Doc On The Box – The ABC Murders

So we need to talk about Poirot, I guess. The reaction to Sarah Phelps’ latest Agatha Christie adaptation/desecration (delete as appropriate) seems to be pretty bipolar, people either loving it or hating it. So as I seem to be at neither extreme, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

You probably know the plot. Hercule Poirot receives a few letters signed “A.B.C.” warning of upcoming killings – Alice Asher in Andover, etc. Meanwhile the disturbed Alexander Bonaparte Cust finds himself at the locations of the murders, somewhat confused as to what he is doing there. Four murders later and the killer is apprehended.

And, to be blunt, it’s my favourite Poirot novel – I think it was the first I read, which helps with the surprise, but it holds up well on re-reading. It’s an absolute classic in the Golden Age serial killer genre. It’s bloody brilliant. So what about the adaptation?

It’s not the first time it’s been adapted – Tony Randall’s The Alphabet Murders is based on this and, apparently, is a travesty. In this case, needless to say, you would need to make changes to the plot to make the story last three hours without it dragging. And it is the nature of Phelps work to make it more character-driven than the original story. So which of the changes work, and which didn’t?

Let’s start with Poirot himself. The idea that he was not popular in the police force and has fallen from grace is fine. Apparently working closely with him destroyed Japp’s reputation as well. That’s fine. The idea that Poirot might not have been a policeman when he fled Belgium at the start of the war… it’s an odd decision, but I thought that worked too. Sure, you are changing the character – please, dear reader, don’t start banging on about subtext, there was never any doubt about this in the stories – but it works, I thought. But the one thing that really bugged me about this Poirot was the murder party. That Poirot, while at the height of his powers, no less, would rock up to dinner parties and organise games of murder. This a) wouldn’t be done by “proper” Poirot in a million years and b) wouldn’t be done by this tortured Poirot in even longer. Plot-wise, it was necessary to generate the link between Poirot and the murderer, but surely Malkovich could have looked like he was forced to be there. But no, he seems to be embracing the experience, which just didn’t sit with the experiences.

Right, over to Cust. The problem with Cust is that you have to portray him as the prime suspect despite the fact that this being an Agatha Christie tale, he almost certainly isn’t the killer. So how much screen time do you give him? How do you make him a character without giving away the fact that he’s a massive red herring? I’ve no idea, but weird S & M with the landlady’s daughter is a strange choice. Of course, I know that Cust isn’t the killer, but I wonder, did anyone who saw this and hadn’t read the book actually think he ever was?

And now the killer. Glad to see that they hadn’t changed it, but there’s only one alternative suspect here. Phelps never tries to make anyone from the Andover or Bexhill killings remotely suspicious and spends a lot of time at the Churston household, with only the killer or the ambitious maid being suspicious – I did wonder if they’d switched the killer to her. But the problem here for me is the fact that the killer in the book is ruthless and logical whereas here he’s basically a loony, seemingly willing to work through the whole alphabet until Zebadee Zachariah from Zion is dead. The link between him and Poirot seemed really forced.

And the biggest problem for me? Where was the detection? How did Poirot deduce the killer’s identity? There’s something about a fingerprint but in the book, Poirot works out who the killer is and then proves it. The crucial clue from the letter in the book is completely missing – we just see Crome turning up to arrest him. Agatha Christie wrote detective stories but everything here was reaction.

I do think it’s hard to work out how to dramatically pace the ending – oh, the CGI train yard was a bit disappointing – but I’m not convinced the creators made it work here.

But overall, as a piece of drama, I thought this worked pretty well. I could have done without the high heels, but generally it worked well. But as a detective story…

Anyway, over to you. What did you think?

48 comments

      • There are two versions of the Arabian Nights at my library. One is the translation by Richard Burton. It includes many tales not in the sources, many pornographic embellishments, many distortions and changes. It is not a close translation. It is narcissistic version produced for a smug and self admiring audience. The other is translation by Hussein Haddawy. He worked carefully from the best scholarly reconstruction of the source. It is a close, and self-effacing translation. It is not written with a contempt for the original, nor for the original audience, and does not rewrite the book “because we know better”. It tries to simply and faithfully present the work, even if it is from another place and time.

