Teresa’s Movie/Book Reviews

Our own Teresa has started watching movies that are made from books she has read. First up are Agatha Christie books/movies. We hope you like these tidbits of tie-ins.

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Innocent Lies 1995 French travesty adaptation of Towards Zero

Endured Friday, 8 January 2021

Fidelity to text: 1/2 gun. There are similar incidents, particularly a young boy being shot by another young boy with a bow and arrow. Otherwise, nothing, zip, nada, not even the names match and for good reason, too.

Quality of movie on its own: 1/2 gun. The house looks great! It’s a piece of Modernist architecture — I guarantee the roof leaks — on the French coastline with a great collection of pre-WWII modern art. Nice clothes too, along with 1938 vintage cars and scenery I haven’t seen a thousand times before. Otherwise, it’s dreadful.

Well, folks, Bill and I took one for the team when we sat through this train wreck. Why did we watch a (deservedly) obscure French film as part of the Agatha Christie movie project?

Because Innocent Lies began as a French interpretation of Agatha’s great 1944 classic Towards Zero. This stunning novel has yet to be filmed in English in anything close to the original text. The closest we get is the Marple adaptation of 2007 with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. I’m dreading that one. If you’ve read the novel, you know that our detective hero is the criminally underused Inspector Battle. You also know he’s not Miss Marple in drag.

But I digress. It must be from having my brain put through a blender.

Some history first. Innocent Lies was supposed to be Towards Zero. The screenwriters decided that the text wasn’t exciting enough and that they could do better than Agatha. Apparently, there wasn’t enough incest in the novel. When Rosalind Hicks (Agatha’s daughter) saw the script, she demanded that the producers remove all references to Agatha Christie and Towards Zero from every single part of the production including the advertising. All the settings, characters, and placenames had to be changed as well. Even the date gets altered to 1938. The only mention you’ll see is the last line on the closing credits where the producers admit that they were “inspired” by Agatha Christie but the film has nothing whatsoever to do with her or her books. The Christie Estate disavowed the film.

So going in, we knew we were going to be disappointed. Sadly, we were wrong. It was even worse than expected. French films like being arty and vague and this one is arty and vague in spades. It’s beautifully framed and shot, yet as a viewer, the story they were telling was incoherent. Entire subplots arose and vanished without explanation.

Even the murder that starts the show is never explained! Who murdered the snoopy British Inspector? How was it committed? Who knows? Who cares? Not the director or the scriptwriter.

Did anyone associated with the film ever speak with actual French policemen to discover how the French police solve crimes? Obviously not, when the local inspector’s civilian daughter is the one working on the case. Is this because she can speak English? No, because the inspector can too, as he demonstrates during his speech to the interfering inspector from Scotland Yard.

Could Scotland Yard inspectors be as incompetent as our hero, Alan Cross (played by Adrian Dunbar; sure hope he earned a big check for this role)? I don’t see how. Inspector Cross brought his eight-year-old daughter across the channel to the crime scene — on the eve of what everyone knew was going to be a future battle zone — because he couldn’t find anyone in the whole of England to watch the kid. He becomes obsessed with our heroine (Celia) to the point of trying to cover up murder. He has sex with the suspect while interrogating her!

I don’t know why he became obsessed when the actress playing Celia was a thumb-sucking black hole into which emotions could be poured forever. The French inspector’s daughter was far more vivid and alive. Don’t expect to recognize Kiera Knightly. She’s got a bit part as eight-year-old Celia. She might have said one word.

Then there’s the whole incest plot. Brother Jeremy and sister Celia apparently murdered Jeremy’s twin brother as little kids, while playing William Tell. The murdered twin brother is so negligible and unimportant a human being that he isn’t even named. By anyone, including the scriptwriter. I checked Internet Movie Database to be sure and yep, no name. That murder (it was fun!) leads directly to the obsessed passionate love affair between brother and sister.

Yeah. Sure.

This main plot is relatively clear. You’ll want to take a shower afterwards to wash off both the ickiness and the stupidity but you can sort of follow it.

Then we get the subplots. There’s Jeremy’s wife, who’s Jewish and trying to save her parents from Nazi Germany. She vanishes, presumably with her parents. Did they escape? Why did Jeremy marry her? Why did she marry him? We’re never given answers.

Celia’s fiancé number two (fiancé number one committed suicide when he was treated to a front-row seat exhibition of the depths of Celia’s and Jeremy’s twisted affair) just walks away, abandoning Celia to her fate. He was the smartest person onscreen by miles. He was going to marry this girl in six days! He doesn’t (I think) get to watch Celia and Jeremy in action but even so, he’s there and then suddenly he’s not. Walking away was the smart move, but it sure doesn’t imply that he loved Celia.

Angela, Alan Cross’s daughter fills no purpose onscreen at all other than to show that he’s as incompetent a father as he is an inspector with Scotland Yard. She’s got plenty of obscure, arty screen time, playing with dolls and seashells. To show innocence maybe? The kind of innocence that French filmmakers love to corrupt as quickly as possible because they’re deviant perverts? After all, you have to demonstrate your modern ways of thinking somehow. This lets you have it both ways: you enjoy corrupting minors while saying tsk-tsk.

How about Lady Helena Graves (Joanna Lumley who’s also Dolly Bantry in the Marple series)? She’s flirting with the Nazis. That could have been more interesting, but it’s brushed aside. She’s also apparently covering up Jeremy’s other nasty actions, but this plot thread vanishes too.

There are refugees. There’s the threat of war looming over the horizon. Everyone is afraid of what’s coming. It’s background noise. I suppose the purpose was to show how self-centered and oblivious our characters were.

Four murders were committed. Young boy with bow and arrow. We get a sort of explanation. Fiancé number one is killed in a highly suspicious car accident. We get a sort of explanation but it’s hard to buy. You see something icky (before you marry that crazy girl so you should be counting your lucky stars and buying lottery tickets) so you drive your car into a tree? Sure. Whatever. The prying British inspector is shot. We never get an explanation of how or why, despite the camera lingering on his body and particularly on his untied shoes. Huh? Lady Helena is found dead. That murder we get shown in flashback in all its gory detail. I would have preferred less flashbacks and more minutes devoted to solving the Inspector’s murder.

None of the story made sense. Loads of arty flashbacks did not advance the plot although they did demonstrate that the house has a truly marvelous conservatory that must be cared for by an army of gardeners. Everyone behaved as if they’d never heard of rational thought or decent behavior or understood how police investigations are actually performed. The movie was 88 minutes long and it dragged. Even so, I’d have sat through another ten minutes if they had explained what the heck was going on.

The house was nice though. It’s a piece of modernist architecture loaded with contemporary (for 1938) cutting-edge modern art and a conservatory on par with Longwood Gardens. Looking at the house’s roofline, I guarantee it leaks. I know the conservatory does, because they always do. Maybe mold and mildew infiltrated the house and damaged the brains of everyone living there.

Do not bother watching this film. If you are an Agatha Christie film buff and are watching every film associated with her for completeness’s sake, think very, very hard before sliding this disk into the DVD player. There is no brain bleach. You won’t get those eighty-eight minutes of your life back. Don’t do it.

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N or M? 2015 David Walliams film review

Watched Friday, 1 January 2021

Fidelity to text: One gun. As in the previous Partners in Crime adaptation (The Secret Adversary), the names matched. Everything else, large and small, was altered and nearly always for the worse.

Quality of movie on its own: One and 1/2 guns. The sets were outstanding as were the wardrobes. We laughed often, sometimes when the script called for it! All the other laughs came from the lame and inane script. We also really enjoyed our cheese plate. Thank God I had some wine left over from when my sister visited. I needed that glass.

What a way to start the new year. We sat through a terrible, inept adaptation of one of Agatha’s more underrated novels with her underrated detectives, Tommy and Tuppence. On the other hand, that means there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

As with The Secret Adversary, N 0r M? needed a working script. There were times when the movie genuinely came to life and we laughed where we were supposed to. Those times felt few and far between because the in-betweens were so God-awful. Three or four more rewrites of the script and this adaptation could have worked quite well. It’s not like the BBC can’t afford schmucks with Underwoods to write coherent narratives. They certainly spent plenty of bucks on fabulous location shooting, gorgeous fifty’s vintage sets, cars, and wardrobes. But no. No actual writers were on hand or were harmed or were paid.

Some of the mistakes were so basic! Let’s start with Tommy’s newest get-rich-quick scheme: Beresford’s Barnets. Supposedly, barnets are wigs. Wigs often feature in Agatha’s novels, usually when a character is concealing their identity or setting up an alibi. Okay. Wigs were also very popular in the 1950’s so why wouldn’t Tommy invest still more of his and Tuppence’s lack of money into wigs. Yet Tommy uses the word “barnet”. I’ve never heard of this word before and some googling led to where the word came from. It’s Cockney rhyming slang for hair. Yet our Tommy tells Tuppence that this is classy and will attract a better class of buyers.

As if. Any reasonably competent writer (or unpaid intern) could have learned what I just learned in two minutes. If Tommy wanted the alliteration, he should have said so. Or made a joke. Anything! Or maybe this was intended as an only-in-England joke to further demonstrate Tommy’s complete ineptness. But why didn’t Tuppence call him on it?

