GAD = GORY AND DARK: Sarah Phelps Takes On the Establishment

The latest BBC rendition of an Agatha Christie classic , 1936’s The ABC Murders, has just dropped onto Amazon Prime. Now we forward-thinking Americans can add our two cents to the European reaction over Sarah Phelps’ treatment of the Mistress of Mystery. (I believe the words “Burn the witch and her laptop!” have been uttered in some quarters.)

'The ABC Murders' BBC One TV Show Screening

Recent articles commented on the angry reception Phelps has gotten over her series of Christie adaptations. For the most part, the journalistic response to these complaints are dismissive, beginning labelling these homespun critics “Christie purists.” According to Webster’s, a puristis “a person who insists on absolute adherence to traditional rules or structure.” In this case, they demand that an adaptation follow the source material to the letter. I think we understand that, in nearly every case, this isn’t possible and sometimes is not even preferable. (Think of those first two Harry Potter movies.) Christie herself knew the difficulties of adhering to the original plan for her complex mysteries: for the stage, she threw out characters and subplots galore and almost always removed her series detective, due to her belief that nobody could accurately play Poirot, and the presence of a poseur would distract from, rather than enhance, the proceedings. As for film, Christie didn’t think much of it or of most of the adaptations to which she gave grudging permission. She didn’t like the changes made, but even she understood that two hours does not allow time for every detail to be dramatized.

We understand what feels pure and what doesn’t. The Billy Wilder version of Witness for the Prosecution makes wholesale changes: some roles are expanded (Sir Wilfred), some are original (Elsa Lanchester plays Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfred’s nurse, and the wonderful Norma Varden appears in flashbacks as Emily French), wartime flashbacks are added to give Marlene Dietrich a chance to wear fishnets and sing, locations are expanded to remove the static sense of a courtroom drama. And yet, we “purists” feel very much like we are seeing the story Agatha Christie intended for us to see. According to Wilder, Christie thought this was the best adaptation of any of her works.

Does anyone feel that way about the BBC version?

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I have been reading Dame Agatha for fifty-two years, long enough for multiple readings of every text (all but three, which I have read once), long enough to collect most of the extant film versions of Christie’s work, and certainly long enough to have made a scholarly pursuit of the most successful mystery writer in the history of popular culture. And yet I have also been a lifelong consumer of media. I am deeply aware of the changes that time has wrought on what we watch and enjoy on the screen. There is no doubt that film and television have matured, and there are reasons for this. TV used to be free and thus in thrall to the censors and advertisers. This reduced much of what we watched to family-friendly pabulum. Pay-TV changed that, providing a forum for more adult fare. Competition added to the change: instead of eight channels, most of us have access to 800, providing opportunities to appeal to every taste. Specialty channels and online platforms have risen up, each enticing us with one or more programs of extraordinary quality that are unavailable unless you subscribe. (Case in point for me: The Good Fight is an extraordinarily good sort-of sequel to The Good Wife, one of the last great programs to be found on network TV. I subscribe to CBS Access in order to watch this program. It’s a rip-off, but what are you going to do?)

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Without doubt, our society has grown up as well, and we’ve grown darker. Horror movies are grosser. Teen programming is sexier and/or deals with issues of gender and sexuality, abuse, drug use, suicide . . . all without a wise parent figure like Ward Cleaver or Mrs. Garrett or Belvedere present to guide youngsters on the right path. Modern media “tells it like it is” – and it is a jungle out there. Some of it is actually very good, and who am I to – a. argue with success, or b. deny current trends. And so, in watching these new Christie adaptations, I have decided to take as even-handed an approach to the material as I can.

In one way, we are no different from our brethren of the early 20thcentury: when the stress and the darkness is all around us, we seek escape in fantasy. That’s what classic detective fiction was for, and those of us who treasure the genre still embrace it. (Believe me, it has been a personal anodyne against Trumpism for the past three years.) Fewer and fewer read it, however. In his treatise on the depiction of Agatha Christie’s work on film and television, Mark Aldridge notes is Julia McKenzie or Geraldine McEwan, interchangeably. (I would imagine that most of the lucky ones may have come across the infinitely superior Joan Hickson programs are also readers.)

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For them, Poirot is, of course . . . Kenneth Branagh. However, I’d like to think a sizeable number of Gen X’ers and millennials also know Suchet and Ustinov, even the late Albert Finney. (I even remember Tony Randall as Poirot, a horrific miscast of a fine comic actor.) Viewers can pick and choose which Poirot they embrace, but without reading the books themselves, without any points of comparison, they are in for a different experience. They have been “educated” to believe that:

  • Hercule Poirot is an action hero when he has to be in order chase a suspect across a train;
  • Jane Marple had a lover during World War I and never married when she lost him;
  • Tommy and Tuppence Beresford might have been a happily married couple once, but that was over long ago;
  • Agatha Christie was quite modern in her approach to sexuality: there must have been plenty of sex scenes in her books, lots of her killers were gay or lesbian, and a few of them committed incest.

And so on. I think most of us were willing to cut these adapters some slack as long as fidelity to the main plot remained strong. But it didn’t. We have all been forced to mark our personal tipping point as wholesale changes were made to plotlines, killers’ identities and detectives’ motivations. Some of us winced when Miss Marple was added to stories the written versions of which she had never appeared in, while others shrugged and said, “Well, if Marple is an audience draw and the only way I can see Toward Zero or The Sittaford Mystery on screen, why not go with the flow? Just preserve the sanctity of the original plot and I’m there.” Except, of course, they did not . . .

