Lethal White: Adapting the latest Cormoran Strike novel into a new four-part thriller for BBC One
Lethal White, the latest adaptation of the Cormoran Strike novels by JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) comes to BBC One from Sunday 30th August. Lethal White was adapted for the screen by Tom Edge (The Crown, Lovesick, Judy) who explains how he approaches reducing such a large novel into four hours of screen time and why collaboration with the author, the director and the production team is key.
Cormoran Strike is back. Strike: Lethal White starts Sunday 30th August on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Watch the trailer.
Four books in, we now have a pretty good idea of who Strike is. But how do you approach the continuation of building his character for the screen?
I think we learn more and more about Strike (Tom Burke) with each and every story. In Lethal White, it feels like we really delve into his other relationships, particularly with Charlotte, his ex who he met at university and who has been with him through some incredible traumas, including the loss of his leg. She’s kind of a ghost-like figure, whose presence has been felt throughout a lot of the narrative so far. We’ve seen him try to suppress that in the past and to have relationships with other people.
Now, in an attempt to move on from Charlotte, to convince himself that happiness and stability really can be found within a relationship, we see him make a solid attempt with Lorelei (Natalie Gumede). She’s a great woman and she adores him. She’s good for him in many ways.
One of the things that I found particularly moving about Lethal White is the idea that there is intimacy in vulnerability. That’s not necessarily easy for Strike, or for Robin (Holliday Grainger). I suspect Strike is more prepared to go to bed with a beautiful woman who cooks a mean pad thai than be candid about the challenges he faces. For me, one of the most moving scenes is after Robin is no longer able to hide her panic attacks.
Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER), Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE), Lorelei (NATALIE GUMEDE) in Lethal White (Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
She fears that this will spell the end of her career with Strike, who, quickly and with great empathy, is able to calm her fears by confiding in her how difficult he has found certain things in the aftermath of his own trauma. You really sense a profound shift in their relationship at that moment. So it’s a different kind of intimacy, one more challenging for him. As we see some parts of him stripped back, we learn more and more about him.
At the end of Career Of Evil (watch now on BBC iPlayer), we saw his struggle between wanting to protect Robin while wanting to allow her to do her job. In a moment of fear, he fired her for being reckless and emotional. Lethal White opens with him realising he’s made a profound mistake, not simply because he mistreated Robin, but because he values her so highly and ultimately needs her back.
Robin goes from being someone who might quietly surprise Strike, to someone he truly respects as an equal, and who, in some ways, is better than him at certain parts of the job. He’s big enough to value that rather than be threatened by it.
Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE), Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER) **BEHIND-THE-SCENES**(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
We see Robin make a significant journey of personal development - how do you approach her character?
The relationship with Matthew has been a real spine in the series so far, with poor old Kerr Logan having to play this widely hated character!
I think Jo writes that relationship with a great deal of empathy. In Lethal White I think we come to understand not only why her relationship with Matthew has meant so much to Robin, but also why she’s outgrown it.
I think it marks a real moment in Robin’s development, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this goes in tandem with her becoming more professionally successful than ever. She goes undercover not once, but twice in this book. In previous instalments we’ve seen flashes of what she might be capable of, such as her ability with accents and impersonations, but in Lethal White she really gets to stretch her legs.
As her confidence grows in her abilities, I think we also see her outgrowing her need for Matthew. Which isn’t to say that journey is uncomplicated, because Robin is also carrying the trauma of several attacks that have happened to her.
She’s determined to move past these experiences but continues to suffer flashbacks and anxiety attacks, and she worries this will affect her ability to do her job. There’s a reckoning to be made there, and it runs across the course of this series. It echoes the book’s themes of trauma, the past, and how they can both inform the present.
Matthew Cunliffe (KERR LOGAN), Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER) in Lethal White (Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
As a writer, how do you reduce a large novel such as this into a few hours of screen time?
I think we were very fortunate this time, because having done the previous adaptations with the BBC and HBO, their starting point was to say, how many hours do you think it is? That’s a real gift. So we were able to read the book and get a feel for the shape of the adaptation.
