Book vs Adaptation: The Guards

The book

ken-bruen-the-guardsIn what I’m sure some would view as heretical behaviour I’ve come to Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, starting with THE DRAMATIST which is the fourth novel of the series and the book I now use as my reference point for crime noir perfection (I still shiver when I remember its ending). I’ve since read and enjoyed a couple of the later books and only recently picked up the book which started it all: THE GUARDS. I’m sharing this personal history because I suspect it has coloured my experience of this book. If I had read the series in order, if I didn’t know how exquisitely, almost tortuously perfect a later book would be, I would surely have viewed this book quite differently.

I don’t mean to suggest I hated THE GUARDS but I kept comparing it to THE DRAMATIST and finding it a little disappointing (in a way that didn’t happen when I read books written subsequent to my favourite) (don’t ask me to explain myself). It introduces our anti-hero when he has not been a policeman for about 10 years. He is now (and was then for that matter) an alcoholic who visibly struggles with his demons but who has a surprising number of friends for someone who is so unreliable. His job, of sorts, is as a kind of private investigator (though Ireland doesn’t really take to the profession due to its history with informants) but it doesn’t occupy a lot of his time. Dealing with his addiction (feeding it or fighting it depending on the day) is Jack’s main occupation.

There is however a case to be solved. Jack is sought out by a woman whose teenage daughter has died of an assumed suicide. But Ann Henderson doesn’t believe her daughter would have killed herself and wants Jack to look into things. With an ex-military friend of his he ruffles a few feathers and gets beaten up a few times in what passes for investigation in Jack Taylor’s world. Even when the books are truly brilliant you don’t read Jack Taylor novels for their adherence to the tropes of procedural crime fiction.

You read them primarily because Jack is compelling. It is too dismissive to think of him as just another alcoholic protagonist of the genre. He doesn’t drink because of the rigours of his job. He drinks because he can’t not. The addict’s desperation, his inevitability of giving in again to the urge, his total lack of capacity to care about the consequences are all in evidence. Jack is, at times, likeable  (he is nice to old ladies, very well-read and has a dark and dry sense of humour) and at other times someone you’d fancy throwing a brick at (when he misses a close friend’s funeral because of a binge for example). But at all times he demand’s the reader’s attention in the way that a pile-up demands the passing motorist’s gaze.

You might also read these novels for the writing. It is concise (the book is close to novella length, especially when stacked up against the tomes of today) and has something of a poetic sensibility. This stems in part from the many references to other literary works and song lyrics, and also from the liberal use of a peculiar writing style in which things that don’t need to do so appear in lists rather than standard prose. I think Bruen’s writing gets better with the later books, here both of these elements are a bit overused for my liking. The dialogue and Jack’s internal monologue show the promise of the brilliance they will display in the later novels.

So, this is a good (if not great) book which has a very strong sense of place and character but not much of a narrative and a disappointing ending. I think this is what makes me harsher on the book than I perhaps ought to be. I admire Bruen’s bravery with his later endings and I know I should make allowances for him having to work up to that. But I haven’t done.

The adaptation

JackTaylorCollectionOne65517_fA television movie of THE GUARDS staring Scottish actor Iain Glen in the role of Jack Taylor aired in the UK in 2010 (a decade after the book was published) as the first of what is now six feature-length episodes of a Jack Taylor TV series. In many ways the film epitomises the core of the problem that adaptations present.

Why do they get made?

Is it to faithfully recreate their source material in a visual medium? If so then this one isn’t awful but neither it is a gleaming success. Glen does well in the role of Taylor – quite believable as the semi-functional addict – though his accent is less successful in the role of being consistently Irish. But the plot, not exactly a masterpiece of suspense in the source material, is played with fairly pointlessly (e.g. Ann’s daughter is not dead but missing and the ending is all wrong) and has even less twists than the original. The supporting characters are smoothed over, presumably for the wider audience expected of TV viewing, and in one case rather muddled by combining two characters from the books. There has been an attempt to achieve the fist-person perspective of the books by Glen doing an occasional voice-over and this doesn’t really work (I’m not sure if that’s due to the random inconsistency or the fact that I really don’t like voice overs).