When it was announced that the rights to Christie’s work had passed from ITV to the BBC, the reactions at home were mixed. I assume British people have strong opinions about their television networks, just as we have in the U.S. I don’t look to CBS, home of the formulaic procedural, for cutting edge and original dramas, nor do I expect to find hard-hitting and depressing work on Lifetime or TBS. When the BBC made a deal to have Sarah Phelps, a screenwriter noted for hard-hitting, adult drama, adapt at least five of the novels, there was trepidation. Unlike Sophie Hannah, who boasts of her undying fangirl status and claims that her own writing was inspired by Christie (and yet can’t write a good pastiche), Phelps had evidently paid no heed to the author before taking on the job.

review-closed-casket-by-sophie-hannah                               This is what comes from a careful reading of Christie???

I can’t argue with the desire to put a fresh spin on anybody’s work. Nearly all of Christie’s novels have been dramatized, some of them multiple times for multiple venues. Death on the Nile, for instance, has appeared on stage, the big screen and TV, and every version is different (although all of them feature the same solution.) A fourth treatment, by Kenneth Branagh, is even now in the works. Given the society we currently live in, the state of modern media, and the literary personality of Sarah Phelps, it was only natural to expect that this new series could go very dark.

And dark it has been, but because the BBC and Phelps wisely chose to focus on standalone novels that did not feature the great detectives, the reaction has been generally positive. Oh, not by the classic fans, but we are not the target audience. Average viewers, and maybe even a few people under the age of 40, have enjoyed what they’ve seen so far. (Not the Tommy and Tuppence debacle, though. No thanks, I won’t have it and neither, it seems, will anyone else.) The network was smart to debut Nu-Christie with And Then There Were None because, thanks in part to Christie herself, there has never been an adaptation that captured the intense darkness underlying this classic. Well, there was the Russian film, the only one to my knowledge that has preserved the original ending, but it has not enjoyed wide release. The 1945 Rene Clair version is classy and funny . . . and all wrong. It is based on Christie’s own play, which is alsowrong in its rejection of the novel’s ending and the inclusion of unwanted humor and a romantic dalliance to – what? make audiences feel better about a group of murderers and the serial killer who is slaughtering them? 1940’s audiences did not need to witness these horrors; modern audiences welcome them.

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Phelps’ version might have thrown in a bit too much perverse matter, but hey! it’s possible to imagine Miss Brent harboring unnatural feelings for her housemaid or Mr. Blore unable to control his sadism when questioning prisoners. And watching the selfish evil of Vera Claythorne unfold is nothing short of brilliant because she is the worst one! That’s why she dies last!! It’s less easy to imagine that a group of proper Christie characters would snort coke and indulge in Bacchanalian behavior as they do in this version, particularly since, in the novel, Christie went to great pains to show how hard the dwindling group of houseguests struggle to maintain decorum in the face of death. Still, given that all these people are murderers whose guilt has been unleashed, it’s not out of the question that they might go a little crazy to stave off the terror of their impending deaths. Bravo to Phelps for providing a scene where we get to see Aidan Turner en dishabille. And thanks to her, the original ending is preserved . . . sort of. It’s awfully silly watching Vera buck and kick as she slowly strangles on the noose while the killer reels off his confession. But, all in all, I respected and enjoyed this mini-series. It was stylishly filmed and impeccably acted.

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I never watched Witness for the Prosecution, scared off by comments from people I respect and, for the longest time, finding it unavailable in the states. I could watch it now, but something else always comes up . . . I did watch the first episode of Ordeal by Innocence and, while I could understand Phelps elevating the dysfunction of each of the Argyle family members, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Arthur Calgary had to be such a lunatic. And then I heard that Phelps had changed the killer’s identity because . . . well, why? Because she knew better than Christie? God knows! But I stopped. I keep meaning to return and finish it, but something else always . . . yada yada yada.

Alphabet Murders 8          ABC-2aa2035

Last night, I sat down and watched The ABC Murders. I’ve seen the other adaptations, the faithful-as-can-be Suchet version, and the abominable comic travesty – the Poirot version of a Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movie – where Alexander Bonaparte Cust is played by Anita Ekberg as a blonde bombshell. Before I watched the new one, I did my research. I learned that Sarah Phelps had decided to set the film in 1933, when the rise of European fascism coincided with strong anti-immigrant feelings in Great Britain. (Gee, I wonder why she made this decision!) In addition to mirroring our modern times, Phelps thought this would be a wonderful lens through which we could observe a has-been like Poirot navigate through a world that once welcomed him. As an article in the Telegraph stated,

“James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson and custodian of her literary estate, defended Phelps last year saying: ‘We have this amalgamated view [of Poirot in previous screen incarnations] whereas she has pared it back to exactly the one described in The ABC Murders, and that is very different from probably anything that has gone before’.”

But this isn’t accurate. The Poirot of the ABC novel is at the height of his powers. The killer makes direct contact with him in order to taunt “the world’s greatest detective.” (He does it for another, more pressing reason, but the point is that he chooses a famous sleuth who has retained the good opinion of the police.) Still, the idea Phelps presents, while not correct, is interesting and could make for good drama. And it does. John Malkovich does not channel any of the previous actors who have played Poirot, and why should he? He is a fine actor. He speaks with the accent of a man who has lived for many years among the English. The moustache is wrong, as is the whole idea of Poirot throwing aside vanity, washing out the hair dye and acting his age in these tough times. But it’s interesting, and as played by Malkovich, it is compelling to watch.

