I tried to make the book of Agatha Christie on Screen generally positive – even when an adaptation was a bit of a stinker, it’s rare that there isn’t something to praise. However, although Agatha Christie has been pretty well served by adaptations, there are some productions that should be avoided at all costs. Here are my top (bottom?) five adaptations that represent the worst of the screen versions of Christie stories.
There are some near misses that don’t make it to the list – the 1947 film of Love from a Stranger (adapted from the short story ‘Philomel Cottage’, via a stage play) is a hilariously unsubtle take on the story, with a curious period setting, apparently an attempt to replicate the success of the not dissimilar film (and play) Gaslight. The 1952 live TV adaptation of They Came to Baghdad is a confusing mess, but has some obvious restrictions that make it tough to be too critical. The Margaret Rutherford film Murder Ahoy manages to miss out mainly because it isn’t really an adaptation, while the pretty poor TV movies of the 1980s are saved by their occasional camp charm – something that was entirely unintentional. Personally, I find the LWT adaptation of The Seven Dials Mystery a bit of an irritating bore, not helped by the fact that it is so similar to the earlier Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – with some of the main cast even popping up again.
So, that leaves us with these five…
Let’s get this one out of the way first. My problem with the ITV series Marple, starring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie, is not particularly rooted in the fact that the series generally takes huge liberties with the original stories. My issue is that the series itself is simply poor television.
Marple seems to be a programme made by people who have a vague idea of what they think Agatha Christie and Miss Marple is like, based on a few half-memories and maybe a Margaret Rutherford film, and then extrapolated from that. Unfortunately, it has neither the wit nor the brains to be a series that ever looks like more than an amateur spoof played out in a village hall. Consistently, the scripts arrogantly introduce or alter elements for the worse, rather than solving any problems inherent in the text (as some of the Poirot adaptations of problematic novels did), thus failing to take advantage of the general lack of fidelity to the original stories.
Clearly the series aimed for a bright, almost comic-book, style, but even this fails to work, with the end result looking remarkably cheap. The mise-en-scène is a consistent disappointment, with the costume given to McEwan’s Miss Marple particularly poor, looking like a batty old lady from a poor stage farce. McKenzie’s Miss Marple was dressed rather better, and her performance frequently manages to rise above the dreadful scripts she is given.
In terms of the guest cast, the remarkably high profile and esteemed names that the series attracted are squandered, as they seem to be directed to act as caricatures. But what else could one do with scripts of such poor quality?
The Alphabet Murders (1965)
In my writing of the book, I realised that this is the film that is pretty much the centre of the universe when it comes to understanding the relationship between the Christie family and the film adaptations. Christie was so upset by Murder Ahoy, the final Rutherford film, that her family wouldn’t even allow her to read the proposed scripts for this Poirot film. However, even this low-rent comedy adaptation of The ABC Murders is rather better than the original proposal, which was to star Zero Mostel. Full details are in the book, but suffice to say that we should be grateful that this proposed sex comedy never made it to the screen.
The film as released is pretty poor on all levels. The script by David Pursall and Jack Seddon (later to pen Carry on England) is a badly plotted shambles, lacking either tension or amusement. The cast are a little better, with Tony Randall’s Poirot perfectly fine in some scenes, but placed into silly scenarios elsewhere – if you’ve ever wanted to see the Belgian detective go ten pin bowling, then this is the film for you. Nudity is a recurring ‘comic’ theme, as is the general over-sexualisation of most characters, which can only elicit a roll of the eyes from the bored audience.
The film occasionally pops up on TV and is now out on DVD in the United States. Don’t bother.
Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
What a silly TV movie this is. Even casting Alfred Molina as Poirot can’t rescue this tedious ‘updating’ of one of Christie’s best known books. The 1974 film casts such a long shadow that it’s no surprise that a lower budget modern remake would need to find a way to present their own take on the story, but they could have found a better way.
How, then, might one update Murder on the Orient Express? Perhaps one might look at the modern relationships, between both people and nations? Consider what crime might be considered so horrific in 2001 that it would motivate the final murderer(s)? Draw parallels with the development of society since the Second World War? Nope. Instead, we just have everyone carrying around technology, have endless discussion of access to laptops, and have a dropped PDA stylus as a clue. Mature and nuanced this ain’t.
In its favour, it’s only 90 minutes. It just feels like longer.
Poirot: Appointment with Death (2008)
Oh, Poirot. Probably my favourite series of Christie adaptations and a remarkably consistent one – although some fans dislike the later era of the show, I feel that the vast majority of the productions still work very well. But not Appointment with Death. Because Appointment with Death is a brilliant book – and an unforgivably bad TV production.
So let’s start with the very fact that the book is so strong, with its vile matriarch presiding over her rather pathetic family. It is well plotted, with big broad moments of shock and interest, alongside an underlying discussion of the psychology of the family dynamic. This is a story that would work well on screen. Not here, however.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with the criticisms that can be levelled at the production the lack of subtlety can not only be shown through the one-note characterisation and simplistic relationships, but also the introduction of such elements as a slave-trading nun. Honestly.
The production is also disappointingly poor on a technical level, with some dreadful green screen work. No wonder ITV left it on the shelf for so long that it came out on DVD a long time before it was shown on TV. They were right to be embarrassed.
Partners in Crime (2015)
I have to admit that I struggle a little with Tommy and Tuppence. When occasionally visited through the short stories I can find them fun and a fresh change of pace. But too much of them is definitely too much, and I didn’t much care for the 1983 LWT series of Partners in Crime, which starred them. I was quite pleased to hear that the BBC were looking to do their own adaptations, as I hoped it would soften the edges of their (sometimes irritating) characters and still balance fun and adventure. Unfortunately, the final result was even weaker than the earlier series.
It is immediately obvious that David Walliams is not comfortable in the role of Tommy, despite being one of the forces behind the creation of the show. Jessica Raine’s Tuppence is rather better, but the leads are the least of the programme’s problems. Instead, once more it is the scripts that are the weakest link. The first story, The Secret Adversary, starts reasonably well but fails to live up to its promise by taking detours around the plot that make it increasingly difficult to follow – and even tougher to care about. The second story, N or M?, is even worse afflicted, as it jettisons anything of interest in the original novel, instead introducing a story so complex (and dull) that it’s no wonder that by the sixth episode of the series half of the audience had abandoned it.
The series should be grateful that the hugely positive response of And Then There Were None a few months later means that it was quietly forgotten in record time.
More information about all of these adaptations can be found in Agatha Christie on Screen, which is due out in late 2016, and is available to pre-order now from Amazon UK, Amazon US and most other stores.