Changing Christie: Heinous Or Harmless?

ordeal by innoncence 2

Following the recent furore around the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence, I wondered why everyone was so upset. After all, when adapting TV shows and films Directors and Script Writers often change the plots to suit the audience.

However, many have been incredibly upset by the serious change in plotting that the writers have made. Instead of the perpetrator being the housemaid, at the instigation of the adopted son of the victim, her lover, who was falsely accused, she is in fact his mother, and neither were actually guilty. The murderer, in the show, turns out to be the victim’s husband, who is found out by his adopted children and maid, who capture him and hold him hostage in his late wife’s nuclear bunker whilst they get on with their lives.

This myriad of changes caused great consternation among die-hard Christie fans. The book had not been faithfully adapted, and as such the BBC has ruined it. These people do not seem to understand that what the BBC has, in fact done, is not created a Christie adaptation at all. It may have the same name as one of the Queen of Crime’s novels, but it does not have any of the classic traits or characterisation of her works.

After all, the book uses Arthur Calgary as a form of principal detective, rather than the blubbering mental patient that the show transforms him into. In the book the character, accompanied by others, doggedly explores the blasé secrets, petty scandals and sad affairs of the principal cast of suspects, all of whom are neatly contained within the family home, being either family themselves or servants. Like many of her novels, Christie crafted a unique ending for Ordeal By Innocence by having the innocent be a master manipulator who actually played a key role in the murder. Having his accomplice as the housemaid allows Christie to criticise both the class system and the treatment of women at the time.

Whilst the BBC adaptation might make minor observations about class and gender, as well as making a clear racial statement by casting a black actress in the role of one of the victim’s adopted children, none of these allusions are particularly impactful, and are muddied by the adaptation’s lack of sincerity and sheer lavishness- the costumes are better thought out than the plot throughout, and the dialogue has been woefully neglected in favour of stunning panoramic views of lakes and vast tree lined forests.

I can completely understand why Sarah Phelps chose to change the adaptation so drastically from the original: not only does this allow her to put her own stamp on the work, but it also makes for better TV. After all, the novel relies on the reader being completely transfixed by the notion that Jacko is innocent and the author’s copious red herrings to steer them towards a nail-biting conclusion, whereas, spread over three episodes, the TV series would struggle to build and maintain such tension. As such, Phelps not only intensifies the characters, making many much more bitter or shrill than they are in the novel, but also completely changes the plot in order to make it memorable. After all, the fact that I am writing this post about it proves that this divisive move has worked. All publicity is good publicity- right?

Overall, it is my firm belief that the BBC has effectively not made a Christie adaptation at all, and whilst I am not sure I would go so far as to say that this Easter’s Ordeal By Innocence is an outrage, it is certainly not fit to bear the Queen of Crime’s name.

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