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Critical Essay by David A. Fryxell
SOURCE: "All about Agatha," in Horizon, Vol. 27, No. 9, November, 1984, pp. 42-5.
In the following essay, Fryxell argues that Christie's works have not been successfully adapted for film.
"Everybody loves a gossip," Agatha Christie once said by way of explaining her phenomenal popularity. That's why she thought her mysteries have outsold everything but the Bible and Shakespeare: people love to snoop into other people's lives. Christie let her readers snoop into lives—and deaths—ranging from those of the tea-cozy denizens of quaint English villages to the upper crust on board the Orient Express. And what better topic for really juicy gossip than murder?
The Public Broadcasting Service knows how popular the subject of murder—especially of the Agatha Christie variety—can be, as evidenced in the popularity of its "Mystery" series. Beginning November 29 (check local listings for exact times), "Mystery" presents five adaptations of Christie's "Tommy and Tuppence" mysteries. James Warwick and Francesca Annis star in the London Weekend Television productions of "Partners in Crime." Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley were two old chums who stumbled into detection and, later in their fictional careers, into matrimony. The New York Times called their escapades "the merriest collection of detective stories it has been our good fortune to encounter." The series begins with the couple's takeover of a detective agency, and each segment solves a different mystery. And this series only begins to tap the vast resources of Agatha Christie fiction.
Certainly, few "gossips" have been as prolific or profitable as Agatha Christie. In over fifty-five years, until her death in 1976, she penned nearly one hundred mystery novels and short-story collections, a half-dozen romantic novels under the name Mary Westmacott, twenty-one plays, and a two-volume autobiography. Her publishers claim to have long ago lost count of Christie's sales; American paperback editions of her works have easily topped half a billion books. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, generally conceded to be the cream of Christie, has alone sold over a million copies. Fans have followed their beloved Agatha in more than one hundred languages.
Her play The Mousetrap nightly adds to its record as the longest-running production in English theatrical history. The play has outlived eight of the newspapers that originally reviewed it in 1952. Impresario Peter Saunders, who had predicted a six-month run, has since said, "Just about everybody in England has seen it except the Queen, and she thinks she's seen it."
The only media the queen of crime fiction was never quite able to crack were motion pictures and television. With a few exceptions—the Oscar-nominated Witness for the Prosecution and the box-office smash Murder on the Orient Express—Christie's works and her popularity have stubbornly resisted translation to the screen. To disappointed fans and dismayed producers, that failure remains the greatest single mystery in the career of Dame Agatha Christie.
Only Hercule Poirot could have detected the potential for greatness in this utterly conventional Englishwoman. Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller at a Devonshire seaside resort in 1890, she never attended school; her mother taught her at home. In 1914, Agatha showed the first clue of a taste for a life more thrilling than church fetes and tea on the lawn, marrying a dashing pioneer in the Royal Flying Corps named Archie Christie. World War I swept Archie off to the skies and Agatha to a military hospital, where she assisted in the dispensary.
Two years before, Agatha's elder sister Madge had challenged her to write a detective story. In the dispensary, surrounded by poisons, Agatha decided to take her up on it. In the years and books to come, she would knock off victims by such esoteric means as a kitchen skewer, a bronze figure of Venus, an electrified chessboard, a surgical knife, and an antique grain mill-but poison always remained her favorite. (At least one real-life poisoner modeled his crime on a Christie plot, The Pale Horse.) Her first poisoning was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1915 but not published until 1920. Therein she gave the world the inimitable Hercule Poirot.
Recalling a colony of Belgian refugees she encountered at Devonshire, she made her man a retired Belgian police detective. As a contrast to his stature—"hardly five-foot-four"—she named him for the mighty Hercules. "Poirot," she said, just popped into her head.
As far as Christie was concerned, Poirot's first case would also be his last. She'd met her sister's dare and that was that. But when the book finally saw print, it made enough money to prod her to try another. In the following six years, she published seven books and set the mystery world on its ear with the revolutionary The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
That same year, 1926, Christie created a real-life mystery by vanishing without explanation for ten days. When she reappeared claiming amnesia, cynics decried it as a publicity stunt. Others have blamed a breakdown triggered by the death of her mother and the revelation of her husband's infidelity; she'd checked into a spa under the name of her husband's mistress. The mystery of those blank ten days, never unraveled, inspired a semifictional book and a 1978 movie, Agatha. Despite a stellar cast featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, the film (true to Christie form) failed to shine either with critics or at the box office.
