All month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are dedicating April as “Anything Goes” month, and all our entries begin with the letter “A.” I seem to have found my niche by focusing on the greatest “A” of all: Dame “A”gatha Christie, of course! I’ve honed the focus even further from the author’s depiction of actors in her novels to opinions about various large and small screen adaptations of her work. Let’s narrow it down even further this week: I invite you to follow along as I watch and analyze a specific adaptation I discovered for the first time last week.
Those of you who follow my blog might remember a couple of occasions when I discussed the desecration, er, adaptation of Christie’s work to French television on a program called Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie.
I thought I had watched all the episodes available to an American viewer. But then I signed up for this Scandinavian Crime Fiction course, and one of our requirements was to subscribe to a wonderful service called MHz/Choice, which features TV shows (many of them mysteries) from all over Europe. It turns out that a bunch of episodes of Les Petits Meurtres can be found here, including the four-episode first season that introduced the series’ first substitutes for Poirot, Superintendent Larosière and his sidekick Lampion. (They were replaced in the final seasons with an entirely new male/female team.)
Petits Meurtres en Famille (Family Murder Party) is based on the novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), and it is six hours long!!!!! Its success spawned the series, which, as I have complained ad nauseum, sacrificed fidelity to Christie’s novels to sex up the stories and to showcase the almost slapstick relationship between the two detectives. A few episodes basically got things right (Five Little Pigs comes to mind.) But sometimes the original tales were barely recognizable.
I was dumbstruck at the thought of the Larosière experience being stretched over six hours. Watching this could be excruciating, but that’s why we bloggers exist – to take the bullet for the rest of you and thus earn your undying gratitude and devotion. So I watched the French version of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. My discussion supposes that you are familiar with the novel, and I include vast spoilers of both the novel and the television program, so before you move forward, read the book. Go ahead, I’ll wait . . .
For those of you who have forgotten or are unaware, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is about Simeon Lee, a sadistic millionaire, who gathers his extended family together for the Christmas holidays so that he can basically torment them. To nobody’s surprise, Simeon is murdered quite horribly. His blood-soaked body is a testament to Christie’s willingness to face up to criticism that her stories lacked the requisite gore of a typical murder case. The cast of suspects is large, and the biggest criticism of this novel is that the characters tend to come off as mere types: the dutiful son, the angry son, the wastrel black sheep, the fiery Spanish beauty, the crooked valet, the faithful old retainer, and so on. Actually, the various permutations of family loyalty and resentment are well presented; it’s just when we have to get through a dozen police interviews that things drag a bit. But Christie saves the day with one of her more astounding solutions, and when you examine the book closely the clueing is quite remarkable, if rather fantastical. One could argue that Christie is counting on our impatience with police interviews, knowing that we will read hurriedly and miss certain seemingly innocuous phrases that actually reveal a hidden killer.
The French adaptation is divided into four 90-minute episodes.
Part One introduces us to the characters and leads up to the murder. The structure is interesting. The mansion where the crime is set is a gorgeous property close to the sea, and the opening if beautifully filmed as we follow Edith le Tescou, the character modeled after Lydia Lee, riding a horse along the shore and back to the house. Edith is played by a marvelous actress named Elsa Zylberstein, and the rest of the cast will turn out to be equally great.
Next, we meet Lampion on his first day as a policeman. He is earnest and excited to be working for his idol, Superintendent Larosière, who is known for his brilliance as a sleuth. We who have watched this series know that Larosière may not be quite as adept as he claims: he is something of a pig when it comes to food and women, and he tends to use and abuse his subordinates shamelessly and to take credit for their contributions to a case. Larosière immediately quashes Lampion’s dreams of solving eerie murder cases by putting the novice on a huge filing assignment. Then the phone rings, and it’s Simon le Tescou, the old millionaire living at a nearby castle. He wants Larosière to come see him immediately.
