Recently, I’ve been making an effort to watch some of the book-to-screen adaptations that I have been meaning to watch for years. There’s a long list of these, but the first up is DL Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey series of mystery novels. I watched the adaptation of the first novel, Whose Body?, which stars Ian Carmichael in the lead role, but didn’t think much of it. Instead I skipped ahead to the 1980s adaptations starring Edward Petheridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. These are much more popular among book fans than the Ian Carmichael ones. The three novels adapted were Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. Initially, I was baffled as to why they hadn’t adapted Busman’s Honeymoon, the final novel in the series – but as I wrote this post I developed a theory, which I have outlined later on. Overall I enjoyed them very much, but you will be unsurprised to know that I still have Thoughts.

A quick summary of the novels, for those who haven’t read them: in Strong Poison, Peter becomes obsessed with saving the mystery novelist Harriet Vane from the death penalty after she is convicted of murdering her ex-lover – he succeeds, he proposes, she turns him down flat but they become friends; in Have His Carcase, while Harriet is on a walking holiday to recover from the events of Strong Poison, she finds a body on the beach and investigates with Peter; in Gaudy Night, Harriet is called in by her old Oxford college, Shrewsbury, to solve a mystery involving poison pen letters. (The title of Busman’s Honeymoon will clue you in as to how the love story resolves itself). I love all three of these novels, though Gaudy Night is my favourite. I’m not sure why they haven’t been adapted again, given how often Christie gets adapted. Now that Sarah Phelps has finished making her execrable Christie adaptations, maybe the BBC will move onto Sayers (with a different showrunner, please)? That would be nice.

The mystery plots of all the novels are straightforwardly adapted – sometimes omitting or altering a clue that would be difficult to show on screen, but generally sticking to the key beats. I thought they did a great job capturing the atmosphere in Have His Carcase, in particular. In this novel, Harriet is on a walking holiday across the south coast when she finds a body. In the book, she experiences the kind of panic and disgust that a person would feel when finding the body of a murder victim, especially if that person has recently been in court charged with murder herself. She then has to pull it together enough to work out what’s going on and carry out an investigation. This transition from panic to competence is well-depicted, and the actual investigation proceeds nicely.

However, it’s definitely not perfect. There were some odd decisions regarding Peter’s relationship with his valet, Bunter. In the books (especially mid-series, pre-Harriet but after characters got established), this is a partnership of relative equals: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, rather than Albert Campion and a Token Commoner. The two men were in WWI together as Major Wimsey and Sergeant Bunter. The latter had been a valet before the war. Once he and Peter came to trust and rely on one another in wartime, it was agreed that Bunter would come to work for him as preferable to his previous employer. When Peter was experiencing shellshock at the end of the war and his family didn’t know how to help, Bunter stepped in: their shared experiences gave him an understanding that his relatives lacked. As Peter recovered, they both found that the arrangement suited them, and retained it. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club deals directly with this, and examines the huge inequality that underpins it. Another shellshocked veteran shows up in the story, one without Peter’s tremendous resources, and – without going too much into spoilery detail – he is definitely not doing as well as Peter. It’s clumsy in places, especially through modern eyes, but I found it to be a genuinely interesting look at the meeting point of class, financial security, and mental illness. I’d say that this novel – which is the fourth in the series – is a vital turning point in Peter’s character arc and his understanding of the world.

Why am I going into all this detail about a book the series didn’t even adapt? Because the Peter of these adaptations comes across as a Peter who has never had this perspective shift. While it impacts on his relationship with Harriet, it actually has a much more serious impact on his relationship with Bunter. In the novels, Peter and Bunter are friends, in so far as it’s possible to be friends with one’s boss; Bunter speaks frankly, corrects Peter when he’s wrong, and is generally treated with respect by both character and author. He is – especially in the early pre-Harriet novels – an equal partner in the investigations; an employee rather than a servant. There are big problems with Sayers’ depictions of working class characters (and class politics in general) but for me, Bunter isn’t one of them. Obviously, the existence of a gentleman’s personal gentleman is a totally bananas concept and a problem in and of itself, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to blame Sayers for that when it doesn’t bother me in other novels. In contrast, in the miniseries, there are baffling scenes where Peter pulls rank, or snaps at Bunter, basically taking advantage of his position as employer to take out his frustration. It makes Peter into much more of a snob than I think he is on the page. Bunter loses complexity as a result, as well. The actor does a great job with what he’s given, but I don’t think the character is as interesting or as real as he is in the novels.

