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Strike: The Silkworm (BBC adaptation) Part One

07 Oct

This trainwreck just will not stop. Despite how much I disliked Cuckoo, I’m continuing into Silkworm. But with a heavy caveat – I loathed the book. You all know I loathed the book. I loathed it enough to quit half way through my coverage of it for you all.

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I’ve tried several times to sit down and start going through this episode and I just plain don’t want to. It’s not going to be fun. So I did some thinking; by the time I did the book I was a lot better at this sort of thing than some of my earlier series here, so we already have a detailed plot synopsis. Rather than make myself do it all again, I’m just going to watch this with as much of my attention as I can muster and note down what’s been altered from the book and if there’s any new content.

It’s not like most of you care either way. I suspect almost everyone’s just waiting for me to stop tormenting myself and carry on with Harry Potter stuff. If you are interested, I suggest you re-read my coverage of the book first so you know what the heck I’m talking about.

Part One, then: “War veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike investigates the disappearance of a provocative author.” Not the most interesting synopsis in the world, but at least it’s accurate.

Let’s go. Before we start, I am fully prepared to quit if it becomes clear at any point that they haven’t tried to fix any of the extremely offensive things that made me abandon the book coverage.

[I’ll interject occasionally if I have something to say but I doubt I have much to add here.]

Content warning for suicide under the cut.


We open with a new scene – Fancourt’s wife (Tamsin Topolski) killing herself. This was supposed to have happened years before and had no purpose beyond creating some history between Fancourt and Owen. I don’t know why we have to see it onscreen now. Also instead of pinning the bad parody to her dress she pins it through her clothing into her breast, in slow motion, while crying out in pain. I really didn’t need to watch that. We’re not even a full minute into this. Then, bleeding, she wanders into the kitchen and sticks her head into the oven.

Roll credits. What the hell was that for? We are not off to a good start here.

[Oh lovely. Just lovely. What a charming note to open on. This sounds utterly melodramatic in the worst possible way, and also I can’t help wondering why the fuck so many writers want to dramatise suicide and come up with these bizarrely elaborate and ‘symbolic’ ways for the characters to do it.]

Then we see Charlotte crying and Strike kissing her. He’s dreaming, but that doesn’t excuse it. I’ve lost all patience with this and we are only three minutes in. Robin wakes him up because he’s late to meet their first client. I’m undecided about whether this is better or worse than the book opening with him taking a piss; there’s not much difference.

[Clearly they hit their quota for piss fixation in the last series.]

Cut to Roper Chard, and Jerry (Dominic Mafham) and Daniel (Tim McInnerny) discussing Owen’s manuscript. I appreciate they’re trying to set up the plot, but all of this is going to be explained multiple times later and I prefer the book opening. Jerry’s resigning already, which is going to make later scenes confusing. Why do it this way round? The audience has no idea who any of these people are and no reason to care.

Strike’s client is still William Baker (Tom Greaves), who wasn’t connected to the main plot so I don’t know why they left him in. They follow the book – he’s an arse, so Strike kicks him out and talks to Leonora Quine (Monica Dolan) instead.

We’ve had five minutes of irrelevant filler already, and this is a full hour shorter than Cuckoo was.

Strike’s a rude bastard, Leonora argues until he agrees to look for her missing husband (looks like Fisher has been written out) and Robin’s more interested in the upcoming drinks with Strike and Matthew.

We jump to Liz (Lia Williams) telling Strike she wants nothing to do with it and won’t pay. I was 100% right that they wouldn’t cast a fat woman to play her, but given the reason behind Liz being fat in the book I am okay with this. She tells us the entirety of the plot in twenty seconds flat – Owen’s written a book slagging off absolutely everyone, she’s fired him as a client, she doesn’t care if he’s missing and it’s probably a publicity stunt.

We see a photo of Owen (Jeremy Swift) with Fancourt (Peter Sullivan) who for reasons beyond my understanding has been renamed from Michael to Andrew. The rest of the scene and exposition follows the book; back at the office, Robin learns about the new book via a video of an interview with Owen, thus saving Strike from having to actually involve her in the plot in any way. She then tells Strike, smiling, that Owen’s books have too many long sentences and she had to stop reading one after a few pages before she gave herself a migraine.

Why. Just why.

[I was about to ask the same thing. What the fuck.]

Strike says Liz won’t pay but he wants to take Leonora’s case anyway (as if we’re going to believe he has a heart) which will mean turning down paid work. Robin is not impressed. He says once his debts are cleared he can pay her more – Tony Bristow supposedly paid his debts at the end of the last episode, so I don’t know what this is about.

