Murder She Wrote. And The Films They Made
Why Agatha Christie's mysteries made for the best cinematic adaptations
So Kenneth Branagh will be the new Hercule Poirot! Frankly, I can't see it myself. Partly because David Suchet made the part so much his own that following him in the role would be akin to trying to follow Sean Connery into the James Bond series (anybody remember George Lazenby?) or Christopher Reeve as Superman (Brandon Routh, anyone?)
Some characters lend themselves to role-playing. The Agatha Christie series has had several Miss Marples, ranging from Margaret Rutherford (dowdy) to Angela Lansbury (silly) to Geraldine McEwan (naughty). As there is only a finite number of books to go around, each novel often ends up being filmed several times with different Miss Marples, so you can tell the difference.
Not so with Poirot. The biggest star to ever take the role was Albert Finney who, I thought, made the worst Poirot. You only have to compare his godawful performance in Murder On The Orient Express with Suchet's tortured Poirot in the TV version of the novel, to recognise what a mess Finney made of the role.
So it is with Peter Ustinov, who played Poirot as a jolly, fat man. Compare his Poirot in Death On The Nile with, again, Suchet's vastly-superior version in the TV film and there is simply no comparison.
But all this is by way of setting up the bigger question. Why do we still love Agatha Christie so much? She has been dead for years. Her books were published decades ago. And there is an old-fashioned clunkiness to so many of the plots.
The Branagh Poirot has recently been announced. But last year, there was a full series of Partners In Crime based on the Tommy and Tuppence stories, with David Walliams (who produced the series) as the third actor I have seen in the role. And over Christmas, there was a big-budget TV dramatisation of And Then There Were None, a non-Poirot/Marple novel which you may know better by its early, more politically incorrect titles, Ten Little Niggers (sorry, but that's what it was called) or Ten Little Indians. (Agatha Christie was politically incorrect. There were few good guys who were brown or black in her world.)
Not everything is good. The Tommy-Tuppence series must rank as the worst dramatisation of Agatha Christie that I've ever seen (more Enid Blyton than Agatha Christie) and has been deservedly cancelled. Still, our fascination with the woman her publishers called 'The First Lady of Murder' continues. My theory is that Christie's popularity has to do with our passion for nostalgia. She started writing her books between the two World Wars and kept at it till the 1970s. Few of her later books were good, and attempts to place Poirot in the Swinging London of the 60s were, frankly, pretty pathetic. The movies that take her characters and place them in the present day (as the later books did) are pretty dreadful. Do you, for instance, even remember Endless Night with Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett?
Most people who make films or TV versions of Agatha Christie novels are free to choose which period to set them in because the stories span such a wide swathe of years. The Tommy and Tuppence novels, for instance, begin in the 1920s. But the producers chose to set the show in the 1950s, because they wanted to incorporate the paranoia of the Cold War years.
The template for latter-day Agatha Christie dramatisations is still Sidney Lumet's big budget 1974 film Murder On The Orient Express. That was a lavish period piece with lots of stars in small roles. Since then, depending on the constraints of the budget, every adaptation has gone down the same road. Everything is shot as a period piece and nothing is set in the current era. Even if the central character is poorly essayed, the stars make up. For instance, the movie of The Mirror Crack'd had a terrible Miss Marple (Lansbury) but it also had Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. With a line-up like that, who cared about Miss Marple?
As the Suchet-Poirot series reminded us, we watch Agatha Christie for the same reason that we watch Downton Abbey. We like the sense of a genteel period now long gone by. We love the costumes, the accents and the grandeur or even the quaintness.
In that sense, none of Christie's characters have been able to make the leap that Ian Fleming's have. When great novelists (Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, etc) are asked to write James Bond novels, they set them in the 60s or the period that Fleming wrote about. But the movies are never period pieces. They are not just contemporary. They are cutting-edge and almost futuristic in terms of technology.
So it is with Sherlock Holmes. I used to think of him as the sort of character who only made sense within his own period. But, as the BBC's Sherlock series has taught us, he works equally well in the 21st Century (though the BBC took Sherlock and Watson back in time, in an episode telecast this Christmas). Why doesn't Agatha Christie manage to bridge the decades? Why don't her stories work when they are set in the present day? Well, that's like asking what the Earl of Grantham would do in today's Yorkshire, when Downton Abbey would probably be a stately home, open to the ticketed public or rented out for film shootings.
Agatha Christie is terrific. But only up to a point. And within her own context.