At some point in the canon, Inspector Japp retires or disappears – I don’t remember which – so it’s certainly possible that he dies at some point and is replaced. The fact that he dies in front of Poirot is so much dramatic hokum, but let that be. The idea that he is the only man at Scotland Yard not brimming with anti-immigrant feeling also seems far too convenient, but Phelps adds the element of jealousy when Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint) tells the detective that nobody has ever appreciated being shown up by a foreigner. I have to say, though, that I appreciated Phelps giving Poirot the strength and dignity to stand up to Crome and the force, leading to a slow transformation in Crome’s opinion of the Belgian.

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What to make of the revisionist version of Poirot’s past as an anguished priest? According to Phelps, she has only been writing the books Christie herself wanted to write. I’m trying to give the screenwriter the benefit of the doubt over this outrageous supposition. What I presume her to mean is that, over time, Christie became quite vocal about how irritated she had grown with the artifice of her character. I guess Phelps is trying to “fix” things for Poirot’s creator by stripping him of his tics (the orderly life, the vanity, the joie de vivre of “Papa” Poirot) and redefine him as a dignified creature enveloped in tragedy. Seeing as how she will probably never write about Poirot again, let her have her nasty fun. (The next adaptation will be The Pale Horse, after which Phelps’ contractual obligation is finished.)

To all outward appearances, The ABC Murders is the Phelps adaptation most faithful to its source. The three main victims, their families, the murderer, and most of all the juxtaposition of all this with the sad, small life of Alexander Bonaparte Cust – all of these are present and performed well by a powerful cast. But don’t let this fool you: Phelps is on a mission here, and it is huge. It is nothing less than the insidious undermining of everything the Golden Age ever stood for. Her work here poisons that classic period from within and seeks to kill it.

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This ABC Murders is the opposite of the novel: it is a story of murder that does not pretty up the crimes or set the world right; this world contains every grimy, dirty, sad truth about what life was like between the wars. Christie and her kind wrote to provide their readers with a literary cocoon to shield them from the grim reality literally outside their door. Phelps reinstates that reality and then puts toothpicks in our eyes to force us to gaze upon the ugliness. Thus, Mr. Cust stays at a boardinghouse stuffed with mean, ill-formed grotesques, whose drunken proprietor pimps out her daughter. His epileptic fits are hard to watch, but then watching him at repose in the breakfast room is guaranteed to turn your stomach. And don’t get me started on his masochistic streak: when I read about it, I thought maybe he got whipped or tied up. Oh no . . . it is much, much worse than that. (And ironically, Phelps wants you to believe it is the only tender aspect of his sad life.)

Contrary to those who believe that Christie’s novels were set amongst the gentry, she was a champion of the middle class. That is not the case here. The only sympathetic characters are the rich ones: Sir Carmichael Clarke and his brother Franklin share a mutual regard and a positive outlook on life. Lady Clarke earns your pity when she vomits blood. (Quite a bit of it, I must say!) The rest of the characters are vile. Mrs. Ascher’s husband is a sorry drunk.  Betty Barnard is a vicious slattern, her sister Megan is a fat, unloved cuckold and their mother is a horrible judge of character. Betty’s fiancé speaks like he just swallowed helium and thinks only of himself. Over at Churston, Thora Gray, who isrevealed in the novel as an opportunist, here flaunts her calculation unashamedly and uses her body to get what she wants.

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Poirot’s residence, Whitehaven Mansions, is no longer a modernist block with a deco feel but a grim, dark place, like the Los Angeles hotel where Barton Fink stayed. Poirot can’t move an inch without encountering some moment of withering hostility or impending violence. And the murders . . . the murders are damn ugly. And there are more of them because – and here is where the plot deviates from the book – the murderer’s motivations are directly linked to his relationship with Poirot and with – ta da! – classic detective fiction. For in their final confrontation, the killer blames Poirot and his country weekend murder games with giving the killer a thirst for blood.

Is that what Phelps thinks old time mysteries did? Or would the books she claims Christie wanted to write have been dark enough to provide blueprints for actual murder? The tone Phelps takes toward the artificiality or GAD is, at best, disrespectful. When her Poirot goes to Scotland Yard to show the first letters he has received from ABC to Crome and to warn the police that a murder is coming to Andover, Crome’s response is revealing. After his sergeant confirms that nothing untoward has happened yet in the village, the Inspector says,

“No murders? No corpse in the library? No silver candlestick rammed into some heiress’ eye socket? No twitching guts in the conservatory? Well, there we are then: I hope that puts your mind at rest.”

Crome/Phelps doubles down on this negative reference to classic mystery tropes (reduced here to the game of Cluedo) by disparaging Poirot’s rewritten history from a celebrated solver of puzzles to a host at weekend murder parties. I can’t argue with the screenwriter about the fact that in real life murder is ugly and defies being tied up in a neat package at the end. GAD detective stories dealt with social ugliness in a way that ultimately acted as a balm against greater terrors. Phelps denies us any protection. Instead, she holds up the ugliness of the world and dares us to look away.

I watched it. Now, consider my eyes averted.

