Endless Night, among the best of Agatha Christie’s later novels, is the latest to be ‘Marple-ised’ – that is to say, adapted for the ongoing Marple TV series by inserting Jane Marple into a story where she did not originally appear. As the sleuth only features in a dozen novels and twenty short stories, the production company have been expanding the canon quite considerably in this way. This is the 23rd two-hour film to be made in the series and the tenth to be adapted from a non-Marple source. On the face of it, this unusually ‘psychological’ of Christie’s books would seem to be a poor fit for the series – does it work? And how does it compare to the earlier cinema adaptation?
The following review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film
meme at Sweet Freedom, and the second half of Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge
submission devoted to this book at the Doing Dewey blog – for links, click here.
“There’s no luck for them as meddles with Gipsy’s Acre”
The first adaptation of the book came in the shape of a British film from 1972 starring Hywell Bennett, Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland and in virtually his last role (it was released after his death), George Sanders. Michael is working as a chauffeur but wants to get ahead in life despite his poor background and the heavy hand of his highly religious mother, who tells him that God is forever watching on his actions. He meets Ellie, an heiress and the two fall in love, marry, and build the home of their dreams at Gypsy’s Acre designed by Michael’s ailing friend Santonix, to the consternation of the locals and her family – and then there is a tragedy. Not a big hit in its day, it is said that the film slightly upset Christie with its flashes of nudity and other modernist touches (including some quite scary nightmare sequences). It is however otherwise a pretty faithful take on the book, made with his usual skills by veteran writer-director Sidney Gilliatt who previously made the classic film version of Green for Danger starring Alastair Sim and co-wrote Hitchcock The Lady Vanishes. Bennett is particularly good in the difficult role of Michael, while glamourpuss Britt Eckland is typecast as the European temptress in contrast to sweet Disney star Hayley Mills (with a wobbly US accent) as Ellie. There is also a fine score by the great Bernard Herrmann, built around a haunting setting of the William Blake poem ‘Auguries of Innocence‘:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
Since that first attempt the book has been adapted for radio and even as a graphic novel; however, the new adaptation for the Marple series – which was broadcast in the UK last month – is superficially the most radical. It relocates the story, after a prologue set 8 years earlier, to 1956 and adds Miss Marple even though the original not only had no real detective in it but was designed to feel more like a psychological mystery in the style of Margaret Millar rather than one of Christie’s traditional investigations. There are few physical clues and the clever solution is based entirely on the psychological makeup of the characters. And yet the modifications that the TV company have made, admittedly mainly to keep the series brand going despite the dearth of genuine Marple stories, are not entirely without canonical justification.
This is because Christie did in fact base the novel on a 1941 short story she published in The Strand magazine during the war that featured Miss Marple, The Case of the Caretaker. So what of the new ITV version then? The series, especially when Geraldine McEwan was starring in it, positively delighted in altering the original stories and infusing them with a garish and campy sensibility. Julia McKenzie’s portrayal is more down-to-earth and the style has also been brought to heel too, which is my view is a good thing. The recent version of A Caribbean Mystery for instance, adapted by Charlie Higson, may have added Ian Fleming, James Bond and Zombies to the mix but in fact these were amusing superficial embellishments while the plot and main characters were left largely unchanged. Here the script by Kevin Elyot, who has written a great many of the recent Marple and Poirot adaptations for TV but is also the author of that exceptional play, My Night with Reg, is surprisingly faithful to the novel. We begin with a new prologue in 1948 in which Michael fails to save the life of a friends when he falls through the ice while ice-skating on a lake. For this sadly failed attempt, the dead boy’s brother promises to repay him – this proves to be a key modification in that the sickly boy, Robbie, replaces architect Santonix from the novel, and helps knit the story together at the end and may well be Elyot’s best embellishment.
Elyot does however struggle to keep Marple in the plot otherwise while following the narrative of the novel fairly closely as Michael and Ellie meet, marry and build their dream home before death comes knocking on their door. Elyot has Miss Marple visiting her fairly awful friend Marjorie Phillpot (Wendy Craig) who lives nearby but they also just happen to be in Italy when Michael and Ellie are honeymooning there – and in fact Miss Marple seems to spend entire months visiting Marjorie, which more than strains credulity. Elyot might have done better to have followed the approach of the short story and have Marple as a more passive character because it does scotch the climax somewhat as the big twist is revealed before she arrives, which mainly reinforces the fact that she is basically redundant to the narrative. None the less, the adaptation is about three-quarters there with Tom Hughes really terrific as Michael as is Borgen star Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Greta, though admittedly she does seem somewhat uncomfortable in some of the more glamorous of the 50s style outfits she is made to wear. Janet Henfrey is perfectly cast as Mrs Lee, the seemingly unhinged woman who curses the young couple (and quotes the Blake poem to explain the title too).
On the whole then I would have to say that I prefer the 1972 movie adaptation (which is available on DVD and illegally on YouTube too), which despite some awkward moments (and some duff process shots) succeeds much better at transferring the book to the screen. The Marple iteration deserves credit for the smart way it refashions the Santonix character for its own purposes and for some very strong performances – ultimately though adding St Mary Mead’s favourite snoop to the proceedings adds very little and does in fact hinder the plot development at the end, perhaps because it is otherwise so surprisingly faithful. It might have been better if they had deviated a bit more from the original novel, and I never thought I’d say that!
Director: David Moore
Producer: David Moore
Screenplay: Kevin Elyot
Cinematography: Balazs Bolygo
Art Direction: Jeff Tessler
Music: Dominik Scherrer
Cast: Julia Mackenzie, Tom Hughes, Joanna Vanderham, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Tamzin Outhwaite, Wendy Craig, Hugh Dennis, Glynis Barber, Janet Henfrey