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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They Do It With Mirrors 2009 Julia McKenzie

Watched Friday, 2 April 2021

Fidelity to text: 2 and 1/2 knives. Plenty of changes, the most egregious being rewriting Carrie Louise’s personality and philanthropism and changing Lewis Serrocold’s motives. Other characters disappear altogether, get combined, or are raised from the dead (Carrie Louise’s husband #2). The first murder weapon changes too.

Quality of movie on its own: 3 and 1/2 knives. But I didn’t care about the changes until the ending! That was when I couldn’t accept the murderer’s motivations. I also didn’t like how Wally and Gina were handled. I had even less reason to accept their glorious reunion than I did in the 1991 Joan Hickson adaptation. I very much appreciated that this version, unlike the 1991 film, did not shoehorn in five minutes of bizarre avant-garde modern dance with accompanying atonal music that had nothing to do with the plot.

Let’s start with the actress you all want to start with. I loved Joan Collins as Ruth van Rydock, Carrie Louise’s sister. She gets top billing although she doesn’t have, sadly, much screen time. When she does, you can tell who the star is. You can also understand why, as Miss Marple says, Ruth and Carrie Louise have a great relationship as sisters as long as there’s an ocean between them. Joan is perfect as the glamour queen whereas Penelope Wilton is equally perfect as her dowdy younger sister.

Carrie Louise is the main focus of the movie, as she is the main focus of the novel. In the novel, however, she’s more acted upon. Here, she’s the one who wants to reform criminals and spends all her wealth to do so. It’s not husband #3, Lewis Serrocold. Instead, he becomes the ever-supportive, adoring spouse who wants everything to be perfect for his beloved. And I do mean Everything with a capital E. He’s also jealous of husband #2 (Johnny Restarick) who shows up unannounced and expecting to move in. There are some funny scenes between the two husbands, present and former.

Carrie Louise comes across as the kind of altruistic do-gooder that you want to avoid. She is so sure she’s right that she doesn’t care or even notice when her notions are hurting the people around her or aren’t working at all. In the case of the convicts she’s reforming, well, some of them might benefit. At a minimum, they’re getting a second chance out in the sunshine and fresh air. Stonygates is far more pleasant than Dartmoor prison although the food may not be.

Make sure you notice the reworking of Dante over Stonygates’ main entrance: Recover Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. It’s a very nice rephrasing but the gate with its sign kept making me think of the sign for Auschwitz. You recall the one: Work Makes You Free.

Where Carrie Louise’s blindness really shows up is in how she treats her daughters.

Adopted daughter Gina is lovely, vivacious, and fun and, based on the flashback, she’s always been that way. Natural daughter Mildred, a few years younger than Gina, is seen in the same flashback as plain, shy, wearing glasses — dowdy alert! — and nowhere near as sparkling. What mother wouldn’t be more invested in the livelier, more charming daughter? Even better, Carrie Louise has the perfect reason to openly and obviously favor Gina. Since Gina’s adopted, she needs more love and attention. Mildred, nerdy and dull, is ignored. It’s a very sharp observation of the flaws in Carrie Louise’s worldview. She doesn’t pay much attention to reality and the real needs of messy people unless it suits her. If it doesn’t suit her, she’ll find a reason to discount them.

You’ll observe the same dynamic between Carrie Louise and Wally, Gina’s husband. He doesn’t fit in either, he’s openly unhappy, but since he’s not a project like one of her convicts, he doesn’t matter one bit.

Nor does Carrie Louise notice the weird and creepy byplay between Gina and Stephen Restarick. Stephen is Carrie Louise’s stepson from husband #2. Since Gina’s adopted and Stephen has a different mother as well as father, they’re completely unrelated genetically. Nonetheless, the implication is that they’ve grown up together as brother and sister, even if only part-time. It’s off-putting how they flirt and right in front of Gina’s husband, Wally, too. Yet since Carrie Louise doesn’t see anything wrong with this picture, neither does anyone else.

The novel handles Gina and Wally much better than either adaptation. I could not understand why Gina chose Wally in the end when it’s so obvious she’s no longer attracted to him. And why should she be? He’s sullen, sulky, ignores her, and doesn’t punch out Stephen Restarick’s lights for pawing at his wife.

Because Carrie Louise takes over the running of the reform school, all of Lewis Serrocold’s motivations get twisted beyond recognition. It doesn’t work nearly as well as the novel did. Altruistic reasons for what he did? Really? This would make things better for Carrie Louise and her convict rehabilitation project? For a supposedly intelligent man, he’s stupid. Thirty seconds of thought would demonstrate the flaws in his plan.

This reads like I didn’t like the film, but I did. It was well-paced, well-acted, looked fabulous (that house!) and showed a very good understanding of the dynamics between sisters. Mildred is so jealous of Gina and it’s understandable. She’s spent her entire life in the shadow of her older, more glamorous sister. That’s why Mildred makes sure Gina sees the old newspaper with the story of her birth-mother’s execution for arsenic poisoning. What I would have liked was an explanation for where Gina got the wig and dress. Did Mildred supply them?

There were so many great scenes, many of them quite funny. I was really enjoying the movie. Then the ending fell apart. Edgar Lawson’s dramatic flight into the lake didn’t make sense. We needed more screen time to explain why he thought that was a good idea. We needed more screen time to explain why Lewis Serrocold panicked and ran after Edgar. Remember, the convict rehabilitation scheme wasn’t his idea. It was Carrie Louise’s. His single goal in life was to support her in whatever she chose to do. Then he abandons her to the long arm of the law to chase after some psycho teenager who threatened him with a pistol?

It made even less sense when Gina decided to choose the man she married and then ignored over the stepbrother she’d been hanging off of (to his great enjoyment) throughout the entire movie. There was a sort of reconciliation between Mildred and Carrie Louise but it was so truncated, it might as well have not been there. It should have been. Carrie Louise needed to have the scales fall from her eyes but it didn’t quite happen. I didn’t get the reconciliation I would have liked between Mildred and Gina either. It wasn’t either girl’s fault that mom played favorites.

A tighter script at the ending would have made this a far better film. Even so, despite the changes the scriptwriter inflicted on the novel, it’s pretty darn good. It’s much better than the Joan Hickson version. I’m looking forward even more now to watching Helen Hayes’ 1985 version Murder With Mirrors. The same novel, filmed three different ways. It’s fascinating to see what’s changed and to see if it worked.

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At Bertram’s Hotel 1987 Joan Hickson version

Watched Wednesday, 20 January 2022

Fidelity to text: 3 and 1/2 guns. Everything major is present and accounted for right up until the ending. The problem is way too much compression of the text. In addition, the time period was changed from the early 1960’s to about 1953. At Bertram’s Hotel is one of those books that gains from understanding its era. Things were changing fast and Agatha commented on those changes via Miss Marple.

Quality of movie on its own: 3 guns. The film was so compressed I had trouble following the complicated storyline. Add in unintelligible dialog (we had to replay a scene four times and I still think Miss Marple said “spoon” and not “policeman”) and you get a film that needed to be ten minutes longer in order to be clear. That would have ramped up the tension too.

At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) is the next to last Miss Marple novel that Agatha wrote. The final Miss Marple novel was Nemesis, published in 1971. Sleeping Murder, while published in 1976, was written in 1941 or so. Does this matter? Yes, it does, because Miss Marple has been slowly and subtly aging. She hasn’t lost any of her mental sharpness but her body is getting older.

She can still eavesdrop with the best of them, but she can no longer go after a murderer with weedkiller like she did in Sleeping Murder. She’s also acutely aware of the passage of time and the extensive changes wrought in England over the decades.

Thus, Miss Marple arrives at Bertram’s Hotel. She’s enjoying a two-week vacation courtesy of nephew, Raymond. She’d stayed at Bertram’s as a young girl and is astonished at how unreal it all seems; almost a caricature of an Edwardian-era hotel right down to the uniformed and capped chambermaids. Bertram’s Hotel chambermaids even curtsey like an Edwardian-era servant would and a modern chambermaid would not.

There’s a reason for that behavior but since the movie compressed so much of the text, it’s almost completely lost. The movie is 110 minutes long. It needed another ten minutes or more to explain the background criminal activity that Miss Marple detects. It could have also been longer — thirty seconds here, forty-five seconds there, to explain how she knew to follow Elvira and her Italian racing car boyfriend to that seedy rock’n’roll diner.

There’s a great movie here, struggling to get out. The culture clash elements alone were worth more time. A television room, because the American guests like it! Handsome Irish grooms who don’t know their place! Absentminded Canon Pennyfather who stumbles into the crime, yet the action is so truncated, we get cryptic, unintelligible telephone calls that are supposed to explain and only muddy the waters still further.

At times, I thought there were two totally unrelated plots competing for screen space. We have Elvira Blake and her very unsuitable boyfriend and her estranged adventuress of a mother. We also have a mysterious string of high-stakes robberies involving famous people who couldn’t have done it. Finally, we have a murder. Are the stories related?

Well, yes, they are. Except that we didn’t see enough evidence on the screen! We got significant glances and lingering camera shots of Bertram’s exquisite high tea dessert tray and quick shots of newspaper headlines but not long enough to read and understand said headline. This shouldn’t have happened. The BBC could have filmed another ten minutes; a minute here, thirty seconds there, to show us better how the two stories intertwined. Rationing doesn’t exist anymore. They could have bought more filmstock.

Moviemakers should never, ever, ever assume the audience read the book. Far more people watch TV and go to the movies than read. I’d bet that at least half the audience for the BBC production of Miss Marple have never cracked open a Miss Marple novel. And this is in Great Britain, a literate, reading culture that adores Agatha Christie.

If you haven’t already read At Bertram’s Hotel, you’ll be lost. I know the storyline and I was lost.

Excising most of the gang of thieves plot also ruined what could have been a very tense movie. If you recall the story (read it before viewing), Bertram’s Hotel is so nostalgic as to be unreal. That’s because it is. A gang of thieves uses it to cover their crimes. They’re running a real hotel, with real guests to camouflage the presence of fake guests who are moving stolen goods around.

But what if one of those real guests is a sharp-eyed, snoopy old lady? She behaves suspiciously, asking prying questions, lurking in odd corners and openly eavesdropping. That old lady is in for a world of hurt. Frail old ladies can easily slip and fall down a flight of stairs. An attending doctor’s first thought would not be “she was pushed.” It would be “we need better handrails and how about an elevator to prevent these tragic yet completely normal accidents?” That factor could have been played up considerably, yet it wasn’t. I would think that a criminal syndicate operating out of a hotel would be wary about what the guests saw.  Not this bunch.

I could not figure out how Miss Marple was able to follow Elvira and the Italian boyfriend to the seedy diner. I really couldn’t figure out how Elvira and her adventuress mother were able to reconcile the Italian boyfriend since he was carrying on with both mother and daughter. I know Elvira narrowly escaped murder at gunpoint but even so. Most daughters and mothers I know don’t share their lover and a near-death experience won’t reconcile them to doing so.

The ending in the film was expanded over that of the book. In the book, Miss Marple and the Inspector deduce who did it but they have no proof. The Inspector assures Miss Marple that the murderer won’t get away with it but we don’t know how he’ll prove his case. In the movie version, since you’ve got to have a dramatic moment when the murderer is confronted with evidence of their guilt, you get a scene involving a handkerchief sachet. A handkerchief sachet is a folded over pair of satin pockets that you stuff with your fancy, embroidered handkerchiefs. It keeps them clean and flat. It’s perfect, according to Miss Marple, for stashing illicit love letters and anything else you don’t want seen and she proves it by discovering the murderer’s diary.

This seemed weak, because if a handkerchief sachet is a common place to hide things, then don’t you think that this is the first place an Inspector (or a nosy old lady) will look?

I did like Bess Sedgwick very much, right up to the ending. Please. It was accurate to the book, but it didn’t feel right. She would have run over that peddler on a bicycle. Peddlers on bicycles don’t survive encounters with sports cars so even though Bess wasn’t wearing a seatbelt (they didn’t have them in 1953) it’s hard to believe she would have died in the ensuing accident. Badly injured? Sure. Got away with it? Quite possible. Killed instantly? I doubt it.

Elvira Blake was interesting too, and living proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Again, the novel gave us far more material about her adventuress-in-training ways. The movie only gave us hints.

I would have liked to have seen more of that Irish groom, who became a doorman for Bertram’s Hotel. He had a complex relationship with Bess. Was that why he ran to Elvira Blake’s rescue? Or was it because he was the heroic type as well as it being his job to rescue the guests? We don’t get those answers. I don’t believe he was part of the criminal gang running the hotel but again, the movie was poorly written so I’m not quite sure.

I don’t always want my movies to be longer. This time, I did. I’ll have to watch At Bertram’s Hotel a second time in order to catch what I missed the first time. Subtitles would have helped, no doubt, but so would have a better, more comprehensive script and better enunciation.

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Sleeping Murder 1987 Joan Hickson version

Watched Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Fidelity to text: 4 garottes. The producers didn’t change much as far as I could tell, other than shifting the film’s time period to the early 1950’s and compressing and removing minor characters. Everything important is present and accounted for.

Quality of movie on its own: 4 garottes. There’s the usual problem of the film quality itself (16 mm doesn’t age well) and lack of subtitles. Other than those technical issues, this version of Sleeping Murder was well-paced, atmospheric, and I could follow it easily. The music score really added to the ambience. Still, there were questions that the plot chose not to answer.

Sleeping Murder was a treat after sitting through Joan Hickson’s last outing (Murder at the Vicarage). The producers got back on track and shot the film so you could see what was going on rather than watching dark shapes move against a darker background. It was sunny, a nice contrast to the very unsunny subject matter.

It always amazes me that people think Agatha writes cozies. She does not, proved again here. The implications of this film’s murderer and his motives are unsettling. If he can’t have the object of his obsession, no one can. Interestingly, this is one of the very few Agatha Christie stories that doesn’t involve money as a major subtext and driving issue. It’s all passion and obsession here; wanting what you can’t and shouldn’t have.

This story also plays into the theme of old sins having long shadows. Those sins can be remembered in strange, unexpected ways.

