The Tricky Waters of Adaptation

Tricky Waters (3)By Julie, fighting daylight savings time blah in Somerville

Merriam Webster defines adaptation as something (a book, play, movie, etc) that is changed so it can be presented in another form. Adaptations are very common in American popular culture and I watch a lot of them, usually with a “of course the source material is better” lens that allows me to enjoy them. Usually. But lately, for me, Agatha Christie adaptations have been a special ring of hell.

A bit of “on film” Agatha Christie history. Early film adaptations of Dame Agatha’s books left a bit to be desired. Fun as she was (and she was fun to watch) Margaret Rutherford wasn’t quite in sync as Miss Marple. Tony Randall wasn’t a great Poirot. But then the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express changed it up in the best way possible. The rich, star-studded production was a very faithful adaptation, and started an Agatha Christie resurgence of sorts. A golden age for her fans. Is there a better Miss Marple than Joan Hickson? Aren’t the David Suchet as Poirot stories wonderful? [Then there was David Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express. What should have been a joy was not. There were decisions made about Poirot’s motives that took me out of the story. Another post for another time.] Though there were occasional films, TV became the home of faithful adaptations.

Then they decided to “redo” Miss Marple. The stories were inspired by, but not true to, Dame Agatha’s books and stories. Many, most people aren’t as familiar with the stories, and so it may not have bothered them. But I did my thesis on Agatha Christie, and am very familiar with her work. Fun as it was to see Timothy Dalton in The Sittaford Mysteryhe wasn’t the Captain Trevelyan of the book. Add to that, Miss Marple isn’t in the book (!) and they completely changed the story (including the murderer and motive) and you can see the purist in me being riled up. The shows were fun, but they changed things around, or added subplots or subtext that didn’t make them better.

And Then There Were None is, itself, a story of adaptation. The original book was adapted into a stage play by Dame Agatha herself. The ending for the play was different than the ending for the book–more of an audience pleaser. There have been a few film adaptations, including a great 1945 film directed by Rene Clair. So, it was with wariness that I watched And Then There Were None on Lifetime this week.

The new adaptation has a great cast. That alone got me to tune in. But I’ll admit, I held my breath. Was this going to be true to the spirit of this great book, or was it going to go off the rails and “update” or “modernize” the story? It ended up a bit of both. It is very stylized, and has much more on screen violence than the book did. But the ending was truer to the book. Not spot on, but truer. I am being very careful about not giving anything away for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. The show is worth watching. The book is a must read.

Watching it was also a lesson in adaptation. The book has an omniscient, 3rd person narrator. In my thesis I called it the “Flit” model, where the POV flits from head to head. We get snippets of story through this device, since we can read thoughts. In film, unless you have voice over, there are two ways to tell about the past. You can tell it through dialogue. Or you can use flashbacks. This film relies on flashbacks. Effective, and a necessary technique. But not as effective, and chilling, as the source material.

Adaptations retell a story through a current lens. One reason that Agatha Christie works well in adaptation is that her plots are great, and her characters are broadly enough drawn that they can feel current. While I have some issues with some of the adaptations, or “inspired by”, Christie’s of late, I am glad they are being done, especially adaptations like And Then There Were None.

Kenneth Branagh is going to play Poirot in a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. I both look forward to and dread it.

21 Thoughts

  1. I watched, and was disappointed. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why, but I think it was the pacing. In the attempt to be atmospheric, they stretched some scenes all the way to boring. I remember the 1945 version as being effective drama, but it has been years since I’ve seen it. I think I’m going to have to watch it again. And reread the novel, of course.


    1. I agree about the pacing. Also, there was the onscreen debauchery as opposed to the offscreen/internal of the book was a different tone. I need to watch the 1945 movie again as well. Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Houston. Tons of scenery chewing, but a great film.

  2. It is so hard to watch any adaptation, no matter how well done, of any book that you love and know well–that’s why I’ve never been able to watch the Lord Peter PBS series. I read And Then There Were None years ago and conveniently forgot most of the plot details (with the exception of the death of the child), so found the version passable in its own right. (As in the case of Downton Abbey, if the story failed to capture my attention, I could admire the building and the clothes.)

