A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHRISTIE – THE FINAL CHAPTER: The Millennium and Beyond

In my end is my beginning.

Many books begin with an epigraph; Agatha Christie’s characters speak in them. The occasion, more often than not, is dark. After all, these people are bearing witness to – or maybe committing – murder. 

Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” “Oh why do you walk through the field in gloves . . . O fat white woman whom nobody loves?” “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.” “The mills of God grind slowly . . . 

I have let most of the chapters of this discourse into the first hundred years of Christie begin with a quotation from her books, and I think the choice here, from Endless Night, is most appropriate. Of course, Michael’s utterance was imbued with a sense of fatalism, as befits the dark tone of that psychological novel.  In applying the words to my own writing, I acknowledge an ending – to this series – and a beginning of the next phase in my relationship with my favorite mystery author. 

And, as we have seen, Christie’s death in 1976 coincided with an enhanced attention to her work, largely due to the release just over a year earlier of Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. For the next twenty-five years, the public would be inundated with film versions of her work, predominantly on the big screen at first but more and more on television on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Here is where Christie stands by the time we enter the millennium: her cinematic star has faded even as her televised one is on the ascendant. The quality of these productions may vary in terms of acting, direction and budget, but the predominant aspect they share is a basic faithfulness to the source material. Even the sadly modernized American TV productions of the 80’s and 90’s adhere largely to the original plots. 

At the same time, we have started to see a real backlash among literary critics which began  in the mid-90’s, perhaps in conjunction with her 100th birthday celebration, that takes the author to task for her puerile writing, weak characterization and setting, and utter lack of social context. Even her biographers at the time, Janet Morgan and Gillian Gill, tended to be apologetic over any aspect of Agatha’s work that didn’t directly involve the puzzle. 

It certainly doesn’t fall on me to tell you that all of this criticism is wrong – although that is probably part of what I will do as long as I write about her. Only the other day, I received an e-mail from the content editor of a translation site who had been reading my blog and wanted to remind me to tell people that Agatha Christie is the most translated author on the planet, more than Shakespeare, more than anyone except the Bible. Naysayers could argue that this has to do with her simplicity of style. But let’s save this fact – and savor it – for a while and come back to it later. 

The criticism did not stop with the coming of the new millennium. But this time it was personal: 

Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story . . . (She) wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre . . . (Christie) is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning . . .  Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent.”

I like her books, but . . . c’mon, P.D.!

This was P.D. James, who in 2009, distilled years of backhanded compliments and off-the-cuff critical remarks into a study of the genre called Talking About Detective Fiction. Her contemporary in the crime field, Ruth Rendell, summed it up with this: “To say that Agatha Christie’s characters are cardboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.” 

We can get all catty about this if we wish, ascribing their concepts to jealousy, or perhaps frustration, that the novels of an author who arguably wrote her best work from 1930 to 1950 continued to sell far better than theirs. James and Rendell traded in depictions of crime where the violence and its aftermath are more brutally realistic and psychology is dark. People in their camp tend to dismiss Christie with that heinous word, “cozy,” meaning that the dark deeds that man commits against his brother are, in Agatha’s work, reduced to a polite puzzle with no emotional ramifications.

I’m not going to get into a huge argument here against this. This entire series is meant to show the various stages of Christie’s career, and while I would maintain that there is emotional resonance throughout her career, it really spikes in the late 30’s and continues until she couldn’t really write anymore. I haven’t really read Rendell, but I did read every one of P.D. James’ novels. Some of them are fine mysteries, and by and large they are beautifully written, especially when it comes to setting and character. But I have never – not once – experienced with James that level of pure enjoyment that I frequently feel when reading (and even re-reading) certain Christie novels. 

And while several of the Dalgliesh mysteries – A Shroud for a NightingaleDeath of an Expert Witness, and Devices and Desires – were certainly gripping reads for me, they managed to do this more as novels than as mysteries. It’s all very well for modern authors like James to eschew the surprise twist as an unrealistic relic from bygone days, but she shouldn’t discount the pure joy these moments give a mystery reader of any era. 

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There are two measures of an author: their popularity while they wrote and their continued success after their death. Many is the genius artist who was unappreciated while alive. Moby Dick was reviled when it was published (I happen to agree with that sentiment). Franz Kafka was ignored while he lived; so were horror writers, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. This wasn’t true of Christie: By the time she switched publishers and wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, both in 1926, she was highly popular, and that success just grew. 

As of this writing, Christie herself has not published anything new for nearly forty-five years. And so we must measure her by her legacy: what does her name conjure up now? How has her work survived? What can we project for the future? 