He goes to see Leonora and runs into Jerry. This didn’t happen until after they’d found Owen’s body and were investigating. I can’t think of a reason to change the timeline, it made sense in the book and it’s not going to save any time later as far as I can tell.

Liz goes to see Fancourt and tells him all about the plot. He tells her to fuck off and shuts the door in her face. I’m guessing that they did not change the ending and gave Liz the same insulting, shitty backstory. Imagine my surprise.

There’s a poster of a magazine cover in a window, showing Charlotte and her fiancé. Fuck off.

We see Kathryn (Dorothy Atkinson) burning a copy of the manuscript, crying. This would mean a lot more to the viewers if they’d waited until we’d been introduced to her and knew who she was.

Strike, Matthew and Robin meet for drinks. I do like that this was slightly less harped on over and over (and over, and over, and over) before it happened, but I also still do not care in the slightest. The acting is good, but why would I care about good acting when the scene being acted is shit? They jointly invite Strike to the wedding, which is a big improvement over how the book handled it, but the rest is just rubbish. At least it’s short.

[This at least sounds like an improvement, though it’s kind of hard not to be since the book version was such obnoxious bullshit.]

Interestingly, this is when Strike reveals he wants to hire another investigator, thus sidelining Robin. Having this be in front of Matthew could have developed everyone quite nicely, but of course he just doesn’t understand why she’s upset and they left before Strike knew she was, so it’s just her hating both of them.

Strike lies in bed listening to the rain and reading the magazine article about Charlotte. I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt. He then has a flashback to them arguing and her telling him she’s pregnant. I did not care in the book and I do not care now; this is a marginal improvement purely because we don’t get Strike’s internal monologue – his toxic, misogynistic, insulting monologue – but it’s still a shitty, irrelevant storyline that does not develop his character and needlessly vilifies a woman who has literally done nothing. If Rowling had completely cut Charlotte from the original books and had Strike be single from the start, absolutely nothing would be different.

Robin’s apparently forgotten she’s angry and hurt, disappointingly, and has opted for ‘trying desperately to prove herself’ instead. She’s found that Owen taught a creative writing class, and looking for the students on Facebook led her to Kathryn’s blog and hints of her having an affair with a writer. It’s a bit flimsy, but she’s championing the plot despite the show’s best efforts. I’ll even forgive her talking about Matthew.

Sudden cut to that night and Strike up a tower block lurking outside Kathryn’s flat. The blog discussion did not namedrop Pippa; can we hope they decided not to include the horrible transphobia? Please? Kathryn says she read the book and hopes she never sees him again, end of scene.

Robin’s also found out about the house on Talgarth Road. I’m glad we’re skipping over that so briefly, too, because good grief was that annoying to read. Strike goes and gets the key from Leonora, and also gets a copy of Owen’s manuscript.

That, plus Jerry already having resigned – does this mean no party at Roper Chard? Does this mean NO NINA? Glory fucking hallelujah. I suppose even these writers couldn’t possibly manage to make Strike look even close to a decent human being throughout that unnecessary and terrible subplot. I didn’t understand why Rowling did it in the first place.

Leonora’s copy of the manuscript was left by the front door. Strike drops our first anvil of the show by pointing this out very emphatically, thus letting the audience know Owen probably didn’t actually write it. That’s a shame, because that was one of the better twists. The manuscript is also covered in colourful doodles. Speaking of which, here’s where we meet Orlando (Sarah Gordy); she has Down’s syndrome, presumably for casting reasons, where the book never specified.

I don’t really like the way Orlando is portrayed, but I don’t want to try and unpick it because I don’t know anywhere near enough about Down’s to be able to comment on specifics. It just feels off, somehow, and I think they could have done a better job of showing the character and not just the condition.

Interlude with Matthew and Robin foreshadowing his mother’s fate. Surprisingly handled much better than in the book; instead of having a row, they’re just talking.

Strike starts reading Bombyx Mori. For reasons surpassing all human understanding, the show producers have decided to show it onscreen. Since we don’t have R rated television in this country – only on cable channels from other countries – they obviously can’t show most of it, because it’s an unholy mess of shit that I don’t have words for most of the time. So instead what we get looks like an attempt to recreate a drug trip; jarring bursts of music, constantly changing images, lots of brief glimpses of weird characters mostly wearing assorted skull masks. [This sounds really fucking stupid.]

