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16/06/2011 / rooswrites

Adapting Truth and Remediating Murder: Faction and Novelisation in Murder Rooms

If you are reading these words, I am dead. […] Matters of such darkness and depravity could never be considered material for fiction, let alone a history.


— writes the fictionalised A. C. Doyle in the Prologue of The Patient’s Eyes


On Tuesday the 4th of September 2001 the BBC broad casted the movie “The Patient’s Eyes”, the second movie in the Murder Rooms series.[1] Like its predecessor (“The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes”), David Pirie had written its screenplay. Three other movies would follow, all of which the screenplays would be written by different writers. Pirie as a script writer is most commonly known for his unconventional rewriting of Wilkie Collins’ great mystery The Woman in White in the 1997 movie adaptation. Arguably, Pirie’s Murder Rooms screenplays were most intruiging due to the fact that he knew how to intermingle fact and fiction into an uncanny thriller with suspense that would make Arthur Donan Doyle himself shiver. The movie “The Patient’s Eyes” draws on both biographical facts of the life of Sherlock Holmes author Conan Doyle as well as and Pirie’s creative process. The originality lies in the usage of Doyle’s existing Sherlock Holmes literary canon, which functions as a mediator between the facts of biography and pure fiction Pirie’s creativity adds to the story. Simultaneously, Pirie remediates Doyle’s canon by tying it to the occurrences he creates from his discourse of faction. The film “refashions [a] prior media form” (Grusin 17). What actually is happens, is that Pirie takes hollow facts (e.g. the fact that Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes was his mentor Dr. Bell) and fills these facts up with hypotheses of occurrences-that-could-have-taken-place. These hypotheses are then strengthened by the links Pirie ties between his could-have-happened concepts to the fictional happenings in the Sherlock Holmes stories. In a way, this literature itself is both fact and fiction – since it exists, but it did not happen.[2] Pirie tries to play the Sherlock Holmes stories up as merely fictionalised variaties of the cases that Doyle actually experienced with Dr. Bell. Thus literature becomes a fiction of fact (which is in fact fiction). This dynamic process of fact, fiction and literature in “The Patient’s Eyes” makes it a promising object for study. However, there is more. After Pirie wrote the screenplay for the second Murder Rooms film, he also wrote a novelisation of “The Patient’s Eyes”. The question that arises is in what way the notions of adaptation and novelisation agree with and play a significant role in the film and novel of The Patient’s Eyes.

However, before delving into the subject matter at hand any further, a succinct synopsis of what “The Patient’s Eyes” is about is necessary to facilitate proper understanding. Arthur Conan Doyle is a young beginning M.D. in Edinburgh and he is invited to work in the practice of one of his old university friends, where he encounters a strange case. The young lady Heather Grace comes to him for a problem concerning her eyesight. Not only does she suffer from the “occasional blurring”, she also continuously sees a dark, hooded figure following her on a bicycle, whenever she travels by cycle from her uncle’s house to town (). The plot thickens as we learn Heather Grace is to inherit a vast sum of money from her deceased parents – who were murdered by a dashing young man who had infiltrated their peaceful family life. It was a miracle Heather herself survived his killing spree. The murderer, Ian Coatley, was caught and hanged for the deaths of the Grace family and many others on whom he played the same trick.[3] Heather fears it is the ghost of Coatley that follows her on a bicycle. However, Doyle and his mentor and head of surgery in Edinburgh Dr Bell. come to the rescue and investigate the case of – as Dr. Bell puts it – “ the solitary cyclist” (135). It turns out that the figure is not a figment of Miss Grace’s imagination since Doyle can see him too. However, the cloaked cyclist disappears from the forest road every time Doyle wants to pursue him. The suspects amount to Miss Grace’s uncle (who likes being in charge of her money and has the expensive hobby of maintaining an cabinet of animal rarities) and Miss Grace’s fiancee Mr Greenwell (who is a teacher and likes money as well). Miss Grace herself in doubt concerning her marriage to Mr Greenwell, since she was engaged to be married before to a Captain Horler who wished to be released from his duties. Eventually Miss Grace’s fiancee is murdered and the killer (as well as the cyclist) is revealed as the long lost Captain Horler. Horler lost both his face (which guarantees a nice scary shot) and his mind in the war in South-Africa. The sting of the plot, however, is in its tail and Bell unravels all. It was not Horler who wanted to be unengaged to Miss Grace, but vice versa. Since she had met the love of her life in Ian Coatley. It was Heather Grace who murdered her parents and Ian Coatley hanged for her – because of love. Horler, although quite mad but still smitten, obeyed Heather and he murdered Greenwell for her. This story, as will be illustrated later on, entails various elements belonging to different Holmes stories.

