When Belgian policemen become Catholic priests 

There exists a literary practice where old favourites are given fresh adventures by later writers. These are mostly well written, and respect the backstories the original authors gave their characters

Updated - May 12, 2024 12:23 am IST

Published - May 11, 2024 11:40 pm IST - Bengaluru

Contemporary writers love backstories for popular characters. So too it would seem, do contemporary readers and viewers. I am not sure which came first, the demand or the supply, but it seems to have embedded itself into our culture. 

Thus superheroes from Batman to the Black Widow are given backstories - presumably so we can understand their psychological motivations better. This, whether we need to or not. Jack and Jill went up the hill merely to fetch a pail of water and not because one of them was unloved as an infant. 

Often the backstories lack imagination or relevance and aren’t necessary. An old favourite, Perry Mason, was given a silly backstory in a recent TV series which must have made his creator Erle Stanley Gardner turn in his grave. 

There exists a literary practice where old favourites are given fresh adventures by later writers. These are mostly well written, and respect the backstories the original authors gave their characters. I have enjoyed Sebastian Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, and Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders featuring Hercule Poirot. In the 1960s, Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun under the pseudonym Robert Markham. That James Bond thriller might have been the first of the genre. 

However the more popular the writer, the more likely that their main character is given an unnecessary backstory. In The ABC Murders, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian policeman, was given a backstory as a Catholic priest. 

In fact, Christie has been so badly treated by television of late that opposition is building up. Andrew Wilson, a Christie researcher and specialist has told the BBC it should stop rewriting the plots of her novels. 

Unnecessary creative license has seen the identity of the murderer changed in Ordeal by Innocence. It has made the protagonist the murderer in The Pale Horse (despite his killing no one in the book). In Murder Is Easy, the investigator has been changed from a retired British policeman returning from the Far East to a young Nigerian man coming to England to take up a job in Whitehall. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, fans are beginning to ask. 

Perhaps this is political correctness gone mad. Or inclusivity. But those who reimagine the stories have their reasons. 

Sarah Phelps who rewrote The Pale Horse said, “Of course I’ve taken liberties. Have I changed loads of stuff? Yeah, of course. Otherwise you’d have 30 hours of TV and would you want to watch it?” 

That argument can justify changing the end of say, The Great Gatsby so that Gatsby isn’t killed but leaves the city with a hitchhiker he picks up and lives happily ever after with her. Or Sleeping Beauty, on the verge of living happily ever after with her Prince Charming stabbing him to death because he complained about breakfast. Or Romeo and Juliet running away to Denmark and meeting up with Hamlet who can’t decide whether to kill Macbeth or his wife. One can get carried away. 

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