Agatha Christie on Screen (2016) by Mark Aldridge

This has been a book I have been dipping into over the past few months and for anyone who is interested in film and TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work then this is certainly the book to buy. It covers adaptations as early as 1928 and as late as the BBC’s And Then There Were None adaptation in 2015 and it even has two chapters devoted to non-UK and USA adaptations. In his introduction Aldridge sets out the book’s aims, emphasising how ‘it is principally aimed at those interested in tracing the story of how Agatha Christie’s works made it to film and television.’ He also tells readers that ‘this is not a tome that frequently explores adaptation theory and other areas of academic discussion’ and instead ‘is a celebration of Christie’s impact on film and television… offer[ing] a questioning history of events that have brought Christie’s works to the screen, [and] looking at attitudes towards adaptations from those involved as well as audiences.’ One of the things I definitely enjoyed about this book was how Aldridge looked at how Christie responded to the various adaptations that came and went during her writing career. Extensive research seems to have gone into the book, with plenty of archival material being used to provide information on less well known adaptations. Equally from the start of the book the tension between ‘satisfying the large band of passionate Agatha Christie fans, whose primary requirements were a faithful representation of the original story, and the modern television and film viewers, who simply wish to be entertained’ is brought to the forefront and Aldridge comes back to this issue frequently.

Due to the sheer amount of interesting information given in this book, as well as due to the long list of adaptations explored, I am going to just focus on some of the personal highlights for me. Hopefully this will give you a flavour of what the book is like.

Firstly ruining or rather creatively interpreting Christie’s work is by no means a modern phenomenon as the silent movie of The Passing of Mr Quin (1928), came into being due to a film company trying to fulfil the Cinematograph film Act of 1927, which required companies to make a quota of British made films. Consequently fidelity to the text wasn’t a big priority. Something I particularly enjoyed about the early chapters of Aldridge’s book were the points where he looks at how developments in film making affected the success of creating a Christie adaptation. Aldridge also explores the difficulties in casting a suitable actor for Poirot and he includes Christie’s comments on suggestions given to her, such as after one consultation where she said she ‘much disliked his first suggestion, which was to take about twenty years off Poirot’s age, call him Beau Poirot and have lots girls fall in love with him.’

Aldridge is particularly good at showing the various trends which have happened with Christie adaptations over time, as it intrigued me that in the 1950s it was popular to televise stage productions. Unsurprisingly film and TV companies at this point were more successful in getting Christie to agree on adapting her non-serial works and plays. Though if there is only one thing I take away from this book it is this: There have been an enormous amount of Christie adaptations since the 1920s. However many of them really aren’t good…

Sometimes this is due to the companies trying to fit a large plot into a small time slot, such as in 1952 when They Came to Baghdad got condensed into a 1 hour feature and Aldridge suggests that Victoria is made so irritating that you end up siding with the villains trying to bump her off. Other times it seems companies were more interested in using the Christie name and her characters with plots of their own devising, plots which sadly weren’t up to standard. Whilst some plot or character changes were enforced due to censorship rulings, other changes had been voluntary, many of which sound quite hilarious because they sound rather awful. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • In a pilot episode for The Adventures of Hercule Poirot, in 1962, it was decided that ‘Poirot’s mode of travel’ would also ‘double as his home.’ ‘It is described in documentation as “a limousine which he uses whenever circumstances permit […] a car with a television set, a television, a private bar, and a back seat that turns into a bed.’
  • In Murder Ahoy (1964), the last of the films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and using a non-Christie plot, ‘poor Miss Marple [is] dressed up in an admiral’s uniform.’ It was actually quite touching to read Christie’s comments on the Rutherford films, as with this film she said that:

‘I don’t suppose there can be any greater misery for an author than to see their characters completely distorted […] I really feel sick and ashamed of what I did when I signed up with MGM. It was my fault. One does things for money and one is wrong to do so – since one parts with one’s literary integrity.’

Once Rutherford died, Christie did say that although she ‘was a very fine actress’ she ‘was never in the least like Miss Marple.’

