Thursday, 25 July 2013

Episode-by-episode: Hercule Poirot's Christmas


©ITV
This episode was based on the novel Hercule Poirot's Christmas, first published in 1938. The story was adapted for television by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett (returning from Series One).

Script versus novel
As is almost always the case with Exton, the script remains largely faithful to its source material, with only some minor and largely understandable changes to the main plot. To begin with, he adds an (almost necessary) prologue in South Africa, set in 1896, in which we see Simeon Lee kill his partner Ebeneezer (not in the novel) and being rescued by a woman, Stella, in the desert (not in the novel), who later turns out to be the mother of one of the illegitimate children mentioned in the novel. Moreover, he adds some scenes in which Poirot and Japp (who replaces the local Colonel Johnson in the novel) prepare for Christmas - and a subplot concerning the presents the two give to each other (this change in fact becomes an important plot point, as it leads to Poirot's visit to a village store in which he sees the pig balloons and the fake moustache). Third, the character of Stephen Farr is deleted (he was no more than a red herring), and instead Pilar's romantic sentiments are directed towards Harry Lee. Fourth, the playing of the 'Dead March' on the piano is deleted and replaced with a dining room quarrel. Fifth, the Lady Macbeth quote is removed (probably because the crime scene is much less blood-filled (to avoid PG rating, possibly?)). Other minor changes include the discovery of the diamond case in George Lee's room (planted there by Sugden, we are told), and the fact that Stella from the opening sequence is Sugden's mother. Generally speaking, however, the script is faithful to its source. Some of the interviews are shortened and several sections are moved around, but essentially the story is very recognisable.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Edward Bennett's directing is competent, and he manages to convey the proper Christmas atmosphere (which is quite an achievement - the episode was shot in April!). The colour grading is noticeable here, too, since the light is particularly harsh and white (reflective of the wintery setting, I suppose). The locations used include Chilham Manor, Kent (the Lee family home), Chilham village (the pub and Sugden's house), Chilham Church. See this link for photos. Christopher Gunning's soundtrack is as good as ever, with a nice seasonal touch to it.

Characters and actors
Suchet gets to display many of Poirot's character traits, like his love of (Belgian) chocolate (also seen in 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby'), his concern for the central heating and general dislike of cold weather and cold manor houses (see, for instance, 'The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge'). The scenes with him at the cold station are reminiscent of the Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, too. Of the guest actors, Vernon Dobtcheff does a particularly exceptional job as the dislikeable family patriarch.

14 comments:

  1. ["To begin with, he adds an (almost necessary) prologue in South Africa, set in 1896, in which we see Simeon Lee kill his partner Ebeneezer (not in the novel) and being rescued by a woman, Stella, in the desert (not in the novel), who later turns out to be the mother of one of the illegitimate children mentioned in the novel."]


    I thought this prologue was a mistake. By adding it, screenwriter Clive Exton unintentionally managed to exclude some of the characters from the list of suspects.

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  2. If first-time viewers recognize (or figure out) that the older woman who keeps re-appearing is the Stella of the first scene, then she is a spoiler. Though they could just as easily think she's Pilar/Conchita's mother.

    One of Simeon's (legitimate) sons from the novel, David, is removed, as is his wife.

    I thought the way they got Poirot onto to the scene ahead of time was a little flimsy...again, I really think they did too much of that in the series, and really, why is it always the person who plans to commit a crime who WANTS Poirot there? Shouldn't they realize by now he WILL figure it out?

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    1. "If first-time viewers recognize (or figure out) that the older woman who keeps re-appearing is the Stella of the first scene, then she is a spoiler. Though they could just as easily think she's Pilar/Conchita's mother."

      The huge red mark on her face leaves no doubt as to her identity. Presumably the mark's there to ensure we recognise her, but I can't fathom why as it gives far too much away. A serious lapse in judgement.

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  3. I thought a mistake was made with this one similar to the one I criticized with The Under Dog. In The Under Dog, the idea that the person who is meek and mild is more likely to "finally snap" and kill someone, than the bad-tempered person, is never brought up until the end.

    Here, something similar happened with the character of Simeon Lee. While they definitely show him to be tyrannical and a bit lecherous (I don't think his feelings toward Pilar/Conchita were that of a grandfather), there is no mention of how he could hold a grudge for 40 years or more and take revenge long after, until Poirot revealed that his son had inherited that trait.

    I wonder why they kept making Japp's marriage seem so bad...maybe to show Poirot wasn't all wrong to never get married? I felt for Mrs. Japp in this one, in a way - if her husband really considered having a murder to solve being "rescued" compared to spending the holidays with her family.

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  4. "the character of Stephen Farr is deleted (he was no more than a red herring)"

    He also duplicates the function of two characters: he's an illegitimate son like Sugden, and an impostor like Pilar. It seems he's in the book to distract us from those two - we think we're clever working out who he really is and so we don't spot the others, who are the really important ones. But I think he fails in that respect. I solved this form Pilar's clue about Sugden; anyone who spots that isn't going to be distracted by Peter, and anyone who instead spots all the clues about him resembling Harry will then spot Pilar's clue because they're thinking about that. As for Pilar being an impostor, the clues are so subtle they're almost impossible to work out, so Peter can't distract you from it. And again, anyone who does manage to spot those clues will be on to Pilar anyway and still won't be distracted by Peter. So removing him from the episode makes complete sense.

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    1. I mean Stephen, not Peter!

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  5. So... how did Poirot know that Stella was his mother? All we see is Poirot looking at her. There is no name, no conversation, nothing. It seems a stretch that he could figure that out. What happened in the book?

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    1. She doesn't appear in the book. Sugden wasn't brought up in South Africa, just the next county. But from memory, on TV doesn't Poirot overhear Stella speaking (in an obviously South African accent) in the bar? Presumably that tipped him off.

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  6. The squealing balloon was pink, one of the characters picks up the end of the balloon but when we see it in her hand it is yellow.

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    Replies
    1. No, the balloon but Pilar picked up on the crime scene was pink. The one from when they decorated the xmas tree was yellow.

      Delete
  7. Having Japp investigating the case was a mistake. It was out of his jurisdiction. This mistake happened a good deal throughout the first half of the series.

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  8. Having Japp investigating the case was a mistake. It was out of his jurisdiction. This mistake happened a good deal throughout the first half of the series.

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  9. Horbury's time of going to the cinema seems a bit odd in the episode. He sad the bus left around 8, and the butler said he dropped a glass (for reasons not clear in the episode) after Sugden came to Gorston Hall.

    But Sugden said: "He wanted me to come over and see him at 8:15".

    I couldn't get this line to fit the story. The time seemed incorrect. Apparently he came before 8:00, but then Poirot should have noticed the early appearance (even Japp would notice this). And also when the butler asked "Shall I announce you", his answer "No, Mr. Lee's expecting me." is strange.

    So I checked with the book, and there Sugden said that Simeon "asked me to come and see him at 8 o’clock this evening".
    And with that, it all made sense. Now all the times mentioned by the characters fit the story, and it even gave Sugden time to set up his little thing in Simeons room.

    Ironically, Sugden said that Simeon "made a special point of the time".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also the times mentioned for George Lee's phone call are blundered.

      In the book, Superintendent Sudgeon came to Gorston Hall shortly before 8, left at 8:15 and came back at the racket when everyone ran to Simons room at 9:15.

      George Lees call in the book was from 8:59 to 9:04.

      In the episode, Georges call was from 7:56 to 8:09. An hour off.

      Delete

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