This April theme to which All the Tuesday Night Bloggers Aspire is An Admirable Act. I Attribute it to the Allure of Alliteration. Anyway, As Bev’s Adorable Artwork Alludes, in April, Anything Goes . . . just as long as it begins with the letter A. You can imagine, knowing me as you do, my sense of Alacrity At being Allowed to Aim the conversation toward Agatha.
Last week, I mused about Ms. Christie’s Antipathy toward Actors. I included a quote from her Autobiography that explained her reason for becoming a regular playwright. One sentence really stuck out for me: “It seemed to me that the adaptations of my books to the stage (by other writers) failed mainly because they stuck far too closely to the original book.”
What strikes me is how we purists sound the Alarums about the license screenwriters and producers have taken with Christie’s work, and here the author herself gives her blessing to this very thing! Now, Dame Agatha was referring to both the structural difference between a play and a novel and the need to simplify a plot for theatre audiences. A book can contain charts, maps and the obligatory chapter called “Reflections on the Case” or “Six Salient Points” or “Miss Marple Muses” to help readers keep track of things. Internal rumination is a perfectly acceptable method of moving a mystery novel along. But a play, and by extension, a film, needs to propel itself forward through action, not thought. Characterization comes from the way people behave. A clue, in and of itself, is not necessarily a dramatic thing; the discovery of the clue and the impact it has on the people involved is what grips audiences. That is why the successful puzzle-based film is a rare bird; often it fails in terms of dramatic impact unless the emphasis is shifted from alibis and clues to the crime itself and the emotional reactions of the suspects.
What does this mean for an author whose work largely revolves around the puzzle? This is where Christie’s simple writing style – which some applaud and some decry and nobody can deny it is part of her success – works, I think, to her advantage. People complain about her lack of characterization (I disagree), atmosphere (pretty much true there) and description (that depends on the situation). It makes her novels easy reading, but detractors call them lightweight. I’m not here to tell those folks how wrong they are – they are wrong! – but to suggest that this very quality helps make Christie easier to adapt to the screen than, say, Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Queen has seldom been done right, and Carr has barely been attempted.
At the same time, it makes Christie’s work prey to outrageous miscalculation when it comes time to adapt. The attempts to “modernize” her or make her “relevant” to a younger generation are foolish. All it takes is a careful reading of her work to find all the psychological and social ramifications necessary for a good dramatization. So you can imagine that, when I examine the various film and TV adaptations of Christie that I have seen, I have much to applaud and even more to complain about.
I should probably have waited to write this until after I read Mark Aldrich’s book Agatha Christie on Screen. My buddy Kate over at Cross Examining Crime just reviewed this and even offered a free copy in a random draw. Through some horrific error on Kate’s part, I did not win that random drawing and am therefore ordering the book myself and thus must rely on my own memory of the hundreds of hours of films and TV shows I have watched. (Here’s Kate’s review in case your appetite, like mine, has been whetted.)
I collect books and films, and I own around 1,000 DVDs. A great many of those are crime films, including as many adaptations of Agatha Christie as I could find. Not every adaptation is available, particularly some of the oldest films and some international movies and/or TV shows. (A few of these are available on YouTube, which is a lovely surprise!) I don’t pretend to be an expert on Christie on Film, just a fan, but even a fan gets grumpy when he sees what film studios can do to his favorite author.
Book lovers love to argue that the film industry has no respect for books; complaining about how the movie got the original story wrong has been a popular drinking game for a century now. This certainly includes the mystery genre, which might have to do with a general lack of respect on the part of producers for the intelligence of an audience to follow the twists and turns of a mystery. It doesn’t mean that hundreds of enjoyable films of that genre haven’t been made, many of them immensely clever and, may I say, extremely popular. Yet few of them contain the complexities of a typical Golden Age novel, perhaps understandable given the ninety-or-less minute running time of most of these films. As long as the sense of GAD is present – the closed circle setting, the sense of the importance of ratiocination applied to a vibrant set of suspects and a good murder – we tend to be satisfied.
Adaptations of Christie’s work popped up rather infrequently during the first thrity years of film history. Some of them are fine, but they seem to be adapted more from her plays than the original novels or stories. I have never seen the 1931 British film Alibi, based on Michael Morton’s 1929 stage version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the first such adaptation of a Christie work to the stage. From all I’ve heard, neither Charles Laughton (in the play) nor Austin Trevor (in the film) got Hercule Poirot down correctly. (Trevor sure looks a right fool in that porkpie hat!) Rene Clair’s 1945 version of And Then There Were None is a fine mystery-comedy, just like the 1943 play with which it shares that bizarre “happy” ending. 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution is a top notch Billy Wilder film that expands upon the play, which in turn was an expansion of the original short story. Neither of these films could have used the original twist endings and survived the film censors, but both are beautifully written, directed and acted. Two versions of the short story “Philomel Cottage,” both titled Love From a Stranger, boast fine casts but suffer a bit from emphasizing the melodramatic nature of the tale.
