Adapting Agatha 9 – Endings. Sleeping Murder
***SPOILER ALERT – some aspects of the following might give a little away. ***
This is one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. There is so much poignancy to it and interweaving stories of lost love or obsessive love. I think part of its allure comes from the fact that it is a book with its own story. Although the last Miss Marple book to be published, it was not the last she wrote. It was written during the Blitz when Agatha Christie was in London. She wrote this and Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last book, in case she was killed in an air raid. She gifted Sleeping Murder to her husband, Max Mallowan, and Curtain to her daughter, Rosalind. They were then locked in a bank vault to be published in the event of her death.
However, the story does not end there. This intriguing history has been much disputed. John Curran in his excellent book, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, suggests that Agatha Christie’s own notebooks reveal the book was still being planned as late as November 1948 as it is named under a section entitled ‘plans.’ Whether that refers to a first draft or perhaps some other plans such as a re-write or even re-naming is not clear though.
The book had many different titles in its pre-publication history. Firstly, Murder in Retrospect, then Cover Her Face – which it had to be changed from as the wonderful P.D. James got there first with her novel in 1962 (a title that comes from the words of the play The Duchess of Malfi which features in Sleeping Murder.) Agatha Christie’s agent, Edmund Cork had royalty statements from 1940 which show that the author was charged for typing the novel up when it was called Murder in Retrospect. She also drew up the legal documents that year to gift it to her husband before it was placed in the bank vault. And there it stayed with its partner, Curtain, until Agatha Christie knew she would not write any more Miss Marple or Poirot books and she authorised their publication. Curtain was released from its vault first, in 1975, but sadly she never saw the publication of Sleeping Murder in October 1976 as she had passed away in January 1976. Part of my love for this book is in this deeply touching story surrounding its history, but the story itself is magnificent.
The book has a beautiful sad romance to it. There are so many tales of frustrated love or lost love overlaying the much darker obsessive love at the centre of Sleeping Murder. It’s so sensitively written with a very gentle sadness to it, alongside the truly disturbing killer at the core. Helen journeys out to Walter Fane to marry him but decides she doesn’t love him and he loses his bride to be. He has already lost his first wife. Helen herself meets Richard Erskine onboard ship and there is a truly deep love between them but he is already married and that relationship falls away too. When Helen does marry, her husband Major Halliday dies in abject misery with very fragile sanity as a result of his belief that he killed his wife. These are heart rending tales of lost love, perhaps as a result of them being written as a goodbye to Miss Marple, perhaps because of the time they were written when so many people lost loved ones during the war. When Agatha Christie signed the document gifting this book to her beloved husband Max she wrote of her ‘natural love and affection for him.’
The story surrounding the book and the story within the book have such an elegant poignancy to them that they really do demand to be adapted with a sense of that and a very gentle touch. Joan Hickson’s sixth outing as Miss Marple does just that. Screened in January 1987, it is a very faithful adaptation and the script by Ken Taylor is very respectful of the book, not just in its adherence to the story and the characters but also the over-arching atmosphere of the book. If there is a criticism of the book, it is that the starting point for the plot, that of Gwenda being drawn to the childhood home she’d forgotten existed, is somewhat far-fetched. But I personally feel that this element of the guiding hand of fate is beautifully realised in such details as the cornflower wallpaper, the doors she shouldn’t know exist and the layout of the garden. It brings in that aspect Agatha Christie is so good at, the little thought that something else might be at work here, perhaps something more sinister or even supernatural. Many of the reviews I’ve read mention how dark and even frightening people found this when it was first aired.
The Joan Hickson version perfectly captures this. Another aspect readers sometimes mention with regard to this book is, of course, the timeline of Miss Marple herself. Although it is the last published Marple, it wasn’t, of course written last. That means Miss Marple is actually quite sprightly in this one, whereas in earlier published books she has already been told to slow down by her doctor and advised to no longer garden. In Sleeping Murder she is forever gardening and it is quite an integral part of the plot of the book. We also meet Dolly Bantry’s husband, Colonel Bantry who we have, of course, been told has died in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. But Joan Hickson overcomes any of the possible issues with her finely nuanced performance that perfectly captures the shrewd, intelligent and kind Miss Marple we all love in the books. Joan Hickson herself was 80 years old when filming this but she’s as sprightly as the ‘young’ Miss Marple we have in Sleeping Murder.
The setting exactly evokes Anstell Manor, with Cadhay House in Ottery Saint Mary being used. At one point there is even a poster on the wall advertising ‘Ottery Saint Mary village church fete’ to be held at Cadhay House. The supporting cast is wonderful, in particular Geraldine Alexander is a perfect Gwenda Reed. This is such a central character that the casting has to be good on this and she does not disappoint, caught on that boundary between being a young bride, excited by her new home and troubled terribly by the memories that start to plague her. Incidentally, eagle eyed viewers will have seen Geraldine Alexander on our screens recently as Mrs Wilson – the housekeeper at Bridgerton House.
Geraldine McEwan was a fabulous Miss Marple. Her mixture of sharp intelligence, generosity and mischief were beautifully pitched. However, in Sleeping Murder, the first episode of her second series of Marple which aired in 2006, although she still shines through, the changes to the storyline made by Stephen Churchett unfortunately did produce quite a lot of controversy. It had become obvious with the first ITV series of Marple that these episodes were not going to stick slavishly to the books or attempt to replicate the wonderful Miss Hickson. But this adaptation in particular strays so far from the book that it become a little difficult at points and did lead to criticism from purists. It’s always exciting to have new adaptations and to see new ways of working the storylines. I’d be very happy to see new versions of the Miss Marple stories being made. But this version of Sleeping Murder veers off in some unusual directions at points that I don’t quite understand the need for.
There are a lot of changes so I will just focus on the major ones that I think perhaps detract a little from the narrative. Firstly, Gwenda’s mother and step-mother are rolled into one. This is not perhaps so egregious but the story takes on a different role for Gwenda’s mother, that of the reformed thief who fakes her own death. I’m not sure I really characterised this person like that. It left a little unpleasant sense that she was a liar and, notably, had lied to her own daughter. In a way, it sullied the memory of her. But most importantly, I didn’t really understand the need for this change. We are also left without her husband, Gwenda’s father’s, tragic demise, losing his mind and guilt ridden until his death. In this version, he’s simply pushed off a cliff. He’s denied that extremely sad and poetic end that Agatha Christie had given him.
I think like most viewers who loved this book, all this could have been over-looked if it were not for the inclusion of The Funnybones. They are a singing and dancing music hall act comprised of Sarah Parish as a somewhat geeky, fast playing xylophone musician who shoots to fame, alongside a wistful Paul McGann, Dawn French and Martin Kemp. I’m not sure what the thought process was behind this insertion and I think, for me, it detracted a little from the narrative and the flow of tension. Some purist Agatha Christie fans even went as far as to use words such as ‘spoof’ and ‘farce.’ Although, I’m not sure it veers that far. It does seem a little unnecessary given that there is already the ‘play-within-the-play’ aspect to this with Gwenda visiting a production of The Duchess of Malfi. Harriet Walter is a very excellent Duchess seen for a few moments on the stage!
There is the usual star-studded cast for these more modern versions and in the most part they work well. Sophia Myles plays an excellent Gwenda (Halliday here as she hasn’t married Mr Reed). She’s charming with just the right nervous edge to her, even though her storyline has also been changed enormously from the book, giving her doubts about her forthcoming marriage. She has a new sidekick in the form of Hugh Hornbeam played by Aidan McArdle instead of a husband and a new romance element has been written in here. To some extent it works and perhaps even fits with the concept of love in the book but again I’m not really sure it adds a great deal.
One slight note is that Phillip Davis as Dr Kennedy is very good but given the nature of his character and his unwholesome obsession, perhaps making him so creepy with a hurried, perspiring look, might stand out a little too much, particularly given the reason for his actions.
There are a few more adaptations in other languages, such as the French version of Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie which features Larosiere and Lampion and makes no suggestion that it follows the original books. There is also a Syrian version and, of course, the Japanese animated version which I will leave you to discover yourselves.
I will just quickly mention the wonderful 2001 audio play featuring June Whitfield as Miss Marple. She is an excellent Marple and has done many audio versions of Agatha Christie’s work. They’re definitely worth seeking out. Julian Glover is perfect in this version as Dr Kennedy.
Whatever the true history is of this book, it still captivates and leaves that beautiful sense of loss and love. Agatha Christie in her autobiography says she ‘had written an extra two books during the first years of the war’ and that ‘those two books, when written, were put in the vaults of a bank.’ I’m afraid I’m inclined to always believe everything Agatha Christie said. But as Miss Marple warned, ‘It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.’
Adapting Agatha 8 – The Moving Finger
*** There will be some SPOILERS in the following***
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Agatha Christie in 1976 and so I thought it might be fitting to remember her by looking at one of her favourite novels – The Moving Finger. In her autobiography she says, ‘I find that another I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years before. One’s view changes. Some do not stand the test of time, others do.’ It really is what most authors are hoping for, that their books will stand the test of time and this one does so perfectly.
Written in 1942, like many of Agatha Christie’s works, its first publication was a serialisation (Colliers Weekly). It was first published as a book in America in 1942 and in the UK in 1943. Set in the classic English village of Lymstock in Devon it is told by a young pilot, Jerry Burton, who is injured and comes to the village with his sister, Joanna, to recover. This, of course, was one of Agatha Christie’s books which was published during the Second World War so why is it that this book has withstood the test of time so well? It is the subject matter at its heart that is still so fresh and familiar. As soon as the Burton’s arrive, they receive a poison pen letter accusing them of not being siblings at all but rather lovers. They soon discover that this sleepy little village has been under siege by the writer of these anonymous letters. One by one, each villager is accused of a host of indiscretions. This book plays beautifully with the very familiar idea that behind those quaint little English gardens and chintz curtains there are secrets. It is not so perfect as it looks. Village life and the intricate web of lies and whispered gossip that so often exists is put under the microscope here. How easy it is to start a rumour, even if it is unfounded. It is a classic Agatha Christie setting with a very relatable theme that is still very much alive to this day. Village gossip.
Of course, it being Agatha Christie, it appears to have deadly consequences. Mrs Symmington, wife of the village solicitor, is found dead with one of the anonymous letters, a bottle of cyanide and a note saying ‘I can’t go on.’ A suicide verdict is brought in. This is another layer of commentary on village life that Agatha Christie introduces. The terrible consequences that can result from such a dangerous game. Gossip and idle chatter is harmful. Then there is the further layer, when the maid is found dead, the police make the classic assumption that if it is a vicious neighbourhood gossip, it must be a middle-aged woman. Of course, it’s ripe ground for our assumptions to be played with so we over-look all the clues. The letters cloud our judgement of what we really should be able to see and when we do, we realise that we don’t have that ability to push aside the irrelevant chatter. We listen to it. Only Miss Marple can clear away all the mist and see it for what it really is.
This is a fantastic book with so many hidden layers. There are a host of wonderful characters and a setting that is perfect Agatha Christie. And, of course, there is Miss Marple at her very best. Which makes it a fabulous book to be adapted. There are three main adaptations. The Joan Hickson Miss Marple version of 1985; Geraldine McEwan’s version in 2006 for Agatha Christie’s Marple; and the June Whitfield 2001 radio adaptation. There is also a French TV series Les petits meurtres d’Agatha Christie and although these were popular, they do not feature Miss Marple and it is a very loose adaptation.
The first adaptation for television was the Joan Hickson version in 1985 which was a two part adaptation. This was her second outing as Miss Marple, the first being The Body in the Library, and the marvellous relationship between this actor and the producer Guy Slater is already on full display. The adaptation was helped enormously by Agatha Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks’ close working relationship with the production. Joan Hickson is fabulous in the role, showing her shrewd intellect alongside a wonderful sense of humour. It’s so beautifully observed, particularly given that in the original novel, Miss Marple is missing for a large part. There are some other notably good characters played here by Michael Culver as Edward Symmington; the wonderful Sabrina Franklyn as Joanna Burton; and Deborah Appleby is a very good Megan.
