Saturday, July 05, 2008

Get smart, but not too smart, Part II, or What makes a good series character special?

So I went to see Get Smart after this blog's freewheeling discussion about crime-fiction bumblers, why we love them, and what happens when movie producers try to make them smarter.

I agree that that the movie was "listless" and "laughless" and that this was likely due to the moviemakers' decision to make Maxwell Smart competent. Once they did that, what was left? An utterly routine action movie with bits of comedy and romance that would not have been a whit better or worse had the characters borne generic names rather than those of the beloved characters from the old Get Smart TV series: Max, Agent 99, Chief, Larabee, and so on.

If thinking about crappy movies is burdensome, think about series characters instead. The makers of the Get Smart movie ruined television's equivalent of a classic series character by robbing him of that which made him special. What makes your favorite series characters special? What could they least afford to lose in any sequel, movie or TV version?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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30 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

Robert B. Parker's Spenser comes to mind, a character marked by his imposing presence, wry attitude, and Irish heritage. Spenser's first TV incarnation, as played by Robert Urich, looked the part but lacked the attitude. His second appearance, in three mediocre A&E movies starring Joe Mantegna, had more edge but was totally off physically.

Incidentally Hawk--Spenser's contemporary cohort played indelibly by Avery Brooks in the Urich series--was played in the first A&E movie by Shiek Mahmud-Bey, easily at least fifteen years Mantegna's junior.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

This is a horrible thing to admit, but as I thought about this, not a single female came to mind for a long time. All of the most memorable characters were male. I finally dredged up Cagney and Lacey, both good characters for showing how a female cop could be strong, flawed, vulnerable, hard-working, committed, intelligent. Also good at portraying working class women, a rare thing nowadays.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Nero Wolfe leaving the house to detect would have been a dealbreaker. Fortunately, the A&E (USA? One of them) directors of the series with Timothy Hutton as Archie and Murray Chaykin as Wolfe knew enough not to do that.

Grins. Hamilton Berger winning a case against Perry Mason?

July 06, 2008  
OpenID maxine said...

The first two or three Crackers were brilliant, Robbie Coltrane playing a dark character as antihero.

Then the ratings soared and the character became cuddly and "heart of gold under gruff exterior", and I stopped watching. (The masses didn't, though, so I am sure the makers were happy!).

Cracker wasn't orginially a book, but Frost (R D Dangerfield) was, and became a very successful TV series. Again, Frost lost all his edge, his political incorrectness, his quick-fire bawdy humour, his questionable morality -- yet another "rough guy with marshmallow under" (I think, I stopped watching those after the first few, too.)

I think the same happened to Colin Dexter's Morse....but memory a bit hazy.

I have not seen the TV series based on Elizabeth George's Thomas Lynley and friends, but I gather from the plot syopses that the books and films have diverged considerably.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, your comments, especially those about Hawk, raise the question of physical appearance: Did Shiek Mahmud-Bey look too young for the character? Did the producers recognize this? If so, did they count on the quality of the portrayal to overcome any possible objections from viewers? and did the performance fall short of those expectations?

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, what would be your apprehensions about a remake of Cagney and Lacey?

Working-class protagonists are rare on TV and in movies, aren't they, except when they're paragons of virtue. Look what happens to Donald Westlake's Dortmunder in movies. He gets played by actors like Christopher Lambert, and he lives in ultra-hip designer apartments.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Nero Wolfe does leave the house a time or two in the books, but your point is well taken. An attitude similar to that of the Get Smart filmmakers would have Nero and Archie in a chase scene better suited to Indiana Jones. It then might have Wolfe utter an acerbic remark in a vain effort to resuscitate a connection to the books.

Hamilton Berger winning a case against Perry Mason is such an aawful idea that someone just might try it.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've watched one or two of the early Crackers, in which Robbie Coltrane's character came as close as any hero I've ever seen to becoming an immoral waste, and I know Frost only from the television series. Perhaps I should read some of Wingfield's novels.

