Dirt: What makes a good literary thriller?

Lupin vs. The Flight Attendant.

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Day 2: Brutalist architecture. Day 1: 5 reasons to watch Lupin. Today, Daisy Alioto on the role of books in TV shows, as narrative or prop.

I thought I missed my opportunity to write about The Flight Attendant (HBO Max), but watching Lupin helped me to articulate where I felt like the show fell short. Both shows are underpinned by a single book. The Flight Attendant — which is based on a 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian — uses Crime and Punishment as a central prop. There’s a murder, a funeral, and a moral dilemma involving large sums of money, but while the Dostoevsky might add the sheen of literary merit to an adrenaline-soaked whodunnit, the show is far too reliant on fracturing its own narrative to give the viewer any of a novel’s room to breathe. (Though its literary aspirations are clear: at one point, a co-worker who dreams of a different life is seen reading Anaïs Nin.)

Instead, the show throws its weight into split-frame shots, Powerpoint-style transitions, and an opening sequence at the intersection of Skyfall and a David Klein poster. These design flourishes, while fun, are pure fizz. The real meat of the show is the trauma and addiction that the main character is working through, surfaced in flashbacks, blackouts, and memories that rewrite themselves as she desperately tries to communicate with her inner child. “Not everyone gets to be ok,” she says. 

Much of this psychological processing happens in an opulent Bangkok hotel room, a literal memory palace. It sometimes feels like the creators couldn’t choose between lifestyle porn and the darker corners of the character’s psyche. As both co-exist, the literary symbolism feels extraneous, like a curated stack of Penguin classics on the nightstand of a boutique hotel. 

I was watching The Flight Attendant around the same time that John le Carré died. Early in quarantine, I rewatched the TV version of The Night Manager, which also begins with a murder in a hotel. I was trying to think about what made the series so great. After all, it is just as reliant as The Flight Attendant on opulent spaces, where even normal people feel like spies. The Night Manager travels dutifully along its own arc, solving one mystery at time. Sometimes this approach bores — I’m thinking of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — other times it soars on the power of its own novelistic singularity. Here, we see the real difference between books and The Screen. 

On to Lupin: not a moment is wasted in this French miniseries. Assane Diop fashions himself into Arsène Lupin the Gentleman Thief and so the show resembles the classic print serial, one thrilling arc divided into satisfying morsels. Of course, there are shades of other literary touchstones in Lupin: a heist at The Louvre (familiar), a small white dog (a la Hergé), maybe even a Watson. But this collision of inspirations dates back to the original Arsène Lupin series, written by Maurice Leblanc. Leblanc even wrote an encounter between Lupin and Sherlock Holmes, but after reprobation from Arthur Conan Doyle, changed the character to “Herlock Sholmes.” (Conan Doyle’s estate has carried forward this degree of sensitivity.)

Diop is an agent of the plot — as any good character should be — and his complexity is that he made himself this way, fashioning life after the model of literature. Nothing, not even love, gets in the way of his story. As a black man in a racist and classist world, he proves that “gentleman” isn’t a status conferred, but seized. Where The Flight Attendant engages with books in the manner of a shelfie, Lupin has an unmistakable gilded age. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: A book is central to Lupin; on The Flight Attendant, literature is just a prop.

Comment Section

Did you know you can leave comments on this newsletter? We want to know what you think about the shows we cover! We’ll highlight comments in the newsletter, too. Here’s one from Claudia on reasons to watch Lupin:

it's such a fun show, especially when you watch it in the french original (with English subtitles ;)). feels like a short weekend trip to paris <3

This is good Dirt fandom because 1) TV is quarantine travel and 2) never watch dubs and leave subtitles on for every show.