Adaptable Agatha

A contribution to the Agatha Christie Blog Tour celebrating the 120th anniversary of Christie’s birth, September 2010.

If you were in any doubt about the ongoing popularity of the works of Agatha Christie I’ll draw your attention to just a couple of facts that might make you think again. On the 120th anniversary of Christie’s birth, 15 September 2010, Google UK honoured her by adding one of its delightful doodles to its search front page and HarperCollins signed a 7 figure deal for the global rights to publish her works which still sell one million copies annually. ‘Nuff said?

Avowed Christie fan (and host of this blog tour), Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, has listed a dozen excellent reasons for the continued interest in the works of Ms Christie but I am convinced there is one more driving factor: adaptability. More than any other author I can think of Christie’s stories have been adapted for whatever the popular storytelling medium of the day happened to be (stage, big screen, small screen etc) and have been so almost from the outset. What this does is expose the stories to the widest possible audience which has, in turn, fed interest in the traditionally published works. Whether she knew it or not, whether it was deliberate or not, Christie was perhaps the first entertainment brand.

In 1928, only eight years after her first book was published, the first film adaptation of one of Christie’s works was produced. The Passing of Mr Quinn, telling the tale of a mysterious man who comes and goes almost invisibly and ‘speaks for the dead’, was based on a short story (The Coming of Mr Quin) and was adapted by the film’s director, Leslie Hiscott. In the 1930’s and 40’s adaptations of Christie’s works for film started to attract big names including 1937’s Love From a Stranger which starred Basil Rathbone and was adapted from the stage play of the same name which, in turn, was adapted from the short story Philomel Cottage.

Although it was only a fledgling medium Christie’s works were adapted for television in the very early days. A different version of Love From a Stranger aired in 1938 and other TV adaptations included 1949’s Witness for the Prosecution. One of America’s first TV series, Kraft Television Theatre (sometimes called Kraft Mystery Theatre), included an episode entitled Murder on the Nile in 1950, which was based on one of Christie’s most famous novels, Death on the Nile. Christie’s works continued to be incorporated into these kinds of television shows including General Electric Theatre

All the while Christie’s novels continued to be adapted for the stage (in addition to the material she produced as plays in their own right such as The Mousetrap). The stage play of Peril at End House, originally adapted by Arnold Ridley who would later go on to star in the TV show Dad’s Army, might have had a short run initially but it was re-staged as an audio drama for the BBC and remains a popular favourite among amateur dramatic societies ( I speak from personal experience having appeared as Mrs Croft in a version of it some years ago). From the 1950’s onwards the BBC broadcast a variety of Christie’s stories as radio plays and these continued right into the 1990’s with a successful series of dramatisations starring John Moffat as Hercule Poirot.

In the 1970’s all-star extravaganza movies were at the pinnacle of entertainment offerings (think The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure) and once again adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works were well and truly in the mix. 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express was a resounding success, garnering multiple Oscar nominations and a win for Ingrid Bergman (as Greta). The film was literally dripping with big-name stars including Albert Finney (in my opinion the creepiest Poirot ever seen on screen), Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and John Gielgud. Four years later came a big screen adaptation of my favourite Christie novel, Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and featuring another superstar cast including Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury (in a brilliant performance as the always drunk Mrs Salome Otterbourne for which she deservedly won the BAFTA that year) and David Niven. The third star-studded Christie film from that period was, for me anyway, the most disappointing of the three but was still successful. 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d (based on The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side) again starred Lansbury (but this time poorly cast as Miss Marple), Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Curtis.

The adaptation of Agatha Christie then moved back to television with British network ITV producing both Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a series of tele-movies starring David Suchet (voted the best man to bring Hercule Poirot to life last year) and later Agatha Christie’s Marple first starring Geraldine McEwan and now Julia McKenzie in the title role. The first episode of this version of Poirot aired in 1989 and new episodes are still being made. Personally I am looking forward to seeing Suchet in Murder on the Orient Express (which aired in the UK and US earlier this year and is making its way to Oz via carrier pigeon) because it’s a great story but Albert Finney spoiled the big-screen version for me.

I could go on. There are dozens more adaptations of Christie’s works I could talk about, including those in less traditional media such as graphic novels and computer games. But, I think, my point is made. Of course it’s partly a chicken and egg argument: adaptations could not have been made if her works had not been popular but ultimately I think her works continue to be popular because the stories have been made accessible to people who wouldn’t, ordinarily, read her books (or any books for that matter). I’m certain that sizable number of the 1 million sales of Christie’s books for each of the past few years for example has been directly due to people seeing David Suchet as Poirot in those wonderful TV films full of luscious costumes and gorgeous art deco buildings.

The biggest fear most publishers of consumable art (music, movies, books etc) seem to have these days is that someone will see or hear the art in question without having paid for it. Accordingly a not so small fortune is spent ‘protecting’ the artistic products via arcane copyright restrictions and obtuse digital rights management. All of this is of course completely daft. Because what they should be deathly afraid of is that no one will see the art at all, paid for or otherwise. Either intuitively or serendipitously Agatha Christie and later the people who have managed her portfolio of works since her death seem to have understood the fundamental truth that people have to see and hear your art to grow to love it and when they do they’ll queue up to pay for it. By allowing adaptations of Christie’s stories to a variety of media almost since her first book was published in 1920, her audience has continued to expand. Although some people undoubtedly do all their consumption for free (watching on free to air TV for example) a healthy number of them are paying for the privilege. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

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4 Responses to Adaptable Agatha

  1. Bernadette – Thank you for this lovely post. You are so exactly right about Christie’s work being adaptable. There have been so many different ways to experience her writing that it’s reached an audience that varies in age, interests and so forth perhaps more than any other crime fiction author’s audience. In fact, as I read your post, I was thinking about the number of Christie-related websites and Internet resources, too, where one can read and hear excerpts and see scenes from plays, too. What an effective way to reach a different kind of audience! And yes, the graphic novels, the computer games and the video games have also added fans.

    As you say, she was also a very talented writer, so it is, indeed, hard to say whether there would have been so much interest in adapting her work if she hadn’t been… I just love your angle on this!! 🙂

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  2. BooksPlease says:

    A most enjoyable post. Although not an adaptation as such the plot of Agatha Christie’s book Crooked House was the basis of an episode of Doctor Who, the Unicorn and the Wasp, in which Agatha Christie is a guest at a country house, set in 1926 just before her disappearance. The episode is full of references to her books. It was vastly entertaining, maybe introducing Doctor Who fans to Agatha Christie – although I was already a fan of both! It gave another (im)probable reason for her disappearance.

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  3. Oh I’d forgotten about the Doctor Who episode, that’s where I found out about her disappearance the first time.

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  4. Jane C. Britt says:

    Bernadette, thank you for this timely tribute to Agatha Christie.

    I hope you won’t be disappointed in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS on Masterpiece Theatre (PBS here in US). Although Suchet is a better Poroit, I really think the masterpiece was the original award-winning, star-filled 1974 film. BBC, by the way did a documentary called David Suschet: Orient Express shown here in US on PBS. Be sure to see it!

    Jane

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