By the 1960’s, things were getting rather bleak for Christie fans: a modern adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders, starring Tony Randall (!?) as Poirot, with Alexander Bonaparte Cust played by . . . the voluptuous Anita Ekburg, a lurid version of Ten Little Indians set atop a German schloss and featuring as spinster Emily Brent . . . the voluptuous Dahlia Lavi, and the enjoyable but misguided Miss Marple films that capitalized on the comic, yet inappropriate charms of the voluptuous . . . Margaret Rutherford. All of these seemed like the death knell for anyone looking for a proper version of a Christie tale.
Rutherford was asked to play Miss Marple in an adaptation of 4:50 From Paddington after plans for a television series about the sleuth fell through. The actress was reluctant, and Christie herself thought the casting was a terrible idea, but other heads prevailed and Murder, She Said (1961) became the first of four Miss Marple films. In a way, this series predicted the horrors that would be visited upon Miss Marple in its latest TV incarnation: Murder at the Gallop (1963) and Murder Most Foul (1964) were loosely adapted from Poirot novels (After the Funeral and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, respectively), and by the final film, Murder, Ahoy (1964), everyone had given up on Christie and created a totally original story. The whole thing was played for laughs, and no matter how much you may or may not enjoy them, you have to agree – it wasn’t Agatha Christie.
A decade later, things took a turn for the better with Sidney Lumet’s gorgeous Murder on the Orient Express (1974). The script is remarkably faithful to its source, and Lumet assembled a brilliant all-star cast. Best of all, there is an appropriate sense of gravity to the proceedings and a complete lack of camp that I attribute to Lumet’s brilliance and the respect for the material of everyone involved.
Death on the Nile followed in 1978. It is also a highly enjoyable film, but from the start we see a distinct change in tone in both Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay and the actors’ performances. The casting of Lois Chiles for her looks rather than her talent, turning Linnet into an unalloyed bitch, does not bode well. The actors all chew the scenery a bit, especially the new Poirot, Peter Ustinov, who tends to send up the character as Albert Finney never did in Orient Express. The plot is simplified but essentially faithful to the novel, eliminating suspects and plot strands here, and giving new, more obvious, motives to characters there.
Still, the film was also well received and prompted another adaptation: 1982’s Evil Under the Sun. Shaffer returned to oversee the screenplay, and, by this point, the elements of camp are given full sway. I love the film, but as much as it generally follows Christie’s plot – at least the murder plot – it really ain’t Christie. Diana Rigg is a wonderfully comic Arlena Marshall, but she ignores any elements of pathos in the character. Rosamund Darnley, Arlena’s romantic rival in the novel, is replaced by Maggie Smith’s Daphne Castle (a minor role in the book), and the sniping between the two of them is, of course, a scream . . . but it ain’t Christie. Several of the book’s characters are cut, and new characters are added or totally transformed from the book to focus on Arlena’s theatrical career. Ominously, the film didn’t do that well at the box office, and the next time Ustinov appears as Poirot, he has been relegated to television.
Television would ultimately be a very good thing for Agatha Christie, since it permits a greater leisure at storytelling than the cinema. Still, it took a while for adaptors to discover this. In 1985-86, Peter Ustinov made three TV films based on Lord Edgware Dies (using the American title, Thirteen at Dinner), Dead Man’s Folly, and Three-Act Tragedy (again using the U.S. title, Murder in Three Acts.) Right away, we become aware of the financial limitations of television: all three films are moved from their original periods to the present day. Most of the casts are comprised of successful TV actors: Jean Stapleton, fresh from her success as Edith Bunker on All in the Family, plays Mrs. Oliver in Folly, and she’s not very good because she’s simply not right for the role. A few big stars show up, like Faye Dunaway as Jane Wilkinson or Tony Curtis as Sir Charles Cartwright (another casting mistake). Murder in Three Acts is set in Acapulco for no discernible reason.
I watched these films on TV when they aired and, starved as I was, I ate them up. But even this teenager could feel the – well, the cheapness of these adaptations and the lack of sparkle to the screenplays and performances. It didn’t help to have commercial breaks disturb the proceedings, creating the need for an artificial cliffhanger every nine minutes. And the modern setting was, at best a distraction. (To really see how one can ruin Christie by updating it, please watch the 2001 TV-film version of Murder on the Orient Express starring Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot, action figure. Or, better yet, don’t bother.) Ustinov made one final appearance as Poirot in 1988 on the big screen in the remarkably desultory Appointment With Death – very much not fun – and then then it was all over for Poirot . . . until somebody got smart in 1989. More about that anon.
When, in 1980, director Guy Hamilton (who would later go on to direct Evil Under the Sun) helmed an adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (the title shortened to The Mirror Crack’d) with an all-star cast led by Elizabeth Taylor as Marina Gregg, Rock Hudson as Jason Rudd, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and, as Miss Marple, Angela Lansbury, it began to look like nobody could avoid the whole tongue in cheek style when it came to Jane Marple. U.S. television got into the act by adapting A Caribbean Mystery and They Do It With Mirrors (called by its U.S. title, Murder with Mirrors) in 1983-85 starring Helen Hayes as Miss Marple and set in modern day with largely American actors. Fans rightfully despaired, and it looked like Agatha Christie on screen had run her course on TV.
