Thursday, December 27, 2018

Dramatic Licence

So, here I am on what, the second day of Christmas?  Well, if you count it from Boxing Day, the third day if counted from Christmas Day.  Anyway, here I am watching part two of an adaptation of The ABC Murders of which I haven't seen part one.  My main motivation for doing so is that the aforementioned part one seems to have offended so many Agatha Christie purists.  For one thing it has John Malkovich playing Poirot (there's something I never thought that I'd write) as a somewhat darker and more tortured (by his World One experiences) version of the character than portrayed by David Suchet.  It also, apparently, takes liberties with the original text, eliminating some characters who played significant roles in the source novel (Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp).  From what I've seen so far, it has also adopted a very dark, almost noir-like look for its production.  All in marked contrast to the beloved ITV adaptations with Suchet, not to mention the films with Peter Ustinov.  Already some viewers are protesting that it is a travesty, needlessly altering the original, simply for the sake of gratuitous shocks and titillation of the kind which have no place in an Agatha Christie adaptation.  All of which raises the question of exactly how faithful an adaptation of a work from one medium to another needs to be - in the case of a film or TV adaptation of a novel, for instance, should the original text be regarded as sacred, or can anything go in the service of dramatic licence?

The fact is that when transferring something from one medium to another, the makers can only ever offer an interpretation rather than a faithful copy.  The conventions of one medium simply cannot be translated literally to another.  Film, for example, is primarily a visual medium, meaning that the text of any literary adapted into a film has to be reinterpreted into visual terms: long passages of exposition are extremely dull when converted literally into lengthy dialogue scenes, for instance.  Plots have to compressed and truncated and characaters eliminated or combined in order to make a book (which can be any length) fit into the confines of a conventional feature film running length.  So it really should be no surprise that this version of The ABC Murders differs from the source novel.  Moreover, when a novel is adapted for screen or TV, it is inevitably filtered through the interpretations of a different creative team, all bringing elements of their own vision to it.  Moreover, just as the original source will inevitably reflect the era in which it was created, so any adaptation will reflect the era of its creation.  If you want something exactly like the book, read the book.  Film adaptations can be significantly different in their details to their source novels, yet still be faithful to them in spirit, in that they successfully capture and translate to the screen the essential themes and ideas of their sources.  The film adaptations of The Ipcress File and LA Confidential come to mind in this respect.

But the persistent criticism of this current Christie adaptation I keep hearing is that it simply isn't as faithful as those ITV adaptations.  Which ignores the fact that the ITV Poirot series frequently altered plot details and omitted characters for dramatic purposes.  Sometimes they even combined plot elements from several different stories in order to bring episodes up to the required length.  But what they did do was retain an essentially idealised version of the 1930s as their setting.  A version which incorporated the fashions and architecture of the period while rarely mentioning the realities of the era's politics or social and economic situation.  This, as far as I can see, is the current ABC Murders greatest crime - it seems to be trying to locate Poirot within a more realistic interpretation of the thirties, one which includes the rise of fascism, the existence of casual racism within the UK.  Still, if you want to see a real travesty of an adaptation of The ABC Murders, you need look no further than the early sixties film adaptation, The Alphabet Murders, which, incredibly, casts Tony Randall as Poirot, updates the story to the sixties and plays parts of it for laughs.  As for this current version, well, I'm disappointed that Malkovich's Poirot has so far not told anyone to 'go fuck yourself'.  Perhaps the BBC should have gone the whole hog and hired Dario Argento as director and delivered a Giallo-style Christie adaptation, complete with black gloved killers, bizarre murders, Goblin soundtrack and wild colour palette.  Now, I'd pay money to see that.



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