Thursday, 15 August 2013

Episode-by-episode: Sad Cypress

The second episode of Series Nine was based on the novel Sad Cypress, first published in 1940. It was adapted for television by David Pirie and directed by David Moore.

Script versus novel
Pirie's script takes quite a few liberties without losing the spirit of the novel. Especially two things had to be worked around for this adaptation. One was the 'court room' scenes, especially in the final sections, another was the fact that Poirot isn't introduced until quite late in the proceedings. There are still some court room scenes, especially a nicely done opening sequence (that glides seamlessly back into time with a Elinor Carlisle voice-over), but I think particularly the new denouement scene is brilliant and so much better than the court room version from the novel. As to Poirot, he is believably added to the plot early on with the threatening letter to Elinor. He is in the area due to a trial in a different case he solved a year earlier (it's nice to hear of Poirot's actual involvement in a court case for once). In fact, Dr. Lord is an old friend of Poirot's here - they play chess together regularly. Moreover, the way he introduces Poirot to the case is actually quite reminiscent of Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles ("I know a detective"). Generally speaking, these two changes mean that Poirot (and the adaptation) is much more actively engaged with investigation - both into the threatening letters and into the murder itself (see, for instance, the added sandwiches scene, with the amusing comment 'she was murdered, yes, but not by these disgusting sandwiches'). Also, there are a couple of nicely incorporated scenes like Elinor's discovery of Roddy and Mary in the drawing room at night, Poirot's nightmare (quite creepy, but it ties in with the plot), Poirot admitting his mistake to Ted Horlick ('I have been thirty-six times an idiot!'), and a matchmaking scene implied in the novel between Elinor and Dr. Lord. Several minor changes have been made, too, including a shortening down of the discussion between Roddy and Elinor on inheritance in the first few pages, combining the characters of Ted Bigland and Horlick the gardener, removing Mary's father (only mentioned in the novel, but here he has died before the story takes place), Mary inheriting 7 000 pounds rather than 2 000 pounds, Mary having already made a will on Hopkins's suggestion (so the scene in which Elinor laughs and is discovered by Dr Lord is removed - instead, she explains to Poirot that she wants her dead. A more important change, perhaps, is the fact that the jury first sentence Elinor guilty, so that there is an overhanging fear of her being hanged (possibly to increase the dramatic tension of the story). Poirot's interviews with Elinor in prison are consequently much more poignant, too.There are probably other changes I have forgotten to mention, but all in all, I would say the adaptation works well, and the story has been expertly converted from a court room drama to a much more active investigation, in tune with Poirot's other cases. As such, I think the script is exceptionally well done and a great addition to the series.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Moore's direction suits the story perfectly, with a somewhat elegiac and dark feel to it. Some of the transitions are particularly well done (although I'm not sure if I like the abrupt shifts of scenes in some cases), and I like the way he has emphasised the darkness of the old house. The most striking bit of direction, however, is the nightmare sequence, with a truly horror-like transformation of Mary Gerrard. The production values are of a high standard, as always, with some minor slips (e.g. The British Library / The British Museum, Gershwin's date of death and a continuity error in one of the final scenes (Poirot first has an overcoat on, then he hasn't). The locations suit the story perfectly, and the soundtrack is beautiful (Gunning certainly increased the cinematic feel for these four episodes). The locations used include Dorney Court, Dorney, Buckinghamshire (used as The Hunterbury Arms Hotel), the Sue Ryder Home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire (used as Hunterbury House - it would later be used as Meadowbanks school in Cat Among the Pigeons) and Hambleden Church, Buckinghamshire. See location photos here.

Characters and actors
There are some really nice Poirot scenes here (see, for instance, all scenes with Elinor). In tune with the development of Poirot's loneliness and heart ache, there's an added line: 'I can understand the ache of the heart. It is a place very lonely'. The guest actors are lovely, too, with Elizabeth Dermot-Walsh as the real standout. See more on her performance in the Poirot & Me documentary

8 comments:

  1. One change I wasn't crazy about: in the novel, Mary is very nice and innocent, is not that into Roddy, and really deplores his advances to her for being a betrayal of Elinor. In this one she is much more receptive and seems more up-front sexy.

    I am not sure how I feel about the heavy hints (well, they are more than hints) that Elinor and Roddy are sexually active during their engagement. I would have thought upper-class couples wouldn't have done that in the 30s, particularly with an old aunt around, even if they were engaged. Maybe the right answer is "they did, they just didn't talk about it." These two have certainly known each other a long time and, at least on Elinor's side, there is deep love involved. The sexual aspect of many Christie couples' relationship is made more explicit in several adaptations (Five Little Pigs had a scene of Amyas and Elsa in bed together, but that one did seem in keeping with the spirit of the novel - we know it was an affair.) I suppose Elinor's having gone "that far" with Roddy makes the whole situation that much worse for her and perhaps gives her a deeper motive for possibly doing away with her competition. It also makes Roddy seem a bit more cad-ish!