43 thoughts on “GAD = GORY AND DARK: Sarah Phelps Takes On the Establishment

  1. What a thoughtful, interesting, rich discussion, Brad. You make an important point in saying that film (and stage, really) adaptations of stories really have to stray at least somewhat from the original story. They’re different media. And that’s coming from a stick-in-the-mud, irascible, impossible-to-please dedicated purist. The main question, for me, in any adaptation is whether it stays true to the main point and the spirit of the original. Another question always is: is this change necessary to make the story flow better on film or stage? I’ve seen some excellent adaptations – I have. But I do find myself in sympathy with Christie’s Ariadne Oliver in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, when she and the playwright Robin Upward are working on adapting one of her novels…

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    1. One of my favorite aspects of McGinty, Margot. And without getting too much into details, I wonder if it’s significant that it’s Robin – the Sarah Phelps of that novel! – to whom Mrs. Oliver is unburdening herself,!

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  2. I watched this program and it just depressed me. It was brightened only by Malkovich’s sensitive portrayal of–who exactly? Not Poirot. Anti-Poirot, maybe. I’m not a mystery purist, but I think that if Agatha Christie had written stories as dark and dreary as this one, she would never have become so popular! While reading your review, I thought of the film “Sullivan’s Travels” and its defense of escapist entertainment. As you said, Christie knew her readers didn’t need any added grimness in their lives. It annoys me how screenwriters cash in on her name-recognition even as they make her work nearly unrecognizable. (I just saw Branagh’s MOTOE. What the huh?) If they “know better” than Christie, why don’t they have the courage of their convictions and write their OWN stories? And let Christie be Christie.

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    1. That’s the thing, Marty: serial killers are terrible people, and the actions and motives of ABC were especially cold and cruel. Christie didn’t wallow in this aspect, and we are now supposed to believe that this made her a “lesser” writer somehow, or that she’s behind the times. Good for Phelps for writing a riveting, dark historical mystery about a bunch of nasty people. Bad on everyone for calling it Christie, for trading on her name, then changing characters’ histories, personalities and motivations.

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      1. Given the strength of the Malkovich performance this story wouldn’t even have needed the Christie/Poirot come-on. It could’ve stood on its own merits as what you describe, but with a new (if derivative) protagonist. Then there’d be no danger of turning off long-time Christie fans while giving new viewers the wrong idea of what to expect from her. (Imagine the surprise in store for a newbie who’s decided to read a Poirot–or Marple–story on the strength of this movie!) Of course there’s the chance the promos would say “She writes like Christie!” which I know is one of your pet peeves!

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      2. Phelps’ ABC was a bit too dark, although Andrew Buchan gave an excellent and chilling performance as Franklin Clarke. If Christie’s treatment was too light, Phelps’ imho was far too heavy overall. I specifically disliked the Marbury’s in the TV version, but liked both Lilly and her mum in the book.

        I think Phelps’ ABC would have been substantially better if she had accorded some balance between light and dark. I did find her portrayal of Poirot’s prior occupation interesting.

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  3. Haven’t seen this one (un)fortunately, though nothing I’ve heard about it from anywhere, sounds really inticing.

    I _loved_ last year’s Japanese TV adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. You could most definitely feel Mitani’s hand throughout the whole production (popular Japanese playwright/director who specializes in warm-hearted comedy pieces) and some changes in the plot some people might find odd (the motive was different, but it worked SO well in this context with these actors), but man, it worked great as a special that felt as a proper collaboration between both Christie and Mitani.

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    1. Thanks, Ho-Ling, for once again reminding me that Japan reveres classic mystery fiction and keeps producing books and programs that I will probably never get to read or see!! I have a great idea for an adaptation of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin: a noted reviewer of Asian crime novels, manga, and film is spirited away by a crazy American dwarf and forced to translate said work into English at a mad rate. He only gets to stop when he guesses the dwarf’s name and gets him an autographed copy of The Moai Island Puzzle!!!

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  4. I wonder if Phelps had to do a Poirot why didn’t choose Hallowe’en Party. It lines up with everything that she would revel in. But it’s drowning deaths and drugs so not enough blood, maybe?

    While I absolutely do not agree with you that this adaptation is an “insidious undermining of everything the Golden Age ever stood for” because I have read plenty of crime fiction and detective novels published between 1895 and 1940 that are as dark and dreary and amoral (some moreso!) as what Phelps did to Christie’s novel I do think that this was the biggest travesty in a long line of exploitative Christie adaptations. Did Phelps actually say “she has only been writing the books Christie herself wanted to write”? That’s not only an outrageous supposition it’s the pinnacle of egotism.

    I watched in amazement as the story morphed more and more into something so completely unrecognizable. From Malkovich’s dour and physically wrong incarnation of Poirot to Shirley Henderson as the vile alcoholic landlady pimping out her own daughter for a shilling (!) to a Japp who’s tilling cabbages and dropping dead of a heart attack to pitiful Alexander himself. Had Phelps also been reading Venus in Furs prior to rewriting this detective novel? Those scenes you cannot bring yourself to discuss actually take place in that “landmark of S&M erotica.” Jesus, that was completely unexpected and more than disturbing! That’s the kind of book Phelps thinks Agatha had wanted to write? REALLY?!

    The only things I liked: the production design, Tara Fitzgerald, the actress who played Capstick, and Rupert Grint. I hoped that Malkovich like most actors of his age would have matured into an interesting character actor, but he’s always been a realist in his approach. He has never been able to master dialects or accents and is almost completely lacking in a sense of humor. He is given some biting comebacks in his dialogue which he delivers wryly but with neither Poirot’s winking irony nor his angry wrath. His performance was all too understated and a little dull for me. And I’m so glad that hundreds of people unfamiliar with the works of Agatha Christie will now think that Poirot was a former priest responsible for the deaths of his entire congregation. Ugh.

