I still haven’t got round to watching the final series of Poirot. The most recent episodes have been pretty difficult to get through. Despite David Suchet’s unquestioned talent in the role – I expect he understands the character better than Christie ever did – the recent adaptations have been rather boring. Someone seems to have decided people love Poirot’s grandstanding so much that the explanation and resolution of the mystery should take up at least 25% of the running time. This leads to a mad rush to get through the plot and gather everyone together in the drawing room, followed by a turgid recap of the entire plot to drain all life out of the proceedings. While Poirot’s explanations are an essential part of the character, one of Christie’s many talents was the simplicity of her mysteries. Stretching a quick and elegant solution out to half an hour robs it of all its power.
To make matters worse, the writers have already adapted all the good stories. Why wouldn’t you? Most TV series are renewed on a yearly basis, and the Poirot series is almost completely standalone. It would be a shame if the series got cancelled before reaching the best mysteries, and it’s always easier to put off difficult episodes until later.
Still, once you’re committed to adapting an entire series, you have to face up to the dregs eventually. And here we are. The last five unadapted Poirot novels. Two dreadful mysteries, two short story collections, and Curtain, which is actually my favourite Christie but which has to come last because Poirot dies in it. Before I watch the series, I thought it would be interesting to consider how I’d go about adapting them if I had to.
Elephants Can Remember
The last Poirot, chronologically speaking (Christie wrote Curtain during WWII and had it sealed away until her death). And it’s a real mess. Christie was very old and was no longer able to keep a plot straight.
Which makes it rather interesting from an adaptation standpoint. If you have to adapt something bad, how do you go about it? Do you try and salvage what’s there, or do you chuck it all out and start again? One advantage is that it’s unlikely to be anyone’s favourite. It’s not like changing the murderer in Body in the Library or hacking out half the makeshift jury in Orient Express.
I don’t remember enough about it to know what I’d do, and I’m afraid I’m not committed enough to read through it again. I remember something about wigs and twins, maybe? That seems like enough to construct ninety minutes of television around, especially with Mrs Oliver available for padding. And all the inconsistencies can be ironed out with care.
The Big Four
Another candidate for worst Christie, this is a short story collection with a feeble Fu Manchu/conspiracy plot tying everything together. I don’t remember all the details, but I’m fairly sure it ends in a hollowed out volcano lair? And there definitely a bit where Poirot and Hastings are tied up and he escapes using a blowpipe disguised as a cigarette. If you’re feeling generous you could call it a satire of the genre, but humour was never Christie’s strength, and she hasn’t got the range as a writer to pull it off.
What’s the best approach here? Chuck everything out and start again? As a child I enjoyed the chess story, but on rereading it’s really pretty dull and stupid. But there might be something in the chess angle…? International intrigue at a chess tournament? But maybe I’ve got that on the brain at the moment.
One problem is there isn’t really an overall mystery. Perhaps the best solution would be to focus on the identity of Number Four, the master of disguise. I’d probably choose to introduce a number of characters and make it clear early on that one of them had to be Number Four. Which still isn’t going to be a great piece of television, but you might be able to eke a semi-interesting mystery out of it.
Dead Man’s Folly
The easiest of the five to adapt. It’s a dull and obvious “identity swap in the past” case. A rehash of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and A Murder Is Announced. One difficulty with these mysteries is that it’s harder to pull off the identity swap when you can actually see it. On the page the difficulty is making it possible that two characters are the same person. On screen you have to conceal the fact that the same actor is appearing in two different contexts. I think the best way to do this is to use costume. If people notice, they notice. The worst thing to do is to try and hide the deception with fancy camera angles. They’re too suspicious.
A problem I remember with Dead Man’s Folly is that there’s a few rather vaguely motivated killings in there. I’d probably tighten that up and trim down the main cast a bit. Obviously the focus is going to be on Hatty, because she’s the most interesting character. The difference between a very naïve woman and someone pretending to be very naïve is an interesting one, and deserves a little more attention than it gets in the book.
I’d also try and make the murder hunt a bit clearer. Obviously the character of Mrs Oliver dictates that the puzzle she creates should be Byzantine and ridiculous, but it’s really not clear how the game would work at all. Mysteries seem to be full of these vaguely explained treasure hunts. But the Venn diagram of “mystery lovers” and “puzzle nerds” has a huge overlap, so it’s important to get the details right. The audience is going to want to know.
The Labours of Hercules
Another short story collection. Much better than The Big Four, but possibly even more tricky to adapt. Unlike The Big Four, there’s no overarching plot. Instead, each story is modelled after one of the Labours of Heracles, with only a few characters recurring throughout.
So what to do? Twelve mysteries is far too much to fit into 90 minutes, even if you don’t use Christie’s originals. But if you don’t have twelve mysteries then how on earth do you keep the theme?
One option would be to extend each story into a full length one, as they’ve done with some of Miss Marple’s Tuesday Club mysteries. But that’s not a very satisfying solution either. While the stories themselves are quite good (although I’ve never understood the one with the chalice), a lot of them are very light, and most of them are too simple to be expanded. The charming reversal in The Stymphalean Birds, for example, would be ruined by stretching it out any further.
My guess would be that they’ll keep one mystery and add elements of the others. Or perhaps zip through some of the Labours in a montage and focus on the later ones. Bleugh.
If I was going to pick a case to expand, it would be the one in the Alps with the master criminal (the Erymathean Boar?). It’s a clichéd setup but it would easily take a few more characters and there’s plenty of opportunity for tension.
Easily Christie’s most interesting book, and probably her best mystery. Worth a post of its own. I just hope they don’t muck it up.