JOHN DICKSON CARR AND THE MOVIES
Steve Lewis: (Oct 11.) While I was visiting in Michigan recently, my brother Merwin and I were discussing John Dickson Carr, one of his favorite mystery writers, and he asked me a question that I didn’t know the answer to. Have any of Carr’s books with Dr. Gideon Fell or (as Carter Dickson) with Sir Henry Merrivale been made into movies? Taking a look at both Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV and www.imdb.com after returning home, the answer turns out to have been no.
As a matter of fact, you might be surprised to learn how few of Carr’s stories and novels have been turned into films at all. I know I was. Four movies, and that’s it:
The Man with a Cloak, 1951, based on the story “The Gentleman from Paris.”
Dangerous Crossing, 1953, based on the radio play, “Cabin B-13.”
That Woman Opposite, UK, 1957, based on the novel, The Emperor's Snuffbox. (US title: City After Midnight.)
Le Chambre Ardent (The Ardent Room), France, 1963, based on The Burning Court. (A version that has been dubbed into English may exist.)
So one question is, why have so few of Carr’s works been adapted into movie versions, as opposed to say, books by Agatha Christie? And a second, pretty much related question is, do you think books with either Fell or Merrivale in them would make for good movies? Plus, as long as I’m asking, which Fell or Merrivale novel would be your first choice to make into a film?
Barbara Franchi, who owns and operates www.reviewingtheevidence.com, suggests that I missed one movie: Man in Black, 1949. Carr is credited as a co-screenwriter, with the movie itself based on the BBC radio series Appointment with Fear, for which Carr wrote many of the scripts.
Given credit for the actual story is Francis Searle. Valentine Dyall, the narrator of the radio programs, a carry-over idea from the long-running US series, Suspense, plays the same role in the movie version. A considerable amount of information about the BBC series, including an extensive episode log, can be found here.
1) A guess: current British TV producers think of Carr as American, not British. And they only film works by British authors (with rare exceptions such as the Chandler TV series with Powers Boothe as Marlowe, in the 1980’s). So they are not making any Carr TV productions. American film and TV shows a scandalous disinterest in our huge American detective heritage. 2) It is not very esoteric perhaps, but I have to say that The Three Coffins (The Hollow Man) would make a fascinating movie. It is a deeply VISUAL mystery, focussing on what people see, etc. The last Merrivale story “All In a Maze” is also a strongly visual work.
These are two of the Carr works I loved most while growing up. They are “mind expanding,” showing astonishing new possibilities for the mystery. They might intrigue a whole new generation of viewers if they were made into films. The central conflict in Death Turns the Tables (did he or did he not do it) could have dramatic power. The Ghost’s High Noon could be photogenic as a historical film. Paging Merchant Ivory!
The intricate storytelling of The Lost Gallows would be a challenge to make into a film. The ideal director: Curtis Harrington. 3) Of the existing Carr films, I have seen and disliked THE MAN WITH A CLOAK, and enjoyed DANGEROUS CROSSING (Carr’s “Cabin B-13” creative take on the old Paris Expo story). DANGEROUS CROSSING was remade as a TV-movie TREACHEROUS CROSSING with Lindsay Wagner and Angie Dickinson. It is OK, but the old Hollywood original is better.
Point 1: Why, then, have they filmed those Elizabeth George mysteries starring Inspector Linley? What a waste of time....
Point 2: Given that elaborate and complicated plots do not lend themselves usually to dramatic adaptation (viz. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, while a fine movie, really bogged down in the denouement), it would probably be better to stick to some of Carr’s simpler stories. Seat of the Scornful (Death Turns the Tables) might make a good one.
Point 3: I never have seen any of the adaptations, although I’ve long been curious about LE CHAMBRE ARDENT.Marv Lachman
Locked Room mysteries do not transfer easily to the screen, and that was Carr’s specialty. In fact, I can think of few movies in which the detection was well handled, let alone with fair play. THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and GREEN FOR DANGER are two exceptions.