Which is why we get the stunning coincidence of Gwenda Reed, newlywed expat from New Zealand, finding the perfect house in a quaint village on the English coast. It’s a house that is strangely and startlingly familiar in odd ways. The musical score, something I don’t normally notice in a made-for-TV film, played this up nicely without being over the top. It was cinematic. Normally, TV productions have forgettable scores.

I really have no criticisms of this adaptation, except that it was too short. There were all kinds of motivations and reasons that were missing, hence a score of four garottes instead of more. I don’t know if this was due to the screenwriter playing fast and loose with the text or if Agatha didn’t spell it out in the novel. She wrote Sleeping Murder during the London Blitz and set it aside in a vault (along with Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last case). Agatha was at the height of her writing skills, writing complex, well-plotted and detailed mysteries. She didn’t slow down until the late sixties.

So why then do we not get more of an explanation of Helen Spenlove Kennedy Halliday’s motives? That’s Gwenda’s mysteriously vanished stepmother. Everyone says she ran off with another man. Everyone implied that she was crazy about men and loose with her affections.

Miss Marple would tell you to never believe what anyone says. She never does. She expects people to misremember, shade the truth, and outright lie and she’s right.

I could figure out (especially after the big reveal) why Helen ran away from the quaint village all the way to India to marry Walter Fane, boring solicitor, who’d relocated to India himself. She was desperate to leave. Why didn’t she marry Walter Fane? Because she’d had a torrid affair with a married man on the ship from England to India and discovered she didn’t want to settle?

Well, okay. Even so, while marrying Walter Fane might not have been the best choice, it was a far better choice than remaining in that quaint little village. She got to leave that obsessed man in the dust.

But Helen said no to Walter Fane on the dock in some port in India.

She boarded another ship and sailed back to England which made no sense. At that point, Helen met Gwenda’s father, Kelvin Halliday, widower with little girl. They fall in love (those shipboard romances! Someone should write a novel) and marry. Okay.

Except they return to England, the place that Helen wanted to leave. Still okay. England’s a big place. Not as big as the United States but it’s certainly large enough that there were a number of counties, cities, towns, and villages to choose from.

Yet Helen agrees to return to the quaint little English seaside village that she couldn’t run away from fast enough. And, let me remind you, for very good reasons. Was this her new husband’s decision and she went along? We don’t know.

This is really important to me, because Helen’s motivations are what drive the plot. Why did she flee the village? Why did she return? Why did she — apparently — flee again with some other man in the dead of night?

We are not given any kind of explanation for Helen’s motives. Yet if she had not returned to the quaint English seaside village, everything would have been different for her, her husband, and her little stepdaughter. For one thing, she might not have vanished in the night, leaving behind a husband who think’s he strangled her and dies a suicide and a traumatized stepdaughter who gets shipped off to relatives in New Zealand.

I don’t have a problem with the unlikeliness of this plot mechanism. I swallowed whole the set of books involving four midgets trekking across a wilderness to throw a ring into a volcano. But I expect reasonably plausible, internally consistent explanations for why the characters do what they do.

I understood Gwenda’s motivations. She wanted to find out what happened and why this mysterious house that she had never seen before triggered memories. She had a chance to learn the secrets hidden from her for her entire life. I understood her husband’s motivations. He wanted his wife to be happy and he was fascinated too.

I understood everyone else’s motivations, from gardeners to former housemaids to lawyers to shop assistants to former friends and lovers. They all made sense.

Miss Marple’s motivations made sense. She knew to let sleeping dogs lie and what would come of disturbing them. Since no one took her good advice and those dogs got roused, she wanted to solve the crime and prevent another crime from happening to Gwenda and Giles.

But we were not told Helen’s motivations. This is one of those opportunities that a good scriptwriter can take and run with. If it’s not spelled out in the book or glossed over or omitted entirely, the adaptation can tell the full story. This is why sometimes (but not always) the movie can be better than the book.

Heresy, I know. But it’s true. If you’ve ever seen Legally Blonde and then hunted down the novel it was based on, you’ll know what I mean. The movie was about one hundred times better than the novel. The concept was there, but every part of the film was better than the novel.

The Agatha project has already proved this concept as well, believe it or not. The 2011 version of The Blue Geranium — a very early Miss Marple short story — was far superior to the source material. It can be done.

Sadly, it wasn’t done here. I can’t blame it on time limitations either because the BBC presents longer adaptations when they want to. Sleeping Murder was 102 minutes long. That’s not a lot of time to fully flesh out everyone’s motivations and yet, other than Helen’s, they managed.

Despite that issue, Sleeping Murder worked for me. I didn’t question Helen’s motivations while watching the film. This came afterwards, while Bill and I were walking around the block on our nightly constitutional. It’s a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about successful movies, was right.

As long as the audience doesn’t say “wait a minute!” during the movie and wait until they get into the lobby to start dissecting the flaws, the film succeeded.

Sleeping Murder succeeded and it is a worthy addition to Agatha at the movies.

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Murder Is Easy (2009) Julia McKenzie

Watched Friday, 26 March 2021

Fidelity to text: 1 poison bottle. Where to start, where to start. There are so choices. This novel (a personal favorite) never starred Miss Marple. Agatha had been writing Miss Marple novels and short stories for over a decade by the time she wrote Murder is Easy (1939) so if she’d wanted this to be a Miss Marple story, she’d have made it one. For this film, ITV’s scriptwriter got out the knives and slashed away. About all that remains from the text after it was run through a woodchipper are names and some methods of death.

Quality of movie on its own: 3 poison bottles. It was an overcrowded mess rescued by good performances. Sometimes, the movie took flight all on its own. However, there was just too much going on in 93 minutes to be able to easily keep track of who was who and why it mattered.

By now, Agatha must be spinning in her grave fast enough to power all of London. What are her heirs thinking? They need to squeeze a few more bucks out of her creativity to stave off the dreadful day when they have to earn their own livings from their own efforts? It feels that way after a missed opportunity like this one.

Murder Is Easy is one of my favorite Christie novels. It has everything, from creepy villagers playing at witchcraft to press magnates who believe their own press. Add in an expat from Malaya, a daring rescue where the damsel rescues herself rather than wait for the hero to save her, and a great murderer who fully justifies the many crimes she commits. It was all done for love, you know; sour, curdled, unrequited, I’ll get my revenge for being spurned, obsessive love, but still love of a twisted sort.

Gone the way of all flesh. A few bones litter the scene. The murderer is still there but her motivation has been radically changed, along with some of her crimes. The press magnate and the witchcraft wannabes gone. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as Luke Fitzwilliam, returned from the Malayan police force and he doesn’t even get to attempt to rescue the damsel. The damsel (Bridget Conway) had a complete body and soul makeover until she’s unrecognizable to anyone who’s read the novel.

It was odd watching Benedict Cumberbatch emote. This film was released in 2009, a year before he burst onto the world’s stage with Sherlock. When he filmed Murder is Easy, he was just another up and coming character actor; not leading man material and that’s how he’s treated here. His scenes, in fact, were so truncated compared to his role in the novel that he might as well have been dispensed with entirely and all his scenes handed over to Miss Marple (who got about half of them anyway) and to Police Constable Reed who gets more screen time, less billing, and in every way is a more logical person to investigate suspicious doings with Miss Marple. It was fun watching PC Reed learn how to ask questions from the mistress of leading questions.

The film would have been a lot less confusing without Benedict co-sleuthing with Miss Marple. She worked hand in glove with PC Reed and didn’t need any assistance from some hack from Malaya. The other reason for removing Benedict all together was Bridgit Conway’s character. In the novel, he and Bridget solve the murders and fall in love while doing so. In the film? Bridget is not just an American snooping around. She shows every sign of being the kind of crazy that’s its best to back away slowly from. Since this version of Bridget has zero need for a charming young man like Benedict Cumberbatch, then his other reason for appearing onscreen vanishes.

There was so much extraneous plot larded onto the story. Political campaigns? Check. Infighting and betrayal in said political campaign? Check. Crazy, grieving widow? Check. Potential affair between married politician and grieving widow? Check. Socialist doctor who’s got eyes on his elderly partner’s daughter? Check. Vicar with beekeeping hobby? Check. Unpleasant, snobby spinster with simpleton brother? Check. Librarian with missing books? Check. Lingering gratuitous near-nudity? Check. Hedge-witch granny? Check. Herbal abortion potions being passed around like cups of tea? Check. Secret babies? Check. Studly gardener with whom one has a torrid affair? Check. Incest and rape? Check.

There’s also a Persian cat who plays a critical role in the murder but Mr. Wonky was in the novel and besides, every TV mystery needs a cat.

There was just too much going on. ITV would have done better by sticking with the original text which had plenty of action. How could the scriptwriter add incest, affairs, and secret babies and then skip the entire witchcraft rituals run by the local antiques dealer? That wasn’t exciting enough?

I’ve yet to see witchcraft being practiced in an ITV Marple production so perhaps they’re saving it to add to a novel where no witchcraft appears.

Adding Miss Marple wasn’t as terrible as it could have been (see The Secret of Chimneys for an example of what not to do). She gets Luke Fitzwilliam’s opening scene, meeting Lavinia Pinkerton on the train. This was completely plausible as was Miss Marple, known busybody, listening to another old lady’s story of murder and not discounting it. It was equally plausible that when Miss Marple read about Lavinia Pinkerton’s sudden death (murder that doesn’t look like murder) that she would rush off to investigate. That’s what she does. We all have to have a hobby and seeing justice done is hers.

Weirdly, no one in Wychwood Under Ash seems to think it strange when the stranger at the funeral stays. And stays. And stays. Maybe it’s the power of old ladies to become invisible. Maybe it’s because after multiple sudden deaths (how could that not be suspicious?) and far too many characters running around the village streets that the citizens are too exhausted emotionally to comment. At least they all looked different enough that I could tell them apart. I just didn’t get enough time with most of them to care.

Too many subplots never got an ending. Why was Dr. Humbleby’s wife so glad about his death? We’re never given a reason. Why was the Poisons book missing from the library for five years and not just the two weeks needed to look something up? Did Major Horton quit drinking after that dreadful drunken incident led directly to someone’s death? It was implied but never stated. And why oh why did Bridget Conway carry around a postcard of the Empire State Building in her purse? She didn’t know she was going to give it to Luke Fitzwilliam and reenact An Affair to Remember. She certainly didn’t set a date and time. “Soon” does provide one important clue which Luke will ignore because the script tells him to. Don’t do it. Remember, he’s supposed to be a policeman. It’s clear he’s a bad one.

I suppose the reason for watching this film is to see Benedict Cumberbatch before he became Sherlock. If you aren’t a Cumberbitch, you might want to give this one a pass. Otherwise, if you want to figure out the convoluted subplots, you have to force yourself to watch it twice.

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A Pocket Full of Rye (2009) Julia McKenzie

Watched Friday, 19 March 2021

Fidelity to text: 4 and 1/2 poison bottles. ITV Productions is unreliable when it comes to fidelity to text but in this case, they were virtually letter-perfect. Miss Ramsbottom was eliminated, as were a few minor housemaids, secretaries, and such. Miss Marple gets one of Inspector Neele’s scenes.

Quality of movie on its own: 4 poison bottles. I really enjoyed this film, Julia McKenzie’s first outing as Miss Marple. The ending was spot-on, with the post office contributing to the mystery by misdirecting the mail. The Joan Hickson version cheated on this issue. What didn’t I like? Julia McKenzie. I kept seeing Jessica Fletcher and not Miss Marple! Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan both fit my mental picture of Miss Marple. Like Angela Lansbury herself in The Mirror Crack’d (1980), Julie McKenzie didn’t make me think Edwardian-era spinster.

ITV Productions veer all over the map when it comes to adapting Agatha’s novels. In this case, every minor deletion contributed to a better movie overall. It tightened the plot, keeping it focused on the Fortescue family and their circle. It also, unlike other ITV films didn’t “improve” Agatha’s own text by making up complications out of whole cloth.

In some cases, the improvements do improve the movie. What works in a novel doesn’t generate the drama that a film needs. In A Pocket Full of Rye, Miss Marple deduces the crime like a paleontologist working out the complete body and lifestyle of a dinosaur based on a few teeth and some toe-bones. The Joan Hickson version cheated on the ending to add drama and made Lance Fortescue into an entirely different character as a result. Here, despite the lack of drama (Miss Marple reads a letter) you get a subtle reward, true to the text.

The murderer will not just get arrested. He’ll suffer mentally and emotionally right up until the crown hangs him, as he realizes that he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. No escape for him, thanks to a convenient lorry driver.

I’m unsure about the three gratuitous sex scenes. Agatha wrote very passionate novels but she kept the bedroom shenanigans offstage. She’s an adult, she wrote for adults, and adults all know what they do behind closed doors. We don’t need instruction manuals. Nonetheless — perhaps because they didn’t rev up the drama for the climax — ITV gives us not just a scene showing Adele Fortescue and her golf pro in adulterous action in a broom closet. We get two such scenes with Lance and Pat Fortescue.

I can grasp Adele’s scene. It’s easy shorthand to make sure the audience knows she’s cheating on her much older husband and with whom. It’s sordid, too. A broom closet? When he’s working at a nice hotel? Tacky, tacky, tacky, but a manicurist from Brighton might not expect better. Adele holds the upper hand in the relationship but she’s too dumb to realize it. She also isn’t smart enough to demand better accommodations.

But Lance and Pat? Was this to demonstrate they adore each other? To show that even though they have a luxurious bed handy, they use the back of the hallway door because they’re free-spirited? I dunno. My back hurt watching that scene, along with thinking the actors cheated because Pat’s skirt was clearly in the way, as were Lance’s pants. Miss Dove, the housekeeper, certainly had her ears burn as well as have her opinion of Lance and Pat decline sharply.

I appreciated the scenes showing why Percival Fortescue was fighting with his father. They made it clear that dear old dad was losing his mind. The business was suffering, bankruptcy loomed, and Percival knew he’d have to pick up the pieces. Dad marrying a sexpot manicurist from Brighton was the least of his worries. Lance’s untimely return and demands were a much bigger problem.

Overall, the casting was excellent other than Elaine Fortescue and worse, Gladys, the housemaid. The film industry does this all the time. They show us an actress whom all the characters claim is plain, even ugly, and we, the audience, ask “on what planet?” The Planet of the Beauty Queens, I suppose.

