BBC1 Cuckoo’s Calling: First Thoughts

Five Notes with Spoilers after a first viewing of the BBC1 adaptations of Robert Galbraith’s Cuckoo’s Calling:

(a) Rowling made two big mistakes in the first Cormoran Strike novel which she cleans up in the adaptation for the little screen. The two great Flints of the first mystery were the CCTV film gaffe about the two men running together away from the scene and the murderer keeping Rochelle’s mobile phone. Her superstar editor should have been fired for those two mistakes; she fixes it for the BBC1 audience. Whether the change is canonical or not given the many differences in the two stories will be the subject of later conversation.

(b) She ‘cleans up’ the outrageously gay Guy Some character, who is a comic caricature akin in degree to Fagin the Jew in the published original, but at least if no longer overtly gay he is still black on teevee. The deadly Shanker, in contrast, becomes something like an IRA bomber-elf in appearance — a well trimmed auburn beard? — rather than a gangly London street thug [“Tattoos covered his wrist, knucles, and neck,” “gaunt and pale, his head was shaven, a few freckles were scattered across a broad nose and his mouth was wide and thick-lipped,” Career, p. 126]. Shanker doesn’t appear in person until Career in the books and is well worth the wait. Mixed race and a walking human example of spontaneous combustion, he answers to no law or principle beyond his advantage and visceral loyalties. This guy? He’s short enough next to Burke’s already diminutive Strike to qualify as a leprechaun side-kick and looks nothing like Shanker as described in Career.

(c) I may have missed it but they don’t seem to have ever shared with the teevee audience that John Bristow visited Lula’s apartment the day of the murder. Learning that critical information only at the reveal breaks one of the ironclad rules that Rowling always highlights about giving the reader/audience a fair chance (what we’re told, by Bristow, is that he was home watching movies with mum the night of the murder, his alibi, and she does not contradict him). That they cut out Strike’s “bat shit insane” line in the office finale and his recitation of Tennyson’s Ulysses in hospital were also major disappointments. [Ah, Bristow does mention in his first meeting with Strike that he saw Lula the morning of her death. I’ll have to check to see if he says it was in her penthouse home…]

(d) We get a mention in episode 2 and then an extended visual treatment in episode 3 of the IED blast in Afghanistan. It’s involved enough that I suspect we are watching something we will read about in Lethal White, namely, the boy-bomber who winks at rather than shoots Cormoran after the explosion (when he sees Strike’s lost his leg), which haunts him with the question, “Was it cruelty or mercy?” I suspect that Cormoran was the target of the attack, believe it or not, and that the boy-assassin doesn’t kill him with a round from his pistol only because he is sure Strike will bleed out without the bullet. But who set-up the hit?

(e) Final grade: Fair to passing. Rowling has said in the filmed BBC1 press package clips that “detective fiction on television just works.” I am struggling to think of a genre less suited for adaptation than cerebral murder mystery and detective fiction. Shows that work for television are written for television. Some written work — Charles Williams’ supernatural thrillers? Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry? — are best left on the page. Maybe the ‘Strike’ adaptations of the Galbraith stories will spark a Cormoran Mania which might justify this effort. The show itself does not.

Comments

  1. I was wondering if the sequence where Strike loses his leg was meant to contain some vital info in the books. Time is going to be the ultimate tell on this one.

    The other big thing that stood out was Duffield’s raising the subject of William Blake. That was left-field surprise I wasn’t expecting. What makes it notable is that, just a few scenes before, I think it was Ciara Porter who mentioned Lula’s search for “Authenticity”.

    Rowling’s thoughts about that particular word, and its potential meanings are most transparent in “The Casual Vacancy”, where “Fats” has a mistaken notion of the idea behind the word. It seems that TV Duffield suffers from the same self-delusion as Fats.

    However, I’ve got to wonder, is this just a one off reference, or is it a possible pointer to deeper themes and plot elements to come? I have no answers to that right now. It just seemed so strange that Rowling would insist that reference to Blake get inserted into the show.

  2. Great catch, Chris!

    It’s especially easy to skip over the Blake conversation because Duffield is obviously just trying to impress Robin with his seriousness and depth as an artist. She is having none of it, and, because our sympathies are all with her, we discount the allusion.

    Which, as you say, may only mean it is that much more important.

    Again, great catch!

  3. Sorry John, I have to disagree.

    Coming at this more from the writer POV than a Rowling / Mystery fan. I’m about half way through “Cuckoo” and I just don’t care who killed Lula. In fact, I haven’t bonded enough with the characters to care if Robin and Comoran get together. I still have to force myself to read it. I’m afraid forcing the read means I probably don’t remember many clues.

    On the other hand, I did like the first 2 hours of the BBC production. Still not that interested in the murder, so I set about trying to figure out what went wrong with the book that the production improved upon.

    1.) I think Rowling over does the narrative release in the novel. I’m at the midpoint and no big clue has been revealed, no reversal, no second body yet. Cormoran and Robin haven’t had a kiss, a meaningful look, or even an accidental touch of the hands. The novel thus far is a scavenger hunt for people to interview. Nothing more.

    On the other hand, the first TV episode ends with a second dead body, the way a murder mystery should. Timing is everything.

