Inevitable Alterations

Am watching Sarah Phelps’ riff on The ABC Murders and I like it much more than I expected, probably because I had been warned from the start that it was not a faithful adaptation. Provided that one forgets the book, it is a reasonably good series, beautifully made and acted and – a rarity among Christie adaptations, which for some reason are often solemn and turgid – briskly paced.
It doesn’t mean that I agree with Phelps’ choices and « innovations » though. John Malkovich is not Poirot, but some troubled guy who happens to be a Belgian detective with a funny name. I wonder however if it is still possible nowadays to adapt Christie or any other vintage mystery writer without doing minor or major changes or additions and going full dark in tone, character and atmosphere. Even if Phelps suddenly decided to follow Christie to a T there is no guarantee that the project would be greenlighted and if it was, that viewers would tune in.
Why? Because most Golden Age mysteries are woefully unsuited to modern tastes and expectations. Christie for instance has been and still often is criticized for her alleged « cardboard » characterization. An unfair criticism to be sure, but with a figment of truth: Christie never cared about giving her characters comprehensive backstories. What happened to them prior to the story and what happens to them afterwards, what made them who they are, is not her concern. Even Poirot or Miss Marple’s biographies remain clouded in mystery – their job is to detect and when they’re done they go home waiting for the next case. This is not a criticism: Christie was only doing what contemporary readers expected from her and that her colleagues did too. What do we know about the past and/or private lives of Gideon Fell, Ellery Queen, Albert Campion, John Thorndyke? Next to nothing. The tough guys were not much more talkative about the subject: Marlowe or Archer while telling their own stories say precious little about themselves. That’s because vintage crime fiction even at its most character-driven was first and foremost case-focused. Each story, each book dealt with a different problem and studied the characters’ actions and reactions at the moment and the story as well their fate is over when the case is solved. This is one of the reasons why vintage mysteries are considerably shorter than modern ones: they don’t waste time with extraneous matters.
The problem is, « extraneous matters » is everything that modern fiction – not just the criminal one – is about and what the reading and viewing public craves for; they want to know everything about every character, plot no longer being a priority or even a prerequisite. So we are told not only about how this or that person acts and reacts but about their frequently troubled past and equally troubled present life with no aspect being spared to us – nothing is irrelevant anymore. This is what critics and fans call « character development » and its absence is damning in their eyes. They also want their books and dramas to be « serious » and « realistic » which invariably means all-round gloom and graphic violence or sex or both. Screenwriters when facing stories written prior to this paradigm change have thus no other option than to update and flesh them out as well as they can, and that’s how one ends with Sarah Phelps and her oh so individual takes on Christie. Ms. Phelps as is the rule on television gives the public what they want, adding her own themes and obsessions.
And it works and will work again and again as long as viewers but also readers keep mistaking « character development » for characterization and favor digression over concision. From the look of things we shouldn’t be holding our breath.

10 commentaires sur “Inevitable Alterations

  1. (This comment has nothing to do with your post !)

    Xavier, can you help me with a French sentence ? I am currently reading La Lettre Qui Tue by Paul Halter and there is one sentence ( in a paragraph describing a male character) which I am unable to fully understand. Can you help ?
    The sentence is :
    Un impénitent coureur de jupons, tant qu’il n’aurait pas trouvé chaussure à son pied, c’est-à-dire l’âme sœur en mesure de pourvoir à ses goûts dispendieux.
    I know that « Un impénitent coureur de jupons » means  » an unrepentant womaniser ». but the rest ?


    1. « Chaussure à son pied » and « âme soeur » in this context mean « the right girl » but not in a romantic sense as what the character is after is a woman rich enough to allow him to satisfy his financial needs (« goûts dispendieux » roughly meaning « luxurious tastes ») I hope this helps.

      PS: Where are you from? Since you were able to read and speak French I had gathered you were a fellow-compatriot or from another French-speaking country. Was I wrong?

      Aimé par 1 personne

      1. Actually, while reading La Lettre Que Tue, I am simultaneously translating it into English (just for fun). Hence I need to know the exact meaning of every sentence and therefore I asked.
        I have already completed 6 chapters.

        Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. Philip Marlowe used to « work in the DA’s office ». Miss Marple once had an admirer her parents disapproved of and she saw their point. Albert Campion’s background is deliberately obscured – is he a prince or merely a duke or both? Poirot sometimes refers to his few failures as a policeman, and his far from rich upbringing in a large family. And if you want angst, Marlowe has buckets of it! But he combines world-weariness with cinematic observation of his surroundings. Even Miss Climpson has a back story.


  3. I’m interested to see how this manifests itself in the forthcoming Inspector French series Curtis has been telling us about recently — the implication is that there are secrets in that character’s past which will be brought out across the episodes…but if they go Full Malkovich I wonder how much of French’s inherent dogged nature will get lost. Not that I’m the guardian of It Must Be Exactly As In The Books, I just share your perspective and am curious to see where they go with it. Time will tell.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. I’m interested to see how this manifests itself in the forthcoming Inspector French series Curtis has been telling us about recently — the implication is that there are secrets in that character’s past which will be brought out across the episodes

      Crofts actually tells us everything we need to know about French. We know that he’s very ambitious. We know that he pushes his subordinates hard but he always treats them fairly and even generously. We know that he believes he’ll get more information from a suspect by being friendly and chatty rather than confrontational. We know that he loves travelling. We know that he’s happily married. We know that he’s not « married to the job » – being a policeman is very important to him but it’s not his whole life. We know that he sometimes gets downhearted on a case but that his doggedness always reasserts itself.

      These things tell us a great deal about what makes him tick. He is not a mere cipher.

      We really don’t need to know anything more about him. He’s already a surprisingly well-rounded character.

      Aimé par 1 personne

      1. Oh, sure; by « implication…that there are secrets in that character’s past » I was referring to the television character of the forthcoming series, not the Crofts character of the books. As much as the plots may well be adhered to — and given Crofts’ plot density, one feels that changing too much of one aspect would up-end the whole thing, and so the plots will hopefully be retained as fully as possible — modern drama has an obsession with « dark secrets in the past of the main character ».

        I’d blame the current trend in crime fiction, but since I don’t read enough of it to comment, I’ll simply waft the possibility around and not get into it more than that 🙂

        Aimé par 1 personne

      2. « Dark secrets » are to modern crime fiction as eccentricities were to GAD – easy substitutes for actual characterization. Come to think of it, the readership of the genre hasn’t that much changed in eighty years – they still want their detectives to be bigger-than-life, flamboyant characters; the only difference is that modern readers are firmly convinced that Harry Bosch, Kurt Wallander or John Rebus are « realistic » characters.

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