Hello everyone. I hope you’re well and welcome to another Adapting Agatha article. I’ll include the usual ***SPOILER ALERT*** so if you haven’t already read this one, or watched it, I’d urge you to do so before reading any further – also, because it’s a great book and adaptation and both are well worth seeking out.
As we head into the darker nights and Hallowe’en approaches, I thought it might be quite fun to look at Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party this time and its adaptations. This isn’t one of her most well-known novels and there aren’t quite as many adaptations as there are of some of the greats. It’s also one of her later works. First serialised in Woman’s Own in 1969 and then published the same year by Collins Crime Club in the UK. Sadly, it wasn’t particularly well reviewed. Some describing it as a ‘disappointment.’ Obviously, Agatha Christie fans loved it though. It’s one of Poirot’s last outings and some suggested that Poirot himself seems ‘weary’ (Toronto Daily Star). That’s possibly not too surprising given that on H.R.F Keating’s estimates, Poirot must have been about 124 years old!
There is a definite sense of the winds of change in society that might not be taking everyone with them. This is Poirot in the late 1960s. The year this novel appeared was the year man first stepped on the moon, the Beatles gave their last performance on top of the Apple Building, Concorde appeared. It’s the year of Woodstock, with sex and drugs and rock n’roll, and the year of Charles Manson. Even murder had a very different face to the one usually associated with Agatha Christie.
There are numerous references in the book to a world that is moving on and perhaps not in the right direction, at least according to some of its characters. There is a lot of commentary on society and justice, how many people are now free to roam the streets who would previously not have been. Capital punishment had ended in 1965, so unlike most of Agatha Christie’s murderers, these ones would not face the noose. There is frequent reference to how unsafe children now are, taking lifts from strangers and sensational reports on such things in the media. Interestingly though, it is Mrs Drake herself who voices her disquiet about the dangers lurking for children nowadays – she is in fact the child’s murderer when she says this.
There are even references to computers sneaking in – Ariadne Oliver refers to how much like one Poirot is. She, however, casts doubt on whether they are in fact a good thing. As we know, the wonderful crime writer Ariadne is often used as Agatha Christie’s own mouthpiece. She gives a very beautiful aside on the nature of being a crime writer with a foreign detective when someone asks her why she chose a Finn, she says ruefully, ‘I’ve often wondered.’ Perhaps a little comment on the Belgian detective. Agatha Christie basically talks straight to the reader through Ariadne Oliver when she says, ‘Now, if I was going to make a book about all these people, how should I do it?’ There then follows an extremely funny interlude where various people openly comment on Ariadne’s books to her, clearly something Agatha Christie, and I might add, most crime writers have experienced! ‘I read one of your books,’ one character tells Ariadne. ‘It was quite good.’ Joyce then goes on to add. ‘I didn’t like that one.’ I can say from personal experience, this is a very realistic scenario. People are not shy of giving crime writer’s their opinion and suggesting much better plots and this was obviously something Agatha Christie would have had a lifetime of by this point in her career.
This is in many ways a more reflective book than some of her earlier ones. There is very much the sense of a career’s worth of experience and knowledge. But also a life that was watching the world change very quickly. Aside from the concerns over increase in violent crime and the way children are being brought up, there are other comments on small every day changes such as the fact that pumpkins at Hallowe’en are this new novelty from America (although still seen primarily on Thanksgiving). There are little insights into the author’s views on this brave new world and how she feels about it, ‘nowadays things always happen to frustrate one,’ Ariadne says. Although there are some small differences between Ariadne Oliver and Agatha Christie (particularly her booming voice which was very different to the author’s) there is an undoubted resemblance and we can see in this book a more world weary voice coming through. Agatha Christie was seventy-nine years old when this book was written and published. This book sees both the author and Poirot concerned for this new modern world of the late 60s that is changing so fast. They are old. ‘Many of the evenings were dull, now, Hercule Poirot thought.’
It’s no surprise then, that the most notable adaptation of this book is set in the 1930s instead of the 60s. The 2010 David Suchet version takes the viewers back to that Golden Age and, I hesitate to say, this is one of the few occasions when I think the adaptation might just be a little more enjoyable for it. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Agatha Christie book, and I don’t think it is many people’s, it is one of the best David Suchet Poirot episodes and a magnificent performance from him, which is measured to absolute perfection. The Mark Gatiss screenplay is incredibly atmospheric. The unsettling, constant whispered chant of ‘Snip Snap dragon’ from the children playing snapdragon, brings a very spooky, Hallowe’en feel to the action. Poirot himself is listening to a ghost story on the radio, which sounds suspiciously like Mr Gatiss himself is reading it. Even the end Poirot music is adapted slightly to give it a Dance Macabre edge.
