Watching the BBC’s Father Brown on Netflix on my computer.
Opinion by Jim Denney
I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories while also viewing the BBC television series Father Brown on Netflix. That’s probably a bad idea.
If I had simply watched the BBC adaptation without consulting Chesterton’s original tales, I would probably be satisfied with the BBC’s mostly harmless version of the priest-detective. But the BBC version of Father Brown, with its a cozy, escapist “Murder She Wrote” feel, suffers by comparison with Chesterton’s brilliant original.
Chesterton’s stories have considerably more satirical bite and conviction. They express, with Chesterton’s trademark wit, his strongly held moral, spiritual, and social beliefs. We find a consistent moral concern expressed in both the Father Brown stories and in Chesterton’s works of Christian apologetics (Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) and social commentary (Eugenics and Other Evils).
For example, in his story “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch” (in Father Brown: The Complete Collection), Chesterton offers a portrait of a militant French atheist named Maurice Brun. Chesterton’s atheist character gained fame by waging a one-man war against the French expression “Adieu,” which commonly means “Goodbye,” but literally means, “I commend you to God.” Brun wanted to scrub the name of God (“Dieu”) from the French language by imposing a fine on citizens who said “Adieu,” and censoring the word from all French literature.
(This is an excellent example of Chesterton’s well-known ability to foretell the future of society. Chesterton’s Maurice Brun foreshadowed today’s militant “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins. In his bestselling book The God Delusion, Dawkins proposed that Christian parents who raise their own children in the faith are guilty of child abuse and should have their children removed from the home. In his own way, Dawkins, like Brun, seeks to scrub the name of God out of existence.)
In another story, “The Invisible Man,” Chesterton spun a tale about a murder that took place inside a building with a single entrance. Not only was the victim murdered, but the body was removed — seemingly under the noses of many witnesses. There were numerous bystanders around the entrance at the time of the murder, yet they all swore that no one went in or out of the building. How was that possible? The body had disappeared — and there were footprints in the snow on the stairs. Was the murder committed by an invisible man?
Father Brown solved the mystery when he learned that the footprints belonged to the mailman. The mailman walked right past the bystanders, went into the building, murdered the victim, stuffed the body into his large mailbag, and carried the corpse out without attracting any attention from the bystanders.
In this story, Chesterton was making an understated but incisive point: There are people in our society who are “invisible” men and women. They pass among us, they are human souls with needs and passions, and in our self-absorption we are oblivious to their existence. They are not people to us; they are just part of the landscape and beneath our notice. Chesterton wants us to stop overlooking the “invisible” men and women among us. He wants us to see them as people.
Chesterton was fond of paradoxes — seemingly self-contradictory statements that reveal a deep truth. Father Brown is a walking (and bicycle-riding) bundle of paradoxes. He is a man who lives by faith, yet he solves crimes through the application of reason and logic to cold, hard evidence. Because he is a celibate priest, people often underestimate him, thinking he is sheltered and unaware of human passions and temptations — yet he demonstrates an unerring grasp of human sinfulness, worldliness, and depravity.
The BBC’s version of Chesterton’s Father Brown is winsomely portrayed by actor Mark Williams (best known as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter motion picture series, and as Brian, the father of Rory Williams, in the BBC series Doctor Who). The casting of the show’s various quirky characters is spot-on, especially Williams as Father Brown. He amiably wanders through each episode in a seeming state of preoccupation and bewilderment. No one suspects that behind that beatific smile, a calculating mind is assembling clues — click, click, click — into an airtight case against a suspect no one suspects.
Yet the BBC’s Father Brown would have horrified G. K. Chesterton on several levels. The BBC television writers repeatedly put words in Father Brown’s mouth that don’t belong there, and that violate everything Chesterton himself stood for. There are numerous examples, but I’ll just cite the worst example I’ve seen, from an episode called “The Eve of St. John.”
In that episode, a witches’ coven, led by a Wiccan high priest named Eugene Bone, moves into the village of Kembleford. When the local Christian clergy meet together and express their alarm over the presence of practicing witches in their midst, Father Brown speaks up — in defense of the witches.
“Witchcraft,” says the BBC’s Father Brown, “is a spiritual path which is rooted in nature and the cycle of the seasons.” He adds that he expects “we have nothing to fear” from the coven. When one of the local ministers refers to the witches as “evil,” Father Brown says, “They worship other gods. It doesn’t make them evil.”
Chesterton’s Father Brown would never have defended witchcraft, idolatry (worshipping other gods), or any other practice that the Scriptures condemn. The Old Testament repeatedly and consistently condemns witchcraft in all its forms. It condemns King Manasseh of Judah because he “practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger” (2 Chronicles 33:6).
G. K. Chesterton, drawing by Paul Henry, 1904.
In Leviticus 19:31, God warned Israel, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.” And if worshiping other gods does not make the witches of Kembleford evil, as the BBC’s Father Brown would have us believe, then why is the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”?
Most episodes of the BBC series are a pleasant hour’s diversion, no more, no less. A few episodes, like “The Eve of St. John,” are so anti-Chestertonian and un-Christian that they are difficult to appreciate on any level. It’s hard (for me, at least) to enjoy watching a character spout nonsense that completely violates that character’s world-view.
If you really want to enjoy a good, mind-stretching, soul-enriching mystery, I recommend you stick with the genuine article, Chesterton’s one-and-only original Father Brown.
Note: Don’t miss my interviews with Christian romance writer Robin Lee Hatcher (author of Who I Am With You and An Idaho Christmas: Past and Present), and Christian science fiction writer Kerry Nietz (author of Amish Vampires in Space and Fraught). Visit my website at Writing in Overdrive. See you there!
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