Holy Hercules! I have a new standard for awful storytelling. My memory is mercifully short, but last night I suffered through the worst adaptation of a good novel that I can remember. As a story, it was utter trash, but as an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, The ABC Murders, I need stronger words than “appalling abomination” or “total travesty” (“grim perversion” is a good start). It was breathtaking in how it managed to corrupt every single aspect of the novel.
From start to finish, it was the diametric opposite of the original and a revolting cruel mockery of Christie’s beloved Hercule Poirot. The writing, the directing, the cinematography, the casting, the sets — each hawked a giant loogy in the face of source material.
Even casting John Malkovich as Poirot was a misstep.
That alone was my first clue something was off. I like and respect Malkovich’s work, and while I wouldn’t have imagined him as Hercule Poirot, I thought he could probably pull it off. Tragically, this egregious violation turned the character into something completely unrecognizable.
Indeed, other than the title, the character names, and the basic plot, the story manages to be the diametrical opposite of the original. Christie’s work, despite being about murder, had grace and class. The adaptation wallows in filth and perversion.
I’ll say now that I’m angry about what I see as a complete crapfest, so this is a rant.
In Christie’s novel, Poirot’s Watson, Arthur Hastings, returns from married life in Argentina to visit his old friend in London. Poirot has received a mysterious letter taunting him and saying a crime will be committed on a given date. The letter is signed “A.B.C.”
On that date, in Andover, Alice Ascher is killed in her tobacco shop by a blow to the head. On the counter is a copy of the ABC Rail Guide. It appears her ex-husband, a drunk with a threatening history, may be guilty.
Poirot receives a similar letter, and on the date specified, in Bexhill, flirty waitress Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard is found dead on the beach, strangled with the belt of her dress. Under her body is a copy of the ABC Rail Guide. Her jealous boyfriend seems the likely suspect, but because of the letters, it seems a serial killer is behind the crimes.
A third letter, delayed by a wrong address, leads too late to a third murder. Sir Carmichael Clarke is bashed in the head while walking outside his estate in Churston. An ABC is found under the body. By now, the police aren’t considering local suspects (which is exactly what the murderer wants).
A series of clues eventually lead the police to Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a traveling silk stocking salesman who suffers from epilepsy. In a departure from her usual style of focusing exclusively on Poirot, Christie introduces the reader to Cust in the second chapter. Other chapters follow Cust who begins to believe he must be the murder. He’s been in every location, and he suffers from blackouts and headaches.
A fourth letter and murder, this one in a cinema in Doncaster, breaks the pattern. The victim’s name doesn’t match the alphabetic pattern. But someone sitting nearby does have a last name starting with “D” (but not a first name), and it’s assumed the killer mistook the two in the dark.
Cust was in the theater, and after leaving finds a bloody knife in his pocket. His growing panic reaches new heights, and he ultimately turns himself in to the police — who are utterly convinced they’ve found their man.
But Cust has been very cleverly framed. One way to try to get away with a murder is to make it look like it’s one of many done by a serial killer. If successful, no one questions the possible motives of those who knew the victims.
The novel is widely and rightfully regarded as one of Christie’s best. She was 46 when she wrote it, and had been writing successful murder mysteries for 16 years. The ABC Murders, her 21st novel, is the 12th Poirot novel. She was at peak ability as a writer.
I reread it last weekend so it would be fresh in my mind for the adaptation. That may have been a mistake, but even if I hadn’t, I’m certain I would have hated what the BBC did to Christie’s detective and novel.
It’s almost as if they deliberately set out to corrupt every aspect of it.
Firstly, Hastings doesn’t appear at all, which removes Poirot’s excuse to explain his thought process. Secondly, Chief Inspector Japp has retired and in an early scene dies suddenly of a heart attack during Poirot’s visit. (The mind boggles.)
It seems that Japp was Poirot’s only supporter. The other police have a dim view of someone they see as a poser — and a foreigner. This 2018 adaptation stomps heavily on the nationalist racism angle. There is even a symbol, nazi suggestive, some wear as pins and seen in posters.
Here Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), more a supporting character in the novel, is the principle representative of the police. His disdain for Poirot is naked and blunt. (In the novel, it’s milder. Crome sees Poirot as past his prime and out of touch with new methods.)
This Poirot has fallen from grace and is viewed with suspicion. At one point the police even invade his apartment with a warrant. The writer, Sarah Phelps, doesn’t really explore the trope of suspecting a famous detective of boosting his fame by committing the murders he pretends to solve. It’s just framed as harassment and conflict. Contrary to Christie, the police here are generally framed as ignorant, stupid, and incompetent.