But it’s the setting itself and the atmosphere created around Miss Marple that is also stand out in this production. There is that immediate sense of a pretty little village community hiding nasty secrets in the famous credits that at first seem like harmless watercolours but on further inspection reveal a more sinister intent. Nether Wallop is as always the perfect backdrop for the quintessential English village ready to play host to a series of vile murders and intrigue. It’s a familiar, reassuring setting that lures us in beautifully and then the deaths begin. This version was almost universally applauded and Joan Hickson has remained the gold standard for productions of Miss Marple.
So it was very much a mindful decision to bring a different interpretation to the Agatha Christie’s Marple series. This has not been without its critics, not least of all because Miss Marple is inserted into adaptations of books she never appeared in and whole plot lines and murderers were changed. Purists find this utterly reprehensible. And whilst some of the thinking behind creating something new rather than trying to present a second rate copy of the Joan Hickson versions, is laudable, there are some mis-steps. However, The Moving Finger is not one of them. Geraldine McEwan is pitch perfect in her portrayal of a very delicate, almost bird-like Miss Marple who twitters around the village but her razor sharp intellect suddenly cuts through a scene. Like Joan Hickson, she is shrewd and determined whilst being the most inoffensive, polite and kind old lady we find so easy to imagine as one of our own delightful old relatives.
This is a far more stylised version than the Joan Hickson version. It’s set after the war and the fashions are beautifully recreated. Emilia Fox, no stranger to Agatha Christie adaptations, is fabulously stylish as Joanna Burton, with her bright red lipstick and pinch waist skirts.
So too is Kelly Brook and Talulah Riley who blossoms with a trip to the dressmakers! This really is an all star cast. Ken Russell puts in a delightfully disturbing turn as the vicar with his wife played by Frances de la Tour; Sean Pertwee is a brilliantly earnest Dr Griffith; John Sessions is a perfect Mr Pye; and Harry Enfield is surprisingly good as Mr Symmington. The role of the books narrator, however, was somewhat changed in character which not everyone agrees with. Jerry Burton is played by James d’Arcy but this time we see him as a self-destructive, somewhat self-absorbed, drunk who has attempted to take his life. In some respects, it is a representation of the post-war misery many young men suffered. However, is this the place for that analysis? It is a little jarring to have the representation of a quiet idyll with the usual array of characters and then introduce such a tortured soul. It seems to be the way with more modern adaptations that the emotional turmoil of some of the characters has to be played up much more. Arguably though, there is scope within the depiction of some of the people who are so disturbed that they are driven to kill.
Putting this aside, this is a very fun, stylish adaptation that is one of the best this series produced, not least of all because it doesn’t veer too far away from the original work as many of the later productions did.
I must also mention, finally, the wonderful June Whitfield radio version of 2001. This, as with all her outings as Miss Marple, is pitch perfect and evokes the village atmosphere beautifully. It is almost as if Miss Marple were sitting down to read the book to you herself. A fantastic version.
Thank you very much for reading and, as always, if you have any comment I’d love to hear them.
Adapting Agatha 7 – A Bundle of Fun!
As with all the Adapting Agatha series, I’ll begin with a ***SPOILER ALERT ***. I find it almost impossible to talk meaningfully about individual adaptations without giving away at least something. I would hate to do so and spoil future readers’ enjoyment of the novels. So if you haven’t done already, please read The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery before reading on!
The adaptation of The Secret of Chimneys for the Marple series in 2010 could on first inspection be said to have it all, perhaps too much. The perfect setting of a wonderful country house, Chimneys; there’s a ball; cocktails; jewels; murder; and the usual star-studded cast. And, of course, Miss Marple. And, although Julia McKenzie isn’t my favourite Miss Marple, my feelings don’t run as deep as many Agatha Christie fans who were very upset by this particular adaptation. Some refuse to even watch it. Why? Because it’s not a Miss Marple book at all. The Secret of Chimneys does not have Miss Marple in it at all, but as with The Seven Dials Mystery, it features Lady Eileen Brent, known as ‘Bundle’, and Superintendent Battle, along with a host of other characters who appear in both books. The adaptation of The Secret of Chimneys was another episode of the Marple series that continued with the idea that all of Agatha Christie’s books were fair game and could be used and filleted in any fashion to attract new audiences. It was seen more as a body of work to be adapted rather than each stand-alone book. Quite apart from it not being a Miss Marple book, the murderer is changed, huge parts of the plot are altered, a large section of a different story, The Herb of Death is slotted in and many of the characters are changed. So can this really still be called an adaptation of the novel by Agatha Christie bearing the name The Secret of Chimneys?
After Chorion bought shares in Agatha Christie Ltd, adaptations took a whole new direction from 2004 onwards. From the very beginning, the Marple series had made huge changes to plot and character in many of the adaptations. The Secret of Chimneys was not the first time Miss Marple had been squeezed into a story that she’d never been in before.
The general approach of all these adaptations was to bring something new, something different to the Miss Marple character. It could well have been through fear of looking like a poor imitation of the Joan Hickson adaptations. Gemma Jones was always mooted as a favourite to play Miss Marple but was considered too close to Joan Hickson’s interpretation to risk. However, throughout the long running series which began with Geraldine McKewan in 2004 and ended with Julia McKenzie in 2013, the producers hadn’t been afraid to take risks in other areas and go in new directions. Many of the stories they adapted for Marple were not Miss Marple books at all. Even for the productions where they were, changes to era, characters and plot were often quite extreme. Many Agatha Christie fans see this as sacrilegious and attempting to use the name Marple for productions that bear little resemblance to Agatha Christie’s original work. Some fans are outraged at the use of Agatha Christie’s material to cobble together something `new.’ I’ve touched on this before in previous articles. I don’t believe in the idea one fan mooted of ‘Joan Hickson is Miss Marple. The end.’ I would never want to see an end to Agatha Christie adaptations. I love nothing better than a new Agatha Christie adaptation, given how many times I’ve watched the old ones! It’s always interesting to see a new dynamic or take on the books. And, in fairness, there’s a lot to love in the Marple series. They’re great fun, with a host of fabulous actors. The settings are magnificent and very reminiscent of the books. And they did indeed bring in a whole new audience. But many fans see them as verging on pastiche, particularly the ones, such as The Secret of Chimneys, where the era is shifted and some believe the whole production begins to take on the feel of a parody rather than an adaptation.
The Secret of Chimneys was written in 1925 and is an exciting mix of murder mystery and treasure hunt with a healthy dose of espionage thrown in for good measure. There’s blackmail, murders, Kings and fictional countries. Agatha Christie uses Herzoslovakia as she does more than once in her books. There’s even the Koh-i-Noor diamond stolen from the Tower of London. Misdirection, concealed identities and international conspiracies mix together to create what Agatha Christie called ‘the light-hearted thriller type.’ It has echoes of The Thirty Nine Steps, with its secret societies and codes. There’s even a flavour of The Prisoner of Zenda with the Balkan intrigues and characters. There’s a touch of Sherlock Holmes, indeed one of the characters is even called Holmes, and the cast of characters with their bright-young-things vibe has definite echoes of P.G. Wodehouse. So you can see from page one that it’s not the standard, tightly plotted Agatha Christie novel.
Lady Eileen Brent, aka Bundle, features in this novel and is even more central in the follow up book, The Seven Dials Mystery. Both are set at Chimneys, which is based on Abney Hall in Cheshire, and both feature many of the same characters.
Bundle is at the centre of the bright-young-things group. In The Secret of Chimneys she is nineteen years old (she talks about being twelve in an incident that occurred seven years ago). Bill Eversleigh says of her, ‘She’s simply it.’ As in the ‘It Girl.’ She’s the kind of girl who drives a wonderful sports car far too fast. In The Seven Dials Mystery she even thinks she’s run someone over, but is relieved to discover they’ve only been shot! She’s attractive, receiving two proposals of marriage in The Seven Dials Mystery. And smart enough to be made an offer to become one of the seven dials herself at the end of the book. She’s fantastic fun as well. Lomax, aka ‘Codders’ who is one of her proposed suitors, says of her in The Secret of Chimneys, she’s ‘charming, simply charming.’ However, he does go on to say she’s ‘quite a child.’ But by the time we meet her four years later in The Seven Dials Mystery she is much more mature and is, in fact, the heroine of that book. She has changed in those years. It’s interesting to note that The Secret of Chimneys was released the year before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance and the turbulence that erupted in her life. There is a subtle change in Bundle’s character by the time we see her again in Seven Dials. She is less the little girl and more competent, worldly wise, brave. However, it’s fair to say that there’s still that element of mischief. She’s still only twenty-three – a little reckless and definitely still `simply it.’
In the 1981 film of The Seven Dials Mystery, directed by Tony Wharmby, Bundle is played beautifully by Cheryl Campbell. She’s wide-eyed, young, vivacious and fiercely bright. She’s the perfect mix of scatty and sharp. This was another all-star production with Sir John Gielgud, Harry Andrews and Rula Lenska. It received 17.6 million viewers but there were still sceptics who thought this was a ‘minor Christie’ to choose to adapt and that such a stellar production should have been reserved for a more well-known Agatha Christie.
Bundle is also performed beautifully in the 2005 audio book by Emilia Fox. She’s absolutely perfect and is `simply it.’ It would have been wonderful to see her perform the role on screen.
Unfortunately, this production does suffer a little, as many audio books do, from the fact that she also has to perform all the male characters but that’s easily overlooked as the rest of the production is superb.
Sadly, Bundle is another one of the major problems with the 2010 adaptation for the Marple series. This time she is played by Dervla Kirwan, who is generally wonderful in most things, but unfortunately she is entirely unsuited to this role and plays it with a surly unhappiness.
She’s much older than in the books, although it is set in 1955 looking back to the ball of 1932. There is no joie de vivre, no mischief and her role is hugely played down. That is, of course, in no small part due to the fact that Miss Marple has suddenly popped up in her story when she should not be there. Making room for Miss Marple in your murder mystery is bound to lead to casualties. And Bundle is the main one. Side-lined and demoted to a new role of sister of Lady Virginia. Bundle does have sisters in the book, two Dulcie and Daisy, but not Virginia – she’s George’s cousin in the books. Lady Virginia is also thrown into the spotlight and to some extent steals Bundle’s place. Add to this another detective, Inspector Finch (changed from Superintendent Battle), and it really is a case of two many sleuths spoil the plot. Finch is played wonderfully though by Stephen Dillane and is very cool, detached and thoughtful. The interplay between him and Miss Marple is, however, a little stilted and again there is that feeling that there are too many detectives in this production. It must be one of the only times in my life I’ve ever considered a situation might be better without Miss Marple in it, which is rather inconvenient given this is an episode of Marple!
The rest of the cast is very good but the huge changes to the plot completely change the nature of their characters. The murderer is changed, which casts one of the characters in a very different light and leads to the espionage aspect being a side issue to the murder and more of a red herring. The huge swathes of plot that are changed, lead to some plot holes and this being a very different experience to the book. It’s probably more appropriate to say it’s based on the works of Agatha Christie rather than an actual adaptation of one of her novels, which is a shame because this is a very good book indeed. Sadly, given the nature of the plot changes, particularly in regard to the identity of the murderer, it leaves it very difficult to imagine an adaptation of The Seven Dials Mystery could in any way have stemmed from this. Which is a great shame as that is a wonderful book.
There is one other adaptation of The Secret of Chimneys which I must mention and that is one written by Agatha Christie herself. It’s a play called simply Chimneys which she wrote in 1931but was only rediscovered recently by the artistic director of a the Vertigo Mystery Theatre, John Paul Fischbach and, consequently, was never performed until 2003. The full wonderful story of how it was unearthed is here and is definitely worth a read. It’s to be hoped that one day this is adapted for the screen and will do more justice to the novel than the 2010 adaptation.
Thank you so much for reading and look out for something a little different in the run up to Christmas. I’ll be choosing my top ten Agatha Christie novels alongside my top ten crime novels of this year in my Jingle all the Slay murder mystery post (and yes, I am calling it that. It’s almost Christmas!)