    Now all I can do now is chant “Birthday murder! Birthday murder!” (God, how I hated that sequence) in the hopes that someone will do in Phelps on her own natal anniversary.

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    1. If you haven’t been following the thrilling discussion under my post on FB, John, I had to offer this as evidence to a person who seems quite angry over my opinion. This is Sarah Phelps quoted in The Killing Times: “When I was working on And Then There Were None (in 2015), there was a little voice in my head saying that I could write a quintet and cover 50 years of the tumultuous blood-soaked 20th century within the genre of the murder mystery. Having now done the 1920s, the beginning and end of the ’30s, as well as the 1950s, the next one (The Pale Horse) is going to be set in the 1960s. Agatha Christie plants these little clues in her books and I pick them up and run with them. I’m honoring the secret, subversive Agatha. There’s something dangerous about her – and there’s a lot of academic work to be done on the tension in the novels between the book she knew the public wanted to read and the one she wanted to write. I always think I’m doing the version of the book she wanted to write.”

      So it’s not Venus in Furs she’s out to recreate; it’s The Entire History of the Twentieth Century . . . and it’s pretty vile! I find it amusing that she used Christie as her voice here, as Dame Agatha seemed more of an optimist but at least was a more positive stylist.

      I’m so sorry you can’t agree with my theory about Phelps plotting the downfall of GAD fiction. I thought I was being remarkably clever here, in the most fatuous of ways!!! 🙂

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      1. I can only hope that Phelps’ “The Pale Horse” will be reasonably faithful to the story and that the antagonist will be properly cast. Also please do not inject Poirot into the story… he wasn’t in the original.

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  5. “After all, what is the modern detective story but an extension of the medieval morality play?” (Catherine Aird)

    “I would venture to say that modern mystery fiction is being written for a darker, more complicated society. We all struggle more to maintain a decent life for ourselves, and we tamp down that struggle by trying to create a semblance that all is well. Everyone’s in therapy, everyone practices wellness, to the point where one wonders about its long-term effectiveness. And art nowadays reflects a greater darkness.” Brad in his previous post on external and internal illusion in detective fiction.

    You may have answered your question in your previous post. Phelps is a present day author, so her adaptions reflect society as it is today, regardless of her intentions. Her adaptations are a darker, more complicated vision for a darker, more complicate society. Having said that, I think that Phelps like Christie sees the detective story as a metaphor for the good of social order; the reality of evil; and, by comparison, an idea of the society we should all be trying to achieve for ourselves and our children. Canadian philosopher Rachel Haliburton maintains that detective fiction is an important form of ethical/moral philosophy: detective stories offer to divert and entertain, and then by stealth get under their guard and get the reader/viewer to consider questions of good and evil and what makes – or corrupts – a well-functioning society. And since much of what supports social order are norms and the expectations of others, violations/transgressions of norms are more corrupting and dangerous than a convenience store robber. We expect the middle and upper classes to behave themselves. They aren’t policed the way garden variety thugs are policed. Because if we can’t count on ordinary people to do good even if they’re not being watched, then things fall apart – they’re the centre and they must hold. Christie and the other GAD authors set their works among the middle and upper classes because they recognized how dangerous that kind of criminal was to the social fabric.

    Back to Phelps. Frankly, Phelps has a better grasp of Christie than Sophie Hannah, and far, far better than the people responsible for the 2015 Tommy & Tuppence or the Souchet Cards on the Table or half the Marple! mishmashs (where is Joan Hickson when you need her?).

    As usual, a thought provoking post.

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    1. And thank you for your thoughtful response, Tim. I may surprise people when I say I wholeheartedly agree with you that Phelps has her pulse on Christie far more than the half-baked imitations Hannah has offered us so far.

      My favorite aspect of ABC was the element of hope at the end, when Lily, whose essential goodness has been without question no matter what she does for her evil mother, offers a lifeline to Cust. And Crome IS changed by his experience with Poirot. So Phelps, for all her darkness, is no nihilist. She knows that there is an essential goodness floating out there and that people of all sorts – Lily, Sir Carmichael Clarke, and Poirot – can choose that path, no matter what obstacles stand in their way.

      Thanks, also, for pointing me to Haliburton. I’ll check her out!

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  6. Brad – you’ll be floored by the price for Haliburton’s book The Ethical Detective. $110.00 for an ebook! ($130.00CD hardbound) Google has a 55 page excerpt which gives a good feel for her thinking. I’m going to break down and pay the damn price, but it’s a shame because I think it’s the type of study that deserves wide distribution. Better 300 at $30 than 10 at $100. Hasn’t turned up as available on inter-library loan here (Hamilton, Ontario). Academic publishers, what can I say that’s printable……

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  7. Ok, first of all, I haven’t had a chance to watch ABC Murders yet, and considering the changes, and what you revealed about Japp, you really should have a spoiler warning on this Brad.

    Sarah Phelps makes me see red. I LOVED her adaption of And Then There Were None and thought the changes, and that incredible cast, only served to heighten the story and FINALLY give it the film treatment it’s always deserved. The Bacchanalia didn’t bother me at all-that people who have finally accepted they are in a deathtrap they are very unlikely to escape would go wild in that way from the tension, I see as very believeable. If anything, I’d argue the “stiff upper lip till the very end” upper class British behavior they all exhibit in the novel is less psychologically convincing.