After several years of depression, Christie indulged her life-long love of trains and an interest in ancient ruins with a jaunt to the Near East on the Orient Express. That led to a novel, Murder on the Orient Express, and to her second marriage, to the assistant head of the archaeological digs, Max Mallowan.
The 1930s introduced readers to Christie's second great sleuth, the spinsterish Miss Marple—inspired by Christie's grandmother—whose constant flurry of knitting needles camouflaged her true hobby, "the study of human nature." And the decade produced some of Christie's best mysteries: The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, and Ten Little Indians.
She would churn out at least a book a year until her death. Christie likened her prodigious production to "a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine"—and the readers ate it up. In 1954, the Mystery Writers of America honored her with their first Grand Master of Crime Award. The next year, Witness for the Prosecution won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play, the only mystery ever to do so. (The Mousetrap, amazingly, had flopped on Broadway.) Though Christie was already the grande dame of mystery, the Queen made it official in 1971 by naming her a Dame of the British Empire.
Yet Dame Agatha, still an English country girl at heart, chafed under the burden of fame. "I still have that overlag of feeling that I am pretending to be an author," she complained. Shy with strangers, she refused to make speeches and dodged interviews. When Britain's Detection Club elected her president, she made a deputy propose all the toasts and introduce guests. Her work seemed to decline as her fame rose: Dilys Winn, founder of Manhattan's Murder Ink bookstore, rates Christie's Elephants Can Remember (1972) as one of the ten all-time worst mystery novels. And Christie, like Conan Doyle before her, longed to be rid of her most famous detective. She finally wrote Hercule Poirot off in 1940 in Curtain, but the book didn't see print until 1975.
Most agree Christie was the master plotter of the age; as reviewer Will Cuppy put it, "She's probably the best suspicion scatterer and diverter in the business." And Margaret Miller, admiring the devious scheme of Witness for the Prosecution, perhaps said it best for all Christie peers in the profession: "I knew she really had a twisted little mind. I wished I had thought of it."
A few carpers found Christie's elaborate plots all too bloodless, like "animated algebra." In a famous essay entitled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Edmund Wilson railed, "You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own, even in a flat two dimensions, but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader's suspicion."
Not even Christie's most fervent partisans would lay much claim for her strictly literary ability. Asked about her writing style, Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Book Shop in Manhattan, sputtered, "Writing what? Writing what? I don't think she had much of a 'writing style.' A lot of best-selling writers would have trouble getting an 'A' on a college paper, but they strike a common chord that defies explanation."
Nonetheless, Penzler made a stab at explanation. "Agatha Christie wasn't threatening to anybody. Picking up an Agatha Christie book is like putting on cuddly old slippers." Similarly, Anthony Le Jeune concluded in The Spectator: "The real secret of Agatha Christie … lies not in the carpentering of her plots, excellent though that is, but in the texture of her writing…. In a literary sense, she doesn't write particularly well. But there is another sense which for a writer of fiction is perhaps even more important. The ability to buttonhole a reader, to make, as Raymond Chandler put it, 'each page throw the hook for the next,' is a separate and by no means uncommon art."
Translating that art from the page to the screen is no mean feat, though that hasn't stopped directors and screenwriters from trying. They began in 1928, when both movies and Christie's reputation were young. The first Christie adaptation, like the latest, brought to life her third-string sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. Christie introduced the happy-go-lucky pair in her second book, The Secret Adversary (1922), which in 1928 was made into a German film titled Die Abenteuer Gmbh (Adventures Inc.), not a resounding success.
The first English-language stab at a Christie film was The Passing of Mr. Quinn, based on a minor short story. Filmmakers finally discovered Hercule Poirot in Alibi (1931), the first of three movies starring Austin Trevor as the Belgian sleuth. Trevor, much too tall for Poirot, was supposedly cast because he could do a French accent. Evidently that skill was not enough; none of the British-made films was released in the United States and they've vanished since from the archives. The third, Lord Edgeware Dies, would be the last attempt at portraying Poirot for thirty years.
A Christie film didn't cross the Atlantic until 1937, when Love from a Stranger paired Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone in an adaptation of the story "Philomel Cottage." Eight more years passed before anyone tried again.