Adapting Agatha 6: Hallowe’en Party
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.’
Adapting Agatha 5 – Evil Under the Sun. A tribute to Dame Diana Rigg
It was a huge sadness to hear of the death of Dame Diana Rigg – a glorious actress in so many ways. Not just beautiful but immensely talented, with an effortless glamour that was magnetic. She had an inherently intelligent, astute nature that meant she could play in Shakespeare, The Worst Witch and Game of Thrones with equal grace, intellect and a truly beguiling screen presence. She was both Emma Peel and James Bond’s on screen wife. This column is all about Agatha Christie adaptations and I had begun work on writing about Evil under the Sun when the sad news broke that Dame Diana Rigg had sadly passed away. I had considered not putting this out but I thought it might serve as my small tribute to her in one of her most iconic roles and one loved so very much by Agatha Christie fans. How very fortunate we are to have her as Arlena Stuart forever. She embodies the character Agatha Christie wrote.
As usual I will begin with a ***SPOILER*** alert. I find it almost impossible to talk about adaptations without giving something away so please don’t continue if you haven’t read the book or seen the films. It’s a good one!!
The 1982 version of Evil Under the Sun is one of the best adaptations of her novels. This is Agatha Christie at her best, an island populated by the good, the bad and the suspicious, there’s a death and everyone has a motive. It’s Hercule Poirot at his finest too, in full holiday mode and sipping cocktails whilst analysing his fellow guests’ every move. The movie star, Arlena Stuart now Marshall after her recent marriage, is perfectly played by Diana Rigg. She is the icon, the demandingly gorgeous superstar who can command a room just by walking through it. One of the most magnificent moments in the film is when she sings You’re the Top to a room of captivated guests. Dame Maggie Smith, playing the wonderful hotel owner, Daphne Castle decides to join in and the most fantastic duel of the divas ensues. It is a classic scene.
The two great actresses are wonderful in these roles and deliver some fabulous lines such as:
Arlena Stuart: Oh, dear! I’m the last to arrive.
Daphne Castle: Have a sausage. You must be starving having to wait all that time in your room.
Incidentally, a small piece of Agatha Christie adaptation trivia is that the children of both these wonderful actresses appeared together in a later Agatha Christie adaptation – the 1989 Poirot episode of Five Little Pigs in which Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith’s son) was cast alongside Rachael Stirling (Diana Rigg’s daughter).
In every scene that Diana Rigg is in, she is utterly enthralling. Her costumes are magnificent, she is groomed to perfection and the audience immediately knows this is an icon in her prime.
But she does, as with every major Agatha Christie adaption, have the benefit of a magnificent cast. There are some wonderful performances in this version. Colin Blakely is fabulous as ‘muck and brass’ Sir Horace Blatt; James Mason is very suave as Odell Gardner and some have suggested that he takes on a very ‘meta’ voice in that he outlines the principles of the ‘whodunnit’ for the author; Jane Birkin and Nicholas Clay are very convincing, beautiful murderers; Maggie Smiths’ Daphne Castle (an amalgamation of Mrs Castle and Rosamund Darnley of the books) is a perfect blend of brash and heart-warming; and Roddy McDowall is on flying form as the flamboyant Rex Brewster. This character has been changed to a man for the movie instead of being Emily Brewster. A few other characters have been dropped entirely, including Reverend Lane and Major Barry. Then, of course, there is Peter Ustinov’s Poirot.
Peter Ustinov appeared as the Belgian sleuth six times. There were three made for TV movies (Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly and Murder in Three Acts). Thirteen at Dinner was based on Lord Edgware Dies and also starred David Suchet as Inspector Japp. Peter Ustinov had previously appeared as Poirot in the magnificent Death on the Nile in 1978 (also starring Jane Birkin and Maggie Smith). However, Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks observed Ustinov during a rehearsal and said, “That’s not Poirot! He isn’t at all like that!” Ustinov overheard and remarked “He is now!“
For many, sadly, Peter Ustinov did not embody the Poirot of the books. His version was fun, endearing and extremely charming but was not the Hercule Poirot of the books. There is a comical, almost farcical nature to him at times. He is the bon viveur on tour, the reluctant celebrity who performs magic tricks with eggs for children. In some ways, he appears as a comedy version of a bombastic colonel at times veering into a musical hall or Carry On persona. The scene where he pretends to swim is somewhat ridiculous, particularly given the bathing suit which Peter Ustinov himself designed, complete with hat. The character of Poirot in the books does, of course, have a lighter side to him and at times his slightly eccentric behaviour is marvelled at by others. This is a new and criticised aspect of the Kenneth Branagh version of Poirot but those traits are there in the books. However, I feel they were somewhat over-played in this Peter Ustinov adaptation. The whole tone of the film is, although fun, a little tongue in cheek.
That said, it is a joy of film that didn’t do particularly well at the box office but has a huge cult following amongst many fans. Sadly, this Guy Hamilton version put an end to the franchise of producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin which is sad as it comes through very strongly just how much fun the cast and production crew were having on this film.
In 1999 the excellent Joh Moffatt starred in the radio adaptation that had a fabulous Iain Glen as Patrick Redfern and Fiona Fullerton as Arlena Marshall. I would have loved to see these actors play in a TV or film adaptation. They are absolutely perfect in the roles and it’s a wonderful radio play I would recommend to anyone.
Unusually, this is one of the very few occasions that I would say the David Suchet 2001 version does not quite live up to the earlier 1982 film. David Suchet is a far more nuanced Poirot and has had the advantage of an enormous number of years to carry this character forward and really embody the role. For some, he is the Poirot. However, his version of Evil Under the Sun is not quite as fulfilling as the 1982 film version.
The setting, however, for this David Suchet version, is one of my favourites and one I have spoken about before in this column – Burgh Island, the Devon Island that inspired Agatha Christie. Pixie Cove is based on The Mermaid Pool (which I’ve recently had the honour of swimming in but I’ll save you from the photos of that!)
It’s also the island that inspired And Then There Were None. This David Suchet version of Evil Under the Sun is beautifully shot there. He travels over on the fantastic sea tractor and what better way can there be to journey to a hotel? It’s the most unique and wonderful way to arrive and on the way over you can even see the beach hut where Agatha Christie did some of her writing.
The 1982 film version chose a more exotic location of Mallorca, Guy Hamilton having lived there for many years. The aerial shots are of the uninhabited island of Sa Dragonera. Cala d’en Monjo was used for the exteriors of Daphne’s Cove and Hotel; the hotel itself was a private estate. It does bring an extra, more exotic element to the production. After all, it’s Evil under the Sun and that can’t always be guaranteed in Devon.
However, in spite of the wonderful Burgh Island being the location that pays homage to Agatha Christie, in the David Suchet version it is transformed in part into a health retreat, given that Poirot has health problems at the time. This somehow, for me, takes away from the glamour of it all. Poirot should not be drinking health smoothies – well, he probably should but not when he’s solving a crime. As with the book there is the drug smuggling aspect which never seems to hang very well in the story and is sensibly removed from the 1982 film version.
Although directed by Brian Farnham and dramatized by one of my favourite authors, Anthony Horowitz, this version falls a little short. It’s good to see Miss Lemon, Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon added to this one but the rest of the cast is not as good as the film version. Louise Delamere does not have the film star attraction that Diana Rigg has and Rosalind March and Marsha Fiztalan don’t measure up to Maggie Smith. Michael Higgs is a more sinister Patrick Redfern but Tamzin Malleson as Christine Redfern is not as enigmatic as Jane Birkin. Russell Tovey makes a very young appearance as Lionel Marshall, a part that was changed to a girl in the 1982 version.
Unusually for the David Suchet versions, this adaptation is a little drab and has a slow pace in parts, particularly those around the smuggling. It doesn’t have the dramatic tone most of these Poirot’s have and Poirot himself is somewhat cowed by being forced to cut back on all the things he loves. It doesn’t have that wonderful sense of escapist glamour and fun that runs through the 1982 version. But then it doesn’t have the magnificent Dame Diana Rigg in her prime – the very essence of an iconic movie star. Which is how she will always be remembered.
Adapting Agatha 4 – Witness for the Prosecution
Today’s post is one very close to my own heart. I was a criminal barrister for many years on the London circuit, appearing in the Crown Court and the Old Bailey regularly. Witness for the Prosecution, of course, focuses on a court case and the characters surrounding it. The lawyers play a key role along with the witnesses. It was also, as Agatha Christie herself said, ‘one of my plays that I liked best myself.’
It began life as a short story called Traitor’s Hands in 1925. Agatha Christie herself adapted it as a play which opened in 1953 where, although the central idea is the same, there are some marked differences, the main one being that the defence barrister’s role is enormously enhanced. He becomes one of the central figures of the play as his intellect is set against that of the witness Christine (Romaine as she was in the original story). It is a battle of wits between them as Sir Wilfrid Robarts defends Leonard Vole on a murder charge. He is undoubtedly talented counsel and the defender of the lost cause. But the question is, will his arrogant belief in his own talents in court, actually wrong foot him and in fact be used to someone else’s advantage? Obviously, as with all my other posts I try quite hard not to include too many spoilers. But this is one of Agatha Christie’s greatest reveals. The conclusion is so shockingly clever that I urge you to seek out one of the many wonderful versions before reading any further. As the poster to the 1957 film said, ‘You’ll talk about it! But please don’t tell the ending.’ There is even an announcement at the end of the film reminding the audience of this again.
I adore the cut and thrust of the courtroom and, of course, this central question – will the arrogant, self-belief of defence counsel ultimately blind him? Can it be turned against him if he doesn’t realise there might be someone cleverer and more wily than himself? He’s known as the the fox but will his actual strength be his downfall? I love this question as it was one that was on display in various guises most days in court. Is your own perception of the case, your own will to win, the guiding factor that obscures everything else? I was always very much of the mind that I was not there to judge, I was there to defend to the very best of my ability but this play takes it further into the world of judgement and personal belief. I was often asked the question, ‘How can you possibly defend someone you know is guilty?’ The truth is, you do not know. You never know. Here, Sir Wilfrid seeks constantly to question that and convince himself, sometimes through the very unusual trick of using his monocle to blind the person he is questioning, of the defendant’s innocence and when a witness is lying. This is a very dangerous route. Your own beliefs are or should be irrelevant. Sir Wilfrid merges his own convictions with the act of defending Leonard Vole. He pays a visit to someone who holds devastating evidence and pays them for the letters that will sway the entire case. He becomes part of the case. At the end, when he witnesses a murder in the courtroom itself, we are led to believe he will then go on to defend the accused even though he was there for the actual act.
There are, of course, quite a few areas where the play deviates somewhat from our criminal procedure laws as they stand nowadays. The primary device of the play is, of course, now defunct – the rule of Double Jeopardy (a person could not at that time be tried for murder twice if they had been acquitted). Also, disclosure laws are thankfully quite different today so there are no final, devastating prosecution witnesses called whom the defence were completely unaware of. They cannot either produce unseen evidence of marriage certificates that prove they are not the spouse of the defendant! It is definitely a piece of fiction that must be seen as written for its time. There is of course the overriding fact that if Sir Wilfrid loses, the defendant will hang. Thankfully, I never had this to contend with. Nonetheless, the play does not suffer for any of these anachronisms, even now, and the number of remarkably wonderful productions are testament to that.
One of the very best versions I’ve seen is in fact the theatre production at County Hall in London. This is utterly fantastic because, as they advertise, you are ‘summoned for jury service,’ and ‘court is in session.’ By the very nature of the production, which is set in the old Greater London Council building, you are instantly immersed in a criminal court where a murder trial is being conducted. The atmosphere is, as it is in a courtroom for such a trial, gripping and tense from the very outset. You are, along with your fellow audience members, embroiled from the beginning. The audience reactions are also just as much part of the production and I found myself looking around to see how others were taking various pieces of evidence. The director, Lucy Bailey, has used the setting to maximum effect and you truly do feel that you are in the middle of a murder trial that could go either way in a time when the barristers worked in the shadow of the noose. I believe there are even tickets (when theatre productions are permitted again) to sit in the jury box itself. It is an incredible spectacle which the actors take full advantage of.