For good and for ill, Agatha Christie has become part of a fairly major, family-run, conglomerate. We can argue (oh, man! We can argue about so many things!!) about what’s good and what’s bad about the power wielded by Rosalind Hicks, and then by her son, Mathew Prichard, and now by his son James. The fact of the matter is this: the surest way to the best of Agatha Christie is through the books themselves, but it’s equally true that an ever-growing population of Christie fans exists who have never read her work! There are folks who have only seen a few movies, Poirot and Agatha Christie’s Marple. In France, they have watched Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie, where Poirot and Miss Marple are nowhere in sight! In India, they have seen Bollywood versions of And Then There Were None and several incarnations of a play, The Unexpected Guest. In Japan, there are anime adventures and multi-part TV movies that explore the motivations of the killers in separate episodes after the reveal. 

One has to laud the family for being forward-thinking about Christie’s legacy. She was a brilliant plotter of puzzles, and much can be gleaned from her work about the lives of middle-class Englishmen of the mid-20th century. Her name is so synonymous with the concept of the classic mystery that whenever such a book arrives on the shelves from another author, Christie’s name is evoked to generate positive opinion. “The new Agatha Christie!” says the blurb about modern author Ruth Ware. This certainly made me buy one of her books – and rail about it furiously when I was done. Ware acknowledges the strong influence Christie had on her as a writer, and yet it’s unfair to compare the two authors, both of whom were trying to accomplish something very different. 

The focus nowadays is on the adaptations, and the questions arise: how many “faithful” adaptations of her work can our society sustain? When is it okay to use Christie’s work as a base for an artist’s own preoccupations? In a recent interview, Kenneth Branagh, whose latest adaptation, Death on the Nile, will come out Christmas Day, said of the book, “It contains some of the best writing about primal, lust-driven human behavior.” 

Christie was never one to provide lascivious detail about people’s personal lives, but the fact is that Nile has at its heart a tempestuous romantic triangle where friends and lovers betray each other, and the whole book is set during a honeymoon. Who knows what we will see unfold as part of Branagh’s vision, but we have to ask ourselves where we see Christie being depicted in the new millennium – and where each of us draws the line?

An examination of the adaptations of the past twenty years shows an increasing desire to stretch the boundaries of where the source material leaves off and where modern imagination begins. I’d like to look at some examples of this, partly to show you where I stand, and partly to ask you where you stand. Let’s begin with a specific title: Murder on the Orient Express. The 1974 version was lavish in design, well-cast, and largely faithful to the novel, right down to a certain malaise in the middle as interview follows interview. It might be Christie’s second most famous title, right after And Then There Were None, a novel that, since its publication in 1939, had been adapted seven times for the big screen (internationally) and also on several occasions for television. Thus, it’s no surprise that, after more than a quarter of a century, producers would return for another crack at “the murder on the train.” 

Return they did – twice. The first appeared in 2001 on U.S. network TV, starring Alfred Molina as Poirot, and the second appeared as the final episode of the next but last series of Poirot, with David Suchet, of course, playing the sleuth. Both productions have generated strong feelings from Christie fans, for different reasons. One has to wonder what led CBS to decide on its approach to the classic tale. First, set it in the modern day. Second, why stick yourself with an old fart like the original Poirot when you have the virile, dashing Molina to play a spy/detective/action hero as Poirot was always meant to be played. Give him a romantic interest, and why not make it Vera Rossakoff as a bone to throw to true Christie fans so they might stop gnashing their teeth. 

As for the murder plot – well, it’s far too expensive to hire enough actors for that hoary old “trial by jury” scheme that forms the very essence of the original story. Cut out four of them, completely transform the rest, and have Poirot solve the whole thing using computer technology so that we don’t get bored with all those . . . clues and things. 

The whole thing is an abomination because it’s just really, really bad in every way. The Suchet adaptation keeps the “trial by jury” motif, and it has to work fast to fit the whole plot into a ninety-minute adaptation. As a result, the slowness of the 1974 film is missing, but so is a lot of the period flavor. This Orient Express is lean and mean, and most of this has to do with the evolution in this decade of David Suchet in his relationship to the show and the character. 

In 1996, the series had closed up shop after a production of Dumb Witness, and the question arose as to whether they would return. A malaise had set in regarding classic mystery shows, and I think the producers had boxed themselves into a corner by making the decision to set the entire canon from 1935 to 1939. Those of us who admired Suchet’s performance and the fine period quality of the shows, as well as a general adherence to the original text, would certainly have enjoyed ourselves until the canon was finished. But television is not made for a small coterie of fans, and several years went by with the fate of twenty Poirot novels, including his very best, up in the air. 

When the series returned in January 2000 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of only two adaptations in a short seventh series, David Suchet was a producer, and he brought with him a new vision of the central character. A veteran stage actor, Suchet wanted to explore deeper themes in the program, such as faith and justice, and he wanted to shine a  light on Poirot’s Catholic faith, something that comes up superficially in the novels. The rest of the series takes on a much darker tone than before, with Orient Express the culmination of all this. 

