Tag Archives: adaptations

Murder on the Orient Express

I don’t know, but I would guess that this is Agatha Christie’s most famous book. The Wikipedia article lists a string of allusions to it in other works, and at least four dramatisations of it. Raymond Chandler used it (although without naming it) as an example of how not to write a murder mystery (like he would know! …. oh, wait.) (Sidenote: I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, other than skimming that essay and then getting annoyed at his attack on Agatha Christie. What should I start with?) And I’ve been going through an Agatha Christie phase for the last few weeks – we watched an episode of Poirot over Christmas (The Clocks) and since then I’ve wanted to go on a Christie-reading binge, as well as watching versions of her works: Witness for the Prosecution, a number of other episodes of Poirot (whatever I can get my hands on, really), and the all-star film version of Murder on the Orient Express.

One of the Poirot episodes I watched was also Murder on the Orient Express, and by sort-of coincidence I watched it fairly soon after watching the 1974 film version.  I was worried that I’d spend the whole time comparing the two, but I didn’t. I was very impressed by how differently they treated exactly the same material. Oh, sure, they made changes to the book (documented in Wikipedia, among other places – I won’t go into them here). But what interested me the most was how differently Albert Finney (1974) and David Suchet (2010) played Poirot, without many (if any) of the words changing.

A lot of that is because of the framing structure for each film. In the 1974 feature release, the film starts with the background for the case – the Armstrong kidnapping. It is a blatant, obvious, deliberate comparison to the Lindbergh kidnapping, with Colonel Armstrong even being a near lookalike of Charles Lindbergh. This film is much more about the case, about the puzzle. Not that Poirot isn’t important, but character development is not a factor – plot is. As such, a lot of time is spent establishing the suspects in the beginning – watching them all get on the train – and with the interrogations.

The Poirot episode, though, becomes almost entirely about Poirot. It starts with Poirot doing his classic explanatory accusation for an unnamed case – but this time one of the suspects shoots himself in front of everybody. This rattles Poirot, and he starts to wonder if his methods are still worth using. Not the methods he uses to solve the case, of course, because he still gets the right answers, but his methods of revealing the culprits. This is continued when he witnesses the stoning of a pregnant, unwed woman in Istanbul – bringing up issues of local/cultural justice versus absolute justice. The themes of redemption and justice are very much on Poirot’s mind as he boards the train.

All the details of the interrogations and the case are the same (mostly – again, Wikipedia has some of the variations) but the focus is not on the case itself. Instead, almost everything points to the themes of redemption and justice. Does justice provide redemption? Can you redeem yourself without justice being served? And whose responsibility is it to provide justice and redemption? What happens if the systems to provide justice and redemption fail to do so?

It was fascinating for me to watch such two different performances, and to see how the editing and script choices, and the framing scenes, made the exact same story turn into such very different films. The ending is still the same, the result is still the same, but in the 2010 episode of Poirot, Poirot is such a very different character by the end – he’s doubting everything about what he does and what he stands for. In the film, there is no doubt – Poirot is just doing what he does best, solving a mystery.

They’re both well worth watching, and my craving for Agatha Christie hasn’t faded yet….

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Do You Come Here Often? by Alexandra Potter

Writing a book that’s based, in plot and/or structure, on another work, is very difficult. There’s a fine line between an homage/inspiration and blatant stealing. Personally, I like the similarities to be there, but relatively subtle – although as I say that, I think of The Edge of Reason which lifts scenes almost word-for-word from Persuasion, and yet somehow I loved that and thought it worked pretty well, while I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because I kept hearing Howards End in my head and yes, I know that’s deliberate, but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I just know Forster too well – although you could say the same thing about Persuasion since the scene that tipped me off in Edge of Reason, while a major scene, isn’t one of the more obvious ones.

Anyway. For the most part, let’s say, I prefer things to be a bit more subtle. Or creative if they’re not subtle. The other Alexandra Potter book that I’ve read – Me and Mr. Darcy – is creative, but not really subtle. But then, it’s not meant to be. The title is “Me and Mr. Darcy”. The main point of the main character’s trip in the book is so that she can live out Pride and Prejudice. And she does. But it manages to be creative and interesting, which is why I kept it in my last book cull (even though there are a few British/American speech pattern things that don’t quite work, and I can’t believe that someone who’s so interested in Jane Austen really knows that little about England in general. Or packing for an air journey) and why, when I saw “new” Alexandra Potter books at the library and at the bookstores, I wanted to read them.

I put new in quotation marks because Do You Come Here Often? is a 2009 reissue of a 2004 book that was written probably in 2000/2001. There are a few year markers in the first part of the book, which is actually kind of annoying – if you’re going to specify the year, then the year should have some significance, should be meaningful somewhere else in the book. The type of references that these were, though, would have been just as effective if they’d been general and non-specific, instead of “look how I’m setting my book in a specific place and time!”  I forgot about it by the end, though.

