Solving the Mystery of Agatha Christie's Movie Magic

Why are filmmakers so inexorably drawn to Agatha Christie's work?

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Glenn Close in "Crooked House."
Glenn Close in "Crooked House."Credit: Nick Wall / United King
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Since 1928, eight years after Agatha Christie published her first thriller, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” in which the world was introduced to Hercule Poirot, the haughty Belgian detective who is exceedingly proud of his perfectly waxed mustache, few years have gone by in which there has been no movie or television series based on one of her books. Christie’s death in 1976, at age 85, did nothing to slow this phenomenon. Just a few months ago, we saw a new film version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, and this week “Crooked House” is in local theaters. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Sarah’s Key”), it is based on Christie’s 1949 novel.

Branagh’s film has been a box-office hit, despite reviews that correctly say it doesn’t measure up to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version. At the end of the newer film, Poirot, played by Brenner himself, says he can’t board the train to continue his planned vacation because he’s been urgently summoned to investigate a murder on the Nile – a hint of his intention to direct a new version of Christie’s "Death on the Nile” (the 1978 version starred Peter Ustinov as Poirot), due out in 2019.

And that’s not the only new Christie project on the near horizon. Ben Affleck reportedly plans to film a new version of “Witness for the Prosecution,” Christie’s brilliant play, which had its premiere in 1953. If the reports are true, Affleck will have a very tough act to follow – The 1957 film version was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyron Power, and stands out as the best of all the numerous productions based on Christie’s work.

Most of Christie’s books had a similar structure: A murder occurs on a British estate, a country home or in an exotic locale. A group of suspects is assembled at the site where the villainous deed was committed (and several of them are often killed off as the investigation is underway), a private investigator – usually Poirot, though not in “Crooked House” – or an amateur female detective (Jane Marple, who in her charming way solved many of Christie’s mysteries, plays just as important a role in her works as does Poirot) arrives. They question the suspects one at a time, sort their way through the various “red herrings” scattered in their path, and at the story’s climax, gather all the remaining suspects in one place, ruling them out one by one until finally pointing at the real culprit and explaining his or her motivation for committing the crime.

Anyone familiar with Christie’s work knows that it’s always the least suspicious character who turns out to be the guilty party. But Christie, who was brilliant at constructing thrillers, and whose writing is always a pleasure to read for its wit and charm and for her well-formed characters and their relationships – made very clever and often surprising use of this narrative device, even deviating from it in some of her best books.

In a book of interviews that French director Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock, the British director expressed his distaste for this “whodunit” narrative structure. In Hitchcock’s films, the audience’s knowledge about the events was always a key part of the narrative. Contrary to the classic “whodunit” in which the author is always a step or two ahead of the readers, in many of Hitchcock’s films the perpetrator’s identity is revealed right from the start and the audience has greater knowledge than the characters do. For example, in “Shadow of a Doubt,” which was Hitchcock’s favorite, we know that beloved Uncle Charlie is a serial killer of women long before his family finds out; in “Vertigo,” Kim Novak reveals the solution to the mystery before the final third of the film, before James Stewart discovers it; in “North by Northwest,” we discover that George Kaplan is a fictitious identity placed on Cary Grant before Grant discovers this. For Hitchcock, it was the matter of when the audience knows what that created the difference between suspense and surprise, and he put a much higher value on suspense.

Bold and radical solution

While Hitchcock’s manipulation of the audience’s knowledge led to more complex contemplations of the human condition, Christie sought to place the reader in the detective’s shoes, and part of the enjoyment of reading her books lies in trying to solve the mystery using the clues and evidence strewn throughout by the author. Hitchcock was correct in asserting that this works more effectively in books than in film, as the Christie movies that follow the whodunit structure of proceeding from one suspect to the next and then to a final gathering where the murderer is revealed often suffered from a certain monotony. “Crooked House” has this problem too, though its solution is one of Christie’s boldest and most radical.

