I watched Masterpiece Mystery last night, featuring their new production of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. And I am very, very sorry to say that the producers have wedged Miss Marple into the story and removed Ariadne Oliver (whom I saw in Hallowe’en Party last week on PBS), Colonel and Mrs. Despard (last seen in the novel Cards on the Table) and Mr. and Mrs. Dane Calthrop (last seen in the novel The Moving Finger). They have also invented a couple of characters out of whole cloth and sprinkled them over the production like dog turds on a freshly-cut lawn.
What on earth are they thinking? Russell Lewis, given credit for the screenplay, has a number of excellent credits to his name, including episodes of Inspector Morse, Wycliffe, Cadfael, and Lewis. (Oddly enough he also has numerous acting credits to his name, including portraying Lucius in I, Claudius. ) Some of his work has been the creation of a screenplay from an existing work — Cadfael, Morse, Wycliffe — and others have him creating an original story in an ongoing series.
The point is, Mr. Lewis knows the difference between adaptation and creation; I can only assume that this production’s producers are to blame for this ghastly slumgullion. Although I find it difficult to believe that the character of Jane Marple has to be added to an Agatha Christie story for its adaptation to television to be saleable in the United States, I can barely accept it. But why on earth did they need to tamper with the work of one of the best-selling writers in history in a completely unnecessary way? It’s not as if they didn’t have Ariadne Oliver on tap — she was in the previous production that I saw a week ago. Why strike out Christie’s characters and substitute your own? I mean, Mr. Lewis is a good writer, but he’s no Agatha Christie. In fact, nobody is Agatha Christie. She sold well for a reason, and to simply substitute your own judgment about what the audience will like to see is both sublimely arrogant and horribly mistaken.
I have seen productions in this series that have slightly changed the motives of the murderer(s) in order to make them more interesting to a modern audience; for instance, adding a homosexual affair to the events of The Body in the Library and changing the identity of one of the murderers. I actually enjoyed that production because, frankly, I’ve read the book a number of times and seen the original TV production with Joan Hickson, my favourite Marple, perhaps half-a-dozen times also. It was amusing to have my expectations derailed slightly, and I am not one who regards every word that drops from any author’s pen as sacrosanct. But subsequent productions have been pretty much a disorganized gang-bang in which anything is fair game. This specifically includes any story Christie wrote which contained neither Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, all of which seem to be determined to add Marple during the TV process. Miss Marple now has a history of unrequited love which is nowhere in the books and seems determined to pop up everywhere, in any context, like Russell Brand on talk shows. I mean, why stop there? Why not re-purpose a few old creakers by, say, Freeman Wills Crofts or Ellery Queen, take out the detectives and add Jane Marple? Why not re-make the entire Perry Mason series with her instead? Murder, She Wrote? The Sopranos? Where in the World is Carmen Santiago? Apparently the new watchword is, add a dash of Marple to any bloody thing, like onion salt. Next they’ll be bringing in Chloe Sevigny to play her as a young woman, or Emma Watson, or Boy George.
Sorry for the outburst. I actually had to stop watching this ghastly travesty last night because I was falling asleep and kept being awakened by a burst of anger as I realized the producers had made yet one more alteration to a perfectly good novel that deserved better. I may go back to it, or I may just save my eyes. The acting and production values are certainly very high quality work. Jonathan Cake as Mark Easterbrook, the original protagonist, is very good, as is J.J. Feild as Paul Osbourne. And if the producers ever produce an Agatha Christie vehicle that sticks reasonably closely to the original material, I’ll be there. But I cannot recommend this one. Go read the book.
I am told that next week is The Secret of Chimneys, an adaptation of another novel which did not feature Jane Marple. I rather liked that novel and will be watching to see how they mangle it with horrified fascination.