The process of breaking it down is not me sitting in a high tower reading and re-reading. There are very gifted people who work on the production who are all involved in the process. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with Jenny (Van der Lande) and Roxanne (Harvey) at Brontë. We spent a long time talking about what we felt was the core of the book, and which aspects needed to be front and centre, both in terms of Robin and Strike’s relationship and also in terms of the driving narrative.
We’re always looking for opportunities to honour the intention of the text. To find a way to make those moments visual and to dramatise them through conflict. That’s always ongoing. Thankfully, the books are really rich and, very often, if we’ve built up a larger sequence on something - for instance with the dogs on the Chiswell estate, or what happens with Robin when she goes undercover at Flick’s party - there are always great cues in the text.
More than anything, we all really love the books and the characters, so the focus of the work is always on how we make these characters sing in a way that the actors will have a good time playing. Also, we make sure that the people who have fallen in love with them [the characters] have something that is a pleasure to return to. We’re very fortunate with our cast.
Izzy Chiswell (CHRISTINA COLE)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
Can you tell us about working with the director, Sue Tully?
Sue’s great, and everyone has enjoyed working with her enormously, myself included. She’s incredibly prepared, which is extremely helpful. We spent time going through every scene and every sequence, making sure that the intentions were clear. We absolutely collaborated, particularly on the more kinetic scenes. Sue, for instance, having found her Chiswell House, came back with a ton of photos from the attic space, which we hadn’t known existed. She was full of ideas about how that space could be used to build atmosphere and tension. So I would then go off and rewrite around what that particular space offered, which was invaluable. We quite often worked like that, to make sure the action sequences worked and made the best use of the environment.
She’s great all-round. Great on the script, wonderful with the actors, and a pleasure to work with.
Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE), Jimmy Knight (NICK BLOOD), Flick Purdue (SAFFRON COOMBER)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
Did you have to do any extra research into the worlds of Lethal White, beyond the script and the book itself?
I think everyone who works on Strike finds that Jo’s books are so detailed and so well researched that it’s incredibly rare to feel like there’s something missing, or that you need to draw in finer detail. Most directors who’ve worked on it have described how uncanny it is to go to somewhere like Pratt’s, for example, which is written about in the book, and to realise that they needn’t have bothered with the recce, as everything has been described with such fidelity and precision that no photos are required.
I suppose there are a few key areas where we looked into things; for instance, there is a staging of a suicide at one point, and the production takes compliance issues and its duty of care to its audience pretty seriously. So, in that instance, they were liaising with the Samaritans and other organisations to make sure that the version of events that landed on screen was suitable, while at the same time honouring Jo’s dramatic intentions. There can be tensions between those two things. If you have a character that has ostensibly done something in a textbook manner, the textbook factor may be good for the plot, but it might also be problematic, so consulting the Samaritans was very important.
Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE), Jasper Chiswell (ROBERT GLENISTER)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
How much are you transposing Robert Galbraith’s words to the screen, and how much are the voices your own?
I think it can be really different scene by scene. Sometimes, in the staging of a scene, in order to achieve what we needed to within the constraints of time and medium, there is no way to simply sew together existing pieces of dialogue from the page. I think it’s fair to say we never feel duty-bound to adhere to that. There are some scenes that are necessarily invented. Where a 650-page book can find four or five elegant loops to take us somewhere, we might need to find a way to get there with one loop, which forces us to create something new. It’s always governed by the voice of the book and the voice of the characters.
There are some scenes where we’ve absolutely gone back to the text. An example would be Strike and Charlotte, when they sit down for lunch together. Jo is a very generous adaptee, if that’s the right term, and is such a pleasure to work with. She knows her long game incredibly well, and she knows Strike and Charlotte down to their marrow. She knows exactly what that relationship was, the pathology of them as individuals, and how those pathologies meet. The scene, as written in the book, is incredibly precise, and I think my first draft tried to move a few things around for the sake of plotting, and it didn’t quite work.
Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER), Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
That stuff is right there on the page, and those scenes are the ones where you’ve got a big ring around them saying - this is essential and really important.
