Why Are Sarah Phelps’ Adaptations of Agatha Christie So Bewilderingly Bad?

TV Features The ABC Murders
Why Are Sarah Phelps’ Adaptations of Agatha Christie So Bewilderingly Bad?

Mes enfants: You know what I kinda hate? That thing where you’re forced to defend a stance you’d rather not be associated with. I’d prefer to be able to say in good conscience that the spate of updated Agatha Christie properties (see also: And Then There Were None, Ordeal by Innocence) emanating from the brain of Sarah Phelps is… clever. That they are a brilliant send-up, or takedown, of a great sacred cow, or a deeply needed rethink of a beloved oeuvre, or—something. It would feel good to write about that. It’s the hipper position. The progressive position.

So it is with regret that I bring you this Emperor’s New Clothes Alert: I don’t get it. I confess. I am not able to be hip at this time. The ABC Murders, which is coming to Amazon Prime from BBC, might be the laziest in a string of bewilderingly lazy Agatha Christie adaptations. It’s getting kind of hard to avoid the word “contemptuous.”

I am no more a diehard Agatha Christie purist than Sarah Phelps is. (And, unlike Phelps, I’m not making bank for adapting it, so… there’s that, too.) I am not saddled with fandom-baggage about Hercule Poirot, and have no impulse to be miffed that a character I spent hundreds of pages with is being adulterated. Honestly, when you have a work of literature that gets adapted for film and TV every twenty minutes, adulterating is probably the best thing you can do. Provided you’re messing with it mindfully.

This ABC Murders invents a backstory for Hercule Poirot that pretty much comes from outer space and then seizes control of the forward story. It’s OK to do that, even if people tend to harbor funny little conservative impulses where cherished characters are concerned. I’m not clutching my pearls over sex, guns, swears, drugs, or everyone being required to have an Axis I psych disorder. I promise. My issue is that the writing is lazy. It’s lazy. The script doesn’t give a shit. It relies on chain-yanking and button-pushing and it lacks thrust. Luckily for Phelps and director Alex Gabassi, they had an abundance of talent to work with, and John Malkovich’s weary, washed-up, world-on-shoulders Poirot is extremely well-crafted, consistent and enjoyable to watch. Rupert Grint as up-and-coming Scotland Yard detective Crome is a bit out of his depth as a foil for Malkovich, but he was admirably disambiguated from Ron Weasley, and that ain’t nothin’. Many of the minor players shine (Tara Fitzgerald—and her amazing cheekbones—is excellent as bejeweled, consumptive Lady Hermione; Shirley Henderson, as an unclean boarding house matron, gives a thoroughly excellent monologue in the first episode; Henry Goodman absolutely pops in his brief turn as a hemorrhoid-stricken women’s hosiery mogul). Some performers don’t achieve liftoff, but it’s clear the acting isn’t the issue.

It’s that the changes to the story and script feel pointless. Or pointed. Or both. Making Hercule Poirot not just a former priest but explicitly someone who has been pretending to have come to the U.K. with a police background isn’t anathema, conceptually, but it’d sure be nice if there were a discernable reason. I mean, if you were a priest and left the priesthood to become an investigator, why would you even need that to be secret? You wouldn’t. But once it is a big dark secret and Poirot is fielding all kinds of flak about his fake resume and people keep asking him what he really did in Belgium, it seems pretty clear that it’s all to set up situations in which Poirot (an immigrant) is treated like shit. Crome bullies and yells and sneers and disrespects Poirot on the grounds that he’s a phony—he even says Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally) was discredited and under-recognized because of guilt by association, because Japp had not called out or publicly disavowed the fraudulent Poirot.

The ABC Murders is set unironically in its native 1930s London, and Phelps has inserted a fairly thickly-painted substrate of now-isms. The characters pointedly use they/them as a gender-ambiguous pronoun, for example, or dedicate a very noticeable amount of dialogue to speculation over whether the killer is a man or a woman (these data might not have been available in the 1930s, but women make up such a small percentage of serial murderers that for Poirot to even raise this line of conjecture would realistically have required some pretty unusual forensic evidence). In a cheeky, explicitly nouveau version of the story, these gestures might have hung together wonderfully. In context, they’re quite distracting, and extremely derp-y.

