“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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“DODSWORTH” (1936) Review

“DODSWORTH” (1936) Review

I might as well place my cards on the table. William Wyler has been one of my favorite Old Hollywood directors for as long as I can remember. One particular movie that had impressed me as a teenager and a woman in my 20s was his 1936 film, “DODSWORTH”. However, a good number of years had passed since I last saw it. Realizing this, I decided to view the movie again for a new assessment.

Based upon Sinclair Lewis’ 1929 novel and Sidney Howard’s 1934 stage adaptation, “DODSWORTH” tells the story of a Midwestern auto tycoon named Sam Dodsworth, who decides to sell his auto manufacturing plant and retire at the urging of his wife Fran. Feeling trapped by their small-town social life, Fran also convinces Sam to start off his retirement with a trip to Europe. Sam comes to regard the trip as an opportunity to see the sights. Fran has different ideas. She views the trip as an opportunity to escape her Midwestern life and enjoy the pleasures of European high society. She manages to achieve this with a succession of European Lotharios by her side. The different desires and expectations of the pair eventually fractures their marriage for good.

When all is said and done, “DODSWORTH” is basically a portrait of a failing marriage. A part of me wondered why“DODSWORTH” had never been filmed during Hollywood’s pre-Code era. Sinclair Lewis’ tale seemed aptly suited for that particular period in film history. I tried to remember how many movies I have seen or heard about a failing marriage and divorce and realized they were few in numbers. Another aspect of “DODSWORTH” I found interesting was director William Wyler and screenwriter Sidney Howard’s attempt to portray the Dodsworths’ marital breakup with as much maturity as possible. One could easily blame the Fran Dodsworth for the marriage’s eventual failure, due to the character’s vanity, infatuation with European high society and infidelity. But I read somewhere that both Wyler and Howard (especially the former) went out of their way to portray Fran with as much sympathy and complexity as possible – especially in the movie’s first half.

I do believe that Wyler, Howard and the movie’s cast did an excellent job in their attempt to create a realistic and mature film. I found scenes in the film that seemed to exemplify this attempt at mature melodrama. They include Ruth’s embarassing last conversation with Captain Clyde Lockert, the good-looking British Army officer she had flirted with aboard the ocean liner that took her and Sam to Europe; the Dodsworths’ last conversation before Sam returns to the U.S.; and their frank conversation about Fran’s affair with aging playboy Arnold Iselin upon Sam’s return to Europe. But the two best scenes – well shot by Wyler and superbly performed – featured Fran’s even more embarassing encounter with Baroness Von Obersdorf, the elderly mother of the young Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf, whom she wished to marry; and Sam and Fran’s last moment together in which the former decides to end their marriage permanently. Watching this movie, it was easy for me to see why “DODSWORTH” managed to earn seven Academy Award nominations – including a Best Director nomination for William Wyler and one for Best Picture.

Two of those nominations were for technical achievements. Richard Day not only earned a nomination for the movie’s art direction, he also won. And I could see why, especially in the images below:

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Day’s work seemed to feature a clean, yet stylish look that was evocative of the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 30s.

At least two cast members earned Oscar nominations for their performances. Walter Huston earned a well-deserved nomination for his natural and down-to-earth portrayal of the very likeable and mature retired tycoon, Sam Dodsworth. A surprising Best Supporting Actress nomination was given to Maria Ouspenskaya in a small role as Baroness Von Obersdorf, the woman whom Fran Dodsworth hoped to call “mother-in-law”. I cannot deny that Ouspenskaya was very effective as the frank and no-nonsense German aristocrat who crushed Fran’s dreams of marriage to the younger Kurt Von Obersdorf. But I rather doubt if I would have considered her for an Oscar nomination. The movie also featured competent performances from Mary Astor, Kathryn Marlowe, John Payne, Spring Byington and Gregory Gaye. The two more memorable performances – at least for me – came from a young David Niven as the well-born British Army officer, who teaches Fran a lesson about flirtation and Paul Lukas as the much older Lothario, Arnold Iselin, who seemed amused by the chaos he causes within the Dodsworth marriage. But for me, Ruth Chatterton gave the best performance in the film. Despite the negative manner in which her character was written, her portrayal of the vain Fran Dodsworth provided the film with backbone, drive and a great deal of first-rate drama. “DODSWORTH” would be nothing without the Fran Dodsworth character . . . and Chatterton’s superb performance. And yet . . . the actress did not receive an Academy Award nomination.

In the end, “DODSWORTH” is a very well made movie. Actually, it is quite superbly made. I can see why it earned those seven Oscar nominations. But despite the excellent direction, acting and writing .. . I ended up hating this film. I hated the unbalanced portrayal of the Dodsworth marriage. I hated how the story placed all of the blame for the marriage’s failure on Fran. If Wyler was trying to portray Fran in a more flexible light, he and Sidney Howard failed miserably in the end. I hated how Howard’s screenplay portrayed Fran’s flaws in a serious light, whereas Dodsworth’s flaws – namely his own penchant for self-absorption at home – was portrayed as comic relief. I hated the fact that Sam Dodsworth ended up with a younger and more beautiful woman who seemed to be portrayed as an ideal woman, despite her divorce status. I especially hated the fact that Dodsworth was portrayed as a nearly ridiculously idealized character – the self made man who still adhered to good old-fashioned American values, while Fran was portrayed as an incredibly flawed woman who had failed to live up to American society’s ideal of a married woman.

I realize there are many women moviegoers who really enjoyed this film. But this is one woman who disliked it. And “DODSWORTH” might be one of the few William Wyler films I may never have a desire to watch again.