Steve Cavanagh discusses the small screen adaptation of Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch novels.
Adapting a beloved crime series for TV or film is fraught with danger. Of the writers that have had many of their works adapted for the screen, they will say the best way to handle the process is to meet the producer in a parking lot. The producer throws the writer a suitcase full of money and the writer tosses over the book in exchange, and never the two shall meet again. If the writer tries to control the adaptation, inevitably conflict arises and project is destined for disaster.
Well, if there were a rule book for screen adaptations, Michael Connelly just tore it up. And in style. In so doing, he has created one of the most compelling and unique police dramas yet seen on our television screens. Don’t be put off by the fact that you will watch this first episode of Bosch on Amazon or LOVEFiLM. The quality of the personnel involved and the freedom enjoyed by Michael Connelly in bringing his most famous creation to life has resulted in a slick, addictive, intelligent and emotionally mature cop drama that, for me at least, stands easily beside some of the best episodes of The Wire or The Sopranos.
Michael Connelly’s most enduring character is LAPD Homicide Detective, Harry Bosch. Through twenty years of bestselling novels Connelly has crafted a body of work which tracks not only the life of a detective, but also chronicles the history of Los Angeles. The Edgar Award-winning writer and critic, Patrick Anderson, of the Washington Post, said that the Harry Bosch series is the finest crime series ever written by an American author. When you consider that Connelly sits in that category alongside the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, Parker and others, it’s perhaps easier to see the sheer weight of that statement.
So how do you write the perfect crime series?
To answer that question, you have to go back to the late 1970s and a young Michael Connelly studying at Florida University. Several years after its initial release, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye played for one night only in a local movie theatre and Connelly caught that screening. He went out the next day and bought the book by Raymond Chandler, discovered it was very different from the movie he’d watched the night before and then binged on Chandler over a weekend. During that weekend he decided he wanted to be a writer and changed his major to journalism.
It was this journalistic background that would eventually serve Connelly well as a novelist. He wrote two novels that never saw the light of day, because he knew something was missing from them. A week shadowing a homicide squad gave the reporter that missing element. During that week Connelly attended at three murder scenes and saw something unique and unexpected at each one; Sergeant Hurt (who was Connelly’s liaison and minder for the week) knelt down beside the body of each victim, removed his glasses and placed the ear piece into his mouth. He remained that way for a few moments, his glasses in his mouth, as if he were communing with the victim.
Sergeant Hurt never revealed to the young reporter exactly what he was doing. At the end of a tiring week, Connelly observed Hurt removing his glasses and throwing them onto the table. While Hurt rubbed his tired eyes, Connelly noticed the frames of those glasses had a deep notch, where the cop had bit down on the arm of the frame during his silent communion with victim after victim. Connelly knew then that the Sergeant hand been clenching his teeth, hiding his quiet rage at another senseless death. That was the missing element in Connelly’s first two novels; the heart and the emotion immortalised by the groove in Sergeant Hurt’s glasses.
In over twenty Harry Bosch novels the reader can see Harry’s progression through the dark tunnel presented by violent crime in Los Angeles. To place even a small element of that character’s journey onto the small screen would be an achievement if it was done over the course of a series. Michael Connelly has somehow accomplished this in a single episode.
The TV pilot opens with Harry Bosch and his partner trailing a suspected serial killer, whom Harry corners and fatally shoots in a dark alley which results in Harry being sued by the family for wrongful death. The viewer questions whether Harry planted the gun on the body after he fired the shot, or if the suspect was indeed armed and reached for a gun giving Bosch no alternative but to fire.
Instead of lying low during the trial, Harry stumbles upon the possible homicide of a thirteen-year-old boy, whose bones are found in the Los Angeles hills. And so the first episode establishes these twin stories (taken from the novels – The Concrete Blonde and City of Bones) and combines the two with new material. Instead of a sixty-year-old Bosch, Connelly gives us a younger version of the character and roots the story in contemporary LA. Altman pulled off a similar trick with The Long Goodbye, updating Chandler’s Marlowe from the 1950s to the 1970s, adding new story elements and focusing on the more sensitive and emotionally resonant aspects of Marlowe’s character.
But here, the parallels between the two adaptions diverge. Where Altman deliberately shaded Marlowe in a more favourable light with Elliott Gould, Michael Connelly perfectly distils the heart of his character onto the screen through Titus Welliver. At first I thought there was merely a physical resemblance between the Gould of the early 1970s and Welliver’s Bosch, but then it became clear that the similarity lies with their astonishing skill as actors as they capture the humanity and compassion of their characters. In almost every scene you can see Bosch struggling with the burden of empathy and the righteous anger that threatens to overwhelm him, taking him closer to being enveloped by the dark abyss through which he must travel.
All the exciting technical and procedural police elements are here, as they are in a lot of police shows. The dark, funny and healthy cop humour is here too, but the show is really a character study as well as a riveting police drama, and this is testament to the actors and to Michael Connelly who created, produced and co-wrote the series with Eric Overmyer (The Wire).
So go and watch Bosch, for free; vote to see the whole series, pray that Amazon picks it up and then go buy a Harry Bosch book while you’re waiting for the next instalment.
I saw the spark of something special and unique in Bosch. I saw the beginnings of what could be the finest American crime drama ever produced for television. I saw an actor embody Michael Connelly’s Bosch, and during some of those quieter moments, behind Welliver’s eyes, I saw Sergeant Hurt’s glasses. A Bosch fan cannot ask for more.
Steve Cavanagh was born in Belfast before leaving for Dublin at the age of eighteen to study Law. He then moved to Wales to do a postgraduate degree, before working as a bouncer, security guard, salesman and finally as an investigator for a large Belfast law firm. His first novel, The Defence, will be published in Spring 2015.