Agatha Christie plants these little clues in her books and I pick them up and run with them. I'm honoring the secret, subversive Agatha. There's something dangerous about her--and there's a lot of academic work to be done on the tension between the book she knew the public wanted to read and the one she wanted to write. I always think I'm doing the version of the book she wanted to write.
So, then, Phelps' "secret, subversive Agatha" wanted
(1) her brilliant twist short story (later adapted by Christie herself as a play) Witness for the Prosecution to be a polemical antiwar tragedy in which the innocent commit suicide or are judicially murdered while the guilty go free to romp on the Riviera
(2) a different murderer in Ordeal by Innocence than the one she herself, who considered the novel one of her favorites, actually made the murderer
(3) her sleuth Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders really to have been a hag-ridden former priest who, in a presentist jab at Brexit and the admittedly execrable Donald Trump, is constantly subjected to harshly bigoted anti-Belgian discrimination by a revoltingly nativist and fascistic English populace
(4) a scene in And Then There Were None where rakish Philip Lombard parades around in the house on sinister "Soldier Island" wearing merely a skimpy towel, barely covering his manly bits, preliminary to having it off with Vera Claythorne
To quote television's Captain Hastings, Poirot's "Watson" whom Phelps has expunged from the Christie universe, "I say!"
|Careful where you cut!|
And it's not that the "one true Christie" is all cozy and comfy either, as her detractors have often contended; she's not. It's just that she would not have wanted her works to have been essentially reinvented by a puckish and presumptuous upstart scripter moonlighting in the mystery genre, one who deigns to pronounce that she knows what Christie, poor woman, really wanted to write.
Adding explicit sexuality and four letter words to Christie is one thing, though I'm sure the Queen of Crime would have disliked that too; but much of Phelps' alterations constitute rewriting Christie altogether. What some impressed television critics are praising about the adaptations are not Christie's actual work but rather Phelps' brazen inventions.
It's notable in this context that Edgar-nominated Christie biographer Laura Thompson has been a reliable voice the last few years pointing out the myriad flaws and falsities in Phelps' approach.
|the culprit in question|
Changing the identity of the murderer, however good for publicity, is a bit much.
Agatha was shrewder than she is often given credit for and there's a lot of sophistication and subtlety in the original solution. She took this book particularly seriously because the subject matter meant a great deal to her.
And here's Thompson on Phelps' adaptation of The ABC Murders, which Thompson seems a "stunning" and "incredibly atmospheric" novel:
Why does anyone feel the need to do more to it? Some of the changes sound awful. It's like everyone who is a Brexiteer has to be shown the error of their ways.
We can debate whether Phelps' scripts have made good films, but what they clearly are not is faithful to Christie in spirit and often in fact (with the partial exception of Phelps' And Then There Were None, which on the whole was a successful venture in my estimation).
Does anyone, including Christie's own grandson and great-grandson (seemingly overawed participants in all this), really believe that Christie would have enjoyed seeing her works mucked around like this? What authors, who have pride in their work and aren't willing just to grab the lolly and run, would?
Two decades ago the late modern-day Crime Queen PD James dealt with a situation somewhat like this during production of the third season of the An Unsuitable Job for a Woman television series, based, so the series makers would have had viewers believe, on the work and characters created by James.
|unsuitable adaptations for an author|
Cordelia was to "have an affair with an old lover who would disappear to the United States leaving her, the brave little woman, to cope alone," recalled James witheringly. "Cordelia with an illegitimate child is no longer my character."
"They've deprived me of her entirely," James later protested in an interview. "They've made her an unmarried mum! That's absolutely intolerable. It's as if they decided they would marry [my series police sleuth Adam] Dalgliesh to a pop star."
(If James was horrified at the very thought of her precious AD wedding a "pop star," imagine what Christie would be thinking of these recent adaptations, in which Hercule Poirot's entire character has been altered. To be sure, Christie grew exasperated over the years with her demanding creation, but it doesn't mean she would have wanted someone else to reinvent him according to their own lights decades later. Well, at least he's still French! Er, Belgian.)
James suggested alterations to the script, which were rejected. The production company "neither value nor want any input from me," she thereupon complained. She demanded the removal of both her name from the credits and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman from the title. Unlike Christie, James was still around to defend herself and her painstaking creations from heedless literary vandals, as she deemed them.
|James with actor Roy Marsden, who played James' sleuth Adam Dalgeish on television|
the two famously differed in their approaches to the character
Still vexed by the Cordelia pregnancy affair, James later created a lists of dos and don'ts for producers and directors adapting crime novels to the small screen, based on discussions with some of her sister and brother mystery authors who had had similarly frustrating experienced with television adapters. These rules follow:
1. Don't attempt to televise a novel unless you are really interested in the work. Too often it seems that you are only interested in acquiring the title and the name of the author, and are then happy to proceed with something which bears very little resemblance to the original work.
2. ....Consider whether the actors could actually communicate in words rather than have everything shown in pictures.
3. Don't fundamentally alter the chief character. With Dalgliesh the first director decided, as he told me, to bring him downmarket. [Making him the son of a Norfolk vicar] had been my choice and I don't see why television should decide that this was altogether too middle-class for their purposes.
4. Where there is original dialogue, why not use it as far as possible?...[Script]writers who are both good and successful...seldom alter the original dialogue....I suspect that adaptors who are less successful can't resist the temptation to have their own words on the screen.
5. As it may be necessary to cut out incidents and characters, what is the point of adding additional ones?
6. Must we always have a car chase? Men like them (though I can't think why); most women find them boring in the extreme. And if you must have a car chase, must it go on for so long? It need last only as it long as it takes up to go and make the tea.
I think Sarah Phelps has violated everyone of these rules except #6. Perhaps she likes tea.
PD James has been dead for a little over four years now. How long will it take before someone like Sarah Phelps, adapting a James novel for a revisionist Adam Dalgleish series, discovers that there was a "secret, subversive" PD James who really meant to be writing other works than those which she actually wrote? Because in truth the author we actually had with us, in the flesh rather than in the presumptuous scripter's self-serving imagination, just wasn't subversive enough for the scripter's liking?