By the way, if you’re wondering what happened to Beresford’s bees? Colony Collapse Disorder cropped up and conveniently killed all of Tommy’s bees. Could he investigate this mystery? No, he could not, moving instead to another get-rich-quick scheme bound to fail.

Here’s another groaner that made me scream at the TV screen. N is our mysterious superspy villain. No one has any idea who N is. No one even knows if N is a man or a woman. Yet at the climax, N is revealed and has the opportunity to shoot everyone who knows N’s identity. Yet N does not! This makes zero sense. Less than zero sense. Superspies, particularly if they’ve gone freelance as N supposedly has, do not ever let their identity be known. Yet N, because their life is over, allows a whole slew of witness to live.

Spare me.

If you recall the novel, N did not work alone. N had a partner; M. M was written out of the script as far as Tommy and Tuppence were concerned. Yet the character remains in the film, fulfilling the same role as in the novel. But they are not ever revealed as M, despite being M.

One of the truly interesting themes in N or M?, the novel, is its setting. Agatha wrote and published it in 1941. Although she wrote contemporaries, they are kind of timeless. She doesn’t pay much attention to politics, who’s in charge, or current events. Not so with N or M? It is very much of its time, when Great Britain was fighting a desperate war for survival against the Axis forces. Dunkirk took place from 26 May through 4 June 1940. The London Blitz started soon after. Everyone in Great Britain knew that even more terrible things were in store for them. They did not know that the Allies would win the war. They didn’t know if Great Britain would survive as an independent nation.

Anxiety and fear run through the novel, imbuing every page with dread of what the future would bring. Every character knows that sons, brothers, fathers, uncles would die far away. At the same time, they were quickly learning that, unlike in the Great War (well within living memory), Great Britain itself was not safe. Bombs killed civilians indiscriminately, including babes in arms. Equally upsetting was the knowledge that very few people had any control over the momentous events happening around them. They had to cope as best they could.

Today, we look back on World War II and we don’t understand the paranoia and fear. We know how it ends. The people living through it did not. Think about what you were planning on 1 January 2020 for the upcoming year. Were you expecting to live through widespread shortages, a pandemic, mass quarantines, and having to wear masks whenever you set foot out of your home?

In early March of 2020, if I went into the bank wearing a mask, the tellers would call the police. Soon thereafter, if I went into the bank without a mask, the tellers would call the police. Did your crystal ball tell you this scenario back on 1 January 2020? Mine did not.

All of that underlaying fear and anxiety in early WWII was lost when the TV adaptation was moved to the Cold War. There was paranoia, along with plenty of rationing (which oddly does not show up in either Tommy and Tuppence film which, again, if any research had been done, would most certainly have done so). But the dread of knowing that every male in your family between sixteen and fifty was on the chopping block is gone. In 1952, the men in your family were either already dead or back home.

There was so much wrong with this film. Here’s a minor bit. Tommy and Tuppence’s car was in a shambles at the end of The Secret Adversary. A few months later and the car, despite rationing and their total lack of income, is showroom new. The only hint of money troubles is a stack of bills marked Past Due that Tommy riffles through.

Another point that sticks in my craw. The nuclear scientist gone rogue steals the super-duper atomic bomb that he’s selling to N (I guess. It wasn’t made clear). He loads the bomb on the truck by himself (!) and then drives it out of the top-secret base and the guards don’t notice. Really? Really? When everyone is afraid there’s a commie under every bed? Then he leaves the second magic key hidden behind a paper-backed picture and the paper-backing looks like it came straight from the frame shop.

And how about that femme fatale blonde assassin? Six feet tall, full-length fur coat, cheekbones to die for, and striding through the scenery like a Valkyrie and no one notices. She steals a lorry and runs over a man in front of Tommy and Tuppence after lurking outside the umbrella shop that they’re lurking inside and they don’t spot her.

Tommy and Tuppence bicker throughout. Yet, unlike in the novels, there’s never any sensation of passion between them. They adored each other in the novels, to the point that their daughter, Deborah (gone and replaced by the conveniently away at camp George) comments on how sweet it is to see them holding hands despite their advanced age of 46.

Agatha’s novels are full of passion, yet it seems to go unnoticed. I suppose that the mere concept of happily married people who still have the hots for each other after twenty years is unacceptable to us moderns.

Instead, we get Tommy emulating Homer Simpson without the manliness. Worse, Tuppence is not like Marge Simpson who adores her husband and has a lot of common sense. She’s more like Lucy Ricardo with that edge of contempt towards Ricky, except when Ricky saves her from her idiocy. Except I can’t accept Tuppence’s adoration of Tommy, like I can of Marge for Homer. Homer does come through, on occasion. When Tommy does, it’s by accident.

I did work out the reason for Tommy’s magical facial hair: he never has any, despite how far away his is from a razorblade. It’s a symbol of his complete lack of testosterone.

Should you watch this? I know that films are not novels. Novels need to be rewritten for films and, sometimes, to suit changing times. I understand combining characters or removing them altogether because a film doesn’t have enough time. This adaptation, however, had nearly three hours to fill. They could have used more of the original plot, even with changing the setting to 1952.

Yeek. The answer is no. Save your time for something better.

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A Murder is Announced Geraldine McEwan January 2005 review

Watched Friday, 25 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 3 guns. You’ll get both major and minor changes, the biggest being complete rewrites of three separate relationships along with discarding the Vicar, his wife, and their cat. That forced the screenwriter to come up with a different, less plausible reason for Miss Marple to arrive on the scene: like Jessica Fletcher, ITV Production demands that Miss Marple be related to just about everyone, whether it’s likely or not. For an elderly spinster, Miss Marple sure has a lot of extremely distant relatives but no close ones who are still alive.

Quality of film on its own: 3 and 1/2 guns. I’d have given it that last 1/2 gun except the ending fell apart, due to the scriptwriter’s desire to rewrite Agatha’s own better, more plausible and dramatic choice in how to reveal the murderer. This was a poor choice, but in line with other poor choices that ITV Productions has made with Marple. They have to be unique and cutting edge and different and you can’t be any of those things by remaining true to the original source material. Sometimes this works, if the source material is scanty. Not this time! There was plenty of material to use.

I’m discovering that I never know what I’m going to get with ITV’s production of Miss Marple adaptations. We watched a few out of order and then went back to the beginning with season 1. A Murder Is Announced was the fourth and final episode of season 1.

As always, it looks gorgeous. That spa that Miss Marple stays at is astounding with stunning blue tile everywhere. There’s a castle in Scotland, and of course the charming village of Clipping Cleghorn. Agatha came up with great placenames, although she didn’t have to work at it. Great Britain has loads of offbeat and unusual names so mixing and matching must have been easy. The village of Clipping Cleghorn is where we start having problems.

It’s so clean! So manicured! Every building looks freshly pressure-washed.

That house the nice lesbian couple live in (Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd) is a palace. Their cobblestone drive must have been weeded mere moments before the filming began. I have never seen such immaculate cobblestones. There wasn’t even any moss on them and considering England’s climate, that is unusual. Their house was huge and God only knows how two women, running a farm on their own, managed to keep it up without servants. I got the distinct impression from the novel that while Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd are managing, they aren’t rich enough to live in what used to be the squire’s house. They’d be able to afford the English cottage equivalent of a doublewide. This house is not it.

Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd are the first of the major relationship changes. In the novel, their relationship is implied. Here, watching them hold hands and kiss, you know they’re sharing a bed. Since the vicar and his wife and their cat, Tiglath Pileser (but more about the cat later) were written out of the script, Miss Murgatroyd suddenly becomes Miss Marple’s distant relative. This explains why Miss Marple is invited to stay and — gasp! — possibly notice the illicit relationship between Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd.

Even in 1951 or so, I doubt Miss Marple would care. She’s seen every aspect of human nature before. Since the two ladies in question are well-behaved, discreet, take good care of their farm, and are not murderers, she won’t gossip. It’s not like she’s unfamiliar with the concept of a Boston marriage. Those go back a long way and plenty of women have lived together to save money and provide companionship. It’s only tacky moderns like us who have to ask prying questions about who is sleeping in whose bed.

Colonel Easterbrook lost his wife, Laura, along with her glamorous and possibly criminal past. Instead, we get a made-up story about his being drummed out of the army in disgrace, his drunkenness, and his being estranged from his daughter. He gets a new relationship with Mrs. Swettenham, something that did not exist in the novel. Mrs. Swettenham is revealed to be a single mother — gasp! — who’s son, Edmund, heartily disapproves of the relationship because he’s a selfish, grasping toad.

Edmund, in turn, loses his chance at happiness with Philippa since in this version, no relationship exists at all. They flirt and eventually marry in the novel. Not here. Even though Edmund and Philippa are apparently the only unattached people under the age of thirty for miles around, they don’t notice each other. He’s too busy prying into his mother’s love life to have one of his own. For her part, Philippa has too much to hide.

