Spoiling “Ordeal by Innocence”

(Warning: contains serious spoilers for “Ordeal by Innocence”, both the novel by Agatha Christie, and the TV adaptation scripted by Sarah Phelps.)

Quite a few people who have nothing better to do than gripe on social media, like myself, have been expressing strong views about a recent three-part drama, and I am drawing on two of my Facebook rants for what follows.

The name “Agatha Christie” is a big draw for viewers, one assumes. The drama “Ordeal by Innocence” took from the book the intriguing set-up: man convicted of murdering his adoptive mother dies in prison, and later someone appears who could have proved his alibi and innocence. So who did it?

The drama also took on the names and many basic characteristics of the people involved. In both, Rachel and Leo Argyle had five children – Mary, Mickey, Tina, Hester and Jack aka Jacko –  a son-in-law called Philip, and a housekeeper called Kirsten. In fact, apart from a lawyer and sensible police officers, the only character they omitted was Hester’s fiancé Don.

However, they changed the ending, and quite a lot of the journey to get there; they changed the points being made; and they changed the genre.

Agatha Christie wrote a rather thoughtful whodunnit, with you know, clues (and an admittedly implausible romance on the last page.)

Surely the best friend of Phelps’ adaptation would not have called it a whodunnit. It’s been described as a melodrama, which it was. There were pretentious arty snippets of blood and clocks, and endless very repetitive flashbacks, most of which only went to show that there were some very pretty frocks in the 1950s. To show the difference between this and an actual whodunnit, you only have to ask: How do we know who did it?

Because we were shown in flashback.

How did any of the characters know who did it?

Because one of them picked up an ornament, saw red on it, and… um, that’s it really. None of the characters ever saw the scenes establishing the criminal’s motive. How could Kirsten possibly have solved the crime? Was it divine revelation?

The moral and themes of the book (I suggest) are: it is unspeakably awful to be one of the suspects of an unsolved crime; nonetheless justice for the deceased is important; adopting children is a difficult vocation for which you need more than good intentions.

The moral of the TV drama appeared to be: the 1950s were a really horrid and oppressive decade when everyone over forty was pure evil, yeah?

We do like our prejudices confirmed. Let’s tick off the 1950s clichés: any professional person (doctor, chief constable) will break the criminal law and professional ethics just because the rich people in the big house ask them to; everyone’s paranoid about nuclear war; rich women always dress beautifully; servants in big houses WILL be sexually abused.

And before you say that historic sexual abuse needs to be acknowledged: there was already a sexual predator in the book, except this one was young and preyed on the middle-aged, not old and preying on the young.

Even more baffling was the way in which the local community appeared and disappeared at the screenwriter’s will. Rich man, pillar of the local village, vanishes on his wedding day and even the numerous wedding guests don’t notice, and ask no questions? Endless stretches of country road with just one evil Chief Constable driving along them? What would the creator of Miss Marple have said to that?

The book gives us a nuanced picture of Leo and Rachel’s marriage, and also that of Philip and Mary. The book has moments of real sensitivity and wisdom from Arthur Calgary and Tina Argyle, real grappling with the difficult situation Calgary has put the Argyles in; and emotional growth for Hester and (especially) Mickey. I especially love Calgary’s speculation about murderers who can’t bear what they’ve done and therefore blame it on others.

(Come to think of it, this may have inspired one of my characters in WDNKC.)

The book finishes on its themes of innocence, trust and justice. This idea of the plight of innocent suspects crops up over and over again in Christie, but in this book perhaps most powerfully.

The TV version, on the other hand, gave us pointless murders (Philip? How? Why? Who?) removed all the pre-adoption back-stories, and repeated its dramatic images again and again. Characterisation was reduced to virtually nothing. And it finished on a (preposterous) image of revenge, which if you think of it for ten seconds provided neither closure nor a practical solution for anybody. Revenge is the in-thing these days, but it wasn’t a big thing for Christie.

According to the BBC, the makers of the programme thought long and hard before making these changes, which they knew would upset some people. “But,” said Sarah Phelps the screenwriter, “I think I’ve represented the spirit of the novel”. (:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43783116)

Really? The sprit of the novel? It’s about falling under suspicion and “the hell of being suddenly held at arms’ length”, as Philip says of the fact that Leo won’t now dare to marry Gwenda, whom he loves.

Before the series aired, the BBC got a lot of free publicity out of the fact that a lot of it had to be re-shot, because they decided to recast the actor playing Mickey. Ed Westwick has been accused, not charged or convicted, of historic sexual assault, so he was dumped from the cast list and replaced with Christian Cooke.

Gwenda might have known how he felt. Agatha Christie might have guessed.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Ranting is great fun. I recommend it highly.

1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    4th May 2018 at 1:54 pm Reply

    When I had a television I always enjoyed Agatha Christie plays but would avoid watching a film of a book I had read because they would alter it a bit (how do I know, I did go and see Gone with the Wind and other people have told me) but also because I had given the characters flesh and blood and I knew what they were like, hence I wouldn’t go and see War and Peace. However reading your blog made me quite angry, how dare they alter the end etc. I suppose I don’t like people interfering and even though I enjoyed Agatha Christie for unrealistic, non-challenging viewing, which I think is good, the alterations that I read about crossed the red line – ok its not as bad as the Brexit new row thing, but if you don’t like the story then write one or use one you don’t have to significantly alter.

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