by Sharon Tucker
The original is unfaithful to the translation. ——Jorge Luis Borges
As we know, translation from the page to the stage is problematic. We readers are notorious for our loyalty to the ‘mise en scene’ in our heads, not to mention ideas about everything else from the characters’ appearances to following the books’ plots to the letter. Some novels are an easier go-to script because they are written with the object of production in mind and read almost like a screenplay already. However, this was not the case with the Shetland novels of Ann Cleeves. As a fan first of the BBC series based on the books, I took delight in the prospect of getting to know the characters Cleeves had written a bit better since DI Jimmy Perez is a particularly attractive protagonist, and I was anything but disappointed, prepared as I was to be trifled with. And trifled with I was since right off the bat, the third novel in the series, Red Bones (2009) is first in the dramatized series, not Raven Black (2007), the initial book in the series of novels. Seeing the BBC series first, I didn’t know that of course. Instead of fretting and giving in to OCD, I took the high road and ‘chillaxed.’ I found copies of the first three in the series and just began my journey, reading Raven Black, then White Nights (2008), and then Red Bones.
I realized that, although the BBC television series has a more linear construction than the novels along with the absence of some of Cleeves’ written characters and the construction of composite characters, the feel of the novels is most definitely represented accurately in the BBC series, so the same stories are being told, just in a different way. The most outstanding translation from the novels is that of DI Jimmy Perez, a Fair Islander of Spanish descent whose line in The Shetland Islands (of which Fair Isle is one) originated in the sixteenth century when a member of the Spanish Armada tried to invade Elizabeth’s England—very romantic. However, in this our contemporary version Perez speaks of his ancestor with wry, faintly deprecatory humor, a characteristic that informs his identity. Actor Douglas Henshall is fair haired, fair skinned, and blue eyed, but the intense focus of Perez is still the character’s spine, on either the page or the screen. He is not always a comfortable man to be around even though he wears his authority unusually lightly. He is an outsider in Lerwick, the main port of the islands, and headquarters of their police since he is from the northernmost island in the Scottish archipelago. We learn that as a child he had to come to the main island for his education, living away from his parents for months at a time due to the difficulty of Shetland weather conditions. He suffered in isolation, not fitting into the school’s cliques but was rescued in happenstance by one of the prominent sons of the locals, Duncan Hunter (played with great charm in the BBC version by Mark Bonnar), and though he’s grateful, as they mature, their differences bother Perez to the point that he has trouble counting him as a friend. Here again the novels differ from the TV series as do aspects of the relationships Perez has with the women in his life.
Considering the negative factors, one might be surprised by Perez’s choosing to live in Lerwick, but it is where he met his wife, is raising his daughter, and it has the advantage of being a town large enough that he has infinitely more breathing space than on his native Fair Isle—all factors (especially the latter) that appeal to him. He is a Shetlander to the heart. He values the skyscapes, the wealth of wildlife, and the unreliability of the ocean—the “terrible beauty” of it all. As he tells a visiting crime scene investigator, “I am where I want to be.”
Ann Cleeves has clear ideas about the translation of her novels to television adaptations as related on the BBC Shetland mini-website in The Writers’ Room, “The TV adaptations are very often very different from the books… Prose and film are different forms. Besides, the book stops being mine every time someone reads it. Each reader brings their own imagination, history, and prejudice to the story, and each writer has to learn to let go. Adaptation just takes the process a bit further.” This generous attitude is reflected in her characterization of Jimmy Perez, making him an understanding, very humane police officer. He is far from lax in observation of his duties, but he gives the people for whom he is responsible the breathing room Lerwick gives him and that Ann Cleeves gives her screenwriters. I’m ecstatic that I have four more novels to read and a lengthy novella, but I am deeply distressed that her collection of Shetland short stories, Offshore (2014), is available only to UK readers on Kindle. It’s an imperfect world and the wise reader must let go . . .
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