The love triangle of Colonel Easterbrook, Mrs. Swettenham, and Edmund is further complicated by the presence of his black Labrador Retriever (I think). The dog was written into the script to prove that Colonel Easterbrook isn’t married and has only a dog to talk to, poor soul. Then the dog disappears even though there were occasions when his dog would have been by his side. I don’t think the screenwriter had any idea of how close a lonely man can get to his dog. The dog showed up in one scene and was apparently crated in a back bedroom the rest of the time. No one would do that to their only companion. England is a nation of dog-lovers meaning Colonel Easterbrook’s neighbors would have complained vociferously about his treatment of his dog. He’d end up on charges because of dog abuse long before he becomes a suspect in a murder.

The dog also did not help Miss Marple solve the mystery, like the Vicar’s cat, Tiglath Pileser, did. The cat served a real purpose in the novel, adding that random element of serendipity. Miss Marple would have worked out the crime on her own but the cat made sure of it.

The other relationship change was to ensure the viewer and Miss Blacklock were suspicious about the openly icky relationship between Patrick and Julia, her visiting young, distant cousins. They’re brother and sister but they sure don’t act like it.

You may ask if this adaptation did anything right besides gorgeous settings and costumes. They did. Mitzi, the refugee servant was much closer to the novel, even retaining her name and gaining a nationality (Swiss). Her treatment by Patrick was similar: he harassed and teased her and she had to put up with it because she was a foreigner, refugee, and servant. He, as a scion of a good family, could be nasty to a helpless and trapped person and get away with it.

Zoë Wanamaker placed Letitia Blacklock and she was very good. All the actors and actresses were very good other than that the casting director is showing a decided taste for prettier than normal. If you watch the Joan Hickson version of A Murder Is Announced, you’ll see at once what I mean. Those actors and actresses looked like real people you would meet on the street in your hometown. These actors and actresses look like actors and actresses pretending to look like real people. Kind of the same way the village of Chipping Cleghorn is an idealized vision of a tiny village out in the middle of nowhere rather than the dirty, messy reality complete with weeds and cow manure in the streets. Even the pig sties were neat.

But I could live with all of these changes. Compressing a complex novel down to 94 minutes of screen time is difficult. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, you won’t even notice.

Until you get to the end, when it all falls apart. I could not accept how the murderer figures out that Miss Murgatroyd is a danger. Maybe subtitles would have helped, but I doubt it. It wasn’t set up properly. Then Mitzi (Catherine Tait was wasted in this role) bursts onto the scene screaming about who the murderer is! In the novel, you get Mitzi being very brave and risking death to unmask the killer. Here, you get a temper tantrum from a difficult servant.

You do get to see the Easterbrook/Swettenham triangle resolved but in the most cursory way. I suppose the participants realized, after numerous murders, that life is short and decide to bury the hatchet but not in each other’s skulls. It felt forced, as if the screenwriter needed some sort of happy ending after three people were shot, poisoned, and strangled respectively and couldn’t write anything better. Goodness knows the actors and actresses tried.

Watch this version of A Murder Is Announced for completeness’ sake, but unless you really want to see that spa again, don’t watch it a second time.

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The 4:50 From Paddington 2004 Geraldine McEwan film review

You may also see this titled What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!. That’s the title used in the American market since the British publishers believed that Americans wouldn’t recognize the railway reference in the title.

Watched Friday, 18 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 2 and 1/2 garottes. The screenwriter made a lot of changes. The largest, without a doubt, is reworking the murderer’s motivation to make us ooze with sympathy for the trap in which he finds himself. He also murders one less person than in the novel, because hey, he’s doing it all for love and not for love of money. Miss Marple wouldn’t use this phrase but I will, because she’d agree: as if! Another major change was adding a completely new character to investigate. And Noël Coward, of all people. He wasn’t in the novel either, but there he is, entertaining Lord Mountbatten with Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She gets around, that girl. If you’re familiar with the novel, you’ll recognize plenty of other discrepancies, both large and small.

Quality of film on its own: 3 and 1/2 garottes. I got caught up in the story, despite the criminal lack of subtitles. I didn’t remember the novel well, so I wasn’t looking for mistakes or adaptation errors. I would have given this adaptation a higher rating except for the criminal lack of subtitles and the fact that I could not figure out how Miss Marple made that deductive leap to unearth the murderer in the last fifteen minutes. The complete lack of a reason killed the movie for me. This is one case where adapting the novel would have been an improvement. Agatha doesn’t give an explanation for Miss Marple’s leap of deduction either. She just knows.

So here we are with the third ITV Production of Agatha Christie’s Marple. We’ve now gotten organized enough to watch the productions in order of original air date (December of 2004 in this case). Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, ITV doesn’t feel the need to follow Agatha’s own order of short stories and novels. They play fast and loose with the timeline.

They also played fast and loose with the novel.

Characters vanish, not surprising since a 94-minute movie doesn’t have a lot of time for quaint natives, faithful servants, and local color. Mysteriously, 94 minutes did allow enough time for Miss Marple to interrupt Noël Coward’s song routine with Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the middle of a cocktail party to ask for her assistance in locating a body. That was not in the text, but it worked in the film. A few minutes were spent showing how incredibly well-connected Lucy is: she was Noël Coward’s temporary housekeeper and he was pathetically grateful to have her services. Thus, Lucy arriving at Rutherford Hall and offering her services to the hard-up Crackenthorpe family and having them eagerly say yes was easy to accept.

Since it has been decades since I read The 4:50 from Paddington, I didn’t notice that the railway clerk was rude and officious instead of being Miss Marple’s helpful great-nephew. Yet it worked. Two daft old ladies claiming they’d seen a murder and the body had been thrown from the train? They’d get exactly that response.

John Hannah showed up as the local inspector (Tom Campbell) who also, conveniently, rents out rooms to boarders. Miss Marple moves in to enjoy the quaint village, a fact he has a hard time believing. Unless you watch a lot of TV, you might remember John Hannah best as Jonathan Carnahan in The Mummy from 1999. He was just as fun to watch interacting with Miss Marple, since she remembered him as a naughty, apple-stealing lad from St. Mary Meade and here he is, all grown up and a police inspector, no less.

John Hannah’s character becomes even more important at the end of the movie because the screenwriter decided that Lucy shouldn’t choose between Cedric Crackenthorpe and Bryan Eastley as in the novel. No, this completely made-up character steals her heart and there’s no guessing about it, unlike the novel where Miss Marple knows who Lucy chooses but she refuses to say.

The date was changed, to an earlier time. The movie takes place at the end of 1951 (or thereabouts), but the novel was published in 1957. It wasn’t noticeable. Here’s a noticeable set of changes: Harold Crackenthorpe’s wife becomes a character. Harold doesn’t get murdered. Harold becomes far more of a rotter than he was in the novel, since in addition to being a shady financier, he’s also a lecher and a rapist. I believe Harold didn’t get murdered in the film as it demonstrated what a big-hearted guy our murderer was, not offing an obvious cad who deserved it.

A very noticeable change was having the murderer’s motivations becoming almost noble. He murders only two people instead of three and he does it all for love. Well, no. Not really. He does it because of the money. He wants to marry money and if various members of the Crackenthorpe family die (as in the novel), there’s more money left to be divided between the survivors.

We actually have to witness Miss Marple telling Emma Crackenthorpe that it was love on the murderer’s part causing him to strangle a woman in cold blood. Gag. I have no idea where the scriptwriter’s head was because Miss Marple has never excused murder before. Not that I can recall. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Miss Marple’s statement echoes various characters telling each other that love is all that matters. I can’t agree because so does behavior and the Crackenthorpe family may believe in love, blather on about love, but they sure don’t act like they love each other.

Something else that threw me out of the film was the scene when the murderer is identified. Miss Marple was eating fishpaste sandwiches (sounds disgusting, doesn’t it: pureed tuna) in the train compartment with five other people. She pretends to choke on a fishbone and Mrs. McGillicuddy recognizes the murderer. Except Mrs. McGillicuddy was on another train in a similar situation to her original sighting of a murder being committed. Then people in both train compartments pull some sort of magic chain that make both entire trains stop!

Really? Really? I don’t know which element seemed more unrealistic. That they could successfully reenact the strangulation scene for Mrs. McGillicuddy using trains that pass in the night or that any railway in the entire world would ever allow the passengers anywhere near the brakes for the whole train. Other trains run on the same tracks too, you know, and if passengers start pulling the magic chain emergency brake, you’re going to get trains rear-ending each other, accompanied by trainloads of costly damage, injuries, death, and lawsuits.

I looked up the scene in the novel and Agatha did not write anything so foolish as trains that pass in the night and magic chain emergency brakes. Once was enough for the novel, getting the story in motion. Instead, the identification of the murderer takes place over tea in the dining room and it is far, far more realistic (as these things go).

What finally killed the movie for me, besides Miss Marple saying that it was all for lurve, was I could not tell from the action on the screen how she knew. Subtitles would have definitely helped here as I couldn’t always understand what everyone was saying. But I don’t think so. The novel isn’t clear how Miss Marple worked out the identity of the murderer. It’s like it came to her in a dream and she ran with it and got lucky.