        I haven’t seen it, but I can guess at Santosh’s reason 😉

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  1. I try to be open minded. but the last few versions of Christies stories I just haven’t enjoyed. Not sure why, costumes/sets wise they are wonderful but tweaking the story it never works, they are perfect as written. Will check it out on Prime

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    • I actually quite like that version – I’m a fan o the director, Frank Tashlin, and like Randall’s interpretation. It mucks around with the book but to me works because it is internally consistent. But it depends on what tickles your funny bone too of course 🙂

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  2. The A.B.C. Murders was an early Christie for me, but I seemed to remember there actually being some detection in it, yeah — not just “two men wear a similar hat”…surely not all the rare in the high-fashion 1930s!

    Still, I liked the older, less-cocky Poirot, and the idea that he’s fallen from grace in the eyes of the Met…dunno about the “surprise” of his pre-detection profession, not really sure what that adds except that it hasn’t been doe (with him) before. My overwhelming impression at present is that this was 2 hours of perfectly servicable television stretched over three slightly dull, overly miserable hours…geez, no wonder Betty Barnard was so intent on having a good time, because no-one else seemed to be!

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  3. I’ll be the first to admit that Phelps’ adaptations have looked at Christie differently, they’re much grittier, darker and show more of the social economic context. They’re not high gloss romantic presentations of a “Golden Age”. On the other hand, they’ve been a lot better than the later Souchets (see Cards on the Table, etc.) and an order of magnitude better than most of the Marple! productions (Postern of Fate) and the horrible Tommy & Tuppence of 2015.
    Phelps has given more depth to the characters, even the secondary ones like Betty’s sister, and tends to circle back to the victims. This older Poirot has not only fallen from grace at the Met, but from metaphysical grace and everything since 1914 has been driven by his sense that justice must be fought for – for every individual. And that by doing that, he can make some reparation on behalf of those he could not protect in Belgium.
    It may not be the Christie of 1934, but like Christie it holds out a vision of justice that the reader or viewer should strive for.

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  4. I don’t intend to watch it because I have not been happy with the many unnecessary liberties that are taking place and it seems to me all these so-called in-depth characterizations don’t add much to the story in my opinion. What’s the point of making Cust participating in S&M? Screenwriter Sarah Phelps adds this trait to Cust’s character but what’s the point??? What does it add? Is that to make Cust’s character dark? Sorry, I prefer Donald Sumpter who faithfully portrayed Cust in the 1992 version of the story with David Suchet as Poirot. It stands as the best ABC Murders film that I’ve seen; it’s as close to the book that you’re going to get. I don’t expect a more faithful adaptation of the book.

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    • To play Devil’s advocate for a moment – why does an adaptation have to be absolutely faithful? I’ve saw a fantastic version of Tartuffe at the RSC recently that differed significantly from the original (and not just in the translation). I’ve seen many great Shakespeare performances that played fast and loose with the original text. Maybe the feeling that Dame Agatha can be “interpreted” is just confirmation of her elevation to classic author status. But the S & M scene was over the top…

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      • Well the problem would go away if you Brits would simply repeal your laws against staging original works. Phelps could create her own detective, and sell stories to the audience under her own name. I am sure, unlumbered by that Agatha Christie name, she could attract a mass audience. I once wrote a script about an incontinent Neo-Nazi psychic detective, but the production fell through because I had to use the names “Simenon” and “Maigret”.

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      • I hate to confess it, but I side with the Doc here.

        To take a single, moderately relevant example. In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes is an absolutely splendid psychological thriller/crime novel. It’s probably in most serious crime-fiction readers’ top 100, and in some cases in the upper reaches of the list.

        The screen adaptation, In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nick Ray, with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is an absolutely splendid film noir/psychological thriller. At any given moment, it’s in my constantly changing mental list of the five best films noirs ever, alongside items like Out of the Past (1947) and The Third Man (1949). I’m far from alone in rating it that highly..

