Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 10, 2003

Don't Monkey Around with Literature

Paul Greenberg used TV’s Adrian Monk as lead for an article on Iraq a few days ago (Monk and the Case of the Iraqi Maze ). I’m no Monk when it comes to cross-connecting unconscious observations and instantly arriving at a seemingly brilliant conclusion, so I’ve been shoving my thoughts from left-brain analysis over to right-brain nonsense, turning puzzle pieces every which way, trying to fit my thoughts into a coherent picture.

Okay, I failed. Since that didn’t work I’ll just have to try to write my way through it.

First, here are the salient parts of what Greenberg wrote:

“When does detective fiction rise to literature? Answer: When the detective becomes more than a stock figure, and the intricacies of the plot become only background. People don't read about Sherlock Holmes to solve the cases.

In a great detective story, it is the central character that enthralls us. Someone we could watch forever. Like a Columbo, an Hercule Poirot, or the latest classic, Adrian Monk on the USA Network.

This newest object of our fascination is a total obsessive. He shrinks back from holding hands, or must sterilize everything in sight, or arrange his furniture just so. He is so frightened by things that don't frighten us. We are amused — and feel superior.

Yet his obsessiveness also makes Monk superior to us. His sensitivity is such that he can separate all the clutter and discern a central theme. He can separate the multiple threads in the fabric of a story, and spot the single one out of place.”

I immediately want to argue with several statements made here, though, admittedly, they probably do not bear directly on Greenberg’s aim in his essay. While the Iraq situation is of interest to me, I’m mostly not interested in writing on it. Too many others are doing good work there. The statements, however, do bear on my obsessions that involve what is literature, and what makes literature, and television or films, “good.”

Greenberg begins by making a debatable statement about literature, specifically the genre of detective fiction. I agree that the detective’s character, personality, voice, well, the fact that the detective is truly an individual is important. The detective must become a living, breathing, thinking, intricate and complicated person in the reader’s mind. I disagree that this relegates the plot intricacies to “only background.” More on this later.

Next Greenberg makes a leap he doesn’t justify: he calls television literature. No, he doesn’t say “television is literature,” but continuing his argument of that first paragraph he says it is the central character that enthralls us “in a great detective story.” He then he cites examples, all of which are characters in TV shows. I concede, Hercule Poirot is Agatha Christie’s great detective, but dropping him between two purely television detectives makes it plain that Greenberg is referring to the character in the TV program, not the one in the books.

By any definition up to this time, literature is a written work. While it is true that many TV programs spend part of their evolutionary process as written scripts, the written words play a secondary role to the final product. That product is a presentation as much based on visual images as on spoken words (since the advent of talkies). Very rarely are any written words even employed in the final product (except for titles and credits). The medium is different.

Thus the weighing of the greatness of a detective TV show by the standards of a work of literary detective fiction is not necessarily valid, though due to the shared “detective” theme might be to some degree. Both should be evaluated as their own genre, placed within their own media. If any doubts this I would point to the common result of making a movie, or TV program, based on a book. How many times (short of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films) is even the majority of the action in the book included? How often are the characters cast as they are described in the book? How often, even, are all the characters retained? A director will insist that it’s necessary, it all cant fit in, or it all can’t be made to work in a film (or that they don’t like the political implications in the book, but they can ‘fix’ that), and that’s exactly the point: the medium is different.

At this point I tell myself I should stop getting so annoyed at what directors and screenwriters do to good books. They can’t help it. Sometimes that is even true, though not often in the cases that annoy me most.

So, looking at detective TV by no standard other than its own, what can we deduce? We can compare the programs to each other and see what they share and to what degree, see what they do not share, and correlate those to their popularity and the critical response (and our own likes).

First we have to define what is the detective TV genre. The margins get blurry and there could easily be some bleedover from Law & Order type shows, even the X-Files: FBI agents are detectives, as are police detectives. Another recent program that might slip in is Peacemakers. That gains a bit of Sherlock Holmeseque flavor due to its period setting, but its central character is not a detective, though he does do some practical detective work himself, in parallel with a Pinkerton agent, in the couple of episodes I’ve seen so far. Also deserving consideration are the medical-examiner type shows. While Quincy and Jordan are not detectives in title, they are detectives per se.

