Sunday, 11 August 2013

Episode-by-episode: Five Little Pigs

©ITV
We've now come to the point in time when the series went for its makeover. New producers arrived on the scene and intended to make 'feature films' for television rather than regular episodes. In a way, their choice for a series opener - the novel Five Little Pigs, first published in 1942 - was a brave one. It was adapted by Kevin Elyot (who would also do Death on the Nile and Curtain) and directed by Paul Unwin. Before we begin, I might as well admit that this is my favourite Poirot adaptation, and quite possibly my favourite Poirot novel, too. So I might be a little biased in my comments on this particular adaptation.

Script versus novel
Kevin Elyot does a frankly remarkable job with the screenplay. Generally speaking, his retelling follows its source material very closely, omitting only some of the court and police chapters ('Councel for the Prosecution', 'The Young Solicitor', 'The Old Solicitor' and 'The Police Superintendent') and the character of Lord Dittisham, and shortening other sections without losing out on the vital dialogue (both plot-wise and character-wise, which is quite an achievement - most of the other adaptations in the series manage with only one of the two). However, he does make certain changes that by some fans are considered fairly substantial. First, he introduces an opening scene in which Caroline Crale is hanged. This is at odds with the book, which clearly states that she died in prison about a year after the trial (which is important, because it shows that Christie didn't "kill off" an innocent person). Personally, I find this change perfectly acceptable. It works wonderfully well with the intercutting flashbacks to the summer scenes, and it does increase the tragic aspect of the case; an innocent person was convicted for a crime she did not commit. Second, Elyot brings out what could be interpreted as the novel's homosexual subtext in the interviews with Philip Blake; he projects Blake's rather unclear infatuation with Caroline onto Amyas instead. Again, I can't say I object to this change. As mentioned, it can reasonably be interpreted from the novel and it's done in such a way (by Elyot, director Unwin and actor Stephens) that the scene becomes a moving addition to the storyline, not a sensational trump card as in some of the Marple adaptations. Finally, Elyot adds a scene following the denouement (which, by the way, is kept almost word-by-word), in which Lucy (Carla/Caroline in the novel) aims a gun at Elsa Greer. It might be seen as somewhat sensational, but I think it's in keeping with the characters - and a nice way to underline Greer's sense of having died already - she's almost begging Lucy to pull the trigger. As an aside, there's a minute foreshadowing of this scene in one of the flashbacks, as Angela and Lucy are playing on the beach. They're playing cowboy and Indian, and Angela says 'oh, do shoot me, Lucy, it's the whole point'. All in all, Elyot's script is a truly inspirational addition to the series, with largely understandable changes.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
I think it's clear by now that my admiration for this episode is substantial. In fact, it applies to all aspects of the adaptation, not just the script. Unwin's directing is fantastic, and so is Martin Fuhrer's cinematography (which should be given credit here - have a look at his 'trailer' for this episode to see what I mean), the production design and even the costume and make-up design (an aspect I must admit I rarely comment on, but I am aware that costume designer Sheena Napier is a living legend). The contrast between the glowing flashback scenes and the grey, subdued present-day scenes is well done, and so is the use of the hand-held camera (apparently used to make the viewer feel as if he's there on that same day). Also, I like the fact that the flashbacks to the main characters' childhood are blurry (rather like vintage film rolls), which in a way emphasises that memory gets muddled with the passing of time. Moreover, there are so many breath-taking shifts between the past and the present (for instance, the way the camera in one swift motion changes the setting from the living room of Meredith Blake that summer to the same room fourteen years later). I also particularly enjoy the way that there are mainly close-ups of the faces in present-day shots (some genuinely moving acting going on in those shots). Finally, I've got to mention the title sequence, which is probably the best of the series so far. Lovely landscape shots and the score and directing suit each other perfectly. Speaking of music, Gunning's score is absolutely wonderful - quite possibly the best of the entire series. Luckily, he has released quite a lot of the music on his CD's ('Five Little Pigs', 'The Innocence of Caroline Crale', 'Amyas' Last Painting'). His use of the gramophone recording of 'Alice Blue Gown' and the mix throughout with Eric Satie's Gnossienne no. 1, is magnificent. The house that was used as Alderbury House is a private house in Benington Lordship, Hertfordshire.

Characters and actors
This section is all about the guest actors this time around. It's such a great cast I don't even know if I can name a stand-out. We have Gemma Jones, as the emotionally repressed governess, Rachael Stirling, as a moving Caroline, Toby Stephens as a powerful Philip Blake, Mark Warren as the philosophical herbalist Meredith Blake, Aidan Gillen as the artist Amyas.... the list goes on and on. Great performances all around.

14 comments:

  1. My girlfriend is out and I din't feel like seeing friends so I chose to rewatch this tonight based on the first paragraph of your review. It didn't disappoint - the filming and editing of the flash backs with the camera taking the first person position (of characters looking directly at it) is great. Having not seen it for a while and despite remembering the key plot point I wasn't sure if they'd used a false narrative (i.e. the murderer's "memory" as shown was false) which made it interesting from a plot point of view. I'm glad they avoided the terrible Christie set up of the daughter being scared her mother's murdering tendencies will be inherited - far too Elephants Can Remember.

    Maybe I'm incorrect but this feels like one of the first times an adaption was truly dark with little humour and indeed little redemption or hope for the characters except for the dead woman's reputation. It's none the worse for that.

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    1. Hi Rohan! I'm glad you enjoyed rewatching the episode! Obviously, this being a personal favourite, I think the filming and editing is exceptionally well done. This is the episode I tend to show to people if they're not too keen on Poirot in the first place, and they've all walked away from it pleasantly surprised by the cinematic approach. I agree with you on the murdering tendencies bit.

