Does fair play translate to the screen?

I’ve been struck by this question for a while – can the essence of a golden age mystery novel ever truly be captured on film?  Obviously novels from the period have been adapted to screen – quite a few of them even if you only consider the Christie adaptations since the 90s – but can they ever really deliver that wow moment for an audience that isn’t already invested in the genre?

A recent discussion at The Invisible Event explored the topic of fair play in classic detective fiction.  The notion of fair play is typically associated with sets of rules laid forth by Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine which present a framework within which mystery authors of the era should work.  My own take on fair play is that it is crucial for that wow moment delivered at the end of a book when the solution is revealed.  The author, often through the voice of the detective, lays out a neat explanation of all that came before.  What creates the fair play wow moment is the stitching together of clues that lay in plain sight throughout the novel.  The solution should feel as if it was obvious – that the reader had a chance to figure it out – even if in reality it was tucked neatly out of reach.

I love nothing more than that epiphany at the conclusion of a well done mystery.  When you realize that you saw key parts of the subterfuge play out before your eyes, but you simply didn’t understand at the time how to interpret them correctly.  Often these little tricks involve hiding a key piece of information in some seemingly innocent background detail.  My question is whether this can really be effectively accomplished when translated to film.

Well, I think obviously it could be done, but could it practically be done?  What I mean there is in regards to the practicality of how films are made.  We’re dealing with a limited run time – maybe two hours in the case of a movie, or 30-90 minutes in the case of a television series.  Content simply has to be cut.  Eight suspects are reduced to six.  Two investigators become one.  The “star” detective – think Poirot – must be the draw for the audience, and so he’s given an expanded role and creeps into scenes where he didn’t originally belong.  Plus, the director has got to inject a bit more excitement for the modern audience, perhaps even twisting the story for those already familiar with the book

The most successful example of a GAD adaptation that I’ve seen so far is Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.  Yes, the story is naturally condensed a bit, and two key characters are blended into one, but it is the best example that I can think of when it comes to fair play.  Green for Danger is one of those novels where everything is laid out on the table for the reader to see, but it’s done in such a way where the reader simply doesn’t understand the right way to interpret things.  As Aiden of Mysteries Ahoy recently remarked while discussing the subject of fair play – “What impresses me most is when an author plays fair by basically presenting you with information that answers a question the reader didn’t even know to ask.”

Green for Danger nails this.  If you’ve read the novel, you can’t help but smugly squirm as you watch the film.  Nearly every scene has some detail that ties into the solution, but a first time viewer simply couldn’t know that it was significant.

My issue though is this – as a reader, you can’t help but remember these aspects.  The fact that a character did some action, or that some object was present during some scene, is blatantly stated in the text.  And, at least if you’re like me, you remember them.  I don’t know if that really translates to film.

Do you really remember that some character walked down a hall during some early scene in a film?  Do you remember that a character touched (or more significantly did not touch) a coffee cup?  These questions jump out at me when I watch a David Suchet adaptation of a Christie novel with my friends.  They may be slightly distracted during a scene, and from their perspective, why shouldn’t they be?  There’s just a few people talking over coffee.  Who cares if the maid is in the room?  Plus, the murder hasn’t even happened yet…

It seems like movies – more so today, but in the past as well – rely on heavy cueing to let the audience know when they should be engaged.  Provide that cueing in a GAD novel and all bets are off.  It would become too obvious what you should be looking for.  I’m reminded of the David Suchet adaptation of Death on the Nile where my wife was immediately like “that’s suspicious” (admittedly, I found the scene to be overly cued in the novel).  And yet, if you don’t provide that cueing, the audience is likely bored by people rambling on about nothing.

The impossible crime – my favorite of mystery styles – is a perfect example of how details just don’t translate to the screen.  I haven’t watched that many episodes of Death in Paradise or Jonathan Creek, but when I have, I’m startled by how the impossibility doesn’t come across when filmed.  Body found in a locked room?  Oh, well they probably just haven’t shown some aspect of the crime scene.  In a book, you’re given direct assurance of some form by the author that the crime is outright impossible.  I just don’t know if that sort of authority translates well to the screen – or at least it doesn’t without real focused attention to make sure it does.

