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January 09, 2007

Dramatizing Christie: Helen Szamuely asks why film and television adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels generally make such a hash of them

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Are only the French capable of adequately translating Agatha Christie's novels to the screen? Or so asks Helen Szamuely.

In one of Agatha Christie's post-war novels, Mrs McGinty's Dead, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the author's rather self-deprecating alter ego (how different from Sayers's often tiresome Harriet Vane) spends some time collaborating on a play about her Finnish detective, Sven Hjert. In agony she endures suggestions of making her sixty-something year old detective into a thirty-year old member of the Norwegian resistance. Christie was writing from knowledge. She rarely liked the actors who played any of her characters and she was right.

It was not till the eighties in the case of Miss Marple and the nineties (well, 1989) in the case of Hercule Poirot that the definitive characterizations were created. Joan Hickson is Miss Marple personified. Interestingly, Christie herself had seen the potential when Hickson played the unexplained Mrs Kidder in the 1961 film Murder, She Said, a loose adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington with the completely inappropriate Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. The story is that Christie was present at the filming and told Hickson quietly that she hoped the actress would play Miss Marple one day.

The other advantage of that TV series was that the plots, characters and lightly ironic tone were all left intact. Watching the Miss Marple episodes was seeing the books come to life. There was no messing around with the period - a post-war novel does not work if set in the thirties, even though the clothes are much more attractive; updating a twenties novel is asking for trouble. There was no messing around with the plots, it being generally recognized that Christie was a past mistress at constructing plotlines. There was no messing around with characters as they fitted perfectly into those well-constructed plotlines. All that has changed with Geraldine McEwen's Marple series, where the authors of the various episodes and the directors seem convinced that they know better how to write a Christie novel than Christie did herself.

It would seem that finding that definitive Poirot in David Suchet also encouraged the producers to mess around with the plots to quite an unnecessary degree, playing fast and loose with characters and destroying Christie's style. Recently the National Film Theatre showed the Suchet version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, followed by a discussion with the actor and Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson (yes, I believe, he is the one who was given the rights to The Mousetrap as a child). This event started the Agatha Christie week but it was hard to understand what else was going to happen as part of that celebration.

Roger Ackroyd is one of the best known of Christie's novels not least for that twist that broke all rules of detective stories. Not easy to dramatize, perhaps, but not all that difficult either. The TV film managed to ruin a perfect story.

It introduced Inspector Japp, who is not in the book, which would be a justified change for a TV series if it did not destroy the vital balance of the story. Dr Sheppard, the book's narrator, and his sister, Caroline, the prototype of Miss Marple, are shifted from the centre to the margins. This deprives Poirot of the essential to the plot "Watson" and loses the delightful relationship between him and the Sheppards, who spend a great deal of time trying to find out more about their new neighbour.

Caroline Sheppard, who is described as a human mongoose, snoops a little in the film but is not Christie's determined gatherer of information. In the book Dr Sheppard keeps a wonderfully ironic diary, full of highly entertaining descriptions of village events. In the film it is changed to a vicious and grammatically improbable diatribe, from an untidy manuscript in his desk to a leather-bound volume, conveniently in his car. One can go on endlessly. These are not minor points but changes that are destructive of the whole structure. Why dramatize Christie if you are not interested in what it is that makes her books special?

Alas, the answer to this becomes clear as soon as one thinks about the state of TV drama and dramatization. The question of Christie's continuing popularity came up during the post-film discussion but was muddled, as there was confusion between the popularity of the books and of the TV series.

There are several reasons why the books are popular: the plots that dove-tail so perfectly; the characters, starting with the various detectives; the clever, lightly ironic prose; and the atmosphere of menace beneath seeming ordinariness. The Poirot TV series destroyed the plots and made the style leaden. It retained the characters of the detectives, moving everyone else into the background and created a rather muzzy atmosphere of cosy nostalgia - the very opposite of Christie's clear-eyed understanding and precision. In short, the Poirot novels and short stories became a delightful soap opera, set in a certain, vaguely defined period but with many anachronisms.

It is odd that another film shown that evening at the NFT, the French version of By the Pricking of My Thumbs, updated to the present day and transposed to a French village should have been so much better than the nostalgia-ridden British TV film. The Tommy and Tuppence books have never been particular favourites with Christie readers but Continental film-makers seem to like them. The very first film of a Christie novel was the 1929 silent German Die Abenteuer G.m.b.H., a reasonably accurate transposition of The Secret Adversary.

Almost eighty years later Pascal Thomas produced Mon petit doigt m'a dit … a wonderfully French but accurate version of the Beresfords' middle-aged adventure. Once the viewer accepts that the very English Tommy Beresford has become the very Gallic Colonel Bélisaire Beresford with an ultra-chic wife, Prudence, nothing else matters. The plot, the characters, the irony - they are all there.

Why is it that the French can do it better than the British? Possibly because they have a greater regard for Christie, considering her to be a serious artist. After all, it would be hard to imagine anyone in Britain writing a book like Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (2000), subtitled The Murderer who Eluded Hercule Poirot and Deceived Agatha Christie. The nearest to it is Robert Barnard's workmanlike A Talent to Deceive (1980), which is An Appreciation of Agatha Christie.

Barnard deals with plots, Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature in Paris, with themes and the games writers play with their readers and with the characters. Detective stories lend themselves particularly well to post-modernist analysis, as they are "texts" with unreliability written into them.

Bayard's discussion of Christie, her plots and the psychological games she plays with her characters and her readers, is generously interspersed with Freudian and semiological theories, in the course of which one learns many things unrelated, seemingly, to the main theme, such as the fact that the Oedipus plays do not prove his parricide.

Professor Bayard's conclusions about the "real" murderer of Roger Ackroyd are entertaining though hard to accept even with all the psychoanalytic and literary evidence he produces. There is another interesting aspect of this fascinating book: it is full of errors. Almost every page produces mistakes in characters and books; relationships between characters are muddled; victims of attempted murder are described as victims of committed murder and so on. At first, this seems rather irritating. Then sloppy. Then one begins to wonder.

Of course, it may be that Bayard knows little of the Christie works apart from the three novels he analyzes in detail. But if I were a psychoanalyst and a professor of literature I would assume that the author of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? is putting up another layer for the reader to deal with. Look, he is saying, I do not seem to be able to get any detail right about Christie's novels. How could I possibly be right about my main thesis about the real murderer then?

I do not suppose they will do it, but I should like to see Agatha Christie Ltd, that holds all rights to her works, give the next TV series or the next feature film of a Poirot or a Miss Marple or, even better, a Superintendent Battle book to a French director to do it full justice.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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I would agree to a large extent with Helens comments. A particuilar instance was 'Blade Runner', I took exception to a scene, I thought it unnecessary, it seemed to intefere with the flow of the plot. I later discovered that it was not in the original story.

Two Mel Gibson films, 'Braveheart' and 'The Patriot', have also suffered from 'tweaking'. Such a shame when they are great 'edutainment' vehicles.

Posted by: Lyn Tofari at August 16, 2009 07:55 PM
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