John Hannah as Detective Inspector John Rebus
The first series of TV police dramas based on Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels has been released on DVD. The episodes, made for British TV, have not appeared on American television as far as I know (they were made in 2000-2001). I'm sure many Rankin fans have been looking forward to seeing how the books would be adapted for the small screen.
From my perspective, the series has been worth a wait ... of about five minutes. Which is to say, it is a disappointment. Not a total loss, but not what it should have been, and with one particularly annoying element that I'll get to in due course.
Rebus, as most detective novel enthusiasts know, is one of the more striking characters created for the genre in recent years. His patch is Edinburgh, but the criminal side that tourists in the picturesque old part of town give a wide miss to. Rebus is a walking rain cloud — aging, cynical (about himself more than anything else), depressive, more than a bit fond of the beverage that Scotland's inhabitants gave their name to.
Engaging sourballs like Rebus are pretty standard in detective stories, but Ian Rankin is very talented at portraying his individuality, as well as the chill, both literal and figurative, of Edinburgh's underworld. He also does a terrific line in sharp dialogue. (If you haven't sampled Rankin and want to have a go, he is at the top of his game in Set in Darkness and Strip Jack. His more recent books that I've read, although still of a high caliber, seem a little diffuse and hastily written.)*
For the telly series, a lot obviously rides on the casting for Rebus. He's played by John Hannah, a Scottish actor whose production company was also behind the project. From what I can gather, Hannah wasn't a big hit in the role, nor did he (reportedly) much please Rankin. Some have suggested he wasn't old enough to play Rebus (who seems to be in his late 40s in the books) or that the character wasn't dissipated enough. Neither of those things bothered me. I thought Hannah does a creditable job of portraying a man whose soul is heavily weighted down, angry at himself first and the villains second. If there is a problem with the characterization — and I agree that there is — the scripts make good suspects. Among other lacks, they fail to fill in much of the background of Rebus's life, so that his angst seems little more than generalized moping.
And that's true in spades of the background of the drama as a whole. In the inevitable "Making of ... " featurette on one of the DVDs, the crew (as well as Rankin himself) do a great deal of huffing and puffing about the contrast between picture postcard Edinburgh and its dark side. In connection with the TV shows, it seems like special pleading. True, everybody knows the cliché images of Edinburgh as Scotland's refined and aristocratic city, the Athens of the north, where they sip organic fair trade tea from thimble-sized cups with their pinky fingers upraised, as compared with Glasgow, tough and demotic, where they'll slap you on the back such that your spine turns into Silly Putty. That's if they like you. But come on, did anyone really imagine that Edinburgh was the Emerald City? Human nature being what it is, of course it has its nasty side.
Part of Rankin's skill as a writer is that he particularizes the environment; the TV version, again, generalizes it. The atmosphere, when it's not bleached-out fluorescent lighting in the cop shop, is sold-by-the-yard nouveau film noir: lots of rain, peeling paint, Piranesi staircases.
The scripts for the four dramas in the series — Black and Blue, The Hanging Garden, Dead Souls, and Mortal Causes — just don't come near in quality to the books that they're based on. Mind you, I'm not complaining that they don't follow the story line of the books; filmed drama is a different medium from literature, and has its own ways of making its points. But these programs fall way too comfortably into the "edgy" cinema policier stereotype so familiar from Prime Suspect, NYPD Blue, CSI, etc. You got your nonconformist detective; you got your politically motivated, unsympathetic superior officers; you got your surly colleagues; you got your self-confident, smirking suspects across the interview table. As in most British dramas, the acting is efficient, but few of the characters are especially unusual or memorable.
The adaptation of Mortal Causes is particularly egregious, however. The scriptwriter made the plot turn on a contrivance of which there was no hint in the book. The bad guys aren't the IRA — they're a cabal of white supremicists, led by a racist moneybags from (where else?) the United States. Again, I'm not griping because the script doesn't follow the book's plot, but I am more than a fraction outraged that the hack — name of Mark Greig — who wrote it was so bereft of ideas that he had to scrape the barrel's bottom to come up with this cartoonish, stereotypical, and probably politically motivated nonsense.
The series foundered after the episodes included on the DVDs. It has been resurrected lately in the U.K. with a different cast. Oh, aye? Good luck to them.
* Rankin has visited my local Borders on a couple of occasions that I attended, during his book-promotion tours. In his public persona he is, like Rebus, thoughtful, quick-witted, and funny; unlike Rebus, quite cheerful.