        Yet the adaptation’s extremely loose. The central individuals share the same names as those in the book, yet the relationships are quite radically altered, as are the personalities of the leading duo. The plot is drastically changed, as is the ending, as is the identity of the killer. All the things, in fact, that people around here complain about in the modern Christie adaptations.

        This doesn’t mean, of course, that the modern Christie adaptations are actually any good (of the ones I’ve seen there’ve been good, bad and indifferent), but it doesn’t mean either that, just because they <are adaptations, they’re lousy.

        in the case of the two versions of In a Lonely Place we have two quite wonderful semi-independent creations to enjoy for, so to speak, the price of one. I’m happy with that bargain.

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  5. More seriously PD,there are two answers that pertain here.

    First, an adaptation is objectionable when it’s purpose is to denigrate. I think that was clearly the case in Witness for the Prosecution, and it sounds like the case here. Epater les bourgeois.

    Second, when it is a fraud upon the public. If the adaptation fundamentally misrepresents the source material then it is a fraud if presented as an adaptation rather than as a reworking. This latter is not hard to do. Hindemith clearly labeled his “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber”. Was this production entitled “Metamorphoses on a Belgian Name by Agatha Christie”? There are a few aspects of Poirot’s presentation in the books that are central to his character. He is vain, egotistical, fastidious, confident, obsessive about neatness and symmetry, and famed and admired as a detective. And he curls his mustaches. Does that describe Phelps-Poirot? I get the impression it does not. If it isn’t Agatha Christie’s Poirot it shouldn’t be sold as such.

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  6. In a Lonely Place is a splendid example.

    Was the adaptation meant to denigrate Hughes, or her audience? It was not.

    Was it advertised and sold as “Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place”? Hardly. Bogart was the selling point. Grahame and even Ray were more prominent. Example https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=X&q=in%20a%20lonely%20place&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8#imgrc=u-BTK0gljokvZM:&wptab=s:H4sIAAAAAAAAAONgVuLUz9U3ME4pSol_xOjMLfDyxz1hKatJa05eYzTh4grOyC93zSvJLKkUUuNig7JkuHilELo0GKS4uRBcnl1MHPllqUVlmanlAGFigfJeAAAA

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    • I was responding to the Doc’s comments, not yours. You’ve added in this qualification about deceptive marketing, which I find interesting but not relevant to what I’m addressing.

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      • And the use of the word “denigrate” – where is the evidence that Sarah Phelps set out to actively criticise or undermine Agatha’s work? She has chosen to change aspects of the characters but denigrate? No.

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      • I also, come to think of it, don’t feel the producers can be accused of deceptive marketing: after all, they appear to be eagerly fanfaring all the changes and “improvements” they’ve made, from Poirot as a transvestite rentboy to Miss Marple as the disgraced former England rugby captain.

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      • Well, making Poirot a transvestite rent-boy and Marple a disgraced Rugby captain may not be deceptive marketing, but it is certainly denigration ! 🙂

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      • So if the interest is in the changes, why use the Christie name at all? We all know. It draws an audience. Which is why it is billed and sold as “Agatha Christie’s”.

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      • But fundamentally it is Agatha’s The ABC Murders. If you pretend it is otherwise, you would need to go the other way and accuse Phelps of plagiarism. The basic plot is Agatha’s, Phelps has chosen to change some aspects of the character and plot, admittedly too much for some people, rather than just rehash the Suchet version, which added a stuffed crocodile but not much else. I don’t think this debate is going anywhere other than round and round in circles so let’s leave it with us disagreeing.

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  7. Andrew Davies, adapter of classics for TV ranging from Pride and Prejudice and The Way We Live Now to War and Peace to Les Miserables, had a variety of interesting thoughts on the problems and challenges of adapting a novel for TV in a BBC Doc that aired last night. One that stood out was determining what was left out, what was backgrounded and what was foregrounded, but that whatever choice you made reflected the text or subtext. Sometimes, he indicated, the subtext comes to the fore because the author’s original audience knew the context and therefore what was being implied and a contemporary audience doesn’t (unless they’re social historians). The reason some works can be adapted time and again, he says, is that at their core they’re addressing real issues and questions.
    So, as PD notes, “interpreting” Christie does indicate that her work is moving into the ‘classic’ author category.

