Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted by the Past: The BBC's Case Histories

PopMatters Critic Lesley Smith recently criticised the BBC adaptation of Kate Atkinson's mystery novels, Case Histories, for turning Edinburgh detective Jackson Brodie (played by Jason Issaacs) from an existential figure adrift in the world and who briefly impacts the lives of others into a standard TV detective who doesn't have much of a head for business. I have not read the Atkinson novels so I can't compare the two. All I will say here is that adaptations for different media are adaptations for different media and as such have to be judged as such even though there obviously is a connection between the "adaptation" and the "original" and the former is indebted to the latter in some way, shape, or form.

But back to critic Smith's assessment of the BBC adaptation of Case Histories, I have to disagree with Smith's assessment of the show. I very much liked Case Histories. At the time that Smith wrote her review--just after PBS broadcast the first of the three episode series (PBS stitched together two of the original six episodes transmitted by the BBC to get three episodes), I wrote this: I have only seen two episodes of Case Histories so I obviously have to reserve full critical judgement, as any self respecting critic should, until I have seen the third. It is not clear, however, contrary to Smith's claim, exactly where the relationship between Brodie and D.I. Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington) is going at the end of episode two in this arc driven show which is why judgement should and must be withheld at least for the moment.

Now that I have seen all three episodes I can expand on these brief remarks. I particularly enjoyed the sense of melancholy that haunted almost every character in and almost every aspect of Case Histories. Brodie is haunted by the death (accidental?) of his sister Niamh and the subsequent suicide of his older brother who apparently feels responsible for Niamh's death. Brodie's melancholy associated with his sister, the death of whom along with the suicide of his brother replays themselves in Brodie's mind almost every day, is paralleled in the present by his relationship with his daughter Marley. Marley and Brodie have a close relationship that has put into jeopardy in the present when Brodie's ex-wife moves Marley from Brodie's Edinburgh to New Zealand where she has taken a job at the end of the second episode.

Other prominent and minor characters in Case Histories are equally haunted by mental scars from their pasts and their presents and these past and present ghosts impact the random chance encounters that almost all of them have with Brody and sometimes with each other in the Case Histories universe. D.I. Munroe is haunted by her feelings for Brodie, wondering, until the end of episode three, whether he has the same feelings for her that she has for him. He does. She is haunted by her difficult relationship with her teenage son, a relationship that is the antithesis of the one Brodie has with Marley. Lily Rose, who Brodie happens upon in an Edinburgh park by chance when he asks her to call for an ambulance while the person who hired him in episode one is writhing on the ground in pain, turns out to be the niece of someone who later hires Brodie to find her, Lily Rose, Shirley. Shirley turns out to be the sister of someone who supposedly killed her husband, Cheryl. Cheryl is the mother of Lily Rose who, after she was convicted of murdering her wife beating husband, a murder she did not commit, asks her sister Shirley, who did commit the murder, to care for Lily while she is in prison. Shirley, who seduces Brodie, abandoned Lily Rose and may carry this scar with her every day of her life. Reggie, the young girl who chances upon Brodie in episode three after he has accidentally been hit by a train while trying to save the life of Reggie's teacher along the railroad tracks, saves Brodie's life after the train accident. Reggie, it turns out, has a difficult relationship with her drug running brother and has had to drop out of school to work in order to take care of herself and her brother while trying to do some studying on the side. She has mental scars, in other words. Reggie's boss, Joanna Hunter, who has disappeared and who Reggie has asked Brodie to help her find, turns out to be famous because, when she was a teenager, she saw her mother brutally murdered by Gary Moore. She, of course, has lived with the scars of this murder ever since. Fearing that Moore, who has just been released from prison, is intent on murdering Joanna, Reggie and Brodie desperately seek Joanna eventually discovering that she has been kidnapped and held for ransom by mob "business" partners of Joanna's husband and has never been in danger from Moore. If the relationships in this paragraph seem labyrinthian that is because relations in Case Histories are labyrinthian.

From this brief summary of the complexities of Case Histories I hope one can see that the television adaptation of Atkinson's novels has indeed been faithful, assuming critic Smith has characterised the books accurately, to the existentialist and random chance encounters aspects of the original books. Many of the people Brodie encounters and tries to help he comes upon by chance. And most of those he comes upon through chance encounters and who he tries to help are deeply scared by their difficult and disturbing existential pasts, just like Brodie himself.

Thank you BBC for giving this viewer in the US, the land haunted by TV and film juvenalia, a thoughtful and adult television show.
Lesley Smith, Case Histories is Left With a Faint Echo of a Delightful Original, 19 October 2011, PopMatters,

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