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Amazon Prime’s Bosch: how streaming TV might just usher in a new era of accurately adapting great crime novels to the screen for the first time

March 9, 2015
Titus Welliver and writer Michael Connelly on set in Detective Harry Bosch's LA home. Pic: LA Times

Titus Welliver and Michael Connelly on set in Det Harry Bosch’s LA home. Pic: LA Times

IF you are looking to see a great crime novel brought to the screen with all of its darkness, blind alleys, moral ambiguity and red herrings present, then City of Bones, the first in the Bosch series, is for you.

More importantly for fans of crime fiction who have been disappointed with previous efforts to bring favourite books and series to the screen, this Amazon Prime original is an unqualified success for a new player in the on-demand video streaming market.

The online retailer, which has gradually become a hardware and content provider in recent years, has put down a marker in this section of the market because the format of 10 x 47 minute episodes mirrors the experience of reading a novel. It gives the space and time to fully represent the often labyrinthine plot points of the original books.

Based on the books by best-selling Los Angeles crime writer Michael ConnellyBosch fully captures both the boring procedural aspects of policing and the darkness that pervades under the surface of Los Angeles, the city which most embodies the American dream.

Connelly’s master creation, Detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, the child of a murdered prostitute who was abused as a child in a Los Angeles care home, is a military veteran turned cop with a problem with authority, a distrust of institutions and a penchant for doggedly pursuing lost causes.

Although this would seem to be a conventional modus operandi for the modern crime detective, the tremendously well-drawn Bosch is much more than that, representing the closest modern day attempt to evoke the style and sensibility of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s immediate post-war template for all noir investigators.

Perhaps it is the noir-ness of Bosch, brilliantly played by Titus Welliver, that makes this series so successful. Connelly, who used to keep an office in the building in which Chandler once lived, has recreated the moral turpitude of Marlowe’s 1940s LA in modern California.

Although bright and shiny in the day time, darkness is never far away. Suspects get shot in alleys in which torrential rain attempts to wash the scum off the streets into large sewers. The redemptive quality of rain and water is a direct link to Marlowe and, in particular, The Big Sleep.

Harry Bosch, a man who went down tunnels in Vietnam in the books, and who is now a veteran of the caves of Afghanistan for ‘TV’, is someone who digs beneath the surface where he knows evil always lies. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, evil exists below the shiny facade of LA and under the surface of institutions that are corrupted by the moral inadequacies of the ambitious men and women charged with caring for others.

Digging down into the surface of the earth to excavate dark secrets is central to the set-up of City of Bones, where the bones of a boy abused for many years are unearthed by a dog. This find sets in train an investigation that sees Bosch doggedly pursue a serial killer who appears to know the investigator well.

Titus Welliver, left, as Det Harry Bosch and Jamie Hector as Det Jerry Edgar

Titus Welliver, left, as Det Harry Bosch and Jamie Hector as Det Jerry Edgar

In terms of characterisation, Welliver is pitch perfect as Bosch, a jazz loving cerebral man who constantly exists on an edge of distrust of the institutions he works for and who does not suffer many of the ‘jobs worth’ fools he works with. He also cares little for the politics necessary to maintain a productive career progression in the modern police force.

Jamie Hector, best known as Marlo Stanfield, the drugs boss in the HBO era-defining series The Wire, is also superb as Bosch’s partner Jerry Edgar, the ambitious black cop with a penchant for nice clothes and a real estate job on the side.

However, calling Bosch a TV police procedural is both underestimating its intellectual depth and a technological misnomer. Although it is a high end, high production value version example of the crime genre, its attention to detail makes it much more than another CSI/ Law & Order-style primetime affair. The fact that it is on the streaming platform suggests that this is less a continuity of a 60-year TV tradition and more of a departure point afforded by the new online streaming spaces.

There have been relatively few decent adaptations of best selling crime writers by either the TV or film industries. The depth of characterisation and narrative present in the great detective series has been poorly served by the formats of network TV or Hollywood cinema.

Although sympathetic in intent, the 2009 adaptation of James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, starring Tommy Lee Jones, is an example of an honourable failure at recreating a quite epic narrative on screen in two hours. The time available is simply not enough. Stopping for commercials every 15 minutes on TV makes it even harder.

Because of the recent rapid shift to streaming and premium cable, the industry has also learned from The Sopranos and The Wire, HBO’s notable successes in the genre: repeatedly stopping to advertise cars, soft drinks, iPods and boner pills kills engagement in complex narrative.

The final notable point about the changing nature of industry is how the studio system of high powered producers may be coming to a close. Connelly has been trying for years to get Bosch on the small screen without much success. With Amazon, which is afforded the luxury of eschewing the conventions of network TV, he is now executive producer with a huge degree of input that has safeguarded the purity of the original books.

Equally, the presence of co-exec producer Eric Overmyer, a writing and producing veteran of network TV, whose recent credits were The Wire and its sister series Treme, further insures the hyper naturalistic feeling that means Bosch transcends to a space equivalent to social realist drama.

Bosch is not about finding the murderer just in time for the adverts or the news, but is, to borrow a phrase from The Wire’s David Simon, about shining a light into a dark corner of the American experiment.

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