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.)
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?
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?)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.