Book vs Adaptation: Secret Smile by Nicci French

I borrowed this book from my library because I had picked up a copy of the DVD in a bargain bin somewhere (curious to see a pre Doctor Who David Tennant in action) and noticed that it was based on a book.

The book

SecretSmileNicciFrench23205_fAlthough they have recently been concentrating on a series featuring a psychotherapist, the husband and wife writing team known as Nicci French are perhaps best known for their standalone novels of psychological suspense and THE SECRET SMILE was their seventh such release in 2003.

It tells the story of twenty-something Miranda Cotton. While ice-skating one afternoon she meets Brendan Block and the two start seeing each other. But only a couple of weeks into their fledgling relationship Miranda comes home from work one day to find him in her flat. She is unhappy (she hadn’t given him a key) and when she sees him reading her private diary (which he would have had to search for) she breaks off the relationship. Two weeks later her sister invites her out for dinner. Kerry has news. Kerry is in love and wants Miranda to be happy for her. Kerry hopes Miranda will be able to deal with the fact her sister’s new love is Brendan. Brendan quickly makes it clear to Miranda that he is playing some kind of twisted game but to everyone else he is the very definition of charm and no one can understand why Miranda begins behaving oddly and trying to turn people against the delightful Brendan.

For this type of novel to work best the reader has to be invested in the characters to whom awful things are happening. At least enough to want the bad things to stop happening and the nasty person to get their comeuppance. In this case for most of the book I didn’t really care if Brendan managed to turn Miranda into a jibbering basket case. Or worse. That I found Miranda irritating and many of her actions plain stupid wasn’t the biggest issue. The thing that impacted me most was that I never quite believed the entire premise. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are evil bastards like Brendan out there. But Miranda’s family were too quick to side with him. Every member of her family (and her best friend too) took Brendan’s word over Miranda’s from the get go. “Really?” I kept thinking. We’ve had some arguments over they years but I’m confident my brother would still take my word against that of a complete stranger in any scenario I can imagine. As I would his. Even if that stranger was uncommonly charismatic. I suppose the book was trying to create a sense of Miranda against the world but, for me at least, this had the opposite effect of ratcheting up the tension. For this story to work better for me Miranda would have to have been more naturally isolated at the outset, i.e. if she’d never had anyone to turn to for support, or have at least one member of her circle on her side. I think Brendan’s evilness could have continued virtually unchecked in such a scenario but Miranda’s circumstances would have had more ‘truthiness’.

I guess my other issue is that I realised early on that I knew what was going to happen for the whole book. Of course there were individual “bad stuff happens” incidents that I couldn’t have guessed at but the story arc is a very simple one and there were only two possible outcomes. Perhaps if the characters had engaged me more this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem but as it was I really was a bit bored and felt the story dragged. If I were going to recommend a suspense novel with this kind of theme I’d nominate Elizabeth Haynes’ INTO THE DARKEST CORNER instead.

The adaptation

SecretSmile200550685_fA two part TV series which aired first in the UK in 2005 falls into the faithful adaptation camp. A few minor details are altered for reasons known only to producers (though I always assume snobbery is involved when a character is given a more prestigious profession for no reason as Miranda is when she changes from the house painter she is in the book to the architect she is in the film) and the ending is taken to an extra extreme but no one who has read the book would have any trouble recognising the entire story. Which is a blessing or a curse I suppose depending on whether you liked the book or not.

For me the same problems as I had with the book carry over (Miranda is still unlikable and stupid but it is still odd that everyone she knows is prepared to disbelieve her) although because the film is of necessity shorter it does feel more tense than the book. The bad stuff just keeps happening without you having to wait impatiently for Miranda to whine for a couple of pages (there’s a lot to be said for a quick visual shot of a girl lying in bed with her hair unwashed to represent angst).

David Tennant gives a nicely understated performance as Brendan. I imagine it would have been easy to go over the top but he really does pull of the apparently-nice-guy-who-occasionally-lets-his-evil-twin-face-be-seen-by-others. Very Creepy. Kate Ashfield (who I only know from SHAUN OF THE DEAD) does as good a job as possible with the one-dimensional character of Miranda. The remaining characterisations are about what I’d expect.

The adaptation actually makes a better first of the final act of the story. Once Brendan has shown his true nature to Miranda’s family there is at least some evidence of them re-thinking his earlier behaviour and there is some much-needed dramatic tension. I’m not sure about the far-fetched resolution though but can’t say more without spoiling it (as many of the IMDB reviews do so read those at your peril)..

The winner?

I’m a bit meh about the whole thing really but if pressed I’d nominate the adaptation as the winner. The story being much the same it is at least shorter than the book (without losing anything at all) and there’s David Tennant to watch 🙂 So this is one of the few occasions I’d say don’t bother with the book at all and don’t go out of your way to see the adaptation but if you happen to notice it on the tele one night and there’s nothing else…

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

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8 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: Secret Smile by Nicci French

  1. You have a good point, Bernadette. If the premise isn’t realistic (i.e. no-one believes Miranda), it’s hard to stay interested in the novel. It’s even harder if you don’t really care that much what happens to the character. Well, at least you got to watch David Tennant. 🙂


  2. FictionFan says:

    Funnily enough, while I was reading your review I was thinking that I had the same problem with Into the Darkest Corner. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t help feeling it was unrealistic that her friends reacted the way they did. I guess the stories wouldn’t work though if everyone just believed the main character! 😉


  3. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Ha ha! Thanks for making me laugh and also for helping me decide not to read Secret Smile. However, if, as you say, the adaptation comes on the telly and I’m bored, and got nothing better to do, well, i might just tune in.


  4. kathy d. says:

    I haven’t read the book nor seen the adaptation on TV. I’m not interested in doing so, but I would watch David Tennant in anything, so if it comes by my TV, I’ll watch it.
    And by the way, beg, borrow or steal “The Escape Artist,” a BBC production with Tennant and Sophie Okenado as dueling barristers, with a psychopath on the loose.
    Fantastic suspense and acting, not to mention line delivery. She is as brilliant as he is.


    • I’ll keep an eye out for The Escape Artist Kathy, thanks for the recommendation. I don’t watch David Tennant in everything (not a Doctor Who fan) but I do enjoy him in lots of things.


  5. I’ve enjoyed other Nicci French books but not read this one – it doesn’t sound appealing. I would find the premise as annoying as you do. The film version completely passed me by.


  6. kathy d. says:

    Well, I don’t watch Doctor Who either. But I did watch both seasons of Broadchurch from the BBC with Tennant and Olivia Coleman. Then I watched the U.S. version with Tennant and Anna Gunn. Coleman wasn’t a blonde, gorgeous actor so U.S. directors changed her role to be played by Gunn, who was fine, but still it’s annoying.


    • I’ve been wondering whether to watch the US version of Broadchurch…part of me can’t see the point as I’ve already seen the UK one. But then David Tennant… I didn’t enjoy the second season nearly as much, not sure I’ll bother watching the third season which they’ve announced


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