Thursday, February 28, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part 2

Agatha Christie, creator of eccentric Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, famously devised a fictional alter ego for herself in Poirot's mystery writing friend Ariadne Oliver, creator of eccentric Finnish detective Sven Hjerson.  Christie admitted that Mrs. Oliver, who appears in seven Agatha Christie novels published between 1936 and 1972, "does have a strong dash of myself.

It's meta, people!  Although it's highly doubtful to me that Christie would have appreciated what Sarah Phelps currently is grimly doing to her work, I think she would have appreciated the Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat Sherlock series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  Gatiss and Moffat chose puckishly and creatively to play with the Holmes canon rather than highhandedly and brutally annihilate it.

In the Christie novels Mrs. Oliver often expresses irritation with her quirky vegetarian detective, ruefully admitting that she knows nothing  about Finland.  Yet would she have been comfortable with a Sarah Phelps adaptation which almost entirely rewrites Sven? 

Happily, we can deduce the answer based on comments Mrs. Oliver herself makes in Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), when she is working with a rather precious playwright, Robin Upward, on his effort to adapt a Sven Hjerson novel for the stage. 

television's Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker)
It does not seem promising:

At Laburnums, collaboration was in process.  Robin Upward was saying earnestly:

"You do see, don't you, what a wonderful line that is?  And if we really get a feeling of sex antagonism between the chap and the girl it'll pep up the whole thing enormously!"

Mrs. Oliver ran her hands through her windswept grey hair, causing it took as though swept not by wind but by a tornado.

"You do see what I mean, don't you, Ariadne darling?"

"Oh, I see what you mean," said Mrs. Oliver gloomily.

"But the main thing is for you to feel really happy about it."

Nobody but a really determined self-deceiver could have thought that Mrs. Oliver looked happy.

Robin continued blithely:

"What I feel is, there's that wonderful young man, parachuted down--"

Mrs. Oliver interrupted:

"He's sixty."

"Oh no!"

"He is."

"I don't see him like that.  Thirty-five--not a day older."

"I've been writing books about him for thirty years, and he was at least thirty-five in the first one."

"But, darling, if he's sixty, you can't have the tension between him and the girl--what's her name?  Ingrid.  I mean, it would make him just a nasty old man!"

"It certainly would."

"So you see, he must be thirty-five," said Robin triumphantly.

"Then he can't be Sven Hjerson.  Just make him a Norwegian young man who's in the Resistance Movement."  

"But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson.  You've got an enormous public who simply adore Sven Hjerson, and who'll flock to see Sven Hjerson.  He's box office, darling!"

"But people who read my books know what he's like.  You can't invent an entirely new young man in the Norwegian Resistance Movement and and just call him Sven Hjerson."

"Ariadne darling, I did explain all that.  It's not a book, darling, it's a play.  And we've got to have glamour!  And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Hjerson and this--what's her name--Karen--you know, all against each other and then frightfully attracted--"

"Sven Hjerson never cared for women," said Mrs. Oliver coldly.

"But you can't have him a
pansy, darling.  Not for this sort of play.  I mean it's not green bay trees or anything like that.  It's thrills and murders and clean open-air fun."

The mention of open air had its effect.

"I think I'm going out," said Mrs. Oliver abruptly.  I need air.  I need air badly."

"Shall I come with you?" asked Robin tenderly.

"No, I'd rather be alone."

"Just as you like, darling.  Perhaps you're right.  I'd better go and whip up an eggnog for Madre.  The poor sweet is feeling just a teeny weeny bit left out of things.  She does like attention, you know.  And you'll think about that scene in the cellar, won't you?  The whole thing is coming really wonderfully well.  It's going to be a most tremendous success.  I know it is!"

Mrs. Oliver sighed.

"But the main thing," continued Robin, "is for you to feel happy about it!"

Well.  This scene seems to me to capture a lot about the frustrations of adaptation, from the novelist's perspective, and it has great applicability to the situation with Christie, Poirot and Phelps today. 

Robin Upward blithely changes the sixty-year-old, woman-indifferent Finn, Sven Hjerson, into a lusty thirty-five year old (and not a day older) member of the Norwegian Resistance, enmeshed in a love-hate affair with a sexy young woman--Ingrid, or Karen (Robin can't quite recall her name, it seems).  Apparently all these changes are needed for the public, who, Robin fervently believes, wants glamour and a ravishing female love interest for the hero.  Just replace dashing boy-girl sexual byplay with existential gloom and psychic despair and we have the Phelps Poirot.

