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.