Agatha Christie’s greatness as a writer was especially evident in those of her books that don’t strictly adhere to the whodunit structure. The use she made of traditional mystery literary conceits – as in “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1939) and “Ten Little Niggers” (1939) – put all of these classics of the genre on a par, in my view, with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The third book noted above ran into problems because of the racist word in its title, although at the time of the book’s publication, the glaring inappropriateness of the term was not as widely known, especially in Britain (incidentally, an unambiguous anti-Semitism can also be found in Christie’s descriptions of some of her Jewish characters). In 1945, French director Rene Clair retitled his cinematic adaptation “And Then There Were None” (I would rank this film second on the list of the best adaptations of Christie’s novels). In 1965, a less successful adaptation was made, called “Ten Little Indians,” a title that probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct today. (For trivia lovers: One of the first murder victims in this movie was played by the Israeli actress Daliah Lavi). This title was also used for later German and American productions. There was even a 1987 Russian version, and though I don’t know Russian, I could discern the unacceptable word from the original in its title too.

Two billion copies

What keeps drawing filmmakers and television programming creators back to the works of Agatha Christie? Well, first, there’s the name recognition. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, more than two billion copies of her books have been sold. Second, the stories she tells are mostly quite good, and since many, like “Crooked House,” are set on fancy British estates, there is an enthusiastic reception, nowadays at least, for their “Downton Abbey”-like atmosphere. In fact, the screenplay for “Crooked House” was written by Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of “Downton Abbey” and an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay for “Gosford Park.” That film, directed by Robert Altman, was a superb version of the type of story Christie wrote, with the addition of socio-historical criticism, something that Christie generally avoided, though it can be spotted here and there between the lines of her books.

And third, because her books feature a large cast of characters, a single film can offer roles for many stars. The long list of big-name actors who’ve appeared in films based on Christie books includes Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, David Niven, James Mason, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Dench and many more. Glenn Close has the most prominent role in “Crooked House.” Terrence Stamp also appears, though in an unfortunately small role, and the young amateur detective who comes to investigate the murder at the estate is played by Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons. To my knowledge, this is the only Christie work in which this particular character appears.

In addition to Brenner, Hercule Poirot was played over the years by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet, the latter in a British television series that ran from 1989-2013. Miss Marple has been played by, among others, Angela Lansbury, who starred in the 1980 movie adaptation of “The Mirror Crack’d.” Much of the enjoyment in this clever film derived from its reunion of four major stars from an earlier era: Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, who hadn’t acted together since the 1956 film “Giant,” along with Kim Novak and Tony Curtis. But the most memorable Miss Marple was probably the wonderful Margaret Rutherford, who played the character in a serious of four very amusing and successful comic thrillers (The first movie in the series, “Murder, She Said,” was fairly short, and when it was shown at the Esther Cinema in Tel Aviv, it was preceded by an Israeli documentary, as was often the case in those days. That time it was David Perlov’s “In Jerusalem,” and that was my first encounter with the work of this great Israeli filmmaker).

Agatha Christie starred in her own mystery in 1926. With her marriage in crisis, she vanished for 11 days and her car was found abandoned. British police launched an all-out search, the world press followed every development in the case and even Arthur Conan Doyle got involved, with the aid of a spiritualist who was given one of Christie’s gloves from which to divine clues to her whereabouts.

It’s still unknown just where Christie was during those 11 days, but in his 1979 film “Agatha,” director Michael Apted invented a solution to the mystery: In the movie, an American journalist (Dustin Hoffman) finds Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) in the spa where she has been hiding out. Apted’s film did not aspire to be a Christie-type thriller, but rather a melodrama showing us Christie’s emotional turmoil at that point in her life. It was quite a well-told story, which also showed us something about Christie’s place in the history of popular culture, literature, cinema and theater. Her play, “The Mousetrap,” debuted in London’s West End in 1952 and has been running ever since. Seeing the show has become a must for any tourist itinerary, along with a visit to the Tower of London and Madame Tussauds.

Agatha Christie’s place in cinema is evidently quite assured, and if “Crooked House” does as well at the box office as the recent “Murder on the Orient Express” – and even if it doesn’t – we can surely expect to see more Christie film adaptations in the future.



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