D.E. Ireland is a team of award-winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Long time friends, they decided to collaborate on this unique series based on George Bernard Shaw's wonderfully witty play, Pygmalion, and flesh out their own version of events post-Pygmalion.
MURDEROUS HITS AND MISSES
As we write this, the film Gone Girl is still weeks away from its October release. There are legions of fans around the world hoping the book will be as suspenseful and riveting as Gillian Flynn’s corker of a novel. We’re right to be nervous about the outcome. Many excellent mystery and suspense novels have been turned into cinematic misfires. Others, however, hit their mark with deadly aim. Sharon and Meg briefly discuss their favorite film adaptation of a mystery, and ones they are still trying to forget.
Sharon: One especially egregious example was the film adaptation of Carolyn Hart’s Dead Man’s Island. This book launched the wonderful series featuring Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins, aka Henrie O, a retired newspaper reporter. Our intelligent heroine is caught up in a first-rate mystery while trapped on an island during a hurricane. With a dead body, a colorful cast of suspects, and a nice twist at the end, how could the movie go wrong? Well, it did. I knew we were in trouble when girlish Barbara Eden was cast as the no-nonsense, sixty-something Henrie O. Everything went downhill from there.
By the way, I have nothing against Barbara Eden; she made a lovely genie. But the blond glamorous Eden seemed like an Orange County housewife, and not a retired famous journalist with graying hair and a penchant for jogging suits. Eden also seemed unable to imitate a Texas accent. Actually very little about the movie was convincing or suspenseful. The film also starred William Shatner, Traci Lords, and Morgan Fairchild – which only added to the misery of watching it.
My favorite Agatha Christie novel is Death on the Nile. It is a quintessential Christie story starring Hercule Poirot, and peopled with a beautiful heiress, an archaeologist, a socialite, a spurned lover, a French maid, an untrustworthy lawyer, a Communist, and a romance novelist by the delicious name of Salome Otterbourne. Cast as Poirot, Peter Ustinov was far taller than the little Belgian. But, being the consummate actor he is, Ustinov was entirely convincing. Small changes were made to the script that differed from the novel; these largely involved deleting several secondary characters. However the alterations did not change the story arc, nor make the movie any less entertaining than the book. Unlike Dead Man’s Island, the cast was spot on, the script faithful to Christie, and all of it filmed on location in Egypt. With a sweeping musical score as well. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, and Maggie Smith. I have a feeling that Miss Christie would have been as pleased by the 1978 film as I was.
Meg: For a movie I can’t get out of my head, I’ll go for the gore of Sleepy Hollow. I actually enjoyed the movie, except for closing my eyes whenever another head rolled. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – published in 1820 – isn’t a true mystery, being based on a German folktale about a ‘headless horseman’ who rides through the wild woodlands. The lovely Katrina Van Tassel’s hand, along with a sizable dowry, is at stake. Two rivals emerge – schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (an outsider to the community) and the local prankster Brom Bones. Tensions escalate when Brom relates local legends at a party held at the Van Tassel farm. When Katrina turns down Crane’s marriage proposal, he heads home to Sleepy Hollow but encounters a mysterious figure who carries his head on the saddle. After a horseback chase, Ichabod escapes across a bridge, where the horseman throws his head in Crane’s face.
The movie with Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and the villainous Christopher Walken certainly was a mix of both horror and mystery. Sleepy Hollow morphs the hapless, mooning schoolmaster Ichabod Crane into a 1799 New York City police constable who is sent to the remote hamlet to investigate several gruesome killings. Crane has an interest in new-fangled gadgets which help him perform autopsies and lift fingerprints (just go with it, although historically it was another hundred years before Bertillon invented the technique).
Locals blame the beheadings on a headless Hessian soldier, who takes center stage. Brom Bones is a local hero whose head rolls. The movie’s pretty cool, given the Tree of the Dead clotted with the victims’ skulls, the twisty plot and many exciting chases through the woods and into the local windmill. Overall, much better than the short story if you love a great Hallowe’en-themed movie.
As for a disastrous adaptation, I’ll choose the 1965 film of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders starring Tony Randall. While I loved Randall’s work in other films, he was totally wrong as Hercule Poirot. He walks like an American, talks like a Frenchman (abhorrent to the Belgian character – French music even plays while Randall and Robert Morley walk in London), and his movements are stiff and clumsy. Horrors!
The dialogue in the screenplay – meant to be comical – comes off as cringe-worthy. Morley makes a goofy Hastings. Randall only stares at Margaret Rutherford who makes a cameo appearance (and an astute observation), but even that seems wrong. One would expect the two to compare notes.
The 1992 television adaptation of the novel, with the perfect David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, as well as Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp, is far better. The book deserved better treatment. The ABC Murders is one of Christie’s most intriguing plots, with a serial killer who leaves an ABC railway guide at each crime scene. He begins with Andover tobacco shop owner Alice Ascher as the first victim, then B exhill waitress Betty Barnard, and Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston. When the pattern is broken, Poirot falls back on a simpler solution to the murders. Christie at her best, but the 1965 film butchered it – even Dame Agatha was displeased.
Good or bad, murderous movies do give viewers a 3-D picture – but often the book is much better. Being mystery novelists ourselves, we are not at all surprised.