Sunday, June 12, 2016

TV | Hamish Macbeth | Book vs. Show

Hamish Macbeth (1995-1997)

It's not often that I like the media thing based on a book more than the book itself but it does happen. The Princess Bride, comes to mind as does the Hamish Macbeth TV Series.  I just re-watched Hamish Macbeth for about the 10th time and it reaffirmed once again my love for the show.  I need to confess of course that I was a fan of the TV series before picking up the books so this almost certainly influences my preferences.

The show is based on a long series of books by M.C. Beaton.  Loosely, both the books and the show center on the laid back police constable of a small Scottish Highlands town called Loch Dubh, which is populated by an eccentric cast of characters.  In his police work, Hamish subscribes to the idea of honoring the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it and he is a perfect fit for the small rural town. Both the books and the show are part cozy mystery, part small town vignettes.

Beyond this general outline though, the books and show don't have a ton in common.  The show only uses plots from the books once or twice and it also adds and morphs a number of characters and relationships from the books.  M.C. Beaton has reportedly said:
“It wasn’t like the books, I wrote about a six-foot laid back highlander and I got a 5ft 8” Glaswegian with a chip on his shoulder,” Beaton says. “It was an unfortunate experience.”
It feels pretty arrogant to contradict the author and creator of the source material, and I certainly don't blame her for being upset that they changed things so much from the books, but for me the TV show works much better than the books.  The books are fun enough but I have always struggled with M.C. Beaton's writing style and I honestly think she is crap at developing characters.  She's great at coming up with story ideas and the outline of really interesting characters but then she doesn't do a lot to actually flesh those characters out and have them feel real.  When reading her books, I am always feeling like her characters are doing things that don't make sense;  I never understand the motivations behind their actions.  Based on the premises and the types of characters she creates, she should be one of my favorite authors but I struggle with her execution of her ideas.   I describe it a little bit better in my thoughts about The Quiche of Death, the first in her Agatha Raisin series.

In the TV series, Hamish is played by Robert Carlyle - he of Trainspotting/The Full Monty/Stargate Universe/Once Upon a Time fame.  He is in fact Glaswegian, as Beaton alludes to, and in fact, my only possible complaint about the character of Hamish is that Carlyle doesn't tone down his accent, so as an American I have a really hard time understanding him sometimes.  This is a very minor complaint however, and not often a problem.  I don't see the character of Hamish in the show as having "a chip on his shoulder".  He just has genuine feelings which lead to some occasional angst which for me is a HUGE improvement over the books and makes Hamish easier to relate to and much more likeable.  Robert Carlyle does a great job breathing life into the character and making him feel very real and grounded.  He's competent and smart but not ambitious.  He likes a pint or two, fishing and walking the hills and he loves the small community of Loch Dubh.  Hamish's love life on the show, while bordering on the soap operatic, is a millions times more satisfying than the weird wishy-washyness of the books.

So my number one reason for preferring the show to the books, is a more fully developed and likeable Hamish.  A close second is all the quirky and totally charming secondary characters which the show has and the books don't.  Hamish's right hand man with the second sight John "TV John" McIver, the hapless and shifty but mostly good-hearted father and son McCrae, Rory and Esme the world's most unlikely and adorable couple, Bernie and Agnes who run the pub.  They are all delightfully eccentric and loveable.  Hamish's love interests are also suitably developed and cast.  Alex is the local laird's daughter who Hamish is still in love with in series one though she has moved to London to pursue a career as a writer.  She's gorgeous and a little privileged and supremely frustrated with Hamish's lack of ambition and desire to leave Loch Dubh.  Isobel (played by the awesome Shirley Henderson) is the local newspaper reporter, slightly frumpy and shy but smart and with a huge crush on Hamish in series one.

Another thing I appreciate about the show, which likely doesn't work for everyone, is its deliberate campiness and embracing of the ridiculous and the over-the-top.  I'm not fond of these characteristics in a show if they are done seriously without a wink and a nod but Hamish Macbeth embraces it and uses that to create a more charming and quirky show which also manages to retain some moving sentimentality from time to time.

And it can do emotion quite well from time to time.  The friendship between Hamish and TV John, Lackland McCraes' surprising support and affection for his son, Rory and Esme's true connection, Hamish's affection for his wee dog Jock.  My favorite episode I think of the whole show is a rather serious one, No Man is an Island in Series 2,  that highlights the acting talents of Robert Carlyle as well as the perfect acting and chemistry of the little known Edith MacArthur.  After experiencing a loss that Hamish feels partially responsible for he heads out for some solitude on one of the desolate islands that housed a military base during the second World War.  He runs into Belle Carter (Edith MacArthur) who has accidentally stepped on a leftover land mine and can't move.  They have no immediate way of calling for help so Hamish sets aside his own worries to focus on keeping Belle upright and alive until help can arrive.  It's a rather overblown and cliched set up but the two have great rapport and it ends up being a lovely contemplation of life and loss and what it means to move on after.  It's not something the books could pull off.

Basically I love how the show ramps up the ridiculous but still manages to feel warm and genuine.  I love the community of Loch Dubh.  I love the character of Hamish and how he is played by Robert Carlyle. I love his romantic entanglements regardless of how soap operatic they may be. I like laughing, and feeling moved and puzzling out some of the mysteries.  I love the stunning scenery and experiencing the beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

It's a show that may not be for everyone but it's worth checking out.  And in my opinion it takes the basic concepts and a couple of the characters from the books and improves on them.

Is there anybody else a fan of this BBC series?  How do you think it compares to the book series?

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