Many elements make The Patient’s Eyes (both screenplay and novel) a fascinating object of study. One of the reasons being it is an illustrative example of the practice or mediation and remediation between different types of texts in different periods of historical time, the types being fact versus fiction. A fiction is “to say that the words and sentences in this linguistic product are governed by a convention [… that states] that words and sentences in a linguistic product should not be taken as referring to any real things, events facts and situations, that is, to the real world” (Park 417-8). And immediately it becomes impossible to characterise The Patient’s Eyes as pure fiction, since the protagonist is Arthur Conan Doyle – a person who actually existed, a “real thing”. The status of the story as either fact or fiction is problematic, since neither fits the bill.

Ill. 1. Literature as neither fact nor fiction, functioning as a mediator in The Patient’s Eyes.


Especially the position of literature, Doyle’s work, is interesting. His writing inhabits a position that incorporates both fact in fiction, in between the binary opposition of biography (fact) and creativity (fiction). “The Patient’s Eyes” can be regarded as an adaptation of Doyle’s life and work in a fictionalised setting. The director of the film also used the notion of faction in his choice of cast, since he casted Ian Richardson, who played Sherlock Holmes in two noted film adaptations (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four, both 1983), as Dr. Bell. Dr. Joseph Bell is said to be the inspiration of the character of Holmes and by making “Holmes” play Bell, the film only adds to this fluidity of fact and fiction. Walker, quoted in Sherlock Holmes on the Screen, says of the character of Dr. Bell in the Murder Rooms series that “it is a mixture between fiction and supposition” (Barnes 123).

The differences between the film and its novelisation is interesting from the perspective of the genre of the detective and especially its suspense. As Chatman aptly points out: “[t]he dominant mode [of film] is presentational, not assertive. A film doesn’t say: ‘This is the state of affairs, ’ it merely shows you that state of affairs” (440). An element inherent to almost all textbook examples of detective series or films is the opening scene that shows the (or part of the) crime (Moody 234). It does not immediately show who the perpetrator is, but often we do get a glimpse of a gloved hand or the murder weapon. “The Patient’s Eyes” opens with Heather Grace, on her bicycle, panting and obviously scared. Ominous music accompanies her travel and then we see a mysterious cloaked figure on a bicycle – his face impossible to make out – following her.



Heather Grace and the Solitary Cyclist [4]

(00:00:48/ 1:29:25)


The big difference between this and the novelisation is the status of Miss Grace’s story. The film shows the presence of the cloaked cyclist, therefore we tend to believe that he is real. The novelisation, on the other hand, only has Miss Grace tell about her visions and it is only after Doyle’s actions that we learn he is in fact real. This overlaps with the remote objectivity of an always existing point of view in film and the subjective point of view a novel (Chatman 443). The suspense in the film takes off only 48 seconds after the opening, whereas the story of the cyclist only is mentioned on page 89 of the novelisation. Chatman also talks of suspense in relation to film versus novel and mentions close-ups in films as “powerful components in the structure of suspense” and descriptions as literary means of suspense (440). In the latter case it is especially the notion of stopping an action by description that facilitates suspense. The Patient’s Eyes has an illustrative example of such suspense: when Bell and Doyle visit the house in which Miss Grace’s parents were killed (and which is now the school where Greenwell teaches), Bell is telling Doyle of the murder that took place there. All the while, his story-telling is interrupted by a song the schoolboys are singing (141-2). This scene also takes place in “The Patient’s Eyes”, but here there is no notion of interruption at all, the schoolboy’s song functions as an soundtrack that accompanies Bell’s tale (0:26:11-50). This complies with Chartman’s idea that “movements on the screen are so iconic, so like the real life movements they imitate, that the illusion of the time passage simply cannot be divorced from then” (141).

