Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie is always relevant. The best-selling author of all time wrote 66 novels and 14 short story collections that have been translated several times for the screen, with the earliest adaptations dating back to the 1920s. The trend is an enduring one.
Almost 90 years after the first Agatha Christie story was produced for the screen, Hollywood is still being inspired by her plots. Ben Affleck is set to direct and star in an adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution. The short story was previously filmed by Billy Wider in 1957. Starring Marlene Dietrich, the movie is often considered to be one of the best courtroom dramas ever made, and also one of the most celebrated Christie adaptations in cinema.
Meanwhile, Emma Stone and Alicia Vikander are prepping to play Christie in two separate biopics, while Kenneth Branagh is working on a remake of Murder on the Orient Express. A similar trend can be seen on television, with the British Broadcasting Corporation greenlighting the production of as many as seven adaptations based on the works of Christie, to be telecast over the next four years. This announcement comes after the success of the 2015 BBC Christmas special, And Then There Were None, a stellar retelling of Christie’s psychological thriller.
While Christie’s stories have been filmed many times and in many languages – French, Hindi, Bengali, and Russian - some of the most memorable adaptations have been for television.
Murder on The Orient Express (1974), starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot, along with Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman, was a huge success, and an adaptation that Christie is said to have enjoyed herself. She had one minor gripe – the casting of Finney as Poirot.
ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013), starring David Suchet, aimed to set it right. Playing the quirky Belgian detective for 25 years, Suchet faced a most peculiar challenge – to not evolve as a character. Poirot remains the same through the many stories and novels that feature him. Agatha Christie’s Poirot, set in the 1930s, is based on 70 novels and short stories that feature the eccentric and impeccable Poirot. Staying true, wherever possible, to the original texts, the series created an audience loyalty for Poirot, shared so far with avid readers of the mystery series. Suchet became a living picture of the literary character he portrayed so perfectly and consistently. By following him and watching him crack open secrets, TV audiences connected deeply with Poirot. At a time when crime and detection on television is exceedingly dark and morbid, and there is no dearth of anti-heroes, Poirot’s unimpeachable sense of right and wrong make him a welcome change in a world of angry and ambiguous detectives.
Murder, She said (1961), one of the few Miss Marple mysteries to be adapted for the big screen, received a positive response, but Christie did not approve of it. This too was remedied on the small screen, with BBC’s Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth who solves murder mysteries while knitting away in her garden. After watching her on the stage in 1946, Christie congratulated Hickson for her performance, hoping the actress would one day play the detective on screen. Hickson eventually did, and remarkably well too. Her portrayal of Miss Marple is considered the definitive and only adaptation of the series that matters (succeeded to a lesser degree of success by Geraldine McEwan from 2004-2009). Hickson’s Marple was a formidable woman with an incomparable aptitude for and insight into human foibles.
Christie knew what she was writing – be it about a perplexing murder, vanishing jewels, or the human insight that helped her astute criminologists solve their mysteries. This may be why her works have found the most comfortable and enduring home on the small screen. She was a crime writer, but never just that. Her astounding volume of work comprises not just shock-inducing plot twists but also a repository of meticulously written characters. Christie’s characters come to life through the vital details she painstakingly placed throughout her novels – creating the big picture through the sum of all things that seem insignificant to begin with. Television as a medium, by providing an opportunity to return for another episode, another story and another mystery, not only helps bolster these characters but also exposes audiences to Christie’s understanding of the human mind.Film may not always be able to do that. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, though complete in themselves, are not isolated stories but a part of a bigger and more significant series. Readers who love and have devoured mystery after mystery may find that television satisfies the need for continuation and consistency – which Suchet and Hickson provided. Poirot always returned for another 50 minutes of mind-boggling detection, and there was more of Miss Marple at the other end of a commercial break.