When I first saw the episode, I found it heavy-handed, but I have to say that I appreciated it more on a recent re-viewing. It’s not that Christie has Poirot doubt himself for a moment in the novel; in fact, it seems pretty much implied that he has great sympathy for the killers here. He presents two possible solutions and doesn’t balk when M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine select the one that will absolve the real killers of all responsibility. He is very much playing “Papa” Poirot here, and it is certainly not the first time we have seen him play fast and loose with the procedures of legal justice (see Roger Ackroyd).

Suchet’s Poirot has no such softness at the end of his ride on the Orient Express. From the start, he has been on the defensive due to two events: first, his quest for “pure” justice in a military case led to the much-admired culprit’s suicide before the detective’s eyes. Secondly, he witnessed a brutal form of “native” justice, the stoning of an unfaithful wife by a group of citizens in the streets of Istambul. He initially has no sympathies with the victims of Samuel Ratchett, nor for anyone who takes the law into their own hands. 

Those who disapprove of Suchet and screenwriter Stewart Harcourt’s handling of the finale of this tale are certainly within their rights. I tend to think that perhaps the 1974 film was recent enough – and iconic enough – to warrant a different approach. And you have to admit that this idea is interesting – and Suchet and the supporting cast handle it beautifully. 

The whole series goes dark – and takes some liberties with the source material – throughout the decade with mixed results. Certainly the zenith was reached by playwright Kevin Elyot with his first foray into the world of Poirot, Series 9’s opening episode: Five Little Pigs. This is a pretty brilliant screenplay, bringing to life a novel that mostly occurs through retrospective interviews and the reading of documents. Perhaps the ending is made a little too lively in order to please television audiences, but the emotional agony of the original is beautifully dramatized from start to finish. 

The one perhaps controversial change that Elyot makes is in the motivation he gives Philip Blake for killing Amyas. In the novel, Philip hates Caroline Crale because he really loved Caroline Crale. Elyot – and here I’m making an assumption based on the bulk of his writing that he was a gay man – makes Philip in love with Amyas. I’m not going to argue that this was in the book, even subtly, and I’m not going to engage with comments that whine about “all this homosexuality!!” As a gay man, even I can spot when the flipping of a character’s sexuality seems specious or sensational. Here, in my opinion, it humanizes Philip and explains why he’s such a prickly, unpleasant character. 

The following season, playwright Nick Dear, who is known for his 2001 adaptation of Frankenstein for the Royal Shakespeare Company, worked his “magic” on Cards on the Table, another of my favorite novels, and turned gold to dross. Again, sexuality played a big part here, with Mr. Shaitana a quite attractive man who had slept with most of the characters, and Dr. Roberts a gay murderer of both his lover’s wife and – when the guy objected to the slaying of his spouse – the lover himself. One can only shake one’s head and ask . . . why? And while we’re at it, why flip the characters of Rhoda Dawes and Anne Meredith? This is a senseless intrusion on the original plot for no conceivable purpose than to create a “gotcha” moment for true fans. 

Kevin Elyot wrote two more episodes of PoirotDeath on the Nile from Season 9, and Curtain, the final episode of the series. Nile is good – some argue that it removes the excess from the 1978 film and finds the darker heart of the novel. It certainly juggles the characters, switching some out that were composites from the movie. It absolutely destroys Tim Allerton and his mother, first by sordid allusions to incest, and then by making Tim gay as a sort of a banana peel of an ending to Rosalie Otterbourne. Again, there was no point to it. But Curtain is pretty magnificent, one of the series’ best and certainly deserving of its dark tone. Elyot gives Suchet the finale he deserves. 

Perhaps as a result of his success with two fine season 9 episodes of Poirot, Elyot got involved in two more Christie projects. The one I missed and really wished I could have seen was his own adaptation for the stage of And Then There Were None in 2005. The Guardian review calls the play “a sophisticated makeover” before making clear its own disgust with “the tackiness of weekly rep Christie,” the absence of which the reviewer is grateful for here, citing the joy of the beachside sex and the extreme violence of the deaths, beginning with Anthony Marsden’s projectile vomit after tossing off a poisoned cocktail. 

If this perhaps presages a certain future TV event, it also seems to balance for modern audiences the audacious cruelty of the plot with the drama of manners often found in the book. It seems that Elyot – and Sarah Phelps after him – has a bit of a problem with a group of strangers being picked off one by one and yet managing to maintain social custom (cold tongue for supper) for as long as possible. I’ve heard mixed reactions to the play in reviews and have not met anyone who saw the thing. In a way, though, I see where Elyot was going, even though I might have tired of the grinding bloodshed after a while. 

The playwright was also hired to pen six episodes of Agatha Chrstie’s Marple, the series that felt it could do one better than the Joan Hickson treatment. Like the first series, Marple  set the stories in the 1950’s and even provided jaunty theme music that reminds us of the Margaret Rutherford films. The scripts themselves, however, were anything but nostalgic for things past, playing fast and loose with the plots, sometimes to alarming effect. 