    But I guess success went to her head. For me, even more enraging then the quote you mentioned is this one-“I don’t give a bollocks about people saying it has to be pure. No, it doesn’t. If you want a pure adaptation, go and get someone else to do it.” If only they would, Sarah. Someone who has a modicum of respect for the source material. No, it doesn’t have to be 100% pure, and as Bard pointed out, especially in the case of GAD, is often to the detriment of the work when transferred to another medium. But if you have NO respect for your source material, to the point you want to bend it to change the killer, or to push a political agenda your source most likely would NOT have agreed with it, go and write your own f****** story. Otherwise, you are just a literary prostitute-taking other people’s creation after they are dead and unable to defend themselves and bending it to your will to make a buck. She is no better than hacks like Alexandra Ripley of “Scarlett” fame, or Sophie Hannah, or Terry Bradshaw, or a host of other “continuation” novelists.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sorry about the spoilers, Richard. I thought about it when I started to write and then forgot. I think we focus on major clues and revealing killers when we think of spoilers, but the little details matter, too. Rest assured that Japp is not dead . . . at least, not in the Christie universe we know and love!

      I actually got flack for bringing this up two months after the show debuted in the U.K. – I guess my comments here raked up some old coals on Facebook. Phelps’ darkness perfectly matched ATTWN, and there are other titles that might have more suited her style: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe has political overtones and a whole bunch of highly unpleasant people, and Phelps might have stripped down the artifice and reveled in the corruption. I would have said Ordeal by Innocence would suit her perfectly, but changing the murderer is beyond cheeky; it’s just plain wrong. Oh, well. The Pale Horse is creepy and just may be a good fit for her.

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    2. Saying that Phelps understands Christie better than other recent adapters is certainly damning her with faint praise! I wonder how she can be so sure she’s writing the books Christie really wanted to write. Has Christie’s spirit appeared to her? She’s sounds a bit like Trump–ONLY SHE can really do the job. Or Joe Wright, practically spitting venom at Austen purists who criticized his “improved” version of “Pride and Prejudice.” Over-sized ego at work there. And why pick Christie, anyway? She could have found other popular mystery novelists whose work would be more suited to her style. Was she doing it for the shock value, to mess with those”stodgy” Christie fans’ heads? What will she take on next, after Christie–the stories PG Wodehouse “really wanted to write”?

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      1. I think I know why Phelps says this. She imagines that as writers— creative people — these writers must actually, really share Phelps’s own contempt for their contemporaries , so they (these writers) would surely have wanted to express it.

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  8. I love this post, it’s such an incredibly interesting and enjoyable read, as always!

    The only adaptation I’ve truly enjoyed so far (have only seen the first parts of both ABC Murders and Ordeal by Innocence, mind you!) was And Then There Were None. It certainly wasn’t completely faithful to the book and was exceedingly dark, but I enjoyed the darkness in this case because it IS such a dark book and (so far) is the only Christie novel to have kept me awake at night with my heart pounding, so I found the darkness suitable in this case.

    I HATED Witness for the Prosecution, though, and found it unrelentingly dark, depressing and vile. It made me absolutely miserable watching it. I was pretty keen on the first parts I saw of Ordeal by Innocence and ABC Murders, but have yet to finish them because I know by now they will be incredibly dark and depressing and while I can appreciate that kind of thing once in awhile, I’m just really not in the mood to be completely bummed out.

    Agatha’s books have never made me feel depressed or hopeless. Other than And Then There were None, every book if hers I’ve read has left me in a good mood in the end, murders and all, because they’re so well written – great stories with such amazing characters and so much fun to read. Most adaptations I’ve seen have left me in a similarly positive mood, but not Phelps’ work. I guess I’m just not in the mood to have something I love and take such great comfort in butchered into a misery filled pit of depression and grime. I’ll still finish watching the two I haven’t completed eventually, because curiosity will kill me otherwise, but not any time soon probably.

    Thanks for yet another fabulous post, Brad!

    Emily

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate the kind words, Emily. And what you’re saying here is what I, so clumsily, tried to suggest in terms of Phelps attacking the original idea of Golden Age crime fiction – to restore order – in favor of a more “realistic” approach. I think modern society cries out for this realism, and that explains why “classic” whodunits aren’t written much anymore. And while Phelps – or anyone else – has the right to interpret an author any way they want, that doesn’t mean that we can’t complain that Christie’s aim, tone, story, etc., are being maligned.

      I can’t speak for Ordeal by Innocence, but I can tell you that ABC, at least, ends on a note of hope. You have to tread through some pretty despicable and sad stuff to get there, but it’s there, just in case that helps you as you set about watching it. You certainly make me want to sit out Witness for the Prosecution, however. I’d rather watch Billy Wilder’s film again! 🙂

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  9. I suspect we largely agree, but am not sure!

    Phelps’s *intent* is to denigrate Christie’s contemporaries: they were British, bourgeois, and born before her. Three strikes. She hates GAD, hates its audience, hates the culture that produced it, hates the Britain of Christie’s time. When she says she is writing what Christie “wanted to write” she is extending an imagined courtesy and an indulgence: Surely an unrestrained AC would hate her audience and her countrymen, and would have expressed it.

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  10. As you have said time and time again its calling this series ‘Agatha Christie’s….’ and using her very signature (as the estate does) on the promotion and everything else, as if she signed it off is what is so annoying. I feel like if they just said ‘based on…’ Etc we could all chill out and enjoy a good writer playing with a classic. But to offer it as Christie, and to say that she also has this hidden insight through the ‘clues’ she has spotted in Christie’s work (even though she has only just started reading it) is so arrogant it’s frustrating.