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  8. While not being against imaginative adaptations in themselves, including changes to the original plot if the changes work, this ABC Murders adaptation was just awful. Or should I say AWFUL!!! since every scene – in fact almost every moment – was presented in capital letters with explanation marks after it. No subtlety, no lightness of touch, no variations of light & dark, no humour, no joy. The book’s plot is one of Christie’s best, but here the deduction part of it was skipped over in favour of a boring, repetitious emphasis on some alleged trauma in Poirot’s past. The psychologizing was of the dumbest kind throughout. Were we really supposed to believe that Japp would been despised because he’d befriended the greatest detective of his day – the man who had solved all of Scotland Yard’s most difficult crimes – on the grounds that Poirot hadn’t really been a policeman in his youth? What world were these people living in? Well – obviously one full of perverse, foreigner-hating Brexiteers who wouldn’t have recognised a joke if it had stabbed them in the back in the library. I kept waiting for it to get better, but the drawn-out ending was even more dreary than the beginning! Maybe if they had dropped the Belgian business and got Poirot to speak at a normal pace instead of…very…slowly…in…a…peculiar…accent, it would have been better.

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  9. Apologies for coming to this late. I saw the first episode at a preview at the NFT in mid December, with Phelps and Malkovich and others in a panel after the screening. At the time my friend and I both agreed with the Doc’s main thrust – that having Poirot older and dying his hair all OK (taken from CURTAIN after all), his fall from grace also OK. This was in the service of a Brexit depiction of the novel that marries the story with the rise of fascism in Britain in the early 1930s. Conceptually this was all fine and I liked Malkovich a lot. But I thought it was often grotesque and needlessly unpleasant, especially but not only in dealing with Cust. All the characters are ferociously unpleasant (an as for the scene with the egg …). Episode 2 was the thinnest and the ultimate resolution was softened quite considerably. Which is to say, I think the idea was fine and the casting very interesting – but it didn’t make enough of it. More than anything, it seems that the Christmas Christies are now obliged to follow this dark and miserablist route due to the success of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, except that it is one of only 2 or 3 Christie that can legitimately work that way (ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE and CROOKED HOUSE are maybe the others) and the effect often feel as synthetic as the unconvincing CGI trains.

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  10. PS regarding the 1965 version, THE ALPHABET MURDERS, which is a comic version set in then contemporary London following on from the Margaret Rutherford Marple series (she even make a cameo appearance), I actually quite like it. My point being, I don’t mind a wacky adaptation of a Christie novel – whether it works or not depends on whether it succeeds on its own terms.

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    • One thing about the Phelps Christie adaptations – I wonder what someone who was unfamiliar with the novel would think about it. The BBC adaptations of classic novels often tweak the source material to various extremes, and often I wouldn’t be aware of it having not read the book. Of course everyone commenting here has read the book at least once…

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      • I think it is fair to question the motivation behind the changes. This can be a question of fashion, of what you think you can market to the public, of strong artistic hands making a pre-published work their own. I think it is legitimate to question all of these but to me, if it works on its own terms, then great. I don’t think this really did because all the unpleasantness felt like a stylistic trope. I hasten to add that Phelps at the NFT was remarkably forthright in saying that she has only read the Christie books she has adapted, but otherwise knows nothing about the author and the work. So make of that what you will. She used to be a writer on EASTENDERS and I think it explains a lot. What I did reject at the event was Phelps’ repeated suggestion that she was only bringing out what wasin the book already. This was true maybe of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, but is clearly hogwash regarding ABC and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (which I thought was poor on the whole).

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      • Witness was padded in the extreme, but imho, it’s not great source material in the first place. If Phelps thought all this stuff was in the book, it’s a shame she dumped the detection aspect that was definitely in there. I’ve no idea where the Poirot as a priest came from (although I wasn’t too bothered by that) but it sure as hell isn’t in the book, as well you and I know.

        What also isn’t in the book is the killer a) targeting Poirot, and b) being a psychopath. He’s ruthless, yes, but as soon as his plan is complete, he has a get-out clause.

