On Hercule Poirot, the Dark Knight
Last week I dashed off a quick, meant-to-be-withering mini-review of the recently Amazoned BBC production of Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders and posted it on the internet. I’ve added further thoughts to the expanded, much less mini, version below. Adaptation is a tricky business, particularly when the source material is deceptively simple and delicately balanced. A lot can go awry, and in this case, in my opinion, boy did it ever. But in the process of going awry, it kicked over some interesting things.
(I’d originally planned to include a few other effective reviews that I’ve done over the years in this post, as part of the aim of this current Medium project is preserving some of my old writing in case the blog that contains it crumbles finally into inaccessible virtual dust. That will have to wait for a future post, however, as this one swelled in the editing and got quite long enough.)
I realize it’s kind of a weird thing to do, but out of all the things I do, it’s hardly the weirdest.
At any rate, here it is:
The ABC Murders, BBC TV series, 2018
This concerns the BBC dramatization of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (which just went up on Amazon Prime in the US.)
It just so happens that I recently re-read this book. It’s a breezy, fun, relatively cozy puzzle, just a couple of shades more “adult” than the Bobbsey Twins. In other words, it’s great, a total success, and thoroughly enjoyable if easily forgotten (which only means you can enjoy picking it up and reading it again one day if you like.) It doesn’t waste a lot of time on atmosphere or deep backstory or complex characterization, but that’s no great flaw: what little there is of that sort of thing does the job of populating and dressing up the plot, which is clever, and which indeed is the only thing its readers have cared about for the past eighty years or so. And it’s a truly impressive feat of economical writing that so much can be, and has been, done with so little actual ink on the page.
It’s a succinct, deftly-structured story, well and simply told. While the serial killer theme introduces an element of cold brutality that arguably takes it, if ever so slightly, out of the “cozy” category, there’s not a whole lot in the way of actual spine-tingling, blood-chilling menace here. Poirot will tell Hastings, at times, in italics, how afraid he is. And police officers periodically shuffle in to say things like “it’s a nasty business, a very nasty business indeed.” And that’s about it.
And it’s fine. This is the recipe that produced the most successful and best-loved oeuvre in twentieth century publishing and rightly so. It ain’t Dostoyevsky, and it’s not trying to be.
By contrast, this thing (like many such recent adaptations, but further round the bend than most) is, as far as I can tell, trying to be. Dostoyevsky, I mean. Or… something. It is suffused in sententious darkness and perversity, resulting in a preposterous, unintentionally comical attempt at a grim, existential psychodrama. It’s like Poirot meets The Saw, with a dose of Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, and For Whom the Bell Tolls thrown in just in case you might start to notice the plot too much. (Which is in there, somewhere, though buried deep in all the nonsense.) Plus: BDSM!
In short, I have never seen anything less Agatha Christie-like, and I’ve seen ’em all.
I don’t know why they always try to do this. Hercule Poirot as written is, it’s true, rather cartoonish and silly, but the “heavy” Poirot, it turns out, is a thousand times, and approximately fifty shades, sillier. And more cartoonish too.
The best Agatha Christie adaptations, in my opinion, by the way, are the Sidney Lumet film starring Albert Finney and the 1980s Miss Marple BBC series starring Joan Hickson. They work, largely, by not trying to “get above themselves,” eschewing any attempt at putative gritty realism or grand, important, up-to-date, “relevant” themes.
As for David Suchet: while his Poirot series is well-acted and well-executed, and suffers from none of the embarrassing, pretentious excesses exhibited by The ABC Murders, it still falls a bit flat for me, though it’s harder to identify why. I suspect, though, that part of it is for the same reason that this new, “heavy,” tortured, profundity-laden Poirot doesn’t quite work. It’s because Hercule Poirot, per se, is just not a very interesting character, and he’s certainly not a deep one. He alone can’t carry the whole show, and when you try to make him the focus, rather than the scenarios he facilitates and explicates, the whole thing is liable to come crashing down. Or: one simply loses interest, which is more or less the same thing.
This is no criticism of the Poirot novels, nor of Agatha Christie as a writer. Simply put, the Poirot of the novels is not the protagonist. He is, like many a detective in crime novels of this kind, not much more than a device that allows the reader to follow the plot as it weaves through the complex movements and motivations of the actual dramatis personae and then pops up to explain it all in the end (to the characters and to the reader alike.) These cast members, those in the social milieu of the murder victim, the murderer(s) among them — they are the protagonists. Poirot is merely a master of ceremonies, who provides an introduction, a running “commentary,” and a summation. As such, the brief sketch provided (moustaches, “order and method,” funny accent, formerly of the Sûreté) quite suffices by way of characterization. Too much more would be a distraction. It’s not who he is, but rather the speech he gives to the assembled cast in the drawing room in the next-to-last chapter, that matters.
