Professor CHALLENGER

Professor George Edward Challenger enjoys a kind of odd placing in popular fiction — that of an “almost” iconic character. He only appeared in a small handful of short stories and novels, but as they were written by Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that makes him the 2nd most important character created by one of the most famous authors in the English language! As well, Challenger was a principle character in Doyle’s The Lost World, a seminal novel in adventure/fantasy fiction, and which has been adapted innumerable times to film and radio, with Challenger played (on screen) by, among others, Wallace Beery, John Rhys-Davies, Patrick Bergin and Bob Hoskins and on radio/audio by Armin Shimerman and others.

So within certain circles Challenger is an iconic character — yet other than The Lost World (which remains perennially in print), his other appearances tend to be more obscure (or simply get re-issued in hopes to cash in on the Lost World/Sir Doyle connection). Other than The Lost World I don’t think any other Challenger story has been adapted to film or TV.  And part of that is because I’m just not sure his other stories were really, well, that good. They are fantasy/early SF stories (rather than the secular mysteries of Sherlock Holmes) and Doyle himself seemed to approach them often with tongue-in-cheek — or at least so the rather vague and loose logic would imply, where “plot” and “character” could seem subordinate to simply presenting an outlandish concept. While Challenger himself was deliberately eccentric — a brilliant scientist but arrogant, bombastic, aggressive (assaulting those with whom he disagreed) — he was supposed to be outrageous, but as such not easily relatable (Doyle might have been better to treat the characters of The Lost World as a set cast, rather than simply re-using Challenger).

Anyway, at long last in 2011 the BBC produced two half hour adaptations of two of the original Challenger short stories, When the World Screamed and The Disintegration Machine. Bill Paterson is nicely cast as Challenger, capturing the jaunty tone and outrageous personality while keeping it grounded and real. But as I say, the stories themselves were uneven as simply stories. In the When the World Screamed Challenger attempts an experiment to prove the planet earth itself is a living being (told you the ideas were a bit scientifically dubious) while the other has him investigating the invention of a disintegration machine that authorities worry will be sold to foreign spies. In both cases the idea seems to take precedence over the plot, and they are tongue-in-cheek without quite being comedy. I’m not faulting the adapters, who do a good job, but the source material.

One wonders if these adaptations were all that was intended, or whether the producers had hopes to adapt all the Challenger stories as a series, maybe even climaxing with another version of The Lost World. Perhaps the longer stories might have had better developed plots (though years ago I seem to recall reading the short novel, The Poison Belt — or some of it at any rate — and not finding it that effective). Certainly with Paterson on board as a consistent element it might have been interesting to have tried a complete cycle of adaptations. But as it stands, the two radio dramas basically are interesting simply as chance to experience Doyle’s “other” hero, but fail to quite reveal themselves as lost classics.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel, has had a few audio versions, all pretty faithful within the limits of their respective running times (including an hour long one for Lux Radio Theatre in 1943 starring Edward G. Robinson, a lengthy 2008 American version, a 90 minute adaptation in 2009 for BBC radio starring Tom Wilkinson…and hero Sam Spade was featured in a 1940s weekly radio series called The Adventures of Sam Spade).

The 2008 version from Hollywood Theatre of the Ear and Blackstone Audio starred Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Edward Herrmann, Armin Shimerman and others. It’s mainly an audio play, but does a quirky technique where the actors will read some of the text description where needed to introduce a character or clarify the action. At first, it’s a bit distracting (particularly as they read it in the third person, so Madsen both plays Sam Spade, yet will also read a narration saying how “Spade crossed the room”) — yet it actually becomes effective, too, with the added gimmick that the various actors read the narration that relates to their character, and generally remain in character while they do it! Madsen is suitably world weary as Spade and Herrmann steals the show as Casper Gutman — doing a dead on Sidney Greenstreet impression (the actor who played the role in the Humphrey Bogart movie version).

In general, a very nice, very faithful (it clocks in at around 3 ½ hrs), very witty (I hadn’t remembered how witty some of the banter is) very evocative presentation (great use of music and ambient sound) of a story that is so seminal and archetypal…even if you’ve never read or seen it, it’ll probably trigger feelings of déjà vu (in a good way). They pull off the trick — that a lot of such projects try, but with less finesse — of being both a serious, straight-faced drama, while also being slightly hammy and tongue-in-cheek, as much a fun homage to the hard boiled/film noir genre as a mystery for its own sake.

The 2009 BBC Radio version was adapted by Michael Bakewell and starred Tom Wilkinson as Spade (when British actor Wilkinson adopts an American accent he sounds a bit like Jack Nicholson, which might have been deliberate casting — Nicholson having starred in the classic PI movie, Chinatown). It’s a perfectly good, perfectly agreeable version — and also remains faithful to the source material (albeit, at less than half the length of the other, and without lifting descriptive passages from the book). It also goes for a broad/evocative style (jazzy score, and the announcer introducing the story is deliberately meant to sound like something out of 1940s radio) without sliding too much into camp.

But it ultimately is a bit too broad at times, some of the actors seeming too much like they are playing archetypes (particularly Bridgitte, as played by Jane Lapotaire) or, in the case of Wilkinson, playing it real, but without quite putting his own stamp on the role. Peter Vaughn as Caspar Gutman is arguably the most effective (I guess it‘s just a good part!) — in this case, precisely because he doesn’t sound like Greenstreet so makes the part his own.

Ultimately the BBC Radio version is an entirely sound production, but maybe does feel a bit like a respectable go round with a classic novel, whereas the 2008 American version is more atmospheric and feels like a production for itself alone. Admittedly, it has the advantage of length, and that I heard it first!