Some Stories Should Go Straight to Television, Not Stopover at a Bookshelf – A Review of The Suicide Exhibition by Justin Richards

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Ever since film became a viable, profitable storytelling medium, there’s been a trend towards adapting stories told in other media. Stage plays were first, for obvious reasons, but moviemakers were soon adapting novels for the screen, in the same way that some novels had been adapted for the stage. Gone with the Wind began life as a novel before it was adapted for the silver screen and became a hit, proving that book-to-screen adaptations could be incredibly profitable. Jane Austen’s novels (particularly Pride and Prejudice) have received the box office treatment many times over the years. Most recently, adaptations of such entire series of novels, like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games prove that not just standalone novels, but entire series, could be turned into movies that could be both critically-acclaimed and incredibly popular.

The same trend occurred when television became popular. Since producers could run a series of episodes on TV instead of telling an entire novel’s worth of story in one film, TV became another avenue for adaptation, especially for entire series of short stories or novels. Mysteries, in particular, were well-suited to TV adaptation: the Sherlock Holmes and Ms. Marple stories, for example, have been adapted several times for the small screen, and were—and still are—immensely popular. A good example of the latest approach to TV adaptation is the HBO series Game of Thrones, an adaptation (at least as far as Season 3; more recent seasons might be more kindly and politely described as “revisions”) of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series has proven that it is possible to throw a movie-sized budget at a TV series, and have it do very well indeed. Since then, more and more studios are adapting books using talent drawn from the silver screen and the pacing of TV to tell the story. The latest example of this is the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Perhaps because of this trend, some writers appear to think that writing a story first as a book, instead of going straight to TV or film, is a good idea. I suppose they view the bookstore as a testing ground, of sorts: if their story gains enough popularity as a novel, maybe that means it will continue to be popular as a TV show or movie.

The above is my personal theory as to why Justin Richards’ The Suicide Exhibition is a novel. Another theory is that Richards is more adept at writing novelistic extensions of TV shows—in his case, Doctor Who—and so that influence seeps into his other writing. Whatever the case, The Suicide Exhibition might work well as a TV show, perhaps as a miniseries, but it doesn’t function very well as a novel.

The Suicide Exhibition opens on the early years of World War II. The Nazis have come into possession of a mysterious weapon: an ancient, mystical power that could turn the tide of the war in their favour. However, the existence of this weapon is not as secret as they might like: British intelligence has gotten wind of it, and is doing its best to figure out just what it is the Nazis have, what they intend to do with it, and how to stop them.

However, neither the British nor the Nazis know the true nature of the power the Nazis have unearthed: ancient, yes, and mystical, yes, but capable of independent thought—and it desires nothing less than the destruction and subjugation of the entire human race.

The first thing that came into my mind when I started reading this novel was: Hellboy. Everything about it—Nazis, the Vril, ancient tombs, secret government organisations—all pointed back to the first Hellboy story arc, except with slightly less Lovecraft and slightly more Indiana Jones. At that point I started comparing the novel to what I remembered of Hellboy, and found the novel wanting. I realised later, though that the comparison was hardly fair to the novel: after all, there are only so many ways one can make use of the Nazis’ historical involvement with occult matters, right? Also, Hellboy was another kind of story entirely, and so, although the surface elements were remarkably similar (perhaps too similar, for my liking), I would need another, fairer point of comparison.

A bit more reading led to me decide that perhaps Indiana Jones was the better point of comparison. After all, this novel was shaping into an adventure story, and shared the Nazi occult element with Raiders of the Lost Ark. From there it was easy to spot the other elements that made this novel more akin to not just the Indiana Jones movies, but the Tintin comics and the Allan Quartermain novels—though hopefully The Suicide Exhibition would do away with the racism and misogyny inherent to the aforementioned examples.

But even with those adjusted expectations, I still wasn’t quite happy with it. The most immediate issue is usually the quality of the writing, but that didn’t seem to be the problem, since Richards is a master at world-building with a few choice phrases, as the quote below shows:

An artist’s likeness was circulated, but no one reported seeing a walking corpse. Possibly there were so many emaciated and sleep-deprived Londoners that he didn’t seem so out of place. Possibly people had better things to concentrate on, like surviving.

Although there are other parts of the novel that make clear that London is in the middle of the Blitz, the above quote shows that Richards is able to succinctly capture what it was like for Londoners to live in constant terror of a bomb dropping onto them at any time. He does this with his other descriptions as well, such as this description of a very notable, very important man further on in the novel:

The General Secretary sat a large desk at the side of a huge office. He did not look up when they came in, gave no acknowledgement that he knew Mikhael and the three men with him had arrived. The four of them stood to attention in front of the desk, waiting.

After several minutes, the Secretary put down his pen, and looked up. He fixed his deep, dark eyes on Mikhael, his stare so intense he might be looking into the man’s soul. Still he said nothing.