    I actually love the idea of new writers playing with the work of old ones, if only the BBC and Phelps would have a few more guts and say this is new work then I think I would feel so much happier.

    I talk about this in mine and JJs upcoming podcast episode, but the constant apologies and shame (and in Phelps case with the ‘candle stick in the eye’ addition, down right beatings) around reading GAD is endlessly aggravating!

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  11. Well, I haven’t yet watched any of her adaptations, but I did just listen to a podcast she was on. She didn’t seem like someone who hates GAD and everything it stands for, she seems like someone who knows nothing about it – having only read the books she’s asked to adapt.
    She does, however, seem like someone who got extremely carried away with her historical research – I think most of what she talked about when on the topic of ABC particularly was all the horrible things going on in the time period, and all the parallels to today. Rather than, you know, the plot or anything.
    What your description of the adaptation made me think of was Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West. Perhaps I’ll quote something Aunt Jane said to him in their first appearance…
    “…do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?”… “…so many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly”.
    Perhaps the same goes for both real life and for Phelps herself. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was exchanging ideas with my friend Kemper, half of the wonderful podcast, All About Agatha, and he made the same exact parallel between Phelps and Raymond West! I think you’re both correct and extremely clever for thinking of that! I only wish I had thought of it first! 🙂

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      1. Hah – actually, to write the quote out, I listened to that bit of their Tuesday Night Club episode. It’s probably thanks to them I made the connection 😀

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      2. Hmm, my previous reply didn’t go through. I wanted to mention that I was listening to Kemper read the quote out in the podcast episode on that story to get the quote right 😀

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  12. Great post, great discussion. I’ll be posting a few thoughts from another later mystery writer, which may be pertinent to all this, over on my blog soon.

    As bad as the ABC Murders “adaptation” is, I think the one of Witness is even more awful. But it’s a close contest, As to why Phelps changed the identity of the murderer in Ordeal, three words: privileged white male.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m only guessing who the new murderer is, and I based it on star power. But your take makes me think differently. SPOILER: So is Phelps rejecting the rather humiliating book motive – that a lonely middle-aged woman would make a fool out of herself over a hot, young cad – and is injecting the solution “Christie wishes she could write?” Then Phelps didn’t understand Christie at all. Not that this comes as a surprise to anyone . . .

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      1. Phelps decided what the “secret, sinister” Agatha really wanted was the murderer not to be a deluded, foreign, middle aged housekeeper, but rather a privileged old white guy.

        “But in the latest BBC adaptation, it was Leo Argyll (Bill Nighy) in the drawing room with the Egyptian statuette.

        Rachel’s husband was revealed as a serial adulterer and rapist, killing the Argyll matriarch after she threatened him with divorce.

        He went on to frame his own son, Jack – eventually ordering his murder in prison, when Jack swore to tell the truth about him at trial.”

        Christie’s actually rather subtle, moving book is turned into tawdry melodrama, about as subtle as a blow from a blunt instrument. And the joke is, by today’s mores in the entertainment world, the new solution is totally predictable, Of course it would be Leo!

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      2. SPOILER:

        You left out the part where the sad middle aged woman is turns out to be sad because when she was a young girl in a servant position she was “seduced” (with questionable consent issues) by the old white guy, then had to give up her baby to her mistress to raise. Given Christie’s well known issues with both class and adultery, I am fairly certain that is NOT the book she intended to write.

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      3. I do think the television ObI was below par, but let’s face it — the original material was bland and uninteresting. Started with promise but deteriorated into a soap opera. At least Christie’s original ending was more fluid and believable. Jacko was a bastard (well portrayed on tv imho) and the original ending made perfect sense to me. The TV ending was, ironically, like my take on the book, bland and uninteresting. In that regard, I was actually surprised that Phelps went for such a drearily boring denouement.

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  13. “Asking why Phelps makes changes is a bit like asking why Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus.”

    I hope this comment isn’t meant to compare Phelps’ hubristic “need to rewrite” to the legitimate and courageous fight for women’s suffrage and other rights. Phelps may be capitalizing on the current (and long-overdue) recognition of sexual-abuse victims, just as she capitalized on Poirot’s refugee status in “ABC”–but that shouldn’t be taken as a reflection on either issue. It’s just what TV writers do. The ‘Marple” writer(s) changed a male murderer to a lesbian in one adaptation, and there was no reason for that except to update and sensationalize “stodgy” old Agatha. Phelps seems to want to throw everything but the kitchen sink into her adaptations, but blaming the “women’s libbers” for her excesses would be way too simplistic.

    I hope I’ve misinterpreted the intent of the comment. But I have to mention the way Andrew Davies has repeatedly injected sex and violence into his adaptations in order to “improve” on books written by geniuses. He may be better at it than Phelps, but the motivation is the same. As is the hubris.

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  14. Another well thought out, provocative commentary. As you are aware, I am a “purist” and of the mind that those who are dissatisfied with the author’s original work are free to try their own hands at writing original stories of their own.

    Having said that, examples (imho) of horrible adaptations that strayed far afield or miscast leads (the aforementioned Julia McKenzie and Geraldine McEwan) include the ENTIRE “Marple” series (an abomination) and several of the usually wonderful Poirot series (Suchet) including “Cards on the Table” (butchered); “Taken by the Flood” (talk about missing the point…); “Appointment With Death” (ugh) to name a few. And yes, the Tony Randall “ABC Murders”, was awful.

    While some changes actually do help the story (Philomena McDonald’s excellent adaptation of “After the Funeral” comes to mind; generally I prefer an adaptation that stays very close to the original material.

