Here’s a full transcript of the sixth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: We think about murder mysteries as “page turners”. For lots of fans, the physical act of reading these books, of racing through the story and seeing the number of unread pages dwindling towards the solution is part of the joy. But for a great many people, their main contact with detective fiction — in particular the stories of Agatha Christie — is via film and television adaptations. For a huge global audience, Christie’s work is as often watched as it is read.
This is nothing new. The first film based on a Christie short story was “The Passing of Mr Quinn”, which appeared in 1928, and many more followed, throughout her life and afterwards. Interest in transforming Christie stories and novels for the screen is still as strong as ever. In the last few years, the BBC has produced a succession of new adaptations by the screenwriter Sarah Phelps, with a new one screened every Christmas. The national interest in these productions is so great that newspapers write stories about every aspect of them, and speculate endlessly as to what bits of the plot will remain the same and what will change.
Given the intense scrutiny and the vast existing canon, I decided to investigate this phenomenon further. What is it really like to adapt an Agatha Christie today?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Sarah Phelps is a British screenwriter with a long list of very well known credits — she has written dozens of episodes of the iconic soap Eastenders, and has adapted JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling for television. Adaptations are a bit of a speciality with her, with her versions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations broadcast by the BBC in 2007 and 2011. More recently, she’s become well known for her adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and short stories, starting with And Then There Were None, which aired in the UK over Christmas in 2015. That was followed by Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence, and for Christmas 2018 she has written a new version of Christie’s 1936 Point novel The ABC Murders.
Her process, she says, is all centred around the novel or story she is adapting.
Sarah: Oh I read the novel. I read the novel or the short story and I sort of go away and think about it a bit. So I tend to sort of at the moment because I’m filming something else, so my intent I’m working on something else at the same time. So over Christmas I’ll be doing a big read of the next one that we think the next or what next one is going to be and talk and we start talking in the new year.
Caroline: However, before she got the job of writing these adaptations, she wasn’t a big reader of Agatha Christie, and she’s deliberately not caught up on all the novels, because she wants to approach each story she is adapting as freshly as possible.
Sarah: So I because I came to this with very unfamiliar with Agatha Christie because I want to remain shocked and surprised by her I’ve decided to kind of limit my reading as it were so I can be really surprised so I don’t have a background of there’s this trope there or that happened somewhere else or because over the course of writing career of over 50 years you’re going to get things that are reiterations and I don’t want to do that thing where I go ‘oh I remember that from something that she wrote in 1927 and now she is writing in 1962’, I want to be kind of surprised by it and shocked and unnerved so I tried to limit what I try to limit what I read to the thing that I think we’re going to be working on next if that makes sense.
Caroline: The key for her, she says, is replicating that sense of shock she feels when first discovering the twist in Christie’s plot for the viewers of the TV adaptation.
Sarah: I want it to be for the thing that struck me and the thing that surprised and shocked and unnerved me I want I want to write about that I want the audience when they’re watching it go ‘oh God’, as if this story hadn’t been told before or as if this hasn’t been read before. That’s why I I really want to keep that sense of freshness and surprise and suddenness and unfamiliarity. I her want to be unfamiliar rather than to be ‘oh yes we know where we are we’ve been in this landscape before’ and I want it to feel like it’s the first time it’s ever been touched that it’s the first of the stories have ever been told.
Caroline: The temptation with adaptations, especially when working with a really well-known text like an Agatha Christie or a Charles Dickens novel, is to get dug into all the previous versions.
Sarah: I don’t want to know I just want books to speak to me. I’m adapting the novel not adapting other people’s other adaptations of that novel. [00:04:09] For example the first adaptation I ever did for TV was Oliver Twist. Now I don’t think there a book that’s been adapted more than Oliver Twist. I mean it’s lunatic how many various adaptations there were TV, screen, radio whatever, theatre,have been done on Oliver Twist and I just kept thinking what I don’t want to watch anything else apart from the musical Oliver because there’s no escaping that because my mum took me to see it but I didn’t watch any other adaptations all I read was the book and if you just read the book and you don’t look at anything else you don’t read anything else but that book I think you get something right to the essence of it because sometimes we’re familiar with the adaptations, we’re some familiar with those stories but we’re not so we’ve lost touch with the novel and the details of the novel and what the novel is actually about. And so that’s my rule of thumb for adaptation.
Caroline: Sarah’s adaptations are often really dark, and with the way she handles the plots she really digs into the vicious motives that lie beneath the polite veneer of Christie’s characters. These depths came as a surprise to Sarah, she says, when she first started looking in detail at Christie’s writing.
