Someone once said to me that the reason she enjoyed radio drama more than the TV kind is that the pictures were better.
If I'm honest I have to say I don't listen to a lot of radio drama, mainly because it's usually on when I'm doing something which doesn't lend itself to a radio playing. On the other hand, I think the same principle could be applied to reading. Certainly, if I watch a TV or film version of a book I've enjoyed, the pictures are never the same as the ones I've conjured in my mind; sometimes that doesn't matter, but other times I'm left wishing I'd passed on the drama and stayed with my own images.
The recent TV three-parter carved out of Phil Rickman's Midwinter of the Spirit left me cold; not only did the characters look nothing like the way I'd imagined them, they also left too much out, and the result felt thin, unsubtle and a shadow of the book's richness. On the other hand, Inspector Morse, created on the page by Colin Dexter, who died earlier this week, and given life on screen by John Thaw, who died quite a few years ago, might have sunk into insignificance without his TV incarnation; instead, it inspired a lot of affection, ran for decades, and gave rise to two spin-offs. And it was great. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
There seemed to be a fashion some years ago for crime novels set in picturesque, or perhaps I mean photogenic, places; those of a cynical turn of mind might even wonder if the locations were chosen with an eye to TV adaptation. Midsomer Murders, for instance, based on a fairly ordinary police procedural series and set among the pretty villages, thatched cottages and rural landscapes which some people think is the 'real' England, celebrates twenty years on screen this year.
The focus of TV cops drama moved to grittier locales for a while, but to some extent the paradox of brutal crime in beautiful places still happens, and TV takes it further than maybe the author intended. Take Ann Cleeves's hugely enjoyable Shetland series, for example; it was originally going to be a quartet and now runs to seven titles. Those cynical folk I mentioned might connect that with the success of its TV incarnation. Ann herself once suggested that reader credibility might be stretched too far by more than four murders in an island group where crime means drunk driving and the occasional fight, but it looks as if she's allowed herself to be persuaded that people will suspend disbelief almost ad infinitum.
Me, I'm not sure. If it's written and acted well, I can enjoy both the grittier realism and the glorious landscapes, and since I read to escape, it doesn't really matter how likely it is that the murder, or kidnapping, or rape, or whatever heinous doings, could happen in that place and in that way. The Phil Rickman series takes place in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK, and I have no problem believing in what happens in the books. My beef with the adaptation wasn't that location/crime paradox; it was that by the time they'd filleted out a plot, three episodes didn't leave time for what the books are really about, which is the intrinsic more-things-in-heaven-and-earth-Horatio nature of that part of the world. Inspector Morse, on the other hand, set in the splendid city of Oxford, didn't give me sleepless nights when my daughter was living in a place where, allegedly, there were four murders every Wednesday night.
So the jury's still out for me on that one. Any thoughts anyone would like to share?