There was silence for several moments, then Secretary leaned forward to study the photographs again. It was obvious that the meeting was over. Mikhael waited for one of the others to move first, then followed them from the room. At the door, he glanced back at the man at the desk—still absorbed in his work. He could see why he had adopted the name ‘man of steel’—Stalin.

Both quotes show that, whatever else might be problematic about his writing, Richards can not only turn a good phrase, but he can also incorporate historical events and figures seamlessly into his writing. This is a good thing, though also to be expected from someone whose bread-and-butter is mostly writing Doctor Who novels. Still, as someone who’s read some excruciatingly bad historical novels (even those touched by the fantastic, like this one), it’s clear Richards has taken the time to sit down, do research, and incorporate that research as seamlessly as possible into his story, and I can readily appreciate it.

However, although Richards’ writing itself isn’t bad, The Suicide Exhibition has one very large issue that gets in the way of everything else: its pacing. The novel starts very slow, and only really starts to pick up towards the end. Now, this isn’t normally an issue with me: I’m quite happy to have a book start out slow and then pick up towards the end, especially if it’s the beginning of a series (and The Suicide Exhibition is, indeed, just such a book). I expect that sort of thing because I understand the writer’s need to establish the setting and the characters, and to move necessary plot points into just the right position so that everything can move a bit faster in the sequels, thus keeping the overall story moving forward to the very end of the series.

But I don’t feel the same way about the slow start of this novel. Since Richards has already proven he can pack a lot of world-building in a very small space, and since the facts of World War II are well-known to most readers (thanks in large part to the many documentaries and movies made over the years), the slow start has nothing to do with world-building. Therefore, if it’s not about world-building, then it must be about character development: building up both protagonists and antagonists so that the reader can become attached to them, or at the very least interested in them.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There is very little development for any of the characters; they all fit into certain stereotypes, and never leave them (especially annoying in the case of the female characters). While I understand that a certain amount of stereotyping happens in adventure novels because of the focus on plot, what I do not understand is why Richards let such stereotyping happen at all when there was no urgent need to keep the plot constantly moving forward. The Suicide Exhibition is the first book in a series: the plot can understandably take some time off for other things because it has room to grow. Why Richards does not take advantage of that to truly build his characters into interesting, three-dimensional people worth spending time with is beyond me. As it stands, his characters are irritating to read about: the protagonists are barely fleshed-out caricatures of a list of character traits from TVTropes, and the antagonists (the human ones, anyway) are no better. The only good thing about the human antagonists is that they don’t cackle threateningly to themselves, although they do have a mysterious castle lair (which actually existed anyway: stereotypes must come from somewhere, after all).

Of course, my problems with the characterisation and pace wouldn’t be as much of an issue if this story were presented in some other manner—say, as a TV show. As I’ve said earlier, Richards’ bread-and-butter is writing Doctor Who novels, and all the characteristics of The Suicide Exhibition point towards the very heavy influence of TV. The pacing and characterisation are the most obvious examples of this influence, but even the way the story jumps from the point-of-view of one character to another so closely mimics the cinematography and editing of Doctor Who that I half-expected the TARDIS to show up at some point and for the Doctor and his companion to step out and take the Vril head-on.

This leads me to an interesting question: why did Richards choose to present this story as a novel, rather than as the treatment for a potential TV show? As it stands, it has all the potential elements for a good TV series—perhaps it could even compete with Agent Carter, after it’s been overhauled somewhat. Richards works with the BBC; he could have tried to find a way to pitch this whole idea as its own show. I imagine pitching it as a show won’t be as difficult for him, compared to someone coming in from the outside. So why didn’t he go that route?

Two potential answers come to mind: the first is that the idea for a TV show was rejected, and Richards decided not to waste the story so chose to publish it as a book instead. The second is that Richards chose to go with a novel first as a way to “test the waters”, so to speak, for his story, and if it gained enough attention and popularity, he could then present it as a potential TV show. Or there may be some other, third answer at work that I can’t imagine because I’m not Richards and I do not work in the same industry he does. Whatever the true answer may be, it still doesn’t change the fact that this story, as Richards wrote and presented it in The Suicide Exhibition, doesn’t exactly belong on a bookshelf, but on TV.

Overall, The Suicide Exhibition has all the potential to make a great TV show, but it doesn’t work very well as a novel. While Richards’ world-building is well done, and it’s clear his research is solid, those qualities do not excuse the shallow characterisation and agonising pace of the first two-thirds of the novel, with the plot only really picking up speed in the latter third. The reader can easily imagine all the action happening onscreen (not least because of the way the point-of-view jumps are structured), so why this has to be a novel in the first place, instead of a TV show, is rather puzzling. Richards likely has his reasons, but it’s very clear to any reader that this novel should have gone straight to TV, and not made a stopover on the bookshelf—at least, not without some serious overhauling to make it better as a novel.

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