Sunday, 9 June 2013

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Elephants Can Remember - ITV review

Agatha Christie's Poirot began its final series tonight with Elephants Can Remember, featuring David Suchet as Poirot and Zoe Wanamaker as Mrs Ariadne Oliver. The book, it has to be said, is one of Christie's worst, a rambling effort written at the end of her career when her powers were failing and her publishers were too much in awe of her to edit what she wrote with the necessary ruthlessness. I read it not long after its first publication in the early 70s, and was so disappointed that it's one of the few Christies I've never bothered to reread..

Oddly enough, the flaws of the original presented more of an opportunity than a grim challenge for the screenplay writer, Nick Dear, a BAFTA winner whose CV includes a version of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I can think of a number of Christie books that have been ruined by over-the-top adaptatons in the past few years, but Dear did a good job with this "cold case" mystery, inventing liberally to compensate for a lack of dramatic material in the book.

As with a number of other televised Christies, the action was shifted to the between the wars period that seems well suited to puzzle stories of this kind, even when they were written much later. Wanamaker was, as usual, great fun in her zestful efforts to establish the truth about the apparent murder and suicide of the parents of Celia Ravenscroft (well played by Vanessa Kirby, who was equally good in Kate Mosse's Labyrinth). It was a shock to see the super-glamorous Greta Scacchi playing the part of an ageing battleaxe, but like the rest of the cast, she was excellent.

People who don't like Agatha Christie point to flaws in characterisation and wildly unlikely plot devices, and Elephants Can Remember is a book which suffers from these weaknesses. But this lavishly produced TV version showed that sympathetic adaptation can work wonders with unsatisfactory source material. The result was decent Sunday evening entertainment, and certainly the screenplay is better than the book. But it's only fair to add that Christie cannot sensibly be judged by her last few novels. Her reputation is built on those ingenious classic mysteries she wrote long before her powers declined, and could hardly be more secure.   

12 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I have to admit that I agree with you about the original story. Sad to say, not at all Christie's best or anything close to it. Still, some interesting nuggets in the story and I'm glad the TV production turned out well.

The Passing Tramp said...

At least Elephants has a plot for an adapter to work with, so in that sense is not quite in the total disaster category that Postern of Fate is (can't wait to see Postern remade as a Marple story, lol).

On the other hand, I was disappointed with the recent Third Girl adaptation. I was sure they would improve that not too great book and didn't feel they did. Hallowe'en Party was better.

Elaine said...

I agree that this is one of Christie's worst books. Another of her later books, Nemesis, which I felt rambled a lot and was shapeless was dramatised superbly with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple (still the best in my opinion)and is one of my favourites out of all the adaptations. Some of the recent Poirot TV series have been disappointing and have strayed from the story and characters but with this particular title that might be a good thing!

Christine said...

Yes, I was interested to see what they could make of a pretty ropy plot. The writer did improve on it, but still there were moments when I found my attention wandering. The problem is that they have already done all the best ones!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Christine, I think you've made a fair point.
Elaine, good to hear from you and I hope the Folkstone Festival proves a great success.

John said...

I agree with Curt -- ELEPHANT... is nowhere near as bad as the monumental snooze fest POSTERN OF FATE. Ugh! We in the US won't get these for a while as part of MASTERPICE MYSTERY, but I'am eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of CURTAIN which I think has an ingenious plot. What a way to send off Poirot!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi John. Curtain is, I think, the most under-rated Christie of all. A brilliant concept, perhaps executed in a subdued way, but memorable all the same.

Lucy Fisher said...

(Thrilled to see you on TV!) Postern of Fate makes sense if you have read her autobiography. She rebuilds her old family home and fills it with all the bric a brac she remembers. The plot makes no sense, but it COULD have, just... and her criminal mastermind sounds rather like Bin Laden.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lucy, good to hear from you. Thought-provoking point about Postern, thanks.

Lucy Fisher said...

I gave up on "Elephants" after five minutes. The actors seemed to be doing turns rather than interacting (tho the setting was stunning). Where was the banter between Poirot and Oliver (Cher madame!)? And Scacchi shd have been comic and intrusive - oh, never mind! The Mirror Cracked with Joan Hickson is on Alibi as I type. One of the best.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lucy, let's see whether you can be tempted by tonight's offering. Two merged short stories, I gather...

HaarFager said...

I have to admit I've only read Elephants Can Remember but once as well. Thanks to your article, I may have to revisit it again for old time's sake. Thanks for the inspiration!