I would draw the line between single-detective protagonists to teams, though. That rules out the Law & Order and clones, X-Files and Peacemakers. Muller and Scully are too close to equals. Peacemakers central character just isn’t detective-y enough, and his ex-Pinkerton sidekick’s detective work overshadows him too often. Crossing Jordan has similar issues to Peacemakers. Team plays a major role, especially the teaming with her retired-cop father, with whom she often role-plays crime reenactments to solve the cases.

Making the distinction that to be a “detective program” there must be a strong, independent detective figure as central character makes Greenburg’s argument for the importance of the central character a tautology. He might not do this, but I just did.

Monk’s Sherona is no where near Adrian’s equal in stature as a detective, even if she does tell her Mom she’s his partner and does often contribute something to the cases. Colombo spends most of his programs working alone, often against the opposition of his leader figures who fall prey to political pressure. Hercule Poirot fits into this group well, too, I think, though, frankly, I haven’t watched it that often. I don’t find it as engaging as the other two. Why I don’t may be interesting in this exercise.

To really be able to understand what makes a detective program good, though, we need some examples of bad ones. We’ve drawn lines (somewhat arbitrary, but arguable) to exclude many programs that share some commonalities, but don’t have a detective program that meets the criteria that is exemplar of bad. I’m drawing a blank.

Rather than stall for lack of bad examples, let’s push forward with Greenberg’s statement that plot fades into the background.

Would any of these programs be worth watching if there was no plot? Would there remain sufficient material of interest to engage the viewer? Would the show fall from good to just okay, or would it fall to bad? I would argue the last case.

The plot is an inherent part of the detective story. It must be sufficiently involved, at least in the unveiling (if not in the actual execution by the criminal, as dumb luck can make for a hard case to solve), that the detective is posed a real challenge. If we excise the plots from most programs, though, the plots aren’t all that interesting on their own. So plot alone cannot make a good detective program (though it might work for one show and could make a good film).

One of the things that makes a recurring series involving the same detective good is that we come to know the detective’s ways, his strengths and weaknesses, to some degree, and we try to apply those to the same knowledge he has and beat him to his conclusion. Of we succeed too often, though, the program fails. If we can beat him at his own game he can’t be all that special. Some of those examples I can’t think of at the moment of bad programs will fall into this category. Their formulae are too obvious.

So, I’m arguing that people do watch detective programs at least partly to see the solution to the case. Likewise we read detective fiction for the solution to some degree. This is one characteristic the detective program shares with the detective novel, or short story.

One of the ways programs prevent us from out sleuthing the sleuth is to give him some sort of exceptional ability that we cannot share. Thus we have Monk’s supernatural powers of observation, and the uncanny ability he has to correlate those observations unconsciously. He solves cases with an Aha! One that we often can’t share because we simply can’t see what he sees, and even if we do, we can’t make the connection. To some degree this is “cheating.” The program gets away with it because we accept that Monk is weird, really, really, far-out-there weird. So weird we do feel sorry for him. We don’t really even want to outdo him at his thing, as a result.

Columbo has an analogous thing going. He’s a bit of a slob (can’t accuse the program of cheating with this, I’m a bit of a slob too!) He’s also innocuous to the degree that his targets of investigation rarely recognize that he’s a detective, if they even manage to spot him at all before he’s introduced. He has a way of seeming far less than he is, at least partly due to his modesty, but perhaps also as a deliberate and useful tactic in dealing with criminals. His criminal opponents, almost by definition, are immodest. They believe they can outfox the foxes. They usually cling to the belief of their superiority right up to the instant when the cuffs are slapped on their wrists.

Columbo doesn’t depend on the “aha” as much as Monk does. His style is much more methodical, but he shares the ability of observation. Columbo is more prone to using his opponent’s sense of superiority to actively trapping her into proving herself guilty. His approach is more psychological than is Monk’s. (Monk has more psychology incoming than outgoing!) The program Columbo “cheats” a bit less. We more often have all the information that Columbo does. What gives him his edge is that psychological snare he sets to catch the guilt of the criminal in front of witnesses. But we, the watchers, can’t see into Columbo’s head to see his planning. We can see some of the arrangements he makes.