I can’t accept that copout. Not all of Agatha’s efforts were stellar and this lack of explanation isn’t typical. Even Homer nods on occasion. This particular moment was the scriptwriter’s chance to shine. They could have added a scene or two showing us how Miss Marple solved the crime. I’m sure they could have come up with something clever that would fit into the text, something that wouldn’t be as egregious and flat-out wrong as making Miss Marple a party to adultery when she was young and pretty.

Luckily, we did not get subjected to that little bit of whimsy again; Miss Marple staring longingly at a sepia-toned photograph of a handsome young soldier to inform the audience that’s why she remained a spinster.

Unluckily, the scriptwriters did not come up with a plausible explanation for how she deduced the identity of our murderer. They made plenty of changes but didn’t make the change that mattered the most.

What can you do? If ITV Productions ever releases this episode with subtitles, I’ll probably watch it again to see if I’m wrong about the scriptwriter. I’d like to be because I’d like to believe that Miss Marple doesn’t rely on dreams to direct her sleuthing.

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The Blue Geranium 2011 TV adaptation film review

Fidelity to text:  3 poison bottles. The original story is there but it’s been expanded far beyond what Agatha sketched out, especially considering how minimalist the source material is.

Quality of movie: 4 & ½ poison bottles. It’s good on its own merits and it’s a more interesting story than the original short story. Only purists will carp.

This was our third watched episode of the ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple television adaptation of Miss Marple novels and short stories. We don’t watch these episodes in order so for you completists, this film is episode three of season five.

The quality of the production is really holding up, based on the three episodes we’ve seen to date. These films don’t feel like television episodes. They feel like movies in terms of sets, costumes, background music, acting, and pacing.

I was, I admit, apprehensive about this particular episode after our terrible experience with The Secret of Chimneys. That movie was dreadful; a pale, castrated shadow of the novel which didn’t involve Jane Marple in the first place.

Why was I concerned this time? The Blue Geranium is an actual Miss Marple short story, not another story shoehorned into the series so the TV producers could make more episodes and thus more money. However, like Chimneys, The Blue Geranium storyline was attacked by scriptwriters.

In this case, the scriptwriters made the story better.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Miss Marple short stories, The Blue Geranium is one of Agatha’s earliest short stories involving Jane Marple. Jane is still evolving as a character. Agatha also used the hackneyed and awkward trope of a group of people sitting around a dinner table telling true crime stories to see if the other dinner guests can figure out whodunit.

This is not a trope I’m fond of. There’s no tension because the mystery is secondhand. The mysteries are pared down to skeletal remnants, another reason not to care what happens to the participants. In these short stories, Jane is the winner of each competition. She always knows because someone in the village of St. Mary Mead did something similar. She’s also twittering and dithery, in her black lace mittens and lacy fichus and fluffy pink wool shawl. As Agatha developed Jane Marple, she became a more active, competent amateur detective and less of a caricature of a ye olde Victorian Spinster Lady with a capital L.

The mystery in The Blue Geranium is still there but it has been amplified. The original protagonists remain: George Pritchard, his crazy wife, Mary, Nurse Copling, the mysterious psychic, Zarida. The other protagonists, chatting over dinner, vanish with the exception of Jane and Sir Henry Clithering.

An entirely new cast of characters have been added to flesh out the story from the skeletal remains: George’s ne’er-do-well brother, his wife (George’s old flame and Mary’s sister), their kids, the vicar, the vicar’s niece, the doctor, the social-climbing neighbors, the golf club set, the artist, the mysterious drunk, the list goes on.

And it works! It works so much better than the original story which was clever in terms of clues but nothing special. Suddenly, the characters have become breathing, living people in terms of motivation, family dynamics, and an entire school of red herrings rather than the paper dolls we started with.

The Blue Geranium is still there.

For those of you who are not gardeners, geraniums do not come in blue. Nor do hollyhocks or primroses. Those flowers come in a lot of colors but blue isn’t one of them. This is important to the storyline and it provides a clue right in the title to the more scientifically-minded reader, who remembers basic chemistry class.

As an aside for you non-gardeners, very few flowers are blue. Every other color is present in the garden other than blue or true black. There are loads of green flowers; mostly small and on trees which is why you don’t notice them. When gardening catalogs claim a flower is blue, they are lying. The flower is actually a shade of purple. If you’re an ad copy writer, you describe the blossom in lyrical terms to fool the unwary gardener into believing that yes! This flower will be blue! Blue dahlias! Blue tulips! Blue hyacinths! Blue violets! Blue hydrangeas (important clue here*)! Blue geraniums and hollyhocks and primroses!

These flowers are not blue.

They are shades of purple and violet. Hold a blue hyacinth blossom up to the sky on a clear, sunny day and you’ll see how purple it really is. If you want actual blue flowers, like an indigo bunting is blue and a bluebird is not, you’ll have to grow Himalayan Blue Poppies and good luck with that endeavor since those are one of the fussiest flowers in the world to grow.

Those blue carnations you get at the florist? They’re dyed.

But back to the film. The added elements held together beautifully, explaining the complex motivations far better. Jane fits in much better too, since she’s on the spot during the crimes and not commenting on them from a bloodless remove over dinner. She’s involved. She knows these complicated, hurting people. Then, at the last possible moment, she realizes the truth. She makes a daring, last-minute move to save the day, rescue the innocent, and name the true villain.

One thing about the film I did not like. Mary, who is suitably crazy and antagonistic, is described by the other characters as a glutton. They imply she’s ruled by her appetites (which she is). They claim she’s fat, even obese.

But she’s not. We see Mary out of bed in a fitted blue dress (you’ll never see a flower that shade of blue). Yeah, she’s no size 6. I’d say about a size 18. She’s overweight but the way the other characters talk, she’s morbidly obese. She is not. She is the size of a normal woman. Perhaps carrying some extra weight during the rationing period after World War II was cause for comment and that’s why the scriptwriters did this.

It was jarring and a reminder that Hollywood has no idea what normal people look like. In Hollywood, if you have any body fat at all, you’re obese and if you’re a normal weight, you’re morbidly obese, but if you’re actually obese and you’re the flavor of the month, you’re a freedom fighter against unrealistic standards of beauty until you stop being popular. At that point, you become — once again — disgustingly obese and you should vanish so decent people don’t have to witness your flabby self.

But other than that criticism, I really enjoyed The Blue Geranium. The scriptwriters’ additions fleshed out the story beautifully, making a mediocre short story into a compelling, I’ll watch this again film.

* Hydrangeas come in three basic colors: white, pink, and what gardening catalogs euphemistically label blue although it’s really more of a purple. If you manipulate the acidity of your soil, you can magically alter the color of your hydrangeas, turning pink flowers blue-ish and vice versa. White flowering hydrangeas remain white. It does take a growing season and some knowledge of basic chemistry along with a soil testing kit.

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The Body in the Library December 2004 adaptation from ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple TV series

Watched on Saturday, 5 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 3 and 1/2 garrotes (the murderer was radically altered although crimes and motivation still fit perfectly within Agatha’s own text). There were some other minor modifications. The other most important change is the date. The novel took place in 1942. This filmed version was set around 1950.

Quality of movie: 4 garrotes. Gorgeous. Despite the sudden change of murderers, the film held together almost perfectly. The reason for the almost? I couldn’t accept the murderer’s motives. Remember that the scriptwriter revamped Agatha’s choice of murderer. It worked and if you’re unfamiliar with the novel, you won’t notice. If you’re familiar with the novel, you will most definitely notice and might throw what’s left of your cheese platter at the TV set.

We’ve been watching ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple TV adaptations out of order. Bill and I decided to be more systematic about watching all the Agatha Christie films. This will allow us to see if the producers have any kind of overall arc in mind. Agatha didn’t but producers play fast and loose with novel adaptations all the time. So they might! We’ll see.

Thus, we’ve seen three Marple adaptations already (The Secret of Chimneys, The Mirror Crack’d, and The Blue Geranium all from season 5). So we’re going back to the beginning and already, there’s a change.

We’ve got a different Miss Marple!

The first three seasons of Marple had Geraldine McEwan in the title role. I’d gotten used to Julia McKenzie. Ms. McKenzie took over for seasons 4, 5, and 6. It must have been a shock for the audience at the time. You get used to seeing a particular actor or actress in a role. It feels right. Then, something happens and things don’t look right. I doubt if the ITV producers gave an in-series explanation for the sudden altering of Miss Marple’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. This isn’t Doctor Who where the good doctor regenerates whenever the producer feels like shaking things up a bit.

It also felt decidedly odd to see David Walliams appear as a minor character when he’s also Tommy Beresford in the Tommy and Tuppence Partners in Crime TV series. He’s still a doofus.

But now that we’re watching Marple in order, we’ll see if the producers explain away the substitution. Something along the lines of  a character telling Jane Marple “my that rest rejuvenated you.” I’ll inform all of you if Doctor Who appears on the scene.

What’s weird is even though we are being systematic, ITV wasn’t systematic at all in their selection of Miss Marple properties to adapt. Oh no. They started not with Miss Marple’s first introduction, which would have made sense and followed the canon. They could have filmed the short stories and novels in order of publication, like the Poirot TV series did. That allows for character development and the possibility of an overall story arc.