It’s possible to get lost in the plotting because it’s so intricate and clever, but we’re always mindful of those scenes like the lunch with Charlotte, which felt totally essential. It wouldn’t be possible to understand Strike and Robin - the way they work together and the way their relationship evolves - without those scenes. We always look for that balance.
Charlotte Campbell (NATASHA O'KEEFE)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
In terms of Strike’s significant relationships with women in Lethal White, what do these show us about where Strike is emotionally in this series?
The end of Career Of Evil and the opening of Lethal White are essentially the same sequence - the beginning of Robin’s wedding - and we see an absolutely shattered Strike realise that he’s made a profound mistake, and he needs and wants to tell Robin that. The scenes that emerge between them at the wedding take us to the point that, certainly as a reader, I’d been waiting for, for a long time.
We begin with the question of what happened in that moment to derail them, and whether that derailment is a positive thing, or if they can find their way back from it. It’s a really painful journey, and Robin finds herself not only grappling with what Matthew has done, cheating on her again, but also the harder thing of facing up to what he [Strike] has truly meant to her, and her own part in sustaining that relationship well beyond what was healthy for either of them.
Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill
There’s the fire and intensity and dysfunction of Charlotte, which he did for more than a decade, and which he knows isn’t good for him. With Lorelei, there is a very comfortable world of a beautiful, interesting woman who isn’t pestering him to talk about his feelings all the time, makes a mean bowl of noodles, and probably embodies all the things he might jot down on paper as the makings of a comfortable life, alongside a pint of his beloved Doom Bar.
Yet, when push comes to shove, and her own feelings are laid out for him, he knows that he can’t meet them and that he doesn’t truly feel the same way about her. Amidst those pivot points, there is his relationship with Robin.
As their relationship develops, we see him inch towards those moments where there’s a desire to maybe make something of it. The more they work together, the more he realises that he needs her. He’s very aware of his capacity to enact damage. He’s lived through some difficult times, and he has very little faith that, if he swept Robin into his arms, he could reliably land in the happy ever after for both of them.
It’s a very complicated dance that they play. But there are some really beautiful moments that unfold here. The series has always been dotted with them. Time and again, they tell each other in small ways that they see each other, that they understand each other, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not complicated.
Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE), Jimmy Knight (NICK BLOOD)(Image Credit: BBC/Bronte Films/Steffan Hill)
What is it about Strike that has fans gripped and keeps them coming back for more?
Strike is really appealing as a decent man. That’s not to say that he isn’t complicated and doesn’t struggle, but his fundamental desire is to see justice enacted in the world. He’s also suffered. He sits in an odd realm between his experience of privilege, but also of loss and trauma. He’s someone who went to Oxford, who served as an army officer, and who was in a long relationship with one of society’s great beauties - Charlotte Campbell.
Strike knows that world and has moved within it, he’s been part of it, but he’s also the son of a woman who raised him in squats, a mother who had some terrible boyfriends, one of whom may have killed her. His friendships, although he might hesitate to call them that, include people like Shanker. The unreliable, the borderline dangerous. He understands them as well. He understands people who have suffered that way and who carry that damage, and he’s on their side.
Screenwriter Tom Edge, who adapted Lethal White for BBC One from the novel by Robert Galbraith
When Billy shows up in his office in Lethal White, he doesn’t respond to him as someone who is unlikely to be able to pay his bills, but as somebody who is very ill, who has seen something terrible that has haunted him his whole life and who is seeking justice, possibly at a cost to himself. Strike wants him to be helped, and he knows that he can do some of that by trying to find an answer for him.
I think Robin is a fellow traveller there, she has a kind of instinct to never let a good question go, which he recognises in her. Justice matters to her as well, and whilst sometimes being reckless in pursuit of it, we’re glad that they pursue it because they get to the heart of the rot of those big systems that Jo writes a lot about. Whether it be politics or other industries, she has an eye on the hypocrisy and the way those institutions wear masks that allow people to get away with immoral things.
Strike and Robin stand there as our heroes in that sense. They’re going to pry behind the mask to find out what is real and what is true, even if it’s at a cost to them. We love them for that.