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Home»Features»Agatha Christie on screen: Looking at film, TV adaptations of author's crime novels on her 131st birth anniversary week»

Agatha Christie on screen: Looking at film, TV adaptations of author's crime novels on her 131st birth anniversary week

From Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Mahurat to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, here's taking at look at how Agatha Christie’s works have been translated for audio-visual media, during the author's 131st birth anniversary week. 

Agatha Christie on screen: Looking at film, TV adaptations of author's crime novels on her 131st birth anniversary week
  • Pratishruti Ganguly

Last Updated: 02.45 PM, Sep 16, 2021

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Agatha Christie is one of those authors whose works are considered essential reading for young crime fiction aficionados. Her most popular works - Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Five Little Pigs, Crooked House - have been written and debated about at length.

The enigma of the intuitive Hercule Poirot, the observation skills of Miss Marple, intricately woven storylines and unexpected plot twists that neatly all tie up in the end appealed to readers of escapist literature. With such enduring popularity, it is no surprise then that Christie's crime fiction novels have been translated across platforms, from podcasts, films, shows and graphic novels.

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It was the release of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express that incited a renewed interest in audiences about Christie. The film, directed by Branagh himself, featured him as the detective extraordinaire Hercule Poirot. Branagh’s version of Poirot was as close to the fussy, control freak sleuth in the books, who demands perfectly cooked eggs for breakfast, and disapproves when done incorrectly. Whereas critics showered praises on Branagh’s impeccable recreation of the beloved detective, the film itself was panned for failing to inject life into his outlandish, yet bland world. Still, with a cast boasting of names like Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Johnny Depp, Branagh’s take on the popular fiction grabbed enough eyeballs to justify an upcoming sequel, Death on the Nile.

This upcoming film will see Branagh reprise his role from the 2017 movie, and feature Hollywood heavyweights like Gal Gadot, Rose Leslie and Letitia Wright along with Bollywood actor Ali Fazal. As the film awaits its release next year, Branagh has already begun talks about expanding his Christie universe.

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“You feel as though there is a world — just like with Dickens, there's a complete world that she's created — certain kinds of characters who live in her world — that I think has real possibilities," Branagh once revealed in an interview.

Indeed, with over 66 novels, short stories and plays under her name, filmmakers in the past have resorted to the many texts of Christie for inspiration. Celebrated Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh adapted The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side for his 2003 caper Shubho Mahurat. Veteran actress Rakhi effortlessly slipped into the role of Ranga Pishima, a hobbling, bespectacled and paan-chewing Miss Marple. Ghosh’s retelling was set against the backdrop of the Bengal film industry, offering insights into the inner workings of manufacturing glamour. While it played out like a classic whodunnit, the film was more interested in building characters and their interpersonal relations than shock value. Expectedly, the film earned two National Awards that year, including one of Best Bengali Feature Film. It’s a shame the auteur never got to work on any other Christie stories.

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Who did, for over 25 years on TV, was David Suchet. Suchet’s association with Hercule Poirot dates back to 1989 when the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot premiered on television. His take on Poirot was a concoction of sentimentality and stoicism, someone who would refer to himself in the third person to separate his own self from his genius. He was physically the short, stout moustachioed man of Christie’s creation. But Suchet’s Poirot had a mischievous grin, a piercing eye and a sharp wit. As a matter of fact, Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks assured the actor that his portrayal would’ve struck a chord with the celebrated author.

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During an interview with The New York Times, Suchet divulged that his portrayal was not based on the novels, which he hadn’t read, but Albert Finney’s take in his Oscar-nominated role in Murder on the Orient Express. This 1974 film was universally acclaimed by critics and audiences for sustaining the suspense throughout the film, even for those who had read the novel beforehand. Finney’s borderline caricaturish Poirot fit into the relentlessly entertaining world built by director Sidney Lumet.

John Guillermin's Death on the Nile (1978) recast Peter Ustinov as Detective Poirot, reproducing the stylised old-world charm of the 1974 predecessor. Ustinov’s garrulous Poirot made him into a suave sleuth, but it definitely lacked Finney’s tautness of manners.

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Apart from these, there are several loose Indian adaptations of Christie texts, among them are Dhund (1973), based on her play The Unexpected Guest and the Malayalam movie Grandmaster (2012), based on The A.B.C. Murder and Gumnaam (1965), a Hindi film inspired by And Then There Were None.

Gumnaam is perhaps the unlikeliest adaptation of Christie, with Mahmood’s comic timing and Helen’s dance numbers keeping the audience hooked. Directed by Raja Nawathe, Gumnaam isn’t the crisp whodunnit it is based on. In fact, many characters don’t even get professions apart from Manoj Kumar, Pran and Madan Puri. It almost urged Christie purists to “gam chorke manao rangreli” in a signature frivolity.

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Future Indian adaptations will perhaps not have the giddy foolishness of Gumnaam, considering Vishal Bhardwaj, known for his rooted Shakespeare films, will develop a film franchise based on the author’s works. Yet, that Agatha Christie will return to screen through familiar and not-so-familiar screen adaptations perks up hopes of adults who miss the simple pleasures of digging into a crime novel for lack of time, but wouldn’t mind revisiting their favourite classics through the prism of cinema.

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