Sarah: I did think she was rather kind of cosy and rather kind of here’s a village green or here’s the big house. Somebody is on the floor. Was it a poker. Was it somebody with a candlestick. But what really surprised me when I read And Then There Were None was just how savage it was and it was utterly remorseless. It was very very cruel and strangely subversive with this weird gallows humour. And I I loved it and I kept thinking actually what this is is this is about the rhythms of Greek tragedy where action begets action begets action and then you are heading towards your end or judgment and nothing you do or say is going to help. And I felt really excited by that and I felt that you know it was pretty much written and published in the same year which was 1939. I kept thinking ‘God if there was ever a story which reflected what it might be like to stand on the brink of the edge of the world as we plummeted again into another world war then And Then There Were None felt like that story’.
Caroline: Her adaptation of And Then There Were None emphasises the isolation and horror of its setting, with ten strangers marooned on an island, being picked off one by one by a foe identified only as “UN Owen”, or “unknown”. It’s a deeply creepy book about morality and justice, as well as containing a really clever murder mystery plot. It’s Christie’s bestselling novel, and indeed, one of the bestselling books of all time. When she came to start adapting it, it showed Sarah a whole new side to Agatha Christie, the supposedly staid author of pleasing little puzzles.
Sarah: So I kind of took that shock and now nightmare quality and and wrote that. That was so I wrote that surprise and that shock and that thrill of going ‘God, you’re really actually you’re not who I thought you were at all’ your. There’s a real this is we are why isn’t this in the modernist canon and you are actually quite subversive and tricksy writer, that’s what I thought about her. [00:09:43][87.6]
Caroline: If you’re interested in this secretly difficult and even radical side to Christie’s work, I recommend you check out episode three of this podcast, which is all about the queer subtext of classic crime fiction.
Caroline: For Christmas 2018, Sarah Phelps has adapted The ABC Murders, a Poirot novel from 1936 in which the Belgian sleuth has to pit his wits against a serial killer slaying people with alliterative names in alphabetical order. In her approach to it, she decided to set it in a particular moment in 1930s British history, which has a lot of resonances with today.
Sarah: The book is written and set in the 1930s and I put it very specifically in 1933 which is the rise you know is when the British union of fascists started to gain serious political traction and I just felt that without even forcing anything those contemporary resonances were there. Here is the famous Belgian Francophone detective who arrived in Britain as part of the um the exodus from Belgium whether during the German invasion in 1933 when the feeling towards people who had been refugees, it changed really violently and the language when I was doing my research the language is absolutely that of Brexit and Trump and I did lots of deep dives into and into a lot of into you know into my historical research and into some really very strange websites which I wouldn’t want anyone to go and look at because it was nightmarish really. And I found these exposed extraordinary details in the language of the posters and the kind of the lyrics to the BUF marching songs and they really put a shiver up your back that these were chanted you know Britain’s streets when we know they were. So it just gave that background for my Hercule to have to fight his fight his way through it to find this serial killer who taunts him endlessly with these letters. It just felt like it created this really dangerous world and to be reminded it it is a dangerous world there is danger everywhere. Somebody hears you speaking in the wrong accent and they could hurt you and it felt really timely and really relevant and absolutely of its time but absolutely of ours because these things are cyclical they you know these moods these belches of horror don’t go away they just lie dormant waiting for the next economic crisis to bring them alive again. [00:12:24][141.9]
Caroline: The character of Hercule Poirot is introduced in Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. The book is set around 1916, and Poirot, who had been a police detective in Belgium before the First World War, has recently arrived in England as a refugee after the German invasion of his country. Throughout the following 32 novels he appears in, he is frequently belittled and dismissed by other characters as a mere “foreigner” — an insult that he usually brushes off or turns to his advantage when detractors underestimate him. The plight of the outsider and its possibilities for a detective was a theme Christie returned to often. Her adaptation of the The ABC Murders is the first time that Sarah Phelps has worked with one of Christie’s recurring sleuths, and she took great care in how she approached the character, given how familiar he is and how many existing recognisable portrayals of him there are.
Sarah: Well all detectives have a backstory. You’ve got a huge canon of Poirot and Poirot’s familiarity to the reading public to the viewing public. I mean that silhouette, that name , that sort of essence is so familiar. I mean it’s it’s part of our cultural landscape and because I like to say I was unfamiliar with him I thought that that felt really useful to me because all the questions that the killer asks of him were the questions that I was asking of him which is ‘who are you, I am going to come and find me and I am going to just keep nudging you to get at the truth of you are and this public persona of Poirot and behind that is Hercule the private man and I wanted to write about Hercule the private man to kind of bring it bring a different not a different but perhaps bring the you know and we all have public personas and I was just interested in who he might be as Hercule. Right down to the fact that when in the script I never whenever it was his character heading it was never Poirot it was always ‘Hercule’. So he gets called, in the same way that a killer addresses him as Hercule, I addressed him as Hercule all the way throughout the script.
Caroline: John Malkovich plays Hercule in Phelps’s adaptation, and it’s a mark of how beloved and familiar Christie’s character is that rumours of his lack of the distinctive moustache and accent received a lot of coverage in the weeks before Christmas. In reality, she says, a great deal of thought went into exactly how to present these well known characteristics in a new and interesting way to the TV audience.