The following scene is straight out of the book, as Larosière visits the castle and is shown up to see Simon, just like Superintendent Sugden did in the novel. We don’t see the gist of this interview; Larosière leaves, and we segue to the discovery of Simon’s body. Then the story flashes back to two days before the murder as we meet the family and staff in preparation for Simon’s birthday party. This foreplay to murder takes up the bulk of the episode, which ends with a hideous scream, just like in the novel, and the whole le Tescou clan breaking down the study door to discover Simon’s bloody corpse.
Okay, what gives? I really dislike this series and yet, after the first episode, I am hooked. Is it possible that, at the onset, the creators were really onto something that they subsequently could not sustain?
It might help that Larosière and Lampion are not in much of this episode, but even at the start, their relationship does not appear as buffoonish as it subsequently became. Certainly, this episode lacks the wacky and decidedly unfunny humor of most of the episodes I have watched. Instead, we’re treated to a well-dramatized depiction of a dysfunctional family. The storyline mostly stays true to the original, but given the time to flesh out the characters and backstory, the writers have come up with some wonderful variations.
You think there are a lot of characters in the book? The series doubles down on that, as the castle is packed with family members and staff, all of whom are given enough air time to allow them to emerge as credible suspects. The GAD character tropes are either replaced or fleshed out in fascinating ways. For example, the novel’s characters of sons David (the mother lover) and Harry (the black sheep) are merged into Victor, a world famous Olympic runner, heroic because he refused to participate in the Berlin games, sympathetic because he witnessed his mother’s death (which may be suicide or murder) and still something of a roué, which is why he is his father’s favorite. Alfred and Lydia are present in the form of Edouard and Edith, but they have a grown daughter, Alix, who is in love with her Uncle Victor, who nearly ran off years ago with her mother, Edith (yes, things get very French very quickly here.) George and Magdalene Lee are here, sort of, in the form of Antonin, a mediocre politician always in need of money, and his fiancée Madeline, a bad singer. But Antonin is also deeply in love with the family housekeeper, Louise, resulting in a couple of sex scenes, that are not spurious, and a lot of added tension in the house.
Stephen Farr, the guest from South Africa in the novel, has been replaced with an actual African gentleman. Eloi is a protégée of Simon’s and is studying to be a doctor. He becomes immediately attracted to the newest arrival, Ines, who is Simon’s Spanish granddaughter. We discover at the end of the novel that Stephen Farr is Simeon’s bastard son and that Pilar is an imposter. Time will tell if Eloi is Simon’s son, but we learn about Ines right off the bat, and her story is filled out, making her a sympathetic character and not a caricature of a hot-blooded Latin.
The servants’ lives are beefed up, too, making the whole thing resemble an episode of Downton Abbey or, better yet, the film Gosford Park (which actually turned into a murder mystery). Besides Louise, there’s Mme. Dupres, who has cooked for the family for 51 years and is summarily fired by Simon one evening for making the dinner vegetables a little too spicy. How unfortunate that she has placed a bottle of rat poison in her cabinet right next to a nearly identical bottle containing her cough mixture. This fact will be used to tease the audience for as long as possible. The butler, M. Paul, unlike the novel’s butler, is not old and blind, but he does have a hot son who is the chauffeur and has gotten into some unnamed trouble with the law in the past.
The whole thing is beautifully filmed and edited, and little touches display the creators’ respect for GAD and for Christie, something I have complained is missing in the series. The cough mixture/arsenic bottles, the pool of “blood” that turns out to be jam, the angry carving of a roast by the just-fired Mme. Dupres, causing blood to spill on the floor . . . It all complements the suspenseful roundelay of arguments and recriminations that lead to murder.
Even more interesting is the placement at the start of Larosière in the position, not of Poirot, but of Superintendent Sugden. What will this mean in terms of the ultimate denouement? Those of us in the know can already spot the killer, but in hindsight this seems impossible, since we know that a series featuring Larosière is in the works. I have to confess to being eager to move forward!