Image result for murder ahoy 1964

  • In the 1965 version of The Alphabet Murders, which is based on The ABC Murders, Poirot can be seen sporting a polo neck jumper and going bowling.
  • Back to the Rutherford Miss Marple films, in Murder at a Gallop Miss Marple is proposed to.
  • And Then There Were None has been transplanted to various different locations, other than an island. Some seem sensible such as the characters being marooned up a mountain but I am struggling to see how a safari version of the story works.
  • French adaptations have quite openly cut fast and loose with the original Christie stories but I think the weirdest one for me is a 2012 adaptation of the Tommy and Tuppence story, ‘The Case of the Missing Lady.’ In the original story the woman has disappeared voluntarily in order to lose some weight. However the recent French adaptation adds a science fiction element into the mix and includes an egg shaped object which has the power to restore youth. The conclusion of the adaptation leaves Tommy as a baby, who Tuppence has to care for.
  • In contrast Indian adaptations have often been more faithful to the originals, even if they have transplanted the stories from their British settings into Indian ones. Though I think I would find it hard to reconcile a pastiche of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with a Christie mystery, which does occur in one Indian adaptation.
  • Whilst in some respects Russians adaptations have worked quite faithfully with original material, one Miss Marple adaptation does become a bit of an adventure thriller when there is a bomb in her handbag!

Whilst I might not be tracking down these adaptations any time soon Aldridge’s book has Image result for witness for the prosecution 1957pointed out some which I would definitely like to watch. The first of these if Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution. I was also intrigued by the plot for The Spider Web, though unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a strong adaptation of this story. Murder by the Book (1986) is another film Aldridge talks about which has piqued my interest. It is not a conventional adaptation, but features Christie herself, encountering her own creation Poirot, in real life, at the time she was mulling over publishing Curtain. This sort of plot could go very well or very bad, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find a copy of it to find out. An interesting addition to the 1965 version of And Then There Were None was a whodunit break, where the film is paused just before the solution at the end, so the audience can discuss who they think did it. I think this is a feature I would perhaps like to see again, as mysteries do lend themselves to this sort of audience interaction. One adaptation I am not sure about is a Japanese anime one where Miss Marple’s niece, accompanied by her pet duck Oliver, observes either her aunt or Hercule Poirot solve cases. Reading that something in me definitely thinks this sounds awful. But Aldridge seems to suggest that it is actually a well-executed adaptation, which surprisingly stays faithful to the original material. Anyone else watched this?

Image result for japanese anime agatha christie

Something I admire about this book is how Aldridge does give his opinion on adaptations, but grounds these opinions in textual analyses of why the given adaptation was a success or a failure, taking in a wide array of factors in considering this issue. He also looks at the opinions of those behind the scenes of the adaptations, including figures such as Matthew Prichard and like his mother it is interesting to trace the journey he goes on in regards to his attitudes towards film and TV adaptations. When talking about the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express he says that ‘the amazing thing is, if you actually read the script of Orient Express, large parts of it are virtually verbatim [to the original text]. The best ones often are.’ With such a final statement it seems hard to reconcile it with some of the later adaptations which have been allowed. The cynic in me was interested in the fact that as the comments by Pritchard became more and more recent, they did often talk more about the money side of things and shareholders. An unusual example is that Pritchard sold his rights to They Did It With Mirrors to Alan Shayne so he could adapt it, in order to buy an expensive sculpture.

Aldridge frequently includes comments from critics and reviewers, which can be especially useful for earlier adaptations where there is none or little remaining footage. Suffice to say critics are hard to please, but given some of the adaptations you don’t necessarily blame them. I think my favourite put down of the book was by Michael Ratcliffe writing for The Times on the 1980 adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? He wrote that it was ‘as crisp and riveting as an old lettuce leaf.’ Though it did surprise me that Partners in Crime (1983-1984) wasn’t well received, as I thought this was the best portrayal of Tommy and Tuppence to date.

