Saturday, 17 July 2010

Two adaptations of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile

I must start with a confession - I love Poirot and Miss Marple, but have only actually read a tiny handful - you could count them on one hand. (I plan to rectify this situation now that I have a bit more time and a couple of long ferry journeys coming up). So, I haven't actually read Death on the Nile, though I do have a copy of the book (in French - I was on holiday and wanted to practise) and a vague knowledge, gained chiefly from Wikipedia, of what happens in it. For today, however, I want to talk about the two adaptations of the book that I've seen, one filmed for cinema and the other for television. Spoilers follow.

Death on the Nile (dir. John Guillermin, 1978) stars Peter Ustinov as Poirot and was the first time he played the role, taking over from Albert Finney, who played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (which is a gorgeous film). There's no question that Ustinov's Poirot is probably the furthest from Christie's Book!Poirot, but he's also my favourite - funny when he needs to be and deadly serious when he needs to be that, without being as caricatured as Finney. It also stars David Niven, one of my favourite actors from when I was little, as Colonel Race, which I think was his last film appearance (yes, one of my favourite actors when I was little was David Niven. The others were Errol Flynn, Dirk Bogarde, Robert Donat and Kenneth More. My Mum worked from home and we watched what she recommended, so I grew up on a diet of 1950s WW2 movies and the odd 1930s blockbuster). Like Orient Express, it has an all-star cast (check out IMDB for the full list) which I must confess I rather like - I like being able to recognise the actor, since I'm terrible at keeping track of character's names (as anyone who's read my Spartacus reviews already knows!).

Death on the Nile (dir. Andy Wilson, 2004) is part of the Agatha Christie: Poirot series, which I've written about before. In this case, however, the changes made to the book's plot are minimal and the TV adaptation is actually slightly closer to the book than the film. The main reason for this is that the book has an unusually large cast of characters which has to be cut down for the screen, and the television series, despite a slightly shorter runtime, includes a couple more characters and a subplot lost from the film.

The television adaptation is very good and Suchet is excellent as ever, even showing us just a little of Poirot's own emotion and loneliness. Overall, though, the film is more satisfying. With more time and fewer subplots, the film is less rushed than the TV episode, and although the actors in the TV show are very good, they can't match the quality (or genuine American accents) of the film. The character of Jackie, in particular, suffers from problems that are not so much the fault of the actress, Emma Malin - who delivers a perfectly good performance - but from writing and direction choices. TV!Jackie is just too brash, too confident and too in control, so when she shoots Simon and goes into hysterics, it feels like it comes out of nowhere, making the resolution easier to spot. Also, she's up against Mia Farrow. Farrow's Jackie is so fragile, so beautiful and yet so clearly slightly unhinged and capable of malice that she's perfect, both in her role as victim and later when the truth comes out. Her performance is note perfect and would be nigh on impossible to top.

In one other aspect Farrow's Jackie has a distinct advantage over Malin's, and that is the reason I'm covering these adaptations on the blog - Farrow's Jackie gets her facts right! I don't know whether the TV series deliberately gave Jackie incorrect information, which would be a reasonable enough thing to do - she is, after all, a fictional character who is not supposed to have any special expertise in Egyptology and who trots out trivia from Egyptian history as a slightly odd way of tormenting her rival and former friend with her presence. She may have researched these facts and very quickly and she may not be too bothered about their accuracy. Other characters do make deliberate mistakes - when Daisy Donovan's Cornelia describes this as her first trip to Europe, I really hope that's a deliberate mistake! However, there are a couple of things that make me think this isn't what's going on with Jackie.

Firstly, I think Jackie needs to have her facts right. I think a character who will be revealed to be as scheming as Jackie would bother to check what she was saying, and I think her torturing of Linnet works better if she's accurate. The smug, self-satisfied look on Farrow's face as she throws bits of Egyptology at Linnet, especially at the temple of Abu Simbel, is a look of utter superiority, which doesn't work if she's wrong - even though Linnet, who isn't an Egyptologist either, wouldn't know that she was wrong, she ought to know that she's right. (I should confess at this point that I haven't checked every single measurement Farrow quotes, but nothing she says stands out as wrong). Malin's Jackie doesn't describe things in nearly as much detail as Farrow and comes out with very odd ideas - at one point she seems to imply that the sphinx came to Egypt from Greece (which is the wrong way round).