    I was never a big David Suchet fan, but I will try to reserve judgment about Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot.

    1. It was a beautiful adaptation to be sure! High on the handsome men quotient, which is always lovely.

      Agree about the Lord Peters. I enjoyed the series with Edward Petherbridge but he wasn’t Lord Peter. I always thought Hugh Grant would have been good in the role.

  3. I need to re-read this book. I remember the broad aspects, but not the details.

    My father liked the first half, hated the second. Too dark (lighting), the accents made the actors hard to understand (for him) and he doesn’t like it when a TV/film adaptation changes a thing (which is a bit unrealistic because so much of what works in books would not work at all well on the screen). Hopefully I’ll be able to scare up a source to watch the show from Lifetime (On Demand, Netflix, etc.).

    Kenneth Branagh as Poirot? Don’t get me wrong. I love Kenneth, but I don’t know if anyone can ever top David Suchet for that role. Suchet IS Poirot (although I absolutely agree with you on his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” – dreadful!).

    1. Lifetime has it streaming (the link in the post goes there), so you can watch it. I can see your father’s point of view. This book is REALLY tough to adapt. Still wrestling with it.

      If/when we meet, we will need to commiserate about the Suchet MOTOE. A travesty, and a misstep in that series.

  4. I love Agatha Christie, as you very well know. When I saw the preview for And Then There Were None, my first thought was “oh, no, not again!” I don’t enjoy most of the filmed versions of Dame Christie’s work, though I am a huge fan of the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. I don’t have cable television, so I have yet to see this latest adaptation. It did look interesting. As for Kenneth Branagh, I’ve yet to forgive him for leaving my favorite Emma Thompson. I’ll be skipping his Poirot!

  5. Very interesting to read your thoughts today. I have the miniseries on my DVR and plan to watch it tomorrow night.

    Of course, Christie herself did some interesting adaptations of her books. She adapted Death on the Nile for the stage and left Poirot out of it completely. I’ve never read the book, but I did enjoy the play when I saw it.

    1. I don’t know about that stage version, but will find it. I bought the book about her and her theatrical life, but haven’t read it yet. On the docket. I sort of love that she left Poirot out. Assuming it was Col. Race who was the detective? He is in different Christies, not always Poirots.

      Her first few books were adapted for the stage by someone else, but she didn’t like them, so she started to do it herself. And she’d change it up to suit the medium. She really was something.

      1. Whatever she did as as dramaturge (if that’s the word I want), it seems to have worked. When I worked in London a million years ago, The Mousetrap had been playing around the corner for twenty years–and apparently still is.

  6. And I completely agree with the fact that what works in one medium doesn’t in another. It’s why I loved what they did with Edmund and Tumnus in the big screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While they added those scenes, they allowed them to show what was going on in Edmund’s heart. In the book, we got that through narration, but they can’t do that in the movie. (But don’t get me started on the version of Dawn Treader. The changes they made there added nothing to the book and actually made it laughable.)

    1. I hadn’t read those books for years, so I enjoyed the movies. And I agree, you need to add scenes for explanation. Looking forward to hearing what you think about And Then There Were None, and the way they handled the character’s interior dialogue.

      1. I must admit that I haven’t read the book in a couple of decades. I’m more familiar with one of the movie versions and the play, so I might not notice the differences between the book and the miniseries, although I know the plot well enough I’ll know changes they make there.

  7. I have And Then There Were None cued up on DVR for this weekend.

    As to Christie adaptations, my all time favorite has to be the Margaret Rutherford “Murder She Said,” which my desperate grandmother took me to on a rainy day at the beach. IMDB says that was in 1961, so I was eight. It started a lifelong love of mysteries and Agatha Christie gave me a place to “graduate to” after Nancy Drew. So funny how strongly these little things can impact your life.

Comments are closed.