Miss Marple was given a past, an affair with a married soldier who died in battle, and she thinks about that guy a lot. Kevin Elyot wrote the first episode, The Body in the Library, and he makes a choice that is totally jarring: he changes the identity of the killer. I’m not sure, but I think it’s the first time in one of these series that this happens. There is no good reason for this. The solution in the book involves a Deadly Duo, something I have written about a lot. Here, the Duo is switched around to become a pair of lesbian lovers. What Elyot seems to be saying here: “What Christie plotted doesn’t really matter in this case; it could just have easily have been one in-law of Jefferson Conway’s as another. Let’s spice things up for modern audiences.” 

I’m not sure that modern audiences were turning in to Agatha Christie’s Marple, but the middle-aged gay men and women who were couldn’t have much appreciated this switch. Elyot doesn’t pull quite so drastic a switcheroo in his other adaptations, although he is responsible for two of the episodes where the producers decided to shove Miss Marple into a non-Marple novel. It’s not a huge problem in Towards Zero, which by and large stays true to the original in all other ways. Endless Night is another matter, as the whole affair doesn’t gibe with the sort of people and situations Miss Marple would find herself in. It’s ironic, too, since Night is based on a Miss Marple short story called “The Case of the Caretaker,” but I would remind readers that in the story, Miss Marple is laid up throughout, recovering from the flu, and she hears the case and delivers the solution to Dr. Haydock without getting her fingers dirty. 

Agatha Christie’s Marple reached the nadir of adaptation with most of the “non-Marple novels with Marple in them” episodes. The Sittaford Mystery ignored the original solution for something nastier. 2006’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs paired Aunt Jane with Tommy and Tuppence, the novel’s rightful sleuths – excopt this couple was unhappily married, and Tuppence was a drunk. Murder Is Easy changed the murderer’s age and motivation in the most sordid of ways, and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? joined the charge by adding a nice healthy dose of incest. The Secret of Chimneys made a murderer out of the novel’s most lovable character. When you remember the fact that many viewers had never read the books, you have to ask yourself if this is how one wants Christie to be thought of. 

This issue even affected Poirot, in the execrable adaptation of Appointment with Death, and in pretty much every episode of the final season, save for Curtain. By 2013, Poirot and Marple were done, and one could only imagine what would happen next to Christie on the small screen, particularly once it was announced that the BBC had bought the rights to her work. 

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During the latter half of this past decade, the name and reputation of Agatha Christie has rested largely in the hands of two women. In 2014, the Christie estate commissioned  Sophie Hannah, the author of a series of modern-day psychological mysteries, to write a series of continuation novels featuring Hercule Poirot. Hannah is a self-avowed devotee of Agatha Christie; I’ve heard her speak about the author and her books several time, and I believe in her devotion and her knowledge of Christie’s work. 

Sophie Hannah

But the continuation novels are a problem. Hannah claims that she is not writing pastiche but honoring the sleuth in her own way. And yet the novels, set in a period of the late 20’s when Christie herself had put Poirot aside for a few years, seem to function as pastiche – and not very effectively. As Hannah has progressed (I’ve read three of the four novels, all but the most recent), the character of Poirot himself has improved, and while I’m not a fan of the original Watson figure that Hannah has created here, Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, I don’t feel a sense of loyalty to Hastings, who was in Argentina with his wife during this period anyway. 

But Hannah doesn’t have the way with an opening hook that Christie does – at least, not in the Christie books; I think the psychological mysteries have some wonderful openings. And the plots do not have Christie’s tightness or brilliance with clueing. The premiere novel, The Monogram Murders, opens with a weird set of murders in a hotel, gives us very little to work with regarding buttons and such, and then ushers us on a train from London to a nearby village with a third of the book to go and launches into an endless final reveal that is not worth the time. It makes me question the whole project. I love Poirot, but do I need to read new cases about him? I suppose this is where I would argue for the idea of pastiche. One of the best uses of Christie’s name and style occurs in a 2008 episode of Dr. Who, called “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” where David Tennant – the best of the modern Doctors by far – decides to solve the mystery of Christie’s 1926 disappearance. Being a Dr. Who episode, of course it involves aliens. But it’s science fiction deliciously wrapped in Golden Age of Detection trappings, and it’s one of the best hours of the series. 

I get that Hannah doesn’t do this because she doesn’t want to do this. But how can one read a Poirot adventure without comparing it to the thirty-three original adventures and not find this wanting? I have a great fondness for Hannah: we share a similar taste in favorite Christie novels, and I bet it would be a real lark to sit down and talk about the author together. I wish, though, that I could find a way to approach her own contributions to the Poirot mythology and enjoy them more. 