        Also, and this is a minor point but it bothered me – no one ever makes an issue of the forename starting with the same letter – they just mention surname and the place.

        And… why kill the wrong person in Doncaster in this version of the plot? That isn’t drawn from the original…

        I could go on. I thought, as a whole, it worked as a drama and thriller, less so as a detective story, and given the Suchet faithfulness, perhaps taking liberties was a good idea. But hoping for less unpleasantness next time – well, it’s not Phelps, but it is Death Comes As The End, which iirc is pretty brutal even on the page. Brace yourself…

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      • There’s a point about None that I haven’t seen anyone make. Phelps is clumsy. She botches several dramatic moments. A big botch came early on with the record and the indictments. In the Rene Clair it’s extremely effective. We see the cast, assembled, quiet and reacting to a calm recital at a normal volume. In Phelps it’s this detached booming voice of god with no ensemble work. Less effective, less realistic. Clumsy.

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  11. Using the ABC plot as a way into the 1930s via Brexit has lots of potential – but yes, the storyline did get mangled in lots of silly ways (the crucial bit about the letter that was seemingly mis-addressed was thrown away) and didn’t really provide a valid reason for doing that. I assume they only had the rights to the short story version of WITNESS but to me it seemed a very unsuitable choice for the story and characters that Phelps added – all it did was make a very dark and unpleasant story seem silly by having a tricksy plot.

    They’re really doing that one next? It must be one of her least read books so they can probably do what they want with it 🙂

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  12. Well, we’ve been accustomed to novels of Ian Fleming’s James Bond being turned into movies that bear no resemblance to the contents whatsoever. They only use the titles.

    But Christie is kind of sacred. I even read that Sarah Phelps said ‘I’ve never read Poirot, [so I thought], ‘What can I add? What would I add to the idea of Poirot?’ She just invented the backstory, which – in my eyes – massively backfired.

    Why create a completely new history of a Poirot when we already know much of his past?

    That said, I’ve tried to watch ‘The ABC Murders’ but it felt dead. Malkovich played his Poirot too routinely. As if it was ‘just a job’.

    Sarah Phelps murdered Hercule Poirot on screen, just as Sophie Hannah did on paper.

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      • In the hopes of producing something better than The Spy Who Loved Me or Octopussy perhaps?

        Of course your logic is based on a false premise. Fleming purists DO object to the movies made after about 1965. You are asking, why don’t Christie fans care about Fleming?

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      • Fleming purists DO object to the movies made after about 1965.

        Which are the Bond movies that “Fleming purists” object to? Which, do please enlighten us, are the Bond movies that bear the slightest resemblance to the source novels . . . outside, that is, of the very early, rather fun 50-minute TVM Casino Royale with Peter Lorre?

        Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, has just posted that, unfamiliar with the source novel, he quite enjoyed The ABC Murders. He has whetted my appetite to see it.

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      • I think Christie’s work is more sacred than that of Fleming is because Fleming wrote thrillers and Christie whodunnits.

        Thrillers are more ‘time dependent’ and thus often need to be reworked to fit into a ‘new time’. Whodunnits are a puzzle and you need to follow the story to get at the culprit.

        Sarah Phelps chose not to do that.

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  13. I liked many aspects of this while also being disappointed by it. The main thing that I liked about it was its willingness to reimagine the Poirot character, to not be boxed in by his many other screen incarnations, and to discard or invent whatever was needed for this story’s dramatic purposes. (After all, if we want an adaptation that’s more faithful to the book, we can always watch the ITV film with David Suchet, or listen to the BBC Radio play with John Moffat.) Malkovich was really compelling to watch and his acting choices made the character a figure of pathos.

    I also liked the grubbiness and seediness, the extra bitterness, nastiness, or greediness that was added to characters like Betty Barnard, Donald Fraser, Charlotte Clarke, and Thora Grey. Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome was very good, especially in the early part where he is contemptuous of Poirot. The use of fascism and xenophobia to provide a threatening atmosphere has on-the-nose resonance with contemporary British politics.