I was fortunate enough to see a magnificent cast for the Olivier Award-nominated play. This included the very excellent Carolin Stoltz as Romaine Vole, wife of the accused. She was that glorious mix of intelligent and beguiling enough to twist any situation. Leonard Vole was played by Lewis Cope, again excellent and displaying the nervous fragility and wide-eyed innocence that is essential. The lawyers included Simon Dutton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Giles Taylor playing Mr Myers QC, Michael Cochrane as Mr Justice Wainwright, and Tim Frances as Mr Mayhew. All of whom were very believable as upholders of a system they think of as infallible. Most of all, the story is gripping and carries you along to a conclusion no one could have expected.
I’d say as a slight aside, that this is not always the case with productions of Agatha Christie works. I recently listened to the audio full cast dramatisation starring Hywel Bennett and, although the acting was very good and the cast excellent, the story’s adaptation was rather chaotic and even though I know the story, I was finding it very confusing with a lot of strange snapshots involving the character of George who is only briefly alluded to in the short story. It really did highlight the fact that, in spite of everything else, any adaptation has to tell the story with clarity.
The 1957 film version achieved this fantastically. It starred, in my opinion, the greatest actor ever to play Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Charles Laughton. There’d been a TV production in 1953, the year the play opened, with Edward G. Robinson playing the role to good reviews. However, the 1957 Billy Wilder Movie attracted six Oscar nominations and has some utterly stand out actors in the various roles. Tyrone Power starred as Leonard Vole and this was to be his last full length film. He played the part with perfect understatement, the guileless, slightly feckless defendant who had more than a little of the used car salesman about him.
But the focus of the film is on the magnificent duel between two icons of cinema – Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid and Marlene Dietrich as Christine (changed from the name Romaine).
We see Sir Wilfrid at the very height of his profession, but weak through ill-health. He even uses this to his advantage in the courtroom, counting out his heart tablets and lining them up slowly and carefully. Their consumption marks out the passing of the time in court and is a distraction device he uses throughout. He delivers fabulous lines, particularly to his long suffering nurse played by Elsa Lanchester (his real life wife) such as when he attempts to negotiate the stairs after he comes home from hospital and says he must be careful otherwise ‘a barrister might fall off the banister.’ There is a joy to his wit, a mischievous, rebellious nature to him. In spite of his illness, he is a tower of strength in the court room. He will do everything and more to defend his client to the last – a characteristic, of course, which will be used by others for their own ends. Charles Laughton was said to have based his performance on his own lawyer, Florance Guedella, who incidentally was well known for his monocle! Charles Laughton is almost Churchillian at some points, with his profile, cigar in hand and posing with the ‘v’ sign. His wit and gravitas are matched perfectly against Marlene Dietrich’s Christine Vole.
The moment she walks into chambers, the screen is alight. She has an incredible magnetism that can confound anyone – even the best of defence barristers! Vivien Leigh was also in the running for the role but I think Marlene Dietrich is exactly as Agatha Christie describes Romaine Vole as she is called in the story, ‘perfectly calm and composed.’ Even after she has performed in a nightclub and is attacked by a large number of soldiers she seems only concerned about her trousers being ripped. This is a woman hardened by the war and the horrors she has endured. She suffers prejudice openly because of her nationality and her very obvious accent. She is immediately mistrusted, treated with a guardedness. She is a clever, resourceful woman which is a devastating combination when mixed with the fact that she is deeply in love with Mr Leonard Vole. Her passions run deep but she is an actress and plays her part very well indeed. As Agatha Christie tells us of Romaine Vole in her short story, ‘From the very first Mr Mayherne was conscious that he was up against something that he did not understand.’ Sir Wilfrid’s downfall is that he thinks he does understand, he is so certain he does and this is a woman no one can be sure of.
Diana Rigg is also excellent in the role in the 1982 TV adaptation. She is aloof, vulnerable and incredibly intelligent. She is more than a match for Ralph Richardson’s Sir Wilfrid who, although wonderful, does embrace that perception of the establishment, pompous barrister. Perhaps my sensitivity for this though stems from knowing many barristers who were like that! Less so nowadays but certainly there were many like this when I was starting out.
However, one criticism I would have, which is perhaps more a criticism of the make up than anything else, is that when Diana Rigg masquerades as the woman selling letters to Sir Wilfrid, it is very obviously Diana Rigg. That destabilises the whole plot really. With Marlene Dietrich, the first time I saw the production, I could not tell at all that it was her. Perhaps I was being a little naïve but it was rumoured that it cost her the Oscar since it was so good that the audiences didn’t actually know that role was in fact played by her as well. That’s maybe a little bit of Hollywood folklore though.
One thing both Diana Rigg and Marlene Dietrich had as well as everything else though, was sex appeal. They were the agent provocateur, the woman who is dangerously alluring. That characteristic, however, went to Kim Cattrall in the 2016 Sarah Phelps’ adaptation. I am all too aware of the arguments that rage over the modern versions of Agatha Christie novels that Sarah Phelps has written. Some think they are magnificent retellings that bring something new and different to the stories. Some, however, have very strong views in the opposite direction. I do not think I can write a post on Witness for the Prosecution without discussing this adaptation. Some people have written comments previously that these works should not even be discussed but I do not agree with that. I think all adaptations should be open to honest yet polite debate.A very new interpretation of Emily French by Kim Cattrall.
I think I should put it straight out there. I like this 2016 version. Yes, it is darker than intended. No, it is not exactly what Agatha Christie wrote. She certainly didn’t include sex scenes between Mr Mayhew (played by a fabulous and sick Toby Jones). However, it moves the narrative forward. This is not just a court room scene with a clever ending. This is about survival and what people will do to find happiness. As with all Sarah Phelps’ interpretations, because that is what they are – interpretations, she focuses in on different aspects that haven’t been under the spotlight before. But they are undoubtedly there. They are alluded to in the text of the story and the play. These human instincts, though veiled, are intended and this is just one way of bringing them to centre stage. I’m sure we would not want just another rehearsal of how witty and smart Sir Wilfrid is in court.
What this version shows us is a story not just about the motivations of men, but of women. It shows us a desperate, lonely woman with Emily French. Kim Cattrall plays this magnificently. She is rich and beautiful, but faded. She has large elements of the dark attraction we saw earlier with Marlene Dietrich and Diana Rigg in the Romaine/Christine Vole part. She can in parts be alluring but at others, when the young Leonard Vole is in her bath, she is an ageing predator. She is a woman who has invited this man into her life. What motivation is there really? She is by no means the wholesome widow. She showers a man with riches and attention for what? As with most of these areas of controversy, it is there in the original text. Agatha Christie may not have written a sex scene per se or even a predatory bath scene. But she wrote this about the lawyer’s perception of Emily French and we must remember she wrote these words in 1925. ‘He saw Miss French, infatuated with the good-looking young man, hunting about for pretexts that should bring him to the house.’ And then, ‘Emily French had been a strong-willed old woman, willing to pay her price for what she wanted.’ Leonard Vole himself was no innocent to this. He knew exactly what was going on when he says to his solicitor:
‘I’ll make a clean breast of it. I was hard up, as you know. I hoped that Miss French might lend me some money. She was fond of me, but she wasn’t at all interested in the struggles of a young couple. Early on, I found that she had taken it for granted that my wife and I didn’t get on – were living apart. Mr Mayherne – I wanted the money – for Romaine’s sake. I said nothing, and allowed the old lady to think what she chose.’
He says, quite honestly, ‘She showed so plainly her fondness and affection for me that I was placed in an awkward position.’
I believe the Sarah Phelps’ version captures this awkwardness perfectly. They both know, and we the audience know, from the very beginning that there is an ambiguity here, a distastefulness but honesty. She ‘mothers’ him, ‘pampers’ him, just as Agatha Christie describes. It is not a comfortable relationship to imagine or watch. But this comes at a price. She’s lonely, she’s sad, she’s rich and he’s poor. All the motivations are clearly set out. And Leonard Vole is a desperate man. It is not a new story and for the first time in an adaptation, Sarah Phelps gave Emily French a realistic voice, a depth that Agatha Christie had intended to be there. She’s not the drab old woman lingering in the shadows or the silly old woman who is being bamboozled. She’s the woman who will take the young man at whatever sordid price that might be.
The women take centre stage in this Sarah Phelps version. Not just with Kim Cattrall’s beautifully sad and truthful portrayal of Emily French. But Andrea Riseborough brings us all the wily intellect of a woman who has been to the very brink of despair and poverty. We see her and Leonard meet in the war in a state of despondency and near collapse. They hold each other up. We see true motivation for crimes that are, to most of us, unthinkable. I think we go right back to the short story with this version. She’s Romaine – not Christine. Mr Mayhew is pulled out of the shadows again. Agatha Christie tells us what Mr Mayhew thinks of Romaine in her short story, ‘Women were the devil when they got their knife into you.’ The Sarah Phelps’ version may not be exactly as Agatha Christie wrote it, but it is an adaptation. It adapts this story to show us a new, different edge – one that we may not have considered before.
There are other female characters too that have a new light shone on them in this adaptation. I’ve spoken earlier of the solicitor’s wife Alice Mayhew, played by Hayley Carmichael. She too is riddled by grief and broken by a time that brought heartache for so many. Her husband, played sensitively by Toby Jones, is the sick lawyer here, peering through wickets for crumbs of work, trying to please a disconnected wife. He finds his case in another broken man, or thinks he does. He searches for justice in a world that seems so very unjust – that has taken his son, and the best part of his wife. If he can win this, he can fix it – fix his wife. But there is no fixing this woman. She is distant, disengaged with life and she too is broken.
Then we see Monica Dolan as Janet McIntyre – Emily French’s maid and we can compare her grief at the loss of Miss French. She is devoted in a way that goes beyond employment. She is her lady. Men come. Men go. When Emily French is dead, she doesn’t even want the police to touch her. This woman belongs to her. It is another form of love again. A form that also manifests itself in jealousy and vengeance. A love for which she will see a man hang. Agatha Christie writes that Leonard Vole says, ‘She was jealous and suspicious.’ She is Miss Danvers to Emily French, the overly devoted maid whose love knows no bounds, is protective and can be interpreted in many different ways.
That, I think, is the essence of new adaptations. They interpret the text in a new and innovative way. Yes, there are changes. Yes, people will disagree. But the important thing is it keeps it alive. This is a short story written almost a hundred years ago but the motivations of the characters are as real today as they were then – desperate, clever people who will go to unthinkable ends to survive – who will take on the equally clever pillars of the establishment and use any tool at their disposal.
Adapting Agatha 3 – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Which is the best Miss Marple?
So far I’ve looked at adaptations of a Poirot novel and a standalone. By natural progression therefore it really had to be a Miss Marple next. Everyone has a favourite Marple novel but I wouldn’t say this was mine. Similarly, everyone has a favourite actress who has played Marple. Although it’s widely stated that Agatha Christie was disappointed with Margaret Rutherford’s films of Miss Marple, this book is in fact dedicated to her.
I’ll put my hand up from the very beginning and say my favourite Miss Marple is Geraldine McEwan and to my knowledge she never acted in an adaptation of this book.So it might seem like a strange choice for my first foray into Marple books – not my favourite book and Miss Marple not played by my favourite actor. However, this novel seems very relevant to now. The plot is not as ingenious as many of Agatha Christie’s other novels. For those of you who haven’t noticed the announcement at the top, there are now going to be huge spoilers and I really would advise you to stop reading now if you’ve not read the novel.
An ageing film star, Marina Gregg, moves in to Gossington Hall, a house which had appeared in an earlier novel The Body in the Library. Dolly Bantry has been forced to sell and move out . Marina Gregg hosts a party for all the locals and spends time meeting and greeting the star struck guests, one of whom is Heather Badcock. She is a huge fan of Marina’s and, whilst the party goes on around her, she tells Marina in passing that they’ve met before, in Bermuda when Heather Badcock dragged herself from her sick bed to meet her heroine. Marina Gregg is suddenly very distracted and photographed with the most unusual look on her face – described as being like that of the Lady of Shalot:
‘The mirror crack’d from side to side:
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.’