Imagine if Paul Halter’s excellent The Madman’s Room was translated into a movie.  Oh, there’s wet spots on the carpet following every murder?  Who cares?  I don’t think you could really translate the significance of that detail to the screen. And yet tell me that any reader of that book hasn’t been fascinated by what was causing those wet spots!

I recently watched Clue for the first time in ages, and I realized (I have a feeling some people are going to be horrified by this) that it may be the best possible representation of the GAD novel ever captured on film.  Why do I utter such blasphemy?  Because everything is so exaggerated.  For those who haven’t seen it, Clue is an over the top rendition of a classic murder mystery, verging on slapstick.  And yet, that exaggerated nature – the fact that the dialogue is delivered almost exclusively via shouting – means that you actually remember everything that was said and done.  Come the denouement, you know exactly what previous situations are being referenced.  You remember what the characters said, did, and did not do.  And it’s satisfying for the audience that doesn’t have a vested interest in the work.  They can have the forehead slapping moment that probably defines the best of what we look for in the golden age.

There are other forms of that forehead slapping moment in film of course; that jarring twist that makes you mention a movie to a friend.  The most famous example of this is probably The Usual Suspects, which contains an unraveling of story at the end that feels very GAD.  Although I don’t think it is necessarily fair play, it is one of those ending that feels like it is fair play.  Through a prolonged series of flashbacks, the audience is shown scenes that click together to form a seemingly obvious solution.

Horror movies are probably where the twist has received the most attention in recent decades, although perhaps this has created an audience overly prepared for them.  Every variation ranging from most likely killer to least likely killer has been played out in these films – often simply for the sake of that final tacked on twist.  I mean, I guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense merely from watching the preview, simply because it seemed like a logical surprise based on the rest of the clips.

I do think though that horror is the genre where you’re most likely to experience that epiphany that a reader of GAD is looking for.  Take the semi-obscure (it received a well promoted release at the time) The Skeleton Key (2005), which features one of those twist in which prior scenes can be replayed to the audience for satisfying effect at the end.

Do we have to resort to that though?  Do we have to settle for endings like The Usual Suspects (great ending, not disparaging) or The Skeleton Key, where only through being shown a series of previous clips can the audience feel that revelation?  Perhaps so – and this isn’t a so much a denouncement of audiences (which I find unfair), but rather perhaps a weakness of the very form given production realities.

I have seen a few films with hope though, and yet they aren’t traditional mysteries.  Primer (2004) and the horribly named Timecrimes (2007) both capture that element that I’m looking for in a GAD denouement but in an unexpected way.  They’re both movies involving time travel, and by playing out a single short story repeatedly by showing the same scenes from a different time perspective you almost get that fair play sense of the pieces clicking together and appearing obvious in retrospect – without feeling like you’re being spoon-fed by the director.

Well, that was a bit of a ramble, but any thoughts on it?  Are there films that you feel capture that real fair play element of these books that we read?  Can an impossible crime translate to the big screen?  Perhaps, as long as the characters shout about it.

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15 thoughts on “Does fair play translate to the screen?”

  1. This isn’t audience disparagement either, but let’s face it: most of the people sitting in those seats in the dark come for the emotional stimulation, not the intellectual. When Miss Marple disappears toward the end of A Murder Is Announced, she leaves behind a list of ten or twelve things, all of which have significance in the solution. In the TV adaptations, most of these are cut by necessity because there simply isn’t enough air time to lay the foundation for every item/idea.

    I would say, however, that many films DO have “fair play” in them, if only of a simpler variety. Yes, I also guessed the ending to The Sixth Sense, but I would say that it plays very fairly from start to finish and that – judging by the audience reaction at the end when I viewed it – most people felt the surprise. Or that interesting film Identity about the ten people in the motel dying one by one . . . have you seen that one? (I haven’t seen those two films you mentioned: Primer and the other one – good??)