    Having said that, despite my usual abhorrence for “original” adaptions of the works of others, I find Sarah Phelps’ adaptations strangely compelling. You mentioned ATTWN (and yes until Sarah’s adaption, the Russian version (pretty good) was the only one to portray the ending as Dame Agatha wrote it) and I actually liked the BBC version quite a bit.

    I thought Phelp’s WFTP was very good, despite what I would call a David Lynchian tendency by Phelps to focus for too long on the bizarre or disgusting (Mahew’s persistent and horrible cough and his awful sexual conduct; the gawd-awful “breakfast” scene in ABCM) she manages to preserve the story, in essence. With one exception where she reassigned the murderer, her changes are unsubtle and sometimes radical, but somehow they usually work.

    Ordeal by Innocence was imho one of Christie’s absolute worst stories and the television adaptation was bland (this may just be because I hated the story). I did not approve of changing the murderer, this was a bridge too far.

    I actually liked Malcovitch’s Poirot in ABC, but I thought the story adaptation was way too dark and focused almost exclusively on every character’s least appealing traits. The adaptation imho was far too bleak to be interesting. The one bright spot was Meagan’s final decision.

    For me, the jury is still out on Phelps — her adaptations certainly are bold, if nothing else.

    I am horrified to learn that Kenneth Branaugh once again intends to don what looks to me like carpet remnants on his upper lip, and revisit his “youthful, physical” Poirot. I was so repelled by the rewriting of MOTOE as well as his awful Poirot, that I was looking forward to never seeing him in the role again. I can only imagine how DOTN will be butchered.

    Meanwhile, I pine for an authentic version of N or M? … Francesca and James should be the right age to play it correctly.

    Thanks again Brad for another excellent piece.

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  15. I liked Malkovich, too, and actually thought that he brought something interesting to this interpretation. The trappings might have been wrong, but his Poirot had dignity and strength and stood up to the vicious attacks on his “other-ness.” And I’ve written a whole post on how much I liked Phelps’ first adaptation, but ATTWN deserves the darkness – or at least can handle a heavy push in that direction.

    I don’t know if Phelps found the original solution to ObI anti-female or too “ordinary,” but her alternative strikes me as tiresome and not at all in line with Christie. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single murderer in Christie who is like Phelps’ choice. Nor, for that matter, do the changes made in the increasingly awful Marple series strike an accurate or, at least, recognizable note.

    As I recall, CBS toyed with the idea of creating a version of Miss Marple as a young, forthright woman in the Old West. Maybe they could have called it Murder, She Rode, but to trade on Christie’s name like this? It isn’t even a question of “How dare they do this?” It’s a question of “How dare they pooh pooh us ‘purists’ for complaining about it?!?!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had heard that CBS considered a remake of Murder, She Wrote (NO!) but not that a Marple incarnation was in the offing. Glad they decided against it. I do agree with you on ObI.

      And as you note, as some use the word, “purists” is an almost loath-filled epithet in this context. Let’s just say I have utmost respect for an author’s original work and consider liberties taken with it as offensive as someone adding their own flair to an original Picasso or Rembrandt.

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  16. Ok, I have a few moments. Contrarian thought. We have not grown darker, we just fake it. Let’s not forget which generation fought two world wars, and uncovered Bergen-Belsen. Or fought the civil rights battles. My grandfather saw real darkness, and never wanted to discuss it. We see a lot less real evil now, and wail on about the horror of Oscar awards. When we do see real evil, ISIS for example, we go out of our way to not directly grapple with it. We pretend, because it flatters us, that we can handle the dark and disturbing, but our forebears couldn’t. That ignores the facts. Eichmann’s trial was televised.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No doubt the world is a dark place. At the heart of every murder mystery is the very dark and awful crime of murder. It affects everyone around it in a significant way.

      Part of the reason people “ignore” the evil/bad/adverse elements in our world is not because we are “pretending” to cope, but rather because it is so very difficult to accept that these horrible things happen and worse, that we are powerless to stop them.

      That having been said, I do prefer my entertainment “murders” less dark.

      I need no reminder of how terrible real life can be.

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  17. Christie and her kind wrote to provide their readers with a literary cocoon to shield them from the grim reality literally outside their door.

    Let’s be frank, shall we? Sarah Phelps has been trying to recapture the magic of “And There Were None” for the past few years. She has changed the stories for “Witness For the Prosecution”, “Ordeal By Innocence” and “The A.B.C. Murders” because she is trying to recapture that “magic in a bottle” moment from the 2015 miniseries. That is why most of her Christie adaptations are unnecessarily grim.

    The problem is that “And Then There Were None” was probably Christie’s grimmest novel. I have no problems with that. But I don’t see why Phelps has to change every other Christie story into another “And Then There Were None”. If she had wanted a grim Christie tale that badly, she could have settled for “Nemesis” or “Five Little Pigs”. They are not as grim and “realistic” as “And Then There Were None”, but they were pretty grim and slightly depressing enough for Ms. Phelps.

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    1. I think I mentioned above that Phelps is quoted as explaining she wanted to explore fifty years of British “history” through Christie’s work. I certainly think she can find some dark stuff in her next adaptation (Pale Horse) if she wants to bad enough. Her version of “England Swings” in the 60’s should be riotous! Ordeal by Innocence certainly had the potential. I would argue that, ironically, Phelps sold out with her solution change. She could have explored the roles of women in the mid-late 50’s to perfection.

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