Ratking: Dibdin’s Zen vs BBC4’s TV adaptation

I’ve just finished reading the first of the Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin – Ratking – which was published in 1988. Like many new Zen readers, I bought the book after enjoying the BBC adaptations, but was also interested to see how the two compared, having heard that the TV episodes diverged somewhat from their source material.

I’d say that the TV adaptation of Ratking is loosely faithful to the novel, in the sense that both the reader and the viewer see Zen operating as a Venetian ‘outsider’ in a corrupt Italian policing system, and are aware of the dangers he faces should he make the wrong investigative/political move. But the Zen of the book is not the sharp-suited Italian of TV’s Rufus Sewell; nor is he shown negotiating with representatives from the higher echelons of government (he’s far too unimportant). And while the framework Ratking’s plot is taken up to some extent in the TV version, some aspects were significantly altered, like (ahem) the identity of the murderer.

I did, however, enjoy the novel exceedingly. Zen is nicely characterised, and the novel provides an intriguing insight into Italian society at the end of ‘the years of lead’ (a period of terrorism and kidnappings that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s). It also provides a sharp critique of the power wielded by rich Italian families, and their immunity from the normal rules and regulations of society: sophisticated and cultured on the outside, but decadent and corrupt within. Well-written and entertaining, the novel only dipped slightly for me at the end, when the plot became a touch melodramatic. But it’s certainly worth a read, and I’m looking forward to sampling others from the series.

It’s interesting to compare the packaging of Ratking editions past and present: on the left, moody Italian cobbles, shadows and trilby-wearing detective; on the right, the star power of Rufus Sewell as Zen. With thanks to Peabody Jnr for technical assistance with the images.

3 thoughts on “Ratking: Dibdin’s Zen vs BBC4’s TV adaptation

  1. I think you are spot on in your assesment of the book and the series – the ‘anni di piombo’ atmosphere is airbrushed out to bring the story up to date, which is fairly understandable given that TV is so expensive that they were boung to go with gloss over grittiness! And even though it often felt like a Vogue advert, the series and actors all did look good! The BBC seems to have aproached adaptation for the Zen series in the same way they did the Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh – the plots are largely streamedlined and shifted from book to book to create an overall narrative for the protagonist – which is probably fairly sensible. It certainly seemed odd that they would use the first novel as the last of the series!

    I’m not convinced though that Dibdin’s books were particularly convincing in making the stories feel especially Italian – after all, stories of rich and powerful families and political corruption in the police would work in Mumbai too! In fact, isn’t it about time that a series was made based on the HRF Keating Inspector Ghote series?

    • Thanks for your comments, carvershamragu – I think you’re exactly right about the BBC adaptation strategy. I’ve decided to approach Zen TV and Zen text as related but different entities (pasta and pizza perhaps): both enjoyable, and not necessary to compare and contrast too remorselessly. (Though on reflection I do think it’s a bit of shame that the TV adaptation is dehistoricised. I’m sure we could have coped with a bit of background to the years of lead).

      Never read any Keating / Inspector Ghote: added to reading list – thanks!

  2. I read a few of the books a couple of years ago, but developed such an appalling unsympathetic visual of Zen’s appearance that I had to stop reading the series. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation, but might just give it a go. More importantly, now I’ve seen the images of Rufus Sewell, I’m giving the books another shot! Normally I have a real problem with film and TV adaptations not depicting protagonists as I’ve imagined them. In this case, though, I’m truly grateful to the BBC for providing a path back into some well-written books…

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