Under that sensible and understandable circumstance, Miss Marple’s first TV outing should have been The Tuesday Night Club, a short story first published in 1927. Or, they could have used Miss Marple’s first novel to start the TV series: The Murder at the Vicarage (published in 1930).

No, ITV, for baffling reasons of their own, chose to begin Marple with The Body in the Library. This was Agatha’s second Jane Marple novel, published in 1942. In between Vicarage and Body are a number of short stories so it’s not like there wasn’t plenty of material to choose from.

Then they filmed the episodes apparently at random. It doesn’t look like they used each short story. They did adapt novels that Miss Marple didn’t inhabit, probably to fill out the TV seasons since there aren’t as many Jane Marple properties as there are Hercule Poirot stories and novels. Even so, that’s strange. See my review of The Secret of Chimneys which was published long before Jane Marple was a twinkle in Agatha’s eye to see what can go wrong.

The ways of producers are mysterious.

So here we are, with the first episode. I liked Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple very much. She’s much more like an elderly spinster than Julia McKenzie who reminded me of Jessica Fletcher at times. The adaptation is gorgeous. No expense was spared on those glorious sets, costumes, automobiles, and cast of thousands including a dance orchestra.

Because the setting was moved forward in time from 1942 to 1950 (or so), we got some backstory for the Jefferson family and why these people are hanging together when they’re not related. It made sense in the context of the movie.

There’s a strong sense of past grief hanging over this movie. Conway Jefferson lost his legs, wife, son, and daughter to German bombs. His household now consists of himself, his widowed son-in-law Mark Gaskell, and his widowed daughter-in-law, Adelaide Jefferson. Adelaide has a son, Peter, from her previous marriage to an RAF pilot, shot down in the war, leaving her a pregnant widow. She married Conway Jefferson’s son, Frank, and was widowed again.

We also get to see Miss Marple gazing wistfully at a sepia-tinged photograph of a handsome young soldier. Relative? Crush? Fiancé? Adored lover with whom she had a torrid affair? We aren’t told. Apparently, this change was enough to incite the viewing public into believing the producers had desecrated Agatha’s memory because of course it had to be a torrid affair! This demonstrates so clearly Miss Marple’s own viewpoint: she always believes the worst of people because it’s so often true.

In this case, I’d say that we moderns are completely unable to consider that it’s possible for men and women to care about each other without having hot, banging sex at all times. That young man could have been a relative, you know. There wasn’t a single family in England that didn’t lose young men to the Great War. Agatha was well-aware of that fact. Then, when she was writing The Body in the Library (1942), England was at war again, with young men dying in agony all over Europe, North Africa, and Asia. World War II must have brought back every miserable memory and loss endured during the first World War.

All I can say to people getting their knickers in a twist over Miss Marple gazing at a portrait is get over yourself. People die and their family and friends grieve, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t mean sex was involved.

But back to The Body in the Library. People who don’t read Agatha Christie or don’t read her carefully, think she’s bloodless and bland, like the coziest of cozy mysteries. They are wrong. A strangled eighteen-year-old girl and a sixteen-year-old girl burned to death are not cozy. Those girls had their entire lives ahead of them, as Miss Marple knows very well.

The Body in the Library is steeped with passion, requited and not. There’s also social opprobrium (everyone believes Colonel Bantry was carrying on with a platinum blonde despite all evidence to the contrary). Money and the desperate need for it (Mark Gaskell and Adelaide Jefferson among many others). The burning desire to elevate one’s station in life (Josie Turner, Ruby Keene, and Raymond Starr among others). And murder, when all else fails.

So we watched and enjoyed and ate our fancy cheese platter. Dancing, music, crime solving, the fanciest, classiest hotel I have ever seen on film, even hot Latin gigolos making sure lady guests are very happy. Wow. Scene for scene, dialog for dialog, this adaptation followed the novel faithfully, considering the constraints of movies versus text.

Then the ending and the reveal of the murderer and the motive.

Ack!

What? No. Please don’t do this to me. I know what the darned plot is and yes, the scriptwriter’s invention fits. But it wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right. It felt like the scriptwriter decided to be ‘relevant’. To bring dusty, musty, fusty old-lady Agatha into the modern world. To make a ‘statement’.

I ask you. Why? The novel was fine as it was. To anyone familiar with the novel, this new ending will not come as an improvement (unlike the adaptation of The Blue Geranium, which was greatly enriched compared to the original source material).

On the other hand, if you have not read the novel, you probably won’t have a problem. Assuming you don’t understand that the movie adaptation is set in 1950 and this kind of story in 1950 is … unlikely to say the least.

Times change, people change, cultures change. People still remain people and are subject to the vagaries of life. The thing to remember is that cultures change very slowly and what’s acceptable, even commonplace today was not commonplace or acceptable or even recognized in 1950.

The Body in the Library is worth watching for so, so many reasons. An actual understanding of cultural mores in 1950 isn’t one of them. These people are modern-day Englishmen and women who time-traveled back to 1950, carrying their modern lifestyles with them. Like Doctor Who.

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The Mirror Crack’d (2011 TV adaptation) film review

Fidelity to text: four poison bottles (it’s pretty close, with most of the major changes being made to minor characters along with one added major character, replacing someone else)

Quality of movie: four poison bottles (pretty good on its own merits)

This was our second episode of the ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple television adaptation of Miss Marple novels and short stories. We are, obviously, watching these out of order. Not that order matters since the various filmed episodes don’t follow the order of publication of Miss Marple novels and stories. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series (six seasons in all) and wonder how ITV got six seasons and 23 episodes when there were only twelve novels and some short stories, here’s the answer.

ITV didn’t want to kill a cash cow so they transformed other Christie novels into Miss Marple properties. The first episode we saw was Secret of Chimneys, because Bill is hard at work on the Complete Annotated Secret of Chimneys. I call their productions films because even though they are made for TV, they really are 90-minute-long films. Anyway, ITV’s version of Chimneys was dreadful with a capital D.

Some lines of dialog of remained along with character names but otherwise, Chimneys was butchered and our hero, Antony Cade, castrated.

I will admit I did not have high hopes for The Mirror Crack’d. I was, thankfully, proved wrong. I enjoyed it. So did Bill.

One of the major, throughout-the-series changes that ITV did to Miss Marple was to set all the episodes in the 1950’s, whether or not the actual source material took place during that time period. Miss Marple arrived in 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage) and departed in 1976 (Sleeping Murder). Quite a range there, spanning the tail-end of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and its aftermath and finishing up in the mid-seventies.

Nonetheless, it works here. I didn’t have a problem with the period wardrobe (great!), the timeless luxury of an English Country Estate (Gossington Hall), the 50’s cars (what tailfins!), or how the characters behaved. It all felt correct. I’ve seen other movies where the characters are supposedly acting in a historical, but they feel like they just walked out of the Starbucks down the street, decaf skim latte in hand.

The film follows the book reasonably closely, allowing for usual condensing needed to turn several hundred pages of novel into a 90-minute movie. Since the adaptation is close to what Agatha wrote, the plot is coherent, with no major holes. The changes include setting the story in the 50’s, several minor characters disappear (including Heather Badcock’s husband but he was a nonentity so he didn’t matter anyway), and two more important changes.

There is no Vincent Hogg, gossip columnist to the stars, in the book. He’s a great addition, however, funny and malicious. He’s also, as would be expected with Hollywood types, one of Marina Gregg’s ex-husbands. His arm candy, Lola Brewster, was in the novel and here, she steals the show. She’s six feet tall, redheaded, and with a va-va-voom figure encased in red satin. Wow.

I noticed. Bill really noticed. Every time Ms. Brewster came on stage, he noticed. It was hard not to notice when the cameraman noticed, making sure his camera lingered on Ms. Brewster’s phenomenal cleavage. As would be expected with Hollywood types, Ms. Brewster was Jason Rudd’s former lover and a rival to Marina Gregg.

Such is Hollywood.

The actress playing Marina Gregg was a marvel. Because of her performance, I could really grasp why Agatha named the novel The Mirror Crack’d. It had never been clear before.

For those of you not up on your Tennyson, the title refers to this verse in his epic poem, The Lady of Shalott.

“Out flew the web and floated wide —

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.”

What was the point of this title? Agatha Christie always had a reason for her choices and this choice of title was important. In this case, Marina Gregg, Hollywood movie star, was suddenly and dramatically confronted with a truth she had not known and it destroyed her. I had never made the connection until I saw this film. It was interesting and got me to look up Tennyson, but I didn’t get it.

Now, I do.

The other major change was the movie within a movie that Marina Gregg was filming, Jason Rudd (hubby #5) directing. It was to be her comeback film: a biopic of Nefertiti. I don’t remember that at all from the novel. But it worked. It didn’t feel shoehorned in as Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, go sleuthing on set.

What was truly interesting about the film was, for the first time, evaluating the character of Marina Gregg, Hollywood actress, in a way that I had not when reading the novel. I’m thinking in particular of how everyone around Marina Gregg made excuses for her behavior because she was so beautiful, so talented, so creative, and had suffered so deeply in her art and her life. A careful rereading of pertinent parts of the novel showed that although Agatha didn’t make a big deal of it, she wasn’t excusing Marina Gregg the way her retinue did.