Elaine is supposed to be plain enough that only her money will generate a boyfriend. In this case, it’s Gerald Wright, school teacher and Communist. You know he’s only marrying Elaine for her money but she seems happy enough. But Elaine Fortescue is not plain. She can do far better than Gerald Wright, C0mmunist, and no amount of Hollywood foolishness will make me say otherwise. Miss Marple would agree.

Gladys was much worse cast and, in this case, the Joan Hickson version did better. This actress was not plain. She wasn’t a raving beauty queen, but most of us aren’t. She was pretty in a normal way. Joan Hickson’s Gladys Martin, by comparison, was dumpy, lumpy, frumpy, and the sort of girl who’s so desperate to be noticed by a boy that she’ll do or say anything he wants to keep him happy and around. ITV Productions did do a better job of showing us the relationship between Miss Marple and Gladys and did far better at demonstrating how credulous and gullible poor Gladys was.

Poor Gladys Martin. Destined to be used by the people around her because she’s not smart enough to understand what’s happening to her. Neither does she have Adele’s beauty to cushion her life. As an orphan, she’s got no family to protect her. Only Miss Marple.

Jennifer Fortescue’s character arc was very interesting to watch. Percival Fortescue married her after she nursed him through pneumonia. She’s ambivalent and you wonder why she married him. Her nefarious purpose is revealed, but what happens next? The huge secret she’s hiding has come between them since the day they met. Will they remain married? Get divorced? Jennifer is unhappy, lonely, and bored. She won’t be in the future. Her destiny is left ambiguous as is Percival’s. I spent some time speculating what they would do, because it’s clear that he still cares about her, even if he’s clumsy in how he expresses himself.

I would have liked to see more of Vivian Dubois. We never find out what happens to him — even a paragraph — in the novel. Similarly, he gets short shrift in both film versions. He discovers what he thought was a great payout is a few pieces of jewelry. Agatha does sometimes give us an ending for a minor character like this: see Raymond Starr in The Body in the Library as an example. He loses his bid to escape the hospitality industry via an advantageous marriage but we’re still given a snapshot of his future. With Vivian, we get nothing. ITV could also have changed his name and I wouldn’t carp. Vivian is no longer a man’s name anywhere in the world.

This film worked so much better than earlier BBC production with Joan Hickson. It was true to the text while still being well-paced, well-acted, and fun to watch. Great English country house porn too. Wow. What a house. It needed a lot more maids than Gladys to keep it spic and span. Stick with this version. You won’t be disappointed.

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The Murder at the Vicarage 1986 Joan Hickson film review

Watched Wednesday, 6 January 2021.

Fidelity to text: 3 guns. The usual changes of condensing or removing characters, some of whom were important (Dr. Stone and his hapless assistant). The plan to trap the murderer is radically different and worst of all, one of the murderers commits suicide out of remorse. No, they did not. They killed him and they were glad; glad, I tell you. Glad that rascal was dead because he had it coming.

Quality of movie on its own: 3 guns. I did not like this Joan Hickson outing nearly as much as the others I’ve seen to date. The pacing was off, the dialog was murky in the extreme, large sections were shot in the dark, and some characters were so underplayed as to have all the liveliness of a Ken doll. I’m looking at you, Lawrence Redding, louche painter and sex appeal magnet. Not here. The poacher, Bill Archer, must have stolen all of Lawrence Redding’s virility. That makes it harder to understand why Anne Protheroe has an affair with him and why stepdaughter Lettice is jealous and catty about Lawrence’s affections.

Miss Marple made her debut in the short story collection, The Thirteen Problems (retitled The Tuesday Club Murders in the United States). She then went on to star in her first novel, The Murder at the Vicarage. This novel is probably the one most people are familiar with, if they know Miss Marple at all.

Thus, it behooves the BBC to produce an adaptation that is true to the text, since far more people watch TV than read. If you’re showcasing a major fictional character, why not do it right? Tell the story the way the author intended? As always, allowing for the differences between film and text, the BBC does generally do it up fine. They generally did with Joan Hickson’s four previous outings as Miss Marple.

Well, maybe they didn’t. I’m recalling the major rewrite of Lance Fortescue’s character as revealed in A Pocketful of Rye.

And the same proved true for The Murder at the Vicarage. I can accept characters being disappeared because 102 minutes doesn’t allow for a lot of leisurely complex plot development. However, rewriting Miss Marple’s plot to trap the murderer by having him murder an almost entirely new, made-up-from-whole-cloth character didn’t play well with me, particularly since much of it was shot in the dark. The cat was a nice touch, though. The murderer was very careful about not harming the cat while trying to gas the victim.

I really didn’t like the other murderer’s suicide. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, the guilt, the shame, the agony of knowing they’d killed another person. Well, no. That murderer was quite clear: he had it coming and there wasn’t so much as a snip of guilt. I suppose the reasoning behind this was to make for more drama for the film. Or, the screenplay wasn’t properly developed and so the scriptwriter had to come up with something dramatic.

In the novel, although the crimes are solved, we do not see what happens next. We assume that arrests are made, the case is brought to trial, and the murderers convicted (since Miss Marple deduced the motives and methods, this is a foregone conclusion) and then hung by the crown. The scriptwriter must have decided to finesse this ending with one of their own. That still leaves the other murderer, the instigator of the plot, hanging freely and off-screen.

Another thing I didn’t like about this adaptation was it didn’t spell out the reasons for the murders. There’s always a reason for murder, usually involving money, sex, or fear. In The Murder at the Vicarage, money and sex feature prominently, but you’d never know it from this adaptation.

It’s so bloodless. Agatha is never bloodless. Her novels seethe with passion requited and unrequited. The desperate need for money runs a close second. Sometimes the need for money is to save the estate from ruin, other times it is the dire need to escape living in poverty. In this case, our villains want to run away and live in sin, and be comfortable while doing so. Yet that is never made clear.

One thing I did like was seeing a lot more of Mary, the vicar’s insolent and incompetent maid, and her young man, Bill Archer. Archer is the local poacher. He has regular run-ins with Colonel Protheroe. He’s also, like Mary, a representative of the lower, working-class villagers who normally only show up to add background color despite doing all the work. The same is true of the villagers that the vicar visits only to discover that he’s been fooled in order to get him far away from the scene of the crime. These two sturdy farmers make jokes at the vicar’s expense and it’s a funny scene.

So is the scene involving Griselda, the vicar’s wife and the group of old ladies she is having tea with, including Miss Marple. I would have enjoyed this part even more if I could have understood better what everyone was saying.

Too much of this movie was shot in the dark. There are long, long moments when you’ll have no idea what is going on. It’s dark. Characters are creeping around in the dark, but you’re not sure why. At times, I wasn’t sure who was creeping around in the dark. This includes a lengthy section when a character — who is checking the house for prowlers — could have turned on the darned lights! Nobody investigates mysterious noises in the attic without turning on the lights. These folks have electricity. We see properly lit rooms in the film.

The poor lighting does help conceal the lack of English Country House porn. Other films in this series (to date) have been better, especially The 4:50 From Paddington episode with (oh-my-God look at that fantastic fill-in-the-blank!) Rutherford Hall. The Protheroes supposedly live in a grand house, but it didn’t look that grand to me. It may have been completely authentic down to the baseboards but it didn’t make me drool with envy and dream of redecorating. On the other hand, the church in St. Mary Mead was gorgeous in its own right.

Then there’s the scene that made no sense at all. It wasn’t part of the novel. It didn’t solve the crime. It didn’t advance the plot. It’s Mary taking a basket lunch to church and then tucking it away between a pair of flying buttresses (or something like them) on the side of the church so her poacher boyfriend can find the basket.

Why do this? If the producers were looking to fill airtime, they could have devoted more time to Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding’s torrid affair. Or to how awful Colonel Protheroe was. Or to Lettice and her distaste for her stepmother and her father. Or to Mrs. Lestrange. Or why Dr. Haydock was so emotionally involved with Mrs. Lestrange. Or why that painting in the Prothereoe’s attic was slashed. If you’ve read the novel, you can add to the list on your own.

I still think this episode of Miss Marple is worth watching, simply because Joan Hickson is worth watching. She is Miss Marple. Just don’t expect the sumptuous feast of The Body in the Library or A Murder Is Announced. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. I can’t believe I’m going to make this recommendation, but here it is: the 2004 version of The Murder at the Vicarage with Geraldine McEwan — despite its many flaws — is a better adaptation of the novel. If you can only spare the time for one adaptation of the novel, choose that one.

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Nemesis 2009 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Friday, 12 March 2021

Fidelity to text: 1 and 1/2 poison bottles. If you’re familiar with the novel, you’ll be aghast at what ITV Productions did to the story line. About all that remains is Verity herself, her tragic life, and Jason Rafiel’s enjoyment of manipulating people. Oh, and the coach tour of the great houses of England. That’s still present.

Quality of movie on its own: 2 and 1/2 poison bottles. I never know what to expect from ITV: excellent or terrible. In this instance, I got both. Despite the screenwriter playing fast and loose to earn his own salary, the movie worked for me, right up until the third act. Then it completely fell apart into an incoherent, illogical mess. The final scene was the rotten cherry atop the rancid sundae.

I liked the first two-thirds of this film. I really did. Introducing a 50’s version of Mission Impossible was a nifty touch. Jason Rafiel sends his last request to Miss Marple via a record on a gramophone. If she cooperates, she’ll win the 500 £ bequest. In the novel, the bequest is considerably larger but Jason Rafiel is considerably richer. Here, he’s apparently a “man of letters” and noted philanthropist. As a “man of letters”, he must not be very rich or else he spent all his wealth arranging the tour.

The tour had a definite And Then There Were None vibe. In the novel, some members of the tour group were sent by Jason Rafiel, but not all. Here, every single person including the tour guide is in on the plot. As you would expect, the bodies start to pile up with the least guilty dying first while Miss Marple unravels the clues about Verity along with figuring out how everyone is related to everyone else.

We’ll start with Michael Rafiel. He’s still Jason Rafiel’s son but with a different last name. He’s also a Luftwaffe pilot, shot down over England after Dunkirk, which is how he meets Verity. Who’s a novice nun. She nurses him back to health and naturally, they fall in love. The sisters of St. Elspeth, Clothilde in particular, are not happy about Verity running off to Ireland with an enemy combatant and tell her so. Verity disappears under mysterious circumstances and Michael gets picked up by the police and spends the rest of the war in a POW camp. He begs his father (a resident alien living in London) to find Verity. Dear old dad refuses and the estrangement begins.

Clothilde is still present, in vastly different form. She’s become a nun at the St. Elspeth convent. We meet her and her Mother Superior, Sister Agnes. A generous, anonymous benefactor provides them with two tickets for the all-expense tour. Naturally, they drop their religious duties in London and race off to see England.

No one else from the novel remains. Even the tour guide gets a character revamp. Raymond West (Richard E. Grant) appears from out of thin air. He’s Miss Marple’s writing nephew so when Jason Rafiel tells Miss Marple she needs a companion, she chooses him. We get some great scenes with Richard E. Grant chewing the scenery and chasing after everyone in a skirt. I don’t remember that predilection from the novels but here we are.

But all the changes worked, until they didn’t. The other tour group members were distinctive, interesting, and had logical if sometimes farfetched ties to Verity. Until they didn’t, when we discover multiple cases of mistaken identities, misidentified wounded soldiers with apparently blind wives, lying lawyers, and tour guides who were intelligence operatives during the war despite not looking nearly old enough.

That was something else I kept noticing. The ages of the actors were wrong. If you’re twenty-two, you have a certain dewiness about you that isn’t present when you’re thirty-two. The action takes place both in 1940 and in 1951, yet none of the protagonists have aged a day. They looked either too young for their part or too old.

But okay. It’s Hollywood.

Then the tour bus gets sabotaged and we get to spend the night in the abandoned St. Elspeth convent. An awful lot of furniture and religious statuary were left behind when the convent was abandoned. I had a hard time accepting that all those icons would be left to rot. I suppose it was the same set of movers who conveniently left behind hundreds of candles and lanterns to light the convent so our heroes can dash about in the dark. There’s a scene where, despite no one having been inside the convent in years, lit candles are scattered all around. Who did that? No explanation.

Then the climax and one ridiculous scene after another. Verity reappearing in her nun’s habit. Where did those clothes come from? The stocks of poisoned cocoa when the convent kitchen has been left empty for years. Why does anyone cart poisons around with them? Yet apparently, one of the characters does just that. And how about impaling yourself on a spear? No one dies that quick. Poisoned cocoa would kill much faster. A spear, plunged through the abdomen, would take hours unless you hit a major artery and bleed out. Since amateurs are not surgeons, the odds are much better that the victim will die of sepsis after hours to days of agony. That’s certainly enough time to get the victim to a doctor.

And of course, our wounded soldier discovers his true identity, recovers some of his lost memory, and meets his grieving — for eleven years — widow. But we don’t get any dialog! Nothing. Not a faint, not a scream, not even “I never forgot you even when I thought I was someone else.” The screen fades to black as though the scriptwriter had used up all his imagination in adding gramophones with the voice of Jason Rafiel directing the action from beyond the grave.

Jason Rafiel is one manipulative jerk, pulling everyone’s strings like a master puppeteer. He has zero empathy for anyone else — including his own son — so it’s not a surprise that he doesn’t care what his little plot does to the unfortunate puppets. I suppose that’s what comes of being a “man of letters”. You stop thinking of people as people. They turn into characters whom you manipulate to suit the needs of the plot.

Then we come to the final scene. Nemesis was Geraldine McEwan’s final turn as Miss Marple for ITV Productions. All future episodes have Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple so one would assume that ITV wanted to give Geraldine McEwan a proper sendoff.

Instead, we get Miss Marple cutting a rose and pricking her finger and bleeding. She stares at her hand and then at the camera. Her expression indicates that she’s just realized what a terrible, awful mistake she’s made. Not signing the contract for another season? Or that she was completely wrong about who actually murdered Verity and two other people? Or that she was wrong about who the true murderer was in all the other cases she solved?

We’ll never know.