    2.) I didn’t bond with Cormoran as the protagonist. You were right about Harry Potter, being an abused orphan suckered me right in. Even when the abuse was so over the top, that it had to be parody, I still couldn’t help but root for the boy.

    Cormoran is a disabled vet. That pulls at the heart strings if he is stoic but Rowling plays it a little too far to pity. It makes him almost seem whiny.

    The BBC version plays him more annoyed and stoic when it comes to his disability. And, he addresses his prosthesis as though it is alive. He calls it, “Ya bastard,” everytime he takes it off. That makes him an interesting character as well. Here is a guy I’m at least curious about if not actually rooting for.

    Also, interesting that the actor has a repaired cleft lip. I wonder if that is intentional. Double disability points.

    3. Robin in the novel is a great worker. I’d hire her. But there isn’t any spark there that makes me want to follow her in the story either. I’m not sure if this scene happens later in the novel but the “save the cat” moment when she goes to find Cormoran as he is getting drunk after Charlotte announces her engagement helped me to bond to her.

    4. I think Rowling should have continued to use 3rd person limited with the dual POV of Robin and Cormoran. The omniscient POV doesn’t make me feel as in the character’s head as I did with Harry Potter. I think that also interferes with my ability to bond to these characters as well.

    So my grade thus far would be C- for the novel and B+ for the BBC production. Sorry–I know that won’t be a popular opinion.

  4. Cherrie, I have to agree with you. Not being a mystery/crime reader (or viewer), I read the novels and will continue to do so when Lethal White is published, but find that I have very little desire to reread them, and less to go digging for possible deeper layers. I admire John (and others) for what he reads between the lines in these stories – to me, they’re ok, but that’s it, no fascination, hardly any bonding with the characters, same as you. In fact, Cuckoo’s Calling especially has left something like a bad taste in the mouth behind, some reluctance – perhaps due to the fact mentioned above that some of the characters are so over the top? I mean, “Lula Landry”!? That kind of thing works in a Fantasy world, “Luna Lovegood”, “Bathilda Bashot”, but – to me – it rather kills the character in a real-life-setting (forgive the pun).
    With regard to the BBC-adaption, since I have forgotten almost all the details of the story except for who killed Lula, I can watch the show almost as if I didn’t know the plot. So far I have watched episodes 1&2, and I have no clue how Strike has discovered the identity of the murderer at this point… so I’m curious about that, and I guess the timing works. I like the show for it’s British flair and the “reality”-effect of seeing and hearing actors speak the lines and make them come alive in a way the book-characters didn’t, to me at least – though Strike seems to do an awful lot of walking around (same in the novel, if I recall rightly – ok, driving in London is crazy and he’s out of money, but if I had an amputated leg, I’d rather ride a bike or take the tube). I think the protagonists are very well cast and very good actors, as opposed to some slick and polished Hollywood-stars. The things Holliday Grainger does with her eyes… nice. However, not being a native speaker, I really struggle with some of the accents, so I’m sure I keep missing vital clues in the show. Do I care? Not really…
    p.s.: I think this review in the Guardian pretty much sums it up: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/aug/28/strike-the-cuckoos-calling-review-jk-rowlings-detective-dalliances-come-to-life

  5. Cherrie, Anja,

    I found my reactions to be sort of the exact opposite of yours, strangely enough.

    To me, the novel comes off as well written, with an even pace that helps the reader keep track of clues, and the names of all the suspects.

    In terms of how realistic the name of a character should be, I think its a mistake to look for any kind of realism in a work of fiction. Even if there are no fantastic elements in a story, there is still a literal world of difference between real life, and a series of scenes and characters that ultimately have no reality except as figments of the Imagination.

    Granted, even figments can have their symbolic values. Still, I think keeping in mind that the story is, in fact, make-believe, is something that can be a helpful tool for the reader or viewer, as it helps to maintain the proper critical perspective required for any artwork.

    As for the TV show itself, for me it’s just a Cliffnotes version (and not a very good one) for anyone who wants it. It was clear certain creative choices were made out of fear that the viewers would start to lose interest. The problem is those choices are sign of a fundamental lack of trust in the quality of the story itself, and hence of its ability to entertain.

    I think that’s a mistaken way to look at Rowling’s new series. For me, the Strike books combine elements of a literary revelation, mixed in with a gratifying amount of familiarity. I remember reading these kinds of tales in my childhood, so that when I picked up my first copy, my reaction went something like: “Oh, wow, I didn’t know you could go there. Cool!”

    Of course, I may be in the minority on that.

  6. As for the Blake reference, the best I can come up with has to do with its possible relation to Authenticity. False beliefs versus True Fact seems to be JKR’s new recurring theme for the series.

    In terms of how this theme could apply to William Blake, all I know is that the poet made a life’s work of trying to restore what he believed were the forgotten, true tenets of Christianity.

    Again, you have a question of what are the accepted beliefs, versus the real nature of what those beliefs might be, and of the consequences they might entail.

    That’s as far as I’ve managed to get, anyway. Maybe someone else will do better.

  7. Brian Basore says:

    I’m putting Cormoran Strike on hold. Murder mysteries about books and reading became too real yesterday after I saw the street in front of my favorite book store filled with police cars and a hose truck.

    London isn’t the only place with vital but run down areas.

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