The popularity of certain cinema genres have tended to often be a reflection of the times in which they were made. The explosion and sudden reduction of westerns has been pointed out and discussed numerous times, and the proliferation of CGI has radically changed the face of action cinema. One genre, however, that has yet to make a renewed ascension is the private investigator, or gumshoe detective, story. The environment is perfect, however, for movies of this ilk to make a resurgence, both in terms of their demand and their benefits.
The audience interest in these kinds of stories is clearly evident. Mystery thrillers still dominate bestseller lists, and the success, both critical and commercial, of 2014’s Gone Girl proved that that level of interest can translate to the big screen as well. In addition, the acclaim the HBO series Westworld has received also points to this. While the show is not, on the surface, similar to Gone Girl, much of Westworld’s allure and discussions revolve around the mysteries the writers present, and what the possible answers might be. And that does not take into account the numerous procedurals scattered across the TV landscape, from Rosewood to Law & Order: SVU, as well as other shows that involve crime-solving as a major, if not primary, component of their episodes, such as Supernatural or iZombie. Audience appetites for mysteries can be found in several places, meaning that flat-out mysteries are most certainly in demand, particularly given the lack of detectives in the mysteries currently found.
Which brings us to our next point; procedurals. There are several of them across the television landscape, and more coming up every year, and each one has a seemingly endless supply of mysteries they run through on a regular basis, both in the form of season-long arcs and standalone episodes. However, there is one key element that separates them from gumshoe detective mysteries, and that’s the lead character.
Procedurals, more often than not, revolve around police officers, detectives, FBI agents, medical examiners, and the like, people whose job it is to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. Even for shows with duos, at least one lead will be in a law-enforcing profession. While the backstory for these characters often illustrates a personal reason why they are in their chosen profession, they are nonetheless doing a job.
Private Investigators, on the other hand, take on cases out of a sense of right and wrong. Several detective stories portray the job as one with low pay, numerous hours, and a high risk of bodily harm or worse. And while cops have resources and backup, private investigators, whenever they have either one, have them in notably limited quantity compared to the police. This makes detective work one that only a few people would go into, and primarily for altruistic reasons, out of a desire to actually help people and be a force for good, no matter what contrary motives they may express as to their continued work in the field.
This desire to see justice done at great personal risk is a trait private investigators share with another key group currently enjoying commercial and critical success; superheroes. Regardless of what kind of powers they have or how they acquired it, nearly every superhero, from Marvel’s Iron Man to DC’s Supergirl, is driven by a desire to fight evil and even the scales of conflict. In these times of economic and political turmoil, audiences’ desire to see good people who know right from wrong do good deeds and stand up for the downtrodden is perfectly understandable. While superheroes scratch that itch in part, gumshoe detectives would similarly fill that niche in a different capacity, as they’d be ensuring criminals didn’t get away with committing crimes, rather than trying to prevent people, or other extraterrestrial entities, from trying to take over the world. The differing scale means that both genres can co-exist peacefully, serving the same audience without cutting into each other’s profitability.
The question of profitability brings us to the next stage of the discussion; having determined the audience interest in gumshoe detective stories, what would be the upside for production houses and studios to greenlight such stories? After all, audience interest, while key in determining the likelihood of a movie getting made, is hardly the only barometer used.
But private investigator movies offer a key element that movie studios crave in their properties; franchise potential. The recent announcement that Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them would be the first of five in the series, itself spawned from the immensely popular Harry Potter franchise, as well as Universal’s push towards a Cinematic Universe comprised of classic monsters, beginning with next summer’s reboot of The Mummy, clearly indicate that the potential for ongoing franchises is the important thing studios look for in properties. And gumshoe detective stories offer this in plentiful abandon.