Secondly, Dr Bessner also produces some inaccurate information. Again, the character is not an Egyptologist and might just be supposed to be wrong, but he is a bookish character trying to impress a girl with his knowledge, so why wouldn't he check his facts? Dr Bessner claims that Isis was impregnated by her son's sperm. I study Isis in her Classical form rather than the ancient Egyptian Isis so it's just possible that there is some ancient Egyptian version of her myth somewhere where this is what happens, but the usual version of the Isis myth is that she managed to get pregnant by her dead husband's corpse. (I do, however, love Cornelia's reaction to this story, as she exclaims 'Heavens to Betsy!').

I shouldn't be too harsh on the TV adaptation for a few bits of slightly inaccurate ancient history, and they do get a lot of it right (there's some quite amusing at accurate information provided on Hathor at one point). The trouble is, odd slip-ups tend to take me out of the story, which is always a shame, and I genuinely believe that characters like Jackie and Dr Bessner ought to have accurate information because their characters would take the time to make sure they did. I also love the way Farrow's Jackie throws statistics, measurements and dates at Linnet as if they were weapons, which Malin can't do with her more vague information.

The other advantage the film has is, of course, it's larger budget, which means we get to see beautiful views of the pyramids, the temple at Abu Simbel and other Egyptian sites. You just can't fake the monuments of ancient Egypt, and the film captures them beautifully. It is hardly the TV show's fault that it doesn't have the budget to do that, but it does give the film an extra dimension. On the other hand, the TV show has a rather fun sequence where James Fox's Colonel Race approaches on a camel (I think - might have been a horse) swathed in desert robes and looking like Lawrence of Arabia. That made me smile.

The temple at Abu Simbel. Not my photo, sadly, as I haven't been to Egypt yet!

Both adaptations emphasise this as one of Christie's more romantic stories, and the dramatic setting sets off the love stories, both tragic and sweet, very well. Ancient Egyptian history isn't exactly romantic in and of itself, as Cornelia discovers when Dr Bessner tells her some of its mythology, but the sheer scale of the mouments left behind and the always spectacular beauty of the desert provide a suitably epic backdrop for romance. Ancient monuments and empty desert also emphasise Linnet's essential problem - the fact that she is so very rich. Her elegant gowns next to ancient stones make a nice visual contrast that keeps the reason all her fellow passengers hate her uppermost in everyone's minds. Ancient Egypt, essentially, is little more than a backdrop - but it's a very impressive backdrop indeed.

5 comments:

  1. (or genuine American accents)

    I think it was Peter Cook who said that British performers should never do American accents for an American audience and American performers should never do British accents for a British audience. I know it always sets my teeth a little on edge when I hear an "American" in a British show. The sole exception to this rule appears to he Hugh Laurie, who has managed to convince millions of Americans that he is one of them.

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  2. Hugh Laurie is just a genius.

    I've heard some very good accents on films, certainly British ones (Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors and Shakespeare in Love for example) and I think American ones as well, though I'm not as good a judge there (Kate Winslet's accent in Titanic sounds right for the period to me). But I think TV suffers from not having enough time to really work on it, and not having the budget for a dialect coach.

    (Of course, there are plenty of terrible examples in films too, but I felt I should stick up for the good ones!)

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  3. Did you know Agatha Christie wrote at least one mystery that was actually set in ancient Egypt? I think it was called Death Comes As The End. I read it ages ago, when I was about twelve, but don't remember much about it except that I rather enjoyed it. Well, I do remember the murder method, but wouldn't like to spoil it for you if you ever get your hands on a copy.

    Christie was married to an archaeologist so I suppose she any mistakes about ancient Egypt she make would be deliberate.

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  4. No I didn't, I'll have to seek that out! I knew she'd done a few linked to archaeology because of her husband - will have to read Murder in Mesopotamia at some point as well, I saw the TV adaptation but can't remember it very well

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  5. Poirot is good. Inspector Barnaby is better!
    Sadly, I can't think of a classically themed Midsomer Murders, although you do get posh families with Latin mottoes.

    D.

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