Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Episode-by-episode: Appointment with Death


©ITV

This episode was based (in the loosest sense of the word) on the novel Appointment with Death, first published in 1938. It was adapted for television by Guy Andrews and directed by Ashley Pearce.

Script versus novel

Oh dear. Where to begin? I have previously praised some of the Poirot adaptations (most notably Five Little Pigs); this time I have to be largely negative, and that is with a heavy heart, because I think the series as a whole is brilliant. If you've read my other episode-by-episode entries, you have probably noticed that I rarely object to changes. I'm not a purist, and I think most changes made to Christie's stories in the transition from page to screen are acceptable - sometimes even an improvement. Not so in this case. However, let me first try to sum up the things I liked about this adaptation. It should be said that this is a somewhat tricky novel to adapt, mainly because much of the text relies on psychology, thoughts and observation (now, you might object that that's exactly what I praised the adaptation of Five Little Pigs for, but that was because in that case it worked). Andrews manages to flesh out the somewhat drawn-out first half of the novel, with a very loose recreation of important scenes (Sarah and Raymond, Raymond and Carol, Boynton's behaviour, Dr. Gerard's observations (very briefly) etc.), and an earlier introduction of Poirot and Colonel Carbury (so that Poirot is present throughout and not introduced after the murder like in the novel) works well. Also, the use of flashbacks to a childhood of torture and trauma works, to some extent - even if the scenes seemed a bit intrusive and far too creepy. Finally, I enjoyed the addition of the Damaskus/Samarra story to explain the title (if I'm not mistaken, it's based on an ancient tale that was re-used by W. Somerset Maugham as 'Death in Samarra'). That's my main positive comments to the script. Let's move on to the several changes, most of which I didn't like. (MORE AFTER THE JUMP)

Here's a list of changes (partly derived from the current Wikipedia article), including my comments on them (SPOILERS):

1) Moving the central setting of the story from Petra in southern Jordan to an archaeological dig in Syria, where Lord Boynton is searching for the head of John the Baptist. I don't necessarily mind the change of setting. I assume it would be much more difficult to shoot the film in a tourist attraction such as Petra. Also, having Poirot visit archaeological digs is in keeping with Christie (see Murder in Mesopotamia and 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb'). I'll come back to Boynton and the Baptist in the second point here.


2) Adding new characters that never appeared in the original novel, such as Lord Boynton, Nanny Taylor, and Sister Agnieszka. Turning Mrs Boynton into a remarried woman now called Lady Boynton isn't an unacceptable change (well, apart from the fact that the back story is obviously altered). However, adding a husband, Lord Boynton, seems rather pointless. It's great fun to watch Tim Curry, but the character adds very little. He is an extra suspect, I suppose, and they've always added some new red herrings in the Poirot adaptation. My main objection here is that I would have liked some sort of explanation of how he ended up married to that unlikeable woman. It's all just assumed here, not explained. His search for the head of John the Baptist seems silly (and again, pointless), then again, Poirot at an archaeological dig isn't that far-fetched. Nanny Taylor is another somewhat pointless addition to the plot. However, she does serve a purpose of sorts in fleshing out the new Boynton back story. Sister Agnieszka, however, serves no purpose whatsoever. Really, of all the changes to this story, this is the one I just can't fathom. A nun wanting to observe the search for John the Baptist - yes. But a slave trader?! Really, what were they thinking? That's a plot Christie (or rather the maid Annie) mentions in 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', and it is immediately dismissed by Poirot for its incredibility. Of all the episodes, this is the one point in which the series resembles the inferior Marple series the most...

3) Omitting characters such as Nadine Boynton and Amabel Pierce. Omitting Nadine Boynton is regrettable, simply because her marriage to Lennox was a good example of the extent of Mrs Boynton's interference with her (adult) children's life. Amabel Pierce is less of a loss. (As an aside, I wonder why they chose to give Lady Boynton's earlier name as Mrs Pierce - why not invent a new one?)