If, on the other hand, the idea of an adaptation is to use the source material for inspiration only and to give it a whole different spin then this film doesn’t work on that level either as it sticks too close to the original for anyone who’s read the book. It doesn’t take us anywhere new, except perhaps in making Jack more lovably incorrigible here than in the book which is a mistake. Jack is not meant to be a loveable rogue.

The winner?

Even though I didn’t love the book as much as its successors if is, for me, a clear winner. I think I want adaptations to be one thing or another. Either a faithful recreation of the source material, only making changes necessary for the difference in medium or length, or a basically new work that pays only a nod of recognition to its source material. For me THEGUARDS occupied the no man’s land in between these extremes and so as an adaptation is not wholly successful. That said, as a movie in its own right it makes for decent enough watching, especially with whole passages of Bruen’s crisp and darkly funny dialogue translated to spoken language.

Have you read the book and/or seen the film? Agree or disagree with me? Where do you stand on the whole question of why adaptations get made? Do you like your adaptations faithful or inventive?

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9 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: The Guards

  1. Col says:

    Bernadette, I’ve not read too many Taylor books yet, possibly 3. I enjoyed The Guards (book) but wouldn’t say it was amazing, unlike some commentators. I started watching the adaptation, but don’t think I made it through the first hour – it just didn’t have any fizz for me.

    A previous adaptation of Robert Parker’s Spencer character years ago was memorably woeful. And whilst my wife is a fan of Gerritsen’s Rizzolo and thingy books we have deliberately avoided the show. Leave well alone, I reckon.

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    • I was surprised to see The Guards (book) had won awards – I didn’t think it was that good.

      I don’t mind the Rizzolo and Isles TV show (I’ll watch if I’m around but don’t go out of my way) but I’m not a particular fan of the books (read a couple years ago but not a series I follow) – there’s not a lot of similarity except in the names of the two main characters so your wife is right to avoid I think

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  2. Jon Page says:

    The TV series was TERRIBLE. I am a massive Jack Taylor fan and the tv series is one of the great injustices of book adaptations. Iain Glen was not even close to Jack Taylor and I am not even sure if anyone involved with the TV show actually read a Ken Bruen book.

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    • I think I enjoyed the TV show a little more than you Jon but I’ve only seen the first episode and I must admit am not terribly compelled to watch the remaining two films I have in the DVD set someone gave me.

      Most of the positive reviews I’ve seen appear to have been written by people who’ve not read the books – it’s a whole different angle to come at things from I guess.

      I know there is a movie made of THE DRAMATIST which is still my favourite of the books but I don’t have it and I don’t want to watch it.

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  3. Bernadette – I agree completely with you that this series gets better as it goes on. No doubt in my mind about that. I’ll admit I’ve not seen the adaptation, but such a major point of Ann’s personality and motivation in the novel has to do with the death of her daughter. Why would they change that in the adaptation? Oh, well, that’s what TV folks do I suppose….

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  4. Keishon says:

    I heard the production of the series was flat out awful. I enjoyed THE GUARDS but didn’t love it. Like you said there are other books in the series that are much, much better. I would be curious to know what you think of Brant (another series by Bruen).

    For me adaptations should follow closely to the source or make up for its weaknesses in another medium, IOW, make it even better. So I think we have the same opinion. Otherwise, what is the point of it being made? I don’t remember hearing anyone yelling that they wanted to see Jack Taylor on TV. Well, not my neck of the woods.

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  5. Very interesting and thorough comparison of the two, Bernadette. I have read other books by Bruen but not this one. I think I ought to read The Dramatist.

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  6. TracyK says:

    Your post and all of the comments are very interesting. I think I would be interested in seeing the TV series episodes but I won’t rush to do it… especially because I have too many series and movies unwatched already. I did love The Guards (the novel) and have not read more in the series. My husband I had the same experience with The Guards; we liked it a lot, but once done reading it could not remember much about it or even formulate what we liked about it. I do have the next two books and your praise for the Dramatist encourages me to continue on with the series.

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