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  2. Roddy being suggested to really enjoy sex with Elinor hits an odd note, given the premise that there was always a lack of real passion on his side. Love and attraction may be different, but I always thought the idea was, what he really felt for Elinor was love in a non-attraction kind of way, (relative-like).

    Obviously, they kept the novel's original resolution of Elinor's romantic life. After watching Taken at the Flood, I almost wish they had changed it to have Poirot help Elinor move toward being happy without a guy in her life (consider that she absolutely does not need the financial support, and is, in fact, almost certainly richer than either of the two candidates - and shown to be capable of dealing with money.)

    That said, this novel's resolution is actually unusual for Christie as well: Christie (and Poirot) had the ORIGINAL couple reconcile far more often than not. And one might question whether dumping someone you've known all your life for someone you've just met is wise, but of course, Roddy showed himself to be unreliable (in the sense of having his head turned by Mary - he IS loyal in the sense that he always believes in Elinor's innocence.)

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  3. I bet everyone who has read my posts can guess what Roddy's first seeing Mary reminded me of (from the early series)...

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  4. I think the idea that Elinor put on a stoic facade, so Roddy was deceived as to how much she cared for him, seems to be changed here. She certainly doesn't hide her heartbreak when they're definitely broken up.

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  5. Dr Lord must be a terrible chess player if the best he's ever managed is to once almost have put Poirot in check!

    Is having Roddy impressed by Nazi politics meant to make him seem less sympathetic, just naïve or is it purely to help establish the period? Either way, it seems a bit clumsy and out of place. Roddy is certainly portrayed as much more of cad and less of a buffoon than in the book.

    I wonder why the adaptation has Mary only recently arrived when her long term presence is such an important aspect of the book.

    It's also quite strange that Elinor specifies the salmon sandwiches are for Mary and the crab & shrimp for the others. It's later said that salmon were Mary's favourite, but it's a very odd moment when the audience isn't aware. Presumably it's to emphasise Elinor as a suspect and to make it seem more certain that she could have ensured Mary ate the poisoned sandwiches; but considering she ISN'T the murderer, why would she do that?

    Poirot's reasoning about not being able to distinguish the sandwiches in no way proves Elinor's innocence as she made them.

    The denouement is a little odd, with suspects scattered all over the house and Poirot flitting between them to tell them all bits of the story. But the scene with Nurse Hopkins is good.

    In fairness, although he introduction is quite late in the book (by no means for the first or last time), once he arrives it does become a standard Poirot investigation and only turns into a courtroom drama near the end.

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    1. It is quite clear from early scenes that Mary likes salmon: She takes salmon canape at the party, where Poirot meets Elinor.

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  6. The altered ending jarred slightly for me, I think because it wasn't consistent with everything we'd been shown. Why would Nurse Hopkins, having gone to great lengths to avoid being connected with the murders, kill someone else in a way that (a) could not possibly be attributed to Elinor, and (b) would at the very least draw suspicion to her, even if it could not be proven? Poirot hadn't given much sign at that point that he considered her a suspect, so there was no urgent need to kill him.

    Also slightly off is her reaction to Poirot's faked I've-been-poisoned noises. Apomorphine Hydrochloride is, as we are told, an emetic, not an antidote. Even if he'd taken more poison than her, the fact that he was (apparently) already suffering the effects would indicate that it was already being digested - at which point no emetic will help. So she should have been alarmed and desperately trying to get away to throw up in private, not gleeful as he apparently died.

    Perhaps I'm over-thinking!

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  7. The novel is one of the best of Christie's classic "fair play" puzzles. The adaptation probably could have worked without any changes to the original. At least they kept the key clues, the morphine/apomorphine label, and the thornless rose bush. As a side rant -- why on earth would such a carefully made series start using artificial roses at this point? And to use red ones instead of dark pink, which is the color of the Zephirine Drouhin rose! They could have at least used a few real roses, especially those held close to the camera.

    I am guessing that making Elinor and Roddy overtly lovers was to help modern viewers "get" the emotional tension Elinor feels - her guilt at wishing Mary dead. In the book Elinor is very repressed, which gives Roddy an excuse to dump her, and modern viewers wouldn't understand that. Another detail no one else has mentioned is the flirty glances Mary casts at Roddy. I guess that is to partly explain Roddy's unfaithfulness, but it doesn't really fit the story. Mary thinks she is going to inherit, regardless of Roddy's courtship or Elinor's status as "nearest relative."

    All in all this adaptation is one of the better ones in the series.

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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)