As with a number of my Crime Fiction obsessions, I was recently drawn to George Simeon’s seminal novels featuring the dour yet dogged detective Jules Maigret by the TV adaptation of the books, featuring the exquisite Rowan Atkinson as the titular protagonist. Sleek and intriguing, this portrayal made me want to seek out and explore this writer in the way that the very best adaptations do, and I was not disappointed by the writer’s grim yet optimistic style, as he and his determined detective delve into the murky Parisian underworld in search of some truly vile and disgusting criminals.
Previously I had watched a couple of episodes of the Michael Gambon version, which took a literal representation of the character as a human cannonball, barrelling through crime scenes clumsily, with an awkward way of speaking and a generally slightly confused manner.
Whilst Maigret does exhibit a number of these characteristics in the novels, he is a great enigma there also; like the TV adaptations each book, as with each portrayal, shows a different side to the character. He is equal parts confused and determined, at times forceful and unrelenting and others surprisingly understanding, as well as being both thuggish and compassionate simultaneously. In short, he is quiet possibly the most human detective I have encountered since I began my love affair with Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander many years ago.
So what makes Maigret so popular? Why is this detective, written by a Belgium author during the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, so widely read and so regularly adapted for the screen?
After all, the character has been portrayed for numerous audiences around the world by a myriad of actors, from Mr Bean himself through to Soviet Union Russian theater actor Boris Tenin and there were even Japanese and Italian versions on TV over the years. In film a number of actors including Pierre Renoir have taken a go at portraying the character, each brining a different element into the mix. There are even comic book strips devoted to the character, which highlights his suitability for various types of media.
These portrayals are all incredibly diverse, which is partially down to the range of emotions the character exhibits throughout the novels. It is hard to lay down exact character traits for Maigret as he develops drastically over the years, growing and being affected by his life and work in the same way that a real person would, unlike some characters who remain stagnant even after many years have passed and dozens of books have been written about their exploits.
The characters’ growth can be seen as central to his versatility, as many of those portraying him look on him at a different stage in his development, or choose to exacerbate certain traits, such as his determination and stoic expressions, in the case of Gambon, or his compassion and the silent contemplation with which he undertakes a case, as in the case of Atkinson. With such a variety of traits to choose from those bringing the character to the screen have an important decision to make; which to cut from their depiction and which to focus on. After all, such a changeable and complex character suits books, as the medium affords the reader more time to understand the detective and grow alongside him, whereas on screen viewers seek an identifiable character with highly accentuated traits that remain static, as the story is more vital in this medium.
At the end of the day, it is Maigret’s changeability and human qualities which make him the international success he is, and offer the ideal platform for such a vast variety of actors, including the excellent Rowan Atkinson, to show off their skills and pass on their interpretation of this firm, irritable, flawed and intellectual character.