Then there is the issue that Pirie also wrote a novelisation of his screenplay, also titled The Patient’s Eyes. Baetens, in his 2004 study on novelisation, points out that the genre idea of novelisation (as well as faction) has “not yet been an object of in-depth research” (44). One of the main points around which Baetens’ conception of novelisation revolves, is the fact that it is explicitly tied to a cinematographic product. And immediately, The Patient’s Eyes is an exception to this rule – a rule which (mostly) only applies to novelisations as tools of marketing trades.[5] He also claims that novelisations “lack the intermediality […] essential to the adaptation of a book in a cinematographic process”, hereby disregarding any other forms of transmedialisation that can play a role in the novelisation (45). If a novelisation is an adaptation of a film, then a film which is in itself entails intermediality can be the inspiration of a similarly intermedial novelisation. Because, Baetens continues, many novelisations are based on a screenplay and a screenplay is a verbal text, this avoids the issue of translating from one medium to another (45). Adopting  this line of thinking, since Pirie wrote the screenplay of “The Patient’s Eyes”, he would not have done much in order to create his novel The Patient’s Eyes. In the rest of his essay, Baetens cannot stress enough the power of the visual and the pictorial era in which we live. Why, then, would he not grant this importance to the visual cinematograph, instead of the text of the screenplay? After viewing a movie, writing its novelisation can never be a mere copy-paste of the screenplay into a literary form – it has revealed itself as a visual product. However, as Chatman also mentions, all narrative texts have in common that they share the property of the narrative – therefore there exists a “translatability” of one narrative to the other (436). This notion of translation, however, should be interpreted very roughly, since it can incorporate different types of adaption.

Novelisation is consequently titled “a false adaptation”, later even called “anti-adaptation” and “anti-remediation” (Baetens 45, 46, 50). Although a novel cannot be seen as a remediation of film due to simple historical chronology, a novelisation can be regarded as remediation – if its genre were only seen as something that bears in fact transmediality and is not a mere written down variety of a film.[6] Adaptation itself is explored by Andrew and he defines it as “the appropriation of a meaning of a prior text” (453).[7] This definition already grants the adaptive process of novelisation a lot more leniency and illustrates a novelisation can very well be regarded as an adaptation. It is exactly this extra space that enables non-literal copies of a film to be novelisations. It facilitates the notion of interpretation as a process through which a novelisation can and will exist – and is this not exactly what happens when a screenplay is novelised? Furthermore, Andrew mentions three modes of adaptation: “borrowing, intersection and fidelity of transformation” (453). The latter form is the most fruitful one to regard in this context, since it revolves around “reproducing something essential about an original text”. Within the story of both novel and film of the Murder Rooms series, there also is adaptation at work. Literal references to “the solitary cyclist” are made, which engages in a certain “fidelity of adaptation” of the letter of Conan Doyle story “The Solitary Cyclist” (Pirie 135, Andrew 455). Banks even quotes a TV critic who wrote that “David Pirie has concocted a rich, possibly over rich, mix based on ‘The Solitary Cyclist’” (126). And references to the “spirit” of other Holmes stories are present in Miss Grace’s uncle (Grimesby Roylott from “The Speckled Band”) and the girl-locked-away-by-family red herring (plot from “The Copper Beeches”, Andrew 455).

