tisdag 26 augusti 2014

The continuing problems with Christie adaptations

I've previously mentioned that Agatha Christie's books are hard to film. I still hold to that, but at the same time I must admit to having seen enough good adaptations of Christie novels by now to know that it is doable. For years, I've avoided buying Poirot box sets (with David Suchet as the detective), because I've seen some of these films on TV and found them boring. I don't even think I managed to get through Murder in Mesopotamia. However, after stumbling across quite watchable adaptations of Five Little Pigs and The Hollow (the latter on a long plane journey), and as I was curious about how the last Poirot adventure Curtain would be handled, I resolved to give the series another try. I bought the last box set in the series which included Curtain, and was satisfied by the latest films. After that, I've carefully worked my way backwards, assuming that the really sleep-inducing adaptations are among the early Poirots. There are several good films here, but I haven't been convinced by all of them. Whether early or late, the Poirot series remains a mixed bag.

David Suchet is of course as good a Poirot as one could wish for - that the character seems a little shallow sometimes is hardly his fault. But these adaptations have to walk the same tightrope as the latest Miss Marple adaptations: if you stay too close to the books, a plot that works well in a novel can become staid and static on screen; if you depart too much from the book, Christie fans (like me) will ask in disgust why you didn't just pen an episode of Midsomer Murders instead of foisting your own plot and characters unto a Christie story.

I can take rather a lot of tinkering with Christie's plots nowadays as I've seen how inert some faithful adaptations are. So where to draw the line? If the inspiration is a short story or a series of short stories (As in the Marple mystery Greenshaw's Folly and the Poirot film The Labours of Hercules), I'm inclined to be very magnanimous and see the film as something inspired by rather than based on Christie's work. I didn't mind the added twist in The Big Four either, as it was so very Christie-like. The problem starts when there is a perfectly serviceable coherent plot in one of her novels, and the adapter chooses to completely ignore it in favour of some lurid tale of his/her own.

There are some big offenders of this kind in the Miss Marple series. I've mentioned The Secret of Chimney's before; apart from that, Murder is Easy and Why Didn't They Ask Evans are the most glaring examples. The three novels have one thing in common: they're not Miss Marple novels. The insertion of Miss Marple isn't the problem in any of these cases, though. In Murder is Easy, it is perfectly credible that a worried old lady on a train should talk to Miss Marple (rather than a young ex-copper), and there's fun to be hand in Evans when Frankie's dismay at Miss Marple's meddling in her an Bobby's detective game becomes all too clear. No, the problem with Murder is Easy and Why Didn't They Ask Evans is that the films veer spectacularly off course plot-wise.

Admittedly, Murder is Easy is a book which has aged badly. The solid-oak hero and his gold-digging love interest aren't a very attractive couple; I gave a bit of a gasp when it was hinted that Superintendent Battle was actually going to book the entertainingly affected antique dealer Ellsworthy (and not for the silly black masses, I bet); last but not least, I can't be the only one who finds the bare-faced snobbery in the treatment of self-made man Lord Whitfield objectionable. But for all that, the main storyline is neat. There was no reason at all to change it in favour of a melodramatic incest story. Moreover, many of the characters were unrecognisable and some weren't included at all. There was no Ellsworthy, and, even more serious, no Lord Whitfield, though some of his characteristics had been given to Major Horton. Talk about Hamlet without the Prince. As for Why Didn't They Ask Evans, the book's a charming caper, which could very well have been adapted as it was without muddying the waters with a new outlandish back-story for the villains. It's a strange piece: up until Frankie arrives at the Bassington-ffrenches' place, the adaptation is straight-forward enough, then everything changes. A shame, and a good cast wasted.         

My rule of thumb to Christie adapters would be: don't change the who, don't change the why and don't change the how. Otherwise, I can allow for quite a lot of jiggering with the plot and adding of characters. Sometimes, when I know a book well, a new twist can even be welcome. I accepted the many changes in the Poirot mystery Cards on The Table like a lamb, though I doubt Christie would have approved of some of them. On the other hand, I thought they went too far in Appointment With Death, where the murder motive is changed, the murderer is unrecognisable and where there is suddenly an accomplice as well, which ruins one of the novel's happy endings.

Much hinges on the quality of the scriptwriting, of course. Nick Dear, who wrote the screenplay to the Amanda Root adaptation of Persuasion and whose play Power I once saw in London and still bore my acquaintances by praising, is a safe bet where Poirot adaptations are concerned, as is Sherlock and Doctor Who veteran Mark "Mycroft" Gatiss. Otherwise, Christie adaptations remain a bit of a gamble. I'll probably be buying more Poirot, though: I can't help wondering how Hickory Dickory Dock turned out.