What I do know is you should watch Joan Hickson’s version of Nemesis from 1987 instead of this one if you like a coherent plot. That version changed things around too, especially Michael Rafiel’s part, but it was much truer to the novel than this mess.

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A Pocketful of Rye March 1985 Joan Hickson film review

Watched Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Fidelity to text: three poison bottles. The scriptwriters changed things, starting with the title! The novel’s title is A Pocket Full of Rye. It’s a tiny difference but there and I have no idea why they did it. It’s like changing names of characters, in this case, Miss Ramsbottom becoming Miss Henderson. Again, there’s no reason for this change other than change for change’s sake because the scriptwriter could. Those changes, while irritating, are minor. There are others, one of which changes the tenor of the film, and I’ll get to them later.

Quality of film on its own: three poison bottles. This was the worst of the four Joan Hickson adaptations we’ve seen to date. I could not understand large chunks of the dialog, even with the sound turned way up. Worse, the ending fell apart completely. This may be due to my familiarity with the novel. It did not work. If, however, you’re coming to A Pocketful of Rye without having read the novel, you may not notice.

Unfulfilled promises by the scriptwriter started in the opening scenes. We see Rex Fortescue skipping along the London street, spontaneously buying flowers for his hot executive secretary, and chortling over reports in a very unbusinesslike manner. We are never given a reason for this behavior. Is it normal? Is this an indication that this just-this-side-of-legal businessman is losing his marbles? We never find out. It’s possible these scenes were designed to tell us that Rex Fortescue is an unpleasant human being, but that’s not what came across to us.

Gradually the story unfolds, centering particularly on the housemaid, Gladys. She’s pudgy, shy, awkward, and mistake-prone. It’s unusual to have a housemaid as a major character, especially if she isn’t a raving beauty destined to marry the lord’s handsome son. Young ladies like Gladys exist to dust in the background and move the plot forward and that is what happens. Gladys sets things in motion and is then strangled very nastily. Her body is left where it lays, hanging out the clothes in the laundry area of the back garden of the hall, with a clothespin on her nose.

Gladys makes and takes anxious phone calls. We see her little room and — another unfilled promise — we see her address a letter to Miss Marple, the old lady who took her from the orphanage and trained her to be a housemaid. The letter never appears again in the movie, despite the fact that in the novel it provides what will be (after the book ends) critical evidence as to the guilt of the murderer.

Elaine Fortescue and her schoolteacher boyfriend disappear entirely. I understand this choice because 103-minute-long films don’t have a lot of time for stray red herrings who aren’t critical to the plot. What I do not understand is eliminating Inspector Neele’s interview with Mrs. Mackenzie. She’s critical to a major red herring in the plot and she’s dispensed with in a few mumbled sentences.

It was never made clear that our hyper-competent housekeeper, Miss Dove, apparently leads a gang of thieves. After she works in some wealthy house for a year or so, she leaves and a few months later, thieves break in. The thieves know the location of the silver, the jewelry, the fur coats, and anything else worth stealing.

Vivian Edward Dubois comes on stage briefly as Adele Fortescue’s fancy bit on the side. Adele is the much younger, glamorous second wife to Rex Fortescue. She does not get along with her stepchildren. They’re all the same age and it’s hard to look at dad’s new cookie who’s younger than you (that would be Percival Fortescue) and hotter than your own wife (Jennifer Fortescue). Here’s a case where a name change would be worthwhile since no one uses Vivian as a man’s name anymore. Vivian has a darn good reason to murder Rex and then to murder Adele but he vanishes from the scene far too quickly.

Another change that you won’t notice if you haven’t read the book is that Jennifer Fortescue has a bad marriage. The bigger one is that she apparently got Rex Fortescue to will her 40,000 pounds just by asking. Not in the book, folks, but I suppose it let the scriptwriter avoid adding Mrs. Mackenzie to the cast, even though she should have been included.

The biggest change was to Lance Fortescue and the ending. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you (assuming again that you haven’t read the novel). No. Just no. It felt so deus ex machina. Then to make that contrivance even more unconvincing, he revealed to Pat that his upbringing was emotionally abusive and thus fully justified. Everything in the text said he was a bad seed from day one. The ending didn’t sit well at all.

I will agree the ending of the story works in a book. It does not work in a movie and so needed to change. We’re left — in the novel — knowing what the end will be (that certain someone meeting the hangman) but we don’t see it. What we get is Miss Marple receiving proof from Gladys in the mail. Remember the letter that is noticed (by Miss Marple and ignored!) in Gladys’ room early on? This is the letter and it never plays a role in the script again. In the novel you get this, after she reads the letter and looks at the enclosed photograph:

The tears rose in Miss Marple’s eyes. Succeeding pity, there came anger — anger at a heartless killer.

And then, displacing both these emotions, there came a surge of triumph — the triumph some specialist might feel who has successfully reconstructed an extinct animal from a fragment of jawbone and couple of teeth.

You just know that the murderer will swing. But we don’t see it. This is where the scriptwriter could have made a useful, even preferable change, similar to the change we got in the film Crooked House. We could have seen the murderer confronted with the evidence that was mailed to Miss Marple, incontrovertible proof of his guilt.

But we don’t. Instead, we get this ridiculous scene where he’s accidentally run over by some random lorry delivered by chance.

No. Just no.

It’s disappointing, particularly since the previous three episodes of Miss Marple were so good. Subtitles would have helped, no question, since I wouldn’t have missed chunks of the storyline. Subtitles wouldn’t save the ending.

They can’t all be gems.

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Towards Zero 2008 Geraldine McEwan Marple

Watched Friday, 5 March 2021

Fidelity to text: 3 blunt instruments. This film is yet another non-Miss Marple property that ITV Productions reconfigured to suit their own needs. Miss Marple replaces Inspector Battle. The other major change was removing Angus MacWhirter. Most of his role was rewritten to suit Miss Marple. What didn’t was handed over to Neville Strange (weird, wrong, and creepy) and Thomas Royde. That is, Thomas marries Audrey Strange and poor Mary Aldin is left alone. Otherwise, it’s surprisingly close, right down to dialog lifted from the novel.

Quality as a movie on its own: 4 blunt instruments. I was pleasantly surprised but after sitting through the atrocious hack-job that was Innocent Lies, anything ITV Productions did to this novel would be acceptable. Luckily for us all, ITV did Agatha proud with this adaptation. Miss Marple fit into Towards Zero surprisingly well. I have some quibbles but we’ll get to them.

ITV Productions always delivers on the eye-candy and Towards Zero is no exception. The action takes place at a stately mansion overlooking a cove on the Devon coast. This area must be the English Riviera based on scenic beauty and stunning ocean views. It’s gorgeous. The location was properly chosen because the cove looks to be swimmable, a key plot point. I could conceive of the murderer swimming across this cove at night whereas there are other English coves where that would be impossible. Too wide, too rough, too cold so the swimmer dies of hypothermia, too full of sharks and jellyfish. This cove is sheltered enough that not only is it lined with resort hotels, but the ferry is both small and open.

Tourists (or locals) wouldn’t ride that little boat across rough, choppy waters in the North Sea. Too dangerous. Here? It’s just perfect.

So is the house, Gull Point. Beside getting to ogle the lavish, luxurious house, we even get to see — another key plot point —how it’s wired for servants’ bells. We see the wires connecting Lady Tressilian’s bedroom to her maid’s room. If Lady Tressilian were to ring in the middle of the night, Barrett could respond promptly since the bell would be ringing right over her head.

Since both Inspector Battle and Angus MacWhirter were done away with, Miss Marple gets many of their lines and observations. Where she doesn’t, the new Inspector Mallard does. An Inspector must be present when the most important lady in the neighborhood gets her head coshed in. His constables fill in for Inspector Battle’s constables.

Removing and reworking major characters didn’t always succeed. In the novel, Angus MacWhirter plays a crucial role. He rescues Audrey from suicide. Here, we see her ex-husband, Neville Strange, pulling her back from the cliff and professing his undying love. It was a creepy scene, no question, but if the scriptwriter earmarked Thomas Royde to marry Audrey, it should have been him rushing out to save her, not Neville. It would have made the ending plausible. I could not see a reason why Audrey chose Thomas for her happy ending other than because the script made her do it.

Angus MacWhirter figures out how the crime was committed. Angus MacWhirter lies to Inspector Battle about what he saw, albeit with the same explanation Miss Marple gives. Deductions are all very well, but the police must have facts to work with. Angus MacWhirter consistently demonstrates to Audrey what a competent, caring man is like and so at the end of the novel, you can understand why she runs off to Chile with him. She doesn’t run off to Malaya with Thomas Royde who’s a cipher.

In the novel, Inspector Battle recognizes Audrey as an abused, gaslit woman who doesn’t actually confess to the crime but she doesn’t argue either. It’s a relief and an end to pressure and wherever she’ll end up, it won’t be with her psycho ex-husband. Inspector Battle’s got a valid reason to believe her, since his own daughter was trapped in a similar situation. Inspector Mallard does not.

This was my major complaint about the movie. We don’t see Miss Marple talking to servants or Thomas Royde, Lady Tressilian, or Mary Aldin about the relationship between Audrey and Neville the way Inspector Battle and Angus MacWhirter do in the novel. Instead, she leaps across the cove to make her deductions and pulls part of the solution out of her knitting bag. A few more minutes of film devoted to Miss Marple gossiping with the cook would have more than repaid losing a few minutes of Devon coast scenery. We don’t even get a village parallel explaining why she recognized what Audrey was enduring!

I also wanted a resolution of why no one noticed that Neville Strange was wearing a soaking wet suit. In the novel, this is finessed with raincoats. We don’t get that here (despite the pouring rain), leading one to wonder why no one said anything. This is England! It rains in England like all the time. Every citizen is assigned an umbrella, raincoat, and galoshes at birth. Yet no one notices when Neville shows up at the hotel to play billiards reeking of dead fish and soaking wet. Ted Latimer should have and if he was too drunk to notice, the script should have said so.

Then there’s the denouement, where Miss Marple sketches Audrey with Thomas Royde. Really? He’s a poor substitute for his brother, Adrian, with whom Audrey was going to run away with, abandoning her husband to a life of sin. Thomas Royde has all the personality of a pine cupboard. It’s possible there’s treasure within, but it’s more likely that the cupboard is bare of life and humor.

But these are quibbles. Overall, everything worked. The confrontation scene at the end, where Inspector Mallard and Miss Marple force a confession was masterful. It was funny too, watching Miss Marple accidentally on purpose shove Ted Latimer overboard. We get to watch the murderer break down when his scheme is revealed and that works too.

There are so many good moments.

I really enjoyed watching Kay Strange (wife #2) squabble with Audrey Strange (wife #1). This was played up considerably more than in the novel where everyone was boringly civilized. Lady Tressilian gets several scenes dissecting that scarlet-toed, husband-stealing hussy but even here, we get more complexity. Lady Tressilian also tells Neville that he married Kay and he’s got to stick with her. He made his bed and he’s got to lie in it. Kay was hot, hot, hot; a redhead in a red dress she spilled out of. You can see why poor Ted Latimer carries a torch for her.

This adaptation of Towards Zero is well worth watching, even with the rewrites. It works. It would have been better if they’d kept Angus MacWhirter, but considering ITV Production’s track record of inserting Miss Marple where she never appeared, it’s darn good.

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Ordeal By Innocence 2007 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Friday 26 February 2021

Fidelity to text: 3 blunt instruments. Miss Marple did not appear in the novel. There were changes to the murder victims, added characters, deleted characters, even to the setting of the house (it relocated to an island in a lake). But despite all the changes, this adaptation was faithful to the spirit of the novel. Innocent people suffered because a key eyewitness showed up two years too late.

Quality of movie on its own: 4 and 3/4 blunt instruments. There were a few unclear patches, due mostly to mumbling. Otherwise, what a great film. We were riveted. The changes enhanced the story and made it into Shakespearean tragedy.

Ordeal By Innocence could have been ruined by adding Miss Marple.

Instead, it was enhanced because we got the tragic story of Gwenda Vaughn, devoted secretary to Leo Argyle. Gwenda had little backstory in the novel. In this adaptation, she was an orphan whom Miss Marple trained up as a housemaid. Miss Marple encouraged her to strive for something more out of life, to learn, to grow, to reach her full potential. Thus, Gwenda Vaughn, orphan from the working class, becomes a private secretary to a man of letters.

Two years after the murder, Gwenda, who has been quietly in love with her boss all along, finally is on the verge of marrying him. She invites Miss Marple to the wedding — the only person she has to invite — and that very night tragedy arrives. Gwenda was so happy. It was the happiest moment of her life; the eve of her wedding to a man she loved and becoming part of a family, like she had always longed to do, and Miss Marple was there to share in her joy.

Then Arthur Calgary, scientist, arrives with the news that Jacko Argyle didn’t murder his mother. His alibi was true all along. That means, if you’ve read the novel, that someone else in the family bashed Rachel in the head.

She had it coming, by the way. A number of flashbacks proved she was a vicious, controlling harridan. One of the daughters even admits to Miss Marple that they were all better off with Rachel dead and Jacko hanged by the crown.

The family that Gwenda thought loved her instantly turns on her, starting with her fiancé, Leo Argyle. She must have murdered Rachel because she wanted to marry her boss and needed to remove her rival and anyway, she’s not one of us. Notice Leo’s name? There was nothing manly or virtuous about Leo’s behavior, despite his insistence on the importance of character. He shows none and tosses Gwenda to the wolves without a flicker of hesitation. The day before their wedding! He’s a louse, not a lion.

Poor Gwenda. The Argyles turn on her, every last one of them, despite claiming previously that they wanted her. We see her trying on her wedding veil and staring at herself in the mirror, knowing that everything she’d hoped for had turned to ashes in her mouth.

The family continues to tear itself apart, trying to work out which of them did it. Yet, everyone agrees, the most likely person remains Jacko. The crown hung him (an improvement over the novel where he died in prison of pneumonia) and he went to his grave without fingering anyone else. He even told his twin brother, Bobby, that he was doing what was right, for perhaps the first time in his life. Bobby was an added character and a good one. He’s bent like Jacko but in a different way. His actions, whether or not Arthur Calgary showed up, would have torn the family to shreds when revealed.

