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Why Didn’t They Ask Agatha?

With Hugh Laurie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, the Christie super-fan has finally got a modern Christie adaptation they can get behind

Lucy Boynton and Will Poulter in ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?', an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel of the same name
Lucy Boynton and Will Poulter in ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?', an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel of the same name (IMDb)

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When Hugh Laurie told an interviewer a few months ago that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, which he was adapting into a three-part miniseries for BBC, was his favourite Agatha Christie novel, the hearts of Christie fans across the world beat faster. Speaking for one Christie fan in India, it was a special moment—not only is Evans my favourite Christie of all time too, it is the first one I ever read, and through several re-readings of the Queen of Crime’s entire oeuvre (and one failed attempt at creating a Christie podcast with a fellow fan), it has steadfastly retained the top spot.

You may disagree about whether it’s the best Christie novel—certainly, there are many contenders—but you have to agree it has the most delicious opening of any of her books: A man, taking his last breaths after falling down a cliff off the Welsh coast, utters one cryptic sentence before he dies—“Why didn’t they ask Evans?”. The novel’s cherubic young hero—this is a stand-alone Christie, without any of her stock detectives—to whom he makes this dying statement sets up some amateur sleuthing with his childhood friend, Frances Derwent, to find out what he meant. 

Some crazy Woodhouse-meets-Christie drama ensues, including fake accidents, impersonations, kidnappings, a Gothic asylum for the mentally ill, a sinister doctor, opium addicts and several murders, including a mysterious death in the past that the dying man turns out to have been on the track of.

All this comes to life beautifully in Laurie’s adaptation, which just released worldwide and can be watched in India on SonyLIV. Now, although we seem to be swimming in Christie adaptations—Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile released a few months ago and some novel of hers always seems to be under imminent threat of being turned into a new film or limited series—adapting Christie is not easy. Even the celebrated ITV series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot/ Agatha Christie’s Marple, has several cringe-inducingly bad episodes, especially when the writers have meddled with her immaculate plots. ITV’s By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, one of the spookiest Christies, is turned into a florid, overwrought mess—with the addition not just of Miss Marple to the plot but unnecessary elements like a platoon of American soldiers, a crooked vicar, and so on.

It’s all in the tone. Many adaptations either try to make Christie too dark (the ITV adaption of Evans is, in fact, a case in point) or too broad and farcical—the 2017 Crooked House, with its completely OTT acting and cinematography, falls flat for this reason despite its impressive casting (Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson and Christina Hendricks in one film!).

The new Evans film works because it gets the tone exactly right—it doesn’t take itself too seriously but it doesn’t treat Christie’s plot as some kind of vintage oddity it’s going to take apart with irony and bombast. The few deviations from the original story feel needed—they strike the right emotional note (Christie could seem a bit cold and heartless to modern readers and viewers). But it retains the zaniness of the original, and if the denouement doesn’t quite deliver the punch of the novel (why the hell didn’t they ask Evans? Who is Evans?), it is a thrilling watch that balances humour and scares quite nicely.

One hopes Laurie has more adaptations up his sleeve—there are so many lesser-known Christie novels one craves to see represented correctly on screen. Till then, though, the Christie fan can always go back to the books and find comfort and excitement in one perfect package—podcast or no podcast.

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