Monday, October 10, 2005

Bunny Girls

Back to Raffles again... I'm now watching the series through from the beginning (although, for some bizarre reason, ITV3 refused to show "The Last Laugh," and I'm rather curious as to why-- the story it's based on has a gay bondage incident, but I very much doubt that they actually went anywhere near that far on television), and I'm starting to notice some patterns in the adaptation.

The pilot and first couple of episodes are essentially straight adaptations of extant Raffles stories, which are unfortunately rather dull, mostly because the dramatic tensions in the stories themselves are largely built up through the fact that we're seeing everything through Bunny's eyes (meaning that the reader is frequently in the dark as to Raffles' actual plans, and having the events coloured by Bunny's overactive imagination), which is pretty much lost when you switch to the third-person style of television. Round about episode 3, though, the adaptor (Philip Mackie) gets into his stride and decides that the best formula is a combination of a) adaptations of extant Raffles stories with elements from other Raffles stories thrown in to pad them out; b) adaptations of extant Raffles stories with the dramatic tension racked up in other ways (e.g. by having Bunny's perpetual fantasies of being found out by the police come true); c) stories which take an element or two from an actual Raffles story and then just spin it out from there based on the characters involved.

On average, stories fitting into category a) seem to be the weakest, mostly, I suspect, because you can frequently see the join between the actual story and the introduced element, but also partly because the most commonly introduced element seems to be the Plucky Girl Who Finds Out Raffles is a Burglar But Covers For Him Anyway, which Hornung himself only ever used once, in Mr Justice Raffles, generally regarded as one of his less sterling efforts (and the TV series almost universally manages to lose the subtext of the novel, namely, that Raffles wasn't attracted to her and fobbed her off on a cricketing friend with whom he is suspiciously close). The strongest ones seem to come from category c)-- principally "Home Affairs" and "To Catch a Thief," which have extracanonical scenes between Raffles and Inspector Mackenzie that would have anyone in stitches.

The other element which periodically lets the stories down is the fact that the Raffles stories were a "continuity series," while the TV series is episodic-- meaning that periodically, they're having to adapt some of the later Raffles stories (in which he is presumed dead by the police, and posing as an invalid named Mr Maturin) to the situation of the earlier stories (Raffles living it large at the Albany). So, for instance, an element of dramatic tension in "To Catch a Thief" goes out the window when it is no longer the case that Raffles is afraid people will realise he isn't actually dead; also, "The Pearl of the Emperor" loses the twist ending where Raffles dives into the Mediterranean to fake his own death and Bunny winds up arrested and charged with grand larceny.

Mackie seems to be trying to make up for it, though, by throwing in periodic elements which absolutely have to be Raffles-fan inside jokes. For instance, having him turn up at the British Museum got up as an invalid in "The Gold Cup" (which was based on a story from the "Mr Maturin" period) or making the burglary victims in "A Bad Night" a Dutch family so that Raffles can get in a jolly good rant about the Boer War (an allusion to the Raffles equivalent of the Reichenbach Falls), or working in Turkish Bath sequences every couple of episodes (referring to Bunny's paen to the pleasures of hanging around in a room full of hot, sweaty naked men [OK, I'm exaggerating, but not by much] in "The Chest of Silver"). I have to admit, they're fun to watch for, but it does have me wondering whether it would be possible to do a faithful adaptation of Hornung and have it actually work as television.