Philip and Mary Argyle Durant changed too. In the novel, he’s the investigator, not Gwenda. Like Gwenda, he’s an outsider who married in. Here, Philip and Mary have an unhappy marriage because he’s a philandering dog, even indulging in an affair with his wife’s younger sister. But it worked better to have Gwenda doing the investigation rather than Philip; it helped highlight how dysfunctional this supposed happy family truly was. One piece of weirdness for me was discovering Richard Armitage, the actor playing Philip, was also Thorin Smokenshield from The Hobbit films. Yep, that’s Thorin but without the impressive weapons, even more impressive musculature, and thickets of hair. I did not recognize him at all. But he was beautifully cast.

All the actors felt correctly cast, not something I can normally say. They looked like they could be real people you could actually meet in the real world as opposed to Hollywood glamour. Every one of them lit up when they were onscreen, even in minor parts like the car salesman’s wife who told Arthur Calgary how much of a lying cad Jacko was and how, even after everything that happened, she’d give Jacko anything he wanted again.

Another thing ITV did right with this adaptation was they focused tightly on what was, at heart, a locked room murder. Changing the location of the house was another touch of genius. Sunny Point (terrific name because life inside that house was anything but sunny) is now on an island and everyone has to row across the lake in the family’s collection of row boats. The isolation is intense. You can see why, despite knowing that Rachel kept wads of cash on hand, a burglar was never really suspected of her murder.

We’re told everyone — including in the community at large — knows about the money but to get to it, you’ve got to row across a lake in the dark. Most burglars won’t work that hard and the police know it. So does the family, meaning they know it’s one of them. One of them bashed Rachel’s head in with a blunt instrument; furiously, angrily, to the point of smearing brains across her desk. That’s a lot of anger. Burglars tend to be professionals. A burglar would wait in the shrubbery until Rachel left the office and then they’d rob the place.

No, this was an inside job and everyone knew it.

The ending worked too. Miss Marple would be interested anyway. Gwenda’s fate drives her to discover the murderer. She takes full advantage of gossipy staff (Kirsten the housekeeper), distraught family desperate to unburden themselves, and Arthur Calgary, who’s struggling with his own guilt. He thought he was the hero, riding to the rescue of an innocent man, and discovered he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Miss Marple unraveled the clues provided by personality, character, and circumstances. The solution did not feel like she pulled it out of her knitting bag. And when she left Sunny Point, the family is left to face what they did to themselves. Leo, in particular, has to face his weak, flawed character and utter spinelessness. Ordeal by Innocence is a tragedy that will take a few more generations to end.

Of all the ITV Marple episodes we’ve seen to date, Ordeal By Innocence is the best. Make sure you watch it too.

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At Bertram’s Hotel 2007 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Sunday, 21 February 2021

Fidelity to text: one- and one-half guns. The overall plot of Mickey Gorman’s death and motive for his death remain. Otherwise, ch-ch-ch-changes galore. Characters vanish while new ones arise to fill their places, motivations change, and the major subplot involving a gang of thieves operating out of the hotel is replaced with fleeing Nazis. Even Elvira Blake’s flaxen hair vanishes: she’s now a brunette.

Quality of movie on its own: two guns. It looks great, but then ITV puts money into its productions even when they skimp on scripts. In this case, they didn’t skimp on the script. They skimped on rewrites. They had far too much script crammed into 93 minutes so entire portions of the film blurred by at top speed.

At Bertram’s Hotel was always a Miss Marple novel. Some genius at ITV decided that if one Miss Marple was good, then two must be better! And thus, we get the added character of Jane Cooper, chambermaid, following in Miss Marple’s wake and snooping around in places where Miss Marple can’t go. It makes sense because while staff is rarely noticed, they observe everything going on. Jane Cooper deduces, spies on the guests, and reports her findings to Miss Marple. She also gets to show off her deducting chops for the nice police inspector, Larry Bird. This leads to a truly idiotic scene at the end demonstrating how little ITV’s screenwriters know about the 1950’s or the history of policing in England.

Inspector Bird tells Jane Cooper that the force is getting ready to open its doors to women officers. The British police force didn’t wait until the 1950’s. There were female prison matrons as early as 1883. By the turn of the century, socially prominent women had been pointing out for years that women criminals needed women arresting them for propriety’s sake. And so, in 1915, Edith Smith became a constable who could make arrests. Other women police officers followed. Moving up the hierarchy was glacial and the women were kept separate, but English policewomen existed decades before Inspector Bird told Jane Cooper about the possibility.

Then, to compound this historical inaccuracy, Jane Cooper joyously tells Miss Marple that she and Inspector Bird were going to live together without benefit of marriage! In the early 1950’s! Well, no. They would not have done this. Inspector Bird, who comes across as a sharp character, would not willingly jeopardize his career. He and Jane Cooper would date and marry in the socially and culturally approved fashion of the times. The wedding might be sudden if she became pregnant, but they wouldn’t move in together without being married.

Not if he wanted a career and not if she did either. Living in sin was not acceptable for police officers. They were supposed to be moral exemplars for the community.

Then there’s the entire Nazi subplot, taking the place of the novel’s subplot of a gang of super-thieves operating out of Bertram’s Hotel and using doppelgangers of famous people to defray suspicion. The time period is correct for Nazis fleeing Europe for South America. After that, the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese.

First, Jane Cooper, girl detective. She is aware of the weirdness of guests hiding in suite 123 for weeks on end, not coming out of their room, checking in and checking out in the dead of night. Yet she doesn’t question it, despite the torrent of news, books, and movies that talked about escaping Nazis. Miss Marple would have noticed but we’ll give Jane Cooper the benefit of the doubt. She doesn’t know that she can be more than a mere chambermaid, not yet.

Then there’s the Blake family. This gets convoluted so bear with me.

Bess Sedgwick, adventuress, was married to Lord Blake. She dumped him and their daughter, Elvira, years before. She fought in the French Resistance. I think she’s helping hunt Nazis but the dialog was so unclear, I can’t be sure. But Bess Sedgwick, adventuress, should recognize when something’s out of kilter. She’s spent time at Bertram’s Hotel before. Yet she doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

Her former husband is Lord Blake, millionaire and owner of Blake Airlines. He’s been missing for seven years and has been declared legally dead so Bess and Elvira are at Bertram’s for the reading of the will. Ready? The mystery hotel guests are referred to as Blake guests, brought in from Europe on Blake Airlines! Yet Bess Sedgwick —adventuress, French Resistance fighter, and regular guest of the hotel — doesn’t make the connection.

These mystery guests arrive at Bertram’s Hotel via Blake Airlines and then pay their tab with stolen art. No one notices large wooden crates coming into and out of the hotel either. Even a small painting, if it’s valuable, isn’t going to be moved across continents wrapped in a sheet. It’s going to get a custom-built wooden crate with plenty of padding to protect it. No one notices. No one notices the rotating art on the walls either as paintings arrive and are sold and then get replaced.

We are told that Lord Blake disappeared at sea in a plane crash. Maybe he’s enjoying his ill-gotten gains in Argentina but that loose end is left a-dangling for someone writing Miss Marple fanfiction.

I could not wrap my head around this subplot. We’ve got Herr Mutti, elderly Jewish victim of the Nazis and Ladislaus Malinowski, much younger concentration camp survivor (and sometime lover of Bess Sedgwick? It was unclear) working with Bess to capture escaped Nazis yet the Blake connection entirely passes them by. Why did the scriptwriter use the same name for the fleeing Nazi guests and Elvira Blake’s dad if there’s no connection? This is basic writing: don’t use confusing or similar names if characters or events aren’t connected.

Elvira Blake gets changed too, over and above her hair dyed brunette. She’s sort of carrying on with Ladislaus but not really. Her real interest is dear, dear friend, Brigit Milford, whom she feels deeply guilty over. Elvira’s insistence on swimming in polluted water exposed Brigit to polio, crippling her right hand. Then, after practically shoving Brigit into the dirty Italian river, our Elvira refuses to swim. She’s guilty and she knows it, which is supposed to explain her motivations. None of this explains Brigit’s motivations, other than she’s a gold-digger, a very smart girl with a long-range and far-fetched revenge plan, or a total doormat.

I got the distinct impression our Elvira takes after both her parents: mum who does whatever she wants and damn the consequences and dad who provides sanctuary for fleeing war criminals in exchange for stolen fine art.

Throw in blackmailing chambermaids (not our Jane Cooper), matching hats, lying solicitors, Lady Selena Hazy’s own troubles, and twin safecrackers and you’ve got a script that needs more than 93 minutes. Dropping the twin safecrackers would have allowed more time spent on the escaping Nazis.

Oh, and did I mention Louis Armstrong showing up to play jazz for the guests along with his band? He brings along jazz singer, Amelia Walker (very good by the way). Ms. Walker has her own troubles. Bess Sedgwick stole her husband and then Ms. Walker buys fine art stolen by the Nazis.

This is a jampacked movie. It’s much faster paced than the Joan Hickson version but it doesn’t make as much sense. If you must, watch for the sets, the jazz band, and the clothes, but don’t watch if you want to skip reading At Bertram’s Hotel but still want to be able to discuss the novel at a dinner party. You’ll get every detail wrong other than the name of the hotel and a few characters.

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A Murder Is Announced February 1985 with Joan Hickson

Watched Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 4 and 3/4 guns. The scriptwriters changed a few names, most notably that of the vicar’s cat. In the novel, the cat’s name is Tiglath Pileser. In the film, he becomes a she and is renamed Delilah, permitting the vicar to make a sex joke. For those of you not up on your ancient history, Tiglath Pileser was the name of a series of Assyrian kings (I, II, and III) who ruled more than three thousand years ago. While Tiglath Pileser is a very good name for a well-educated vicar’s cat, so is Delilah. Also, the refugee cook’s name changes from Mitzi to Hannah although that’s one of those changes that didn’t need to happen. Tiglath Pileser would confuse the overwhelming majority of modern viewers and Delilah would not. But Mitzi to Hannah? There was no reason other than the scriptwriter must not have wanted anyone to think of Mitzi Gaynor and who’s going to do that these days? Otherwise, the film follows the novel to the letter. Even the time period remains much the same as the novel was published in 1950 and the adaptation is about 1951 or so.

Quality of film on its own: 4 and 3/4 guns. That missing last quarter gun is due to (again) the lack of subtitles. However, as we watch more Joan Hickson films, we’re getting better at understanding the dialog, even that of quaint, rustic villagers. This film worked beautifully. The producers took their time, allowing the story to unfold as it needed to; no frenetic jump cuts or annoyingly truncated storylines where you say “what just happened?”

This adaptation was wonderful. We really enjoyed it. I will admit the story took its time, but it’s darned hard to compress a complex story into 90 minutes. This version took a full 159 minutes and used every single one of those minutes well. Most movies are the equivalent of a short story; a novel has so much happening that if you try to squeeze it down to 90 minutes or even 120 minutes (two hours), you lose chunks of the plot. There’s no room to explore characters. The camera doesn’t have time to linger.

In this case, we got time. But it wasn’t wasted as I’ve already observed in other Agatha adaptations where I’m left wondering why the camera is focused on a bird in a tree or a lingering panoramic view of a lake and wishing they’d just get on with the story, dammit. This is the same adaptation the scriptwriter gave short-shrift to so that it’s obviously missing chunks of plot. There was time.

In this version, there are scenes of the police inspector driving from one place to another but my word, those one-lane wide English back-country roads between fields and pastures were oddly compelling. They were one step above gravel. It really gave me a sensation of how isolated Chipping Cleghorn was. I believe this conscious choice was made not to pad out the film but to make the viewer wonder why Letitia Blacklock, an obviously well-educated, well-traveled lady of means, chose to bury herself in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere.

This is a village where she knows no one and no one knows her. This begs the question: she has no relatives? Anywhere? No hometown where she grew up? Miss Blacklock had lived in London, yet she voluntarily chooses the back of beyond.

Miss Marple comments on this situation. In decades past, before the disruptions of two world wars sandwiching the worldwide depression, everyone in a village knew each other going back for generations. The locals knew each other’s grandmothers’ scandals. Someone who moved in from the outside would have to be vetted by a respected resident but they would always remain an outsider. Grandchildren might — might! — become insiders instead of being the grandchildren of the Blacklocks who moved in fifty years ago.

But change comes to us all, including backward little villages and thus, we have households full of people who have to accept on faith what they are told. So do their new neighbors. This is who I am. Believe everything I say. Miss Marple, being the astute judge of human nature that she is, recognizes the golden opportunity to lie about one’s background.

As always, she is proved correct: she never trusts what anyone says because her lack of faith in humanity is so often justified by events. Look at the facts and deduce from them. Listen to what everyone says but don’t believe them. Work out how a pile of statements from different suspects line up with each other and, more importantly, where they differ. The truth lies somewhere in that tangle.

Each of our possible suspects notices the same thing — the central heating is on. They also can’t quite believe what they are seeing and hearing and being told, but, because no one knows each other well, they have to accept what they are told.

A Murder Is Announced has more than one liar.

There was one change the scriptwriters could have made to the text that I would have appreciated. We never find out what Colonel Easterbrook’s wife is up to. She’s much younger than her elderly husband. In a village packed with dowdy, real-looking people (the casting directors should have gotten an award because they were spot-on for every single character on screen), Mrs. Easterbrook is glamorous. Old Colonels don’t get to marry hot blonde vixens unless they’ve got something ($$ is the usual object) that the hot blonde vixen wants enough to go to bed with a doddering geezer. Agatha doesn’t tell us what Mrs. Easterbrook is hiding either. I would like to know.

But that’s a minor quibble.

I can’t recommend this particular adaptation enough. It played fair with the text, it didn’t skip any of the clues, the actors and actresses were uniformly terrific and I could tell them apart. They looked like real people, unusual in this day and age when Hollywood routinely casts actors who have been surgically modified into Barbie and Ken lookalikes.

You should read the book and you should watch this movie version. They complement each other beautifully.

Aha!

