Book vs Adaptation: Twice Shy by Dick Francis

The book

TwiceShyCoverTWICE SHY is the 20th of Francis’ novels and was published in 1981. Following what was by then a tried and true formula it is a fast-paced story of decent chaps up against unscrupulous ones and, as always, there is horse racing at its heart.

In this case the book is broken into two distinct parts. In the first half, physics teacher and former Olympic-level sharp-shooter Jonathan Derry is unwittingly drawn into a battle with a family of violent thugs. A friend of Jonathan’s has been asked to create a computerised gambling system from the notes and ideas of an elderly man who has made a living as a professional gambler. Although he does indeed design the program Jonathan’s friend doesn’t hand it over to the people who wanted it which leads to Jonathan’s involvement and some elaborate attempts to outwit the thugs. The second half of the book takes place 14 years later and Jonathan’s younger brother William, a former jockey and current manager for a wealthy American racing enthusiast, is the main character though the aforementioned computer system is still at the centre of the action.

As is always the case Francis’ research is expertly woven into the story so the early 80’s computing world is depicted well. Though talented in many arenas unfortunately Francis was devoid of predictive powers so the second half of the story – set in Francis’ future – was not quite as successful as technology moved on far more quickly than he could have anticipated. In fact the second half of the novel in its entirety is not, for me, as successful as the first as even the behaviour of the good guys stretches the bounds of credibility to (beyond?) breaking point.

The heart of this story though is an exploration of what happens when people want something so badly it physically hurts but, for some reason beyond their control, they can’t have it. Francis depicts both potential solutions to this problem, either you learn to live with not being able to have the thing or you let your thwarted desires destroy you, thereby making the book more thought provoking than it might first appear. For that reason I rather like it but I’m not sure I’d have earmarked it as ripe for adaptation. Even if I’d been going to do a better job than the people who made TWICE SHY the telemovie.

The adaptation

DickFrancisMysteriesTwice13095_fI doubt that even if you planned to do so meticulously you could make adaptations that are as horribly, excruciatingly bad as the makers of three television movies branded as the Dick Francis Mysteries managed to do. The second of the three movies is, ostensibly, based on TWICE SHY but other than the fact both revolve around a computer system there’s not a great deal of similarity.

The first problem one would encounter in adapting the highly popular and successful Francis canon is that they are, for the most part, standalone novels and therefore do not offer the much-loved central character around whom a TV series might be built. Those responsible for this televisual dreck got around this problem by creating an entirely new character (at least he is not based on any of the protagonists of the three novels chosen for this series of adaptations though I can’t be certain the name is not from one of the other 40-odd novels) called David Cleveland and inserting him willy nilly into three random stories. He apparently works for the British Jockey Club as some kind of security consultant (but only briefly in the third movie actually does any work for his employer) and is not really much like a traditional Francis hero. Where they are usually moral, intelligent and highly skilled at something interesting this character is sleazy, gives no evidence of any particular skills (even his fist-fighting is rubbish) and is more smartarse than smart. Ian McShane probably did the best he could with the script but the performance just made me cringe as his Cleveland spent more time making goo goo eyes at women than doing any kind of detecting or using his innate skills to right wrongs.

A farcical TV villain

A farcical TV villain

By their nature such stories as Francis writes are a bit corny and formulaic but, as the makers of the never-ending Midsomer Murders will attest, if you use decent actors, scriptwriters and so on you can end up with an entertaining product even if it is not a particularly deep or meaningful one. Alas the joint Irish/Canadian production of these horrors apparently didn’t have a large enough budget for any kind of quality resources. TWICE SHY the movie doesn’t have two parts (thereby negating entirely the meaning of the title) and the one part it does have is a farce. The narrative, bearing little resemblance to its source material, jumps around incoherently but viewers are distracted from the giant plot holes by the laughable quality of the filming and the over-the-top acting. Was shooting through transparent matter considered avant-garde in 1989? Because at least a third of the shots here are through car windows or raindrops or via reflections from computer screens so a lot of the action is quite fuzzy (perhaps I should be grateful). And then there is the main villain. He looks and behaves as preposterously as I hope this photo (taken from a screen grab) demonstrates. There is no earthly reason why he is wearing these goggles – they are neither mentioned nor explained and they only appear in the one scene. The rest of the movie makes about as much sense as the brief appearance of this preposterous eye ware.

Presumably the target (indeed only) audience for something entitled Dick Francis Mysteries is the legion of fans of Dick Francis’ work therefore, I would have thought, you’d want to at least have a go at making any adaptations vaguely similar to the books we know and love. But TWICE SHY the adaptation seems to have been made by people whose only connection to the source material is having heard about a Dick Francis novel from their grandmother’s next-door neighbour.

It is, in short, utter pants.

The winner?

You can’t possibly be in any doubt.

If you should happen to notice these movies going cheap at your local purveyor of such goods (as I did) don’t be tempted. If you are, don’t come crying to me. You’ve been warned.

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

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10 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: Twice Shy by Dick Francis

  1. Well that sounds blooming’ awful – shall stay away from the TV version! I may have even read this one back in the 80s but it’s been too long and none of the many Francis books I read seem to have stuck with me really (but like Ellis Peters – I remember reading loads of those but can’t recall much now sadly).


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – I’d heard of these adaptations, but thankfully never seen them. I like Dick Francis’ work very much, and it probably would have sent my blood pressure skyrocketing to see those adaptations of it. No, there’s no question in my mind which would’ve won…


  3. realthog says:

    So it’d be accurate to conclude you’re not upset about the movie Twice Shy being entirely overlooked by the Academy?

    Great rant!


  4. tracybham says:

    I did not know about these adaptations, but I am glad you have warned me away from them. I might have been tempted. I should re-read some Dick Francis novels though, and this one sounds good.


  5. icewineanne says:

    I’ve had the box DVDs in my wish list at Amazon, waiting for the price to drop. Thanks so much for the review/warning – I’m going to delete this from my list 🙂


  6. Oh dear! Sorry you had to endure the TV versions Bernadette, but your review was hilarious, you have given pleasure through your pain! The word preposterous is not used enough – there is plenty around to deserve it, I’m glad you reminded me of it….


  7. Bernadette, I read Dick Francis during my college days but after a while I got tired of the horse racing theme. I haven’t read his books in more than two decades.


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