The original six-part BBC miniseries The Singing Detective is a universally lauded masterpiece that is widely considered to be the best made-for-TV musical of all time…and please note that that means it’s considered better than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which is no small achievement.
Yet the 2003 American remake, which condensed the material into a single feature film and featured such then-huge stars as Robert Downey, Jr., Mel Gibson, Robin Wright, and Katie Holmes, was a unanimously panned disaster that has gone down in history as one of the worst musical films of all time. Granted, it’s not the first genius-level musical to be adapted into a legendary disaster (A Chorus Line, anyone?), but one still has to wonder what when wrong along the way.
Well, the first difference is in the sheer quality of the writing—comparing the erudite, sophisticated, ultra-clever dialogue in the original, which sounds like it could have come straight out of a first-rank classic Stage drama, with the warmed-over, ‘hard-boiled’ Noir movie cliches in the remake is like comparing Oscar Wilde to a Seltzer and Friedberg movie. Granted, a fair amount of the remake’s dialogue is quoted directly from the original, but they always manage to dumb down the wording and flatten out the delivery just enough to destroy the effect.
Also, while in both versions the Noir plot is intentionally vague and unresolved, the remake is so incompetently plotted and tries so hard to compress the immensely complex plot of the original into about a third of its original running time that it eventually devolves into incomprehensible randomness for both the ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ plotlines.
It’s also worth noting that the musical numbers in both versions tend to come right the Hell out of nowhere and usually wind up feeling almost completely random. This works well with the hallucinatory atmosphere of the British original, but the direction on the remake just feels too normal and earthbound, even on the most surreal musical sequences, to make this device anything but awkward and off-putting.
To cite one more key example of the difference in writing styles, the portrayal of sex in the original, while it often got extremely nasty (and deliberately so), always had a sophisticated, emotionally complex grown-up edge to it. In the remake, it generally just comes off as an ugly combination of cheap titillation and dirty shock value…I know that’s how the main character sees it, but limiting this movie’s intellectual scope to the character’s current level of self-comprehension is missing the point of the original in a pretty big way.
The other big difference between the two versions is the main character himself. The original film’s antihero, Phillip Marlow, is far, far more sympathetic than the remake’s protagonist Dan Dark, who is one of the most unlikable characters ever seen in a musical. This is partly because of Michael Gambon’s subtle, nuanced and often heartbreaking acting in the former and Robert Downey, Jr. giving the worst performance of his career in the latter, but the characters are written in vastly different ways as well.
For one thing, both the incredible agony of the character’s illness and the deathly horror of the overcrowded communal hospital room he’s been trapped in for months are much more effectively emphasized in the British version, making you much more inclined to understand and forgive his extremely abrasive behavior in the film.
And while Marlow is uncooperative, venomously sarcastic, and relentlessly negative, it’s shown from the very first episode that he actually can behave decently under the right circumstances, and is merely (for understandable reasons) in a spectacularly bad mood for most of the action. Contempt, suspicion and hostility seems to be the default for Dan Dark at the best of times, and it’s pretty strongly implied he was no different even before his condition deteriorated to this point.
Also, while both are shown to be writers of cliche noir detective stories starring author avatars so blatant they actually share their writers’ names, Phillip Marlow comes off as a talent of genuine potential trapped in a limiting genre by his psychological problems. Meanwhile, Dan Dark seems more as a juvenile no-talent hack writing the professional equivalent of self-insert fanfiction about an idealized version of himself.
Also, Marlow’s psychological hangups are far more interesting and complex than the cliche ‘Mommy issues’ they gave to Dan Dark. This is particularly important because the detective story is never properly resolved as a conventional mystery; it’s ultimately just a means of illustrating the character’s psychological problems and his progress in dealing with them, which means if the psychological elements themselves are not interesting, the whole thing comes of as a total waste of time, a pointless riddle with no answer. To summarize, if you haven’t seen the original, you should correct that at the earliest possible opportunity, but unless you’re a reviewer or looking for bad-movie bragging rights, I’d steer well clear of the remake…it’s just a piece of pure misery, both visually and emotionally ugly, and doesn’t even have the virtue of being enjoyably bad.