H.B. Lyle – Watching the Detectives

Sherlock Holmes

H.B. Lyle examines how actors can change the way we think of literary characters

Posted on August 21, 2018 in Film/TV Adaptations, Guest Author
Tags: Sherlock Holmes, crime fiction, espionage, spy, thriller

Ask someone in their twenties to draw a picture of Sherlock Holmes, and like as not they’ll pen something (depending on their talent) with more than a passing resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch. They’ll know him just as Sherlock, of course, but Cumberbatch’s interpretation is currently the dominant interpretation of Holmes, and no doubt colours present-day understanding of Conan Doyle’s character.

Sherlock Holmes, though, is an old hand at being interpreted and reshaped by actors and adaptations (he is one of, if not the, most filmed literary character of all time.) Even while Conan Doyle was still alive, actors where adding to and embellishing the legend in all sorts of ways. It was American actor William Gillette, for example, who gave Holmes the iconic curved pipe that we now associate with him. Holmes is a character too large and iconic in himself to be pinned down by any one interpretation, however good Benedict Cumberbatch is in the part.

Yet this question of how an actor can influence the reception of a character is one at the forefront of my mind recently. I’ve just adapted my own first novel in a series, The Irregular, for television and the producers are currently in the process of casting the lead role of Wiggins. It occurred to me that this decision – who will play Wiggins on the screen – could be definitional for the subsequent books, let alone the TV series itself.

Consider Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. As a teenager, I loved Morse almost as much as I loved Holmes (not quite). But the Morse I know and love is inextricably linked with the actor John Thaw. For me, Thaw is Morse. His interpretation of the character eventually and almost naturally moved beyond Dexter’s. Normally actors fear being defined by a character, but in the case of Morse the reverse happened.

Even the makers of the TV show knew this to be true. While they were keen to keep up the ‘brand’ of a smart outsider copper in town and gown Oxford, they opted to promote first the side-kick Lewis, and then offer up a young Morse, clearly a performance shadowed by Thaw’s.

The danger (if it is a danger), of the actor superseding the author is most acute in those cases where the adaptation is contemporaneous with the writing of the novels. For all David Suchet’s success as Hercule Poirot, it is not hard to imagine other actors also reaching an audience in the role; likewise Miss Marple, Father Brown, Philip Marlowe et al. This is surely partly because there is never any question of the actor’s performance feeding back into the writer’s work.

Perhaps then, I should be careful what I wish for – it seems that the one way to ensure my character lives most vividly on the page rather than the screen, is to set their attributes in the aspic of time, untouchable by the anxiety of influence. Or in other words, the author must die.

H.B. Lyle

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