Those who fret about sequels being indistinguishable from each other need not worry either; the malleable nature of private investigator stories means that very little has to stay the same from one movie to the next. As long as a few characters, including the main ones, continue from movie to movie, the franchise’s name recognition is kept intact, allowing free rein over the story, numerous supporting characters, and even the setting, depending on the storyteller’s desires. Unlike stories about police officers or police detectives, stories about private investigators don’t need much in the way of exposition to determine a change in locale; something as simple as “the case took us here” would suffice. This is enticing to studios as well, as they’re not beholden to multiple extended contracts that will require periodic re-negotiation, which is the case with superhero franchises, and the lack of an extended commitment that might hamper future opportunities should attract high-calibre performers as well.
In fact, even the lead actor doesn’t have to remain the same. One of the most successful movie franchises of all time, the James Bond series, regularly passes off the mantle from one performer to the next with no hiccups, to the point where audiences now expect it. The long-running British science fiction tv series Doctor Who has changes in performers built into the character’s nature, giving them the option for a revolving door of actors to put their own stamp on the role. There is no reason private investigator stories cannot follow the same idea; after all, the precedent is already set, with three performers playing Sherlock Holmes in the last decade alone. If the most recognizable private investigator in the world can be played by Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Johnny Lee Miller nearly simultaneously, there’s no reason the same cannot be done with other gumshoe detective characters as well.
The question of which detectives should make it to the big screen also arises with this idea. There have been several detectives that have gotten more than their fair share of time in the sun, and to rehash them once again would be an exercise in futility, as audiences are already aware of the characters. The aforementioned Sherlock Holmes, the leading candidate for such an endeavor, is someone whose fans have an embarrassment of riches to choose from with regards to big and small screen appearances, be it from one of the aforementioned three performers, or stars of old who have donned the deerstalker cap, such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has similarly had several incarnations, with Kenneth Branagh poised to add his own spin to the detective in 2017. There are, however, several other private investigators, both new and old, who can be brought to the big screen.
The prime candidate for the big screen treatment is JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott series. Written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the books follow the tale of an ex-Army investigator, the aforementioned Strike, and his assistant and increasing partner in the business, Robin Ellacott, as they investigate various crimes in London. With Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them proving Rowling’s box office appeal once again, the time is ripe for her other series to make the jump from page to screen. With three novels already published, there’s plenty of material to draw from to make a compelling set of films, and Strike and Ellacott are both fascinating characters, particularly the latter, whose emotional arc over the series will be worth seeing over the course of several films.
Another series that promises to make for a fantastic set of Private Investigator films is Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series. Jumping across the pond, the series is set in Los Angeles, and focuses on the exploits of Korean-American Juniper Song, a student of several hardboiled detectives, most notably Philip Marlowe, who discovered her own knack for the profession after accidentally ending up in it at a friend’s behest. Marked by a familial tragedy but not defined solely by it, Song is an excellent protagonist who is more than capable of carrying a franchise if the role is cast well. Adapting this series will also add some much-needed diversity to the big screen, as the novels do not shy away from Song’s ancestral roots and how it shapes her as a person, while bringing in a wide variety of colourful characters from all kinds of backgrounds into her orbit.
If one wishes to pursue another author with a proven track record of big screen adaptations, then Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series is another one that’s ripe for adaptation, with the added benefit of one excellent movie featuring the duo having already been made, in the form of 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. Set in Boston, the series is focused on Private Investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, whose relationship is as much a focal point for the books as the mysteries that cause them to weave in and out of both the upper echelons and the criminal underbelly of the city. While the series came to a conclusion with six books, the fully created world offers many other ripe possibilities for stories, and the aforementioned film gives this a boost, due to the fact that the excellent cast the feature assembled ensures that one major hurdle is already out of the way for a series revolving around this duo.
These are just a few of the potential options across the expanse of literature history that could work as a springboard for adaptations. There are numerous other options as well, including resurrecting well-known characters such as Sam Spade and Nick & Nora Charles, digging into the annals of tv and radio history to resurrect characters such as Candy Matson, or creating all new detective characters, as the tv show Veronica Mars did with its titular character. No matter what route is taken, the time is ripe for private investigators and gumshoe detectives to return, and the genre coming back to the big screen will be a win-win for audiences and studios alike. Hopefully the genre’s revival happens sooner rather than later, as it promises to be exciting no matter what form it ends up taking.