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There’s a tension between the book she wants people to read and the book she wants to write, and I always think when I’m reading: what is that doing there? Is it a mistake, is it a lapse in concentration, did she mean for it to be there? I think it’s a clue. They give you an undercurrent of a very different story. When I follow those clues, I come up with my version . . . “                                                                                  Sarah Phelps

I’ve learned a lot about my great-grandmother’s work from Sarah. I now read it differently . . . You are also creating three hours of television from not a particularly long novel. That takes some doing. What Sarah does is take small things and expands them and makes them fascinating and that’s an incredible talent.”  James Prichard

Sarah Phelps frequently claims that she had never read an Agatha Christie novel when she was contracted to write a new televised adaptation of And Then There Were None. Up till then, she was familiar author from watching Ustinov’s Death on the Nile and other movies. Perhaps this confirms the argument that nobody who knows Christie only from the adaptations can be called a true fan. But Phelps didn’t write these teleplays to prove her loyalty to Christie. 

The screenwriter conceived an idea that she could take five novels from the canon and use them as a starting point to explore the dark side of fifty years of the mid-20th century. Although she jumped around, here is what she ended up with chronologically: 

  • Witness for the Prosecution (the late 1920’s/2nd production)
  • And Then There Were None (the early 1940’s/1st production)
  • Ordeal by Innocence (the 1950’s/3rd production)
  • The A.B.C. Murders (the early 1930’s/4th production)
  • The Pale Horse (the 1960’s/5th production)

Maybe starting with Christie’s darkest novel by far gave Phelps the impetus to go this route. In an early interview, she was asked about the timing of And Then There Were None’s publication just before the war, and she responded eagerly:  “It felt very much to me like one of those books that is absolutely about its times, because it’s not about its times.”   

This means . . . nothing! But Phelps goes on to explain: “(The novel) doesn’t tell you the reality of what it’s like to be alive in 1939, but it imparts this really nervy sense of acts of the terror, which I think is pretty much on the button, isn’t it?

Whether or not analogies to war apply, tapping into the darkness of the novel really works for Phelps this first time around. There is a sense of unease, both onshore as the guests gather to meet the ferry and at the house as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers creepily prepare for the weekend to come. The house is modern and unwelcoming; the island is an alien landscape with an enormous hellish pit gaping dangerously near the house. 

These people can barely keep themselves together when the murders start. They are clearly damaged goods, and I can only imagine that murdering someone will do that to you. Since most adaptations beforehand had hewed to the play’s ending, few of us had had a chance to see how worn down by emotion Vera Claythorne could be as a result of her time spent with Hugo and Cyril. From the novel I recall a woman driven to near madness by guilt, and so it’s interesting that Phelps goes even darker to create a Vera who is equally enraged that her “sacrifice” was not appreciated by her beloved. 

Does Phelps go too far making Emily Brent a repressed lesbian or William Blore an anything BUT repressed sadist? It certainly makes for possible variations, given their circumstances. And while I think most of us looked askance at the drug-fueled bacchanal that occurs halfway through the movie, I could understand if a half-dozen doomed creatures wanted to escape their reality for a while. It’s all in keeping with a modern-day interpretation of this ultra-dark period piece. 

If I was to do more, I would have to find another way to frame them, to validate them being done. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’re back in a kind of cozy Sunday evening TV. You’re not doing anything brutal with it. It deserves a brutality. She deserves to be paid attention to as a writer, not just as a brand.

The thing is, I agree with the last sentence of Phelps’ statement here. Her family has made her a brand, and as the generations in charge proceed, adherence to the spirit of the original becomes less and less important. James Prichard says that Phelps’ work has taught him a lot about his great-grandmother’s work. I take issue with the lesson Prichard claims to have learned, but I have to say that Phelps’ continual insistence that Agatha would have inserted the graphic sex and violence if she could have rings hollow. 

Witness for the Prosecution is a dark tale indeed because it flips the course of justice and lets a charming ne’er-do-well get away with murder. All it takes is one sentence – “I knew – he was guilty” – for us to feel the chill that Christie wants us to feel. I can’t imagine that she wanted to make Janet Mackenzie hang for Leonard’s crime or have Mr. Mayhew commit suicide after learning his part in the shenanigans from Romaine and then being abandoned by his wife. Christie was smart, not ghoulish. 

Nor do I think Christie pined for the opportunity to create the hideous mess that forms Phelps’ “improved” solution to Ordeal by Innocence. Force-feeding an already dark plot with themes and symbols that touch upon the times – the atomic bomb tests, the false façade of the “perfect” nuclear family – is . . . something, but it isn’t Christie. It’s hanging one’s own shingle on another author’s work, and James Prichard claim to have read something new in his great-grandmother’s writings because of it is specious. 

The A.B.C. Murders is the only adaptation Phelps made with a major Christie sleuth in it. The skeleton of the plot adheres fairly closely to the novel, but once again Phelps uses a Christie plot to explore her own themes. The rise of fascism and anti-immigrant sentiment is not in the novel; in fact, at this point in his career, Poirot is celebrated for his skill rather than denigrated for his immigrant status. Not so here! After Japp dies (!) from a heart attack, his replacement Inspector Crome makes Poirot’s life an utter hell. So does the sleuth’s newly created past . . . as a tormented priest who allowed the Germans to kill his parishioners. That’s okay because everybody suffers in this film, from poor Mr. Cust to the landlady’s daughter (pimped out by her own mother to the male guests) to the salesman with the syphilitic boil the size of my laptop on his neck.) 