Indeed, everything about the adaptation is excessively lurid, melodramatic, sexualized, corrupt, and foul. Along the way we’re treated to a woman vomiting blood, a man stabbed in the head and falling into a pool of his own urine, a woman grinding the thick heels of her shoes into open wounds on a man’s back, and a man vomiting an fried egg.
The man in the last two cases is the presumed killer, A.B. Cust. The boarding house where he rents a room is run by Rose Marbury (Shirley Henderson) along with her daughter, Lily (Anya Chalotra). Both are slatterns. Rose abuses and prostitutes Lily (who does some prostituting on the side when Rose isn’t around).
Cust pays Lily to tie a silk stocking around his eyes and then walk on his back in a twisted and ugly attempt to drive out the evil.
We’re treated to closeups of Lily’s heels grinding into Cust’s unhealed wounds; blood flows. The deliberate filth and perversion boggled my mind. I think I know what Phelps was going for: a Jack the Ripper style story similar to From Hell (2001).
This adaptation generally boggled my mind. It was jaw-dropping how every aspect of the story seemingly deliberately perverted and twisted the original. In a way it was kind of impressive.
To those familiar with Christie’s work, this is a violation. British fans called it a “grim perversion” when it first aired in 2018 — just after Christmas, no less. The three approximately one-hour episodes aired on consecutive days starting on the 26th.
If one ignores the source material, or isn’t familiar with Christie or the novel, it’s still, I think, an utter crapfest. It’s truly a new low point for me. There is the notion of “painting with a fine or broad brush” and I sometimes refer to a heavy-handed blunt-weapon work as having been “painted with a roller.”
This was a case of vomiting on the canvas. (And as I mentioned, we’re treated to not one, but two actual cases of someone vomiting.) The story is as subtle and nuanced as a sledgehammer to the head.
In Christie’s version, A.B. Cust is a decent but hapless and incompetent man trying, but failing, to succeed in life. His epilepsy has made that even harder. In the adaptation he’s downright creepy and very clearly framed as a likely murderer.
The show goes out of its way to try to make us believe Cust is the killer, which is a bit weird in a whodunit that’s 85 years old. (I was going to spoil it here, but I decided it was more fun to dance around it. Christie always plays fair, but I think Phelps made it a lot harder, perhaps even impossible.)
The story depends on some very improbable activity on the part of the actual murderer. In the novel Poirot gets one letter per murder, and that, especially the one with the wrong address, are subtle clues. In this version Poirot gets a constant stream of taunting letters, which requires something very improbable. (Hint: Cust is in possession of the typewriter that turns out to have written all the letters.)
I’m particularly unhappy with, even rather offended by, the depiction of Poirot.
It’s not just the utterly absurd and pointless backstory about his having been a Belgian priest rather than a well-known Belgian police detective, or that he was a refugee from the war, but that he apparently staged “murder parties” to amuse people. There is even the implication that those were his main claim to fame.
It’s so contrary to everything Christie’s dapper detective stands for that it’s the biggest mind boggle of all. (Poirot didn’t “approve” of murder or see it as a game.)
Part of the deal is that it turns out Poirot has a vague connection with each of the first three murders. (He long ago helped deliver a baby on a train briefly stopped in Andover; he once had tea at the café in Bexhill where Betty now works; he staged a murder party for Lady Clarke’s birthday. These serve no purpose to the plot and make it more improbable.)
There is also that Poirot, famous for his reliance on “the little grey cells” isn’t very smart here. He’s tortured because of his backstory, and relies on a few clues the police should have found.
This version of Poirot is utterly out of character. Christie’s detective famously disdained crawling around for clues in lieu of applying his mind and studying the psychology of those involved. None of that is apparent here.
The thing is, it takes a smart writer to write a smart character. Christie was a very smart writer. Sarah Phelps doesn’t seem to be.
Finally, the actual murderer turns out to be a dangerous raving lunatic. In the novel, that person has a clear motive, but here the allusion to a Jack (or Jaqueline) the Ripper is very strong.
In what forms a tedious run-on ending, the killer admits the killings would have continued, whereas in the novel they were nothing more than a cover for one of them. What’s more, Poirot tricks the killer by saying (untruthfully) that a fingerprint was found on the typewriter, but here (clues again) there actually are fingerprints to link the killer to the typewriter.
As a final note, Christie’s novels generally involve a romance element. Two of the characters end up finding each other by the end. That not only didn’t happen here, but the adaptation actually subverts the eventual romance from the novel.
But then it pretty much subverted the entire novel and all its characters.
It was all lurid and stupid and I’m sorry I watched it. I found nothing redeeming about it. It was joyless and pointless and utterly lacking in class. None of the characters are likeable or worth knowing.
I give it a definite Ugh! rating, and I only wish I had a worse rating to give it.
Stay detecting, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.