Book Vs. Movie: One Corpse Too Many

One Corpse Too Many (The Cadfael Chronicles, Book Two)
Ellis Peters, 1979

Cadfael, Episode One: One Corpse Too Many

This is a fun book, and a fantastic adaptation. I had just gotten to this volume when the first season of Cadfael adaptations appeared on Netflix, so I wanted to talk about both.

Premise: The quiet life of Shrewsbury is interrupted when the front line of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud arrives in the town. Between battles, escaping rebels, hidden treasures and aspiring romances, for a while it seems the only person who cares about finding the killer of a mysteriously murdered young man is Brother Cadfael.

I didn't love this book as wholeheartedly as I did the first volume, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. Cadfael runs up against Hugh Beringer, a younger man who may be as clever as he is, and the two spend most of the book trying to outwit each other and decode each other's motives. I adored Godric/Godith, a young woman hiding out in the abbey, and Cadfael's unquestioning support for her plight. The addition of a love story on both sides of the civil war is quite nice and fun to follow, and all the supporting characters are passionate about their position and their ideals.

The television adaptation is quite faithful, even though it turns the mystery almost inside out. Many of the things that Cadfael has to piece together along the way are presented right at the start of the episode. On the other hand, one of the final twists, which is heavily foreshadowed – almost explained ahead of time – in the book, is played from the other side so the viewer could be surprised. In that section the plot is a little rushed in the episode, and of course I like the character development more in the book, where there's more time for it. Also Godith isn't very convincing in the film. The actress does a fine job, it's just not really believable that she could pass as a boy.

However, Cadfael is extremely convincing, and that's the key to the show. I watched this show on PBS as a teenager, and it's where I learned to love Derek Jacobi. This episode gives a minor character a history with Cadfael to use as occasional exposition, but we are given the measure of the crusader-turned-monk simply beautifully in a confrontation with a pushy guard early on.

Jacobi has a great handle on Ellis Peters' dialogue, and perfectly presents that extraordinary balance of unruffled practicality, sardonic humor, righteous morality and gentle heart that characterizes Cadfael.

I was glad that I had read the book when I watched the episode, because even though it meant that I knew the solution to the mystery, I was able to mentally layer in the additional scenes and moments the television crew didn't have time to include. Watching the episode, on the other hand, highlighted the parts I liked best and really helped the book to resonate in my memory.

4 Stars – A Very Good Story, in both versions.


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