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Who Killed The Agatha Christie Film?


There are, did you know, two names tied as ‘the bestselling writer of all-time’. With sales of between two and FOUR billion each (exact figures are frustratingly fuzzy), it’s apparently a joint win for William Shakespeare and Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie.

Curious then that while there's some new Shakespeare flick forever lurking on the horizon, Hollywood has never fallen in love with the Torquay-born murder scribe as it has with the Bard.

Maybe if Kenneth Branagh’s forthcoming Murder on the Orient Express remake sucks in the big bucks, it may kickstart a full-on Christie-Hollywood love-in. If it does, it’d be about time. There are 66 full-length Agatha Christie books, and only a fraction of those have ever been awarded the big screen treatment.

Where are the movies??

Apart from a few low-budget French, Russian and Bollywood knock-offs and one 1995 version of her novel Towards Zero that was altered so much the Christie Estate asked for her name to be scrubbed off it, there hasn't been a major movie adaptation of her work for nearly 30 years now.

Television loves Agatha Christie in a way the movies never quite have. TV actively abhors a Christie vacuum. The Joan Hickson Miss Marple episodes are reshown seemingly as often as Only Fools and Horses while Poirot was, for 24 years, a ratings-busting goliath for ITV.

But where are the movie adaptations? While the British film industry endlessly pillages the work of EM Forster or Oscar Wilde in order to market an antiquated sense of Englishness to the wider world, we shun the one writer who's more famous and successful than either of them.

Bringing Christie to Hollywood

It wasn't even us Brits who were behind the most commercially lucrative Christie adaptation. It took the man behind Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon – Sidney Lumet no less – to make 1974's sublime Murder on the Orient Express.

With a star-drenched cast and a career-defining turn by Albert Finney as the perfectly-'tached 'tec, Lumet's film is a masterclass in how to do Christie on screen – it's classy, funny, dramatic and has a last act reveal that will leave your head reeling at its sheer audacity.

Possibly Christie’s best – and most enduring – novel however remains And Then There Were None (which originally went by an altogether different, and more pungent, title). The BBC scored a monster hit with their swanky adaptation in 2015 (a previous version had been produced in 1949), and it remains the most adapted Christie book, certainly for the big screen.

French director Rene Clair helmed a deliciously bruise-black version in 1945 and other – mostly inferior versions – have followed, with dimestore writer and producer Harry Alan Towers producing three (only the first of these – with Oliver Reed as our hero Hugh Lombard – is anywhere near as bang-on as Clair's. By 1989's incarnation he had Frank Stallone as the lead).

Clair's film, despite its dominating English cast, was an American production to its bones. As was Witness for the Prosecution, which Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder brought to the screen in 1957. Despite this, Wilder’s take remains a faithful interpretation of Christie’s play, certainly more than the BBC-authored adaptation from Christmas 2016, which took outrageous liberties with the source material.

Aside from a few lowly-budgeted B-movies, UK cinema had shown little interest in their own Queen of Crime until director George Pollock, who had trained under the great David Lean, brought us the first screen Miss Marple in 1961's Murder She Said.

Unhappy with Marple

Christie was privately unhappy with Pollock's vulgarisation of her novel 4.50 From Paddington and Margaret Rutherford's rambunctious playing of her meek St Mary Mead sleuth. Christie loyalists have little truck with the movie and its three follow-ups, two of which inserted Marple into stories which originally headlined Hercule Poirot and the last, which wasn't even based on a Christie novel.

Not only was Rutherford's Marple a world and a moon away from her literary counterpart, but the movies' amped up comedy and relocation to the present day appalled Christie and Marple's long-time fans.

The commercial success of the Rutherford films led to an attempt to mount a similar Hercule Poirot series. There had been a string of Poirot B-movies in the 1930s starring Irish actor Austin Trevor as Christie's Gallic 'tec, and as a nod, Trevor turns up for a cameo in 1965's The Alphabet Murders, which fatally miscasts American star Tony Randall as Poirot.

Marple and Poirot TOGETHER?

It’s notable however for Rutherford's fleeting appearance as Jane Marple, making this film the only time Christie's twin titans of detecting share a screen together. Christie purists spluttered once more at the movie's frothy comic flavour and slack relationship with its source novel.

Of course, a Poirot film series did eventually come into being off the back of the success of Murder on the Orient Express. Albert Finney was asked to return, but his discomfort with the Poirot make-up made him pass on the follow-up, 1978's Death on the Nile.

Peter Ustinov took up the mantle for a series of six movies of steadily evaporating quality. Though the next film Evil Under the Sun was kept as a period piece, by 1985's Thirteen at Dinner, Poirot had been wrenched, ala the later Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes', into the present day.

Angela Lansbury warmed up for her later, Miss Marple-lite role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote by headlining as St Mary Mead's finest in a starry adaptation of one of the best Marple novels The Mirror Crack'd in 1980.

TV comes to the rescue

But apart from the Ustinov Poirot's, that's been pretty much it on film. Through the 70s and 80s, TV was pillaging the vast Christie archive, with ITV's cloyingly faithful Partners in Crime series, a run of American Marple TV movies with Helen Hayes and of course the BBC's justly celebrated Joan Hickson series.

Was there some truce at one point whereby the great and good of the film and TV worlds went for a pie and a pint together and decided that Agatha Christie would be TV's property and the movie world would stay away. Or is it that Christie had lost her commercial allure on the world stage?

What does the future hold?

There are plenty of books that, by not being Marple or Poirot-centred, aren't as likely to get the TV treatment and are ripe for a cinematic makeover. Christie's back catalogue is perfect for a company like the recently reheated Ealing, for instance, whose output has almost entirely been made up of selling the world our literary and film heritage, from St Trinians to Dorian Gray.

Let’s cross our fingers and toes that Murder on the Orient Express does monster box office and that Hollywood then scampers to the Christie archive to see what else it can plunder. And if someone like Judd Apatow wants to make a movie about Ms Marple, the street-smart, gum-chewing great-granddaughter of the tweedy Jane, who moves into St Mary Mead and begins following in her ancestor's footsteps, then that’s fine too! ;)

Murder on the Orient Express chugs into Cineworld on 24th November.