To put it another way: no one picks up an Agatha Christie novel because of a profound yearning for new insights or important revelations about the inner life of the eccentric world-famous Belgian detective with the elaborate moustaches and the egg-shaped head. What “makes him tick” deep down inside simply doesn’t matter that much with regard to his role in the narrative. No one cares how he felt about his mother as a child, or wonders whether corporal punishment at the hands of his distant father or stern headmistress nun might have planted the seeds of a complex and perverse, though cleverly hidden, sexuality that was to complicate his relationships with women in the years ahead. Etc. No, you pick up the book for the puzzle. You follow the various threads and wait for the weird little guy to get around to telling you how and why it was done. And that’s it.
And I’m not knocking it. There’s nothing more reliably and consistently and efficiently and cheaply satisfying, when it comes to book-reading, than this. But, it turns out, it’s pretty easy to mess it all up with “heaviness” and background and Big Ideas if you lose sight of what the story is really about, which is something that TV dramatists can’t seem to help themselves from doing and which this production does in spades. You’ve got to have the story and the puzzle front and center, and then, subordinate to that, you have the guy who sorts it out and pops up to explain it all in the end. This relationship of detective to mystery isn’t superficial, nor is it a tired convention whose cavalier overturning can reveal new, startlingly relevant insights, or whatever: it is rather the very essence of the Agatha Christie sort of mystery, without which the whole thing basically evaporates. To reverse the order, to place the detective’s anguished soul and newly jazzed-up backstory in the foreground, with the mystery out of focus around the edges, is to leave the detective with no useful role in the narrative, no matter what might have happened in a field back in World War I or what he thinks of the British Union of Fascists or what makes him cry. This would be the case even if the portrayal didn’t descend into over-wrought self-parody, as it does here. Even when he is superbly acted — as he is here, I suppose, by John Malkovich: you might as well leave him out. And, you know, forget the whole thing.
There are of course crime stories with anti-hero detectives whose mysteries are mere McGuffins: the detective, like the world he inhabits, is compromised and morally ambiguous. Threads go everywhere and nowhere. Nothing adds up all the way. Mysteries don’t get “solved” because nothing can be resolved in this fallen, pointless world of ours where there is no rhyme, reason, or justice. And I certainly get it. It’s true to my own experience. “You might as well forget the whole thing” is in a sense the paradoxical post-modern literary ethos, and true to my own experience as well. But if there’s anything you can say about Agatha Christie it is this: her mysteries are not McGuffins. They are, rather, the entire point. They always add up, they always make sense, and they are always in the foreground. They always get solved. This is why these books are so satisfying to read, and why they are often judged to be too simplistic and naive by a certain sort of sophisticated reader who knows “real life is just not like that.” I’m not sure it’s a problem that needed correcting, but perhaps correcting it is what the creators of The ABC Murders set out to do.
Or maybe it’s simpler still than that: a “franchise” needs a fashionably dark and twisted superhero for a figurehead, and the existing material didn’t quite cut it and needed to be subjected to that most annoyingly-named and -conceived of contemporary cultural-commercial ventures: a “reboot.” I rarely care enough to notice, or notice enough to care, but when I do take note of a “reboot,” it always seems fairly obvious that its creators should have left well enough alone and come up with new stories and characters upon which to conduct their revisionist experiments, rather than drowning the tried and true in meta-ness and politics and bodily fluids and zombies and BDSM and what have you. But then, I’m an old-fashioned sort of guy.
(Christie, by the way, dedicated the novel Hallowe’en Party to P. G. Wodehouse, another favorite author whose dark revisionist paradigm-subverting BDSM gross-out all-girl superhero “reboot” I expect to see any time now, and which I dread most of all: 50 Shades of Jeeves… it’s going to happen, mark my words….)
At any rate, it didn’t work on me here. The retrofit is risible. I snorted and said “oh, come on…” through the whole thing.
I’m not saying such a radical re-imagining of the aesthetic and characterization and worldview and raison d’etre of an Agatha Christie novel shouldn’t be attempted, or that it couldn’t be done. Lord knows, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the “straight” generic BBC period drama approach has been done to death and the whole enterprise was due for a shake-up. Set it in Brooklyn, or in space. Do it with cats or barbies. Or even: make Jane Marple the villain, a serial killer who is clever enough to pin all her murders on the innocent people identified as the murderers in the novels; show the novel’s cleverly-contrived fake solution, then show how Jane really did it in an epilogue. (That’s actually not a bad idea: I’d watch it.) I’m not at all opposed to that sort of thing, in principle, and I’d be impressed if presented with one good enough to over-ride my well-earned skepticism. All bets are off, once the goods are delivered.
I imagine, though, that it would require a rather subtle touch to carry it off. And whatever else you might say about this ABC Murders, there’s nothing subtle about it. It hits the viewer, no less than the source material, over the head with its clumsy, revisionist sledgehammer unrelentingly for three solid hours. While it is difficult to imagine anyone enjoying that experience, I did find the ordeal itself rather interesting as you can see. But my conclusion nevertheless is that, broadly speaking, Hercule Poirot, the Dark Knight, is something the world doesn’t particularly need.
I will say, though, that the flashback denouement (present in no wise to any degree in the universe of the book needless to say) is truly a surprise. It seems there’s always a deeper end to go off, if you really are determined to go off one. A remarkable turn. So be sure to watch it to the end: it’ll blow your mind.