4) Altering the backstory of the victim. The Mrs Boynton of the novel was a tyrannical sadist who became a prison warden to have power over others. In the adaptation, she is still a sadist, but she's not a former prison warden. Instead, she has a business empire (possibly her first husband's) and can't have children, so she selects children from orphanages to abuse and torment. In itself, this change is acceptable. However, we are never given a reason for her sadistic tendencies. Why did she choose to abuse her adopted children? I suppose one could imagine that the sense of power she has as an adoptive mother - free to do as she likes with her 'prisoners' (Poirot calls the family 'the Boynton prison') - somewhat equals the power she would have as a prison warden (in both cases, the 'victims' are completely at her mercy). But it would have been nice to have some sort of explanation, especially since Christie takes such care to establish the back story in the novel.

5) Altering the backstories of several supporting characters. Most significantly, Jefferson Cope, a long-time family friend in the novel, becomes one of the orphans abused by Boynton in his childhood. He decides to take revenge by ruining her business empire. This change is probably made because Andrews wanted to increase the number of suspects, but I don't see why it was necessary, on the whole. Equally significant is the increased importance of Jinny (Ginevra or Ginny in the novel). She is adopted (like Raymond and Carol - Lennox becomes Leonard, Lord Boynton's son from his previous marriage), and she becomes the prime motivation for the murderers. Both in the novel and in the adaptation, Jinny is the most fragile of the children, but to make her the motivation for the murder seems a bit excessive. I wouldn't have minded if the new motive (see below) didn't seem so incredible. Lady Westholme, a U.S.-born MP in the novel, becomes a travel writer called Dame Celia Westholme. That change doesn't bother me in the slightest, apart from the fact that her motive is then lost. Dr. Theodore Gerard becomes Scottish and is turned into an accomplice to the murderer. This is a peculiar change, but again, I wouldn't have minded if it had actually turned out all right.

6) Altering the murderer's motives and method. I must say I prefer Westholme's motive in the novel. It's a twist, because you realise that the murder isn't at all connected to the children (even if they wanted her dead). There's also something ruthless about a killer whose prime motivation is to maintain her reputation and social standing. The new motive seems highly unlikely and far less satisfying. In the adaptation, Dame Celia Westholme worked as a maid in the Pierce/Boynton household. She had an affair with a family guest, Dr. Gerard, and was sent off to a nunnery in Ireland while Lady Boynton kept the baby - Jinny. After several years, the two parents discover that Lady Boynton has been abusing the children, and they decide to kill her to have their revenge. Now, first of all, would a maid in an American household end up as a celebrated travel writer in Britain? But more importantly, why would it have taken her and Dr. Gerard so many years to realise that the children had been abused? It all seems highly improbable.

As to the murder method, Dame Westholme injects Boynton with a paralysing drug (helped by a dead wasp provided by Dr. Gerard - a nice homage to Death in the Clouds, by the way). Boynton is slowly immobilised in the sun, and Dr. Gerard (who had simulated malaria, as suggested but discarded by Poirot in the novel) drugs Jinny (who becomes his alibi) before he disguises himself as an Arab (like Westholme in the novel) and plants a wax ball filled with goat blood under Boynton's clothes (really, how do they think of these things!). The blood makes it seem that Boynton is already dead, while, in fact, Dame Celia stabs her as she goes to "check" the body, in front of everyone. Also, Andrews adds a second murder - of Nanny Taylor. She is drugged with mescaline by Dr Gerard, before he talks her into suicide. Both the change of the first murder and the addition of the second seem superfluous and unnecessary.


7) Omitting/downsizing two central lines: “I've never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face.” and “You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?” The first line is irrelevant now that the murder motive has been changed, while the other is not said in its entirety in the adaptation, and is not given much thought after the fact. This is a change I don't really mind, but I can't see the point. 
"I can appreciate and understand the adverse reaction to the fact that we have moved so far away from the original book, and I can assure fans that it is not something any of us would do wilfully. However, sometimes there are instances where the adaptation from novel to film does not really work and so the plots have to be broadened. And, in broadening the plots, other characters are sometimes introduced by the writer. I do hope that those who see Appointment With Death will agree with me with that it’s still very much in the spirit of Agatha Christie, still very much in the spirit of Appointment with Death as written" (Appointment with Death press pack, 2008)
The above statement belongs to David Suchet. He defends the decision to make the changes I've discussed above. To some extent, I can agree that the story is still 'in the spirit of Agatha Christie'. We have an archaeological dig, we have a dysfunctional family, we have wasps, poisons, a murdering couple and a culprit suicide a la Death on the Nile. Also, it's not too far from the 'spirit' of the novel, either. The victim is just as unlikeable, the children just as tormented and one of the murderers is the same.  