Anyway, it’s a retelling of When Harry Met Sally, and it’s a lot more subtle about it than Me and Mr. Darcy was with Pride and Prejudice. There are also enough differences in the story to make it more of a homage than a retelling, including an extra subplot. But the basics are there: Hate at first sight between the main characters; lengthy gap before they see each other again, in a fairly random circumstance; they become platonic best friends; their best friends end up meeting and falling instantly in love; they sleep together when the heroine is in emotional turmoil over her ex, and then don’t speak again for weeks; the hero makes a big romantic gesture at the last minute. They even watch When Harry Met Sally together, and the hero quotes it near the end.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. It starts very slowly, Jimi isn’t really a likable character at the beginning (at least, his self-description made me shudder and go “Oh, one of Those Guys.”), the prologue was oddly coy/vague (until it was explained about three-quarters of the way through the book, at which point I had to go back to the prologue and go “….ohhhhhh.”). There were any number of things that, looking back on it from the distance of six hours, I wouldn’t have done if I’d written it, or would have done differently.  But, by the end, it works. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did (around the point where Grace leaves Spencer) I raced through to the end. (Plus, I felt smart when I figured out the When Harry Met Sally thing.)

I’ll keep it around, at least for now. I will also probably try to find Who’s That Girl at the library, and read it next time I’m there.  I’ll probably also watch When Harry Met Sally in the next day or so…..

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The Inkworld trilogy, by Cornelia Funke

I finally got through all three books in the Inkheart trilogy. I should probably find a better way to phrase it, as that makes it sound like it was a struggle or a chore to read them, and it wasn’t.

The concept is fascinating: Mo is a bookbinder and book enthusiast whose voice literally brings characters to life. As in, when he reads, things come out of the book into our world. Of course, balance must be maintained, so whenever something comes out, something goes in. Mo’s wife was taken into a book called “Inkheart” when one of the villains of the book came out…and now the characters are looking for Mo. Some of them want to go home; some of them want to take over our world. Mo and his daughter Meggie just want their family back.

That’s book one (Inkheart). It was filmed a couple of years ago with Brendan Fraser as Mo and Paul Bettany as Dustfinger (one of the characters). It’s not a great movie but the things that were flawed about it (especially lack of protagonist consistency) work in the book, where it’s easier and more obvious to switch between different points-of-view.

Books two and three are about the fallout from book one. Meggie is still obsessed with the Inkworld and is trying to find a way into it. She doesn’t quite know what she’ll do when she gets there: she just wants to go.

Most of books 2 and 3 explore the Inkworld and the inevitable change that occur, as every writer know, when characters take on a life of their own. Books 2 and 3 are also ways for Funke to show off the complexity and detail of the world she created but didn’t visit in Book 1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it is a fantastic world.

There’s quite a lot abou tthe power of language and word use, of course, and parts that deal with reader versus author: what kind of ownership does an author have over his work once it’s done? What kind of ownership does a reader have over his favourite work? What responsibility does a writer have to his characters and to his readers? In that element of the concept – the reality of fiction, the idea that we are all characters in a story – it reminded me of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. But where Sophie’s World is a deliberate education in philosophy, these questions in the Inkworld are explored through characters, so the reader never feels like they’re hearing a treatise.

I really enjoyed these books, and have been recommending them to my friends who like other-world fantasy. Some of the machinations in Book 3 are a little bit reliant on coincidence, but I suppose that’s only natural when the story is ‘being written’ as it happens. More could have been done with the culture shock aspect of it, too, I thought – but I don’t know what you’d cut out in its place. Anyway, they’re excellent books and worth reading.

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Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Austen-based literature, especially based on Pride and Prejudice, is surprisingly common. I suppose a lot of that is due to the 1995 BBC adaptation and the 2005 movie. It’s all essentially Austen fan-fiction, and some of it is quite good. There are sequels, there are prequels, there are stories that focus on one of the more minor characters, and there are stories about people who, for whatever reason, relive one of the stories. Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which is based on Persuasion, are probably the most famous of these. Austenland and another book that I read last year called Me and Mr Darcy are both about women who go on vacation in order to actually relive Pride and Prejudice.

These books have a lot in common. They’re both perfectly fine books that are quite entertaining and they are more than just simple retreadings of the Pride and Prejudice plot. Another thing they have in common is something incredibly annoying: their heroines, in spite of claiming to be obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, have absolutely no memory of the first, oh, two-thirds of the book. Both of them complain about the man with whom they have a tense verbal relationship and say things like, “If only he could be more like Mr Darcy!”

Do they not remember the book? Elizabeth hates Darcy for the first part of the book. When he proposes she is genuinely surprised because she thinks that he hates her just as much. They banter, they insult each other, they misunderstand each other both deliberately and inadvertently. How can people who claim to be so obsessed with P&P look at a bantering relationship – especially one that uses almost exactly the same words as P&P – and NOT see it as a Darcy relationship? Honestly, if the main character is that clueless about the book and story that has been touted as her favourite, it makes me trust and like her a little bit less.

There are good moments in Austenland: Jane has a believably hard time letting go of her modern self and following the ‘rules’ of Regency England – something I think a lot of time travellers underestimate is the difficulty of letting go of the modern assumptions that make us who we are. And I had to laugh at the piano playing scene:

With professional suavity, Jane arranged her skirt, spread out the music, poised her fingers, and then with one hand played the black keys, singing along with the notes, “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”

She rose and curtsied to the room. (p.111)

I think that showed great poise and humour and, as a pianist myself, I appreciated it.

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Dickens, Dorrit, and Davies

I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:

  • There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
  • I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).

I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.

It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.

I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick PapersChristmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]

I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.

Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.

*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.

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