In one of her interviews, Phelps acknowledges Christie’s brilliance with a murder plot and then waves that away as something only her fans care about before proceeding to dismantle the mechanism of each scheme. A.B.C. is justifiably appreciated for its use of the “can’t tell the forest for the trees” motif: the killer masks one murder by hiding it in a spree of murders, making his motivation seem insane. In Phelps’ adaptation, the true killer is insane. Oh sure, he wants his brother’s money, but more than that he wants to play an endless game of cat and mouse with poor Poirot. 

All of these changes pale in comparison to what Phelps does with The Pale Horse. The original plot is all but lost in an orgy of killers, and I can’t help wondering what demons the screenwriter is expelling from her own mind when she commits this stuff to paper, claims she’s channeling the way Christie wanted to write, and dismisses the cries of fans as “manufactured outrage”:

Seriously, if you’re going to work yourself up into a frothing lather about a television drama, just go and watch BBC Parliament for a couple of minutes. That’ll give you a sense of perspective about what to be really pissed off about.

I suppose that’s true. I worry more about Donald Trump and the coronavirus and systemic racism and the global warming crisis than I worry about Sarah Phelps. And I turn to Agatha Christie for an escape from the mayhem all around me, something especially needed as I find myself stuck in my home due to the pandemic. So, apparently, do more people around the world, according to Marianne Tiamson, Content Manager for Tomedes Translation Services, who reached out to me to let me know about Christie’s long-time record as the most translated author in the world. 

As the future unfolds before us even more uncertainly than ever, a lot of us will turn to whatever version of Agatha Christie gives us comfort. That’s not to say that this is the only purpose she serves, and I for one don’t want to close my mind to the various interpretations of her work still to come. As long as Christie speaks to artists, her work will continue to be interpreted. Some will exploit the darkness, others will perhaps find new enlightenment about the society in which Christie lived and wrote. There will be more Poirots and more Marples – maybe even a young Jane solving crimes in the Old West, if certain rumors are to be believed. 

The first Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Orient Express seems to want it both ways: to adhere for the most part to the brilliance of Christie’s plot and yet to update the original with a multi-racial cast and a younger, nimbler Poirot who pines for his lost love. (What is it with all these lost loves for Christie’s sleuths??) I have written more extensively about this film elsewhere, but . . . I didn’t hate it. I know the reviews were mixed: some enjoyed the return to a more stylish rendition of Christie, while others dismissed it as boring and “unnecessary.” The same might go for Ken Ludwig’s 2018 stage adaptation which, like the Molina version, erases four suspects, adds a second murder attempt, and most shamelessly, tries to go for laughs in the middle of a plot about a kidnapped/murdered baby. I just played Poirot in a Zoom production of this, and upon reflection of the whole experience with this script . . . well, I’m torn.

Ken Ludwig’s version of MotOE: Stylish, yet somehow . . . wrong

Maybe Death on the Nile will come out, and the Christie fan sites will light up with arguments about the multi-racial cast or the amount of sex, or Branagh’s bizarre moustache (again). As long as Christie engages us, her star will continue to shine, crazy mixed-up screenwriters will misinterpret her, and obsessed bloggers will rave and rant. I look forward to riding every wave of whatever comes. However, I have one request. And while I figure the fifteen or so of you who are following this series of posts about my favorite myst4ery author don’t need this reminder, I ask you to share with all the people, young and old, who saw Phelps’ adaptation of And Then There Were None or Branagh’s Nile or wax fondly about Suchet’s Poirot

Read the books. 

Read the books.

Read the books . . . 

17 thoughts on “A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHRISTIE – THE FINAL CHAPTER: The Millennium and Beyond

  1. Really excellent post, Brad. I think there are either factual errors or typos in the sentence beginning “It might be Christie’s second most famous title”— that sentence doesn’t seem clear or factually accurate after that point— but elsewhere your entire post is not only lucid and entertaining, but has the added advantage that I agree with nearly all of it!

    I think there’s always the danger of suggesting that anything less than a wholehearted subscription of a viewpoint constitutes a belief in a greatly opposing view. For example, I’m one of those who argues that Christie’s simplicity of style is one of the two primary factors of her success (the other being her puzzle plot ingenuity). But the fact that I don’t consider her skill at characterization among the primary reasons for her success doesn’t in any way mean that I don’t think her characterization was great, or that it wasn’t underrated. It’s merely that I don’t think creating characters is something she did better than nearly all other writers of all genres, which is something I do believe about her puzzle plotting. But that’s a very far cry from suggesting that she creates cardboard figures.

