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Sunday Lounge | The Christie adaptations we need

Enough of the campy adaptations of Agatha Christie by British directors who see the author as a writer of period curiosities. Bring on the darkness, Vishal Bhardwaj

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I had looked forward to it for weeks, but in the middle of a staging of The Mousetrap, perhaps Christie's most celebrated play, at a Bengaluru theatre, I found myself cringing. It was absurd; diminished. It was broad drawing room comedy. It was racist and offensive. It made fun of disability. It was horribly dated. It took a dark Christie plot with themes like child abuse and psychopathy and turned it into a semi-farce.

Having read the play, I know that the original isn’t exactly bursting with sensitivity either. Christie could often be crass, ignorant and offensive in her writing—towards women, towards other races, towards gay people; essentially towards anybody who didn’t quite fit into British upper class models of behaviour. She would blissfully make fun of the working classes—in her novels, the butler never did it because the butler was not even important enough as a character on his own. While sometimes making fun of the insularity of the Brits, especially in the way they often reacted to her flamboyant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, she could be quite insular herself.

And yet, those plots. She wrote some of the most surprising, twisty, strange, startling, making-you-gasp murder mystery plots ever written, ones that often dived into the darkest fears and insecurities of the human mind. When it came to motive, money might have been the pragmatic Dame Agatha’s favourite, but some of her best and most celebrated works are the ones in which money is not the motive— Murder on the Orient Express, Nemesis, Crooked House, Sleeping Murder, The Mousetrap.

It seems to me, then, that the job of anyone adapting Christie is to take those plots and do something wonderful and original with them— because shorn of all the British upper class prejudice and problematic values, those plots can be placed anywhere, even if there is not a single chintz-covered sofa or dignified ageing butler in sight.

Which is why I cannot wait to see what Vishal Bhardwaj does with them. In October, the director, who keeps a low profile when he’s not promoting his films, announced that he was “developing a film franchise” based on Christie’s works. Knowing his trilogy of Hindi films based on Shakespeare’s plays—Maqbool from Macbeth, Omkara from Othello, and Haider from Hamlet—Bhardwaj is a master at using the essence of a well-known and well-loved work of literature to craft urgent narratives that seem to have been born in the place where he sets them, be it the UP of Omkara or the Kashmir of Haider.

There is no reason why Bhardwaj cannot take a novel like The Murder at the Vicarage, an early Marple about an abusive husband, an extra-marital affair, mysterious goings on in a village and an inquisitive, sharp old lady at the heart of it, and turn it into a story set in an Indian small town where everyone knows everyone’s business and everyone gossips, though rather less decorously than Miss Marple’s elderly gloved-and-hatted friends.

For a lot of readers, Christie’s novels represent a certain cliched Englishness, and she was, of course, the progenitor of the ‘cozy murder mystery’, where the events of the novel, which often included several gruesome and grisly murders, did not tend to leave much psychological scarring in the rest of the cast and you could almost imagine them gathering for tea and crumpets after the denouement (they often did). But that does not mean many of her 70-plus murder mysteries did not contain a dark heart—while a few, like Endless Night and And Then There Were None, explored this openly, several are distinctly and very satisfyingly creepy: The Moving Finger, Crooked House, The ABC Murders, The Pale Horse. Some contain references to black magic and the dark arts, while others touch upon illicit love: Ordeal By Innocence, Sleeping Murder, Nemesis, and the super-creepy By The Pricking Of My Thumbs.

A couple of months ago, when I and a few of my Christie-mad friends found that Sony LIV, an Indian OTT streaming platform, had acquired the whole of the multi-season ITV adaptations of Marple and Poirot, we were thrilled. Made between 1989 and 2013 as Agatha Christie’s Marple (starring Geraldine McEwan and later Julia Mckenzie as Miss Marple) and Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring David Suchet as Poirot), these adaptations had never been available to watch in India legally, and most of us had seen a few here and there through less than legal means or fractured YouTube videos, which broke up the film episodes into several parts.

This was a bonanza, and the binge started.

By The Pricking Of My Thumbs has always been one of my favourite Christies, though it’s not among her more famous books. It really is a very well-written novel, starring the unusual couple of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who feature in just five books, starting from the post-First World War novel, The Secret Adversary, and growing older with every subsequent book. In this one, they are comfortably middle-aged, and the novel starts with a visit to Tommy’s aunt in an old-age home, where Tuppence falls into conversation with a gentle old lady who seems a bit scatty, and unexpectedly asks her if it’s "her child behind the fireplace". She subsequently disappears from the nursing home, and Tuppence, convinced that something wrong has happened to her, starts looking for her, the journey taking her all over the English countryside, using a painting she had left behind as a clue: the painting shows a pretty pink house by the river that Tuppence identifies as having seen from a train window once, and fallen in love with.

This is the intriguing premise of the novel, which goes into mysterious and dark places. In the hands of a modern novelist, it could have been stretched into a long, literary and atmospheric work, but even in Christie’s more matter-of-fact treatment, it retains the atmosphere of something wrong, the “something evil” that the title alludes to.

The ITV version of it is a strange beast. Marple is shoe-horned in, which makes a certain amount of narrative sense, I guess, because there are already several old ladies and one more doesn’t stick out, but the rest of the changes made to the story—from the introduction of an American Air Force officer to a cheating vicar who is having an affair with a woman who keeps the local pub—are truly bizarre choices. I had to promptly go read the book again to get its taste out of my mouth.

Another low-profile gem, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, which features an adventurous pair of amateur detectives who can best be described as grown-up versions of the Famous Five, is rendered inexplicably dark and illogical. I gave up watching it halfway.

And this problem plagues the entire Marple series. Instead of expanding on the cruel themes in the books, it is too consumed by the period details (which are rendered amateurishly and feel a bit cut-price; this is no Downton Abbey) and the ‘cozy’ tag. It is campy to the core, and not intentionally so.

This may all sound like the whining of a too-obsessed fan. After all, who cares about a series done and dusted a decade ago? But the tampering with Christie continues: soon, we will get the second in the Poirot series starring Kenneth Branagh, an adaptation of the famous Death on the Nile. Suffice it to say I am not a fan. The Murder on the Orient Express, the first in the series, was competent but utterly marred by turning Poirot into a hideously mustachioed man of action with a troubling past. Instead of diving into this utterly remarkable story—one of the best murder mysteries ever written—it is too taken up by the character of Poirot himself, who is clearly not the detective we have come to love in the books.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

Actually, the finest adaptation of a Christie work—at least among the ones I have seen, and I have seen pretty much all of them barring a few Japanese, German and French adaptations—was made by the late, great Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh. On the surface, Subho Muhurat has little in common with the world of its source material, Christie's The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Though it interprets the protagonist of the book, a Hollywood actress, as a Bengali actress and director, it is set in Kolkata in the the early 2000s, and it invents a new character—the niece of the Marple here (a film journalist played by Nandita Das). Ghosh's Marple, played by Rakhi Gulzar, is a crabby elderly Bengali pishima (aunt), and she faces off with the glamorous and troubled former actress, played by Sharmila Tagore, with anger and empathy.

Subho Muhurat, 2003
Subho Muhurat, 2003

It is an utterly brilliant adaptation that goes straight to the painful core of the novel, a core that provides its devastating motive for murder.

That is the way I am hoping Bhardwaj will go. No camp, only Christie.

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