I have also watched a few episodes of the Grijpstra and De Gier television series, based on Janwillen van de Wetering's novels. I was handicapped by having to watch the series in Dutch, a language of which shaky is too kind a description of my knowledge. Still, I seem to recall that the episodes I watched played down the philosophical musings that make the novels distinctive.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

Good continuing characters are basically well defined in their original presentation, and in subequent unveilings they STAY within the original define characterization----nothing is more jarring than to have a friendly well know character suddenly do somehting OUT OF character, something he just would never do or say-----thats why the current "Get Smart" movie fails---

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right on the Get Smart movie. But I imagine that creators of a successful ongoing characters must strike a balance between staying in character, and introducing new aspects to avoid going stale. Characters may age, marry, take up or give up drinking, or simply live convincing fictional simulations of real life. These changes ought to have reasons more convincing than those in the Get Smart movie, which were results of ineptitude at worst or, at best, of clumsy attempts to woo new audiences.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

I have to bring up Sherlock Holmes and the revelation this week that in a new, and I would have to guess spoofy movie, Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat and Mankini fame will play Holmes and Will Farrell the trusty sidekick Watson.

Hmmmmm

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Peter, as I recall, Hawk didn't have a large role in the movie. Many of the roles in the A&E movies seemed miscast. I guess these were the best actors to be had on a basic cable budget after paying Mantegna.

Then again, since Mantegna himself was miscast, it's difficult to imagine who could've played Hawk to his Spenser.

In the third A&E movie, Hawk was played by Ernie Hudson.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

I think it is difficult to create truly memorable characters in a lasting series. That's why so many fail. The successful characters are a combination of great writing and perfect casting. For example, would we have loved anyone but MTM playing Mary Richards?

Perhaps its easier to create great characters on the page because the writer only does part of the work. A interesting article recently appeared in The (Zimbabwe) Times called "Seven Steps to Literary Heaven" that stated:

"… the reader then becomes the author of the unsaid. This means that as a writer you give the reader co-creative power in constructing your fiction, and make her feel partly responsible for making the story 'real'. The reader will thank you for this because it empowers rather than bedazzles her, makes her feel equal rather than subordinate."

In short, the writer sketches the character and the reader fleshes it out into a breathing human being. What makes the process so fascinating is that, because every reader brings something different to the process, the character is recreated somewhat differently with each reading.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

2K, thanks for posting the link to that article, and I hope that anyone who sees this will join me in reading it. I share your suspicions that it may be easier to create great characters on the page.

Characters who have worked well both on the page and on screen open up another area of discussion. Since this blog is about crime fiction, I would offer Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as possible examples. Both would work on the page, though possibly not as memorably as Humphrey Bogart on screen.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, I sometimes feel at sea when discussing acting. I don't think about movies and TV as much as I think about books, for one, and acting is probably the most difficult area of moviemaking and TV to discuss with any intelligence. That won't stop me from trying, though.

I like to imagine that any good actor would be good to enough to make a go of any role, absent ludicrous physical mismatches. Mantegna is a good actor, though I'd picture him more as a nervous police superintendent than as a P.I. If his performance fell short, is the fault his? The script's? The producer's? The director's?

That's another one of those woolly theoretical questions that I like so much. I shall try to remember to file it for future reference.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, I believe the ghastly possibilities of that particular casting coup render any commentary superfluous.

July 06, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Amen.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Peter, Mantegna did make a go of it and I thought he was better than Urich at playing Spenser's wisecracking attitude. Robert B. Parker himself wrote the script, and while I was none too impressed, I don't think the script impacted Mantegna's performance. He just couldn't overcome not being a big Irish guy. This is why I say it's an aspect that can't lost in a portrayal of Spenser.