I could scarcely even find a screencap of Peter and Bunter on screen together, which seems like a symptom of the problem.

Despite the weird class issues this miniseries has, it also has almost the opposite problem, in that it sanitises the books. One of the most shocking moments in Gaudy Night – written in 1935 – is when Padgett, the porter at Shrewsbury College, says “what this country needs is an ‘Itler!”. Padgett* is a character whom the audience is clearly meant to like and trust. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this line reflects Sayers’ views, its inclusion suggests that the comment was common enough in 1935 that she considered it within the spectrum of normal politics. The adaptation of Gaudy Night makes it much more explicit that war is imminent, with Peter going off on a Foreign Office mission to Germany and having to interact with Nazi guards at the border. Yet Padgett’s line is cut. Of course it was cut – but I think they could have done something much more interesting if they’d contrasted relaxed attitudes among (some of) the British public towards Nazism with the actual reality of life in Germany at the time, and the threat of impending war. If there ever is another Gaudy Night adaptation, I hope they pick this up and develop it.

The series also lacked the underlying themes that were so important to Sayers, especially in these final few novels: what is equality? What should that look like in a marriage? Is marriage on equal terms even possible in an inherently sexist society? The genius of the love story – for those who think it works – is that Sayers takes an extraordinarily unequal situation in Strong Poison and doesn’t let the couple get together until they are able to meet as genuine equals at the end of Gaudy Night. She shows the very slow evolution in both Peter and Harriet that is necessary for this to happen. Peter has to learn that – despite all his wealth and privilege – here is someone he can’t have merely for the asking; Harriet – who in Strong Poison is facing the noose because of a love affair gone awry – has to unlearn habits she has learnt out of grief and fear. (For those who hate these books, of course, this is a big part of what doesn’t work). The miniseries didn’t really try to engage with this. That said, Harriet Walter is such a genius that I think she manages to get a lot of it across anyway.

In fact, Harriet Walter is easily the best thing about this adaptation. She fits my understanding of Harriet Vane well, in terms of both personality and looks – “not beautiful but striking-looking” is the way Harriet is constantly described in the book, and I think she was very well-cast. (I regret that we don’t get to see her in the gold lamé wedding dress that so scandalises most of her new in-laws in Busman’s Honeymoon). Edward Petheridge is charming – minus the snapping-at-Bunter scenes mentioned above – but he doesn’t really fit my view of Peter, being both a little too young and a little too handsome – Peter is an explicitly unhandsome man in the books. More to the point, I never felt like he was “shellshocked”, which is such an important part of Peter’s character. Perhaps that’s why Busman’s Honeymoon was never filmed? Marriage doesn’t cure Peter’s shellshock; in fact, fearing that someone else’s happiness is now linked intimately with his own exacerbates it for a while. Busman’s Honeymoon therefore deals with it in much more detail than any of the other Wimsey-Vane novels. The Peter of these adaptations does not belong in Busman’s Honeymoon.

Despite my bugbears, I loved these adaptations. I still hope that we get a miniseries or maybe some films of these four novels, though. Maybe this time Peter can actually have PTSD and respect Bunter. Anyway, writing this post has made me curious – what do you think are the criteria for a successful book-to-screen adaptation?

*Side note: Padgett is one of the actual problems with Sayers’ class politics, in my opinion, along with her tedious (though period-typical) insistence on writing non-RP accents phonetically.