I’m sure they had fun doing it, but this doesn’t help the audience understand what’s going on. We were told the book slanders the people in Owen’s life and treats them all very harshly, and now we’re seeing what looks like a media student on a budget of twenty quid trying to recreate a Tim Burton film. They should have had Strike and Robin talking about it, describing the content in enough detail to show why everyone hates it so much, instead of a flickering mess interspersed with Strike pulling faces. I’ve actually read the original and I can’t really tell what’s going on. Nor can Strike – he gives up, and next morning tells Robin to read it while he goes to Talgarth Road.

Lots of dramatic music make it pretty obvious what’s going to happen, which is a shame because they’d been pretty good about avoiding this particular anvil. At least Strike’s not noticeably paddling through acid. Nor has he mysteriously hurt his knee some of the time maybe.

…They needed a special effects budget. Owen’s corpse looks ridiculously bad. I’ve seen more convincing plastic Halloween props. Robin’s actually finished the book by the time Strike gets back and shows her the photos (no stupid police interview, yay) so she shows Strike the ending. Cue another flashback-style acid trip that’s impossible to see.

One note about these scenes from Owen’s book: Leonora is the only recognisable figure aside from Owen. Everyone else is wearing a mask. Non-reader viewers will think this is another stupidly done anvil. Those who have read the book will just think it’s stupid.

Matthew calls Robin about his dead mother and she leaves. Unlike the book, she sounds genuinely upset and clearly wants to go be with him, which is nice.

Strike goes back to the crime scene to meet his buddy Anstis (Sargon Yelda). Anstis is supposed to have facial scars from the explosion they were both in; he doesn’t. (On much closer inspection, he sort of does, but I had more visible pillow creases when I woke up this morning.) He’s also not really been mentioned outside of a single flashback so nobody has a reason to care who he is. And his only purpose here is to tell us Owen was gutted – which we could see anyway – and that he thinks Leonora did it so Strike can disagree. Strike tells the police all about the manuscript, which certainly saves all the messing about and time wasting the book had, but there’s still too much of the dumb blinkered policeman stereotype here.

A brief shot of Matthew, understandably in bits, and Robin sitting with him trying to comfort him. Given how much their relationship has been unnecessarily demonised, I don’t know why it’s being shown so well now, unless it’s just to make clear that none of it is Saint Robin’s fault, but this is well done whatever their motives.

Strike goes to see Leonora, who is more worried about Orlando – she got very upset when the police questioned her. No, writers. They wouldn’t have questioned her at all yet – the likelihood of getting any relevant testimony from her is low enough that they’d carry on with other aspects of the investigation first to see if it was actually necessary – and when they did they would do so really, really carefully, with specialists who know how to talk to non-neurotypical witnesses.

Leonora mentions the police found private photos of her with Owen, tied up. Interesting – apparently in this version Kathryn isn’t actually his mistress. If they’d written her out completely this would make more sense, but since they didn’t I have to assume this is just another attempt to convince everyone that no really it was totally the wife. Orlando breaks down at this point, and runs off after Leonora attempts to calm her. This at least was well done; it could have been gratuitous but it does show that Leonora’s genuinely frightened that they’ll be separated.

More Robin and Matthew – he’s getting the train home and asks if she can take the day off, and she says she’d like to and she’ll ask. I’d prefer that to have been unprompted, but it’s still so much better than the book.

Which means Robin has to spoil it. She goes to work and talks about the case; it’s Strike who asks how Matthew is and tells her to take as much time off as she needs. She changes the subject back to work to tell him clients have been complaining that they’ve been cancelling other jobs to work on Leonora’s case. So the rare positive glimpse wasn’t to make Robin look like a saint, then – maybe someone on the writing team finally pointed out how ridiculously unbalanced they were being, and this is the point where that one voice of reason was overruled.

Matthew gets forgotten, as does the issue of them blowing off paying clients, and they go back to talking about their suspect list. It’s interesting watching them trying to match Bombyx Mori characters to real people – by this point in the book Strike had met them all more than once and could figure it out easily, but here he’s only had actual conversations with Leonora and Liz, and very very briefly spoken to Kathryn and Jerry, and has never met Chard or Fancourt (or Pippa, who I’m still hoping won’t exist). Chard’s still insisting on meeting in Devon: Strike muses that he’ll need a hire car and Robin says she’ll drive. Worse than the book, where there was somehow no automatic car available in the whole of London so she had to drive, but still nobody is mentioning the possibility of public transport. Also Robin looks worse and worse now; even Strike looks bewildered that she’s ignoring her grieving fiancé.