A chapter each is devoted to the Miss Marple adaptations starring Joan Hickson and the Poirot adaptations starring David Suchet. These were some of my favourite chapters, as I have watched enough of them to be able to have an opinion on them and be interested in their history. I have to agree with the Glasgow Herald which says that Hickson is ‘the perfect Miss Marple.’ Aldridge’s comment on the choice of setting was also perceptive in my opinion when he writes that the series’ setting ‘unashamedly shows off the best and worst of the past beyond any assumption of cosy nostalgia, especially when it comes to highlighting the darker side of human nature present whatever the period and location. This is a complicated and nuanced world…’ Two other facts I enjoyed learning were firstly that Christie had originally wanted to call Sleeping Murder, Cover Her Face, but changed her mind after P. D. James’ published a novel with that title. Secondly in the Hickson adaptation of A Murder is Announced a red setter has to discover the body of Murgatroyd. Yet the dog was not feeling particularly obedient so they had to put chicken liver paste on Joan Sims who was playing the character, in order to get the dog to play ball (metaphorically speaking). Something I didn’t realise about the Poirot series was that many of the scripts were written by David Renwick who also did the writing for One Foot in the Grave and that there are a couple of occasions where his work on the former influenced the latter.

The only thing which especially irked me in this book was one comment Aldridge makes about Christie purists’ attitudes towards adaptations and remakes. He seems to suggest that adapting Christie’s work with lots of alterations has been happening since the 1920s and therefore ‘Christie fans should not operate under the apprehension that her works have been particularly mistreated – they have not.’ But what particularly got me was that the sentence prior to this one talks of there being ‘a danger that such swingeing changes do Christie a disservice, since casual audiences are not able to see the dividing line between the original work and any later (usually inferior) alteration.’ Furthermore, after telling Christie fans that her work is not being mistreated, he goes onto discuss ITV’s Marple series, in which he catalogues quite an array of defects and negative aspects. Summing up ITV’s Marple he writes that ‘throughout the series the programmes veers from comedy and parody, through to pastiche, occasional melancholy and some outright tastelessness.’ Yet of course we must remember that Christie’s work is not being mistreated even when murderous nuns and Nazi hunters are being added ad hoc into the plots. Personally this attempt to sit on both sides of the fence didn’t really work for me.

I don’t think this is the sort of the book to read in one or two sittings as some chapters, mid-way through the book, come across as more reference book like due to the density of the information. However, these moments are balanced by a substantial amount of interesting and fun facts and anecdotes about certain adaptations. My favourite behind the scenes anecdote comes from the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. John Brabourne who produced the film certainly took a proactive approach to getting Christie’s permission, which can be seen in his initial telephone conversation with Christie:

Christie: ‘Well, I think we’d better have a little chat about it then.’

Brabourne: ‘I’d like that very much, when would be convenient?’

Christie: ‘Well we live forty miles from London […] we could have lunch one day.’

Brabourne: ‘Well, what about now?’

Christie: ‘but we’re forty miles from London and you’re in London.’

Brabourne: ‘No I’m not […] I’m in the telephone box at the bottom of your garden.’

Therefore I think this is either a book to read chronologically, but over a longer period of time, or a book to jump into at specific points to read up on certain decades or productions.

So overall I would recommend this book. I don’t always agree with some of Aldridges’ views on some adaptations, but on the other hand he has also introduced me to a number of productions I was not aware of and he has also given me a strong need to watch more of Christie’s stage productions. It was great to see behind the scenes of adaptations and to see what went into making them and I have a much greater idea of what the adapting process is like. An added positive of this book is that it is much cheaper than other books from the Crime Files series by Palgrave Macmillan. The only thing I think might have been nice is if, since Aldridge is discussing a visual medium, he included stills or posters from the productions he was talking about.

With many more Christie adaptations on the horizon it feels like a few extra chapters may need to be added in a few years’ time. Whilst I enjoyed the recent And Then There Were None adaptation, I was rather disappointed with the BBC’s Witness for the Prosecution last Christmas. However I am still trying to remain optimistic about the next Christie adaptations coming up and looking forward to seeing how they tackle Death Comes as The End.