Miss Badcock spills her cocktail on Marina and Marina then passes her own to the woman. Miss Badcock drinks it and dies almost immediately. It’s later found to have large amounts of the substance Calmo in it. Most of the American’s surrounding the star are taking it. It is assumed Marina was the intended victim as she, being a famous movie star, has built up quite an army of jealous enemies. Her ex-husband is at the party with his new partner Lola Brewster. Lola’s interplay with Marina is part of the joy of this novel and its adaptations – how two movie stars spar with each other. The photographer who caught the cursed look turns out to be a child Marina adopted then later abandoned when she discovered she was pregnant with her own child – a child that is later born with terrible birth defects. Marina was broken by this and is attempting to make a come back after a nervous breakdown that she still appears to be suffering from. Further attempts are seemingly made on Marina’s life and two more people are also murdered. The reason for this fairly detailed description of the plot is that it is the motive for the murder which is the most relevant thing here. Heather Badcock is in fact murdered by Marina Gregg because of the woman’s throwaway tale of how she met Marina once before, how she’d dragged herself from her sickbed suffering from German measles to meet her idol the movie star. In that moment, Marina realized that she was pregnant at the time and it was Heather Badcock who had passed the disease to her unborn child that caused the severe disabilities. For that, she murdered the woman.
When I first read this book, I thought what an innocent victim poor Heather Badcock was. She is universally seen as a kind and caring, if slightly fussy woman. She’s never knowingly hurt a soul in her life. She could not have known what she did so many years ago. How could she be held responsible for that? It could perhaps be seen as little more than an unwitting mistake, a terrible twist of fate. Times have changed. Here is a woman who knows she is ill, perhaps with something that isn’t life threatening for her. But she has the symptoms and goes out in public with no regard for the woman she professes to adore, or indeed for anyone else. When Miss Marple first meets Heather Badcock, she compares her to a woman she once knew, Alison Wilde, a woman she says was very nice indeed, ‘kind, healthy, full of life.’ But she ‘always saw her own point of view so clearly that she didn’t always see how things might appear to, or affect, other people.’ Miss Marple, as usual, has the measure of the woman within moments of meeting her. Now, in the current climate, what Heather Badcock does, going out spreading a terrible illness that can have awful effects on some people is an unforgiveable act. Re-reading this book forty years on from my first reading, I found myself sympathising with the murderer and almost (I stress almost) thinking Heather Badcock deserved her punishment! Her selfish behaviour, her need to go out and take her illness to others, had led to the most dire consequences which she never stopped to imagine and never took a moment to consider. As Miss Marple says of Heather Badcock at the denouement to Jason Rudd, ‘She never did mean harm but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock (and like my old friend Alison Wilde), are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.’ She never thought of the person she was meeting, the people she would meet accidentally at what must have been a well populated gathering. She had happily gone on living her life for years without a second thought for the devastation she had brought to other people’s lives. As ever, Agatha Christie stays very relevant and each new age brings a different interpretation and fresh eyes to her work. I thought this would be a very pertinent novel to look at this time.
As with the other novels I have looked at and like so many Agatha Christie stories, there are a large number of adaptations of varying quality. There are some recent Japanese versions adapted by TV Asahi and numerous theatre adaptions, Rachel Wagstaff’s production for Wiltshire Creative at the Salisbury Playhouse being the most significant of recent years and gathering a mixed set of reviews. There’s a very fun, modern trailer for this on YouTube https://youtu.be/sVMIEuB-e9E There are of course the video games and audio books as well. In fact, as always there are far too many to analyse every version so I’m going to stick to the three main adaptations.
Arguably the most famous is the 1980 version directed by Guy Hamilton. It has the usual star studded cast but this transcends the normal tour of famous faces by having the Hollywood movie star, Marina Gregg, played by one of the most famous film stars of all time – Elizabeth Taylor. She steals every scene she is in and radiates the film star glow that Agatha Christie gave Marina. When Agatha Christie describes Marina in the book as ‘suddenly the turn of the head, the movement of the hands, the sudden smile and the magic was there,’ she could have been describing Elizabeth Taylor. Later, Ella Zielinsky (the secretary) describes Marina as having, ‘Temperament. They’ve all got it, more or less, but Maria Gregg has got it more than most people.’ A sentiment often expressed about Elizabeth Taylor. It being filmed in 1980, Elizabeth Taylor just like Marina Gregg was not perhaps in her prime, she was 48 when this was filmed and her movie career had also gone into some decline. Elizabeth Taylor had been in semi-retirement before this film. Her personal life was complicated, she was married seven times and lived constantly under the glare of the media. Just like the Lady of Shalot, Elizabeth Taylor as Marina weaves her magic web around everyone and everything. But she too is ‘half-sick of shadows.’ The gleam is becoming tarnished for her. She’s suffered a terrible tragedy and a long-term breakdown. She repeatedly says Gossington is her home, ‘I’ve come home at last.’ She’s found home in the bucolic English countryside, a place to be quiet. She doesn’t want this strange reflection of a life anymore, she wants to see real life. Sadly, when she sees it, just like the Lady of Shalot, she is cursed. She cannot live a real life and she no longer wants her fantasy life. This film is very good at focusing in on the price of fame and the sacrifices she has had to make. That comes at a price for the film as well though. Elizabeth Taylor as Marina Greg becomes the true focus of this film, she is the star and therefore the difficulty is, it is not Miss Marple.
Miss Marple appeared in twelve books and twenty short stories. Many ladies have played her and there has recently been an announcement that the Big Little Lies producer, Bruna Papandrea is developing a new Marple with the consent of James Prichard, Agatha Christie’s great grandson. Although the rumours are it will follow a much younger version of Miss Marple and will only be loosely based on the books. Still, the question of who was the best Marple will rage forever. However, in this 1980s version Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple is not many people’s favourite and I’m afraid not mine. She is overshadowed by Elizabeth Taylor’s magnificent portrayal of Marina Gregg which is of course no fault of her own. But there is also a contrived nature to this Miss Marple. She is overly made up to look old, she is very clipped and stiff and the addition of the smoking serves no real purpose. I know there will be some who disagree, but Angela Lansbury is not at her best as Miss Marple and her talent is quite underused in this film. The focus is very much on the world of Hollywood and its ‘stars.’
The 1992 Joan Hickson version is the next significant production of this novel and, for many, she is the ultimate Miss Marple. Shrewd, kind, yet never overly emotional. There is just a little element of detachment about her. For many, she is the very essence of Miss Marple. When Agatha Christie saw her on stage in Appointment with Death, she sent her a note saying, ‘I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.’ And so she did, from 1984 to 1992 and for many her performance has never been surpassed.
Time and again Joan Hickson features as the best Miss Marple of all time.
The Mirror Crack’d was to be her last TV outing as Jane Marple. She is thoughtful, gracious and always courteous even when she’s telling someone she suspects they committed a murder. She’s Marple at her most intelligent and shrewd. You know you’re in good hands from the moment she speaks and, as the viewer, you know she will see everything and there is no doubt in your mind that she’ll solve the mystery. She carries the entire production. Claire Bloom is an adequate Marina Gregg, more quietly fragile than Elizabeth Taylor’s version. The brash edges have gone but so has the humour, particularly with the interplay between her and her younger rival, Lola Brewster. In this version it is a young Glynis Barber who is a pale reflection of the marvellous Kim Novak in the 1980 version.
A large part of the joy of this book is the mutual dislike these two Hollywood actresses have for one another. Lola is the new starlet, Marina the fading star. The fantastic sparring between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 version is sharp and at times seems all too realistic! Two great movie stars, one ageing, one launching her career, snipe and jibe at one another so beautifully. Here are a few of the wonderful lines Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak deliver to one another.
‘In that wig you could play Lassie.’
‘I’m so glad to see you not only kept your gorgeous figure but you’ve added so much to it.’
‘Love your outfit, darling. What are you supposed to be, a birthday cake? Too bad everybody’s had a piece.’
‘Chin up, darling. Both of them.’
None of the other adaptations, including the Joan Hickson version, come close to the fabulous rendition of this movie star rivalry between Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak.
In the final notable version of this novel, that sparring is again lost. This is the Agatha Christie’s Marple series episode of 2010 of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (using the full title of the novel) directed by Tom Shankland. Lindsay Duncan is a good Marina Gregg but Hannah Waddingham’s Lola Brewster is a little weak. Sadly, there is very little humour in their animosity. This version sees Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, who took over from Geraldine McEwan in series 4. Julia McKenzie played the role from 2009-2011 and was in some very notable episodes. There was a lot of controversy over this series as there were so many changes to the original novels and some of the stories had not originally even featured Miss Marple. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was, however, largely quite faithful to the original story. Julia McKenzie is well-liked as Miss Marple, or Marple as she is known in these adaptations to match up with Agatha Christie’s Poirot. For me however, particularly in this version, I find that she is so very stricken with worry about everything that doubt begins to slip in. I don’t feel like I’m in safe hands. There is none of the cool composure of Joan Hickson. This Miss Marple is so deeply concerned and distracted by everything that it starts to become an issue for the viewer that she may not, this time, solve the crime.
Julia McKenzie said of the role, ‘It’s difficult because Agatha Christie wrote her in two ways… First, very much what Geraldine McEwan played: a slight, rather Victorian creature. Then, a little sturdier and tweedier. I chose the latter. A lot of people say they don’t like the tweedier version. But they’re both genuine.’ She also said, which I think is very much worth remembering, ‘Just about everybody in the world knows about Miss Marple and has an opinion of what she should look like, so I’m under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.’ This is a very fair comment but although she says she has gone for the sturdier, Margaret Rutherford style version, there are definite times of doubt with this version. Although not as physically frail as Geraldine McEwan may have appeared, there is an inherent, worrying seam of weakness in Julia McKenzie’s version.
I think another problem I have with this Miss Marple is that it’s also worth remembering, that The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was written in 1962. Miss Marple had first appeared in 1930 and this novel is one of the last few Miss Marple books. She is old in this book. Julia McKenzie was only sixty-nine when she was in this version. Age and a changing world is a very strong theme in this book – for the movie star who is fading, for an England that is now journeying into the ‘60s and the modern age, not the pre-war years Miss Marple inhabited when we first met her at Gossington Hall in The Body in the Library. This is a new Gossington with new, American owners. The old owner, Dolly Bantry, is in the small gate house.
Joanna Lumley as the previous owner of Gossington is for me the stand-out star of this 2010 version. Here she is with Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple and a wonderful Will Young as the Pharaoh playing opposite Marina Gregg in the movie they are making. Joanna Lumley is a marvellous Dolly Bantry, just as she was in The Body in the Library. It’s quite ironic to see her commentary on the nature of fame. Her wide eyed, star-struck persona when she meets Marina is so realistic, it seems as though it might very well be based on the fans she herself has presumably been presented with on many occasions. In the book, Dolly Bantry imagines how awful it must be to be constantly bothered by fans and unable to say, ‘Oh, for the Lord’s sake stop bothering me,’ a position Joanna Lumley must no doubt have been in countless times. Joanna Lumley provides that wonderful Agatha Christie wit and humour in this version with such marvellous lines as, ‘Arthur always used to get a little frisky after a canter.’ She too is the character who drives home the very important theme of motherhood when she tells Marina that the most important thing for her now is not Gossington but seeing her many children and grandchildren.