    I feel similarly to the way you do about Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. It’s certainly flawed, but I actually find significant flaws in all of the adaptations of that particular novel. My problem with the Suchet adaptation is that it seems all too clearly to be taking a different path for the sake of being different from the 1974 film. And in doing so, it fails in even consistency with itself. After all, if Poirot has no sympathy for the culprits, why even offer the simple solution? It makes no sense.

    BTW, I think John Curran saw the Kevin Elliott And Then There Were None. I know that someone at the last day meal of the 2015 IACF saw it. Curran was at the table, as was Mike Linane, John Perry, Jaclyn Lurker, and I think Anne Birch. ONE of them had seen it, and I think it was Curran…. hmmm… this is just like an Agatha Christie.

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    1. Thank you, Scott, for the comments and for calling my attention to that passage. I thinkthink I’ve changed to reflect the idea I was trying to make. I’m not going to argue with you about Christie’s characterizations. I certainly agree that this is not what made her so successful, and I don’t think most casual readers care one way or the other if her characters are more fully fleshed than so many of her critics give her credit for.

      Regarding the Suchet MotOE, I do hope you have read Mark Aldridge’s book, which has so many interesting things to say about each of these adaptations. He surmises that the focus on Poirot’s feelings may have something to do with the screenwriters assumption that most people have already seen Lumet’s film, but more than that, the focus on Poirot is a conscious desire to prepare us for the coming darkness that will swirl around Curtain. Mark comments on the almost shorthand way in which the novel’s plot is communicated here, giving Suchet much more screen time in which to suffer emotionally.

      And you would rub it in my face that you were at the IACF with John Curran. Shaddup already!!!!

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      1. Well, I think of Christie’s characterization rather the way I think of Fred Astaire’s singing voice. His voice was both quite pleasing and popular: records of Astaire songs sold very well, and I believe Irving Berlin considered Astaire his #1 favorite interpreter of his songs. Further, I know of more than one person who prefers his singing voice to that of either Bing or Frank. Yet, Astaire’s name rarely appears on lists of the greatest singers of popular songs, and if you were to designate the primary factor of his success, it makes much more sense to accredit his dancing. Similarly, I think Christie’s characterization skill is both overlooked and underrated… but not the key factor to her success. Which is why I believe All About Agatha’s ranking calculation system, giving equal weight (two categories each) to plotting and characterization, creates a slightly skewed, imbalanced result.

        I’ve read and admire Mark’s Christie on Screen book, but I’ve yet to read the new one. Although I realize the general “move to darkness” was part of the motivation behind the alterations to the Suchet MOTOE, I really think that the desire to avoid comparisons was a far greater factor. And I understand the pressure to do so— if one doesn’t do things significantly different, there’s always the risk of being considered superfluous and unnecessary. At the same time, change for the sake of change very often leads to inferior choices, as I believe it does here. As for emphasizing Poirot more, that’s clearly the case, and a natural tendency of series television, but is also part of what I consider infidelity to Christie— the Poirot novels were never about Poirot, the were about mysteries which Christie assigned her various detective figures to solve. And as for these changes preparing the viewers for Curtain, it really serves to do the opposite, if you think about it. After all, Poirot’s decisions in Curtain are really more inexplicable in the light of a Poirot outraged by vigilante justice and who rants about “the rule of law!”— a Poirot who clearly recognizes that justice sometimes lies outside of law if far more consistent with Poirot of Curtain.

        Of course what bothers me more than the episode itself is Suchet’s claim of “guardianship of Christie’s creation,” when his memoirs make it clear that not only did he not object to his screenwriters less faithful approach to the material, he wasnt even aware that it was less faithful— and indeed felt strongly that it was MORE faithful (and a bad memory for details is no defense here, as he claimed to have read and re-read the novel in preparation of the episode, to ensure fidelity of Christie’s intent— which all sounds to me a lot like Sarah Phelps “I wrote the adaptations she really wanted to write” stuff). And when you add the evidence that Suchet also didn’t realize that the narrative gimmick of his Ackroyd episode was different from that of the novel, you begin to suspect (as I do) that his famed list of 93 facts about Poirot was compiled by a paid intern. I do think he’s a great actor, but his claims of diligent study resemble nothing more than “No one loves Agatha Christie more than I do… I know more about Agatha than anyone else in this room”— IF you know what mean!

        I only mentioned Dr. Curran and our “last supper” (don’t be too jealous— I had run out of money at that point, and believe I ordered a plate of parsley) to give you a possible lead as to info on the Kevin Elyot And Then There Were None. Don’t worry, you’ll be with Curran at the IACF next September— as hopefully will I, alternating with you in annoying him.

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  2. I can hardly bear to read about these later travesties. The adaptors’ justifications sound like flimsy excuses (or are completely meaningless as you point out).

    How can anyone accuse Christie of an “utter lack of social context”? She is a GIFT to the social historian because she remembers essential trivia of life at a particular time and place. Perhaps they mean “lack of a social CONSCIENCE”. Social reformers come off badly in her novels! Lady MPs who bore for England about “welfare”, or dangerous cranks like Lewis Serocold. Anybody who adopts children for the wrong reasons is viewed with suspicion. As I always say, if Christie had set a novel in a tenement in the Gorbals she wouldn’t have sold many copies.