I’m glad Rowling wanted Robin to be in the plot for once, but making it at the expense of Matthew and his dead mother is a stupid writing choice that just makes her (and Strike, in the original book) look terrible.

Then we see Robin leaving a message for Matthew and blatantly lying to him about why she can’t go with him today, just to really underscore this point. Maybe the writers suddenly realised we hadn’t had any really toxic misogyny in a while, and the absence of Nina plus any references to Charlotte and the damn anonymous brunette client from the book means Robin’s their only realistic outlet for it.

Chard comes across as a more normal human being in this version, at least. Though he seems to know Strike’s an amputee, somehow, correcting himself after asking them to take their shoes off. They all seem oddly friendly. No broken leg for Chard here, just a sprain. No housekeeper, though Manny (Jeffrey Ho) is still here – Chard speaks to him very slowly and carefully, which is awkward to watch and only slightly redeemed by his glare showing he can obviously understand just fine. Chard doesn’t explain who he is, but doesn’t speak about him as though he’s a servant. Robin gets thrown out because sexism, though we haven’t had all the other crap that was annoying me at this point in the book.

Interestingly Chard opens by telling us that he’s sure Owen didn’t write Bombyx Mori, at least not all of it. The style seems right, but some of the things in it weren’t things Owen could possibly have known, so he must have been working with someone. He also adds that he’s worked with books all his life and he can recognise an author’s ‘voice’ and parts of this don’t sound like Owen. He says he’ll pay Strike ten grand if he can prove who actually wrote it.

(Nobody has explained the title, by the way.)

Chard’s understandably upset that someone he knows might have told Owen private things. He and Fancourt were planning to jointly sue to stop the book’s release. This all sounds a lot more reasonable than his weird behaviour in the book. He also explains what the horrible opening scene with Fancourt’s wife was about and how it relates to the actual plot. Strike talks to him about all the things we’ve been hearing – Liz told him Owen and Fancourt used to be close, etc. I usually hate this sort of pointless recap, but because of the way this episode has been structured it’s necessary at this point to remind everyone what’s going on and who everyone is. Chard also tells us Liz used to have an obsessive crush on Fancourt that ended badly and that he’s sure she sent the manuscript to everyone deliberately. Foreshadowing your awful shitty ending instead of dropping it from a clear blue sky does nothing to redeem it, you know.

Robin is talking to Manny, who despite Chard’s attitude earlier speaks perfectly good English. Nothing changes from the book version, I just wanted to clarify this. I assume we’re meant to see it as a judgement on Chard, but since nothing condemns him for it, it’s just racism and should have been cut. Manny isn’t relevant to the plot anyway. (And his characterisation is homophobic. He does a lot of folding his arms and pouting, flouncing, speaking in a slightly affected way, etc.)

Chard mentions the party at the end of the scene, telling Strike he’ll put him on the list and he should go and talk to Jerry. Yes, no Nina confirmed! Well done, writers, even if it’s certainly for the wrong reasons. Having the party be later on makes more sense narratively as well.

The pointless fight between Robin and Strike on the way home is even more pointless than it was in the book. There’s been nothing to show that Robin was upset about Strike’s suggestion of hiring someone else. It was forgotten as soon as that scene ended and she’s never mentioned it since or shown any sign of being upset or angry or worried about her job until now, several days later when she really ought to have much more important things on her mind. Strike comes across as a much better human being though – his explanation isn’t patronising or dismissive.

“You’re getting married to someone who hates you doing this. I’m not going to ask you to ruin your marriage over a job.”

He even calls her out over not telling Matthew about today. And mentions Charlotte in a not-totally-awful way – she hated his job too, finally told him to choose, and he chose the job.

[This sounds like quite an improvement over the book. It’s odd to me how hard they’re trying in some areas, and how much they’ve left alone. Although I guess they couldn’t really fix it properly, or it wouldn’t be recognisably based on the book…]

Robin insists that it’s what she wants anyway and he shrugs and says fine, he’ll start paying for training courses as soon as he gets the money together, then smiles and tells her to cheer the fuck up in a very genuine way. This is still heading for disaster but it’s so, so much better than the book version that I almost don’t mind how much time they’re wasting in the middle of a murder investigation.

No dramatic car crash to avoid; the road’s blocked by a broken down tractor. I don’t know why they’re on a narrow back road when they were in a service station just a minute ago and should be on a motorway. Rather than just driving up onto the verge and going around the tractor – I could get a much bigger car through there easily – she gets Strike to open a gate and they drive across several fields and through a fucking wood to a different road.

