“Adapting AGATHA CHRISTIE”

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“ADAPTING AGATHA CHRISTIE”

Ever since the release of the BBC recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”, television viewers and critics have been praising the production for being a faithful adaptation. In fact these critics and fans have been in such rapture over the production that some of them have failed to noticed that the three-part miniseries was not completely faithful. As long as the production followed Christie’s original ending, they were satisfied.

Mind you, I thought this new production, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was top notch, I have found myself growing somewhat annoyed over this attitude. Why do so many people insist that a movie/television production should be faithful to the novel it is adapting? I honestly believe that it should not matter. Not really. I believe that sometimes, it’s a good thing to make some changes from the original novel (or play). Sometimes, it’s good to remain faithful to the source novel. Sometimes, what is in a novel does not translate well to the television or movie screen.

A good example are the two adaptations of Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. The 1982 adaptation, which starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, made some major changes in regard to characters and a minor subplot. The 2001 television adaptation, which starred David Suchet, was somewhat more faithful . . . but not completely. In my personal view, I believe that the Ustinov version was a lot better . . . more entertaining. Why? If I have to be brutally honest, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1941 novel. No matter how many times I tried to like it (and I tried), it simply bored me.

In regard to the adaptations of “And Then There Were None”, there are only two adaptations that I really enjoyed – Rene Clair’s 1945 adaptation and this new version. The 1945 film is actually an adaptation of the 1943 stage play written by Christie. Because the play first opened in the middle of World War II, Christie had decided to change the ending in order to spare wartime theater goers the story’s nihilistic ending. Two years later, director Rene Clair and 20th Century Fox decided to adapt Christie’s stage play, instead of the novel. Several other movie adaptations – including the 1996 and the 1974 – did the same. As far as I know, only the Russian 1987 adaptation followed Christie’s original ending.

And how do I care about these numerous adaptations? I have seen both the 1966 and 1974 movies. I am not a fan of either. Personally, I found them rather cheap. I have never seen the 1987 Russian film. As for the 1945 and 2015 versions . . . I am a big fan of both. That’s right . . . both of them. I do not care that 2015 miniseries stuck to Christie’s original novel, despite some changes, and Clair’s 1945 movie did not. I simply happen to enjoy BOTH versions. Why? Both versions were made with skill and style. And I found both versions fascinating, despite the fact that they have different endings.

I do not believe it should matter that a movie or television ALWAYS adhere to the novel it is adapting. What should matter is whether the director, writer or both are wise enough to realize whether it is a good idea to be completely faithful or to make changes . . . for the sake of the production. If producer John Bradbourne and director Guy Hamilton can make a superior adaptation of “Evil Under the Sun” by utilizing major changes to Christie’s original story and if there can be two outstanding versions of “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” . . . with different endings, I really do not see the need for any film or television production to blindly adhere to every aspect of a novel it is adapting.

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

There have been four adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. One version was a radio play that broadcast in 1999. The Adventure Company released its own adaptation in 2007. John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin released a movie version in 1982. However, the adaptation that has recently caught my attention is the 2001 television movie that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.

While dining at his friend Captain Arthur Hasting’s new Argentine restaurant, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot suffers a sudden collapse. His doctor reveals that Poirot need to lose weight or risk a heart condition. Both the doctor and the detective’s secretary, Miss Lemon, book Poirot at a health resort on the coast of Devon called Sandy Cove. Miss Lemon also insists that Captain Hastings accompany him.

At the Sandy Cove Resort, both Poirot and Hastings come across the usual assortment of guests. Among them was a well-known stage actress named Arlena Stuart Marshall. Many of the guests disliked Arlena, including her new husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall and her 17 year-old stepson, Lionel. Another guest, Mrs. Christina Redfern harbored jealousy over Arlena’s indiscreet affair with hubby Patrick. Well-known dressmaker Rosamund Darnley, was an old flame of Captain Marshall’s, and also harbored jealousy toward Arlena. A fanatical vicar named the Reverend Stephen Lane viewed Arlena as the embodiment of evil. An athletic spinster named Emily Brewster harbored resentment toward Arlena for bailing out on a play she had invested. The only guests who seemed to harbor no feelings regarding Arlena were a Major Barry and a Mr. Horace Blatt. But both seemed to be involved in some mysterious activities around the resort’s island – including the location where Arlena had been waiting to meet for a clandestine lover. When Arlena’s body is discovered strangled to death, Poirot and Hastings work with Scotland Yard inspector Japp to investigate the crime.

When I was younger, I had read Christie’s novel on a few occasions. I tried to enjoy the novel. I really did. I understood that it was a favorite among Christie fans. But I never managed to rouse any enthusiasm for the story. There was something about it that struck me as rather flat. This 2001 television adaptation seemed to be an improvement over the novel. Perhaps a visual representation on the television screen made it easier for me to appreciate the story. I certainly cannot deny that Rob Hinds’ production designs struck me as colorful and sleek – a perfect continuation of the Art Deco style that had dominated the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” since the beginning. I was also impressed by Charlotte Holdich’s sleek costume designs for the cast – especially the female characters. Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be eye-candy for those who usually enjoy television and movie productions with a 1930s setting.