And then something of a miracle happened. From 1984 to 1992, the BBC made twelve films, each an adaptation of the twelve Miss Marple novels Christie wrote. For their leading lady, producers chose an octogenarian actress whom Dame Agatha herself had once spotted in a 1946 stage production of Appointment with Death and sent back a note saying, “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.”
Joan Hickson had appeared in the first Rutherford Marple movie as a maid. There was nothing tongue in cheek about Hickson. She knew this character: her steely resolve for justice and her ace detective mind wrapped up in a warm woolly exterior. In addition, the care taken with the adaptations from page to screen was extraordinary. Being a series, certain liberties were taken, such as reducing the number of policemen Miss Marple came in contact to semi-regulars Inspectors Slack and Dermot Craddock. The sleuth’s involvement was beefed up in those adventures where, in the books, she is less seen, as in The Moving Finger. But, by and large, the adaptations were more than respectful to the original source: they were lavish in period details, beautifully cast, and allowed the length to present the tales pretty much in their entirety. And when they ran out of Miss Marple novels, they were done, and the creators had the satisfaction of knowing they had got it right. Just compare Hickson with Claire Bloom as Marina Gregg to Lanbury and Taylor in their respective The Mirror Crack’d. ‘Nuff said!
Britain’s ITV got into the act in 1989 when it began a 24-year long odyssey into the life and career of M. Hercule Poirot. The first successful element was the casting: an actor who had appeared as Inspector Japp in the Ustinov TV-movie, Thirteen at Dinner, was tapped to play Poirot. For David Suchet, it was a labor of love, and his vow to complete the Poirot canon had a lot to do with the series enduring for 13 seasons. At first, the focus was on the short stories, but here and there an adaptation of a novel was inserted, beginning with Peril at End House in Season 2. By Season 4, the focus was on the novels. At first, the story adaptations were nearly as faithful to the source as Suchet’s depiction of Poirot. However, as the series progressed, and Suchet himself took on a producer credit, the adaptations began to darken, and Christie purists began to grumble and then to groan.
It is one thing to explore the subtext of a Christie novel and expand on an idea. I can get behind an interpretation of Philip Blake as harboring desire for Amyas Crale in Five Little Pigs. Making Dr. Roberts gay in Cards on the Table is more of a lark, having no real foundation in the novel, but giving a lesbian overtone to the relationship between Anne Meredith and Rhoda Dawes is outright ridiculous. And then flipping the moral fiber of both girls is insulting to the memory of an author whose plot needed no such “improvement” and to fans who had embraced the series.
The later adaptations began to go off the rails even more. It almost feels like Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death were written to fly in the face of the big screen versions. At least Nile basically followed the story, although it switched out suspects who had been cut from the earlier film. Emily Blunt (one of my favorite actresses) maintained the simplification of Linnet Doyle’s character into a totally unsympathetic socialite. But the reconstitution of Appointment with Death is unforgivable, since it is a fine mystery in and of itself. Lesser novels like The Clocks, Elephants Can Remember and The Big Four suffered the same fate. One can imagine a team of writers convinced that they could “fix” mediocre Christie – they were wrong.
This sense that Christie needed to be “improved” for modern audiences was given full force in the most recent series based on Miss Marple. The rampant injection of displays of sexuality and overt violence is one thing. Changing the solutions outright or inserting Miss Marple into a non-Marple story reek of out and out greed overwhelming and finally drowning any sense of respect for the author. (But tell us what you really think, Bradley!) I will say no more about what this series did to the likes of Murder Is Easy, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and Sleeping Murder, to name a few.
Which brings us to the present day and a whole new incarnation of Christie adaptations. So far, the scorecard is alternately grim and hopeful. In the U.S., there is talk of transporting Miss Marple – as a young woman – to the Wild West! In the U.K., the BBC has been given the reins by the Christie estate and is moving in a dark direction. The recent mini-series And Then There Were None may have benefited from this moodiness; it embraced the madness on Soldier Island most stylishly. On the other hand, the Tommy and Tuppence mini-series was pure garbage, badly miscast and downright dismissive of the original source material. I have not seen Witness for the Prosecution, but word of mouth has been mixed. Meanwhile, Christie is about to reappear on the big screen: an unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh directs and plays Poirot; Mr. Ratchett is portrayed by . . . Johnny Depp?!?) is questionable, but I am looking forward to the first-ever adaptation of Crooked House. This book is very, very special, and I can imagine an audience of Christie fans staring at the screen as the lights go down, muttering in joined prayer, “Please . . . don’t . . . screw . . . it . . . up!”
Next week, I’m going to continue this discussion by offering an in-depth analysis of a Christie adaptation I have never seen. It is perhaps the longest version of a single Christie novel ever presented, and I’ll admit that the odds are stacked against it. But you never can tell. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and will be sitting in front of my computer, muttering under my breath: “Please . . . don’t . . . screw . . . it . . . up!”
See you next week!