There is a slight problem with moving the action to the 30s rather than the 60s, in that Hallowe’en parties and dressing as green faced witches would not really have been a practice then. Agatha Christie herself tells us that the pumpkin carving ritual isn’t entirely popular at Hallowe’en even in America at the time of the book and is still really associated with Thanksgiving. However, I think we can forgive this as the added atmosphere and creepy Hallowe’en feel is magnificently dramatic and works to make the story far more sinister. There are graveyards, pumpkin phantoms and the character of Mrs Goodbody is enhanced to make her genuinely witch-like. In the book she is simply a cleaner who is expected at the party and asked to dress up as a witch, rather than the frightening crone who bursts in. Garfield warns us that Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, was very active around that area with ‘ducking stools and drowning.’ He then goes on to explain how the ducking stool works.
Other somewhat ghoulish characters are added, such as Rowena Drake’s truly awful children Edmund Drake and, the hilariously named sister, Frances Drake. Edmund tells us ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ as he reads from a book entitled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Poirot even begins his denouement with the magnificent, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ He tells us this is a ‘tale of carnage and horror’ with ‘the garden drenched in the blood of the innocent.’
This dramatic, almost Hammer Horror style adaptation, is gloriously spooky, just as one would expect from a Mark Gatiss screenplay. In his 2010 BBC documentary, A History of Horror, he referred to the 1968 film Witchfinder General as an example of what he called the sub-genre ‘folk horror,’ which this episode definitely has undertones of – a sleepy village with the local witch and a strange party that leads to death has echoes of The Wicker Man, which Mark Gatiss also groups in this unholy trinity of films. One of the final scenes, involving Garfield abducting Miranda with the purpose of sacrificing her, has grotesque masks, gowns and a very ethereal caped girl who is almost spirit-like. Another example of Agatha Christie referencing child abduction by unlikely villains lurking ready to pounce on the innocent.
Michael Garfield is played wonderfully by Julian Rhind-Tutt (no stranger to Agatha Christie adaptations – most notably in Ordeal by Innocence.) Although he doesn’t have the dark hair and sculpted beard of the book, he is the very ‘beautiful’ man who captivates the women of the neighbourhood. He has that strange, enigmatic quality that ensnares so many of the characters and leads to their demise. Beauty is very much a theme of both the book and this adaptation. His crazed passion for beauty and it’s creation is almost madness. Bodies buried in his beloved garden are merely ‘compost’ for his beautiful creation. But he too inspires madness and obsession in so many, particularly those such as Rowena Drake who is willing to kill a child, willing to sacrifice anything for this man. Deborah Findlay plays this to perfection. Although she doesn’t have the golden hair tinged with grey or the blue eyes Agatha Christie gave her, she is very much the type who might be a stern magistrate, as she is imagined in the book. She is also clinging to her looks, her beauty, her attraction. Like other characters in the book such as the landlord’s wife, she is an older woman trying to feel loved and adored. ‘Getting perhaps a bit long in the tooth,’ as the landlord’s wife is described but liked her men ‘young.’ There is this constant theme of the corruption of the innocent, of striving to capture beauty and that is presented perfectly in this 2010 adaptation.
There are some quite significant changes to plot and character but this TV version stays true to the feeling of the book. Notably, Michael Garfield doesn’t commit suicide but is taken away, perhaps Agatha Christie still needed her murderers to die but TV audiences don’t now. Other changes include, the addition of a vicar; Superintendent Spence is removed (which is rather sad as he featured in the previous Mrs McGinty’s Dead); Olga is not found in a well but beneath the beloved garden; the garden itself becomes part of Rowena Drake’s estate rather than a converted quarry; Miss Whittaker, played by the fabulous Fenella Woolgar, witnesses the dropping of the vase by Mrs Drake not Ariadne Oliver; and the death of Rowena Drake’s husband is quite sensibly explained as being committed by Garfield. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the changes.
But perhaps one of the most unusual decisions is to have Ariadne Oliver sick in bed for much of this adaptation. Zoe Wanamaker is a perfect Ariadne though, as she is in other adaptations, and her little asides concerning being an author are absolutely wonderful. One particular scene involving the cold ridden Ariadne sitting up in bed surrounded by edits grumbling about her ‘child of an editor’ is perfect and later her noting that ‘writers are prone to wild ideas’ steps over into that meta world she inhabits in Agatha Christie’s books.
But despite its plot and character changes, this adaptation stays very faithful to the atmosphere of the book, if not enhancing it even further. That small village claustrophobia and strange local tradition and folklore is fabulously captured. It is wonderful viewing for a ‘dark and stormy night’ and pays homage very subtly to the ghostly and ghoulish films of yesteryear. It is, sadly, the only TV adaptation there has been of this book and there are no films of it. I suspect its strange quirky take on old traditions would not appeal to the new Kenneth Branagh Poirot film audiences who expect a little more luxury and adventure from their Agatha Christie movies in the form of the Nile or the Orient Express. But if you’re looking for the quintessential English village with all its history and resentments, jealousies and obsessions – this is one for you.
There is, also, a fantastic audio book narrated by Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings) and a full cast version that is brilliant starring John Moffatt as Poirot and Stephanie Cole as Ariadne Oliver. These two are both worth seeking out and listening to – perhaps on a ‘dark and stormy night.’