Writing the perfect thriller

I once went to a workshop about writing thrillers. I went partly because I like thrillers very much and also, frankly, everything I ever write turns into one eventually –

– wait, what was that noise?

– is someone following us?

See what I mean?

But I did also go because I rate the producer who ran it and I wanted to work with her. That happened: we worked on a project that fizzled away. But I enjoyed it, I hope I work with her again, and today I want to tell you what I should’ve said to her three years ago. She wanted to know how I could say I like thrillers but I visibly can’t cope with blood and gore. She wanted to know how anyone could claim to love thrillers yet be unable to watch The Silence of the Lambs, for instance.

Um, I said.

But today, I have the answer.

I’ve just watched something that had no gore, no blood and was a primetime US network TV show so there was never going to be a lot of anything. And the scene that made me want to talk to you about this and to track that producer down to go see? there? look! had nothing happening in it. I mean, nothing. Tim Daly starred as this character who was, for this quite long scene, waiting in a room. On his own.

And what made it a thriller was watching how he became ever increasingly sick with fear.

No dialogue, no other characters, no inciting incidents or whatever you could call it. Just a man in a room trying to stay calm. It was riveting.

And it was The Fugitive.

You know the title, you certainly know the Harrison Ford film version from 1993 – oh, my lights, I just looked up the year: I can’t believe that this is now the 20th anniversary of that movie. I watched it recently and it’s still very good. For writers, it’s particularly interesting because it has no rise and fall, light and shade, ups and downs, it is a ramp from start to finish with unrelieved, unreleased tension.

Hopefully you also know that it was originally a TV series in 1963 starring David Janssen and Barry Morse.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, who also made Maverick and The Rockford Files, and the story goes that one day when he was working at home, he called for his wife to come quick. Take a photograph of me, he said. I want a record of the moment I thought of a perfect TV show.

Roy Huggins:

I thought it was the greatest idea I’d ever come up with and was a cinch sale. And a cinch success.

(Incidentally, I got that quote from the late Huggins’ appearance on the astonishing Archive of American Television interviews on YouTube. Hours upon hours of detailed interview with utter legends of US television drama.)

But to give every writer in the world some solace, Huggins says he discussed the idea with friends and colleagues:

Every one of them hated it. Howard Brown said Roy, you’ve got a great reputation in television, don’t tell that to anybody or it’ll be gone. My agent’s [eyes] glazed over and he changed the subject. Nobody liked it.

The series ran for four years and for a time its finale held the record as the most-watched show ever screened on American television. Then there was the film. And then the one you are less likely to know about, the one I’ve just been watching: a TV remake made in the year 2000.

I don’t think that’s a great trailer. And the show itself had a dreadful title sequence. You can only get the first two episodes on DVD, or anywhere, and that shiny disc cost me a whole £1.34 two weeks ago. (Have a look at it on Amazon, though while you’re there, you know, if you’re in the vicinity, you could also look at my new book. I thank you.)

The 2000 series is by the same production team that made the 1993 movie, more or less, and I bought it in part because I’d just enjoyed watching that film again, because I liked Tim Daly in a detective show called Eyes, and because I wanted to see how they could tell the same story for the third time. Dr Richard Kimble is convicted of the murder of his wife and no one believes his claim that it was a one-armed man who did it. On his way to prison, there is an accident, Kimble escapes and goes on the run.

I think the one-armed man is weak. In all of the versions. If he weren’t one-armed, there wouldn’t be even the breadcrumbs there are that let Kimble at least begin to track him down.

And that’s part of what does make this a perfect TV idea. The story is not that Kimble is innocent, it’s that he is hunting the one-armed man. It’s that as he does so, Kimble himself is being hunted by the police and specifically the dogged Detective Gerard. Roy Huggins points out on the DVD for this version that this means the show has two chases going on, permanently, and he’s right that it’s unusual and unusually effective.

Then there was the fact that Kimble is a doctor. Roy Huggins:

I made him a doctor because I wanted him to a have a profession that I could use for good storytelling. Here was a guy who every time he had to behave like a doctor was putting himself in jeopardy. 

Being a doctor means that he has skills but also you can believe the compulsion to help people. So now your lead character has an ability and a need to get involved in new stories every week. He’s a bit of a do-gooder type but he’s a more believable do-gooder than your usual character in this type of TV show. Plus unlike every other hero who rolls into town in those shows, Kimble can never just call the police.

Two constant chases, one constant requirement to get embroiled in new stories. Huggins was right, it is a brilliant idea and that original version was the most enormous hit. It doesn’t half seem ponderously slow now, though. Take a look. This is the opening to most of the early episodes.

Just for completeness, I don’t think the trailer for the 1993 film is all that much better:

I can almost see why Huggins’s pals didn’t like the idea. Three versions, three trailers of a sort, all a bit dull. Then there’s the fact that you know in every version that Kimble will prevail in the end and, more immediately, that he can’t be caught this week or the show is over. That’s no different to any other series and if we are caught up in the tension, it is at least partly our willingness to be.

For all that its format is exceptionally tense, The Fugitive only works if the stories keep us engaged. The film could tell us solely the Richard Kimble tale and that was plenty for two hours. The TV shows absolutely have to keep going and going but they also therefore have to engage us with other stories. They have to do that every week. The original series did it marvellously and the point of it, the power of it, was not that Kimble was always within seconds of being caught but rather that he could be. That anything he did could be the thing that would trip him up. That any person he spoke to could be the one who turns him in.

I’d have liked any of the versions to use the murdered wife as more than a starting point for a tale about her husband. But otherwise The Fugitive is the perfect thriller for me because it creates a world where Dr Kimble is both constantly and naturally in peril.

You can see the movie easily: it’s available everywhere and it crops up on the telly regularly. You can get the original series pretty easily as it’s all on DVD.

What you’ll struggle with is the 2000 remake. It only lasted a single season and – spoiler – it’s the sole version of The Fugitive that does not get resolved at the end. There are those two episodes on very cheap shiny disc but then the whole series has been put up on YouTube. You have to question the legality as each episode is up in three 15-minute chunks of pretty low-quality ripped-from-VHS, but at least you can see it.

I didn’t give you that link, right? But I did and I do urge you to try at least one version of The Fugitive. I really do think it’s the perfect thriller and no more than Veronica Mars, I wish I’d written it.


Writer: The Blank Screen, The Beiderbecke Affair, Doctor Who

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