What surpasses “derp” and rises to an even more questionable level, though, is the constant ringing of nationalist and anti-immigrant nastiness bells. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that two of the things I watched right before screening this were HBO’s Brexit and Season Three of Sherlock, because had I not had both of those programs in mind, it’s possible the characterization of vitriolic (and pronouncedly stupid) resentment and distrust by British citizens toward Poirot (as a Belgian) might have felt a teensy bit less like a wildly unsubtle comment on the Brexit debacle. Might. I can’t know for sure. Phelps has been quoted not infrequently on her feeling that Agatha Christie would have written far more hard-biting, edgy, sex- and drug-soaked, high-controversy stories had she not been silenced (muted, at any rate) by the repressive era in which she worked. I have little reason to believe she couldn’t write what she felt like writing, and from what I can tell she was fairly conservative, both politically and artistically (those things are not always in lockstep). “Christie was a conservative” is incidentally something primarily pointed out by… conservatives. I’m not tarring myself with that brush because I like the smell of tar: I am a liberal person pointing out that Christie was probably not a suppressed revolutionary. She was by all accounts quite traditional and she wrote crime novels and if you were to read her books looking for evidence of racism, I’m pretty confident you’d find it hard to miss. Imagining you were taking up her mantle by inserting honkingly unsubtle anti-nationalist messaging is a hell of a stretch. Sorry, it is. And in the context of the whole Brexit moment, it feels like an artless, cynical, facile choice.

It can be wonderfully affecting to create a dialog between a canonized work and a re-envisioning of that work. It can be funny. Subversive. Critical. Loving. An adaptation can be a paean to its source or a satire of it, it can praise or question an author, it can remind us of why we loved, or hated, that story the first time—it can raise important questions about why some stories hang on forever while plenty of equally deserving ones don’t inflame the collective imagination much at all. Remaking old properties as a vessel for scathing social commentary is absolutely a worthwhile approach, but it takes rigor to do it well. Ticking off a handful of “contemporary hot-button” items isn’t rigor. It’s shorthand, and it’s passive, and it isn’t terribly interesting. Now we have an alt-canon of Christie crime stories where the issues that resonate with people right now are stuck onto the surface of older stories like so many Post-It notes. Hercule Poirot is a moody, wounded priest with a traumatic past, everyone distrusts and despises him because he’s Belgian, and he’s a has-been whose glory days involved appearing at murder mystery-themed parties for the idle rich because he’s apparently callous and cynical enough to delight in turning killers into parlor game fodder. The matron of the boardinghouse pimps her own daughter. Japp drops dead in the first episode and the biggest textual justification is that they needed to get Rupert Grint in front of the camera. And Thora Phelps knows her love interest murdered his own brother and she’s so venal she doesn’t give a crap. Luckily for Phelps, a wealthy white man was already the murderer in this one so she didn’t have to totally rewrite the ending to accommodate it.

I’m not saying “be outraged.” I wasn’t outraged at all. It was worse: I was bored and impatient. I increasingly wish makers of television could see their way clear to trusting that audiences are capable of accepting new characters. Acting like only a circumscribed, carefully selected cohort of old ones is allowed—well, it is becoming its own anti-foreigner conservatism, if you see what I mean. Bring on the foreigners! Let’s get some new blood in here. It’s not like no one’s writing original scripts. I promise, we’ll let these unnervingly new characters into our living rooms. We do not have to have seen them before. It won’t be like Brexit! We’ll embrace the synergies and the nuances and the free trade. I mean: There’s nothing wrong with re-adapting well-worn classics. It’s just that there’s something almost pathological about the degree to which the industry currently privileges those re-treads over new content that confronts our current moment on its own terms.

The ABC Murders premieres Friday, Feb. 1 on Amazon Prime Video.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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