It’s a pity Carr was not filmed because an atmosphere of dread was so much a part of his work, and that would transfer to the screen.
Which Carr books should be filmed? Of the Gideon Fell’s, The Crooked Hinge would be a good one. There could even be a flashback to the Titanic, since that is part of the plot.
Regarding Sir Henry Merrivale, it is especially a shame they were never filmed because they contain the funniest slapstick scenes I have ever read in mysteries. How about The Judas Window in which Sir Henry accepts a brief (he was a lawyer) and addresses the jury as “fatheads.” Or The Gilded Man in which H.M. performs as a magician, “The Great Kafoozalum.” Then there is A Graveyard to Let in which Merrivale causes a riot at Grand Central Station. The murder in that book, in Westchester County, involves someone diving fully clothed into a swimming pool – and vanishing.
I don’t know enough about current actors to say who could play Fell and Merrivale on screen now. Actually, I can only think of G.K. Chesterton playing Fell. Bernard Lee, who played many British detectives, or Robert Morley might have played Merrivale, but I believe both are dead. I always understood that Carr based Merrivale on Winston Churchill.
Anyway, it is unlikely that any of the eleven-year-old producers in Hollywood would film Carr. Maybe the TV series Mystery! will some day.
One of the webgroups I belong to, the Golden Age Mystery Forum (http://jdcarr.com/forum/), coincidentally has a current thread about this. Wooda McNiven, Carr’s grandson, and his sister have been approached to adapt some of Carr’s novels for film. See http://jdcarr.com/forum/showthread.php?t=163&page=3 and beyond.
Which books would I choose? A tough call because there are so many I’ve enjoyed. Off the top of my head: The Three Coffins (unquestionably!), The Burning Court, He Who Whispers, He Wouldn't Kill Patience (despite the dubiety of the locked room device), It Walks By Night, The Corpse in the Waxworks, and The Problem of the Green Capsule.
With news like this from Barry, there was obviously nothing more important for me to do but contact Mr. McNiven himself. Here’s his reply. (Steve)
With regard to the project at hand, contrary to Barry Ergang’s input, no one has approached my sister or me. We decided on our own that now was the time to pursue this and try to make it happen, otherwise, it probably would never happen, at least not on our watch and while our parents and aunts still have some control of the estate.
Right now we are only in the beginning stages. We are working on deciding which story would make for a marketable adaptation and the input from Doug Greene and the Golden Age Mystery forum has been extremely helpful. When I say marketable, I really mean for a targeted audience of golden age mystery fans first, and then mystery fans in total.
Right now, we do not envision a screen adaptation for the cinema, which generally means getting the story told in two hours but rather a longer format for a television broadcast, where the story can progress at a bit more leisurely and nuanced pace.... Our ideal is PBS Mystery Theater as the venue, but there are other cable choices that might work too.
In tandem with adapting the right story is working up a business plan and a production package that will help raise the financing required to produce the content while simultaneously gauranteeing a buyer for the end product. This, of course, is the most difficult part and neither my sister nor I work professionally in the entertainment production industry but fortunately we do know a good number of people who do. Where we do have some competence is raising financing for business ventures, which, after all, this is. In any event, we are only just beginning this whole process but if and when we get traction, we will let everyone know, after all, we will need all the advance buzz we can get.
That John Dickson Carr’s grandson is actively involved in such a project is amazing news. By the way, like others, I think The Three Coffins should be made into a movie. I think the idea of a TV mini-series is best. I also think The Curse of the Bronze Lamp should be mentioned.
My apologies to Wooda McNiven for misinterpreting the genesis of the film adaptations of his grandfather's work. I had the mistaken impression Wooda and his sister were approached by a production company.
That said, I sincerely hope their adaptations are filmed and broadcast, lest mystery fans – particularly those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading JDC – be cheated of the opportunity to experience his genius via the visual medium. If the work makes it to television, there’s a good chance many out-of-print Carr novels will be reissued for the entertainment of new generations of readers.
Wooda, if you never adapt anything else – and, of course, I hope you will – please give us The Three Coffins.
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