BOOK TO SMALL SCREEN: Miss Marple by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s detective novels have been often filmed or televised, with Margaret Rutherford portraying Miss Marple in a number of films, the plots of most of which were entirely unrelated to the books Christie actually wrote. Unfortunately that also seems to be the fate of the latest television versions of Miss Marple novels, undertaken by ITV within the last few years as ‘Marple’ and starring firstly Geraldine McEwan (2004-2009) and then Julia Mackenzie (2009 to date) as the elderly but acute Miss Marple. In the first one screened, The Body in the Library (2004), the central relationship between two of the characters was entirely changed, and as a result, in my opinion, the plot completely fell apart. This would have been fine if the series had been updated to the present-day, but there was an attempt to update the programme to the 1950s, which didn’t work, in my opinion.

(I’ve noticed this also with the Poirot adaptations. While David Suchet is a fine actor, the screenplays mess about with Christie’s plots so much that it’s noticeable that Poirot has to rely on the shock reveal at the end and the villain’s confession, since there’s no way he can prove any of his deductions. This is such a waste, when one of the great things about Christie’s novels is her ingenious plotting.)

Then there’s the shoe-horning of Miss Marple into works which didn’t originally feature her – the Tommy and Tuppence mystery By The Pricking of My Thumbs (2006), for example, or the stand-alone The Sittaford Mystery (2006). This latter was one of the more unbelievable incorporations of Miss Marple into an unrelated plot: the plot holes were gaping, the motivation extraordinary, and the pacing frantic and often inappropriately played for laughs. While these mysteries often feature starry casts, I do feel that the casting can sometimes overwhelm the story, and lead to ill-advised sub-plots – particularly the introduction of ‘The Funnybones’, a music-hall troupe, for Sleeping Murder (2006). That said, I did rather enjoy the Marple version of Ordeal by Innocence (2007), even if I did think it would have worked better without her.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple (image from Wikipedia)

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple (image from Wikipedia)

So, for some better televisual versions of Christie’s work, you can’t do better than the BBC’s 1984-1992 versions of the books with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. She plays the detective without the puckishness of Geraldine McEwan, and is both apparently scatty but very intelligent. The BBC adaptations also had the leisure to include all the plot, being often in two or even three-part episodes, whereas the ITV versions were compressed to 90 minutes. The actors also seem to inhabit their roles much better, hardly surprising, when they’re given much more screen time to make an impact. There’s also no attempt to update the storylines to make them more relevant for contemporary audiences.

What particularly struck me about watching these again after seeing the ITV versions was firstly how much more faithful to the plots and characterisation of the original books they were (and also the nice series development of, for example, Miss Marple’s interactions with the abrasive Inspector Slack), and secondly how much older everybody looked. Although the actors were probably of similar age when they undertook the roles (Hickson was 78 when she filmed the first Miss Marple story, and McEwan 72, though Julia McKenzie only in her sixties), McEwan looks significantly younger, and this is the same for most of the characters in most of the adaptations.

I recently watched A Murder Is Announced again, and found interesting that John Castle, playing sympathetic Inspector Craddock, was seldom seen without smoking a cigarette – not something one expects from more modern productions. The relationship between Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd was affectionate and matter-of-fact – they may be more than good friends, but this is never explicitly stated in the book or the BBC adaptation, though it is in the ITV version – and Hinch’s reaction to Murgatroyd’s murder is touching and realistic.

Of course, many people might watch the BBC versions and think how slow-paced they are, preferring the newer series, but I like them very much.

BBC ‘Miss Marple’: watched from a single DVD box set (with no extras).

ITV ‘Marple’: watched ‘live’ or else via ITV Player.

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8 Responses to BOOK TO SMALL SCREEN: Miss Marple by Agatha Christie

  1. Jenny says:

    I’m sad the Geraldine McEwan Miss Marple wasn’t your fave. I loved her so much in this other British show she was in that nobody has ever seen before. Mulberry! Have you seen Mulberry? Geraldine McEwan is a complete doll in that show.

    • Ela says:

      I have never seen Mulberry – will now have to look it up! I actually quite like Geraldine McEwan as an actress, and I think she’s actually good as Miss Marple (like Suchet is definitely good as Poirot), it’s just that the writers seemingly don’t want to use Christie’s plots when transferring them to the screen, and as a result, she has to do and say things that Miss Marple did not do or say in the books. I feel that by putting Miss Marple (or Poirot) into stories which didn’t originally feature them, it does unbalance the stories and often makes the plots more unlikely.

  2. Apologies for being a bit late with my response here but I was pretty much incommunicado this January. I pretty much agree with you that the recent ITV version of MARPLE have mucked around with the books to such an extent as to make them garishly nonsensical. I don’t mind her being added to other books but in SITTAFORD her injection is very noticeable and in fact i think she is barely in more than about 4 or 5 scenes actually. On the other hand I actually though their version of BY THE PRICKING worked surprisingly well and that she was used very well for a story which already prominently features an elderly lady. The Mackenzie ones seem more subdued overall but the Hickson versions work much netter on their own terms (though they too seem to set most of the stories in the 50s irrespective of the settings of the originals) – actually, one of the other oddities that struck me was Castle as Craddock – doesn’t get go from being a mere inspector to being her nephew by the last entry?

    • Ela says:

      I didn’t care much for the way Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship was twisted in ‘By The Pricking of My Thumbs’ – one of the delights of the five books which feature them is their devotion to each other – but otherwise, I agree that it wasn’t a bad adaptation.

      I think it makes sense for the Miss Marple ones to be set in a single time period, given the way that the character doesn’t age much in book time while the books in which she featured were published over a much longer period, though maybe ‘They Do It With Mirrors’ reflects a more modern sensibility with its juvenile delinquents (a 1960s tone rather than 1950s).

      Welcome back!

  3. Kacey Miller says:

    Did anyone catch the fact that Joan Hickson played the cook in the Margaret Rutherford version of The 4:10 From Paddington .. ? Than so many yrs later she became Miss Marple .. I love it !!!

    • Ela says:

      Christie reckoned that Hickson would make a good Miss Marple, and she was right. I didn’t know that she was in one of the Margaret Rutherford films – was she playing the Lucy Eyelesbarrow character? or someone completely different?

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Kacey Miller says:

        Hickson played the housekeeper in the Marple film Murder, She Said in 1961 (based on Agatha Christie’s original novel 4.50 From Paddington), which starred Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. A small part with no particular substance. Of all the Miss Marple’s I like Joan Hickson the best.

      • Ela says:

        I think her conception of the part was closest to the character in the book (Rutherford is too broad-brush and boisterous, and Lansbury isn’t quite scatty enough), and I think she was better served by the scripts. As previously mentioned, I do actually like Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, but the dramatisations have been pretty awful.

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