    Can I just give her credit for writing about young, working women: Amy Leatheran, Cherry, Mitzi, Mary Goddard, Ursula Bourne? She sometimes said that if all else failed she could get a job as a parlourmaid.

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    1. It’s no wonder that Christie and her fellow crime queens were so popular in their day: they wrote beautifully about women, and the social context of what it was like to be a working girl, or a penniless spinster, or a neglected wife and mother, and on and on is proof of her ability to shine a light on social issues. I find it fascinating that so many of my fellow GAD fans work mightily to raise awareness for the poor neglected male writers, and when you read those guys, the female characters are, by and large, relegated to the sidelines or conform to male images of female propriety (or the lack thereof.)

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  3. I share your strong enthusiasm for Suchet’s version of Five Little Pigs, your disappointment with his version of Cards on the Table (incl. the deletion of one the most beautiful moments towards the end), and your somewhat mixed but mostly muted feelings for Branagh’s version of Orient Express.

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    1. I’m more excited about Death on the Nile: it’s a book I like more, and while I always enjoy watching the 1978 version, that one is kind of wrong in terms of casting and tone. I’ll be interested to see Branagh’s take on it and will certainly write about it after I have seen it!! Stay tuned.

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  4. Brad – Thanks for sharing your joy and knowledge about everything Christie. What a great way to punctuate your Christie retrospective: Read the books, read the books, read the books.

    I am taking your advice today and re-reading for the umpteenth time, After the Funeral, a top favorite of mine. All the best to you.

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    1. You couldn’t have made a better choice, Scott! AtF is my favorite Christie, and a go-to book for when I’m feeling in need of a lift! Thanks for taking this journey with me. The only question is . . . NOW what do I do???

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  5. Read the books, read the books, read the books! I agree with that sentiment. That’s where you’ll get 100% pure unadulterated Christie which you won’t get with an adaptation no matter what form of medium it manifests as, even with the most faithful ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is true, Brian, but the fact remains that there are, more than likely, no new Christies to uncover. Short of re-reading the books over and over and OVER, we will all be keeping our eye out for adaptations and references to the author. I would also be very much surprised if anyone who has read my blog disagrees with the notion that the books are the best source. I’ll have to spread that idea around on other platforms. Just let me get this fall election settled, and I’ll return to that project! 🙂

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  6. Scott, I agree with your comparison of Agatha Christie’s key success to Fred Astaire’s and how the other aspect(s) they exemplified are less noticed. Christie’s characterizations on the surface are seen as card-board and stereotypical but there’s more there than meets the eye. Christie is able to describe characters so briefly, which at a cursory glance appears it doesn’t evoke much about the character but if scrutinized you can pick up much information bout that character. That’s more powerful than a full blown-out description. I think her depiction of characters is a hidden gem that one can find if they have the eyes to see; it doesn’t stand at the forefront like Christie’s puzzles which she’s primarily renown for. But like you said in an earlier post, it’s a far cry from suggesting that she creates cardboard characters.

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  7. Hi Brad,
    couldn’t agree more with your view on some of the adaptations, and while I share your dismay of the ‘works’ of Sophie Hannah and Sarah Phelps, I struggle to give them the credit you can muster; as far as I am concerned, they are shameless opportunists that use the popularity of Christie for their own material gain.
    And while there will be viewers that, by watching one of these atrocities, may be tempted to check out the original books and hopefully progress from there, one has to wonder how many potential readers will be scared away for life, believing Christie wrote either tawdry sensationalist smut or sugar coated sentimental drivel.

    I would also like to see any further adaptations to focus on some of the lesser known (and lesser adaped) works. I know it’s all about finance and returns, but I feel it’s just so lazy for Branagh to re-do the two most famous Christie films. It all seems to require glamourous locations and a big ensemble cast, soI would bet if he makes another one it’ll be Evil Under The Sun, when I would much rather see what he would do with Five Little Pigs, After The Funeral or even Lord Edgware Dies.

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  8. About the simplicity of Christie, last September I had been struck down with a very nasty flu which left me in a fevered state most of the time. The only thing that gave me comfort and which I could tolerate was reading Christie. And I was not even reading her good ones, but stuff like Nemesis and Elephants can Remember. And by coincidence later I happened to read an article that said that most people read Christie when they fall sick. I am not sure what’s going on here.

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  9. I did manage to slog through most of PD James’ ponderous writing. She used many words but her “mysteries” were hardly groundbreaking. Half the time she forgot to provide clues to her readers so they had even a fighting chance to solve the puzzle or the single “clue” was so obscure as to be unnoticeable. Even televised versions of her stories couldn’t save the murk, despite talent like Roy Marsden and later, Martin Shaw.

    Her criticism of the Queen of Crime is laughable and actually a bit pathetic.

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