Unfortunately, for all its fun and beautifully scripted characters and sets, I think my problem with this 2010 version and this particular Miss Marple stems from the fact that this novel begins with Miss Marple ruing the arrival of the modern age. This is primarily a novel about ageing and the arrival of the new world that leaves so much of the old behind – be they movie stars or St Mary Mead’s old lady sleuth. None of this seems to come through in the 2010 version and I find myself longing for the older, slight Victorian creature Julia McKenzie spoke of when she characterised Geraldine McEwan’s version. This is a Miss Marple who hates seeing herself become old and frail. She is ill when we meet her, being cared for by a patronising carer – ‘Another of those things that elderly ladies have to bear.’ Miss Knight glances back at ‘the frail old lady resting.’ Miss Marple visualises Miss Knight’s description of her as ‘Failing a little now, it’s only to be expected – their faculties get dimmed.’ Miss Marple dehumanises herself in this imagining. She uses the term ‘Their faculties,’ as if they are somehow other, she is one of them now. It’s a surprise for us, the loyal reader, that someone sees our heroine like this or that Miss Marple imagines they would. Miss Marple is irritated that her aged appearance brings no respect for her still razor-sharp intellect. All people see is a very old, frail lady, not a brilliant mind. I’m afraid, for me, the decision of Julia Mckenzie to play her as a much sturdier Miss Marple seems at odds with this. The Miss Marple of the book feels, like many in her position, as if old is the first thing people see – as if that defines her. She longs for a different world and cannot understand the new with its supermarkets where ‘you’re expected to take a basket yourself and go round looking for things… and then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out.’ She travels to ‘the Development’ as if she’s journeying to a whole other world – ‘she was here, observing the brave new world that was springing up.’ And this is where she meets the selfish Heather Badcock.
None of this doubt, this frailty of existence and Miss Marple’s concern for her age comes through in the 2010 version, nor would it since Julia McKenzie was still only sixty-nine. Only Joan Hickson comes close to this feeling but still there is very little wavering, very little room for self-doubt in this incarnation. In the book, Miss Marple is doubting herself as an aging woman, just as Marina Gregg does. This is Agatha Christie, aged seventy-two, faced with the dawning of the 1960s and writing a book starring a character she began in 1930 and trying to make her relevant. She’s stood the test of time, but that’s not to say Miss Marple did not have her moments of reflection. I would have loved to have seen Geraldine McEwan in The Mirror Crack’d but sadly it was not to be. Now rumours abound as to who will play Miss Marple next. I, for one, cannot wait!
Next time I’ll be looking at Witness for the Prosecution and if you’d like a small reminder when it’s out, please do subscribe (button on welcome page.) Thank you so much for reading and, if you’d like to, let me know your favourite Miss Marple by leaving a comment.
Adapting Agatha – Part 2. And Then There Were None
Welcome to the second instalment of my blog series on adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and today I’m going to be looking at And Then There Were None. As you’ll see from my photographs here, this was based on Burgh Island off the Devon coast and very close to where I am. The causeway floods with the tide meaning you cannot walk on or off the island at certain times and Agatha Christie was inspired by this place to write And Then There Were None. Sadly, it wouldn’t really have proved adequate isolation for the purposes of this book as it isn’t flooded for very long so the guests could have walked off and, unlike in the novel where the island is said to be a mile off the coast, it is very easy to swim from the island back to the mainland. There’s even a water taxi which is an elevated platform raised up on a tractor that can take you to and fro when the tide is in and a very excellent pub, The Pilchard, where you can wait for the tractor or stay there and have a drink until the tide goes out. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place and I go there very often, not just to The Pilchard. It provided inspiration for this novel and Evil Under the Sun. Agatha Christie even had her own writing place there and bedrooms at the Burgh Island Hotel celebrate the author. It is all very evocative of the era. There is an excellent book all about the hotel and Burgh Island called The Great White Palace by Tony Porter, a previous owner who was responsible for bringing it back to all its art deco glory.
This is possibly Agatha Christie’s most famous book and is the greatest selling mystery novel of all time. It’s no surprise then that it is the novel with the most adaptations of it. However, I mentioned in my last post, which was noted by an eagle-eyed reader, that Murder on the Orient Express has the most ‘notable’ adaptations. There have certainly been more adaptations of And Then There Were None but sadly many of these are very far from notable. To include them all here would make this a very long post indeed and would involve a considerable number of unusual and not terribly good productions. So, I’m going to focus on the most notable and interesting adaptations of this book but do please let me know of any obscure ones or well-loved ones. After the last post, I had some wonderful messages telling me about French re-workings, spin-offs and gorgeous books all related to the original. I’m hoping to be sent many more!
I’d also like to add that, as a murder mystery writer myself, one of my least favourite things is of course spoilers. Sometimes unfortunately these are inevitable and I’m afraid this has been one of those occasions. I’ve found that the various interpretations of plotting, particularly approaches to the ending, have meant that it really is impossible to talk about this book and how it’s been filmed or staged over the years without mentioning key aspects of the plot and spoilers. I did think though that not many people would read a post about this book without having read it or at least having seen one of the adaptations. If you haven’t, I would advise you to stop reading now as it is one of, if not the most, ingenious endings of all time. Please read it. You won’t be disappointed!
At the very end of the novel in an epilogue that never sees the light of day other than in the book, Judge Wargrave writes the denouement in a message in a bottle that is later discovered after the police cannot solve the crimes. In that he says, ‘It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.’ And that is exactly right. This is the ultimate murder mystery and yet there is no detective, everyone dies and it is entirely ambiguous as to who the ‘bad’ guy really is. It is not just a ‘whodunnit’ but an examination of the nature of justice itself, an examination of the darker sides of humanity. It is the story of a man who lures various people to an island and kills them one by one. They have all done bad deeds that have led to the deaths of others. In the last post, I discussed Poirot’s motivations and his inner conflict which is portrayed in very different ways in the various adaptations. Justice and whether it is seen to be done is a strong theme here too, particularly that moral, higher form of justice that often stands outside the law, which is sometimes untouchable by our legal systems. The judge himself tells us in his message in a bottle ‘confession’ that he began secretly collecting victims who had all committed some form of deliberate act that led to death but were ‘all quite untouchable by the law.’ In some respects, Judge Wargrave is the crusading moral avenger but this book is a much darker analysis of his motivations than that. Just as Poirot has been interpreted as being torn by the need to observe the law yet admit that the law can sometimes fail, the Judge appoints himself as the court, jury and executioner of these people who sit in the grey area of culpability. However, unlike Poirot, this judge relishes the role. As a judge he enjoyed watching people slowly approach their doom ‘suffering the tortures of the damned.’ He tells us, ‘I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death.’ And there is a sadistic pleasure he takes from this new cat and mouse game. If not, then why the game at all? It is entirely within his gift once they are on the island, to simply kill each person one by one without the need for poems and elaborate deaths that fit the wording of each line. He tells us, ‘I have wanted – let me admit it frankly – to commit a murder myself.’ He is torn, just as Poirot is, but in an entirely different way. He is hampered by his ‘strong sense of justice’ too but only that ‘The innocent must not suffer.’ In the book, we are even told that each death forms part of a detailed hierarchy of guilt. ‘Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first.’ This is a careful structure that observes every detail. One aspect of which is often avoided. The judge himself, under his new warped moral system of guilt, is in fact an innocent as far as Edward Seton is concerned. If we believe that Seton was as guilty of heinous crimes as the judge tells us, that the judge influenced the jury for the reason that this man should be punished for his crimes, just as those on the island should, then the judge cannot be the tenth victim and his scheme is flawed. There must be ten victims. The book deals with this in that Isaac Morris is killed. This shady character is often excluded from adaptations and is not on the island. He in fact organises the secret purchase of the island and the administrative matters. He meets with Lombard to pay him to go. He is a drug dealer and was responsible for inducing a daughter of the judge’s friends to take drugs which led to her suicide. Again, a death for which this man could not be prosecuted but the judge hunts him down and kills him. Even Lombard says it in the book, ‘There are crimes that cannot be brought home to their perpetrators.’ The focus on the judge and his enactment of a justice that our system does not allow for is the very centre of this book but is so rarely at the core of the adaptations.
This is partly due to the fact that there are two forms of the story, both of which were written by Agatha Christie. The first is, of course, the book with it’s many layers of the nature of justice and guilt. The second is the stage play. When she was approached by people who wanted to adapt it, Agatha Christie insisted on writing it herself and took two years to do so. What she decided upon, however, was to change the ending and allow Vera Claythorne and Phillip Lombard to escape together and fall in love. She, and those staging the play, didn’t think audiences would be very attracted to a play that is so dark and in which every character dies. So we have two versions of this story and hence a multitude of adaptations springing from those.
The play version she wrote was first staged in 1943 and was noted for having a scary atmosphere, particularly with the storm raging around it. This was perhaps added to by the fact that the theatre it was staged in, St James’s, was bombed and it had to be moved. This play about isolation which heavily references the army and war was staged during the second world war with all the fear, isolation and suspicion of others that dominated England. An inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp wrote to Agatha Christie after the war to say they staged the play whilst in the camp and it ‘sustained them.’ The book itself was published at the outset of the war (1939) and remains a very strong theme throughout. Almost all the characters have some link to the military theme. The Judge himself is Justice Wargrave; Lombard is a Captain, of sorts; General Macarthur is an army man and, indeed his crime is to send a man out to death in battle; Emily Brent’s father was a colonel of the old school who knew Macarthur; Blore even considers being a colonel as his alternate persona; Mr U.N. Owen is referred to as ‘The Unknown Soldier’ in the book. These are characters who have been through one war and are being thrown into another. This is a world where death has been commonplace and so many lives have been lost that individual deaths have fallen through the cracks. Judge Wargrave is attempting to redress that. He is in some ways an avenging angel or demon. When Vera and Lombard are talking towards the end of the book, Vera says, ‘I read a story once – about two judges that came to a small American town – from the Supreme Court. They administered justice – Absolute justice. Because – they didn’t come from this world at all…’ Lombard replies to her, ‘Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.’ Judge Wargrave would agree. When Emily Brent says Mrs Rogers’ death could be an Act of God, he replies, ‘Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals.’
The most recent high profile stage adaptation of the novel was the Kevin Elyot version directed by Steven Pimlott in 2005 at the Gielgud Theatre, London and I was fortunate enough to see it. This version restored the book ending in which no one escapes and also decided that audiences could take a much higher degree of gore alongside that. Tara Fitzgerald was notably an excellent Vera, both glamorous and flawed. It was also a very classic stage set echoing the era. Sadly, it did not have a long run.
The first film version is also very evocative of a stage set, the interiors of the house having a distinct Mousetrap feel to them. This 1945 Rene Clair film used the play version with its alternative, rather more upbeat ending. The Dudley Nichols screenplay is overall a much more playful version of the story than the novel. Rather than being frightening or dark, this film is somewhat tongue in cheek at times. There is no real search for perfect human justice or the analysis of that. In fact, at times it has almost an element of farce to it, with the country house setting and the comedic fluting music. Rogers, the butler, gives a bizarre turn when he decides to get drunk and stumbles around serving dinner to the bemused guests before announcing he’s going to sleep in the woodshed. The cast is a good one with the wonderful Judith Anderson (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) playing Emily Brent but even she has to deliver lines such as, ‘Very silly to kill the only servant. Now we don’t even know where the marmalade is.’ In this version it is her nephew who has died after she orchestrated him being sent to a reform school where he hanged himself. Barry Fitzgerald is a very soft, homely Judge Francis J. Quinncannon who dies with the words ‘Never trust a woman’. And Walter Huston is a stiff Dr Edward G. Armstrong. General Macarthur is renamed as he was for the original play, given that there was in fact a very famous namesake in America at the time, and is now called General Mandrake (played by C. Aubrey Smith). There are a multitude of deviations from the plot, including a secret ballot, snooker used as a metaphor and Blore being killed by a falling bit of the house. Perhaps the most astounding character is Prince Nikita who replaces the role of Marston. He is played by the Russian actor Mischa Auer who puts in a remarkable performance that borders on music hall. He staggers around shouting and dramatically plays the piano before he collapses dead. I personally find this film, even allowing for the fact that it was made towards the end of the war on a tight budget, very far from the book and a bit of a bizarre version. However, for many it is iconic. Reading through reviews, many say how wonderful it is, that it evokes an old school Hollywood glamour of yesteryear and it is many people’s favourite movie. One review I read said it was heaven and changed his life! I suppose there is a version of And Then There Were None for everyone out there.