What did Marina Gregg do? Well, she was a movie star, so you can start with that. But what was unforgivable to me, today, was her adopting three young children and then, when she became pregnant with a ‘real baby of her own’, she abandoned those children. Dumped them off like an unwanted litter of kittens in some alley. No one, other than one of the kids (grown to adulthood in the novel) disapproves of this behavior. If you’re a famous, beautiful movie star, it’s okay to adopt children and then walk away when they’re no longer useful for your self-image.

It’s always worthwhile to reread a good novel to see what changes as you, the reader, grow and change. When I first read The Mirror Crack’d all those years ago, this part didn’t bother me. It does now.

Something else I didn’t know until after I saw the film and did some basic research was discovering that Agatha had based the central, inciting incident on a real-world example. Gene Tierney, luminously beautiful movie star was pregnant in 1943. She volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen and a fan, ill with rubella, broke quarantine to see her. As a result, Ms. Tierney gave birth to a severely handicapped daughter who was institutionalized for most of her life. About two years later, according to Ms. Tierney’s autobiography, she met the fan again at a garden party and the fan admitted sneaking out of quarantine to meet her.

For those of you who don’t know, rubella is included in the standard MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine given to every little kid soon after birth. The vast majority of people who develop rubella get a rash for a few days and make a full recovery. If you’re in your first trimester of pregnancy, your baby is doomed to congenital rubella syndrome. You’ll either miscarry or the baby will be born with a variety of major handicaps. It’s heartbreaking and that’s why we get a vaccine against a minor disease.

It’s not minor if your baby suffers.

The Mirror Crack’d was a very good adaptation of the novel and we both recommend it. It worked on its own as a murder mystery, while remaining true to the source material, both in form and in spirit.

I can say I’m now looking forward to seeing more of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple episodes based on this film. I have no idea if future episodes will be any good. At this point, having watched two episodes, ITV has a fifty percent failure rate.

So we’ll see!

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Secret of Chimneys Movie Review

Fidelity to text: One gun (some names match and the house is terrific)

Quality of movie: One gun (plot holes you could sail battleships through)

My goodness, but those are low rankings. Remember, this is on a scale of one to five, with one being the lowest and five the highest. Officially, this is the third Agatha Christie or Agatha-like film I’ve reviewed. We’ve watched several of them in the past, but I didn’t review them so we’ll have to re-watch them.

Darn the bad luck.

Or good luck, I should say, since watching virtually any of the other adaptations will take the taste of this stinker out of my mouth.

Where to start with this mess. Deep sigh. Let’s start with the first of a series of egregious changes the producers inflicted on a fast-moving thriller with a studly romantic leading man.

Here’s number one: Miss Marple solves the crime. Miss Marple! I ask you. How could Miss Marple show up when Agatha published The Secret of Chimneys in 1925? Miss Marple arrived in 1927 in a short story and then in 1930, in the novel The Body in the Library. Chimneys marks the first appearance of Inspector Battle, criminally underused in both prose and film.

After that, it gets worse.

In the novel, our hero is Anthony Cade, an adventurer with a past. He’s virile, a stud, not entirely honest, dashing, daring, and everything else you want your romantic lead to be. You can see why Virginia falls in love with this exciting man of action. In the film, he’s relegated to a supporting player with about fifteen minutes of screen time. He’s also been thoroughly castrated by the film-makers into a whiny, ineffective dull dweeb. The actor playing Anthony Cade also looks so much like the actor playing Bill Eversleigh that I had trouble telling them apart. Bill Eversleigh is supposed to be a waste of space and he is. In the novel, the contrast between the two men is immense. Here, it’s not.

Virginia Revel, our heroine, is no longer a dashing widow-about-town. Nope, she’s become Lord Caterham’s younger daughter. At least she can’t be confused with Bundle, Lord Caterham’s other daughter.

The entire plot of derring-do, international intrigue, African connections, missing heirs to thrones, secret letters and tell-all memoirs, jewel thieves, and visiting detectives from France vanishes. Instead we get a mess that Agatha would have never written. I would agree that Chimneys can be preposterous at times, but her plot held together even when it was far-fetched.

This mess did not.

The other characters are treated equally badly. Lord Caterham? Completely rewritten. Treadwell, the butler, gets a sex-change with no explanation. Other characters vanish entirely and totally new characters show up. Some of these characters get murdered too, so the reason they appear is to die, not because the film-makers wanted to show fidelity to the original text.

George Lomax remains as does his secretary, Bill Eversleigh. George Lomax is similar in that he’s a bureaucrat trying to solve diplomatic issues for the good of England. He becomes not just irritating, but obviously and openly incompetent, which he is not in the novel.

A huge diamond still disappears. That stays the same.  Entirely new characters get murdered. There is virtually nothing left of the original story, other than a few names and sometimes a line of dialog here and there.

Why did the film-makers do this? My best guess is that the makers of the BBC television series, Agatha Christies’ Marple, ran out of actual Agatha Christie stories about Miss Marple. This fiasco appears late in season 5. Since there was money to be made, other Christie stories got shoe-horned into submission and here we are. A Miss Marple mystery that never featured Miss Marple in the first place.

That brings us to the movie itself. I should say TV episode but it’s about 90 minutes long and feels like a movie rather than a Jessica Fletcher Murder She Wrote episode.

As a film, the action moves along reasonably well. The dialog was clear. The house standing in for Chimneys is fantastic, a really premium English Country House on steroids. Those floors! That carved paneling! A secret passageway hidden behind a Vandyke painting of the Duke of Richmond! Balconies and stately grounds and suits of armor!

I have no idea how they keep that house clean and those thousands of acres of gardens manicured and all that stonework repointed when there appeared to be two, count them, two servants. That would be the thieving maid, run off in 1932, and the other maid, elevated to the position of head housekeeper even though she was named Treadwell, like the butler in the novel.

The acting was decent, other than the utterly bland Ken doll the casting director located to play Anthony Cade. There must be some actor out there who can channel Errol Flynn because that’s who should be playing Anthony Cade. Not some piece of carved pine with plastic hair. The young man is probably quite nice in real life but he did not light up the screen and make me -> feel <- why Virginia fell at his feet, panting to get to know him better.

Some of us radiate charisma. The rest of us just muddle along.

The mystery plot, however, was atrocious. There were obvious red herrings everywhere. The African connection was a throw-away line. There was no lost heir to the throne. The reason for the theft of the jewel was absurd. No one behaved in character, least of all Lord Caterham. Parts that could have been interesting, like the motivation of the National Trust representative, were given short-shrift. She, by the way, was far more vigorous and manly than Anthony Cade was. None of the writers seemed to have any idea what servants do or how they would act in the mid-1950’s (which is when the main story takes place). Miss Marple pulled the solution out of her handbag. George Lomax was supposed to be capable and yet seemed unable to do the most cursory of background checks. And then, when a character’s true identity was revealed, everyone still used his false name and position in life even though he couldn’t have possibly been that person!

If you’re watching all six seasons of Agatha Christies’ Marple, there’s no reason to skip this episode, even though you won’t watch it a second time. If you don’t know that it’s based on a wildly different novel, you’ll notice the plot holes but they won’t be as irritating as if you’re expecting a story that is close to the actual Secret of Chimneys.

Eventually, someone will make a good filmed version of The Secret of Chimneys. The novel is very much of its time, written in 1924 and published in 1925, so that time will be far off in the future, when we’ve gotten over our chronocentrism and quit judging people of the past by the standards of today.

This movie was bad. Knowing what the original story was and what the movie could have been, makes it worse.

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The Murder at the Vicarage December 2004 version

Watched Friday, 12 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 3 guns. The overall storyline is there. However, the scriptwriters chose to insert an unnecessary, even egregious backstory for Miss Marple. Um, no. Just no. There were other issues as well, some relating to changing the date from 1930 (when the novel was published) to 1951.

Quality of movie on its own: 3 and 1/2 guns. The film was well done but the scriptwriters shoved in things that weren’t needed, ensuring that solving the murder got short shrift. I still can’t figure out how Miss Marple deduced the solution to the murder. There are also no subtitles, criminal in this day and age. Not all the characters had perfect diction, mumbling ensured some critical lines were lost, and other characters had challenging accents. Hey ITV producers: not every viewer has perfect hearing. That’s the point of subtitles.

The Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930. This ITV production is set in 1951 (the camera pans across a calendar to make the point crystal clear although whoever produced the calendar got the days of the week wrong. August 1st, 1951, is Wednesday, not Tuesday.)

I understand why ITV’s producers changed the story’s year. The entire series is set in the 1950’s. It’s easier to film a TV series if you can keep using the same costumes, cars, accessories, etc. rather than needing a warehouse stocked with 40 years of material (1930 – 1971). You also don’t have to worry about your star never aging despite the passage of decades.

But novels set in 1930 reflect different cultural issues than novels set in 1951. Never forget, Agatha wrote contemporaries. Not historicals. Thus, something that was a major scandal in 1930 (divorce!) would be less scandalous in 1951. In 1930, every man around had served in the Great War. In 1951, it was World War II. Some men (and women) served in both wars. WWII was a different war, a bigger war, a war in which British civilians suffered directly and hugely. In 1951, they were still suffering because wartime rationing never ended.