I might have worked out the real reason for changing the cat’s name from Tiglath Pileser to Delilah. The scriptwriter didn’t want the audience thinking of any of the cats from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. If you know your Broadway shows, Eliot’s little book of poems became the worldwide phenomenon called CATS in 1980. Those cats had exotic, complex, made-up names like Munkustrap, Jennyanydots, and Rum Tum Tugger. Tiglath Pileser would have fit right in with that bunch. When A Murder Is Announced was aired in February of 1985, the audience might have thought of those singing, dancing cats instead of the vicar’s cat that gave Miss Marple her vital, crime-solving clue.

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The Sittaford Mystery 2006 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Friday, 12 February 2021

Fidelity to text: 1 knife. The novel was eviscerated. Miss Marple was shoved in against her will as evidenced by her remaining defiantly offstage for long stretches. The central murder remains as does the séance, the escaped prisoner, and a few names. Characters are added, dropped, and altered beyond recognition. The murderer changes completely and has a wildly different motivation.

Quality of movie on its own: 2 knives. It’s incoherent; the scriptwriters try desperately to shove ten pounds of plot into a five-pound running length. Very atmospheric, though with lovely snow, good music, fine English country house and quaint inn porn (animal heads galore) and Timothy Dalton chewing the scenery.

I want you to queue up Sir Mix-a-Lot and ‘Baby Got Back’ for this:

Oh. My. God.

Look at that plot!

You’ll have to sit through this episode twice (at least) in order to understand what’s going on. This film is 93 minutes long. That was not long enough for all the disparate plot threads to be woven together in a cohesive fashion. The film needed a minimum of another twenty minutes running time to do it justice.

But since ITV productions didn’t do that, you, dear viewer, will be left asking what just happened? Rewind, dammit, so I can figure this one out. That’s what we did. Repeatedly. Yet there were many moments when I still can’t tell you what was going on.

The trouble starts with forcing Miss Marple into a property that was never written for her. This can work: it did with ITV’s own By the Pricking of My Thumbs, a Tommy and Tuppence novel. Not here. In fact, Miss Marple disappeared for long stretches of the film, doing heaven only knows what in Sittaford House, sitting out the blizzard. We assume she was questioning the staff (we only see one servant in the mansion but there has to be more), knitting, and speed-reading Captain Trevelyan’s memoirs. She certainly wasn’t at the Three Crowns Inn, inspecting the body and questioning the guests, even though most of the action takes place there.

An entirely new plot is shoehorned into the novel, vastly expanding Captain Trevelyan’s character and backstory. Suddenly, he’s a war hero (WWI), a suspected war profiteer (WWII), an Olympic skater between wars (I think; the dialog was incomprehensible at many key points), a major contender for becoming the new prime minister (Winston Churchill (!) has a scene with Captain Trevelyan), and he’s a noted archeologist having discovered a major tomb in Egypt back in 1927 that let him make his fortune! Indiana Jones wasn’t this busy.

The point of all this fluffery must be giving Timothy Dalton something to do to earn his paycheck. In the novel, Captain Trevelyan exists to be swiftly murdered. He doesn’t even get one line. In the movie — since it’s Timothy Dalton — when he’s not emoting in front of us, he’s being talked about by the other characters.

Which I can understand. It’s Timothy Dalton and my goodness does he look yummy. Some men age very well and he belongs to that lucky cohort. He’s also got to be expensive so the producers made sure to get their money’s worth. Pity they didn’t spend some of their money on a better script or more filmstock.

Even so, he doesn’t age that well. I had a hard time believing that young, lovely, dewy, eighteen-year-old Violet Willets (Carey Mulligan) fell madly in love with a man old enough to be her grandfather. I know why he did and it’s not just because Violet resembles the woman he callously abandoned twenty-five years prior in Egypt. Violet’s delicious, naïve, and believes every word he says and what man doesn’t want that? As for Violet, she didn’t come across as a gold-digger, which is the usual reason for sweet eighteen-year-olds to marry men old enough to be their grandfather. Or maybe she was and the tacked-on ending where Violet runs off to Argentina with Emily Trefusis proves it. Violet certainly wasn’t very broken up about her husband being murdered on their wedding night.

If anything, she seemed relieved. She got it all. The Trevelyan name, the inheritance, and two tickets to Buenos Aires, and she didn’t have to sacrifice her sweet toothsome body to some old man, even if he was Timothy Dalton.

The Egyptian subplot was of major importance yet it didn’t make any sense. There was the paranormal aspect too, with a ghostly maiden showing up in Captain Trevelyan’s visions. Was there a curse on the gold scorpion? Was he going crazy? The script doesn’t tell us. The ghost appears and then vanishes without any follow-on. The script also doesn’t tell us how an Egyptian servant can show up in isolated Sittaford in 1949 and get hired on, no questions asked. I understand that the servant problem was bad enough that the upper crust didn’t ask as many questions as they could but here? Really?

We know Captain Trevelyan had potentially suspect doings in Egypt. Yet he wasn’t suspicious when this mysterious Egyptian showed up at his door? He’d been having weird dreams about his past. He’s got a burgeoning political career which means close scrutiny of his private life. He’s supposed to be a smart man.

Then there’s the even more incoherent subplot about the escaped prisoner from Dartmoor prison. None of that made sense; not the purchase of the inn a year prior to the events of the story, not the backstory of how the star-crossed lovers met, not how the prisoner escaped from Dartmoor prison and found his way across the moors to be reunited with his paramour and cousin and their eventual escape to freedom.

Add in the American war profiteer who helped Captain Trevelyan make a fortune manufacturing substandard munitions that killed American sailors prior to meeting the enemy. The American war profiteer’s personal aide-de-camp and quack doctor made even less sense. Why did the war profiteer need him around, other than as a dogsbody? There was mumbled dialog that sounded like they were both in the mafia, but it was unclear.

We also meet the incompetent government clerk who — it is finally revealed — is looking into Captain Trevelyan’s background to ensure nothing questionable is revealed to the press, thus discrediting the party. He’s not doing a very good job if Captain Trevelyan was a known associate of American war profiteers and he doesn’t know.

Then there’s Charles Burnaby. In the novel, he’s boy-reporter, Charles Enderby. The name chance was just the start of his complete reworking of motives and backstory. Yet we get no foreshadowing of his dramatic personal life or of his connections to the Trevelyan family. We get almost nothing of James Pearson’s connection to Captain Trevelyan either. We get even less of a reason for Emily Trefusis to be engaged to James Pearson, boy-alcoholic, other than that old standby: he’ll inherit big someday when Captain Trevelyan dies. Maybe that’s why Emily runs off to Argentina with Violet. She gets the money and the girl and doesn’t have to marry the boy-alcoholic.

I could rant on for pages, but the upshot is simple. This movie was a mess. ITV Productions could have saved the cost of Timothy Dalton’s salary and paid for a better script. Or, they could have capitalized on Timothy Dalton and added another twenty minutes of movie, explaining all the subplots and how they wove together. Either way would work.

As for you, dear reader. Skip this film other than for completeness sake. If you do watch it, expect to watch it twice to figure out what’s going on.

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The Moving Finger February 1985 version with Joan Hickson

Watched Wednesday, 16 December 20202

Fidelity to text: 3 and 1/2 poison bottles. The most significant change is that in the novel, Miss Marple doesn’t appear until the last few chapters. In this adaptation, she shows up within the first fifteen minutes. The setting is moved to the early 1950’s instead of 1943, when the novel was published. A few characters are combined to simplify the story. A few names are changed, notably the doctor’s sister (from Aimée to Eryl) and the vicar and his wife (from Dane Calthrop to just plain Calthrop).

Quality of film on its own: 3 and 1/2 poison bottles. It felt truncated and overly condensed. Another ten minutes would have really helped in setting up the murderer’s motivation along with the blackmail attempt. Even after combining several characters, the cast was huge and I couldn’t always tell them apart. No subtitles, a real problem because many of the characters are of the lower classes and they were difficult to understand. The quality of the film itself had degraded over the years and transferring to DVD didn’t improve it.

The Moving Finger was Agatha’s third Miss Marple novel, published in 1943. Interestingly, Agatha chose to keep Miss Marple offstage until very late in the novel, when the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Dane Calthrop, decides the police aren’t doing enough and calls in an expert in wickedness. Miss Marple shows up very early here, soon after the poison-pen letters begin arriving.

The novel is narrated by Jerry Barton, recovering test pilot, and thus suffers from all the usual problems of a first-person narration. He’s got to be there to witness events or he’s got to have someone else explain things. Because Jerry Barton isn’t the star and Jane Marple is, we see Miss Marple in action in scenes where she never appeared. It worked, though. If I didn’t know changes had been made, I wouldn’t have noticed.

The film quality was noticeably poor. The Body in the Library (the first Joan Hickson film) looked and sounded much better. It could have been the DVD itself, but more likely, it was that the original film wasn’t well preserved so be forewarned. There were blurry patches throughout and frequently, the lighting was bad so it’s hard to see what’s going on. Add the mumbling and criminal lack of subtitles and you won’t get the pristine gorgeous quality normally associated with BBC productions.

This two-part TV episode was first aired in February of 1985, so allowances must be made. I’m sure no one back then thought we’d be discussing 35-year-old TV shows and yet here we are. VCR’s were just getting popular as their cost came down. Early videotapes were so expensive they were rented, not sold (about $100 per title way back when!). No one dreamed that people would want to watch old TV episodes. It was movies all the way, dear reader.

Times change.

What I disliked about this version was it felt shoehorned into its running time. The Body in the Library, Joan Hickson’s first outing as Miss Marple, took nearly three hours to tell its story. The Moving Finger could have used more time. Mr. Pye, a figure of fun in the novel, vanished from the second half of the film entirely. Thus, we don’t get the charming bit when Mrs. Dane Calthrop comes out of the fish shop. She holds up a lobster and says,

“Have you ever seen anything so unlike Mr. Pye?

So virile and handsome, isn’t it?”

Never let it be said that Agatha can’t be amusingly snarky.

So did Emily Barton, the sweet and distressed old lady who rented Little Furze to the Burtons. Note the similarity between last names; this is serves as a plot point in both the novel and the film, but in the film, the dialog is so murky, it was hard to catch.

There’s also no real reason in the filmed version for Jerry Burton to fall madly in love with Megan Symmington. She’s clumsy, badly-dressed, rude, and off-putting in the adaptation. The novel gives her more time to blossom, making it easier for us to accept our hero sweeping Megan off her feet and whisking her away to London for a makeover into an attractive young lady. Even her makeover is truncated, losing a great scene between Jerry and the fancy London dressmaker, Mary Grey.

‘“Oh, I shall enjoy it — apart from the money — and that’s not to be sneezed at in these days — half of my damned brutes of women never pay their bills. But as I say, I shall enjoy it. Mary Grey shot a quick professional glance at Megan standing a little way off. “She’s got a lovely figure.”

“You must have X-ray eyes,” I said. “She looks completely shapeless to me.”

Mary Grey laughed.

“It’s these schools,” she said. “They seem to take a pride in turning out girls who preen themselves on looking like nothing on earth. They call it being sweet and unsophisticated. Sometimes it takes a whole season before a girl can pull herself together and look human. Don’t worry, leave it all to me.”’

Agatha was a very capable observer of humanity. She also seethed with passion, yet the relationship between Jerry and Megan in the film seems to take place solely because the plot insists on it. The other passionate relationship, between Jerry’s sister Joanna and the Welsh doctor, Owen Griffith, is given even less screen time. Their budding relationship has even less reason to happen in the film. In the novel, the handsome doctor introduces Joanna to a world she never knew existed; important, vital, necessary for life, unlike her previous superficial, London-party-girl existence. All gone.

The doctor’s sister is erased as well, along with her motivation for doing what she did. Similarly, the gloriously beautiful nursery governess, prime plot motivation in the book, serves in the film as lovely, unspeaking scenery. Jerry Burton barely notices her.

If the BBC could devote three TV episodes and almost three hours to The Body in the Library, why couldn’t they do the same for The Moving Finger?

The ways of TV producers are inscrutable. Maybe they ran out of money in their fiscal year.

In the end, The Moving Finger was enjoyable to watch, but I wouldn’t watch this episode again, unless it was to better decipher what the characters were saying.

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By the Pricking of My Thumbs 2006 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Friday, 5 February 2021

Fidelity to text: 2 poison bottles. Miss Marple was added to a Tommy and Tuppence novel. The overall arc of the original novel remains. There are numerous changes to time period, the main plot, subplots, minor characters, names, locations, …. It’s a long list.

Quality of movie on its own: 4 poison bottles. I didn’t care that this was never a Miss Marple property! She fit in beautifully, taking the place of an absent Tommy. He’s off gallivanting on some spy business stuff and appears only when needed. The film moved along smartly, and I could usually follow the action despite mumbling on the part of the cast. Great clothes, locations, and most of all, atmosphere.

ITV Marple productions are hit or miss. By the Pricking of My Thumbs, despite Miss Marple never coming anywhere near the original novel, was a hit. She fitted in surprisingly well. We meet Tommy and Tuppence visiting an elderly, unpleasant aunt in a high-end rest home and who else is there visiting?

Miss Marple, naturally.

You would expect to meet Miss Marple visiting an elderly friend of hers at a rest home. Tommy doesn’t listen to Tuppence’s anxiety, but eagle-eared Miss Marple does and away we go. It felt natural, unlike claiming that somehow, someway, Jane Marple is related to Tommy, Tuppence, or anyone they know. She’s not. Miss Marple is what she is: a nosy, perennially curious old lady with a taste for mysterious death. She’s thrilled to go haring off with a total stranger based on disquieting feelings of creepiness and wrongness.

The overall arc of the story remains: a child’s murder under mysterious circumstances and the disappearance of an old lady. You still get creepy villagers, loquacious villagers, friendly villagers, hostile villagers, and the new lord of the manor. You lose Tommy and his co-worker, Ivor Smith, and their investigation into some criminal gang of thieves. You lose the gang of thieves. You also lose the numerous child murders that took place over the years along with other murders of people who look at our murderer with suspicion. There were plenty of child murders in the novel; so many that the actual count is never given. It’s implied that there were at least five. Or more.

And people say Agatha writes cozies. There was also the comment from a loquacious villager to Tuppence about how Sir Phillip loved children but not in the normal way. That didn’t quite make it into the film, although Sir Philip did.