Nevertheless, I still think Guy Andrew's script is quite possibly the worst of any of the Poirot scripts so far. As I said in the beginning, I don't necessarily mind changes, but I do expect them to work or at least be believable. Andrews's other adaptations, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Taken at the Flood, can hardly be described as unrivalled successes, but the changes to the stories largely work. In Appointment with Death, the changes are just too many, too unbelievable and largely unnecessary. Someone somewhere online described this adaptation as 'Poirot's version of The Mummy! If it hadn't been for David Suchet, the guest actors, the cinematography, the music and the production design (all of which I'll come back to below), this could easily have been an utter disaster.


Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
As mentioned, I think the production quality and the actors rescue this adaptation from disaster. Ashley Pearce, a director I haven't quite decided whether I like or not, given his varying styles in Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Three Act Tragedy and this one, but he does an excellent job here. It looks absolutely stunning. Great location shots, almost as if you feel the heat of the desert in front of your television. Brilliantly done. Equally brilliant is Steven McKeon's score for this particular episode. It perfectly captures the atmosphere. The sets are dressed beautifully and the locations (in Casablanca and El Jadida, Morocco) are captivating. The include Kasbah Boulaouane (the dig) and Mahkama du Pacha (Hotel Constantine).

Characters and actors
"Poirot is still Poirot: I will always, wherever I’m put, be faithful to him as created by Agatha" (Appointment With Death press pack, 2008). Building on from the quotation I discussed above, I would certainly say that despite all the changes, Poirot is still Poirot. His eccentricities, his observational skills, his psychology, his fish-out-of-water characteristic  - they're all there. In fact, if it hadn't been for David Suchet, this wouldn't have felt like Agatha Christie's Poirot. Thankfully, it does, and the behaviour and reactions in the film are all what you could imagine Christie's character doing in the novels (that is, if you accept the religious character aspect - see my discussion of the character for more input on that).

Of the guest actors, there are many big names and some memorable performances. Cheryl Campbell (Lady Boynton) is just as I imagined the character to be, and so are Christina Cole (Sarah King) and Paul Freeman (Col. Carbury - apart from the slave trade stuff, obviously). Interestingly, Beth Goddard (Sister Agnieszka) also appeared in 'The Case of the Missing Will', as Violet Wilson. Thus, she has the dubious honour of appearing in the two stories that have been changed the most in their transition from page to screen. She does a good job, though, even if her character in this adaptation is utterly pointless.

21 comments:

  1. ***SPOILERS***

    It's not spelled out in the film, but there are a few clues that indicate that the pointless Sister Agnieszka isn't a real nun, for example, her quoting the King James Bible, which is a Protestant version of the Bible. A real Catholic nun would have cited the Douay translation. Also, the whole attack scene is so obvious that it just seems bizarre when Poirot advances a scenario that just doesn't seem plausible.

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    1. I completely agree. I guess I wasn't clear on that point: I realize she isn't a real nun, it's the entire slave trade sub plot idea I object to (regardless of her disguise). It seems utterly pointless, unbelievable and completely unnecessary.

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  2. I completely agree with you. It was just a big fat waste of time. The saving grace of the episode is the cinematography.

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  3. One of my favourite episode ! Thanks for the explanation about Sister Agnieszka - I hadn't completely understood her role in the story.

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  4. I really enjoyed the manner in which that horrible lady was killed, richly deserved in my opinion given her sadistic nature. It's not often that one applauds when someone is killed in a Poirot story but this is definitely the case here.

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    1. I agree that the murder method was more 'appropriate' here than in the novel. She comes across as even more sadistic throughout the episode as well.

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  5. First of all, hello. I just found your great blog and am currently reading through the posts. I have seen this episod eon DVD two weeks ago, and it is probably my least favourite adaption.

