How Not to Play with the Classics

Long time readers of the blog will know from my reviews that certain attempts to  mess with classic stories bug me. Among them was a key change to the plot of ITV’s production of Evil Under the Sun
or an earlier British TV version of Father BrownAt the same time, I’ve given a big thumbs up to the drastically altered ITV production of Appointment with DeathI enjoyed the first season of Sherlock and I’m a big fan of the 1940s Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies.

So is playing with the classics good or bad?

They can work and can add a layer of new interpretation. However, there are three big reasons that make many altered stories not work:

1) Pointless Changes

This is the big one.  The series that have tampered with classics and have worked have had a point. In the case of Sherlock, it was the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in the 20th century and re-imagining him growing up in our time rather than in the Victorian Age.

Similarly the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film basically ends up creating a steampunk world for Holmes to inhabit. I think that the script for Appointment with Death was written with the realities of modern stories of child abuse in mind, with the goal of addressing it in a way that was cathartic and in some ways, redemptive.

We can argue whether they’re good but at least there’s a point. On the other side of the ledger are the often pointless changes that are made to stories.  The worst offends tend to be those productions that are generally faithful to original.  Their deviations become obvious and more often than not due to the fact that we expect them to be following the story line.  Five Little Pigs is a key example of this. The gun scene at the end was so obviously tacked on that it was distracting. Similarly, the decision to make a darker ending to the end of the 1991 Sherlock Holmes ITV episode, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Fairfax seemed similarly pointless.

There’s a legitimate case for producers to decide to do a program that is innovative and plays around with the classic plots. However, slipping these things into stories that are otherwise supposed to be faithful adaptation really doesn’t work.

2) Changes that Make Characters Unrecognizable 

At the end of the day,  you can play with plots and characters only so much. The main characters actions must seem consistent with their established personas. Sherlock works because yeah, I can imagine a Sherlock Holmes from General X or Y act like that. One thing that makes Appointment with Death work is that the compassion of Poirot was perfectly believable and in line with how the character acted, often offering himself to young people in distress or headed down the wrong road.

On the other hand, Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in ITV’s presentation of Murder on the Orient Express was hard to swallow. The portrayal was so hard boiled that he was practically a Belgian Philip Marlowe. Similarly, I couldn’t buy CBS version of Sherlock Holmes in the 2012 series Elementary, who unlike the version of Sherlock didn’t ring true as a modern version of Holmes, but seemed more like a rougher edged version of Adrian Monk.

And of course, the 1970s Father Brown series made the mistakes of putting lines into Brown’s mouth that might suit a trendy 1970s progressive clergyman but would hardly belong in the mouth of a character created by G.K. Chesterton, the man who literally wrote the book on Orthodoxy

3) Changes that Mess with the Overall Plot:

There are changes that can be made to a story that are quite innocuous. For example, the 1970s film versions of Evil Under the Sun substituted a male character for a female character so that Roddie McDowell could appear in the reole. There was no harm done to the plot by this. But the telefilm version substituted a male  character in another role and it tipped the hand towards what the solution to the case. 

The only thing worse than pointless tinkering is thoughtless tinkering that ruins productions for new fans as well as old.

Even if these three pitfalls are avoided, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll like the result. I may not really care much for a filmmaker’s vision, but I’ll least respect them for having one.

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