How do you take an entire book and transform it into a 90-minute television show?
I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know a very good example of just such a process happening–successfully!
Benjamin Black, the nom de plume of author John Banville, has written a series of six Quirke books so far. The first three have been made into a television series. The series aired earlier this year on RTÉ in Ireland and just finished airing in the UK on BBC One. I have read all of the books and now I have the DVD of Quirke (yay!), which you can get your hands on here.
I am a big fan of Game of Thrones and I have read all of the books in the series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin, too. One of the interesting things about being a fan of Game of Thrones is experiencing the differences between the published books and the television scripts based on those books. As each season passes, the divergence from the books makes the television series more exciting–to me. To other fans, each divergence is a kind of literary heresy.
I don’t mind, though. I recognize that the page and the screen are two different canvases. On one canvas, you tell the story. On the other, you show it. Words are important for both, of course, but there can only be so many words said on a screen–too many and we all change the channel. We want to see the story. It takes a strong writer, a thoughtful director, an imaginative director of photography, and a great composer to bring the printed word to life on screen–and skillful actors to embody the people we know very well in our heads. And that’s what happened with the last episode of Quirke.
I thought that episode of Quirke, Elegy for April, was the best of the three. For one thing, we are more familiar with the recurring characters. We know a bit more about 1950’s Dublin, which was apparently quite dark (literally), full of fog, and oozed neo-noir. We are prepared for the gruesomeness that is the Pathology Department (although we see no autopsies performed this time around, thank goodness!). We recognize Quirke’s quirks (his family, his drinking, his past) and we are ready to meet new characters and be confronted with a new mystery. Elegy for April is also a more involving book in many ways, with its focus on the elite of Dublin society and the veneer that hides a moral degradation from which they are no more immune than those a bit lower on the social ladder. So script-writer Conor McPherson had wonderful source material to work with as he went about slicing and dicing those many pages of text and dialogue, ultimately serving up a taut, focused, and very dramatic script.
Before you proceed: there are major spoilers for both the book and the television episode Elegy for April in this essay. Do Not Read past the image below if you do not want to be spoiled!
So, how does the book compare to the television script? Here are some key scenes from each. See what you think.
Quirke spiralled out of control in the months following Sarah’s death. His brief stay at St. John’s has been a success. Maybe.
Stopping drinking had been easy; what was difficult was the daily unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wished to avoid. Dr. Whitty, the house psychiatrist, explained it to him. “With some, such as yourself, it’s not so much the drink that’s addictive but the escape it offers. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Escape from yourself, that is.”
“It’s a long road, the road back,” Brother Anselm said. “The less baggage you take with you, the better.” As if, Quirke thought but did not say, I could unpack myself and walk away empty.
There is a third character in the book, a fellow “inmate” named Harkness, with whom Quirke develops an uneasy friendship.
The trouble with sins and sorrows, he had discovered, is that in time they become boring, even to the sorrowing sinner. Had he the heart to recount it all again, the shambles that was his life–the calamitous losses of nerve, the moral laziness, the failures, the betrayals? He tried. He told how when his wife died in childbirth he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, now a young woman, for nearly twenty years. He listened to himself as if it were someone else’s tale he was telling.
“But she comes to visit you,” Harkness said, in frowning perplexity, interrupting him. “Your daughter–she comes to visit.”
“Yes, she does.” Quirke had ceased to find this fact surprising, but now found it so anew.
Harkness said nothing more, only nodded once, with an expression of bitter wonderment, and turned his face away. Harkness had no visitors.
In the television script, the three characters in the book have been conflated into one. The advice provided by the priest is wise, as they walk together smoking and later in his office, but Quirke avoids hearing what he has to say, just as the patients of Dr. Weston often did in In Treatment, ironically. Quirke will not admit that he gave Phoebe away and he cannot be honest about his relationship with his brother’s wife, Sarah, whose death seems to have precipitated his spinning out of control and down into the bottle. The book focuses more intensely on Quirke and his experience drying out. The television series lays out the problems facing Quirke and helps us put some context around the developing story of April and the theme of the abandonment of children.
