love I've ever read! Another long time Sayers devotee!