Rating: 4.25/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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16 Responses to Agatha Christie on Screen (2016) by Mark Aldridge

  1. Santosh Iyer says:

    For the 2 Agatha Christie plays The Mousetrap and The Unexpected Guest, there are no English film versions. However, there are Indian film adaptations of these plays.
    For the Mousetrap, we have Chupi Chupi Aashey in Bengali (1960). For The Unexpected Guest, there are 3 Indian film adaptations, but the most prominent is Dhund in Hindi (1973). Dhund is a brilliant film and in my opinion, it surpasses the original play.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. ravenking81 says:

    Murder by the Book used to be available on youtube, I don’t know whether this is still the case, but that might be the only place to watch it, since to my knowldege it has never been released on physical media.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ravenking81 says:

    I for one enjoyed “Murder Ahoy” and the other Rutherford films very much, if only the more recent Marple adaptations had been this much fun!

    “I think my favourite put down of the book was by Michael Ratcliffe writing for The Times on the 1980 adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? He wrote that it was ‘as crisp and riveting as an old lettuce leaf.’”

    I think I have to side with Mr. Ratcliffe here. I struggled with this adaptation. It is very faithful to the book, but the pacing is so slow that I almost fell asleep watching it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I am aware that the Rutherford films are very popular, but I guess being more of a Christie purist the scenarios poor Miss Marple is put into as a character would probably annoy regardless of the fun factor. Maybe if the character wasn’t called Miss Marple, I could get in to them. Though it seems like I should definitely stay clear of WDYAEs.

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  4. Brad says:

    Why have I not been aware of this book?!?!?!?!??!!! You have done at least one American a public service, Kate! I am ordering through Amazon IMMEDIATELY!!!

    When I first watched the Rutherford films, they were all I could find of Christie adaptations, except for the execrable Alphabet Murders starring Tony Randall, with Alexander Bonaparte Cust played by . . . Anita Ekberg???? I loved Rutherford and hadn’t read enough Miss Marple books to see how wrong they got the character or the stories. I sort of like Murder at the Gallop, if only for Flora Robson as Miss Gilchrist. But the whole series is marred by focusing on the comedic talents of Miss Rutherford and letting the mysteries themselves go to pot.

    Since And Then There Were None was the first Christie I read, even I understood as a kid that they had gone a little crazy with the 1966 version, Ten Little Indians, set up on a schloss with the ski lift cut, and Emily Brent played by . . . seductress Dahlia Lavi!!!!! The subsequent versions set on safari and in the desert were, frankly, unwatchable to me. But nothing beats what ITV did with its Miss Marple series or the BBC’s Tommy and Tuppence. And to hear that Matthew Pritchard s**t on his grandmother’s memory for sculptures . . . well, it doesn’t surprise me but it disgusts me.

    Call me a purist!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of this book, but I guess it hasn’t had a lot of publicity in the GAD FB group. Definitely a book up your street. Be interested to see what you make of it. I imagine you have probably watched a few more of these adaptations than I have. The book also discusses those French adaptations you posted about a while ago.

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  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    In the above mentioned telephone conversation between Christie and Brabourne, I think the last line is said by Braboune, not Christie.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. RDaggle says:

    Thanks for this interesting review. The book sounds entertaining. Unlike the book I’m currently reading: ‘Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life In The Theater’.
    It’s 620 pages. That’s a problem with getting e-books. If I saw a 620 page book on a shelf in a store it would stay there.
    The author goes into excruciating detail on every topic imaginable: tour dates, first drafts, casting issues, contract royalties, movie rights, mini-bios on people no matter how tangential —
    *sigh*
    I’ll look for a copy of the Aldridge book, when I finish my current read, in a couple of months, probably.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Win a Copy of Mark Aldridge’s Agatha Christie on Screen! | crossexaminingcrime

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