    I don't know if you have seen or read the stage play based on Appointment with death. It was written by Agatha Christie herself, but she changed the ending drastically. In the play, Mrs Boynton was fatally ill, and she only had a few mor emonths to live. So she commited suicide and made it seem like murder, planting red herrings against all of her children, but none, that would be enough to arrest anyone of them. Her plan was, that they should live in eternal doubt and remain in her shadow even after her death. I think this solution fits Mrs Boynton's character very well, and if they had to change the ending, I wisg they had used this one.

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    1. Hi there! Yes, it's probably my least favourite episode, too. Though the excellent production values save it from becoming a complete disaster. I haven't read or seen the stage play, no. Sounds like a very interesting ending - it would probably have worked much better than the one they went for here :)

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    2. I too agree that the stage-play version would have been a much better adaptation. I haven't read the novel, but watched only this series. I did not like this story(TV version) much, because basically what Poirot does is to cause Ginny to watch her parents, two people she loved without knowing them to be her parents, commit suicide in front of her. It was cruel and illogical of Celia to leave her child, but the episode's description of the victim indicates a sadistic maniac who deserved death much the same way as the Orient Express victim did. The only person who liked the victim was her eccentric husband. Although Poirot thinks murder is unforgivable, I think in this case, his 'show' in the end only succeeded in causing deep hurt to Ginny and Lord Boynton. Sometimes the truth is better left alone. To top it all, the only 'true' criminal (the fake nun) was allowed to escape during the proceedings.

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  6. I've been enjoying reading these reviews as I revisit episodes. What's the link to the post where you talk about Poirot and religion (matter of curiosity - also, might be helpful when I review Curtain next week.) :)

    Thanks.

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  7. Suchet has a personal "rule" that he will not appear in "original" adaptations (i.e., that aren't based on Christie, such as Sophie Hannah's new book. Some would call that pretentious. I think it's very Poirot! I can just hear him saying, in Poirot-voice, "Madame Hannah, I am not your Poirot. I am Agatha Christie's Poirot.")

    But I think Suchet came pretty close to breaking his own rule with this adaptation - and in Labours.

    It is a testament to how much I disliked this adaptation that I didn't even remember the final scene, and Eirik had to remind me: Poirot gives Jinny a cross, and her eyes dart back and forth from the cross to Poirot, and then....he's not there anymore? Does that mean what I think it could mean? I must have blocked the whole episode out, and I say that because normally, the implication that there was something magical about Poirot would have struck me. That's played with a few other places in the series.

    Incidentally, Poirot is not even in the play referred to above: Sarah King figures out the truth!

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  8. It isn't a very good book in the first place, and at least the adaptation has a more interesting method of murder plus great cinematography and one of the best scores in the entire series. But the episode's a bit silly and overwrought.

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  9. There has never been a decent adaptation of the 1938 novel. The 1988 version with Peter Ustinov struck me as slightly insipid. Whereas this 2008 version is ridiculously overwrought. And I found the plot changes unnecessary.

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  10. awful book adapted into a ridiculous episode.
    problem with all the objections to the changes is that, elaborate improbable murder plots and poirot 'solving' them with not much evidence to back him, or convict anyone, are usually the norm with both christie stories, and these episodes, with some exceptions.
    the entertainment lies in surrounding story, characters, acting, humor (esp in earlier episodes), period art direction, etc, as well as in observing the elaborateness of murder plot, however improbable.
    sometimes stories work as drama, and even tragedy.
    except for art direction and acting this episode fails everywhere else.
    however as an adaptation this does remain within spirit of original stories and other episodes. that is, apart from white slaver storyline (a storyline mocked in other episodes for its stupid absurdity (not just in "the adventure of the clapham cook", as you note, but passingly in others as well such as "cat among the pigeons".)