One thing these two programs share is an idiot savant sort of main character. Greenberg points out well how this works with Monk. We have a similar embarrassed fascination with Columbo’s social stumbling about. He turns faux pas into high art or brilliant tactics, and we know he’s doing it (after we’ve gotten to know the character), yet we wince in empathy. But, like an autistic child gifted with an innate ability to crunch numbers, we know he’ll convert that seemingly unmanageable sequence of social blunders into a snap that mousetraps the bad guy. He’s inferior (at least to people who aren’t slobs), yet he’s superior.

I can’t speak as well on Poirot. I have sat through a few of the programs, the quirky personality of Hercules catches my eyes, but it never holds it. I rarely have any idea of what is the plot he tries to unravel. I just don’t pay enough attention.

Is this an argument that he isn’t a strong central character, or one that the plot is too opaque for my viewing tolerances? Yes. Probably both. To become involved I need to be engaged sufficiently that I must watch it. Hasn’t happened. (Yet both elements, and more, must exist in the books.)

Columbo and Monk stop my channel surfing cold. I even have a tolerance for reruns, though the former is more apt to get that nod. I watch Poirot when I can find nothing else.

I have a theory on why this is. Columbo and Monk are made for their medium. Poirot is adapted. It’s of more interest to those who have read and love the Agatha Christie novels, than to those of us who have (to date) missed that pleasure. But having read other detective novels, and learned to love them, I can theorize.

An important difference between the two media is this: literature can allow us to listen in to the character’s thoughts. Rules of point-of-view and narrative voice may constrain this, but it’s not uncommon for this to be a major part of a literary detective novel. The tension between this voice, the voice of thought, and the spoken voice, the dialog among characters themselves, adds a layer of complexity lacking from the more visual television and film media. At times they have played with voice-overs of that thinking voice, but this is rare. I think it could be made to work with detective programs, but it would be a departure from the norm (which might turn good to great).

Beyond the possibility of direct access to the detective’s thoughts (which makes the ‘fair play rules’ of disclosure of information darned strict), there is also the tension between the narrative voice of the book, and the voices of the characters. Again, this is not impossible in the visual media, but it’s rarely employed. It’s certainly considered ‘artsy,’ and many audiences have low tolerances for that, preferring a more straightforward style. This also applies to readers of books.

I consider the tension between or among all those voices in detective fiction to be what raises mere writing to literature. Analogously, in programs it is the tension between the weirdness of the detective and the brilliance of his detection that makes the central character unique. The idiot savant is, so far, more important to the visual media than to the literary. Literary detectives don’t often engage that inferior-superior response from readers, or at least its importance is less.

To achieve true greatness requires more than one great element, however. A great detective is one part of the equation, a great plot is another. With television programs production values, casting, supporting roles, all enter the picture along with other things. The first two are the most important, but the others all matter.

With books, similar, analogous “production values” are involved. Some already mentioned are choices of point-of-view (analogous to, but perhaps more extensive in implications than the choice of camera shots), narrative voice (who is commenting on the action, and how does that interact with what the other voices say), the line level writing and choices of words.

The divergence between these “production value” items is what makes translating a great literary detective story into a great television program nigh impossible. The character and plot transfer reasonably well. But not much else does. All those ‘extras’ are simply lost. New extras are added that are appropriate to the medium of visual art. There is, however, no translation table. One can very rarely turn a pun made by the narrator into a visual pun before the camera (assuming the two would have equivalent effect, which they probably would not as language is handled very differently from visual stimuli in our brains).

Bottom line is a detective novel is different from a detective program. I also judge that the best detective programs as less sophisticated than the best detective literature. This is not because the medium of writing is inherently superior (though I sure knee-jerk in that direction!), but because the audiences are demanding different things (mostly). Hercules Poirot is an attempt to elevate the television detective work to the level of the best literary ones. It fails because it isn’t true to its medium; rather it’s an adaptation, a translation: Hercule meets Frankenstein.

As Frost says, poetry is what gets lost in translation. What makes a masterwork is the perfect fit of all the elements of the work, making a Coleridgian organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s hard to do with borrowed organs.

Posted by dan at August 10, 2003 06:29 PM
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