On the flipside, I think Tom Selleck has proven Parker's other series protag, Jesse Stone, is tied to his appearance. The Jesse Stone of the books is 25 years Selleck's junior, and yet Selleck plays his mix of quiet strength and alcohol addiction about as well as you can ask. I think part of his success is having more control over production that Mantegna did and knowing how best to use it in service of the movie. The Jesse Stone scripts are not written by Parker but sure do sound like him.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I bet Laurence Olivier could have overcome not being a big Irish guy. And you pay Tom Selleck a high compliment that makes me want to ready some of the Jesse Stone books, then watch Tom Selleck play the character.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Peter, I meant to write:

"On the flipside, I think Tom Selleck has proven Parker's other series protag, Jesse Stone, is *not* tied to his appearance..."

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was wondering what was up with that. I thought maybe you meant that Selleck looked like Jesse Stone, though decades older, and that this helped him pull off the role.

Thanks.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

What, no Dexter fans? I haven't read the books but recently got hooked on the series. Talk about a dark character with a wry sense of humor. The perfect antihero, a dark, bloody Robin Hood in a way. To state the obvious, every hero needs a dark side, just as every villain needs some redeeming qualities. Dexter is fascinating because he inhabits that gray area in between.

I admit, Pattinase, I loved Cagney and Lacey probably pretty much because they were women, and tough ones at that. Anyone ever watch Helen Mirren as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect? Excellent flawed hero, plagued with self-doubt and alcoholism but a tough, smart leader. Great character.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Take heart, Lara. Dexter did come up recently on this blog. Perhaps it was in a discussion about investigators with interesting or colorful hobbies.

Someone mentioned Jane Tennison some time back as that rare crime-fiction protagonist who was flawed, alcoholic, plagued by self-doubt -- and female.

You mentioned the Dexter books. I hadn't known there were more than one, but I know find there at least four. In any case, I'll put Darkly Dreaming Dexter on my to-read list.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

It's hard for me to want to read a book after seeing its main character portrayed on film, though I probably will read the Dexter books one of these days because the character is so fascinating on tv he must be at least doubly so in print. I like to imagine the character on my own first.

Anyhow, I was thinking today about your original question about what makes a series character compelling, etc. You've gotten some good responses already. I agree with you that, while a character shouldn't act out of character unless it's for a very good reason, a series character must change and evolve over time. It's nice to see something of a character arc in each book and a larger one over the course of the series, though many do seem awfully contrived among the "name" authors. I also love a protagonist with a few secrets that are hinted at throughout the series. I love an author that feeds out the clues to those secrets. That's one of the successes, I think, of the Dexter tv show, which I suspect emulates the book.

And, of course, voice is nearly everything in developing a good character. I'm crazy for a good noir voice, though I find too much wise cracking tiresome after a while. In contemporaries, I like wry insight tempered with a healthy dose of self-doubt. I also like a character who eats sometimes, even if he or she eats badly. Diet tells you a lot about a person. Nothing seems more false to me than a whole book where no one ever seems to eat.

I also like a series character whose personal world is interesting and presents its own problems. I loved VI Warshawski's old neighbor who cooked for her, but he was entirely too nice. My own next-door neighbor is an obnoxious, know-it-all old fart who I often think would make a good foil for an exhausted, busy detective. Sometimes I have to sneak past his house to get inside before he comes honking after me to tell me how I should trim my hibiscus or check the cat for fleas.

The character's friends and enemies or rivals should be interesting too. One thing I always love about the old English detective novels is the gang of friends always hanging out and having a drink at the cozy village pub. Who wrote the series that all had titles of British pubs? Maybe this belongs under the sense of place post, though.

July 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the thorough, thoughtful and well-organized comment. I hope my reply will do it justice.

For some reason, I don’t think about characters on the page vs. characters on the screen much. I’m not even sure that I picture Humphrey Bogart when I read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and no instances of abominable casting of crime-literature character come to mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. I saw the movie Devil in a Blue Dress after I read Walter Mosley’s novel, and Don Cheadle portrayed the character Mouse exactly as I had imagined him in the book. It probably helps that Cheadle is a fine actor.