Sarah: I did try to kind of wind some people up when they went ‘ah god what do you mean Poirot hasn’t got an accent?’. Yeah no, I completely changed it, he comes from Macclesfield. . . just because he is a Francophone Belgian he’s gonna have an accent he’s not going to sound like he’s from Texas or Padstow or something. I think what we were what we were trying to do we had a lot of conversation myself and Alex Gabassi the director with John and it was I was very keen to do something really organic with the accent because I wanted to, I wanted it to feel like that it was a kind of out there accent but that it was actually somebody who had learned English as a new language and they had those precisions and those hypercorrections but underneath you could feel the rhythm of the original French and that was what informed the accent.
Caroline: Agatha Christie’s work is so well known, and a lot of people are really interested in the decisions that Sarah makes as she turns the original books into new TV series. At times, she does choose to diverge from the source material — most notably in Ordeal by Innocence, where her adaptation has a different ending to Christie’s novel of the same name. The intention is always, she says, to produce something fresh and entertaining for the viewer, whether they are a long time Agatha Christie fan very familiar with the canon, or entirely new to the work just switching on after a big Boxing Day tea. Either way, she feels great pressure and responsibility to get it right.
Sarah: Pressure and responsibility — yes of course I feel huge pressure and huge responsibility to be entertaining. Bring something that people enjoy, bring something which is satisfies me as a writer that I’ve got a really good story in a really emotional story that I’ve told the essence of the story, that the spirit of Christie is absolutely alive that I know those preoccupations all the things that she was chasing throughout decades and decades of really long writing career are there but do you know any writer that tells you that they don’t feel pressure or responsibilities is lying, every single page every single line of dialogue every single new scene is absolutely terrifying.
Caroline: The first part of The ABC Murders airs this evening, if you’re listening to this episode in the UK and on the day it comes out (if you’re elsewhere, it’ll be available on demand very soon I’m sure). I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I found it really atmospheric and very evocative of the time that Christie was writing about. If the novel is new to you, I highly recommend going and reading it after you watch the series, especially if you’re interested in more details about how the railway aspect of the plot works.
Caroline: Even as we’re enjoying this one, though, Sarah is already gearing up to get to work on the next Agatha Christie adaptation for next Christmas. It’s such a big part of the schedule that multiple years are already planned out, and there’s a very distinct lifecycle to the work.
Sarah: By the time were in this sort of process I’m reading for potentially the next one, and once it’s sort of gone out at the beginning of the new year, then I go and say ‘Look, this is what I think I’m going to do’ and then we kind of well people sort of discuss it and I say ‘no, that’s what I’m going to do’ and then I go off and write it and then I write it again and then we start working on it and geting the cast together. So it sort of takes the kind of year life cycle to it which sort of starts pretty much round about this time just as we’re. . . It sort of starts as we come to the end of filming where we start loosely talking and then I generally sort of start writing when when weve when you know the current broadcast is sort of done because I don’t know about other writers but I kind of like find it very difficult to concentrate when I’ve got something that’s about to go out and I sort of pace and worry and dither so I can’t really concentrate until it’s done. So that’s the sort of life cycle. And then we film over the course of the summer into the autumn and then we’re in the edit, and then we’re all ready for roundabout this time of the year.
Caroline: These adaptations have been a great success for the BBC, and seem set to stay at the heart of their Christmas commissioning for years to come. Agatha Christie herself wasn’t always quite so positive about the screen adaptations of her work, though — she disliked it when the intricate plots she had worked so hard to create were simplified, and she often felt that the new dialogue given to her characters wasn’t plausible. In 1952’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, the character of Ariadne Oliver, herself a detective novelist bearing a striking resemblance to Christie, expresses what has often been read as the author’s own distaste for adaptations, saying to her friend Hercule Poirot: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things they never would have done.”
Who knows what Agatha would have thought of John Malkovich’s Poirot, or any of the other versions of her stories that have appeared in the last nine or so decades? There’s no way of knowing, and endless speculation about this detail or that doesn’t really advance anything. Some people prefer Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple to Geraldine McEwan’s, and David Suchet’s Poirot to Kenneth Branagh’s — and others still prefer to read rather than watch.
Whatever your favourite is, there’s still something rather wonderful about tuning in at the darkest time of the year, full of good food and festive cheer, and knowing that the rest of the nation is also watching a twisty, impossible plot play out on the screen.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/adaptations. There, you can also read a full transcript.
That’s it from me in 2018: I wish all my listeners a merry festive period and a good start to the new year, and you’ll hear from me again in 2019. If you feel moved to show your appreciation for the podcast before then, do spread the word to friends and family you like mystery stories, so that they can get all caught up before the next episode comes out. And of course, if you want to leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, that also helps the show be more visible to new listeners.
I’ll be back on 9 January with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: the tragic tale of Edith Thompson.