by Catriona Mills

If Only His Body Had Been Entirely Composed of Bees . . .

Posted 24 February 2008 in by Catriona

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”.

Share your thoughts [7]

1

matt wrote at Feb 27, 02:48 AM

The appearance of Nazi’s in any story is just so that the audience knows that the bad guy really is very bad and deserves everything he gets. It’s a literary shortcut aka laziness.

Matt

2

Tim wrote at Feb 29, 11:17 AM

Any story? How about stories set between 1920 and 1945?

Admittedly, At Bertram’s Hotel is probably set in the 1960s. I didn’t see the adaptation, but feel obliged to suggest that the novel represents Christie’s closest engagement with the notion of the hyperreal.

3

Catriona wrote at Mar 1, 12:05 AM

The books was published in 1965, but I have a feeling the adaptation might have been set a little earlier. So, yes, Nazis were a real issue at the time and Nazi-hunting a serious concern. In fact, I thought the revelation of the Polish driver’s interest was rather nicely done.

But I still have two problems:

The Nazi was just a sub-plot. He wasn’t the main plot, and was in all respects thoroughly irrelevant.

Because they’d added the Nazi/Underground Railroad aspect, they actually stripped out all the plot justification for the exaggerated nature of Bertram’s, and that left that engagement with the hyperreal, as you say, Tim, just hanging in the air.

It was awful; perhaps even worse than Nemesis (murderous nun!) and Sleeping Murder (colonial jewel thieves!)

4

Tim wrote at Mar 1, 02:26 AM

Oh my. Did they at least point out Miss Marple’s nostalgia?

5

Catriona wrote at Mar 1, 04:48 AM

Yes, and no. They opened with a sepia-tint young Miss Marple arriving with her aunt in . . . 1891, I think. Maybe 1901. Then that faded to her arriving in the present, and she did openly state that nothing had changed.

But they dropped the reason why nothing had changed—so you didn’t actually see Miss Marple coming to a realisation of the passing of her generation/her version of England. Very disappointing.

I was also irritated, on that subject, by the completely unnecessary reduction of her inheritance from Jason Rafiel in Nemesis, actually; it dropped from twenty thousand pounds to something like five hundred, so you lost the sense that Miss Marple was going to be able to live her final years with some comfort and little delicacies.

6

Tim wrote at Mar 3, 08:52 AM

I haven’t seen any episodes of this version, and the more I hear, the less inclined I am to change that.

7

Catriona wrote at Mar 3, 09:19 AM

Really, I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t bother.

People are frequently criticising Agatha Christie for the simplicity of her writing and for snobbishness (and, I do wonder, given the casual racism—so much of its time, but still jarring—would I give them to my putative children? It didn’t hurt me when I was younger, but it jars me more and more as I get older.)

But she really knew how to put a plot together.

And I’ve always admired the way she gives us everything we need to know, even if she does openly direct us away from relevant points.

These script-writers aren’t in her class. It’s a little like Dalziel and Pascoe; they moved absurdly far away from the originals, and now write their own scripts, and I no longer care to watch.

Comment Form

All comments are moderated and moderation includes a non-spoiler policy based on Australian television scheduling.

Textile help (Advice on using Textile to format your comments)
(if you do not want your details filled in when you return)

Categories

Blogroll

Monthly Archive

2012
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
2011
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
August
October
November
December
2010
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
October
December
2009
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December
2008
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December