We take a look back at the Agatha Christie adaptations that have stood the test of time, proving why she is Britain's best loved author.
Agatha Christie's undying popularity
Agatha Christie is in the news again, which is pretty good going for someone who died in 1976. A recent poll found And Then There Were None to be her most popular novel. Had it pertained to any other writer, such a survey would likely have been ignored. But Agatha Christie is different.
She occupies a rare place upon the cultural landscape; her work is extremely well-known, perhaps more so than almost any other author. Even if you haven't actually read her books, you'll no doubt have a fair idea what they're like.
You can thank the numerous adaptations of her stories for that. Producers have been making films of her books since the 1920s, and many of them are really very good indeed.
And Then There Were None (1945)
Exhibit “A” is the 1945 version of And Then There Were None. As that aforementioned poll depicts, the story is a pip but it's the way director René Clair handles it that makes the movie such a delight.
As a novelist, Christie was less interested in considerations of style or aesthetics than she was in crafting fiendish puzzles; this left an opportunity for the witty, ingenious Clair to spruce things up a bit.
Like many adapters, he introduces just a little more humour than was in the original, wallowing in the novel's absurdist schemes and creating moments that comment on the inherent paranoia of the story. The result, like all the best Christie adaptations, is a film you can return to even after you know whodunnit.
Witness for the Prosectution (1957)
Very nearly as good is Witness for the Prosecution, directed by Billy Wilder, adapted from Dame Agatha's play, and starring Charles Laughton as a barrister defending Tyrone Power in a murder trial.
Like René Clair, Wilder retained the ingenious clockwork of Christie's plotting but gave his actors a bit more to chew on, in particular Laughton, who has a whale of a time as the gouty lawyer at war with his thin-lipped nurse.
Miss Marple's first outing (1961)
Not every Christie adaptation reaches such standards but it says much about the resilience of her plots that even some of the misfires have a devoted following. The four films in which Margaret Rutherford plays Miss Marple, for instance, raise the comedy quotient too much (the Miss Marple Christie wrote about never went jitterbugging for a start). That doesn't stop them being hugely popular in some quarters, notably in Germany where they're (still!) held to be the very epitome of delightful English eccentricity.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Christie herself was seldom satisfied with adaptations of her work. She made a rare exception, though, for the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney as her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot. How could she not, for quite apart from its fidelity to her book, it is luxuriant entertainment.
Death on the Nile (1978)
Even better was the film that followed it, Death on the Nile. Although Finney declined to return, (Poirot regenerated into Peter Ustinov) it was another lavish production with another all-star cast, including David Niven, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith.
The main attraction is Anthony Shaffer's exemplary script, which reconfigures the original novel into a sort of arch-commentary on Agatha Christie's oeuvre. Everyone here has a motive, everyone is a suspect, but it's still impossible to guess the killer (just as well Poirot is on the case, eh?)
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
It was followed by Evil Under the Sun, again with Ustinov, again written by Shaffer and very nearly as good as its illustrious predecessors. (Ignore Ustinov's later turns as Poirot, by the way, they were made by other hands and they're rubbish. Bah.)
Since then, television has rather held the monopoly on Christie adaptations. Good though some of these are, none of them quite match the elegance and the wit of the best films. Indeed, although purists will disagree, it's quite possible to make the case that some of those movies are actually better than the original books. And the very best of them are some of the greatest pleasures cinema has to offer.