      You're absolutely right. This is the first venture into 'darkness' (in lack of a better word) for the series. There had been elements of it before (particularly in 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', with the scene in Poirot's old flat), but this is an episode that takes its subject serious from start to finish (and for this story that's a good thing, if you ask me). It's also very much in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of the novel.

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  2. I just came across your blog as a useful companion to working my way through the Poirot series as they have been released on blu-ray. Having started re-watching from series one, it is a shame I've only found your blog as we enter series nine! I do agree with you that this is the best episode of the series so far, at least in terms of an excellent performance by David Suchet. By divesting him of Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon, they gave the series new life by bringing a reality to the stories that was missing from earlier stories. Excellent episode!

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoy the blog! And yes, I really think the new sense of reality as you call it was absolutely necessary at that point in time. Suchet has been given more space to breathe in the later series. Hope you enjoy the rest of your series re-watching! :)

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  3. One of the better ones for me, this adaptation was done so well

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  4. One thing that jumped out at me was that, I don't know if the guys would agree but I though Caroline was prettier than Elsa. Don't know if they did that on purpose? And speaking of Caroline being attractive, I get a strong "closeted lesbian" vibe from Celia Williams (in the book as well). Not saying all lesbians hate men or all women who are indignant about male privilege are lesbians, but Celia seems to take Amyas's behavior personally on Caroline's behalf, (it's not just the principle of the thing) and she waxes eloquent about Caroline's qualities ("when a man has such a charming, gracious, intelligent wife...")

    Caroline was willing to take a fall for Angela because of having injured her...I sometimes felt that that was why she married Amyas and stayed with him to begin with. She was punishing herself her whole life.

    Phillip Blake being gay isn't too much of a stretch, because, even though in the book he admits he was attracted to Caroline and felt rejected, he does seem pretty fixated on Amyas. It makes Caroline's behavior toward him in the adaptation a little stranger, though...was she taunting him about being gay?

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  5. Very good adaptation. Makes more sense for Philip to be in love with Amyas; always found his infatuation with Caroline a bit unconvincing.

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  6. I don't agree there's any gay subtext in the book. The whole point is Philip pretended to hate Caroline to hide the fact that he really loved her. Similarly, Meredith's devotion to Caroline had worn thin and he'd turned his affections to Elsa. However, while I usually prefer adaptations to remain as true to the source material as possible, it's well handled here.

    But I do agree with fangirl82 that there's a definite lesbian subtext with Miss Williams in the adaptation. (But not in the book, where I'd say it's about Victorian values.)

    This adaptation manages to make a dull, repetitive book watchable. Although it fails to make anyone except Angela look fourteen years older. (And why cut two years off the elapsed time? Seems a bit arbitrary.)

    In the book, I imagined Amyas as much more rugged and animalistic. Aidan Gillen seems a bit insipid in comparison.

    The bit with the gun is melodramatic and undermines the genuine drama of the denouement.

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    1. Maybe the time was set to 14 years because it was the time, at that moment, the series had been produced from its first episode (1989-2003); it does settle a more realistic time reference for viewers. I may be mistaken, but this being the case, it surely is a pretty neat coincidence :)

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  7. I think the book already has a great plot worthy of superb thriller film - but it seems all the adaptations of this great work of detective fiction have done injustice to Ms. Christie and her readers

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  8. imo, by far the best episode/movie in this series, so far.
    whole thing, in every department, from acting to camera work, is superlative.

    in addition to its many greater qualities, i also like the fact that poirot admits his solution will probably not stand up in court. most of his other solutions also will fail to get the murderer convicted, but he is too vain and conceited to admit it. and adapters sometimes try to hide the inadequacy of his solutions by bullying the viewers with cheap tricks, like reenactments, and ignoring obvious objections.

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  9. The best episode for me too. Not far from perfection. I just seen it this week for the fifth time (or maybe more).
    Thanks for your article, I didn't know that the music at the final scene was written by Eric Satie. The final scene is very impressive, when Lucy entered in the room and the past suddenly comes from her memory, perhaps a perfectible memory because it was a happy picture... And I think happy moments were rare at this summer. But the child inside her has just captured this moment forever, only this moment.

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  10. "FIVE LITTLE PIGS" is one of my top five favorite Christie adaptations of all time. That is how much I really liked it.

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  11. First, this is a great blog. Congratulations. I wish I'd found it earlier.

    I have to agree that this is one of Christie's very best novels; and the adaptation stands out as probably the best in the series. It is emotionally perfect. We really care about these characters and we feel it when the family of Caroline, Amyas and Lucy is ripped apart. From that point of view, I think the change to open the story by seeing Caroline hanged totally makes sense.

    I love the use of the music and the cinematography to create the atmosphere and define each of the three time periods. Haunting and beautiful.

    Plotwise, also, the solution is hugely satisfying. Agatha Christie takes us on a journey where we begin by asking how anyone other than Caroline could have been the killer; and end up by wondering how we could possibly have been so blind. Of course, [SPOILERS] this is one of those classic Christie love triangles where the killer is always, but always, to be found in the core threesome, and Christie's genius is, each time, to persuade the reader to look at the triangle the wrong way round. See, for example "Death on the Nile", "Evil under the Sun", "Triangle at Rhodes". "Five Little Pigs" stands out as possibly the best of these.

    There is one significant change from the book that you don't mention, which is the use of Amyas' painting of Elsa as a significant clue. Look back at the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter, which begins with Poirot saying: "I should have known when I first saw that picture. For it is a very remarkable picture. It is the picture of..." A shame it wasn't possible to recreate that in the film - though obviously it would have been extraordinarily difficult to do so.

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About Me

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)