Then, at last, Christie had something of a hit. And Then There Were None, adapted from Ten Little Indians, set ten familiar stars on a remote island and bumped them off one by one. Critics and audiences liked it enough to encourage two remakes (1965 and 1975), both titled Ten Little Indians, though with success that dwindled over time as rapidly as the number of survivors in the plot.
But back in the postwar years, it seemed as though the Christie puzzle had been cracked. When The Mousetrap hit pay dirt on the London stage, Romulus Films snapped up the movie rights—accepting the stipulation that The Mousetrap couldn't be made until six months after the play closed. They're still waiting. In the meantime, though, Witness for the Prosecution went from Broadway to Hollywood under the talented direction of Billy Wilder. He assembled an impressive cast: Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Elsa Lanchester. To further boost interest, public relations flacks hung a Secrecy Pledge outside each movie house where the film opened; everyone who bought a ticket had to swear not to reveal whodunit. The ploy drew audiences and the picture drew six Oscar nominations.
Yet the only follow-up to this success was a minor film called The Spider's Web, also adapted from a Christie play. Made in England in 1960, it was never even released in the United States.
Moviemakers went back to square one in 1962, trying to break the jinx with a series of five movies about (at last) Miss Marple. The draw here was not Christie as much as it was the formidable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. Though utterly wrong physically for the slim, spinsterish Marple (Christie said of Rutherford, "To me, she's always looked like a bloodhound"), Rutherford brought enough verve to the role to carry it through four of the planned five films. She made Murder, She Said; Murder at the Gallop; Murder Most Foul; and Murder Ahoy! before increasing silliness and decreasing ticket sales cut the series short. Only the first derived from an actual Miss Marple novel. Two were sleuth and sex-change operations from Poirot books; an offended Christie admitted, "I get an unregenerate pleasure when I think they're not being a success." The last was an original screenplay, of which Christie clucked, "It got very bad reviews, I'm pleased to say."
The movies finally returned to the real thing—Hercule Poirot as himself—in The Alphabet Murders (1966, based on The ABC Murders). Originally intended as a Zero Mostel vehicle, the production languished for two years because Christie, from bitter experience, objected to the script. It was finally made with Tony Randall heavily made up—though not heavily enough to shield him from the critics who branded the film a slapstick travesty.
After a non-Poirot flop titled Endless Nights (one reviewer wrote, "This movie wasn't released—it escaped"), Poirot and Christie finally made it big on-screen with Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. Director Sidney Lumet spared no expense in recreating the lavish look of a bygone era, constructing his own Orient Express at Elstree Studios near London. The all-star cast of suspects—Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar as best supporting actress)—overshadowed Albert Finney as Poirot, which was perhaps just as well. Murder on the Orient Express made a killing; it was the most profitable wholly British-financed film to date.
The same producers hired director John Guillermin to make more box-office magic with Death on the Nile. He rounded up another cast of heavyweights, substituted Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and spent seven weeks on location in Egypt. The film's New York opening coincided with ticket sales for the Metropolitan Museum's King Tut show; then Death on the Nile went back in the can for two months until the Tut extravaganza actually opened. With a little help from Tut, it did well enough to inspire another Ustinov outing as Poirot, Evil under the Sun—more posh locales, more name actors, but also more labored.
In the meantime, director Guy Hamilton had taken another crack at bringing Miss Marple to the screen, this time with Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack'd. Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak, as rival movie stars, turned in their best work in years.
Television has since brought a few minor Christies to life in made-for-television movies and in a series of short stories on PBS's "Mystery." Amazingly, there has never been a commercial-network series based on Christie's characters.
Otto Penzler doesn't think the mysterious record of Christie works on screen is so strange at all. "To be fair, it's very difficult to put a good detective story on screen and make a good detective movie," he observed. "Most of what happens is cerebral—observing clues, making deductions—and that's hard to portray in an exciting manner on screen. It's just a different medium. You can't translate popularity to screen necessarily, and it's a mistake to try to make analogies between the two forms. A very ordinary book can be made into a great movie, and vice versa."
Christie herself wondered why she allowed her books to be ravaged on the screen. But, for Christie's fans, hope—like murder—springs eternal. They keep tuning in, knowing that every Christie puzzle is solved eventually—isn't it?
This section contains 2,636 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)