This is stupider than the book. It’s insanely illegal, for a start – if the farmer saw them and got the plates he could sue for trespassing on his land and damaging his crops, and also they’ve hired a Fiat Panda that can absolutely not survive going off-road at all and would crumple if someone sneezed on it too hard. There’s also no reason why Robin needs to be good at unusual driving, because it really didn’t play much of a role in the ending and in any case off-road driving is nothing to do with advanced city driving. The lack of a car crash also probably means Matthew won’t find out she chose to ditch him.

The police arrest Leonora, who breaks down because she can’t leave her daughter alone. A neighbour, Edna (Rachel Bell) takes her, but the scene is framed as the police dragging a tearful woman away while her special-needs child (who’s just lost her father) watches and screams and cries, which is absolutely not how they would handle this.

I wonder if there are any books or shows about a private detective, anywhere, that don’t utterly demonise the police.

Robin sprints for her train. We’re spared the snowstorm from the book, at least, since the weather when they were filming didn’t co-operate, but I don’t think this is important enough for the very dramatic music.

The episode ends with a very funny scene of Strike having to beg and bribe a passer-by (Triona, played by Sophie Harkness) to drive him home, because they hired a manual transmission and Robin ran out of time and had to leave him at the station. I ranted at this point in the book that we never saw how on earth he got home and got the car returned to the rental people; I’m glad the show addressed this particular stupid writing decision. Though she actually doesn’t believe his story and walks off, so we still don’t know how he got back. Oh well.


Conclusions at the end of part one: the timeline’s been changed around a lot and this must be confusing for viewers who haven’t read the book already. I don’t see how you’d keep everyone straight. They’ve also spoiled part of the mystery surrounding Bombyx Mori, so we’re left with a simple whodunnit that’s simplified further by them writing out several suspects.

Major positives: the absences of Nina and Pippa. Some aspects of Robin and Matthew. Strike himself actually comes across as a decent person out to help people, at least most of the time. The pacing has been so much improved – lots of filler was cut, even if they added a few new bits, and the storyline trimmed down so it moves along at a reasonable rate. The Strike/Robin friendship starts making some sense.

Major negatives: The opening scene was utterly vile and gratuitous. Charlotte still exists, though in fairness there was nothing too terrible here. Owen’s book being shown onscreen. Other aspects of Robin and Matthew, mostly Robin who comes across as increasingly selfish – it could work in a vacuum, but I watched Cuckoo only a couple of weeks ago and this is not what her character is supposed to be like.

There’s also no fat shaming, but that’s because they didn’t cast fat people to play fat characters, so that’s not really a positive.

They kept too many small infuriating bits, but overall it’s not that bad and I wish the book had been like this.

[It definitely sounds like they’ve improved it a lot, though it still doesn’t sound like something I’d want to watch. Or really, something anyone should want to. Thanks for doing this so everyone else doesn’t have to.]

 
5 Comments

Posted by on October 7, 2017 in loten

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “Strike: The Silkworm (BBC adaptation) Part One

  1. Dove

    October 26, 2017 at 6:15 am

    At a guess, although this is offering this thing benefit of the doubt that’s not terribly deserved, Robin saying the sentences are “too long” and make her head hurt if she tries reading them *could* mean that Owen’s writing style involves a lot of ridiculously convoluted run-on sentences. Which would legitimately be exhausting to deal with, and would sort of mesh with the nonsensical display of what of the book they show.

    I mean, that’s probably not what the writers meant – certainly, it’s terribly phrased if they did mean that.

     
    • Loten

      October 26, 2017 at 6:46 am

      I think that might have been what they meant, but it’s very hard to tell given how terrible they are at showing pretty much anything. The way she said it made me cringe and it really should have been clarified if they meant anything other than ‘haha the woman is an idiot’.

       
  2. capac930540853

    March 30, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    You say that the absence of Pippa is one of the major positives. I get why you say that, technically, but I also find it odd that the only transgender character from the whole novel got completely erased from the adaptation and you consider that purely positive without any sort of comment on the erasure of a minority that already sees near zero representation in film or TV.

     
    • mcbender

      March 30, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      This is a good point, and we probably should have. That said, representation that reinforces harmful stereotypes is not necessarily better than none at all (I think there’s probably legitimate debate to be had there).

       
    • Loten

      March 31, 2018 at 6:40 am

      With these writers it is a pure positive. They are incapable of handling trans issues with anything approaching respect and it is much better that they don’t try – see the original book for all the proof you could ever want. Other, better writers excluding trans characters from better media is a separate problem.

       

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