I can guess at the sort of contrived character arcs you mean, though I can’t think of any examples. Would you care to provide some? Andrea Camilleri provides one of the most interesting character arcs I can think of in his Salvo Montalbano novels. Camilleri was close to eighty years old when he began writing the Montalbano books, and, as the series has gone on, he has given his middle-aged protagonist a touching awareness of his own vulnerability and of the fragility of love. I noticed this especially in The Patience of the Spider. You also cannot to better than Montalbano if you’re looking for a character who eats.

If you’re looking for good noir voices among current authors, you might try Christa Faust or Megan Abbott. Among non-noir crime protagonists, Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is as unusual as they get.

I’ve just started Mehmet Murat Somer’s The Prophet Murders, whose opening chapters seem concerned in part with gathering together just such a gang as you suggest, though in this case they gather at a transvestite night club in Istanbul rather than a cozy village pub in England.

Incidentally, I see one of your favorite books is The Rock Cried Out. I don't know it, but I have read a book whose title is taken from the very next words in the old spiritual: John Edgar Wideman's Hiding Place.

July 13, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

See, you read better crime fiction than I've been reading, which is why you can't think of any contrived character arcs. I'm more interested in reading about the good stuff than analyzing the bad stuff, which is kinda what I spend a good portion of my day doing at work.

Of course, you're totally right about Bogie. He is Sam Spade, and the movie The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorite all time movies and books.

I'll definitely pick up some Montalbano novels and check out Christa Faust and Megan Abbott. But first, I want to read The Prophet Murders. I love exotic settings and have a special interest in the Middle East--and I especially love reading authors who have a foot in two cultures (and languages) because they seem to have a more nuanced perspective and a fresher approach to the language (and sometimes to story structure).

You got the reference right on The Rock Cried Out. The book by Ellen Douglas, is, I guess, something of a modern Southern Gothic, which is another of my reading passions, or rather was for a long time when I had more time to read. Everything from Carson McCullers to Harry Crews.

July 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I also spend a good part of my workweek reading bad stuff. Are you also an editor? And, yes, I very much enjoy talking and writing about the good stuff. I studies art history, and I sometime get this idea that one of the tasks or joys of writing about good and great art is to render homage to it, whether “it” is a Fred Vargas opening chapter or a Piero della Francesca fresco.

I read some Harry Crews years ago. The man dealt with some creepy subjects, and his stuff has definite affinities with noir. And I also read and very much enjoyed Flannery O’Connor years ago.

Montalbano sets his novels in Sicily, and he does a convincing job of portraying small-city Sicilian life. Jason Goodwin writes novels set in mid-nineteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul, and Matt Rees has written a pair of novels set in the Palestinian territories. And then there are Yasmina Khadra’s novels about Brahim Llob set in 1990s Algiers. I’m also looking for The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, set in Morocco.

July 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lara, in re noir voices, you might want to read some Scott Phillips, if you haven't already.

July 19, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

Thanks, Peter. Just finished The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez Reverte, which I loved and from which I learned some new Spanish swear words. It's set in Mexico, Spain and Morocco and very evocative of place. I don't read Spanish, but I think this was a great translation. Reverte is a man who writes female characters really well.

Yep, I'm both an editor (mostly nonfiction) and a copy editor (mostly fiction) but the less said about that on a public forum the better. As a person who used to write a lot about the arts, I agree that one of the joys is paying homage--especially in a way that opens the door wider to understanding and appreciation. The other joy is that it makes me look more closely at at a work. It's so easy to get overwhelmed by the volume and skim the surface, never dipping into the deeper layers.

July 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can well understand your reticence about speaking publicly on this matter. I'm not interested in gossip, though. Rather, I like colorful anecdotes that reveal the texture of an editor's work.

I liked the one novel of Perez Reverte's that I've read: The Seville Communion.

July 24, 2008  

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