Feminism, popular horror and foreign heroes: how I brought Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy to the small screen | Books

AGatha Christie adaptations are an annual Christmas tradition, as is the nervous anticipation of viewers sitting down to witness the cutting and streamlining of another beloved novel to adapt it for the screen. This year, my adaptation of Christie’s relatively little-known 1938 film Murder Is Easy joins the ranks of this murderous, festive family fare.

The original Murder Is Easy sees Christie experimenting with form and themes, class and gender commentary, even a bit of Wicker-Man-style folk horror in a dark, romantic comedy with as much seduction as deduction. Murder Is Easy is neither Marple nor Poirot. Fitzwilliam and Bridget, the zany heroes of the double, are not even detectives, much less emblematic, but there is no doubt that the book will have its aficionados for whom my interpretation is an irritating interference. I tell them: adaptation is not translation.

Traditionally, the task of turning novels into drama requires the invisibility of the secondary writer; that we are pure and virgin vectors. If our presence is felt in the finished product, it is at best like sand in the oyster. At worst vandals. Like Pericles’ virtuous wife, our “greatest glory is to be the one of whom the least is spoken, whether in praise or blame.”

If only the adapter were some kind of transparent transmission equipment through which the original author’s work could be transmitted into the flesh? Preferably with all your favorite tracks intact and true to your tastes and opinions. Instead, we playwrights enter as the third wheel in a relationship, preying on your loved one. But why not have fun, listen with pleasure to our brief meeting? Ultimately, books are faithful companions; they can pass through many hands and still remain entirely yours.

I’ve come to think of adaptation as a conversation between two writers, colliding at a precise moment like strangers at a dinner party. I, the new acquaintance, a little unknown, am introduced to the host’s best school friend, The Book. Sparks could fly, everything could go horribly wrong, but our host – in this analogy, the sponsoring producer – has done their due diligence and made sure to invite people who will participate. The conversation begins delicately. Like any good guest, I could explore areas of common interest – “Did you say social breakdown/postcolonial Anglophilia/silencing of women?” What a coincidence, I’ve been thinking about it a lot myself lately” – and then you’re off, chatting headlong, running from one thought to the next. Finish everyone’s sentences.

Cozy Little England is not that… Penelope Wilton and David Jonsson in Murder Is Easy. Photography: Anne Binckebanck/BBC/Mammoth Screen

Moreover, Christie integrates all of this into this strange novel. A policeman from a fictional empire territory returns to an England he longs for but barely knows, to find the perfect village ruled by a religious fundamentalist media mogul, while intelligent women scream in nihilistic despair, and the lower classes and dissenting voices. are shot dead by an unknown killer. This is not the case for cozy Little England. If you only read this novel, you would mistake Christie for a revolutionary feminist.

But the screenwriter shouldn’t delve into the author’s opinions and beliefs – it’s a party after all, not an interrogation. The adaptation is not some kind of biography. How rude would that be? Like Googling your fellow guests under the dinner table. I save this kind of research for my original work. A play on Fanny Burney and Germaine de Staël required reading all their novels, then literary criticism, as well as contemporary accounts and the history of the French Revolution. As an adapter, there is no need to become an expert on the writer behind The Book. I take them at their word, at the time of writing, as expressed on the page alone. Their past, their future does not concern me. I may never see them again, but I’m totally immersed in this conversation… “What did you say about self-made men?” Oh, it’s so good. Hilarious. I will remember it.

And I will have to remember that. Once I started writing my screenplay, I pretty much gave up on the novel. I can’t flip through its pages for quotes like a crib sheet on an exam. Memory will serve me of the dialogue that sang to me when I encountered The Book. Thematically, I make no apologies for only retaining what interested me. I am a 21st century woman of color and there will inevitably be parts of the Book that don’t speak to me, that speak to the other guests around the table. I couldn’t adapt Les Liaisons Dangereuses for radio without commentary from a modern perspective.

My rather old-fashioned new interlocutor, The Book, has some posture problems. Like a chiropractor, I gently nudge and prod him forward, on topics that the book may have touched on in passing, but which resonate more with today’s audience than the author ever imagined. I can elaborate, exaggerate and explore, but I never change the core of the story. I try to help him stand straighter; putting The Book back together for the screen always requires structural intervention. And from a dramaturgical standpoint, Murder Is Easy needed a little help.

“Once I started writing my screenplay, I almost gave up on the novel”… Siân Ejiwunmi-Le Berre.
“Once I started writing my screenplay, I almost gave up on the novel”… Siân Ejiwunmi-Le Berre. Photo: Dave Bennett/Getty Images

Written as part of the Superintendent Battle series, although Fitzwilliam and Bridget can solve the novel’s murder mystery, neither has the power to close the case. Christie’s Fitzwilliam has no jurisdiction, no reputation, and little knowledge. His only detective superpower is listening to women – which is very admirable, but not dynamic enough for a heroic investigator. Previous adaptations removed him completely, but finding a way to depict and utilize Christie’s paralyzed hero intrigued me.

Making Fitzwilliam a black man was not an attempt to address casting diversity, but rather to make his character work. As a wealthy and educated Nigerian, his limitations as a detective are external obstacles imposed by his immigrant status, not his weakness as a protagonist. An African Anglophile in post-World War II England, marked by the NHS, rationing and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Fitz’s foreign eye exposes the Book’s social malaise and bitter cynicism.

The first time I read it, I said to myself: “What a furious little book. » It seemed experimental, raw, even edgy about class, gender and the potentially toxic glue that holds England together. If I’ve exacerbated these issues in any way or delved into these themes further, I attribute it to the Book kicking me under the table and giving me some pretty pointed looks. Short of spilling a drink on my dress to hide a message, I don’t know how much more explicit Murder Is Easy could have been in its critique of class inequality and the oppressive invisibility of women. Nodding enthusiastically across the dinner table, I felt happy to oblige and adjust accordingly. There’s nothing better than meeting and conversing with someone new, whose concerns coincidentally align with yours.

If novels were really the guests we meet at dinner parties, I’d like to think that as soon as I started telling the fascinating story that was whispered to me over the soup, just because of the characteristic head and tilt of the chin in my dramatization, you would recognize your beloved old friend, The Book. And otherwise? Well… then you would encounter a whole new story – and what could be nicer than that?

Murder Is Easy is available on BBC iPlayer from 6am on December 27, with the first episode broadcast on BBC One that evening and the second episode the following night.

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