This article was first published in the Official Inspector Morse Society Newsletter.
The Jewel That Was Ours was one of the few episodes in the television series of Inspector Morse to be adapted from one of the novels by Colin Dexter, although, in a strange juxtaposition, the novel was written after the television episode. The adaptation is faithful unto the end, when the devilish and confusing ending Dexter provides for his readers is substituted for his red herring, as with The Last Enemy, the televised adaptation of the novel The Riddle of the Third Mile. In both cases, Dexter’s red herring is substituting for true ending, which is often much more confusing.
In the case of other adaptations of the novels, such as The Service of All the Dead, the ending from the novel is used, whereas in these two particular shows the ending is altered to make it simpler. ‘Morse was brilliant but he was not always right. He often arrested the wrong person or came to the wrong conclusion.’ A major aspect of Dexter’s story telling and the characterisation of Morse is that he draws the wrong conclusion, before finally reaching the correct, often baffling conclusion after a small detail is revealed to the detective.
The issue of adapting the endings of the novels to suit television as a medium, and the idea of a more intense ending to a televised version of Dexter’s novels can be seen in the adaptation of The Way Through the Woods, where the novel’s convoluted and not- so climatic discovery that the woman pretending to be her sister did not have a scar on her knee, which takes place in the woman’s sitting room, is replaced by a scene of Sergeant Lewis digging his own grave at gunpoint and pleading for his life before the gun woman is talked out of murder by Morse. The plot remained the same, with the ending altered only to improve the dramatic effect for a television audience.
However, the issue here is the altering of the novel endings, not for dramatic televised purposes, but in order to make the plots simpler for a wider audience. The televised adaptation of The Jewel That Was Ours finishes with Cedric Downes, a professor giving lectures on the American tour, having murdered his wife and her lover, Dr Theodore Kemp, because of their infidelity. In Dexter’s novel, this option is offered as a theory by Morse for a large part of the novel, before being highlighted as a red herring by the survival of Mrs Downes, and the finding of her suitcase under her hospital bed which actually contained curtains, instead of the murder victim’s bloody clothes. The true perpetrators are revealed to be the irritating Mrs Roscoe and her husband, Phil Aldrich, whose daughter was killed in the car crash that crippled Kemp’s wife.
This entire scenario is constructed throughout the novel: the constant referral to the car crash but the lack of emphasis on the other victim, the intense nature of the performance of ‘Mrs Roscoe’, whom Dexter calls ‘well-read, eager, humourless (insufferable!)’, and the way in which Dexter constantly references Stratton’s mild nature. An identical scenario is constructed within the TV adaptation, with Mildred Shay portraying Mrs Roscoe as a neurotic and generally obnoxious character, whilst John Bloomfield’s Aldrich is mild mannered. So, with this set up complete it is understandably surprising that Dexter’s red herring is substituted for the real ending.
This dumbing down of the plot for television is a strange idea. Dexter’s novels revolve around a ridiculousness which borders on implausibility. As Dexter states himself ‘I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than as, the kind of writer who concentrates on the motivation of crime.’ Dexter is more interested in the story of the crime than the social or moral obligations which law makers face, and so his stories are based around confounding and absurd plots rather than the moral messages often found in modern crime writing.
As such, the plots of his novels are among the most important features of his writing. There is not one of his novels which does not contain a convoluted plot, and therefore to alter such an integral part of the novel for the sake of television is a very drastic change. As already highlighted, the changes are not warranted merely for the medium of television, but offer the viewer a highly simplified version of the novel on which the episodes are based.
In this case, it would surely follow, then, that the novels on which the episodes are based are too outlandishly written for the television. It is certainly true that arguably Dexter’s most nonsensical Morse novel, The Secret of Annex Three, which depicts a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party and involves numerous people dressed as Rastafarians, was never made into an episode of the TV series, and the novels in question here are certainly fairly outlandish in their plotting. In The Jewel That Was Ours the real perpetrators are not considered as suspects at all, by either the reader or the detectives, until their unmasking at the very end of the novel by Inspector Morse. Dexter constructs a narrative within which there is no space to consider a pair of ageing and as yet unconnected American tourists, and it is this that makes the final revolutions so utterly genius. The TV episode The Wolvercote Tongue runs its plot along the same narrative, thereby setting itself up for the same conclusion. However, the larger span of the novel and the greater ease of weaving small details repetitively through the narrative allow for the surprise conclusion to seem less abrupt than in a television programme, where viewers can easily overlook small plot points and dialogue can easily become forced.
The Riddle of the Third Mile and its televisual counterpart The Last Enemy also face similar problems. The Riddle of the Third Mile is by far more complicated than The Way Through the Woods, with even Sergeant Lewis still completely baffled as Morse summarises the events which have lead them to so many dead bodies, and with much of this summary being pure conjecture on Morse’s part. Because of this, a large amount of the plot of that particular novel occurs without the presence of either detective, as their role is largely assigned to the donkey work of identifying the corpses. In this example it is perhaps more obvious why the novel required altering before being televised, as Dexter makes the valid point that police work is perhaps not what is shown on TV within his narrative and this is not a point which can be easily televised.
In conclusion, the potential for the endings of Dexter’s complicated novel The Jewel That Was Ours and the equally fiendish The Riddle of The Third Mile to be misinterpreted on television were responsible for the alterations the producers and writers made in order to televise them. It could be argued this diminishes from his work. Dexter’s novels are often shown to be complex remodellings of a stagnant genre, and by removing and altering key features of them did the TV episode creators in fact miss something crucial and deny Morse’s television fans a key aspect of his work? When it is considered Dexter’s entire body of work is based on his assiduous attention to detail and his classical references more than the alterations he makes to the genre of crime fiction, and that Dexter himself had a hand in the creation of the television series and wrote The Jewel That Was Hours based on the screenplay of The Wolvercote Tounge, this writer would say not.