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 Mystery, he 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.