by David Meek
November 11, 2003
Due to the history of this project, there are two different groups that must be
addressed: those who have viewed the original BBC series, and those who have
not. Unfortunately, I can only give a heavily qualified recommendation to one
of those groups - those already familiar with the plot.
The backstory has to be covered. In the mid-'80s, Dennis Potter, the irascible
British author, wrote the screenplay for The Singing Detective, a six-part BBC
television series. In the years since it first aired in 1986, it has grown in
critical appreciation to the point where some folks - myself included - consider
it to be the greatest made-for-TV work ever produced. Running nearly seven hours,
the series weaves an extremely complex tale of chronic illness, the petty
humiliations of hospital life, a fictional tale of intrigue and murder,
contemporary martial problems and unresolved childhood traumas, all viewed
through the lens of an increasingly fractured mind.
After the BBC series had aired, Potter decided to work on a film version of this
sprawling story. He set himself the unenviable challenge of reducing his
interwoven web of storylines down to a manageable script nearly 75% shorter in
length. Potter died in 1994 with the film in turnaround; the project languished
for nearly a decade. Finally, Mel Gibson came along and picked up the rights.
He chose to make the film as a small-budget production, casting himself in a key
role and getting director Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead, A Midnight Clear) on board.
Now, 17 years after the series first aired, we finally can see the results of
this oft-delayed project on the big screen. Unfortunately, what we ultimately
receive is an expected by-product of such a complicated history: a story with so
much cut out that character motivation becomes fuzzy and plot elements are
We have to begin with the script. Potter decided, as part of this TV-to-film
conversion, to change the setting of the story. For the childhood flashbacks,
the BBC series was set in actual locations from Potter's childhood in the late
'30s and early '40s. Potter moved the location to the U.S. (California),
changed the name of the character (Philip Marlowe becomes Dan Dark) and changed
the timeframe to the '50s. Because both the series and the film are so
dependent on music from each era, this change presents problems, as it was
easier for Potter to select music from his own childhood to produce the
appropriate ironic comment on the plot. In the film, several musical selections
seem remarkably arbitrary - in particular, the key first musical sequence at the
hospital. In the series, this was the basis for the justly celebrated "Dry
Bones" song-and-dance scene.
For the film, the selected song is "At The Hop." While it provides an up-tempo
basis for a kinetic dance sequence, it lacks the organic connection to the
hospital setting. Further, Gordon unfortunately mishandles the transition into
this sequence, producing an awkward and stilted beginning. Since this
represents the introduction for the audience into the fractured nature of Dark's
mind, having this critical number fall flat is a near fatal moment.
This is not to say that all of the music selections are poorly chosen or
mishandled. In particular, the "Mr. Sandman" sequence with Katie Holmes' Nurse
Mills character works well, and the "turning point" scene with Gibson's Dr.
Gibbon character quite effectively uses "Three Steps to Paradise."
The other major problem with Potter's script stems from the drastic cuts
required to go from a nearly seven hour long series down to a sub-two hour movie. The
cuts are particularly painful for those who know and love the BBC series: most
of the hospital material, a good portion of the "book" sequences, and, most
painfully, nearly all of the critical childhood material. The film cuts this
last element down so much that the father character is reduced to not much more
than a shadow, and the mother's final choice is effectively unexplained - only
those familiar with the original series will understand.
What this leaves: all of the Dark-Gibbon interaction, nearly all of the
Dark-Nicola material, some of the Nurse Mills material, and nearly all of the
Two Hoods scenes. However, with the exception of the Gibbons scenes, the
remaining material still has cuts or changes that effectively render character
motivation meaningless. The last scene with Nicola at the apartment just
doesn't make sense - except to those who know that a preceeding scene in the
series explains it perfectly.
This is the most serious problem of the film. It's difficult to imagine how
confusing all of this has to be to anyone going into the film without a working
knowledge of the longer version. So much gets blown through so quickly,
skimming over key elements, that I felt sorry for those in the theater
experiencing this material for the first time. (It was easy to tell who had
seen the series and who hadn't: those who had laughed at known items whose
setups weren't explained well in the film, while those who hadn't left the
theater saying things like, "Did you understand that?") The source material is
an amazing story, and is worth experiencing. But I have a hard time
recommending this as the way of discovering it.
The casting is strong, and the performances are uniformly appealing. Robert
Downey, Jr. does remarkably good work as Dan Dark, and Gibson nearly disappears
entirely into the Dr. Gibbons character. Katie Holmes does what she can with a
cut-back version of Nurse Mills, and Jon Polito and Adrien Brody draw the
biggest laughs as the hoods. The best piece of casting, though, is Robin Wright
Penn as Nicola. She brings a strong, grounding presence to the entire film.
In summary: there are serious problems with this adaptation. The cuts required
to get the material down to a standard-length movie are, in my estimation, far
too serious. Yet there are still things to like in this film. The Dark-Gibbons
interactions come through remarkably well, the interplay between Dark and Nicola
still works, and the overall tone does manage to squeak through. I believe that
those who know the original work will find enough left in this adaptation to
still enjoy it. However, those for whom this would be their first exposure to
the story - well, I just can't bring myself to recommend it. I strongly
encourage you instead to seek out the recently released DVD set of the BBC
series. But, if you know that you just can't bring yourself to sit through
nearly seven hours of TV to digest one story (and that's a personal decision), then
this film will at least allow you to sample Potter's brilliant concept.