I’ve just finished watching The ABC Murders According to Sarah Phelps and I’m going to lay out my overall thoughts about it while the experience is still fresh in my mind. Be warned before proceeding that the following will contain some mild spoilers to both the series and the book it purports to « adapt ».
Let’s start with the positive. The ABC Murders is undoubtedly great television as far as acting, direction and production values go. While longer than the Suchet version, it moves at a swifter pace and is more suspenseful. It is also more cinematic with a superb photography and an inventive direction that frequently makes one forget one is watching a TV drama. I have always been of the opinion that the Brits when inspired – and they frequently are – make the best television in the world and The ABC Murders certainly doesn’t contradict that view. I would gleefully call it a masterpiece of the medium were it not supposed to be an adaptation of one of Christie’s best and most famous novels, for that’s where the trouble begins.
Being of the country that gave an unwitting world the blasphemous and often ludicrous Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie, I can’t begrudge Sarah Phelps for having felt herself allowed to do some changes, some minor and some major, to Christie’s story. We know that it’s par for the course since the passing of Rosalind Hicks. The problem is not that Phelps did to Christie’s story what they did to Melanie’s song but that she changed the essence of the book itself, turning it into something else entirely.
The ABC Murders (the book) is one of Christie’s « experimental » novels in which she plays with the conventions of the genre and reader expectations. The book in its first three quarters appears to be an inverted mystery – a first for Christie – pitting Hercule Poirot against a serial killer going by the moniker ABC, with the focus shifting in turns from the detective to the apparent culprit, one troubled and rather pitiable fellow named Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who is finally arrested, almost caught in the act. End of the story? Not with Christie as Poirot goes on to reveal that Cust is innocent and was framed by another character, a perfectly « sane » person with a completely « rational » motive. The book thus turns out to have been a whodunit all along – Christie fooled her readers once again.
Phelps while retaining the core plot idea makes something entirely different out of it. Her ABC Murders is a thriller, not a whodunit. Poirot himself plays a different role in the narrative, behaving more like a modern-day profiler than a detective, let alone a great one. He gathers more than he deduces the identity of the actual killer, and Phelps ditches the traditional assembling of the suspects. The personality of the murderer undergoes some radical changes as well, becoming a sociopath with an ambiguous fascination for Poirot. Their final confrontation reminds one more of The Silence of the Lambs than of anything Christie ever wrote and is much less powerful than the one in the book (One wonders why Phelps chose to leave it out since it was perfectly attuned to the series’ condemnation of bigotry)
The meaning of the story is gravely altered too. Christie like her detective was a firm believer in the sanctity of life, any life, and what makes the real ABC a monster in Poirot’s (and the reader’s) eyes is how they sacrificed innocent lives (including Cust’s) without a blink to get what they wanted. Malkovich admittedly mentions it, but only in passing. Phelps is not into moralizing – and unlike the book her series doesn’t end with a happy ending for those deserving. Her focus, in modern fashion, is on the characters and especially Poirot.
Christie’s book has few moments of humour as befits its theme, but Phelps’s series is even gloomier with no character being entirely likeable except maybe, and tellingly, the lodger’s prostitute daughter. Poirot is no exception, showing none of the exuberance and excentricity that define the character. His past triumphs are never evoked or with disdain. He is a brooding cipher all along, a tormented man with a dark secret. Christie has often been labeled a cosy writer, which is as far from the truth as it gets, because of her mostly optimistic outlook: Evil exists, that’s for sure, and it’s everywhere, but there’s always someone to stop it and restore things to due order. Phelps doesn’t believe in such things. Her ABC Murders is unabashed, unadultered noir.
So it’s fair to say that The ABC Murders is a Sarah Phelps creation, a riff on Christie’s book that borrows from it but also significantly alters it.
Great television, certainly. Great adaptation, probably not.