I know adaptation is a tricky business. When a book I enjoy—or have read, or have simply heard about—comes to the screen, I don’t expect that it will be exactly the same as it was in print. But the difficulties of translating word to image don’t quite explain why a Nazi appeared in a Miss Marple story.
The most recent series of Miss Marple adaptations—the novels Ordeal by Innocence, At Bertram’s Hotel, Nemesis, and Towards Zero—have been a mixed bunch at best. Towards Zero was actually an enjoyable and extremely faithful adaptation—except that it isn’t a Miss Marple mystery. Neither is Ordeal by Innocence, which is a one-shot appearance by research scientist and, as it turns out, highly successful amateur sleuth Arthur Calgary. And I can understand that, since Miss Marple only appeared in twelve novels.
However, I do wonder why, of the twelve adaptations that Geraldine McEwan has appeared in, four have been non-Marple stories. Not only have Ordeal by Innocence and Towards Zero been modified, but also the earlier adaptations The Sittaford Mystery (originally with amateur sleuth Emily Trefusis) and By the Pricking of My Thumbs (a Tommy and Tuppence mystery).
And this is all the stranger when you think that four full-length novels haven’t been adapted since the Joan Hickson days: They Do It With Mirrors, A Caribbean Mystery, The Mirror Crack’d, and A Pocketful of Rye (although the latter, at least, is coming with the new Miss Marple, Julia McKenzie, in 2008). Even The Thirteen Problems would furnish material for at least one adaptation.
When all is said and done, however, the insertion of Jane Marple into non-Marple stories is less disturbing than the alterations made to actual Miss Marple plots. I first noticed this with Sleeping Murder, which is one of my favourite Miss Marple books; nowhere else is she simultaneously as fluffy and old-maidish but insightful and acute as in this novel. Not, alas, in the adaptation.
But At Bertram’s Hotel, which aired tonight on the ABC, was perhaps the strangest. It’s not the most satisfying of Miss Marple novels, to begin with; the plot is strangely melodramatic and somewhat implausible. What it does do well is show Miss Marple as an old woman, coming to terms with the disappearance of the pre-war England of her youth when she revisits a place where time seems to have stood still.
What it doesn’t contain, but the adaptation does, is the following:
- a garishly made-up German milliner who is seeking his father’s stolen Vermeers and Rembrandts
- twins who are highly successful quick-change artists and jewel thieves but, nevertheless, forget that right-handed people tend to wear their watches on different wrists than their left-handed siblings
- a black-mailing chambermaid
- a best friend whose arm is crippled after a bout of polio
- a chambermaid who shares Miss Marple’s first name and detective acumen
- an embezzling lawyer
- a Polish race-car driver and concentration-camp survivor turned Nazi hunter. Well, all right: the original did have a Polish race-car driver, but he’s slightly less of a Jack-of-all-trades
- a hotel that serves as a kind of Underground Railroad for Nazis
- an African-American jazz singer with a predilection for stolen paintings
- Louis Armstrong
- and, just in case you thought Louis Armstrong was the strangest thing in this list, did I mention the Nazi?
I started boggling when Louis Armstrong turned up, but it was really the Nazi who tipped the scales for me.
I could cope with Miss Marple being shoe-horned into non-Marple stories.
I could cope with radical alterations to characters (Richard E. Grant is wonderful, always, but that wasn’t the Raymond West of the novels) or even to otherwise strong plots, as in the thoroughly bizarre re-writing of the otherwise wonderful Nemesis. Frankly, I had hoped that the murderous nun in that one was as strange as it could get.
I could even cope with the fact that apparently the most accurate televisual adaptation of Christie’s novels is the Japanese series Agatha’s Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple, in which the two characters are linked by Miss Marple’s great-niece Mabel West and her pet duck Oliver.
But Nazis? If that’s really necessary, why not make it the Marvel Universe’s Swarm? At least in that case, to quote Wikipedia, you have a character whose “most notable feature is that his entire body is composed of bees with Nazi sympathies”.