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.
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.