Going from one medium to another’s goal, according to Baetens, is always remediation (“one medium improving the other” 53). Its effect, it seems, is simply always remediation since if one medium is what is somehow adapted, its effect would always be remediating. Remediation is never a simple process, as Grusin wrote “[e]ach medium seems to follow this pattern of borrowing and refashioning other media, and rivalry as well as homage seem always to be at work” (17-8). A novelisation cannot not be remediating (although, Baetens calls novelisation anti-remediation). Especially in the case of The Patient’s Eyes, which is a work of novelisation that is based on a film that in itself is filled with adaptation and remediation, this the novelisation cannot undo these practices. Its “dynamics of exchange” can only add to the already existing flourish of intermediality and adaptation (Cohen in Andrew 459).

Although Pirie’s The Patient’s Eyes is no extreme elitist example of novelisation – since it does not do something completely creatively different with the film – it does not comply with Baetens’ idea of the majority of novelisations. Its story in both cinematographic and novelistic form is interesting in all of its many layers – its adaptive process, its incorporation of fact and fiction and its status as a novelisation. All these elements enrich the original – but in this case: what is the original? Doyle’s life, his canon or the screenplay/ novel that combines both? It is time scholars should acknowledge new forms of media such as faction and novelisation not from the point of view of their ivory high-brow tower, but from its fascinating potential. Both “The Patient’s  Eyes” and The Patient’s Eyes are factual, fictional, novelised and cinematographical gems. Although, in this rare case, one has to admit that “the film was better”.



Works Cited


Andrew, Dudley. “Concepts in Film Theory: Adaptation”.  In: Film Theory and Criticism. pp.


Baetens, Jan. “Novelization, a Contaminated Genre?” In: Critical Enquiry. Vol. 32, Issue 1.

pp. 43-60.

Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History. London:

Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2004.

Chatman, Seymour. “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t”. In: Film Theory and Criticism.

pp. 435-451.

Grusin, Richard A. “Remediation and Premediation”. In: Criticism. Vol. 46, Issue 1. pp. 17-


Moody, Nickianne. “Crime in film and on tv”. In: The Cambridge Companion to Crime

Fiction. Cambridge: University Press, 2003. pp. 227- 245.

Park, Ynhui. “The Function of Fiction”. In: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

Vol. 42, Issue: 3. pp. 416-424.

Pirie, David. The Patient’s Eyes. London: Random House, 2001.

—                  “The Patient’s Eyes”. Murder Rooms. Ian Richardson. Dir. Tim Fywell. BBC.

4 September 2001.



[1] I will place the movie’s title within double quotation marks (“The Patient’s Eyes”) and the novel’s title in italics (The Patient’s Eyes) in order to avoid confusion.

[2] Although a statement like this is dangerous to voice when it comes to the Sherlock Holmes canon, since many fans (and some scholars) regard Holmes and Watson as  people who actually exist(ed).

[3] The exact trick being: finding a wealthy family with an attractive daughter, becoming a devoted friend of the family, winning their trust and finally killing them and robbing them of all their worldly assets. (For a better idea of the story, watch the brilliant movie – it is a feast for the optical nerve.)

[4] The colouring in the film is slightly darker and therefore even more ominous and scary.

[5] And the weakness of Baetens’ study lies in the fact he only seems to focus on this large homogenous group of novelisations.

[6] Here one has to remark that not all novelisations that are nowadays called novelisations would and could belong to this genre of transmedial novelisation. The type of novelisation Baetens has most eyes for – namely the publish-to-pay appendix of film – would not function in this genre idea.

[7] Now things are beginning to get very complicated, since the notion of adaptation can be used in the context of novelisation, since  a novelisation adapts a film (Andrew only talks of the vice versa process). However, simultaneously, the film “The Patient’s Eyes” itself is already an adaptation of fact and fiction, as mentioned before.


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