There have certainly been a huge number of TV, film and audio adaptations that have taken the story in all manner of directions since that first film. The most recent audio version is a full dramatization in which Cyril (the dead boy who drowns as a result of Vera) introduces a number of the characters from beyond the grave. Geoffrey Whitehead is the stand-out character in this, playing the retired judge with just the right amount of gravitas and cruelty (not his first outing as a retired judge having played a wonderful one in The Worst Week of My Life.)
There have been a multitude of films made in different locations that not only play with setting but the storyline as well. Harry Alan Towers oversaw the production of three different versions in 1965, 1974 and finally in 1989. The first, in 1965 which was directed by George Pollock saw Shirley Eaton and Leo Genn amongst the cast marooned on a snowy mountain with the voice of Christopher Lee telling them of their fates.
The second outing in 1974, Towers set in the deserts of Iran at an abandoned hotel. This had an all-star cast including Oliver Reed as Lombard who supposedly killed a young woman pregnant with his child; Richard Attenborough as Judge Cannon; Elke Sommer as Vera; and Herbert Lom as the doctor. Charles Aznavour is Michel Raven an entertainer who was responsible for killing people when he was drink driving.
The final setting for these Towers’ films is a safari version in 1989 which saw Herbert Lom star again but this time as General Romensky. This film also follows the play version with the two escaping. Donald Pleasance makes an excellent judge in this version.
Over the years, there have been so many adaptations in all sorts of locations and all manner of new characters and plot twists. There have been video games, a wii version and graphic novels. Interestingly, the first film adaptation to keep the novel’s ending was a Russian version as late as 1987. However, the most notable adaptation of recent years has, of course, been the 2015 mini-series written by Sarah Phelps. This was not without its controversy.
It was shown over three separate episodes to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth and gained six million viewers. This version followed the book’s ending up to the point of all the characters being killed but it did not show the epilogue of the book with the police officers going through the dead people’s diaries and notebooks trying to work it out and the later finding of the message in the bottle from Judge Wargrave explaining what he’d done and how he’d gathered the victims. Instead, the judge sets it all out to Vera as she stands with her head in the noose.
Charles Dance gives a magnificent portrayal of Judge Wargrave with the perfect mixture of authority, dignity and threat. He has the ‘reptilian smile’ Agatha Christie gave him in the book. He is that ‘playful beast’ of the book, patiently watching and analysing their fear, ‘quite passionless and inhuman.’ ‘God Almighty’ as Lombard calls him. He sits in judgement and the room becomes his court room, just as it does in the book. He has, as Agatha Christie says, ‘the dispassionate stare of a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance.’ (Something that resonates for me and that I have seen many times as a criminal barrister.) Incidentally, when interviewed Charles Dance said he rarely reads the book before appearing in an adaptation as it’s very unhelpful and counter-productive when an actor comes on set with his well-thumbed copy of the book and all his ideas of what the adaptation’s character should look like.
It is a stellar cast for this production. Toby Stephens is a magnificent Dr Armstrong, with his erratic, nervous energy and guilt-ridden dreams. He is as Agatha Christie describes him in the book, ‘in a pitiable condition of nerves. He twitched and his hands shook.’ Also, ‘Every now and then he broke out into a torrent of nervous speech.’
Miranda Richardson is wonderful as the sanctimonious, religious Emily Brent and ‘thinks she’s God’s instrument.’ Her scene with Mrs Rogers, played wonderfully by Anna Maxwell Martin, is so painfully excruciating and awkward it echoes her vicious dealings with the girl whose death she caused. Again, as a character she is very quick to point out the reason for the girl’s death was ‘her own sin.’ This sticks fairly faithfully to the book. The girl drowns herself in the book rather than being hit by a train. It is undoubtedly Emily Brent’s fault but could she be prosecuted and found guilty? No. This fits the template for Wargrave’s actions in the book. However, that is not the case for all the characters.
Herein lies the problem with a number of characters in Sarah Phelps’s version. There crimes have been somewhat changed. For instance, the excellent Sam Neill takes on the part of General Macarthur (his name restored to the original). He plays it wonderfully and with the detached resignation that they will never get off the island. However, rather than send his wife’s lover to certain death in battle, he shoots him in the head. This is obviously a direct action for which he could be tried by a court and, at that time, hanged. This does not fit with the idea of the book that there are some crimes which lead to death and go unpunished because they are too much in a grey area or beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps it could not be proved but that is a stretch. In the book, the Judge finds out about the incident from two old military men in his Club. It was known about.
It is not just that character whose crimes are pushed up a level and therefore may not fit with the Judge’s scheme. Mr and Mrs Rogers in the book negligently don’t give medicine to the sick lady in their care because they stand to inherit some money from her. Mr Rogers goes for the doctor but it is too late. It is this doctor who puts the seed of the idea in Judge Wargrave’s head by casually mentioning the case of the old lady where he was convinced the restorative drug had been withheld but that it must happen often that ‘murder must be committed which the law was unable to touch.’ In the Sarah Phelps’s version there is the distressing scene of Mr Rogers smothering the old lady with a pillow and a great deal of vicious force. This is murder, pure and simple. There is no grey area for Justice Wargrave to mop up. They could very easily be prosecuted for her murder.
Blore’s crime in this version is perhaps the most vile. As a police officer, he viciously attacks and beats a young man who is gay until the man is dead in a custody cell. Blore at one point breaks down admitting that he turned the boy’s head to pulp by stamping on it. The viewer, for these purposes is the jury in Wargrave’s court or at least the public gallery and it is presented to us vividly. In the book, Blore commits an act of perjury which leads to Landor being sent to Dartmouth Prison where he later dies. It is undoubtedly, morally Blore’s fault but no jury in the land could convict him of the man’s murder. That is why Wargrave acts. Again, perhaps we can almost give the benefit of the doubt. In those days, would an officer have been able to get away with beating a man to death in the cells? That’s what we’re being asked but perhaps we are asked too many times with too many characters to stretch that thought – that these people would never be able to be punished in the normal manner. Blore’s punishment is to be killed by the polar bear rug, presumably covering the killer, instead of a clock falling on his head which is shaped like a bear.
Finally, there is of course Aidan Turner playing Lombard. In the book, he left people to die who undoubtedly starved to death. However, in this version he is seen prowling a village covered in blood having slaughtered them all. Again, we are asked to think this man indirectly committed a base act that the law does not provide for. Perhaps, given that he is a mercenary this would have been difficult to prosecute him for, but again it stretches our idea of what is ambiguous for the law.
Clearly, this is a much darker version than any that have gone before. The most controversial scene is the party scene in which Lombard, Vera, Dr Armstrong and Blore decide to get very drunk and take Marston’s cocaine. It’s a drug fuelled dance shot in a disorientating manner that sees them morph into laughing, vile caricatures. This was the BBC Christmas Christie showing close ups of the drugs being inhaled and a lot of people said it was very out of character for an Agatha Christie adaptation. In an interview, Sarah Phelps did note some points of disquiet that the BBC had where she had to back down, in particular one executive said a certain word was too far even for this dark version saying, ‘You cannot have c**t at Christmas.’
But does it go to far? That’s the question. I think not. It is all there in the book and this is a very dark book indeed. No one starts out as an innocent. No one survives. Agatha Christie very carefully sends them spiralling down into instinctive, selfish creatures with each fresh horror. Again and again they are referred to as animals. She says, ‘They were reverting to more bestial types.’ There is no shortage of alcohol swilling around, at least two of the crimes have been committed directly as a result of drunkenness. Drugs are openly referred to as leading to the death of more than one character (Isaac Morris and the daughter of the judge’s friends). At one point in the book when death is all around, Vera says, ‘We’re the zoo… Last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the zoo…’
Indeed, many of the characters are in fact referred to as being animalistic in nature. Lombard in particular is more than once referred to as wolf-like with his long teeth. At the end, Vera says he has a wolf’s face with those terrible teeth. Previously, he is referred to as being like a panther. Aidan Turner plays it perfectly, that mixture of a laid back, laconic man who is ready to attack at any moment and won’t hesitate to kill. Again, his character’s relationship with Vera has been criticised but let’s not forget that Agatha Christie re-wrote the original book to be staged in a version where they fell in love and got away together. It is definitely an aspect of the book, as is the much talked about towel scene where they all strip down to have their rooms searched. Many viewers found this too gratuitous but it is most definitely there in the book. The men all strip in the book and their rooms are systematically searched. Vera is also required to wear only her red bathing suit whilst her room is searched.
Although there are some obvious deviations from the book, this is a meticulously put together version. The sets are beautifully designed and echo not only the time but the foreboding and isolation. For instance, the paintings hanging in the rooms are Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where we only see the skull at a certain angle and which heavily influenced the colour scheme for the library, and Merry-Go-Round by Gertler, showing the unnerving game of it all. The poems in each of the rooms are designed with a Whistler style edging that references the characters in the house. Each of the marvellous small, green figurines, reminiscent of Matisse, was commissioned and sculpted to represent each of the characters, so Marston is vanity, Wargrave’s is judgemental. Sadly, it wasn’t filmed on Burgh Island but then they would just have been able to swim to shore. It is set in Cornwall (Poldark country of course) and Harefield House in Hillingdon where beautiful art deco features such as the clock where made especially for the filming.
But primarily, in spite of some of the plot changes, I believe, it is faithful to the underlying feel of the book more than any other version. It is the only adaptation I have ever seen that is frightening and disorientating in the way the book achieves that feeling of desperation and isolation. As with the book, you are drawn into their prison like world and you are scared. Just like them, you feel that sense of nervous claustrophobia. Even if you know what’s coming next, it still shocks. You delve down to the bottom of these people’s moral condition, the kind of people who admit to these terrible, cruel crimes. But most of all you know that when the General says no one is getting off this island, he is right. That abandonment with nothing but death all around you, no heroes and no way out is very beautifully and perfectly captured.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the adaptations of And Then There Were None. I’d love to know what you think. I very much enjoyed the various discussions last week and it’s fantastic to know everyone else’s opinion on the adaptations. So far, we’ve had a Poirot and a standalone, so I thought next week we really must visit St Mary Mead for one of my very favourite Miss Marple books – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. You can subscribe to an email alert from me when each one arrives by using the button on the front of my website if you would like to. Have a lovely week and thank you for reading.
Adapting Agatha – Part 1 Murder on the Orient Express.
This is the first in a series of posts about adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels. I’m an enormous fan of her books but also love tracking down various film, TV and audio book versions of her work. Hopefully, in these blogposts I’ll lead you to discover a few hidden gems but also look at the really iconic versions too. I think I had to start with the book that has the most number of notable adaptations – Murder on the Orient Express. There has been a resurgence of the ‘whodunnit’ particularly with films such as Knives Out. 2017 saw Kenneth Branagh take on Hercule Poirot and here I’m going to look at that version alongside some of the other notable films of the book. It was first serialised in 1933 in the US as Murder on the Calais Coach, and published in England as Murder on the Orient Express on New Years Day in 1934. It was to be the tenth outing for Hercule Poirot in full length book form (there had been four short stories as well) and would become the Agatha Christie novel most portrayed on screen.
The story was inspired by the real life abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s child who even after the ransom was paid, was sadly never returned. When Murder on the Orient Express was published the crime was still unsolved. Agatha Christie was also enormously influenced by her journeys on the famous train. She first travelled on the Orient Express in 1928, where she analysed all her fellow passengers and the interiors of the train in her usual forensic detail. The train was stranded in snow for six days in 1929 and she herself was stuck on-board in 1931 after the tracks were washed away in a flood.
