Book vs Adaptation: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

I still recall the feeling of wanting to poke my eyes out with a stick while ploughing my way through John Banville’s THE SEA (yes I know it won the Booker but I’m prepared to admit it bored me to tears even if that marks me a philistine) so I wasn’t exactly tripping over myself to venture into his alter-ego’s attempt at a crime novel. But someone had given me a set of the DVDs based on the books so I thought I should have a go at one of the novels first. However I have to acknowledge that while I tried to approach CHRISTINE FALLS with an open mind I probably failed. Just so you know.

The book


CHRISTINE FALLS  is the first novel of a series set in 1950’s Dublin and having at its centre the Griffin family who are part of the Catholic aristocracy. Quirke (if he has a first name I missed it entirely) is the foster son of the family, a pathologist and a drunk. When he notices his foster-brother Malachy – also a doctor – fiddling with a file he has no need to be fiddling with, Quirke becomes determined to find out what lay behind Mal’s fiddling with the file of someone called Christine Falls. This leads Quirke to endure his family’s wrath, a couple of beatings-up and a trip to America. At the same time as all this getting drunk and beaten up is going on we meet a young Boston couple who have adopted a baby called Christine.

CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him. Here an attractive nurse literally jumps on Quirke despite him having been beaten to a pulp and still being covered in bruises and bandages. I’m sorry but my eyes rolled. It’s this type of nonsense which stops me reading more noir.

Although in the end it offered a satisfactory, if bleak, resolution I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the plot either though I suspect if you read less crime fiction than I do you might have been less annoyed. I didn’t really get a genuine surprise in the lot but can acknowledge I’m not the average reader when it comes to this stuff.

The other thing I suppose one can’t do when discussing a writer of Black/Banville’s stature is fail to mention the writing itself but even there I’m afraid I wasn’t won over. Some of it – particularly the early scenes depicting Claire and Andy who are the adoptive parents of baby Christine – is rather beautiful but there is a lot of repeated imagery. I lost count, for example, of the number of times people are described as being like a stubborn/surly/recalcitrant child. And towards the end of the novel there’s a rape scene that just made me squirm. I can’t quote the passage now as the book’s gone back to the library but at the crucial moment we’re drawn to the image of dark and powerful waves crashing on nearby rocks. As if rape is as natural as ocean tides? Ick.

So…the book is not for me. I’m probably in the minority (again) but I found the characterisations too stereotypical, the gender politics bloody depressing and the plot easily predictable. As always though other opinions are available.

The adaptation

QuirkeHaving been underwhelmed by the novel I took a while to get around to watching the adaptation but it was a gift and it does feature Gabriel Byrne (on whom I have long had something of a crush). It is the first of three 90 minute episodes of a TV series which first aired in the UK earlier this year (the next two episodes are adaptations of the next two novels in the series).

Byrne makes a decent Quirke. He is more physically attractive than the book suggests but still permanently morose and nearly always drunk so not exactly someone real-world women would jump on with quite the alacrity of fictional ones. But he does get the essence of the character: a man who has lost much and missed opportunities and whose stubbornness on the trail of a mystery is inextricably tied to his family and his own life experiences. I’ve actually watched all three  episodes now so I can’t be sure this is evident from just the first episode, but there’s definitely a sense that Quirke is not always so diligent – only when there’s something personal at stake.

Despite my aforementioned crush on Byrne it was actually Nick Dunning as Quirke’s foster-brother Malachy and Michael Gambon as their father (a judge with much influence both politically and within the family) that steal the show. Both characters are a bit meatier than in the book and the actors seem to enjoy their roles whereas Byrne and the women don’t really have much to do with only one emotion each to play with.

The storyline of the novel is followed fairly closely although the bits which are removed presumably for length reasons are generally the bits of the book I liked most. In the adaptation the depiction of baby Christine and her adoptive parents is superficial at best which is something of a shame.

The winner?

I did enjoy the TV show more than the book but if I’m honest that’s probably because it was shorter and I really had few expectations by that point.

