Tuesday , May 28 2024
So how does PBS' Skinwalkers stack up against the original book?

“The Dark Wind Blows On Everyone”

Gotta admit I was more than a little worried when I first read that PBS was paying for an American Mystery take on Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mystery novels. As a writer, Hillerman makes maximum use of a utilitarian prose style that could easily be flattened by filmmakers more concerned with sentimentally brandishing their p.c. credentials than telling the story. Turns out I needn’t have worried. Chris Eyre’s adaptation of Skinwalkers, the first Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery, nails both story and tone of this ultra-evocative police procedural series.
Hillerman’s series follows two Navajo cops – close-to-retirement Leaphorn (Wes Studi) and eager beaver young cop Chee (Adam Beach) – as they investigate murders on or near the New Mexico reservations. Though both characters had appeared solo in a trio of books apiece, Skinwalkers is the first to feature ’em collaborating. Eyre’s TV-movie does a nicely understated job capturing the tensions between these two strong-willed coppers and the thematic contrasts the two represent.
Where most old/young dichotomies are typically played in a fairly predictable traditionalist/rebel split, Hillerman was inspired enough to reverse expectations from the outset. It’s Officer Chee who represents traditional Navajo values (in addition to his duties as a cop, he’s also studying to become a Navajo medicine man), while Detective Leaphorn is the man of modernity. When a trio of murdered holy men appears to have been murdered by “skinwalkers” (evil shapeshifters), Leaphorn can barely hold back his impatience at Chee’s suggestion that magical forces may be at play. When the two reach an archeological dig, Chee is initially unwilling to proceed onto the site because of the iconic symbols uncovered there. Yet both detectives, working two different sides of the case, still arrive at the same conclusion.
That the mystery itself isn’t very complicated (most viewers’ll i.d. the killer early in the game as the only suspect not hostile to our heroes) doesn’t matter much. What’s much more fascinating is the way the murderer’s motives perversely mirror Leaphorn’s own nagging concerns about the spiritual beliefs of his people. Studi’s Leaphorn is the one who has to do the most traveling in this particular outing, and the actor does a marvelous job conveying his fierce intelligence and suppressed anger.
Any mention of Hillerman’s work has to include the landscape, which often comes across as a stronger character than some of his sketchier suspects. Eyre does a strong job conveying the barren power of his story setting – a solitary smokestack is used to particular strong effect (ultimately providing the key to the mystery) – one of the tricks to effectively capturing this series.
All told, a successful adaptation that hopefully’ll lead to further outings. I’d love to see how Beach’s Chee squirms through his on again/off again relationship with Alex Rice’s public defender Janet Pete; or Studi’s Leaphorn manages his wife’s deteriorating condition and his own uneasy retirement. Been some time since I was excited about a dramatic series on PBS (think the last ‘un was Prime Suspect). But there are at least eight more Leaphorn/Chee books out there, and I wanna see ’em all now.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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