As a modern viewer, I’m looking at this plot (set in 1951) and asking myself, why didn’t she get a divorce? I could understand this better if the film adaptation took place in 1930. Divorce was far more scandalous. You really could be socially ruined. However, the scriptwriters didn’t give us a good reason for murder.

There was a perfectly good reason that would explain the murderer’s rationale but I suppose there wasn’t enough time. That time, which could have been better spent on storytelling, was wasted on an egregious subplot about Miss Marple’s past (completely made-up from whole cloth, let me tell you).

No. Just no.

Miss Marple did not, as a hot young woman, have a torrid affair with a married man. The screenwriter’s own storytelling flagged here because why was young Jane seeing her married lover off to war while his wife was nowhere to be seen? Young Jane is kissing him in public in the train station in front of a crowd! If my husband was going off to risk get killed in battle, you can bet I would be at the train station noticing if some hussy was kissing my husband goodbye. I was in the Navy for about ten years and let me tell you, families don’t ignore their spouse’s deployments. If they can possibly be there to wave goodbye one last time, they are.

Proof again that far too many Hollywood-types have zero real-world experience with the military and all its permutations.

Another time-wasting change from out of the blue was swapping a silver-stealing burglar and his hapless assistant for a French professor and his granddaughter who claimed to be researching Colonel Protheroe’s historic mansion. Why did the script do this? The logical conclusion is it further demonstrated how evil Colonel Protheroe was; apparently Agatha’s own words were inadequate. No, you have to drag in French resistance fighters, betrayal to the Nazis, and embezzling to justify his murder.

Another time-wasting change? Anne Protheroe is suddenly best buddies with Miss Marple. She was not. This change was apparently to make us feel sympathetic for Anne, because she and Miss Marple had something in common: adultery. Um, no. This change culminated in Miss Marple praying in church while the murderers are hanged, again to show (I guess) what a difficult choice Miss Marple had to make. She could further the case for true love or she could choose justice.

Except that Miss Marple, like Hercule Poirot, seriously disapproves of murder, no matter how much the deceased deserved it.

But I’m wasting time, aren’t I. What was the reason the screenwriters could have given us to explain why the murder took place?

Money, naturally. If divorce throws you into poverty, then a lead divorce, via the barrel of a gun, makes sense. We do not get this explanation. We don’t get any kind of explanation why our murderers choose murder and not, say, running off together to Argentina where no one would know they were living in sin. When I read mysteries, I expect a good reason for murder. It isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us.

And, in fact, Agatha provides this very justification for murder in the novel! The murderer didn’t want to live in poverty with his paramour. A lead divorce ensured inheriting a huge estate. A legal divorce led to poverty. This motivation was right there in the text, yet the scriptwriter ignored it in favor of making up an adulterous affair for Miss Marple.

Maybe they thought this would make Miss Marple more interesting, relevant, and human. After all, we should all fall prey to our animal instincts at every opportunity. Why deny yourself an adulterous affair if that’s what you want? Who cares what his wife thinks? She doesn’t matter. She’s just the boring wife who’s never even seen on stage. Honoring vows is for boring, bourgeois commoners following outmoded modes of behavior; not for special people like us.

There are things to like in this adaptation.

The scenery and sets are gorgeous as always. The clothes are to die for. The ladies (for the most part) wear the most wonderful, stylish clothes including gloves and hats. The gentlemen look great too. We really lost a lot when our culture decided it was socially acceptable to walk around in pajama equivalents in public.

One thing I didn’t like about the scenery is a personal quirk: every single expanse of grass looked freshly mowed, and with a gasoline-powered rotary mower too. A manual reel mower clips the grass and scatters the clippings where they lay in clumps. They (dear son mows our lawn with one) do not provide sleek, carpet-like grass unless you like shag carpets. This touch is not period-correct as everyone in 1951 used a manual reel mower, assuming they weren’t using sheep or scythes. Nobody had an emerald-green lawn that looked like a velvet carpet, with not a clover blossom to be seen.

Gasoline powered rotary mowers had yet to come into widespread use. That wouldn’t happen until the 1960’s. Also, remember that wartime rationing, still ongoing in 1951? No one’s going to waste gasoline on an expensive gasoline-powered rotary mower when a reel mower cost nothing but muscle and there was already one in the shed. Gasoline went into cars.

In addition, every single garden we saw had been meticulously weeded prior to the camera coming near it. Real gardens have weeds. I promise you, you can mow, edge, weed, rake, and trim in preparation for the Queen’s visit and while you are waiting for her motorcade to arrive, weeds will appear out of thin air. Leaves will skitter down on your newly mowed grass. Someone will throw a soda can in the middle of your herbaceous border. Guaranteed. Yet that didn’t happen in St. Mary Mead.

Another amusement when you’re trying to work out how Miss Marple actually solved the mystery is playing spot the character actor. ITV Production must have, at one time or another, used every actor and actress in England. Make sure you spot Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes) as the thieving curate and Miriam Margolyes (Miss Phryne Fisher’s aunt Prudence) as a neighborhood busybody.

Should you watch this? Yes, at least once, as part of watching every film adaptation of Agatha Christie.

After the first viewing, you may want to watch a second time to dissect the flaws in the script. As I said, we could not figure out what gave Miss Marple the clue that allowed her to solve the mystery. Subtitles might have helped, but they might not have. The solution may not have been in the script so it couldn’t be filmed. Otherwise, save your time for a film adaptation you haven’t seen yet.

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Crooked House film review

Because of our ongoing interest in all things Agatha Christie, we’ve begun watching movies based on her books.

There are a lot of them so we’ve got plenty of filmed murder in our future. The adaptations will vary wildly in quality and fidelity to the source material as I’m sure you can imagine.

I’m going to rate the films two ways.

The first is fidelity to the material. This has nothing to do with the quality of the movie since movies are a radically different medium from a novel. That is to say, what works in a novel won’t work in a movie and vice versa. We’ll use (depending on the murder weapon) little poison bottles, little knives, little guns, little candlesticks, etc.

Five poison bottles indicate the film follows the novel virtually line for line. One poison bottle indicates that while the name of the film matches that of a Christie novel, the plot was made up of whole cloth by the scriptwriter and the Christie estate should disavow all knowledge of the film (while still cashing the check).

The second rating will be the usual stars. Five stars is a terrific movie and one star means don’t waste your time other than for completeness’s sake. As always, your mileage will vary. We’ve loved movies everyone hated, despised the ‘best movie of the year’ and disagreed about plenty of others. The proof is in the watching so you may adore what we hated.

With that said, let’s get to Crooked House.

Four poison bottles for fidelity

Four stars for movie goodness

I really enjoyed this movie but I have to say, thank God for subtitles. It crammed a lot of plot and an army of characters into 115 minutes, while often refusing to enunciate properly. That is one of the reasons for the missing fifth star. I couldn’t always tell what was going on and thirty seconds of explanatory dialog here and a minute of clarification there would have made all the difference.

Five extra minutes of film; that’s all I ask for so I can better keep track of who is who and why I should care.

The filmmakers did do a good job of hiring different looking actors and actresses so I could figure out who was who. It’s frustrating when Hollywood hires anonymous, cookie-cutter blondes who all visit the same plastic surgeon and get their clothes from the same stylist and their hair and makeup from the same beautician. It’s darn hard to tell them apart. The same is true of the typical collection of Ken dolls, although actors are allowed a tiny bit more freedom in their appearances.

Glenn Close, playing Edith De Haviland, was a marvel. She perfectly embodied the steel-willed, do-what-is-needed, aristocratic sister-in-law of the first murder victim. I also liked Honor Kneafsey who played Josephine. Other very talented people showed up, but they didn’t always get enough to do. Christina Hendricks (playing Brenda Leonides) in particular, looked decorative for no discernable reason. But that, I suppose, is why Aristide Leonides married her. Why else do elderly millionaires marry Las Vegas dancers? It isn’t their ability to discuss Proust.

On the other hand, our male lead, Max Irons (playing Charles Hayward), was a Ken doll. Very good looking but he came across as bland and spineless. If he and Sophia Leonides get together (left up in the air in the movie but this definitely happens in the book) you know what his fate will be. Sophia Leonides will steamroller him and he’ll learn to like it and she’ll despise him for knuckling under. Torrid affairs with manly gamekeepers and studly stone masons will soon follow and the only thing he’ll do is whine.

I can see why people won’t like this movie. It was talky but I like snappy dialog. It didn’t race from one scene to another with frenetic jump cuts but I hate those. I enjoy a slower-paced movie where I can figure out what’s going on and not get left behind at the starting gate. It was English Country House porn on steroids which I adore. That was one crooked house those people were trapped in, with surprises behind every door. God alone knows how they keep a castle like that dusted especially since the director got rid of all the servants who should have been filling up the backgrounds with housekeeping activities. There were some changes to Agatha’s text which purists won’t approve of. I’ll get to them later when I discuss the fidelity of the movie to the novel. But I liked this movie very much and I would watch it again.