    You’ll probably have a number of folks suggest films that do adhere to a complex fair play scheme (The Last of Sheila, The Kennel Murder Case) and so on. But these are rare cases, and TLoS has only attained cult status Most mysteries based on books simplify those books completely. I think the films that best succeed in being FP and entertaining are those that translate the literary into the visual, in keeping with the appropriate storytelling medium. That lovely moment when the victim in GfD is being washed for surgery works better in the book because seeing a certain reaction in the film gives too much away. At the same time, we lose some lovely book moments in an adaptation because they simply can’t be shown without giving the game away. Most people like the late Suchet adaptation of After the Funeral, but there are so many wonderful visuals (the woman having tea in a shop after the gathering) and conversations that contain clues that simply can’t be shown. Most of those lovely grammatical and spelling clues in AMIA are lost. That brilliant casual dinner conversation in Towards Zero where Christie slips in an important clue about a deformity is simply lost because that whole visual aspect of the book is always cut. Too many little details for an audience.

    BTW, I recently saw the coming attraction for a new all-star whodunnit opening this fall. I think it’s called Knives Out! Looked like fun.

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    1. I’ve seen the preview for Knives Out, and it may just be over the top enough (ala Clue) that it might work. We’ll see.

      I realize this is a question that transcends the mystery genre, but what if they just actually made one of these movies completely true to the novel? How much longer would the Suchet adaptation of A Murder is Announced have been if they had stuck completely to the book? 30 minutes? 60 minutes?

      I suppose it isn’t simply sticking to the story, but allowing the details to come through in proper form so that they are clearly communicated without over-cueing the audience. It always strikes me as funny when they attempt to “improve” upon the original, although maybe I’m just too close to the original material to judge that fairly. I mean, it’s not like these authors were flawless. Still, I have to think that Christie wrote it better originally than whatever clever bit some present day writer massaged into the script.

      Of course, translate this discussion into some genre that I don’t care about and I’d be rolling my eyes and thinking “it’s just a book, get over it”…

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      1. How funny! The “Suchet adaptation” of A Murder Is Announced would hopefully be very short. AMIA is a Miss Marple tale! Still, the Joan Hickson version was, I believe, three hours long (three one hour episodes) – and remarkably faithful to the book – while the Geraldine McEwan version was ninety minutes. And the latter added all sorts of odd new plot elements that weren’t in the book, so you can only imagine how much they left out.

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      2. Ha, what was I thinking? I was thrown off by the fact that most of the Christie films I watch are Suchet and the version of A Murder is Announced that I was watched was filmed in a similar period.

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    2. Oh, yeah – Primer and Timecrimes are really good by my measure. However, I don’t know that any of our tastes will necessarily align on anything outside of the mystery genre. Primer comes across at first as a slow moving indie drama. Timecrimes (a Spanish film if I recall correctly) comes across initially as a slasher flick. Neither of those first impressions hold true and I think they both end up with something that will resonate with GAD fans.

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  2. The Last of Sheila is so very committed to the concept of fair play that I spotted something I assumed was a mistake and so dismissed from consideration until other things started to fall into place around it.

    I’ve always wondered about The Usual Suspects; there is — SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS — a shot of Verbal Kint looking across the noticeboard before the interview commences, and I wonder how much it really shows you. Certainly the Kobayashi sting comes out of nowhere, I seem to remember. Given the various revelations and accusations levelled against Spacey and Singer makes it a difficult movie to want to rewatch any time soon.

    There’s a very interesting Spanish film called Contratiempo (or The Invisible Witness in English) which plays around with the nature of information and deduction where playing fair is concerned. It’s interesting because of the intelligence displayed by a lot of the characters, showing how they come to certain conclusions based on what they observe, information the audience also has but potentially overlooks. It’s not all completely fair, I’d wager, but key aspects are very smartly shown.

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    1. Yes, I definitely have to watch The Last of Sheila one of these days. Thanks for putting it on my radar – I have to remember to check to see if it is available streaming on something that I have access to.

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      1. I realise I’ve made an error above; Contratiempo is the Spanish version of the film, but it was remade in Italian with a title that translates as The Invisible Witness. Dunno how or if the Sp and It versions differ, but the Spanish version appears to be The Invisible Guest in English… ay, ay, ay, as that robot from Power Rangers would say.