When Mrs. Oliver asks why Robin doesn't just create a new hero, since what he's describing is not her character and never could be, Robin tells her they need Sven Hjerson--his name anyway--because "He's box office darling!"  Yes, there's the rub, indeed.  It's as if Christie were looking into a crystal ball.

All the while Robin implausibly insists that what's really important to him is that Mrs. Oliver be happy with all the changes that she's so obviously unhappy with.  Fortunately Mrs. Oliver was alive to speak out in defense of her character.  As irritating as she might find him, he was her child, not Robin Upward's. 

Sadly here in 2019 Agatha Christie is long gone, as is her daughter, and it seems that there is no longer anyone connected with the Agatha Christie Industry who will speak out on behalf Christie's artistic vision, as it actually appears on the printed page.  (Instead they go looking for the "secret, sinister" Christie, who really, it seems, wanted to write Belgian noir.)

Who killed Agatha Christie?  Even
Japp and Hastings might know the answer to this one.
Recently, David Suchet, who played what now seems likely to remain the definitive Hercule Poirot on British television for a quarter century, delicately observed, when asked his opinion of the new Phelps-scripted adaptation of the classic Poirot mystery The ABC Murders, that
"the parameters were different when he took on the role in 1989." 

Then he added:

My brief from Agatha Christie's daughter was 'we want it played as she wrote it,' which actually fitted with my philosophy of acting, to serve my creator.

Were such modesty more common, in life and in art!  Even if, it must be admitted, some of the later Suchet Poirots went off the rails rather a bit themselves.  But it was a good run, while it lasted, better than what many writers have received from the frequently ungentle hands of adapters. 


  1. Another great post. That passage from Christie (is it The Pale Horse?) is very funny, because AC satirizes both the adaptors and the whole GAD Great Detective genre at the same time.

    David O. Selznick knew a bit about making successful adaptations, and his philosophy was the exact opposite of Phelps's. He wanted fidelity wherever possible. He never believed he knew better than the original author.

    1. It is from Mrs. McGinty's Dead, I added to the post. Lovely book!

      Well, it's an age old problem, existing long before Sarah Phelps, as Christie's passage shows. Phelps started off all right, in theory, tackling And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution, where the original novel/short story versions are darker than Christie's play adaptations.

      Yet even there Phelps made missteps, in my view, including the coda to WFTP, where she fundamentally changed Christie's brilliantly clever and cynical twist story into a grim and depressing antiwar tragedy. the problem is not that it differs from the Billy Wilder film, which follows the play, but that it's false to Christie's story in key particulars.

      And with the last two adaptations (I'll call them) the hubris really has taken over on her part. It's too bad the Christie estate, for whatever reasons, declined to stand up to her. Ultimate responsibility for this betrayal of the author has to rest with the estate and her own descendants, who still are reaping the benefits of her genius for mystery.

  2. Rereading the Christie passage I note sadly AO's blithe belief that her readers will balk at dramatic changes in Sven. Sadly, because I read even mystery bloggers defending Poirot's priestly past. Not that there is anything wrong with a tortured untonsured detective, as long as he isn’t fraudulently passed of as Poirot.

    1. If people, even Christie fans, enjoy these, fine, to each her own; but what sets me off is the claim that this is what Christie would really have wanted to written herself. What unutterable tosh I find that.

      Maybe in an age of slash fiction, however, everyone wants to get in on the creative act of reimagining. Myself, I’m satisfied to let the author’s work speak for itself as written. Christie’s books take place in a detailed and specific social world, and they depend on that framework; we’re not talking the bare stages of Shakespeare, where the words are the thing.

  3. I saw a production of She Stoops To Conquer. It was set in the mid west in the 1950s. This destroyed all the context and the specific social conditions relevant to the play. Complete flop.

    1. Yes, Phelps wants to write about Thirties social conditions, but only as she can relate them to political points she wants to make about today. So she has to hammer these elements into Christie, who had other things on her mind. The irony is there actually were Thirties mysteries that more addressed the points that interest Phelps, but it's not Christie so they will never get filmed.

  4. Great bit of literary forensic sleuthing! Compelling evidence you have adduced here. Brillliant.

  5. I hope that someday Phelps writes a book of her own, and someone does an adaptation of it "the way Phelps really wanted to do it."