Friday, October 08, 2010

the secret of chimneys

What is with all the perverted Miss Marples? And by that I mean both sexually and just plain off-course from their original Agatha Christie novels. The latest Marple, The Secret of Chimneys, was actually going along fine, all the way through the first murder, with a great group of actors, both familiar (Edward Fox, Dervla Kirwan) and new (to me, at least—Charlotte Salt, Jonas Armstrong), a marvelous setting, the perfect Clue-like atmosphere—"I was in the drawing room when I heard the shot." And then it totally blew it, introducing an unnecessary sexual subplot, changing the motives for murder, and worst of all, changing the murderer. All of this would have been OK if it had been pulled off with good plotting. But no.

Somehow, no matter who is playing Miss Marple since the wonderful and still definitive Joan Hickson did in the eighties and nineties, a sexual element to the stories has been introduced, actually, forced. Because obviously no one would watch Agatha Christie without more sex, right? That's why we tune in, right? Sheesh. It seems that the folks involved in these shows have taken Miss Marple's kitchen-sink mentality—nothing can shock or surprise the little old lady sleuth, whether it be sex, theft, murder, etc.—and completely missed the point of the character. She has managed to view all of life's experiences just by looking (some might say spying) out her garden window in St. Mary's Mead. All the added incest, love affairs, etc. in these productions are just that—added. And unnecessary. They'd do better to spend screen time delving into the characters. Give the actors something interesting to play. But that would require good writing ...

The funny thing is that Christie's novels have never been devoid of sex. Illicit love affairs (The Hollow, The Murder on the Blue Train) are frequently the cause of murders. There is almost always at least one romance blooming, sometimes two, in the backdrop of all the death and crime and murder. Sometimes the hero or heroine even falls in love with the murderer. There have been lesbian couples (A Murder is Announced) and clearly homosexual men (The Moving Finger), maybe not at the forefront of her plots, but as important characters. She was not exactly progressive, but for a writer who started publishing in the 1920s and ended in the 1970s, she wasn't afraid to explore character, no matter what their sexual preference. But the most recent Marples have not only brought sex to the forefront, and added gay characters (more as a token character, as their sexuality never seems to directly affect the story), but worse than anything, all the changes are done at the expense of the mystery. Which is why most tune in in the first place, for a good puzzle. Christie was renowned for her intricate plotting, ingenious twists and surprise murderers—but when the script has been changed to arbitrarily focus on the biggest-name actor in the cast, then it might as well be Murder She Wrote. Jessica Fletcher wouldn't have put up with this crap, so why is Miss Marple?

Admittedly, the original The Secret of Chimneys, written in 1925, had an extremely convoluted and complicated plot (and no Miss Marple, by the way), involving political intrigue and hidden identities, so it could stand some updating and streamlining for television. I don't mind if a Christie (or any book for that matter) is messed with in a creative way if it makes good television. I love that the Poirots have all been set and styled in the 1930s, and that Hercule Poirot's Catholicism, one of many character details in the books, has actually been brought front and center to add real dimension to David Suchet's portrayal of the Belgian detective. Change is good, if it is done well and for the right reasons. But these new Marples—uh uh.
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