The subplot involving Poirot’s health certainly made it easier for me to understand why he would vacation at a not-so-interesting hotel resort. To be honest, I could not see someone like the flashy Arlena Marshall being a guest at such a low-key location. Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz made a wise choice in transforming Arlena’s 16 year-old stepdaughter Linda Marshall, who studied magic; into a 17 year-old boy, studying poisons. Arlena had been strangled. And Scotland Yard made it clear that large hands had been responsible for the crime. The idea of a 16 year-old girl with man-size hands struck me as slightly improbable. After all, if Christie wanted Linda to be considered as a serious suspect, she should have changed the character’s gender, which Horowitz did; or find another method to bump off Arlena Stuart.

The above mentioned changes in Christie’s story – Poirot’s health problems and the transformations of the Linda/Lionel Marshall character – seemed like improvements over the original story. However, other changes made it impossible for me to love this adaptation. I understand why the series’ producers and Horowitz had decided to include Hastings, Japp and Lemon into the story. After all, the Eighth Series, which aired in 2000 and 2001, proved to be the last that featured these three characters. But none of them had appeared in the 1941 novel. Hastings’ presence only gave Poirot a pretext for vacationing at Sandy Cove in the first place. Unfortunately, the running joke about Poirot’s distaste toward the resort’s health-conscious menu for its guests became tiresome within one-third of the movie. Other than the Argentine restaurant sequence, Horowitz failed to make Hastings’ presence relevant to the story. And why on earth was Chief Inspector Japp investigating a murder in Devon? He was outside of Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London and the home counties of Essex and Hertfordshire in the East of England; along with Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent in South East England. In other words . . . what in the hell was Japp doing there in Devon? Miss Lemon proved to be the only veteran recurring cast member that proved to be relevant to the story. She helped Poirot investigate another murder case with connections to Arlena Stuart’s murderer.

The cast gave solid performances. But I could not recall any memorable performances among them. The four main cast members – David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran – were competent as usual. I was also impressed by Michael Higgs (Patrick Redfern), Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster), Ian Thompson (Major Barry), Tamzin Malleson (Christine Redfern) and especially Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall). But there were performances that failed to rock my boat. David Mallinson’s portrayal of Kenneth Marshall struck me as . . . meh. He was not terrible, but simply not that interesting. Marsha Fitzalan’s performance as Rosamund Darnley seemed a bit off. Her portrayal of the dressmaker struck me as gossipy and callow. She seemed like an early 20th century version of her old role, Caroline Bingley; instead of the warm and strong-willed Rosamund. Both Tim Meats and David Timson’s performances seemed slightly hammy and rather off for such a low-key production. But the real worm in the apple proved to be Louise Delamere’s portrayal of victim Arlena Marshall. I realize that Delamere was given a role that seemed the least interesting in Christie’s novel. But Horowitz’s script and Delamere’s performance failed to improve upon it. Delamere ended up projecting a fourth-rate version of Diana Rigg’s performance in the 1982 film.

Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be a mixed bag. Production wise, it looked sleek and colorful. The script provided a few improvements over Christie’s novel. And there were some first-rate performances that included David Suchet. But in the end, I felt the movie was slightly undermined by other changes that I found unnecessary and some not-so impressive performances.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

As many fans of Jane Austen must know, there have been several screen and television adaptations of the author’s most celebrated novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, published in 1813. I usually come across at least five of those versions – including the five-part BBC adaptation that aired in the U.S. in 1980. The miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke. 

Only someone unfamiliar with Austen’s story would not know that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second-born daughter of an English gentleman and landowner in Regency England. The story focused on the efforts of her volatile mother to find eligible husbands for Elizabeth and her four sisters. It is also a love story about Elizabeth’s tumultuous relationship with a wealthy and haughty gentleman named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Through five episodes, the miniseries explored Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s emotions, as their relationship went from mild hostility, misunderstandings and prejudice, to love, respect and marriage. Many Austen fans consider Weldon’s adaptation to be the most faithful to the 1813 novel. After my recent viewing of the miniseries, I realized that I could never agree with that opinion.

I am not saying that ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” strongly differed from Austen’s novel. But I can honestly say that it was no more faithful than the 1995 version. Only screenwriter Fay Weldon’s variations differ from Andrew Davies’. In fact, most these differences were especially obvious in the segment that featured Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford, the Collins’ home in Kent. But these differences did not lessen my enjoyment of the production. However, there were some aspects of the miniseries that did.

One aspect of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” that annoyed me was its occasionally slow pacing. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a filmed play. Most fans would dismiss this complaint on the grounds that many BBC miniseries productions had been shot in this static style. True, but I have seen a few of these old productions that managed to maintain a brisk pacing. Another aspect of the miniseries that annoyed me was the internal monologues that expressed Elizabeth’s thoughts. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected Elizabeth’s opinion of the letter she had received from Mr. Darcy following his disastrous marriage proposal; and in the sequences that featured her thoughts on her sister Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham and her parents’ marriage. Frankly, I found the use of this film device simply a cheap way to reflect Elizabeth’s opinions on the subjects. And these monologues nearly bogged the series’ pacing to a standstill.