The family and servants cluster in the study, staring down at the late Simon le Tescou. They send for Larosière, giving the enthusiastic Lampion his first murder case to investigate. The interviews of suspects alternate with continued scenes between various characters, solving the problems that made the novel resemble something by Ngaio Marsh. There’s a tempestuous love triangle, an unexpected pregnancy, many conflicts between parents and children, and altogether a real sense of a family being torn apart by the present crime and past issues.
The era is exactly right too – 1938 – and the plot touches upon issues of race relations and politics on the eve of World War II. There’s a lovely scene between Edith, who is contemplating leaving Edouard for Victor, and Louise, pregnant with Antonin’s child, as they discuss their futures. We realize that in a French (or British?) household of the time, the lives of the upstairs and downstairs folk merged, that these people cared about each other, fought with each other, shared each other’s secrets. Louise is realistic about her chances, as a servant and a Jew, of finding happiness with a politician. Yet she grabs what happiness she can, while Edith, for all her privilege, has made one wrong choice after another and can’t seem to find any satisfaction in her life. They share a brief moment of solace with each other, and I got even more pissed off wondering why this series couldn’t have been made instead of the screwball dreck that it turned into. And here’s what Christie herself understood about adaptations: one can’t create excellence merely by remaining slavishly faithful to the original source. Think of that first Harry Potter film – dead in the water! Only when Alfonso Cuaron let loose with Prisoner of Azkhaban did the series really take off! Somehow, what we’re seeing here feels like Agatha Christie, just filtered through a Gallic lens.
There’s a slightly false note with the introduction of a new character, Aunt Augustine, who happens to practice spiritualism. She and Alix use a homemade Ouija board to communicate with Simon’s spirit and receive a possible message that implicates someone. It all feels like padding. Meanwhile, the Stephen Farr story begins to parallel the novel, as Eloi has a passionate love scene with Ines and reveals to Larosière that he is indeed Simon’s illegitimate son. The most interesting part is that Larosière then reveals that he, too, is illegitimate (which he later claims to Lampion was a bluff.)
The episode ends dramatically: Madeleine commits a shocking act, there is an arrest, and it looks like there’s a second murder. Still, it still seems like we’re going down the Sugden road, which leaves me at the halfway mark with two theories:
- either this adaptation will follow the novel, and Larosière will be revealed as the killer. But this means that when the series commences a couple of years later, the producers will ignore what happened in the first season . . . or Larosière will be absolved of all guilt even though he killed Simon;
- OR . . . there will be another ending to this tale, something that adaptors in France and Britain have done for years. My guess would then be that the creators will appropriate Christie’s ending from the play version of Appointment with Death. Simon Lee and Mrs. Boynton are birds of a feather: sadistic parents who will do anything to make their children suffer. It would make sense for Simon to kill himself and make it look like a murder so that the family eats itself up with suspicion.
Which is it? Only time – and two more episodes – will tell.
Aaaannnd everything begins to go off the rails on all fronts. After the resolution of several cliffhangers, the castle seems to be filled with sex. It’s like they forgot they were producing a mystery and have switched to a sex farce! A policeman has sex with a maid when he should have been guarding Mrs. Dupres; consequently, the cook is poisoned. Edith and Victor’s affair comes out into the open and they have sex on the beach and in his bedroom. Edouard has sex in a car with a hooker and then comes home and rapes Edith. Their daughter Alix attempts to seduce Lampion. Eloi and Ines have sex. The valet enters the four maids’ bedroom to “guard” them from the killer and ends up servicing them one by one. The politician’s girlfriend seduces the hunky chauffeur in a sex scene that is ludicrous from start to finish. That same chauffeur then has sex with Lampion in a scene so much more erotic that it doesn’t make sense when he tells the young inspector afterward that he prefers girls. Ooh la la! The fun never stops.
Meanwhile, Larosière and Lampion are beginning to exhibit the sort of relationship that annoyed me throughout the subsequent series. The Superintendent proposes a ridiculous plan to trap the killer that will leave him in comfort and Lampion in a state of suffering. In every way, the creators seem to have stalled on Agatha Christie in their attempt to stretch out the story; what began as a firm, fresh Brie is starting to run and smell like Limburger.