    I was disappointed by the absence of anything in the way of detection. In a detective story one of the pleasures is seeing the way the detective constructs a logical thread of evidence, but that was more or less completely absent here. In the book Poirot starts with the fact that Cust has an alibi for the Bexhill murder (he was playing dominoes at the time), deducing that the scheme was intended to conceal one of the murders (“When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of related murders”), and noting that the mis-addressed letter came on the day of the Cartwright murder. There’s nothing like that in the Phelps version: no alibi; and the letter is apparently mis-delivered by accident. The only evidence is the murderer’s fingerprints on the typewriter, which were a bluff in the original. I guess I can see that Phelps wanted to avoid the clichés of the genre, in particular the summing-up scene, but the clichés are there for a reason. For Poirot to intuit the murderer by some means not revealed to us and then confirm it via a single piece of evidence is not a particularly satisfying bit of drama.

    Another problem with omitting the mis-addressed letter is that there is no longer an explanation for the involvement of Poirot. In the original he is selected because “Whitehaven Mansions” can plausibly be mistyped as “Whitehorse Mansions”, but in the TV series the murderer does not seem to have a good reason. Also it is not at all clear how the murderer knew that Poirot had been in Andover in 1914.

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    • Well, the reason for involving Poirot is that once upon a time, the killer met him once and now wants to give him a case worthy of his talents, which makes absolutely sod all sense as a motive, as presumably the killer didn’t plan on being caught. It makes sense if he wants to humiliate Poirot, but that would still involve Cust being caught and then the killer revealing himself and hence being caught. Both motives mean that in this case, the actual killer is insane, whereas they were merely ruthless in the book.

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    • Well thog you’re really too rude to reply to, but you seem to be arguing that Fleming purists wouldn’t object to any of the movies AND that none resemble the books. Odd that.

      “I would maintain the opposite. Outside of the first few Connery films and a handful of others since then, most of the Bond movies have been a waste of time. The books, on the other hand, have attracted perhaps the smartest readership of any genre writer since Raymond Chandler.” https://www.thedailybeast.com/literary-bond-superior-to-movie-version

      You might not agree with him, but he does exist.

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  14. I’m midway through Episode 1, and I don’t think I’ve seen all the things that have offended others, but this intrigues me. Malkovich’s Poirot is different from Suchet’s and Branagh’s, and probably much different from Christie’s. On TV and in the movies, Poirot always moved in the upper circles and he always had money. Not only is this Poirot older, he seems to be on hard times. When he travels to Andover, am I correct in observing that he is going by THIRD class? Phelps is not letting the audience forgetting that this is the year that Hitler came to power, and the xenophobia that Poirot usually deals with is much darker and sinister here. One thing about his age. If Poirot was in his fifties when he fled Belgium, he WOULD have been around Malkovich’s age in 1933.

    In short, I’m willing to go with this adaptation to see where it goes. I just hope that I will be able to turn off my brain when somebody sings “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. (Not that it isn’t a beautiful song, but the only way that character could have heard it is if she heard it from a certain doctor who made the mistake of singing it from her police box…)

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  15. Having watched the whole thing in it’s entirety, I am VERY impressed. No, this isn’t Suchet’s Poirot, but I could accept Malkovich’s Poirot a lot better than Kenneth Branagh’s whose was arguably closer to the books. The one thing I kept bracing myself for was hearing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” which I heard was used despite the song being written six years after the events of this TV miniseries takes place.

    (Speaking of which, the actual book was written in 1936 rather than 1933. Why the change. I’m betting it’s because that’s the year Hitler came to power, and it’s also the year after The British Union of Fascists was formed by Oswald Mosely.)

    Although I do miss the summing-up scene, I still like the way that Poirot catches the bad guy. In light of what his former profession used to be in this production, I would have liked to seen Malkovich’s character read these words instead of Christie’s as to ABC’s motive: (They’re in the public domain, so they could be stolen.)

    “Where does a wise man hide a pebble?”
    And the tall man answered in a low voice: “On the beach.”
    The small man nodded, and after a short silence said: “Where does a wise man hide a leaf?”
    And the other answered: “In the forest.”
    “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?”
    “Well, well,” cried Flambeau irritably, “what does he do?”
    “He grows a forest to hide it in,” said the [SPOILER!] in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”

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