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  11. Hello ! I read this review and liked your work and analyses about the series. However, even if this episode isn't my favourite, I want to point out the possible reasons of the changes Guy Andrews and the producers made from the novel.
    There is of course the necessity to adapt the story to a modern audience. But I do believe the main cause of the changes is the difficulty for the production to shoot the episode in Israel because of the safety issue and to find a place which could reproduce the places in the novel. Add the budget and you find out that producers faced the issue of the place.
    Some would argue that doesn't imply all the changes occured in the episode, but I think it is the case : places in "Appointment with Death" plays a great part in the story and change it, you create hole plots for the mystery, especially for the reason of the Boyntons' presence. I know that in the novel, lady Boynton went with her family in Palestina in order to test her "domination power", but she chooses a place which was already appreciated by tourists in the 1930's. I think Guy Andrews created the character of Lord Boynton to give a justification of the presence of the Boynton family in the place chosen in the context of the episode (Syria). This addition implied alterations of some characters, such as Lady Boynton herself, in order to link more the characters from the novel into the new context. Same with the mobile of the murder : "lady" Westholme wouldn't go in Syria for the same reasons as in Palestina and Transjordonia (for what reason a MP would go in French mandate ?), so they chose another mobile (even if the one chosen reminds Poirot's Christmas, which was an error, as Christie wrote Appointment with Death to be different from this other novel in the murder mobile).
    And these are some of the explanations I can give as an example to explain some of the changes in the episode. There are others and I can't go on a long reply which would be boring for everyone. However, I admit the way the changes were made for this story are awkward to make it believable, on the contrary of those made for The Big Four for instance.

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  12. PLEASE TELL ME I AM NOT LOSING MY MIND. IS SWEAR I SAW A DIFFERENT VERSION MUCH CLOSER TO THE TRUTH WITHOUT THEATRICAL CLAPTRAP AT THE END. ANYBODY ELSE?

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    1. Are you thinking of the Peter Ustinov film? That's closer to the novel.

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  13. I just saw this episode and I am disappointed. Poirot is usually a kind man who is after not only court justice, but human justice. This murder has been committted not for personal gain or for some egomaniacal resaons, but because of parental love (however improbale the backstory to it), and the victim is a sadist who damages children with utmoat cruelty. I so not think Poirot would allow the situation in which the culprits add to the trauma of their already psychologically broken daughter by watching her parents kill themselves. That is utter nonsense. Secondly, it seems petty to "unmask" Leonard's ruse with the skull like it is some sort of crime. The real Poirot woild never speak about it publicly like that.
    And finally, the silly Sisiter Agnieszka issue, completely insane. Btw. when you claim someone is Polish, pls take a Polish actor to play the role if this character is suppposed to speak Polish. I am Polish, and the Polish prayer sequence sounded ridiculous.

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  14. Agree with Sitting Nut: an unsatisfying book adapted into a ridiculous episode. It's not believable in the book that adults who all universally dislike this "mother" can't assist each other to get away. This version adds an unbelievable husband who couldn't possibly ignore or excuse her abusiveness (unless they had him be a gold digger, which they didn't). The Nanny is portrayed as the actual instrument of torture, while Mrs. B. sits outside the bathroom, listening to the children cry and scream. If that were the case the children would have been even more hostile to Nanny than the mother, and she would have been an easy candidate for them to test their rebellion/retribution. The nun/slaver subplot is frankly idiotic. A real nun would never kidnap women to be sexual slaves. But the direction has this slaver act all spiritual at the end - phooey. And yes, Poirot would have probably shielded Ginny from watching her biological parents commit suicide but I think the excuse for that is that once again Poirot allows culprits to kill themselves as an easier form of justice.

    Sadly this episode followed many of Hollywood's errors, in relying on great cinematography to substitute for good writing.

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  15. I don't know what all these people are complainin' about (though, I do respect their opinions), but "Appointment with Death" has to be one of my favorite episodes of Poirot. I loved everything about it, including the music. I did only recognize only a few guest stars of this episode...which was John Hannah, and Tim Curry. I have never heard of any of the other actors and actresses. But that's beside the point. And yes, I did cry a little bit when Ginny's parents died. I thought John Hannah did a really good job with that. And as for Lady Boyntan (sp)...is it wrong for me to say that I was glad she was murdered? She had been so horrible to Ginny, her sister, and her brother, even when they were children. I admit, it was a little hard for me to listen to those flashbacks.... Anyway, overall, I thought this was a wonderful episode. I don't understand why everybody is complaining about it.

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I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)