Both of those performances were iconic, and I am not trying to emulate them.
The words of Mads Mikkelson, talking about Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins who both portrayed the character Hannibal Lecter. Today I’d like to discuss the portrayal of famous fictional detectives and criminals by actors. What can happen when a character is brought to life?
Reading is such a personal pursuit. You build up an image in your mind of the character, and when the stage, screen or even audio portrayal doesn’t match up you can be left disappointed. Sometimes the character is more iconic and more famous than the actor playing the role. At other times a new actor will take on the role in a more modern production, and then has to live in the shadow of the actor who made the role famous in an earlier incarnation. In Mikkelson’s case, not just one iconic portrayal, but two. No wonder then he took refuge in the character’s position.
Luckily, we are starting in a different situation: my Hannibal is not yet captured, I am still out on the loose, I am a practising psychiatrist, and for that reason, I have to behave a little differently than Anthony did.
In his book, Agatha Christie: Murder in Four Acts (1990) Peter Haining, a prolific writer and crime fiction chronicler, outlines the different approaches that have been taken to dramatising Christie’s work on the stage, television, radio and silver screen. His title is a nod to Murder in Three Acts, a 1986 Warner Bros. film starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot which is itself based on her 1934 novel Three Act Tragedy. Haining references a letter that Agatha Christie wrote to a young Joan Hickson in the 1940s after watching her act in a stage adaptation of Christie’s Appointment with Death. She wrote,
I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.
Hickson did, and to memorable effect, although sadly Christie died before she could see it for herself. I am certain she would have approved. Rumour has it that Queen Elizabeth II did.
The characters of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot appear in over 50 novels, and 70 short stories between them. There is, therefore, a wealth of source material for actors to work with. The same is not always true of other characters. One of the most iconic fictional detectives ever written comes in the form of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett. This may surprise you but it is the only full-length novel in which the character appears. Apart from that, and three scarcely read short stories that are the extent of his literary existence (if you discount a prequel called Spade & Archer written in 2009 by Joe Gores with the approval of Hammett’s estate). This seems out of sorts with the number of film portrayals that exist, including perhaps the most iconic one by Humphrey Bogart in 1941. Why is it then, that some works lend themselves so readily to adaptations and iconic portrayals?
One major consideration for any portrayal and adaptation is the nature of the original narrative. Some writing can be outstanding on paper, yet difficult to convey on screen. Additionally, there is the question of what type of adaptation to make. What works on the radio doesn’t necessarily work on stage or screen. When writing the Mark Dewar novels it struck me how much of the story would work on screen. What I’ve never fully understood though is what my likely reaction would be to seeing this happen. Bret Easton Ellis, for example, hated the film adaptation of American Psycho. One of the best reviews I’ve ever seen was of a production of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly (itself based on a short story of the same name). The reviewer wrote,
I always thought Madame Butterfly committed suicide. Last night she was murdered.
No discussion on adaptations is complete with mentioning Sherlock Holmes the fictional detective who has been portrayed more times, by more actors than any other. So much so that in 2012 the Guinness Book of World Records awarded Sherlock Holmes a world record for the most portrayed literary human character in film and television. Over 250 performances on-screen by over 75 different actors. You have to wonder what Arthur Conan Doyle would have made of all this. I often wonder whether any of these portrayals come close to how Doyle saw Holmes.
I’ll leave the last word to David Suchet, the actor who has played Hercule Poirot for more than 25 years, in television productions syndicated by over 200 broadcasters worldwide.
He’s taught me to be a much better listener than I would have been had I never played him. I listen to what people say, but I actually hear what they mean.
There is simply no substitute for a good character.