A few things have got me thinking lately about adapting mysteries: there was an interesting post and discussion about the BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Nemesis on Yvette’s blog; the awful computer game version of Mystery of the Yellow Room I demoed a few days ago; and I finally got round to watching Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (verdict: better than the book, but maybe all that talent could have been put to a better use?)
Mystery fans tend to be quite vocal about adaptations, especially when they think that one has fallen short of expectations or (most frequently) been changed for the worse. Complete overhauls of the plot and setting are rarely appreciated, but smaller changes to beloved characters or the addition of what I think I’ll call “modern sensibilities” to books from another era can also get people enraged.
As for myself… well, as usual I’m not completely sure what I think (hence this blog – writing about stuff tends to force me to actually think properly about it). I’d agree that complete overhauls are out. If literally all that remains of the original story is the title, setting and some character names, then I don’t see why screenwriters would tie themselves in knots to make a new story to fit these constraints rather than coming up with something completely fresh. I’m not so attached to my favourite detectives or authors that the idea of seeing the characters in new stories by different authors seems like sacrilege. I’m not confident that such stories would be good, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that they would be bad. But just as a complete rewrite seems pointless, I’m usually also against a completely faithful transfer to a different medium. If I wanted Christie’s version of a Christie story, for example, I’d read it in her own words.
So I often enjoy it when certain appropriate – and obviously it’s in that last word that a lot of the debate is going to lie – liberties are taken to give a mystery a new spin. This doesn’t seem to be a commonly held position! But then I’m not swayed by many of the things that are part and parcel of a TV or film adaptation, and which other people seem to really enjoy: I’m not much interested in seeing scenery, settings, costumes, or actors, and a score would have to be astounding for me to really sit up and notice. There’s no social aspect for me: few of my friends like mysteries, so a TV or film adaptation isn’t really a chance for me to share the experience (people also get cross when I guess the murderer within twenty minutes!) It’s not even a matter of efficiency, since I can read a Christie-length mystery in about the same time it takes to watch a TV version. I’m also fairly young, so it’s not a question of nostalgia for a story I haven’t encountered in over twenty years, say. I also don’t hold any authors in such regard that I think their version should be sacrosanct. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect mystery. A dispiriting number of adaptations are hatchet jobs, sure, but I never take that as evidence that modern screenwriters should leave well alone. I think I might be an atypical mystery geek in many ways.
The more I turn it over in my mind, the more I’m beginning to think I might be more interested in the process of adapting than the results. What difficulties does it throw up? What, if any, aspects are easier than writing a story from scratch? Would there ever be a circumstance where tearing up the original and writing an adaptation so loose that it barely warrants the term would be the best thing to do? These issues are probably common to any sort of adaptation work, but there are some things which seem like they would be specific to mysteries. Cuts are a good example. Adaptation often requires trimming, because ninety minutes often isn’t long enough to cover the entirety of a book’s plot. But mysteries often have such complicated plots that cutting parts out can be a real difficulty. Then there’s the presentation of the mystery itself. Clues that are subtle in prose might be too obvious on screen. Tricks which rely on multiple possible readings of dialogue might be ruined when an actor has to actually pick one and say it. Some gambits, especially those involving impersonations, are almost impossible to transfer. The list goes on, and it seems the only way to really tackle it is to actually look at some adaptations (good and bad) and see what’s going on there.
So I’ve started a little project: from time to time I’m going to pick a mystery (almost certainly the original version will be a book), analyse it, and then compare all the different adaptations I can find. I’m hoping the results will be interesting.
Since it was a Marple story which got me thinking along these lines, I’m going to start with one of those: 1957’s The 4:50 from Paddington. Apart from the original book, I’ve found the following versions:
Murder She Said, the film starring Margaret Rutherford
The BBC TV adaptation starring Joan Hickson
The ITV TV adaptation starring Geraldine McEwan
The BBC Radio 4 adaptation starring June Whitfield
An episode from the Japanese anime Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives: Poirot and Marple
A computer game version from Floodlight Games
If anyone knows of any other adaptations, be sure to let me know!