(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to The Rap Sheet James Runcie, the Cambridge-born filmmaker, visiting professor, and author of The Grantchester Mysteries, a succession of spirited whodunits that have been made into the TV series Grantchester, currently being broadcast as part of PBS-TV’s Sunday Masterpiece lineup. [This second season of six episodes is set to run through May 1. A third season has already been ordered.] Below, Runcie remarks on the odd experience of seeing one’s fiction turned into a small-screen drama.)
Having your novel adapted for television is the Holy Grail for many writers, and I have to confess that when I began to write The Grantchester Mysteries—a series of detective novels featuring a sleuthing vicar set in England in the 1950s, I did try to think as if it was a film. I wrote six stories in each volume (a six-part series is standard in Britain) so that it would be easy for commissioning editors to imagine how the program might work across Sunday nights. I thought about a loveable central character, a period setting (all those lovely old steam trains, cars, and gorgeous frocks), and tried to picture the rural location, imagining each scene, thinking about how the characters might look, what they might be wearing and how they might behave. I even thought about camera angles, perspective, and point of view. This may seem a cynical exercise but I think it helped the writing come alive, and I followed several basic cinematic rules as I went along (for example, always starting a scene as late as you can and finishing as early as you dare). I also knew that the plots had to be as tight as possible and that each story would need a major inciting incident.
But there comes a time when you realize that you cannot write with one eye on a future film or television adaptation alone. You have to remain true to the medium you are working in, and a novel is obviously very different from a screenplay. You can take more time with set-ups, you can describe things in greater detail, and you can explore the ambiguities of motive and psychology in greater depth. Furthermore, you are not constrained by budget. If you want 500 people boating down a river in fancy dress, you can have it. You are free to do whatever you want.
I also think that, as well as adding detail and filling things in during the writing of a novel, you have to leave things out, as well. Not everything has to be explained. The writer needs to create space for the reader’s imagination; let her or him picture the scene themselves, in their own way. You have to give them room to be as creative as yourself, to make the story their own.
But what happens, after you’ve published Volumes I and II, when the glorious moment occurs and your work is developed for television while you are still writing the books? Does the adaptation start to influence the fiction? Do you hear the actors’ voices as you write the dialogue? Do you begin to write with television even more in mind?
An early introduction to the stars and setting of Grantchester.
With Grantchester (currently showing on PBS), this has been a complex issue. Key decisions have been made by casting and costume people. Some characters are cut out altogether, some have their names changed, and others are wildly different to how I imagined them to be. James Norton, the actor who plays Canon Sidney Chambers, is far more good-looking than he is in the novel; Robson Green, who plays Inspector Geordie Keating, is too fit and finely toned. The important thing is not to panic, especially when you meet the actress playing one of your heroines, Amanda Kendall, a tall, willowy, English rose, and find that she is being played by a small and feisty, no-nonsense Glaswegian (Morven Christie). This is where the acting comes in—and all of this can be a delightful surprise. The actors start to open up new possibilities.
Here’s an example. There is a shy clergyman in the novel called Leonard. He is Sidney’s assistant and he is gay, but he hasn’t come out because in England, in 1955, homosexuality was illegal. This extraordinarily compromising and difficult fact has been played with such tenderness by Al Weaver, that I have written Leonard back into the novels after previously writing him out, simply because I knew viewers want more of him, and readers do, too.
Seeing a novel on screen arouses all sorts of emotions because it is recognizably your idea but yet, at the same time, it has been turned into something new and radically different—involving new characters and plot lines that you never imagined. You just have to trust that the spirit and the atmosphere will be preserved; that these stories intended as entertaining moral fables, still contain philosophical punch and thoughtful enjoyment.
I’m glad I thought about them filmically, and it’s good to have it both ways now, so I can tell people who
don’t like the books to watch the TV series; and people who don’t like the TV series can always read the books, instead. It’s only when they don’t like both that I have to ask them to go somewhere altogether different…
READ MORE: “James Runcie: Writing Grantchester” (Mystery Fanfare).