To substitute for the criminal gang of thieves subplot we get young love in the form of a village lass, an American soldier stationed nearby, and the local bobby. We also get a nod to Sir Phillip’s interest in children with an even weirder subplot about filming Jane Eyre and having a younger village lass portray Jane Eyre’s dying friend. This young village lass would give Veruca Salt a run for her money. She proves useful when she tells Tuppence the location of the mysterious house in the painting Mrs. Lancaster gives to Aunt Ida.

Oh, and Nellie Bligh? She’s not just Sir Phillip’s longsuffering and devoted secretary in this version. She’s also the vicar’s wife. She and her husband, the vicar, have plenty of secrets they’d like to stay buried. Or in the vicar’s case, drowned.

Another major change was making Tuppence into an alcoholic. I’m ambivalent about this change. It worked within the constraints of the movie but I can’t see Tuppence ever falling inside a bottle. She’s too practical and too imaginative. She’d be off doing good works in the local parish. Writing racy novels. Running her own detective agency. Becoming a lush because she doesn’t know what to do with herself and she resents not being a spy like Tommy? I dunno.

I suppose the scriptwriter couldn’t conceive of a strong, intelligent, older woman who doesn’t end up with the life she dreamed of as a young woman and yet remains sober. Imagine that. Coping with disappointment with grace instead of addiction. How very old-fashioned.

Tuppence looked great, though, despite dipping into a bottle of scotch at every opportunity. I’ve been recently rereading The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski. Ms. Przybyszewski devotes many pages to discussing how previous to the early ‘60’s adult women did not dress like teenagers, or worse, like toddlers. Teenage girls dressed for their age and planned for when they got enough years under their belts to dress in a more … mature way. Tuppence’s wardrobe in By the Pricking of My Thumbs is a perfect example of this dictate. Her clothes are perfectly fitted and designed for an older, sophisticated, worldly woman who can handle showing off her cleavage and handle men’s responses to said cleavage.

You’ve heard of mutton dressed like lamb? Well, lambs shouldn’t dress like mutton. Sophisticated, classy, experienced ladies of a certain age and experience dress more dramatically. That’s Tuppence in this movie. Our young love interest for the G.I.? She wears pretty sundresses and youthful cardigans. Our Veruca Salt clone dresses still younger. They don’t wear each other’s clothes.

Similarly, Miss Marple dresses for her age too. She’s moved past fascinating men and making their IQ drop as their sap rises. Her clothes are practical and hardwearing.

As in the novel, Tuppence confronts the murderer. It is, however, Miss Marple (since it’s her show) who deduces the plot behind the plot. I thought she was very clever and it made sense. It did not feel like she pulled the solution out of her knitting bag. The village is tiny, isolated, suspiciously clean, and had been ruled since time immemorial by the Warrender family. They had long since died out, although the local church was filled with centuries of memorial plaques dedicated to various family members. So why is a plaque dedicated to Julia Starke smack in the middle of the Warrender family plaques? No one in this inbred, hidebound village with not a blade of grass out of place complains about the desecration?

No, the villagers take it in stride. There’s a reason and not just because Sir Phillip bought the old Warrender estate and moved in, filling the role in the village once filled by the Warrenders. The Warrenders, like the villagers, are described as being inbred.

Inbreeding leads to craziness as well as to birth defects and so it proves here too.

I’ll be honest. I did not expect to like this movie. I like Tommy and Tuppence and wish that their novels would be filmed accurately. They are that rarity in Agatha Christie’s oeuvre: they age, they have a family, and they live in the real world. As the world changes, their novels change, reflecting the era in which they were written. The idea of shoehorning Miss Marple into one of their stories felt ill-conceived at best.

However, it worked. It was fun, it was well-plotted with lots of twists and turns, and yet despite all the changes, it still played true to the overall story arc of the novel. Give this one a try with an open mind. I’d watch it again.

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The Body in the Library 1984 version BBC television series Miss Marple staring Joan Hickson as you know who.

Watched Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Fidelity to text: 4 and 1/2 garrotes. There are minor changes, the most important of which is probably the addition of the village idiot (Malcolm) who discovers the burned-out car with the body in it. They also changed the date to about 1950 or so, instead of 1942 when the novel was published. Otherwise, this adaptation follows the text to the point of using Agatha’s own dialog.

Quality of movie: 4 and 1/2 garrotes. It’s splendid. It’s also messier and closer to real life than ITV’s highly polished Marple series, first aired in 2004. Every single character in Marple (in the episodes I’ve seen to date) looks like they just stepped out of the beauty parlor and their buildings and grounds were freshly manicured so as to be presentable to the Queen. In Joan Hickson’s version, they don’t. Grass needs to be mowed, in other words. I would give this adaptation that all-important last half garotte if the BBC hadn’t skimped on subtitles. I had trouble understanding what people were saying sometimes. Luckily, I know the story well. Still, subtitles are important! They make it clear what’s going on. Pay for subtitling, TV producers. Not all of your audience appreciates mumbling.

For all you fans at home, Bill and I have begun a new project in case I haven’t mentioned it earlier. We’re watching Agatha Christie film adaptations. There are many; we’ve counted over 180. This doesn’t include oddities like Knives Out (a homage to Agatha), films disavowed by the Agatha Christie estate (Innocent Lies), or the weird stuff like Doctor Who meeting Agatha herself and discovering what really went on during her eleven-day disappearance in 1926. 

If we want to finish seeing them all in less than four years, we can’t stick to a viewing schedule of one every Friday night. We’ve got to watch a film on Wednesday nights, too. That gives me time to write a review of each adaptation while still working on my own books. It’s that pesky time management problem again, don’t you know. If I’m doing one thing, I can’t do another like write my Steppes of Mars series.

So here we are, interweaving the ITV Marple series (aired starting in 2004) on Friday nights with the BBC Miss Marple series (aired starting in 1984) on Wednesdays. The contrast can be jarring. The first thing (besides the criminal lack of subtitles in the BBC Miss Marple) you’ll notice is that anything filmed on videotape looks blurry and gray compared to film or crisp, high-definition digital.

But you get used to it. The softer focus adds a tinge of nostalgia.

The second huge difference is Joan Hickson. Joan is Miss Marple. Ms. Hickson was 78 when she filmed The Body in the Library and it shows. She is almost an octogenarian, not a woman in her sixties made up to look like one. There is a difference simply in the way she moves and holds herself. As in the novels, Ms. Hickson’s Marple doesn’t go racing after criminals. She lets other people do that, while she focuses on the brain work. She very realistically struggles with not being able to remember perfectly.

It feels very real. This woman is old. By contrast, Geraldine McEwan was 72 when she first played Miss Marple. Six years doesn’t seem like a lot and if you’re 22 and someone else is 28, it isn’t. When you’re 72 and someone else is 78, it’s a bigger gap, like the six-year gap between being age 2 and age 8. Your body changes rapidly at both ends of your lifespan.

The BBC people wanted to make this series as close to the source material as they could and, other than setting the episodes in the nineteen fifties, it looks like they succeeded. At least, I think so, based on this single episode. We’ll see as time goes by.

I noticed a number of things. This England looks messy and unkempt. The people don’t look like they stepped out of central casting. Maybe it’s filmmaking in the 1980’s when the BBC cast what we in the U.S. call character actors in main parts. That is, the actors and actresses look normal like you could see them shopping at Walmart and not like stunningly beautiful refugees from beauty pageants.

The scriptwriters added a village idiot to account for the discovery of the burned-out car with a body in it. This works, although you could never do this trick nowadays. Too many people would complain that it was anti-village idiot despite the fact that every village has one. Or more. Those folks have families too and their families have to cope and so the village as a whole gets to deal with more challenging people, one way or another. Never forget that if you don’t have a village, you can end up in a snake-pit of an institution. In this case, the village of St. Mary Mead is caring and tolerant of our Malcolm although they do not take him seriously.

The scriptwriters also had various locals, including the constable, riding around on bicycles. In 1950, England was still recovering from World War II’s devastation. The country remained near bankruptcy. Rationing for various categories remained in place until the mid-to-late 1950’s. It’s even mentioned in the storyline, when the hotel manager comments that Conway Jefferson doesn’t seem to recognize that rationing exists.

Conway Jefferson is rich enough that it effectively doesn’t. He gets what he wants, except when he doesn’t.

Another good addition was seeing the interview with Pamela Reed’s distraught father. His behavior contrasts nicely with Josie Turner’s behavior on discovering that her cousin, Ruby Keene, was dead. It’s also a demonstration of how having your sixteen-year-old daughter murdered will destroy your life and your family’s life. You will never recover. It parallels Conway Jefferson’s loss of his legs, his wife, his son, and his daughter in a plane crash. That’s why he is still keeping close company with his son-in-law (Mark Gaskell) and his daughter-in-law (Adelaide Jefferson). They are bound together by mutual shared grief.

The other thing that really struck me about this particular adaptation is the sheer disdain everyone had for Ruby Keene, other than Conway Jefferson.

You can make the obvious case for Conway Jefferson’s infatuation. There’s no fool like an old fool and what could a rich, lonely, disabled old fool like better than a sweet-natured, cheerful blonde who resembles his long-lost daughter? And indeed, when we see Ruby interacting with Conway, she’s bright and chipper and attentive.

Everyone else, including her cousin, Josie, despise her for this. Yet everything we see of the actual Ruby on camera shows she’s exactly what Conway thinks she is. Raymond Starr, tennis pro at the hotel, admits he thinks Ruby is dim. He doesn’t see her as smart enough to be a gold-digger. He and other people tell the investigators that Ruby is obedient enough to do what her older, wiser cousin, Josie, tells her to do. That Ruby doesn’t have a boyfriend that he knows of. This is a telling point because if there’s one thing that staff in a large, luxury hotel know, it’s the details of everyone else’s personal lives.

Everyone goes into great detail about how Ruby is rising above her station in life. That Ruby is taking advantage of an old man, who everyone describes as strong-willed and intelligent. That Ruby is no better than she should be. That Ruby is manipulating Conway Jefferson. This is at the same time that characters tell Miss Marple and other investigators that Ruby is vapid and naïve! Vapid, naïve 18-year-olds don’t make good gold-diggers.

You can see the class divide right there on screen in front of you. Everyone is grubbing for money, desperate for money, yet Ruby is despised by her betters for being nice to a lonely old man. She’s not putting out for him.

We see Pamela Reed’s father’s grief when she is murdered. We do not see Ruby Keene’s family’s grief. Josie is the only relative we meet and she doesn’t care. What are we, the audience supposed to think? That Ruby’s death doesn’t matter? I got that distinct feeling, even from Miss Marple, who disapproves of murder.

Ruby Keene did nothing wrong, other than to have a lonely old man pay attention to her. He liked her and she, young and pretty, liked him back. You can see why. Conway Jefferson was safe. He didn’t paw at her like the male hotel guests undoubtedly did while dancing. He treated her well. Like a daughter, in fact, from what we see on screen. It must have been a relief. She could relax and let down her guard because an old man in a wheelchair didn’t want that one thing from her that every other man around her probably did.

It was fascinating to watch everyone else — well-bred, well-educated, upper-class people and their servants — despise Ruby Keene for doing what they, themselves, did. Marry for money and status.

Class differences show up all over the place. Watch the interactions between the village constable, Inspector Slack, Colonel Melchett, and Sir Henry Clithering. They all know their place in the hierarchy. It affects the investigation and who gets to question who and how aggressively. I didn’t notice the class divide nearly as much in ITV’s version.

I’d definitely watch this version of The Body in the Library again. It is far superior to the ITV Marple production with Geraldine McEwan with its radical reworking of the murderer.

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The Moving Finger 2006 Geraldine McEwan

Watched Friday, 29 January 2021.

Fidelity to text: three poison bottles. The overall story arc remains the same. The changes range from condensing and removing characters (minor) to adding Miss Marple at the very start (major) and everything in between. The time period was changed from 1943 to about 1953. And Jerry Burton, our hero and narrator? He’s a damaged, alcoholic vet who tried to kill himself via a motorcycle accident. Luckily, Lymstock and poisoned pen letters give him something to do other than brood and drink.

Quality of movie on its own: four and 1/2 poison bottles. I really liked this version. Mr. Pye was a hoot and I got to see a lot more of him than in the Joan Hickson 1987 version. The actors, one and all, chewed the scenery with gusto. Great costumes too, especially Megan’s transformation into Audrey Hepburn. The English Country House Porn is to die for. Wait till you see Mr. Pye’s house. Wow.

ITV’s Marple episodes have been hit or miss for me. Their screenwriters like mucking about with Agatha’s text in order to justify their salary. The results are not always golden. In this case? The Moving Finger was a hit. I got everything I wanted to see more of (like Mr. Pye and his gilded porcelain in his gilded dining room) and, even better, I got to see why Miss Marple was able to solve the crime. There were actual, interpretable clues. These were clues that even doofus audience members like me — always fooled by the red herrings — could grasp.

It’s really enjoyable when I can follow Miss Marple’s logic. I can’t always.

Jerry Burton, our narrator, was less of wet blanket than he was in the 1987 version. His injury was handled much more realistically, something I, as a sometimes cane user, appreciated. He started out with two canes and gradually, slowly, moved down to one and then, sometimes, none. Even so, he never turned into an athlete. He limped and not just when the plot called for it.

It was also much clearer why he fell in love with Megan Symmington in this version.

I had hopes for how the script handled the nursery governess, Elsie Holland, but alas, Hollywood rules held true. In the novel, Elsie is a stunner and Jerry crushes very badly on her, right up until the moment she opens her mouth and he hears her flat, competent voice. The magic flees and she becomes part of the charming and bucolic scenery of Lymstock, permitting him to better see Megan Symmington. Hollywood being Hollywood even when it is British television, Elsie had to have a lovely voice to match her lovely exterior. Thus, we are forced to watch a red-blooded young man kiss the most ravishing woman around for miles (that sundress! My God, she stops traffic with the cleavage she displays and probably threw the Symmington boys into early puberty) and say meh.

Yeah. Sure. I could believe that a man would fall out of a dazed crush when he hears the screechy voice of competent dullness but this glorious in every way version of Elsie Holland? Jerry and Elsie would scamper off into the shrubbery surrounding Mr. Pye’s lovely terrace and inspect the flowerbeds. Closely. At ground level. Instead, we get meh.