Then an incident occurs which parallels the attack on Pilar in the book, except that it happens to another character, and it turns out to be a decoy for someone’s else’s murder. Pilar gets knocked out quite late in the book; here, we still have an hour of this episode and another full one to go before we reach the end. Je suis perplexe . . .
The rest of the episode continues to feel like filler. Louise’s private life seems to be even more complicated, if that is possible. (How many illegitimate children can one person have before they start to develop a reputation . . . ?) Meanwhile, Larosière begins to exhibit more of the behavior that makes him excruciating, such as quoting poetry during an interrogation and otherwise flirting with female suspects. By the end, someone falls off a cliff and someone else gets shot on a hunt organized for a wild boar that is killing the estate’s dogs. Neither has anything to do with the Agatha Christie murder mystery that everyone seems to have forgotten in the shuffle. The whole episode is de trop. Can this mess be saved?
Episode Four – Le Fin
One hour in, and here’s what I can tell you:
They must have had a conference in the writer’s room and decided to stop dramatizing Tartuffe and get back to the subject at hand. This feels much more like a murder mystery, and if the storylines have veered away from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the whole thing has the feel of the last fifty pages of a generic Christie novel where all the red herrings begin to sort themselves out – why did X, Y, and Z act guiltily on the night of the murder and yet not commit the murder? – as the detectives hone in on the real clues leading to the real killer.
Make that detective (singular), which is actually a good thing. Larosière arrests the wrong suspect and then takes off on vacation. This means we don’t have to deal with all that semi-comic filler between the Superintendent and his stooge. It also means that Lampion can assert himself as the true brains of this outfit.
Unfortunately, the clue that sends Lampion in the right direction emerges from a genuine supernatural moment: Aunt Alexandra’s Ouija board seems to move of itself and spell out . . . well, it’s a long story. At any rate, as the famille le Tescou sorts out its myriad personal problems, Lampion inches toward a solution that feels very familiar . . .
Yes, at the end of the hour, we have returned basically to Christie territory and the solution that she had planned. However, this – excuse the pun – kills the very possibility of a subsequent series, so I have to assume that the next half hour will bring an unpleasant surprise that calls into question the ability of the French to correctly adapt Agatha Christie. Hold on, I’m going under one more time . . .
C’est fini! Surprisingly, it all came about pretty much like the book. Granted, the clues that lead Lampion to unmask his own boss as the killer have been changed, and much of what was best in the murder plot of the novel is removed or muted. But then, some of the clues in the novel are themselves iffy, particularly Christie’s views on heredity. A man throws back his head and laughs, and in that gesture, Poirot recognizes that the victim had a bastard son. That’s fine in and of itself; what’s less logical is that a man would inherit this gesture from the father he didn’t know. The adaptation employs some similar nonsense, but it also weakens the aspects of the impossible crime.
In the end, you feel like you have watched an enigma wrapped up in a mini-series, a family saga avec murder. And when you get right down to it, that is pretty much what Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is. The third episode was wholly unnecessary, but things got back on track, and I have to admit I’m going to miss the le Tescou family.
But this leaves me in a quandary! What kept the producers from simply bringing back Lampion on his own or with a new subordinate? Either France loves the actor Antoine Dulery so much that they were willing to forget he had killed two people in order to have Larosière reappear, or the French actually take pleasure in the antic relationship between Larosière and Lampion! Quel dommage! At any rate, Family Murder Party is without a doubt the best adaptation this series made of a Christie novel. Perhaps few others of her novels could have withstood the Upstairs/Downstairs treatment. Perhaps such a plan would have become tiresome. Still, I can’t help thinking that, even at ninety minutes, the creators could have stayed truer to Christie if they had eliminated most of the tiresome hijinks that ensued between Larosière and Lampion and focused on beefing up the characters and relationships of the original novels as they did here.
But it’s only my opinion. Clearly, I will have to adapt . . .