With the first of Agatha Christie’s novels “The Mysterious Affair At Styles” celebrating its centenary this month, it seems an apt time to revisit the adaptations of her iconic work on the small screen. Christie’s most famous works include the instantly recognisable characters of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, but it is important not to forget her other standalone works such as “And Then There Were None” & “Witness For The Prosecution”.
The first adaptation of Christie’s work was in 1928 with a film adaptation of “The Passing Of Mr. Quinn”, with the first television adaption following 10 years later. Over the years we have been treated to a wealth of Christie adaptions in both film and television, with perhaps the most iconic take on Christie’s Belgian detective Poirot belonging to David Suchet. Suchet’s 24-year stint in the role from 1989 to 2013 saw every Poirot story adapted for television, beginning with “The Adventure Of The Clapham Cook” and culminating in Poirot’s swansong “Curtain”.
Suchet truly brought many of the literary Poirot’s traits to the fore, with his abrupt nature and selfish attributes on display alongside his devilish mind and determination to crack whichever case lay before him. Perhaps by virtue of his longevity, Suchet takes the crown as best Poirot – however, the likes of Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Branagh have also brought their unique spins to the role (with varying degrees of success). The Suchet series really grasps the tone of Christie’s writing full of wit, humour and tension. One of its biggest successes however is the attention to period detail as the audience is able to really feel the 1920s and 30s aesthetic as well as the behaviours of the characters at the time.
Along with Poirot, the other of Christie’s iconic literary figures is Jane Marple. Audiences have been treated to many takes on the sleuth, ranging from Magaret Rutherford’s initial take to Joan Hickson’s instantly recognisable iteration to variants notably including Angela Lansbury.
The BBC adapted the Miss Marple novels in the 1980s and 90s with Joan Hickson in the title role. Following the success of its Poirot series, ITV began its own series titled Agatha Christie’s Marple which ran from 2004 to 2013, initially starring Geraldine McEwan and subsequently Julia Mckenzie. The ITV adaptations have included non-Marple Christie novels such as “Ordeal By Innocence” and “The Pale Horse”, both of which would be later revisited in the latest BBC swathe of Christie adaptations.
Since 2015 we have been treated to a constant stream of Christie content from the BBC, albeit to varying levels of success. Interestingly, there have been some criticisms that these latest adaptations have taken a few too many liberties with the much-loved source material. The first of the BBC’s new adaptions was And Then There Were None – one of Christie’s most loved standalone novels. The series made great use of its Cornish coastal filming locations to create a tense and brooding atmosphere, and there were some high-calibre casting thanks to the likes of Charles Dance, Aidan Turner, Sam Neill and Noah Taylor, all established stars of both film and television. This was my personal favourite of the BBC’s adaptations, notable for its much bleaker tone and the quality of the cast throughout.
The level of quality has since fluctuated considerably in the adaptations. Witness For The Prosecution was the second adaptation, this time adapting a play. Though this was another strong take on a great standalone story, with some great lead work by Toby Jones, this version perhaps suffered as it followed in the footsteps of the great Billy Wilder’s 1957 film, which was nominated for 6 Oscars. Two of the subsequent adaptations, The Pale Horse and Ordeal By Innocence, were created as part of the Marple series and many felt it was too soon for these stories to be retold. The Pale Horse in particular aggrieved many fans with the number of liberties it took, despite some very strong acting from its leads – particularly Rufus Sewell.
Concerning the BBC’s recent run, one of the most frustrating aspects is their decision to delve into Hercule Poirot’s canon with John Malkovich taking on the role in 2018’s ABC Murders. Though Malkovich was an intriguing casting choice, it was a shame that the character of Poirot was stripped of so many of his mannerisms whilst his backstory was reinvented considerably. It seems that although there was a decent story to be told in this adaptation, it apparently got lost en-route.
Despite all this, I am hopeful that the BBC will continue its annual tradition of bringing Christie’s lesser-known and standalone stories to life. It is truly remarkable to witness the staying power of her works – 100 years on from the publication date of Christie’s first novel and we are still seeing her works adapted time and time again. Christie’s influence can clearly be found in many current detective dramas such as Death in Paradise, which uses the address at the end of each episode to reveal the murderer, as well as last year’s smash hit Knives Out. Here’s to another hundred years of Agatha Christie’s exceptional works, of which I expect there will be many more adaptations.
Words by Chris Connor
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