The Silkworm is stronger than The Cuckoo’s Calling in nearly every way. This is the case for the book and it’s the case for BBC’s TV adaptation, as well. Based on the novel by Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling), The Silkworm continues the story of Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) and his assistant, Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) a number of months after the end of The Cuckoo’s Calling. Adapted by Tom Edge and directed by Kieron Hawkes, The Silkworm follows Cormoran and Robin as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of Owen Quine (Jeremy Swift) at the behest of his wife, Leonora (Monica Dolan). Owen is a provocative and somewhat famous author known for writing odd and often vulgar novels. At the time of his disappearance, Owen has just sent off the manuscript for his latest novel, Bombyx Mori, which features a “thinly veiled” slandering of many people he knows. When his body turns up dead and mutilated in exactly the same way the protagonist of Bombyx Mori’s protagonist’s death scene, the race is on to find out who, out of all those who have read Bombyx Mori, could have killed Owen Quine. (Mild Spoilers ahead)
As I said, The Silkworm is better in every way than The Cuckoo’s Calling. For starters, it’s visually far more interesting. If you’ll recall, one of my biggest complaints about the adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling was that it was visually uninteresting. The Silkworm, I’m glad to report, does not suffer from that problem. Everything from the framing of the shots, to the editing, to the way reenactments of the murder are sliced into various scenes themselves is interesting and visually engaging. This adaptation truly feels cinematic, which is really good considering that, for all intents and purposes, these adaptation of the Strike books are basically movies themselves. Unlike The Cuckoo’s Calling, which visually felt like just another crime show, The Silkworm really looks visually unique, and the show is vastly better for it. Kudos to director Kieron Hawkes.
Another massive improvement over the previous installment comes in Robin’s characterization. While Holliday Grainger played Robin exceedingly well in The Cuckoo’s Calling, I found the character herself to be fairly flat. I felt she wasn’t given enough to do and that her personal life wasn’t explored near as much as it needed to be. Both of those are rectified in The Silkworm as Robin’s role is elevated to really feel closer to a partner for Strike and not just an assistant. This becomes particularly obvious in the way Robin interacts with Orlando Quine, the daughter of Owen and Leonora, as a way to get her to open up and talk to her and Strike. Without Robin, Strike would have gotten nowhere in that scene and the delicacy with which Robin talks to Orlando – and the genuine care and concern in her mannerisms – really gives Holliday Grainger some great material to stretch her muscles with. Additionally, more of Robin’s home life with her fiance, Matthew (Kerr Logan), is explored as they both deal with Robin’s commitment to her job and the startling death of Matthew’s mother. It’s good stuff and it goes a long way towards making Robin feel like a fully fleshed out person instead of merely a plot device.
As an adaptation, The Silkworm is surprisingly vicious to its source material. Much is cut, added, or substituted in the course of the two-hour adaptation of the 500+ page book. That being said, I feel like the cuts and substitutions and additions are all for the betterment of the story being told. As always, lots of things that work in a novel don’t work in a visual medium, and that’s very much the case with The Silkworm. So much information in the novel is given to the reader via the narration and all of that information has to somehow be conveyed to the audience in a fashion that isn’t just a voiceover. So, new scenes are added and as a result, other scenes have to be cut or changed in the interest of streamlining the story and finding the best way to tell it visually. The new scenes that are added are really good ones, as well. Some of my favorites involve Charlotte Campbell (Natasha O’Keeffe), Strike’s former fiance, and their tumultuous relationship. Those were some good scenes. It’s refreshing that Tom Edge didn’t feel slavishly attached to the source material in the way that many writers who adapt novels do. While it may seem odd that The Cuckoo’s Calling, a slightly shorter novel than The Silkworm, is an hour longer than the adaptation of The Silkworm, that’s because a chunk of time in The Cuckoo’s Calling had to be devoted to setting up everything and, subsequently, much of that time isn’t required with The Silkworm. Additionally, the mystery itself in The Silkworm, while being complicated and surprising, isn’t anywhere near as convoluted as the one in The Cuckoo’s Calling was.
On that note, I feel that the mystery in The Silkworm is both a stronger crafted and all around more interesting mystery than the one presented in The Cuckoo’s Calling. My chief complaint with both the book and the adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling was that the mystery didn’t feel like something that could’ve been solved. In that story, it felt like Strike had to make several huge leaps in order to arrive at the conclusion he arrived at, and it seemed somewhat unbelievable. Sure, there were clues that pointed in the direction of the killer in that story, but those clues didn’t quite feel like enough to steer someone in the right direction. Plus, the mystery itself was such a convoluted mess that any solution would’ve felt somewhat disappointing.
This, very much, isn’t the case in The Silkworm (both the novel and the adaptation). Firstly, the mystery is just more interesting in general. Maybe that’s just me, but I find the whole premise interesting: a controversial writer writes an inflammatory book that insults his colleagues and ends up dead. That just screams fascinating, more than the mystery of who killed a model does, anyway. That feels more like an episode of Law and Order or any other crime show while the mystery of who killed the writer that pissed off a lot of people and isn’t well liked or really even much missed is just more interesting and unique. Add to that the fact that the mystery in The Silkworm actually feels solvable with the clues that are provided, and you have an all-around more satisfying experience. That’s not to say that the killer in The Silkworm is painfully obvious or anything, it’s just that the mystery itself is better crafted. As Strike (and the audience) uncovers more and more clues, they truly do seem to point in the direction of the killer instead of requiring Strike to make a leap of logic in order to arrive at the conclusion.
All in all, Strike: The Silkworm is an excellent adaptation of an excellent novel. It’s exciting, engaging, mysterious, moving, and highly enjoyable. The mystery is well written and well executed, the characters are engaging and interesting, the directing is stylish and visually interesting, the writing is sharp and strong, the subject matter is dark and captivating, and it’s just all around a good two hours of television. It’s a crime show that doesn’t quite feel like the other crime shows that are currently airing. It takes everything that was great about its previous installment, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and builds upon it and improves it and presents some good television with a unique mystery and a unique and endearing detective in Tom Burke’s Cormoran Strike. It seems uncertain at the moment when BBC’s adaptation of the third novel, Career of Evil, will air, but I very much can’t wait for it. BBC has me utterly hooked on these adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s exciting novels featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.
(4.5 out of 5 wands)