Now as to the four poison bottles for fidelity to the text.

There were changes from Agatha’s novel, but most of them consisted of amping up the interactions to make the film more dramatic and more claustrophobic. Most of them worked for me. Here and there, for you purists, the movie dialog was taken word for word from the text. Other things got shortened or truncated but that’s what movies do. They remove what can’t be filmed like inner monologues. Some characters — the tutor and Brenda — got short shrift and their subplots and story arcs almost completely vanished. Again, 115 minutes doesn’t leave a lot of room.

A major change was Sophia Leonides’ character. I remembered her from the novel as more of a clinging vine damsel-type. In the movie, she’s a ball-buster and Charles Hayward (our hero) is going to regret marrying Sophia in spades if he is stupid enough to do so. I wouldn’t argue with this change because it emphasized how crazy the Leonides family was and how Aristide Leonides knew that his granddaughter, Sophia, was a chip off the old block and the only one of his heirs suitable to control his empire. She had the spine to fight back; the rest of the family rolled over and played dead.

The other major change was in the ending. I have to be careful here so as to not reveal whodunnit and why. Suffice to say, Edith de Haviland gets a much more dramatic exit, doing what has to be done, and the movie is much better for it. This event is now front and center, instead of being reported on afterwards in a few bloodless paragraphs as happens in the novel.

Give Crooked House a try. It’s two hours of your time and you’ll have a very nice feel for how crooked the house was, what it did to its inhabitants, and what a control-freak Aristide Leonides was. It’s not a perfect adaptation. So what? I enjoyed it and I recommend it. Best of all, if you only watch your Agatha Christie instead of reading her, you’ll have a very clear idea of the plot. You won’t make a mistake at a dinner party when you discuss the novel and whodunnit and why it mattered so much.

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The Secret Adversary July 2015 TV film adaptation review

Fidelity to text: one gun. The names match. Jane Finn remains a woman of mystery. The secret adversary of the title remains. Virtually everything else was altered from a little to a lot.

Quality of movie on its own: one & 1/2 guns but only because it started off well and I like 50’s clothes and sets. After that, it devolved steadily into ridiculous plot contrivances until Bill and I were groaning, catcalling the actors, and rolling our eyes at what we were watching. Keep in mind that I’m not a harsh judge of movies. This movie did not hold together.

As with so many of the Agatha Christie film adaptations, The Secret Adversary was a television show. In this case, the BBC produced a series called Partners in Crime. The series set out to follow Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures. For those of you keeping score at home, Agatha wrote four novels and a loosely connected series of short stories about them. Tommy and Tuppence start out as bright young moderns in 1919 and gradually age in real time until Postern of Fate (published in 1973), when they’re in their seventies.

The producers filmed one season: The Secret Adversary consisting of three one-hour episodes, aired beginning in July of 2015. N or M?, also three one-hour episodes, aired beginning in August of 2015.

The series was canceled after the release of the two film adaptations and after watching The Secret Adversary, I can see why. I doubt if N or M? will be any better but that one is still waiting in the queue. I shudder to think of what I’m in for.

So, what went wrong? The BBC is well-known for good adaptations of great British literature. They spend the money to do it up fine. Watching the three episodes back-to-back, just like a movie, showed that they spent money on costumes, sets, accessories, music, acting. Everything in fact except the single most important component of any movie.

The script. The foundation of storytelling.

It was dreadful.

The Secret Adversary didn’t work as an adaptation and it didn’t work as a standalone movie for newcomers who’ve never heard of Tommy and Tuppence.

We’ll begin at the beginning. For some mysterious reason, the BBC decided to set the story not in 1919, right after the demobilization of the Great War, when England was awash in returning soldiers who couldn’t find jobs but in 1952. 1952!

This completely changes the tenor of the story. Agatha wrote her novel when the war was still fresh and raw, England was still recovering, and there was massive social unrest everywhere. Bolsheviks were lurking around every corner. Russia had endured a violent revolution, the tsar and his family murdered, the continent was soaked with blood, and political repercussions from the Great War were everywhere.

In addition to all that, the industrial revolution was gearing up faster than ever, motor-cars were showing up all over the place, women were finding a much louder voice than ever before, and servants suddenly discovered that factory work paid better and was less demeaning. The entire social structure of England was under attack.

I suppose that wasn’t enough background excitement for the BBC so instead we get 1952. It was the Cold War so they could shoehorn Communists into the plot. Perhaps they needed to recoup the money they’d spent on other TV series set in 1952. Those sets, cars, costumes, and accessories were going begging so why not reuse them?

In the novel, Tommy and Tuppence are both in their early twenties and single. They meet by chance on the street. They’re both broke and looking for work; any kind of work will do. They knew each other from years before, but this time, it’s different. Sparks fly and romance blooms.

Not in the TV series. Our heroes been married for years. They have a son, George. A golden retriever. A charming 50’s cottage although I have no idea how they afforded it, any more than I understand how they afforded their very stylish wardrobes. They must be in their 30’s. Youth fled as waistlines thickened and hairlines receded, at least for Tommy.

Passion seems to have fled too, since we see Tommy and Tuppence sleeping in twin beds. I know the movies and 50’s vintage TV stuck to this trope to pretend that sex didn’t exist but come on. Real married couples slept in double beds with each other back then. I have no idea why the BBC made this choice, unless it was to emphasize that Tommy and Tuppence are sexless and boring.

They shouldn’t be this way. In the novels, they adore each other, they’re hot for each other, and that doesn’t change as Tommy and Tuppence grow old.

Agatha did something rare with Tommy and Tuppence. They married and stayed happy, despite the usual traumas of life. I appreciate seeing a married couple still in love and working as a team, rather than Hollywood’s standard set of tropes. You know the one: you get two possibilities. The exciting run-up to the wedding when everything is fresh and wonderful and our happy couple is so in love. The other standard story is the miserable, collapsing marriage leading up to the acrimonious divorce.

It is nice to see a happy couple. Although Tommy and Tuppence are not happy. They’re more like roommates. One thing that remains true to the novel is they are broke.

Why are they broke? Because of another script change. In the novel, Tommy is brave, stalwart, not given to flights of fancy and he’s not easily fooled. He’s young and fit. He’s brave. Here, Tommy is overweight, dopey, and so passive that he meekly goes along with whatever Tuppence and the villains want him to do!

And, he keeps bees. Or rather, he is trying to set up a beekeeping business so he can make money selling honey. Yet he is so obtuse, he hasn’t read the beekeeping manual that came with the hives. His son (showing the kind of respect Bart Simpson shows to Homer) rats Tommy out to mom. There were no bees that I recall in the novel. Perhaps the scriptwriters were thinking of Sherlock Holmes retired in his old age to tend bees in the countryside.

It was so stupid. The way they behaved together was nothing like the books. In fact, they reminded me of a mashup of two different married couples you are probably familiar with.

In this film version, Tuppence comes across as Lucy Ricardo, although more stylish. Tommy resembles Homer Simpson, but more buffoonish.

Yes, you read that right. Tuppence doesn’t have the commonsense that Marge Simpson does. Tommy isn’t as smart as Desi Ricardo. Worse, he doesn’t have the bravado of Homer Simpson, although the waistlines are similar.

They were a well-dressed couple; I’ll give them that.

Unlike Homer Simpson, Tommy also has magical movie facial hair. No matter what was happening or how long he had been held captive, he was always freshly shaven.

This was maddening to watch. They were idiots! The plot was idiotic! Virtually every single character went through the plot-grinder, coming out radically different on the other side.

As an example, Julius Hersheimmer, American millionaire from Texas, becomes an African-American millionaire who made his fortune developing artificial sweetener. Jane Finn herself is no longer his long-lost first cousin. No. That wasn’t interesting enough. Instead, he claims Jane is his niece (there is a noticeable age difference). Was she his niece? No! She was his cookie on the side, waiting in the wings for his divorce to be finalized.

Mr. Carter becomes Tommy’s enabling and bumbling uncle, not the capable spy-master he was in the novel. Albert is no longer the cockney liftboy who Tommy and Tuppence meet and take under their wing. No, he becomes an inept version of Q from the James Bond series. He’s a science teacher at a boys’ school and fond of gadgetry.

The villains are still villains, but they’re incompetent too. They certainly don’t seem to be in it for political gain. We get a few hints, but nothing like the novel. Rita Vandemeyer becomes almost comical, as a fading opera star with a white Persian cat. She’s supposed to be an adventuress, a woman of mystery, someone who is dangerous and can hold her own in a man’s world. No more.

At least the secret adversary remains.

The ending was a hash of loose ends and ridiculous contrivances. A jar of honey figures prominently, shoehorned into the plot to justify Tommy’s taste for get-rich-quick schemes that will leave his family in financial ruins.

Should you waste three hours of your life on this adaptation?

Only if you want to see the great clothes everyone wears. Tommy and Tuppence’s 50’s vintage cottage is good eye-candy as well. The sets are nice. Otherwise, there are better choices. Watch this version of The Secret Adversary only if you plan on seeing all the filmed versions of Agatha’s stories and you’re doing it for completeness’s sake.

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