Since it first hit the shelves, Murder on the Orient Express has seen numerous adaptations including three major films. There have been stage versions, TV productions and audio books. The BBC Radio 4 full dramatisation is available as a wonderful audio version (2004 recording) with John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot and, as with most versions, part of its allure is the fantastic cast, including Joss Ackland as Ratchett, Sylvia Sims as Mrs Hubbard, Sian Phillips as the Princess and Francesca Annis as Mary Debenham. A more recent radio version came out in 2017 on Audible (and is still available) with Tom Conti as Poirot and Sophie Okonedo as Miss Debenham this time. Art Malik is an excellent narrator. There is also a David Suchet version from 2006 in which he narrates the book but without using his ‘Poirot voice.’ Alongside these productions, there were many more including a 1966 Soviet radio version. In 2007, there was a graphic novel in French by Francois Riviere. There are also anime and manga interpretations – there being a rather large Agatha Christie following in Japan. And there is now even a computer game (released in 2006) based on the book and does, in fact, have David Suchet himself doing the Poirot voice-over. I also came across a very unusual travelogue from 1991 with Peter Ustinov who played Poirot on six occasions, but this is entitled Peter Ustinov on the Orient Express and features characters such as Mata Hari, Ernest Hemingway and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Poirot is not onboard. But it is the three major films that are the most prominent adaptations of the book and the ones I’m going to focus on. (There are other versions, some of which aren’t particularly very good, including one in 2001 starring Alfred Molina but many of the main characters have been cut, there are lots of plot changes and it was unfortunately not well received.)
The first major screen adaptation was in 1974 starring Albert Finney as Poirot alongside an impossibly star-studded cast. For decades, this was the gold standard in productions of Murder on the Orient Express and for many, still remains their favourite. It is fairly faithful to the plot involving Poirot boarding the eponymous train to London alongside a Russian Princess, an American widow, a gangster and numerous other characters who are thrown together for longer than they expected when the train becomes stuck in the snow. Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ are called upon when one of the passengers is brutally murdered by being stabbed twelve times. To say any more about the plot would be to ruin one of the most ingenious denouements of all time. However, this 1974 Sidney Lumet version was almost universally applauded. It received six Oscar nominations, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Greta Ohlsson, the seemingly committed missionary with a shadowy past. The rest of the cast reads as a Who’s Who of Hollywood – Sir John Gielgud who won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the long suffering butler to Richard Widmark’s ill-mannered gangster; Sean Connery is Colonel Arbuthnot; Lauren Bacall a fantastic Mrs Hubbard; Vanessa Redgrave plays Mary Debenham; and the inimitable Wendy Hiller is the epitome of a Russian Princess. Other cast members include Michael York, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset. At the age of eighty four, it was to be Agatha Christie’s last public appearance when she attended the premier. No adaptation came close to this until 2010.
When David Suchet stepped aboard the Orient Express, he was already well-known and loved as the Belgium detective in the long running TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (about which there will be much more in this blog series!) Again, this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is quite faithful to the book. There is an additional scene at the beginning involving the court martial of an army officer who takes his own life in front of Poirot, which isn’t in the book and presumably has been added to reinforce the emphasis on themes of justice and, most importantly, a higher, more moral justice. The ending also is slightly tinkered with as Poirot makes the decision as to which version of events should be told to the police rather than in the book the decision being left to the director of the line. There is, of course, a wonderful cast of stars in this version. Toby Jones is a wonderfully creepy Ratchett, Jessica Chastain takes on the Mary Debenham role and David Morrisey is Colonel Arbuthnot. Other great performances come from Barbara Hershey as a more retiring Mrs Hubbard than her predecessor; Hugh Bonneville plays the butler this time rather than the lord; and the wonderful Eileen Atkins is a fierce Countess Dragomiroff. It is a much more finely nuanced version than the 1974 film. Although there is the glamour of the journey and its passengers, there is less joie de vivre surrounding the brutal murder. There is no celebratory moment of clinking champagne glasses at the denouement as there was in the Finney version. Instead it ends on a much more sombre note with Poirot choking back his tears and doubting if he has done the right thing.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Poirot sheds no such tears. The frivolity is back to some degree, having the fastidious detective purposefully step in horse manure in the opening scenes to ensure both feet are equally covered. Again, the all-star cast is stronger than ever. Johnny Depp is a marvellously unhinged gangster; Michelle Pfeiffer a glamorous Mrs Hubbard; Sir Derek Jacobi is the butler; Daisy Ridley is the beautiful Miss Debenham this time; her love interest, Dr Arbuthnot, is wonderfully played by Leslie Odom Jr; Josh Gad is a very excellent Mr McQueen whose role is much more enhanced than in previous versions; Judy Dench is perfect as the Princess Dragomiroff, with Olivia Coleman giving an excellent performance as her ladies maid Hildegard Schmidt; and Willem Dafoe plays a slightly unconventional version of Gerhard Hardman. Interestingly, one of the more powerful performances is by Sergei Polunin as a very balletic and magnetic Count Andreyni. Tom Bateman’s character adaptation of the owner of the line has also been updated to make him the rather more sleazy nephew of the owner whom we first meet with a prostitute. Penelope Cruz takes on the role for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar, that of the emotionally damaged nanny, but in this production she is no longer Scandinavian and is now called Pilar Estravados (a name which incidentally comes from another Agatha Christie book, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.)
That’s not the only departure from the book in this movie. Again, the opening scene is changed to involve Poirot in a situation involving a theft by either a priest, a rabbi or an imam. This film’s slightly more playful nature is revealed from the very beginning when Branagh’s Poirot says this sounds like the start of a joke. But then there are some much more fundamental changes to the story which veer away from the original book. Other characters are changed too. Antonio Foscarelli is now Cuban not Italian; Dr Arbuthnot is a conflation of two characters – Dr Constantine and Colonel Arbuthnot. However, one of the most important changes which dramatically affects the flavour of the book is the nature of the train being stranded. There is a very Hollywood disaster with lightning hitting a snow-covered mountain and rather than simply being snowed in, the train is derailed. This allows for a major departure from the book – the people can get out and walk around. They are no longer suspended completely in this incredibly claustrophobic environment of the train but there are interviews conducted outside such as with Miss Debenham; there is a chase sequence between Poirot and Mr McQueen over the bridge supports; and the denouement is conducted in a train tunnel rather than in a train carriage. Although I’m not wholly in favour of losing that sense of claustrophobia it does admittedly lead to one of the most powerful images of this movie in the final sequence in which the suspects are aligned behind a long trestle table in a scene very much reminiscent of the painting of the last supper, adding again to this theme of judgement and betrayal. Without doubt, the visuals of this version are quite striking. This whole last sequence is dramatically different in flavour to previous adaptations and the book. It involves Poirot, wounded by a gun shot, inviting the guests to shoot him and one of them deciding to attempt to do so themselves. This is in place of the methodical setting out of the two possible scenarios and allowing the owner of the line to choose between them.
It is, however, Poirot himself and everything surrounding him that is in many ways a very new imagining of the character in this latest version. He has a whole new back story, having been asked to intervene in the original child kidnapping by the child’s father and being too late to assist – thus giving him a motivation to solve the case beyond his being a detective and a inviting a sense of guilt for Poirot. I’m not sure this is entirely necessary with Poirot. He doesn’t shy away from involving himself in murder cases and doesn’t really need a manufactured reason that Agatha Christie never felt the need to give him. Again, to enhance the character, Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot has a lost love called Katherine. This is entirely invented and I’m not sure this is necessary. There is very little mention of Poirot’s love life in the books except for Countess Vera Rossakoff who is a jewel thief and not mentioned in Murder on the Orient Express. We assume the lady in Kenneth Branagh’s photograph is dead (some critics have said it is a picture of Emma Thompson in her early years but that hasn’t been confirmed) but perhaps she’s just the one that got away and will feature in later films. (A version of Death on the Nile is planned for 2020.) I suppose it is all part of the humanising of Poirot that occurs in this film but has jarred with many purists.
However, there is much more of a departure with Poirot than changing a little of the backstory. This is the little Belgian detective re-imagined as a Hollywood action hero. He isn’t fat or, indeed, little. Hastings describes him as five foot four in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He does not have the ‘egg-shaped head’ Agatha Christie gave him. And he clearly does not use ‘Revivit’ to darken his grey hair, perhaps believing this might make him look slightly ridiculous to modern audiences. It is also not just the little grey cells he employs. He physically fights characters such as Mr McQueen. He is even shot. His walking stick is not for any difficulty with walking but is employed as a weapon. He is far more physically dynamic than Agatha Christie wrote him or any other actor has played him. There is nothing particularly wrong with such a departure only that at times it is so different that it is hard to imagine this isn’t simply Kenneth Branagh playing a hero rather than a small Belgian detective.
And then, of course, there is the moustache which Agatha Christie refers to very often in all its ‘tortured splendour’. It is a symbol of his extreme fastidious nature and, at times, his slightly ridiculous persona. Branagh’s moustache was nine months in research and development, going through all manner of examples ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Errol Flynn and even Kurt Russell. Finally, the ‘elaborate moustaches’ were constructed and held in place with rulers and strings. It is almost a character on its own and has definitely split opinion. Some have even said it resembles the man on a can of Pringles! Is it so important? I think it probably is. It is hard to get past it in every scene. It does bring a more fun, eccentric element to the character but does it tip too far into circus ringmaster? Perhaps. However, it’s worth remembering that it is referred to often in the books and in Murder on the Orient Express he is described as ‘a little man with enormous moustaches.’ As Poirot evolves through the novels and becomes more successful, his moustache does seem to grow in nature. It is arguable that by this novel it would be close to Mr Branagh’s version.
It was the one thing Agatha Christie found ‘a little bit disappointing’ about Albert Finney’s portrayal, that the moustache was not elaborate enough. And, let’s face it, anyone portraying Hercule Poirot does not want the word ‘disappointing’ to come from Agatha Christie herself. For myself, I think even though the movie is iconic, Finney is my least favourite portrayal of Poirot and not because of a lack of facial hair. He is an angrier, more aggressive version of the detective which does not at all ring true for me. His hair and look as a whole is more pitiful and strange, as though he might even be one of the more ambiguous characters himself.
David Suchet is a softer, more sympathetic Poirot generally and in the earlier episodes of the series there are some beautiful and sometimes comedic episodes involving himself and Hastings and Miss Lemon. However, in Murder on the Orient Express he too demonstrates a little of his tortured soul. But for this Poirot it is religion and specifically Catholicism that weighs heavily on him. His rosary is on his bedside table, not a photograph of a woman. He must implement God’s justice not just the human interpretation of it. We see him praying at the same time as Ratchett prays for protection from God, after Poirot has refused to watch over him. That is the night of the murder. The following morning Poirot on inspecting the body refers to him as a devil. Poirot cries at the end when the decision is made to follow the eye-for-an-eye solution, as if he has in some way violated God’s laws. This is the darker Poirot that comes in the end few films David Suchet made. He has more layers, regrets and doubts. He is almost priest-like in his conflicted devotion.
I think Kenneth Branagh also attempted to inject this element into the character but in a less religious manner. His is a belief in justice, that the scales of justice must have absolute balance. Any imbalance is as offensive to his eye as mismatched shoes, crooked ties or a pair of uneven eggs. This is an unshakeable dedication to the rule of law. Its perfection can only be maintained by strict adherence to its constructs. There can be no deviation. This version focuses on the Catch 22 question of what do you do when the law fails, when justice has not been done and, more importantly, when it has not been seen to be done. What do you do when a murderer walks away? Does that allow for more killing and if so can he then let a killer walk away as well?
Ultimately, they are three very different interpretations of Hercule Poirot and we will all have our favourites for a number of very personal reasons. For myself, although I fell in love with the glamour of the 1974 version and although I’m incredibly excited that Hollywood has rebooted the murder mystery with Kenneth Branagh, for me, David Suchet is Poirot. Every nuance and look is as though he has stepped out from the pages Agatha Christie wrote. Perhaps this comes from the familiarity of having watched him play the role for so many years. Perhaps from the fact that he has meticulously observed every description she gives of the great detective. That said, I’m still incredibly excited to see Kenneth Branagh’s next outing as Poirot in Death on the Nile. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too many Poirots!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, I’ve had have enormous fun writing it. Join me next time when I look at more adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work and how And Then There Were None has made the leap to the screen. If you don’t want to miss the next installment please feel free to click the subscribe button on the welcome page of this website. And if you’ve got any comments, suggestions or recommendations of adaptations, let me know.