Quirke takes it all out on Phoebe in this scene and we do not know why.
“Tell me about Delia,” she said.
Quirke looked at her over the rim of his wine glass in startlement and alarm. “Delia?” he said, and licked his lips. “What–what do you want me to tell you?”
“Anything. What she was like. What you did together. I know so little about her. You’ve never told me anything, really.” She was smiling. “Was she very beautiful?”
In a panic, he fingered his napkin. The steaming fish lay almost menacingly on the plate before him. His headache was suddenly worse. “Yes,” he said, hesitantly, “she was–she was very beautiful. She looked like you.” Phoebe blushed and dipped her head. “Elegant, of course,” Quirke went on, desperately. “She could have been a model, everybody said so.”
“Yes, but what was she like? I mean as a person?”
What was she like? How was he to tell her that? “She was kind,” he said, casting down his gaze again and fixing anew on the napkin, somehow accusing in its whiteness, its mundane purity. “She took care of me.” She was not kind, he was thinking; she did not take care of me. Yet he had loved her. “We were young,” he said, “or at least I was.”
“And did you hate me,” she asked, “did you hate me when she died?”
“Oh, no,” he said. He forced himself to smile; his cheeks felt as if they were made of glass. “Why would I hate you?”
“Because I was born and Delia died, and you gave me to Sarah.”
She was still smiling. He sat and gazed at her helplessly, clutching his knife and fork, not knowing what to say. She reached across the table and touched his hand. “I don’t blame you anymore,” she said. “I don’t know that I ever did, only I felt I should. I was angry at you. I’m not now.”
They sat in silence for a minute. Quirke filled their glasses; his hand, he saw, was a little shaky. They ate. The fish was cold.
The differences between the book and the television script are stark. In the television script, McPherson captures some of the simmering anger both characters have been feeling and lets it play out in a way that runs counter to our expectations. We think Phoebe is the angry one, while we feel in our bones that Quirke will do anything to keep their relationship alive. But no. Quirke lashes out and Phoebe is conciliatory. His outburst gives Phoebe a chance to see how vulnerable he really is–and this is a good thing for her to know. He has always been there for her. At some point, she will need to be there for him.
Quirke cannot stop drinking. He needs help and he knows it.
“What is it, Quirke?” she asked. “Tell me.”
“I was sick,” he said. “It’s all right, I got to the yard in time. It was just the coffee, anyway.” She waited, watching him. He sat down on the edge of the bath. “I wanted to say–I wanted to ask”–he rolled his shoulders again helplessly–“I don’t know.”
“Ask,” she said.
“You could–I feel you could–save me. From myself, I mean.” He turned his face away from her. In a small, round mirror on the shelf behind the sink he saw himself, one eye and an ear. He noticed the stains on the knees of his trousers; he must have fallen, somewhere, last night. “A doctor in St. John’s told me I drink to get away from myself. It wasn’t exactly news, but still.” Now he turned back and looked at her. “What shall we do,” he asked, “you and I?”
She thought a moment. “More or less what everybody else does, I suppose,” she said. “What do you think we’ll do?”
“What everybody else does–make each other unhappy.”
She found her cigarette and this time did not put it back on the ashtray, but lay there smoking, one eye half shut, looking at him. He could not tell what she was thinking.
“Oh, Quirke,” she said.
He nodded, as if he were agreeing with some proposition she had offered. He took the limp cigarette from her fingers and took a drag on it and gave it back to her.
“You know that feeling that you have in dreams,” he said, exhaling smoke, “that something is happening and you can’t do anything to stop it, only stand by and watch as it goes on happening? That’s how I feel all the time.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
Isabel is more involved in the story of April and her disappearance in the book. She is close friends with the small circle–Jimmy Minor, Phoebe, Patrick–that also included April and she plays a part in helping discover elements of the mystery of April. She cares for Quirke and there are scenes in her apartment and elsewhere involving the two of them, so you get to know her better. She is a good person, while also being a sophisticated woman and a successful actress. In the television script, she is focused completely on Quirke and serves as a catalyst for his realization that he lacks the strength to remain sober. Like others in this story (book and TV), he wants to obliterate the past and that desire is killing him, slowly but surely. Isabel is a possibility for salvation in both versions, but more so in the television script. And she helps set up the ending in the television script in a melancholy but satisfying way.
