Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Warning to the Presumptuous: P. D. James' Rules for Adapting Crime Novels

Sarah Phelps, who recently penned the scripts for adaptations (some of them rather loose indeed) of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders (The Pale Horse is next in her sights), was quoted earlier this month as saying, in effect, that her controversial adaptations (did I mention that some of them are rather loose indeed) are what the Queen of Crime herself would have written, had she been freed by her more restrictive times to do so:

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!
PD James
The true shocker about Agatha Christie, however, is that there is no "secret, subversive" Agatha who would have wanted any of this updating (even #4, Aidan Turner's splendid visualization of it notwithstanding); and I suspect that everyone, including Phelps and the Christie estate she has overawed, knows this.  I think any forthright Christie scholar--not to mention the fans--would agree. 

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
Sarah Phelps
Here's Laura Thompson on Phelps' adaptation of Ordeal by Innocence, where Phelps decided, as mentioned above, that choosing a new murderer was what the "secret, sinister" Christie would have wanted her to do (something which happily accorded with Phelps' own inclination):

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
When reading the script for the third season, James, who had already been displeased with changes in the second season, was appalled to discover that in order to accommodate the pregnancy of actress Helen Baxendale, who played series private eye Cordelia Gray,  the series makers planned to have the character she played get pregnant as well--out-of-wedlock.  This didn't suit PD James, who felt Cordelia was being portrayed as being too casual in her sexual relationships. 

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?


  1. This is fantastic. I don' speak English, but i could share this post with my Poirot groups in Facebook?

  2. I am the author of the message above...

  3. Oh, certainly. I hope they find worthwhile!

  4. In 2089 someone will adapt Phelps's scripts as novels to reflect the story Phelps really wanted to write, but could not due to the demands of her audience. In a Borges-like twist, these adaptations will match Agatha Christie’s books exactly.

  5. Hi, as a devoted Christie fan I've despaired at the recent manglings on tv. If Phelps wants to write something why doesn't she put it out under her own name? Why call it a Christie? I wonder also if Christie's family, rather than being overawed by Phelps, are simply wringing a last few quid of royalties from Great Grannie's work before it enters the public domain in 2046.Poirot versus the Aliens, anyone?

    1. Hi, Carol, as I've talked about on my blog, I too am a deeply devoted AC fan, having started reading her when I was all of 8 back in 1974, when my family was living in Mexico City. I still remember the books I read, Pocket paperbacks: Funerals Are Fatal and Easy to Kill as they were called in American editions then, The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None. (My Mom picked them out at Sanborns, good choices!) So I've been a devoted from that day to this, 45 years!

      I had occasion to exchange emails with James Prichard a decade ago, when he had a small press reprinting vintage mysteries. I was trying to get him to reprint mysteries by Henry Wade, John Street and JJ Connington. James was quite pleasant and was a genuine crime fiction fan. I can't put myself in a position of judging his decisions now. He's somewhat younger than I and I don't know whether he even personally remembers his great-gran. (I doubt it.) But when he says he has learned a lot from Sarah Phelps about AC, I can't help feeling that he is being led up to the garden, as the saying goes. What I have learned from the Sara Phelps adaptations is a great deal about the artistic inclinations of Sarah Phelps, but nothing--and I mean nothing--about Agatha Christie. There is darkness in Christie's work, but I didn't need Phelps to guide me through it, with all her distortions and deviations.

    2. Hi, perhaps I am being unfair to Christie's descendants, having never met them. I do remember reading (maybe in Laura Thompson's biography) that Christie's daughter Rosalind was fiercely protective of her mother's work and would not allow sweeping alterations to be made to plot or characters. Maybe it's unfair to expect the same from later members of the family.
      I do agree with you though about the Phelps adaptations. Thank goodness she didn't get hold of Crooked House. The adaptation of that in 2017 wasn't perfect but at least it stayed on plot. I do find that there is a seam of cynicism running through Christie's work that provides some very dark moments and also one of the things I love about her whodunnits; she was happy to subvert the tropes in contemporary crime fiction and when it came to selecting her villain nobody, but nobody, was off limits.

    3. Yes, I agree with you about Christie, that’s the “darkness” people should be looking for if they want darkness. I thought some of the late Suchets caught that, though some others willfully strayed too far from the books.

      The Phelps adaptations are getting high praise in some quarters, but what’s being praised is her drastic changes not Christie’s works. So if the Pritchards see themselves as honoring Christie with these adaptations, I think they are wrong. I hope it’s not just about money, but whatever the motivation the results are unfortunate. And Then There Were None was the closest thing Christie wrote to noir; trying to change her whole oeuvre into that is wrongheaded and false to the core.

  6. Didn’t Agatha Christie herself object to her work being messed wirh through her mouthpiece, Mrs. Oliver? In one of her novels the adapter is also the murderer, which may have been too subtle for Ms. Phelps.

  7. I think that was in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, quite amusing. And Christie hated the Margaret Rutherford comic Marples. I plan another piece with quotations from Christie on adaptations and modern novels.

  8. I should add that it's true that the Phelps adaptations of ATTWN and WFTP returned to the greater "darkness" of Christie's original treatments--i.e., the respective novel and short story versions were darker than Christie's own stage adaptations. But in my view Phelps botched ATTWN somewhat with a sometimes clumsy heavyhearted treatment and with WFTP she added a coda that took Christie's story from a devilish twist to absolute nihilism.

    It's interesting to note that when Christie tinkered with these works, she actually lightened them. Bad things happen to people in ATTWN but they are all bad people to start with. WFTP is about as subversive as Christie got, in the short story version, in that a murderer gets away with his crime. For Christie that was very subversive. She believed in Evil, and she unflinchingly portrayed it; but she also believed in punishing Evil. She wasn't just imposed on by her time, she was of her time, and she shared a lot of the prevalent social attitudes. In Phelps' view apparently Christie's views and attitudes, the "secret, subversive" ones that is, just happens to mirror Phelps' own. What a happy coincidence!

  9. I saw an interesting review of ATTWN that pointed out how Phelps changed the original murders from crimes of omission that would have been difficult to bring home to the perpetrators to full-on violent deaths that would have been a lot easier for the police to solve. Christie was fascinated by the idea of unproveable murder, which makes sense, given she wrote mysteries.

    1. To me Phelps messed that up, the question of relative moral culpability. They were supposed to die in order of guilt. Phelps had Rogers smothering an old woman with a pillow, where in the book as I recall he neglects to give her medicine? I fail to see how his killing didn’t qualify him for a later kill? Seems to me it was worse than Dr. Armstrong’s and Miss Brent’s.