This version of The Moving Finger also gave a better picture of the nature of upper-class life in Lymstock. Everyone seemed to know each other well, to the extent that we got to watch how the gentry entertained themselves in little villages out in the middle of nowhere. They made their entertainment as was usual in pre-television days. We get to see the musical evening at Mr. Pye’s, complete with Horace in the original Latin, and badly sung duets. We get dinner parties with sparkling dialog at the Symmington’s with the same people sitting around the table.

I would have given this version of The Moving Finger a higher rating, except I couldn’t always understand the sparkling dinner table conversation. Not every conversation mattered to solving the murder but enough did that it was annoying when the actors mumbled.

Overall, each of the main characters got some screen time, giving me a better feel for their relationships with each other. Here though, the 93-minute run time felt much too short. Dr. Owen Griffith had charming scenes with Joanna Burton, Jerry’s sister in the novel. Most of them were axed, including the most important one where Dr. Griffith introduces Joanna to the real world. In the novel, he dragoons her into helping him with a difficult and challenging childbirth case. In the film, he gives her a picture he took of a diseased spleen. For some mysterious reason, Dr. Griffith is also given a stutter which I do not recall from the novel.

Another mid-sized change was having Joanna do Megan Symmington’s makeover in Lymstock. In the novel, Jerry sweeps her off to London where a modiste and hairdresser turn the ugly (by Hollywood beauty standards and most definitely not in the real world) duckling into a swan. Having Joanna clean up and transform Megan into Audrey Hepburn worked very well. So did Megan’s uncomfortable feelings about her transformation. That would be normal.

I would have liked this version to be longer. I enjoyed spending time with the characters and visiting Lymstock. I wanted more and didn’t get it.

There were moments when I really wanted to better understand what was going on. Did Mr. Pye imply an illicit relationship with the colonel who shot himself in the opening scene? I wasn’t sure. And did the colonel shoot himself? Or was he helped? Again, it was unclear. It was also unclear if Miss Marple was referring to her adulterous relationship that we see referenced to in the earliest episodes of the ITV production. The gentleman in question had a war to fight and “other commitments.” You mean the commitment he made to his wife on their wedding day? That’s a commitment. Adultery is a sin, folks. It’s hard for me to buy Miss Marple having a torrid affair with a married man even when she was young and hot herself.

She has too much moral fiber.

Would I watch this version of The Moving Finger again? Absolutely. Did I like it better than the 1987 Joan Hickson version? Yes, I did. The 1987 version is truer to the original text than this 2006 version. This is one of those cases when watching one after the other is interesting and instructive. You can see where the screenwriters differed. What they thought needed to be emphasized. What they jettisoned. What they changed wholesale or invented. As a writer, watching two different adaptations of the same original text, I enjoyed seeing the differing interpretations and working out why the scriptwriters did what they did.

Scripts matter as much as — or sometimes more — than the actors being cast. Two versions of the same novel show why.

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Sleeping Murder 2006 Geraldine McEwan

Watched on Friday, 22 January 2021.

Fidelity to text: 2 garrotes. The producers made dozens of changes from irritating but minor (main character names) to wholesale rewrites. The Funnybones theatrical troupe is completely new. So are the dramatic changes to Gwenda’s mother and stepmother. Oh, and Gwenda isn’t a happy newlywed either, with an adoring, handsome husband her own age. She’s got a fiancé, but he is a much older businessman who remains in India.

Quality of movie on its own: 4 garrotes. I liked this version. Yes, it’s not true to the text, but it was lively and fun to watch. Great actors and actresses chewed up the scenery with gusto. I would have given it a higher score except Miss Marple’s solution was so truncated as to have been pulled out of her knitting bag. There were some other plot holes as well. Worse, plenty of the actors had poor enunciation so I didn’t always know what they were saying. Subtitles would have fixed this issue but alas, ITV Productions didn’t pay for them.

This version of Sleeping Murder is very, very different from Joan Hickson’s 1987 opus. The main beats of the text are there: orphaned young woman arrives in England after growing up overseas and by astounding coincidence buys the house she lived in as a toddler. This is the house where, as a toddler, she witnessed her stepmother being strangled. Miss Marple shows up to solve the case. A few other characters remain, notably Dr. Kennedy, Walter Fane, his mother, Mrs. Fane, a former parlor maid, the former cook, and a clerk in a yarn shop.

After that, the script veers off into new and exciting territory. We begin in India, with color and drama and Kelvin Halliday’s wife dying tragically in a car accident. The grieving widower and his toddler daughter sail off to England, don’t meet anyone onboard ship, land in Dillmouth, and he meets the hot redheaded actress, Helen Marsden. She is the star of a small theatrical troupe called the Funnybones. Sparks fly. They don’t wait for the quickie wedding to the consternation of their servants or the villagers.

Then Helen Marsden vanishes the night before the wedding.

In the current day, we meet Gwenda Halliday, fiancée of some older man whose face we never see. He stays in India because his business is more important than the hot blonde he’s marrying. Instead, he assigns a young, male employee to escort Gwenda around England. It’s always a bad idea to outsource your husbandly duties to a younger man and we get to watch the proof. Hugh Hornbeam does a lot more than help Gwenda buy and rehab a house.

As expected, Gwenda purchases the mysteriously familiar house. Strange memories surface. Hugh turns out to have a dear friend (or distant relative, the film wasn’t clear) named Miss Marple. She arrives and the vivid, complicated past is uncovered.

The novel was almost completely rewritten to incorporate Helen and the Funnybones. As a result, we get to enjoy period music hall song and dance routines, with comedy thrown in. The Funnybones interact with major and minor characters in the past and in the present. I didn’t mind at all. We even get an interesting subplot involving Walter Fane, his mother, and two of the Funnybones.

What I did mind, and the reason for not awarding the fifth garrote, was that the film was too short. Ninety-three minutes was not enough time for Miss Marple to convincingly solve the disappearance of Helen Marsden. She pulled that solution out of her knitting bag. At best, you could say that she’s naturally suspicious of whatever she’s told. Being handed a conveniently saved postcard along with a creepy epigram on the back of an old photograph (so the handwriting can be matched up) makes her wary. So does Dr. Kennedy’s name confusion between Kelvin Halliday’s dead wife from India and potential wife #2, Helen Marsden. I’m guessing here because even though Miss Marple witnessed Dr. Kenney’s mix-up, we don’t see her react.

A minute of added film would have made her deductions plausible.

A few more added minutes of film would have made clear how plot-critical information would have magically arrived from India. Supposedly the film takes place in 1951. I know they had telephones and telegraphs way back then, but you couldn’t get instant information from the Indian bureaucracy that was exactly what was needed to solve the murder. I don’t believe you could get instant information from today’s Indian bureaucracy. Or from any bureaucracy, for that matter. Bureaucracies don’t work that way. It takes time for clerks to go digging through dusty filing cabinets crammed with decades-old records.

There was also the question of Indian policework and forensics in 1934. A tragic auto accident generally leaves some kind of body to be identified. Not in India, which I find hard to believe. No police force anywhere likes loose ends and missing bodies are a major loose end. If the Indian police force can send an officer to Dillmouth, England, they’ll check the wrecked car for a body.

We also didn’t spend nearly enough time with the murderer, establishing their motives. This murderer needed screen time. Otherwise, the solution is because the scriptwriter said so and not because the crime grew organically from the characters.

The connection between Gwenda’s mother and stepmother was really farfetched. Another pass on the script would have helped.

The Funnybones and their interactions with each other and everyone else used up plot space that could have been used to solve these issues. That said, I liked watching them very much and would have liked more screen time with them, but not at the expense of seeing Miss Marple get more real clues and solve the mystery in a fashion that I could follow.

ITV Productions should have splurged on another ten minutes of filmstock. Maybe fifteen.

It’s still a fun movie to watch. And I’ll watch it again.

Just go into this version of Sleeping Murder knowing that it’s not true to the text other than in the most basic way. If you can suspend your critical judgement of hack screenwriters “improving” Agatha Christie, you’ll enjoy this movie.

If you can’t, stick with Joan Hickson’s version which follows the text about as closely as a movie can follow a novel.

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Lord Edgware Dies 1934 Austin Trevor as Poirot

Watched Friday, 15 January 2021

Fidelity to text: 3 and 1/2 knives. For an 80-minute-long film, they crammed most of the story in. Regrettably, they omitted two major plot points. Even more regrettably, Austin Trevor must be the worst Poirot ever. He’s tall, lean, and doesn’t have a mustache. I thought he was supposed to be Hastings as the actor playing Hastings — short, round, and with a mustache— would have fit the bill much better.

Quality of movie on its own: 2 and 1/2 knives. For an 80-minute film, it drags. The pace is glacial. All the actors seem made of wood. The action never goes outside of a building. All the sets look similar to one another, making sure the audience gets confused as to where the action is taking place. The two most important roles (Poirot and Hastings) are woefully miscast. Among a forgettable cast, the actress playing Jane Wilkinson (aka Lady Edgware) stood out. Jane Carr lit up the screen and made us believe her motivations. Too bad the script fell apart in the ending, doing a real disservice to Ms. Carr in both the film and her career.

This was interesting. Interesting is a good word because it doesn’t imply a value of “good”, merely … interesting. It’s a curiosity. This is probably the oldest filmed version of an Agatha Christie adaptation floating around. Other, older films are lost or buried deep inside U.S. Army warehouses — next to the Ark of the Covenant — never to be seen again.

Already, this film demonstrates all the reasons Agatha didn’t care for movie versions, although she did like her plays. She wrote plenty of them, after all. However, her plays were written as plays and thus fit within a set running time and were designed to work on a stage with whomever the casting director could dredge up. Everything a novel needs is jettisoned by a playwright.

Movies are different. Movies tend to reuse existing novels. The studio hacks the novel into shreds to make the story fit onto a screen. Then the director casts whomever the studio wants to promote, despite having other, far more capable and appropriate actors available. We’ll start with Austin Trevor, the actor playing Hercule Poirot.

He’s too darned tall. He was one of the tallest men on screen. Tall, thin, no mustache. He looked nothing like our image of Poirot, whether it be Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, David Suchet, Kenneth Branagh, or even John Malkovich. Many other actors played Poirot over the years but they, too, look more like Hercule than Austin Trevor did. Some of his stiff woodenness was an artifact of moviemaking at the time, but not all of it.

Richard Cooper, portraying Captain Arthur Hastings, was equally miscast. He actually has Poirot’s round, short silhouette and sports a mustache. In fact, at first, I thought he was Hastings until both actors came to life and began acting. Trevor gave us a bad Belgian accent to indicate who he was, but otherwise nothing about him said Poirot. As Hastings, Richard Cooper played the buffoon in virtually every scene, but alas, he did not steal those scenes. I know that Hastings started out as a parody of Watson but Agatha never wrote him as a complete idiot.

An idiot to be sure, but a partial one. Her Captain Hastings never walked into walls, while this Hastings does.

If you know the plot of Lord Edgware Dies (in the United States, the novel was retitled Thirteen at Dinner although the movie was not), you’ll see that the overall story arc is followed closely, after making allowances for an extremely short running time. Most of the minor characters, including the Duchess of Merton, vanish without a trace. Oddly, the Covent Garden taxi driver gets several minutes of screen time, allowing the director to make Hastings the butt of another joke.

That was a poor choice because it forced the screenwriter to omit two crucial parts of the plot. The first was why Lord Edgware had to die. Bill had to ask me and since I’d read the book, I knew. Bad scriptwriter, bad scriptwriter. The second major omission was how Poirot came to realize who stabbed Lord Edgware in the back of the neck with a corn knife. That entire sequence, involving the Judgement of Paris, was skipped but it’s crucial to understanding how Poirot worked out the solution.

The Judgement of Paris is also crucial in understanding why victim number three had to die, stabbed by the same corn knife.

After watching the film, I finally googled corn knives because I kept seeing in my head a machete used to chop down cornstalks. A corn knife never shows up in this film, by the way. Back in 1934, movies didn’t show murder victims sprawled out on the floor in pools of blood with knives sticking out of them. At least classy movies didn’t do this although I don’t know about low-rent films for the tenement market.

Understanding what a corn knife is helps to understand how the murderer killed the victims. The novel doesn’t go into gruesome detail (Agatha never does) but she does explain how the murderer knew how to utilize a corn knife most effectively and not for its intended purpose. And it fits! It’s perfectly in keeping with the murderer’s character.

A turn-of-the-century corn knife was used to shave off corns on the feet. They have a long, narrow, razor-sharp blade, the better to shave off layers of bad skin without removing healthy skin. It’s home surgery on your feet. Apparently, they were common in England so Agatha assumed when she used the phrase “corn knife” in the text, everyone would understand her.

As I mentioned previously, I had something quite different in mind and never could figure out how the murderer smuggled a machete around in 1930’s vintage London. The murderer didn’t. The passage of decades and medical techniques concealed the past. And, demonstrating poor choices on the director’s part, we never see a corn knife so we don’t know how easily one can be smuggled inside and then wielded at the last moment, surprising the victim.

Agatha also assumes that you, dear reader, recognize the Judgement of Paris. Paris is the handsome young son of Priam of Troy. He has to decide which of the goddesses (Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena) are the most beautiful. The goddesses all bribe him. He likes Aphrodite’s bribe the best (Helen of Troy) and from that decision we move onto the Iliad, followed by the Odyssey.

The Judgement of Paris works beautifully in the novel. It demonstrates who’s had an education and who has not. It reveals hidden identities. It’s a crime that the scriptwriter omitted it entirely because without this scene, the final murder and the unveiling don’t make much sense. Again, Agatha didn’t like the movie versions of her novels because she didn’t like watching her carefully constructed plots get butchered to suit some director’s ‘vision’.

Overall, this was … interesting.

I wouldn’t watch it again. I am much more interested now in seeing David Suchet’s version. You can bet I’ll be looking for the scene with the Judgement of Paris. It will also be refreshing to watch a Poirot who looks like my mental image of Poirot instead of a long, lean, rangy, tall man who’s been shaved within an inch of his life, being closely shadowed by a clone of Tweedledee.

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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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