But the real disappointment proved to be the miniseries’ portrayal of the Netherfield Ball. The ball given by Mr. Darcy’s close friend, Charles Bingley, was one of the novel’s centerpieces in nearly every adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice”. The ball was replaced with a garden fête in the 1940 version. But it still turned out to be one of the movie’s centerpieces. So, why did Fay Weldon dropped the ball with this particular sequence? In this version, the Netherfield Ball segment lasted a little over six minutes. Elizabeth expressed her displeasure over Mr. Wickham’s non-appearance and the prospect of dancing with Mr. Darcy. She danced with both Mr. Darcy and her cousin, William Collins. She traded barbs with Caroline Bingley. And Elizabeth also witnessed her mother’s embarrassing boasts about elder sister Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley. By deleting Mr. Collins brief discussion with Mr. Darcy and the embarrassing behavior of the other members of the Bennet family, Weldon’s screenplay seemed to have rendered the sequence half done. Worse, Cyril Coke shot the sequence at an incredibly fast pace. Between Weldon’s deletions and Coke’s pacing, the Netherfield Ball sequence seemed like such a disappointing affair.

When I first saw ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I became immediately enamored of the miniseries. As an adolescent, I thought it was one of the best things to come from British television. After my last viewing of the series, my opinion of it has somewhat diminished. But I still consider it to be very entertaining. Austen’s wit remained intact. Well . . . somewhat. Some of the jokes – like Elizabeth’s comment about Darcy’s and her penchant for “amazing” statements – failed to make any impact, due to Elizabeth Garvie’s delivery of the line. And many of Mr. Bennet’s witticisms seemed angry, instead of funny. But plenty of humor remained in the miniseries. Elizabeth’s first meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and a reunion with Mr. Darcy struck me as one of the miniseries’ funniest scenes. Just about every scene with Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins provided plenty of laughs. The romances featured in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” remained strong as ever, especially between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

I would not consider Paul Wheeler’s photography for ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” to be that colorful. In fact, it looked slightly faded. One could attribute this to the fact that the miniseries has been aging for the past thirty years. Yet, I have seen other television productions made around the same time or earlier that looked more colorful. But I must admit that I enjoyed Joan Ellacott’s costume designs. They were certainly colorful and properly reflected the characters’ social status.

Any adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice” would be nothing without strong leads to portray the two main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The 1980 miniseries certainly benefitted from strong performances provided by Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Garvie proved to be a very soft-spoken Elizabeth Bennet, reminding me of Greer Garson’s performance in the same role in the 1940 adaptation. Yet, beneath the soft tones, Garvie provided plenty of wit and steel. I found her performance very enjoyable. And David Rintoul definitely projected Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor. Some consider his performance to be the epitome portrayal of Austen’s famous character. Perhaps. Perhaps not. There were moments when Rintoul’s Mr. Darcy seemed a bit too haughty – especially when the character was supposed to be falling in love with Elizabeth. But I believe he still gave a first-rate performance. And he provided one of the miniseries’ funniest moments in a scene featuring Elizabeth and the Collins’ first visit to Rosings Park.

The rest of the cast seemed solid. But I can only think of a few exceptional performances. One came from Priscilla Morgan, whose portrayal of Mrs. Bennet managed to be extremely irritating without her resorting to caricature. I was also impressed by Marsha Fitzalan, who proved that Caroline Bingley could be both subtle and spiteful at the same time. Tessa Peake-Jones gave an entertaining performance as the bookish and pompous Mary Bennet. Her portrayal seemed more subtle than other actresses who have portrayed the character. Peter Settlelen also gave a solid performance as George Wickham, but he came off as too hale and hearty for me to consider him as an effective villain. And Peter Howell was certainly hilarious as the boorish and obsequious Mr. William Collins, Elizabeth’s cousin and Mr. Bennet’s heir. However, there were moments when he seemed a bit over-the-top.

And then there were the performances that I found questionable. I must admit that I was not impressed by Natalie Ogle’s portrayal of the childish Lydia Bennet. I found her acting skills somewhat amateurish. The actress who portrayed Kitty Bennet seemed a little too old for the role. And there were times when her Kitty seemed more mature (in a negative way) than the other four sisters. And Kitty is supposed to be the second youngest sibling in the family. Actor Moray Watson gave a sharp and entertaining performance as the Bennets’ patriarch. But I found his wit a bit too harsh and angry at times.

”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its share of flaws, which I have pointed out in this review. But its virtues outweighed the flaws – the biggest ones being the first-rate performances of the two leads, Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Screenwriter Fay Weldon and director Cyril Coke did an above-average job in adapting Jane Austen’s most famous novel.