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  3. One classic film I think embodies fair play is the lovely romance/action movie Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. While not a mystery in the pure sense of the genre, it has a lot of GAD elements-a killer, a limited number of suspects who are getting killed off one by one, and two big mysteries-who is the killer? and where is the missing money? The killer ends up being a big surprise, but it is fairly clued throughout. And the missing money-over and over, we are shown a collection of seemingly worthless objects-but the money is there. I saw the film very young, and did not figure it out, though an experienced GAD reader might. But I think it embodies fair play, even if not a true detective story.

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  4. Thank you for another excellent post. This is a topic I’ve been interested in, as a GAD fan and a movie fan—but most movies from GAD books disappoint me. I often think the director or screenwriter either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about clues and “fair play” (even Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, a wonderful film, seems to me to telegraph the ending). It’s true that GAD novels are non-visual and intended for careful readers, which may work against them. But some films change the solution (never for the better), or add an unnecessary chase scene (David Suchet is great as Poirot but I got fed up with some of the adaptations). I’d like to see more fair-play detective movies written directly for the screen; some clues work well visually, e.g. indicating which characters are left-handed, which is clumsy on the page. I solved The Last of Sheila because of a visual clue (though I missed many other clues, including the significance of the “group photo”). Charade, another original, excels in both screenplay and direction (the “who” isn’t really clued, but still satisfying). I agree that Green for Danger is probably the best GAD film. I think Death on the Nile is underrated; Anthony Shaffer, the adapter, understood the plot, and simplified it while keeping Christie’s framework and clues (he too reduced the number of characters by combining—Colonel Race and Ferguson take over part of the plot function of the dropped Fanthorp and Tim Allerton).

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    1. The visual clue can be tough though. Like, would you ever notice left vs right handedness during a movie? I sure wouldn’t, even if you threw in some ominous violin music while the camera repeatedly zoomed in on a writing hand.

      That actually reminds me of a thought that I had while writing this, but it seems to have escaped my pen. In the same way that I don’t think an audience could really notice some of these clues during a movie, I also question whether a witness would really remember half of this stuff that happens in books. Like, would you really be positive that no one came near the coffee cup while you were gathered in the library – six hours before a death even occurred? Maybe I’m just unobservant, but I have a feeling that I would make the worst witness in a mystery novel. Oh, and don’t even ask me what time something happened…

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  5. Not horrified at all by your thoughts on CLUE! I think the mystery plot actually works surprisingly well, and some of the suspense sequences wouldn’t be out of place in a serious film. The murder of the motorist in the lounge is especially creepy.

    It seems like there were a huge swath of “GAD-adjacent” movies in the late ’90s and early 2000s–movies which were totally different in tone and setup from traditional mysteries, but which nonetheless featured epiphany moments, unexpected killers, and twists which turned the entire story on its head. Besides the ones already mentioned (USUAL SUSPECTS, SIXTH SENSE, SKELETON KEY, etc.), I’d add MEMENTO, THE ILLUSIONIST, and THE PRESTIGE.

    Almost no one has ever noticed this because they tie themselves in knots trying to figure out the movie’s political ideas, but I think FIGHT CLUB (yet another film from this time period) bears a very, very strong resemblance to our favorite type of novel. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a GAD plot: the least likely character turning out to be the villain, a series of clues leading up to the big revelation, and the same feeling which you described in this post–“the pieces clicking together and appearing obvious in retrospect.” Both the general nature of the twist and the misdirection used to conceal it remind me of a well-regarded book that I don’t believe has been discussed here yet. (No way am I going to say more about this, because that book is too good to spoil. I suspect you’ll eventually review it even though the author is not as famous as Christie or Carr. Suffice to say that it’s a very specific type of misdirection that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and it’s deployed *brilliantly* both times.)

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    1. Thank you for reminding me that I need to rewatch The Prestige. I’ve only seen it once, but it made enough of an impression that it still wafts into my mind on a yearly basis. Of course, there’s an element of it that wouldn’t quite qualify for fair play.

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