"Spenser: for Hire" article
TV GUIDE - June 20, 1987, pages 22 / 23.
My Spenser Would Outdraw Their Spenser
The detective's creator sets forth some of the differences between the book and the TV versions.
By Robert B. Parker
I rarely write Spenser: For Hire. The ABC series is based on characters created by me, and I serve on the program as a consultant. As we all know, a consultant's first responsibility is to deposit the check every week. After that, I read each script and make suggestions.
When I agreed to the TV series, I did so with a clear sense that a thing is what it is, and not something else. It is the business of television to put on good television, not to replicate my books. Their Spenser succeeds in this. It is not entirely my Spenser, but it's good television.
Some of the differences between their Spenser and my Spenser are dictated by the demands, real or imagined, of an enormous mass market. Television yearns to occupy the vast middle ground which offends nobody (one is reminded of the British politician once described as being broad-minded as to have no mind at all). Thus, their Spenser is the spokesman for a Norman Rockwellesque vision of apple-pie America, about which my Spenser would murmur, "Isn't it pretty to think so." Their Hawk, magnificently played by Avery Brooks, is less amoral then my Hawk, more rigidly adhering to some kind of private warrior code. Since neither their Spenser nor their Hawk is allowed to shoot first, they are sometimes required to look either slow or silly while they stand around waiting to return fire. Because television thrives on extended action, their villains seem more evenly matched with their Spenser and Hawk. Television hates a one-punch fight.
But these are mere policy changes. Their Spenser differs fundamentally from my Spenser because television differs from books. My novels are told in the first person. We see everything from Spenser's point of view. Television is by definition third person. We see everything through the camera. In my novels we see Spenser from the inside. On television we see him, as we must, from the outside. Thus I can have Spenser describe Hawk:
He blended with the august Bostonian exterior of the Copley Plaza like a hooded cobra. People glanced covertly at him, circling slightly as they passed him, unconsciously keeping their distance.
Good as Avery is, it would be hard for him to stand in such a way as to communicate this black deadly un-Bostonianness. Moreover, in a medium that must tell its story in about 47 minutes, there is no time to get a telling man-in-the-street reaction to Hawk, and on a small screen, no way to show it convincingly if you did have time. Even with voice-over, television is so insistently concrete that the viewer, who sees Hawk directly, is inclined to reject narrative interpretation. Their Spenser is objective, mine is subjective, and irony, which is merely seeing a story two ways, is nearly lost altogether through the objective of the camera.
And what of me? As I watch the somewhat different characters on television, am I influenced to change the books? Their Spenser, Robert Urich, is big, graceful, good-looking and young (a runner-up in the Robert B. Parker look-alike contest). Will I change my Spenser to match? No. The books are mine. They were here before the series, they will be here when it's gone. Spenser: For Hire has no more effect on my writing than Monday Night Football.
In short, I like the show, and I like the novels. If I were you, I'd watch their Spenser, and read mine, and enjoy them both. A thing is, after all, what it is, and not something else.