I actually don’t know that a person who hadn’t read the novel would have been able to follow the story all that well as a lot of knowledge about who was who and what their relationships were to each other seems to have been assumed.

Ultimately though I’m not sure I can really award a winner as I really wasn’t taken with either format. For me both versions of the story suffer from offering more style over substance. As if being dark and moody is all it takes to make something interesting.

Have you read the book and/or seen the TV show? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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15 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

  1. Col says:

    Bernadette, I think I’ve worn a few of those eye-poking sticks out myself over the years!
    I haven’t read any of his “literature” (and won’t) and I’ve only read the one Black book – The Lemur which was pre-blogging days and didn’t leave a great impression. Not rushing to these ones any time soon either, though I know I have the first couple somewhere (fools and their money, eh)


  2. Bernadette – It’s interesting isn’t it how a book can strike people in different ways. I know exactly what you mean too about your prior expectations/experiences affecting your reading of this novel. And even though I think I liked this one a little better than you did, I know that you’re absolutely not alone in not being blown away by it. I’ve read several less-than-enthusiastic reviews of it, along with raves. Some books are like that, I suppose…


  3. As ever, brilliant review, and – as often – I feel you put into words very well what I thought. I read several of Banville’s earlier straight novels – Untouchable and Newton’s Letter – and thought they were wonderful. The Sea was a huge disappointment, really couldn’t get on with it. So then I thought I’d give Benjamin Black a go, hoping this might be a way back into this author, but I didn’t like the first two, and gave up at that point. I saw about a minute of the first TV adaptation and decided not to bother. I can still cherish the earlier books, but I think he changed dramatically after that….


  4. Jose Ignacio says:

    An excellent review as always Bernadette. I can understand your points even if we don’t fully agree.


  5. FictionFan says:

    Oh dear, yes! All these middle-aged, drunken, rumpled and quite often really quite grubby men who are irresistible to women! I’ve been swaying back and forwards as to whether to give this book a try – I think you’ve just exercised the casting vote. Thanks!


  6. realthog says:

    CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him.

    Rolled around laughing when I got to this part. You’re absolutely right. As a middle-aged man myself, I’m equally tired of this cliche.

    In noir, if it’s done right, the middle-aged man should be extremely suspicious of the babe who wants to bed him, because there’s only one possible reason why she should: to make a sap of him.


  7. TracyK says:

    Two excellent reviews in one post. I read the book a few years back and only remember that I was not impressed. Too slow, too gloomy. I do plan to try another book in the series someday. I may try the adaptation. Although Byrne as “still permanently morose and nearly always drunk” doesn’t sound very appealing. But there is Michael Gambon.


  8. angelasavage says:

    This is what great reviewing looks like. Bravo Bernadette!


  9. Moody Sleuth says:

    Ditto to angelasavage and realthog. Bernadette, your honesty is inspiring!


  10. Kathy D. says:

    Ditto again. Excellent review. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about why I don’t wish to read noir nor many “thrillers,” nor even some male writers’ books, The paragraph quoted by realthog really sums it up.
    I will, however, look at the TV shows if my library has them. I like Gabriel Byrne, too.


  11. Really enjoyed both the reviews Bernadette, thanks. I have the novel on the shelf, unread, but did watch the TV version, which i thought was average at best – as you say, the plot seems rather predictable – I think the third episode was maybe the one that worked the best for me.

    Maybe you should submit this review for the Book to Movie Challenge run by Katie over at Doing Dewey – you’d be in very good company 🙂


  12. This is to let you know that I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award
    — please see here for the details
    And thank you for the inspiration….


  13. “CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him.”
    I can see that YOU are in your usual, great shape 🙂

    What a pity the excellent, Danish crime writer Susanne Staun’s series is not translated into English. The stories are dark, but her female heroine is a parody of this male type. She has had more surgery than Michael Jackson, but it seems to do the trick. Very young men fall for her in droves – in between the nail-biting suspence there are some really hilarious scenes.


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