In confronting Oscar Latimer about his sister’s disappearance, watch how gentle Quirke is with him–gentle, but also unrelenting in his pursuit of the truth.
“So, the child was yours,” Quirke said.
Behind them Phoebe made a small, sharp sound and put a hand on her mouth. Latimer turned to her again.
“Are you shocked, Miss Griffin?” he asked. “Well, I suppose it is shocking. But there you are. God allows certain things to happen, seems even to want them to happen, and who are we, mere mortals, to deny a divine wish?”
“Did you know she was pregnant?” Quirke asked. He was leaning forward, peering hard past the clicking windscreen wipers in the snow.
“No,” Latimer said, “I didn’t know, but I can hardly say I was surprised, given my training. I could have done something to prevent it, I suppose, but somehow one doesn’t think clearly in the throes of such passion. Do I feel guilty? you’ll ask me. Guilt is not the word. There is no word for it. That was the thing, with April and me, there were no words adequate enough…”
The television series ending is very different from the ending in the book. In the book, there are pages of Oscar Latimer’s confession, a story he tells as he forces Quirke to drive the three of them, while it is snowing, out to Howth in Quirke’s new car. It is obvious he is hysterical or insane or possibly both. In the television version, Conor McPherson condenses Latimer’s confession down to the intense and concentrated essence you see on the screen, making April’s brother anguished and distraught rather than bitterly laughing and flippantly horrifying. In the book, April’s body is never found because her brother kills himself–he does not want to share that information with anyone, because April was his. So there is no closure for April. Patrick is deported. Malachy and Rose decide to marry. Phoebe is left disllusioned and uncertain: could April still be alive? And Quirke returns to Isabel, but not to St. John’s. So, a very satisfying and complex set of endings in the book that would not have been successful on screen. Conor McPherson gave us different twists and turns, but he stayed true to the spirit of Benjamin Black’s original text in all the ways that count.
Screenplay by Conor McPherson
Original story by Benjamin Black (AKA John Banville)
Directed by Jim O’Hanlon
Director of Photography: Ruairí O’Brien
Music: Rob Lane
Quirke: Gabriel Byrne
Father Anselm: Denis Conway
Phoebe Griffin: Aisling Franciosi
Judge Garrett Griffin: Michael Gambon
Isabel Galloway: Flora Montgomery
Oscar Latimer: Aidan McArdle
Bill Latimer: Ian McElhinney
A final note
Quirke is not a detective in the usual sense of the word. He is a man always in search of the truth–in his work, in his life, in his soul. Surrounded by the dark and fog-enshrouded Dublin presented in both the television series and the books, he is not a ray of light, really, but he is a flicker of hope. As portrayed by Gabriel Byrne, he is flawed, complicated, and driven by demons we do not always understand. John Banville is on record as saying that he approved of the choice of Mr. Byrne to play Quirke. He called Gabriel Byrne “the real thing.” How Gabriel Byrne portrays characters like Quirke so convincingly is something I ask myself on a regular basis. Read my essay on his work in the film Just A Sigh/Le temps de l’aventure and you will see me struggling in an attempt to define his ability to bring such characters to life on screen.
In the case of Quirke, there is so much that he gives to the role, but there is also a personal experience, a painful experience, that sits on his shoulders somehow, just as it sits on the shoulders of Quirke. Actors bring themselves to the words in the script and the camera before them. In the case of Quirke, we see something of Mr. Byrne, I think. Sometimes it smolders. Sometimes it almost blazes through. So wonderful, to see a character and an actor connect in the alchemy of making fiction seem real, in the the mysterious process of telling a story.
I end with the words of a well-known master of detective fiction, someone who knew something about mean streets and who can walk down them. And I believe Benjamin Black recognizes the “quality of redemption” necessary to make someone like Quirke live and breathe for us.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world…
–Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Thanks to Nora for her questions. I tried to address them and I hope I answered some of them. smile