Adapting Atkinson’s Case Histories: Some changes, no complaints.

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie in the TV adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories
Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie in the TV adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories
If I were to name my “favorite” authors, the list would be very short and Kate Atkinson would be on it. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this week’s Masterpiece Mystery presentation of Case Histories, based on the first of her Jackson Brodie novels.

I needn’t have worried.

The screenplay by Ashley Pharoah, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes and a former EastEnders writer (bless him!), was reassuringly close to the original. So close, that I recognized great chunks of Atkinson’s breezy dialog lifted from the book, as if Pharaoh understood it made no sense to tamper with a novel so well crafted that Stephen King called it “the best mystery of the decade.”

Some big changes were made: Moving the setting from Cambridge to Edinburgh, for one. But you won’t hear me complaining about that. Edinburgh is rife with atmosphere, and besides, it’s Atkinson’s home turf.

Some little changes too: Fiddling with the timing of events, for example. But you won’t hear me complaining about that either.

And then there’s the man who plays Jackson Brodie.

In 2004, when Case Histories was published, Atkinson was asked if any contemporary actors “popped into her head” when she was developing the character of policeman-turned-private-investigator Jackson Brodie. Atkinson mentioned Ken Stott, whom she deemed “very Jacksonlike.” Poke around on the Interwebs and you’ll find plenty of others who concurred or came to that conclusion on their own.

Ken Stott as Rankin’s Inspector Rebus
Ken Stott as Rankin’s Inspector Rebus
A couple of years later, Ken Stott was tapped to play Inspector John Rebus in a series based on the novels of Ian Rankin. Thus, instead, we have Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie. And you certainly won’t hear me complaining about that. Except, perhaps, to wonder why every review mentions the Harry Potter movies after Isaacs’s name—as if playing Draco Malfoy’s father allowed him to show off his acting skills…or his tattoos.

The tattoos, from what I can discern, are not his own; the acting skills most definitely are. He’s brooding and tough when it’s called for, a bit hapless and uncertain as well. His scenes with his eight-year-old daughter Marlee (Millie Innes) are sweetly realistic, and when client Julia Land (Natasha Little) stumbles upon him shirtless, I suspect her reaction was shared by viewers everywhere. (The official word on this from the U.K. is “Phwoar!”)

Oddly, Jackson Brodie is a fan of female American contemporary country singers. (You can even find Jackson Brodie playlists on Atkinson’s website.) The soundtrack for Case Histories will please fans of Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and especially Mary Gauthier, whose “Mercy Now” is used to beautiful effect.

Jackson Brodie and daughter Marlee from Case Histories/ Steffan Hill
Jackson Brodie and daughter Marlee from Case Histories/ Steffan Hill
Brodie’s daughter, unimpressed, wants to know why he always listens to sad music. Simply put, it suits him. There’s plenty for him to be sad about here, for when he’s not chasing down lost cats or tailing unfaithful wives, Brodie is caught up in three separate cases involving young girls who are missing or dead or somewhere in between.

While the disappearance of Olivia Land, the child who went missing thirty years earlier, takes precedence, the murder of Laura Wyre—unintentional and horrific—adds a particular tone of melancholy, thanks to Philip Davis’s performance as Theo, her father. It all hits a little too close to home for Brodie, a father watching his own little girl grow up in a world he knows is dirty and dangerous. If he needs a Lucinda Williams song to help him through, you won’t hear me complaining about that either.

Here’s an interview with Jason Isaacs and Kate Atkinson discussing the nature of her protagonist and the books and what fans can expect from the series.

Masterpiece Mystery made a good decision in choosing to show Case Histories as one two-hour episode instead of two one-hour segments as it was presented on the BBC earlier this year. It would have been a shame to break the flow of the story and to force viewers to wait a week for the resolution. As it is, I’m impatient enough waiting for One Good Turn, next week’s episode.

You can watch Case Histories on the PBS website, and find more Masterpiece Mystery at our feature page.

Leslie Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.


  1. Manda Collins

    Though I am not familiar with the Atkinson novels, I thoroughly enjoyed the televised version. I’ve always wished Jason Isaacs could find greater success here in the states, though I suppose being a part of the Harry Potter films will immortalize him in Amercian children’s eyes forever.

    The soundtrack was surprising to me, but fitting to the subject matter. I’m always shocked to hear Nanci Griffith on television, though, since like Isaacs I think she’s woefully underappreciated. Let’s hope both of these hidden gems get the spotlight they deserve.

    Can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next week.

  2. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Oh, please read the books. It’s so rare that I recommend an author, but Kate Atkinson really is wonderful. The pacing is not the usual “hurry up and kill someone” you find in crime fiction. She takes her time and it’s worth ever page. The choice of music comes from the books. She’s very specific about what Brodie listens to.

  3. Manda Collins

    Cool, I’ll check her out. Thanks for the rec:)

  4. Terrie Farley Moran

    I DVRed this and was racing to see it before your post came up. I am not familiar with the novels, but I agree that Edinbourgh is an excellent setting. I really enjoyed the soundtrack and Jason Isaacs is terrific. I do love the visuals of the personal burdens Brodie carries as well as his relationship with his daughter. I agree that having the full two hours was much more pleasing then if they had divided the story into two one hour segments. I hope there is more to come .

  5. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Yes Terrie, there’s more. This week’s episode is based on the novel One Good Turn.

  6. Jordan Foster

    The entire series is great, particularly ‘When Will There Be Good News?.’

    And the BBC recently confirmed that Atkinson’s latest Brodie novel, ‘Started Early, Took My Dog,’ will be adapted in 2012 (probably making its way to the States in 2013?).

    For anyone who’s on Twitter, so is Jackson Brodie: @JacksonBrodie.

  7. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    When Will There Be Good News? Apparently now. Thanks Jordan!

  8. Deborah Lacy

    I love the books and am happy to see it on TV!

  9. Carmen Pinzon

    I read this article and was intrigued by it so I watched the episode available online. I enjoyed it but was left confused by all the changing povs and times. I don’t know if I want to get any further into this series. I like to know what’s going on by the end of the show and this time around I didn’t.

  10. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    @bungluna You make a fair point and now I wonder if viewers who have read the books have an advantage. There is a lot of jumping in time and pov in the novel, Case Histories, but it’s easier to follow because the chapters make the divisions clear. The flashbacks in the first episode refer to the murder of Brodie’s sister when he was young. This will (should?) become more clear as the series progresses.

  11. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    @DeborahLacy Me too!

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