This adaptation was based on Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, first published in 1975, just a few months before Christie's death, but written during the war, in the early 1940s. The novel was adapted for television by Kevin Elyot (who also scripted Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile) and directed by Hettie Macdonald (who also directed The Mystery of the Blue Train).
Script versus novel
The press pack to this final episode reveals that Kevin Elyot was asked by the production team to adapt Curtain more than ten years ago, when he wrote the scripts for Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile. I'm not at all surprised they asked him. His script for Five Little Pigs is possibly the best of the entire series, and Death on the Nile proved that he wasn't daunted by the task of writing an adaptation most Poirot fans have been both eagerly waiting for and dreading at the same time. He had also demonstrated that he fully understood Poirot's character, and that he could handle the darker side of Christie without making unnecessary changes. In my opinion, he was the best man for the job.
Elyot has made certain minor changes to the story. The murder cases that made Poirot suspect Norton are only alluded to throughout, and we don't see the newspaper clippings until Poirot's confrontation scene with Norton (which, by the way, is a brilliantly scripted scene). He has also done away with the notion of 'X' , and instead tried to keep the audience guessing. Most of Hastings' long monologue sections are deleted, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that this is a television version of a novel. Nearly all the central elements from these are kept, though. We learn of his wife's death (Elyot cleverly avoids using her name - she was called Bella in the series and Dulcie/Cinderella/Cinders in Christie's stories), his sadness, his 'simple' mind (all beautifully conveyed by Hugh Fraser through different facial expressions and brilliant acting). Some small scenes, like Hastings' visit to Boyd Carrington's manor, nearly all conversations with Nurse Craven, and Hastings' encounter with the old woman in the village, are also deleted, while others, like the inquest, are significantly shortened or moved around a bit. Some minor additions are made, like 'This is not a wheel-barrow, Hastings!' (a lovely unintentional (?) reference to Hastings' driving over the years), and 'You have lard for a brain!', mirroring several comments over the years ('Why is it the fate of Hercule Poirot to live among such philistines!').
The most significant additions, if you can call it that, are a couple of scenes in which Poirot is alone, speaking to himself. In all three scenes we see him praying (emphasising the religious subplot of the later series), and in two of them he's having small heart attacks (mentioned in the novel). The religious element shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have seen the more recent episodes. Suchet and the team have been slowly building up towards this very adaptation to make this believable. In the novel, Poirot discusses both the bon Dieu and his own doubts in his final letter to Hastings, so it's natural that this aspect of his character is emphasised here. Also, all his remarks are made in scenes that Hastings, who narrates the novel, could not have witnessed, so I'd consider this acceptable creative license. Personally, I'm also convinced that this adds an important dimension to Poirot, It's part of Suchet humanisation of the character, and it's beautifully done. His heart-breaking death scene in particular.
Essentially, though, this is a very faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted almost verbatim from the novel, and several elements are strikingly similar. See, for instance, the introduction of Daisy Luttrell. She wears garden gloves and mirrors, like the first appearance of Evelyn Howard in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie and Hastings comment on this in Curtain (the novel). Similarly, Poirot's first 'mon ami Hastings' feels like a throw-back to their first meeting in the post office all those years ago. Most importantly, Eloyt devotes almost a third of the episode to the aftermath of Poirot's death and his final letter to Hastings. It makes for an unusual and very moving denouement. The confrontation between Norton and Poirot is chilling. (I must admit, though, that I would have preferred Poirot to keep his fake moustache on. I realise it's what Christie wrote and it was necessary to pass as Norton, but I kept thinking I was watching David Suchet playing a killer, not Poirot killing a criminal. Oh well. As Tom, a reader of the blog, said to me: At least we know what Achille might have looked like!).
All in all, Kevin Elyot has done a magnificent job creating a moving, thoughtful, chilling and brilliant adaptation of one of Christie's greatest plot twists. It's so much more than we could have hoped for: near-perfection.
Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Hettie Macdonald's direction is such a contrast to her previous adaptation, The Mystery of the Blue Train. The floating shots and the experimental use of camera angles are more or less gone. In their place we get close-ups of faces and broader overview shots that work exceptionally well for the episode. There's also something about her 'peering' approach that simply works much better here than it did in her previous episode; Poirot is hunting down a ruthless sadist, after all, not just a jewel thief. The opening sequence is particularly well done. Scenes of Margaret Litchfield being hanged (she died in an asylum in the novel) are inter-cut with scenes of Elizabeth Cole (her sister) playing the Chopin piece to Poirot, as Hastings arrives in his taxi. The entire set-up is very reminiscent of Five Little Pigs, in which Caroline Crale's execution is inter-cut with Lucy Crale's memories from her childhood. Intriguingly, both hangings didn't appear in Christie's original novels. Litchfield died in an asylum and Caroline Crale died in prison. This was in keeping with Christie's golden rule - never let an innocent character hang, but I really think the story is much more effective because of the changes. Moreover, I was delighted to see the first shots of Poirot. The camera moves from his patent leather boots, to his hands, and finally to his head, in separate shots - a lovely homage to 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', the first episode of the entire series.
Macdonald's direction, the colour grading and the excellent production design bring out the autumnal quality of both the setting and the story. Really, having watched this adaptation, I think an autumn setting suits the story much better than the summer setting of the book. I must admit than I am more than a little disappointed that the production team didn't use Chavenage House, the location in which The Mysterious Affair at Styles was filmed. The location was unavailable, apparently, but I don't understand why they couldn't have found a more similar 'country manor'. Was it really necessary to go for a castle? It doesn't look remotely similar. Having said that, I was pleased that the new location has a few similarities with Chavenage, and I really think it worked for this particular adaptation. It makes the characters look small in a vast space, and the house itself almost becomes a character - the ghosts of the past.
Christian Henson's soundtrack for the episode is ingenious. Not only is there a perfect balance between eerie, almost Hitchcockian music and more melancholic touches, but the use of Chopin's 'Raindrop Prelude' (Op. 28 No. 15) is perfect. Again, this reminds me of Five Little Pigs, in which Gunning used Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 1 as a running theme. The Chopin piece is extra poignant because it is used for Poirot's death scene. The music, combined with Suchet's superb acting, create an intensely moving atmosphere.
Characters and actors
The supporting cast for this episode is more or less perfect. Special mentions should be given to Helen Baxendale, Aidan McArdle, Anne Reid and Alice Orr-Ewing. They all manage to make their characters feel more human and/or chilling. The stars of the show, however, are David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. Let me start with Hugh Fraser. This is an actor who, for so many years, played a character whose emotional (and intellectual) range was very limited; a man who was famous for his 'I say, Poirot' and 'Good Lord!'. Fraser really comes to the fore in this adaptation; he is given so much more to play with. The grief over Hastings' wife, the concern for Judith (which will eventually drive him to attempt murder - a shocking moment, I'm sure, for several fans), and last but not least: the death of Poirot. The man who had been his closest friend, 'like a father'. Fraser does an absolutely outstanding job, and I sincerely hope he continues his career in the future.
Now - the leading man. David Suchet. What can I say? If you have ever been in doubt, then surely this is the moment to conclude: he is the definitive Poirot. What an unbelievably exquisite performance! I can only imagine what was running through his mind as he shot these scenes (or, actually, I can read about it, in Poirot and Me, published this month). The physical transformation is complete - down to the voice and the weariness of the man. The death scene is a remarkable piece of acting. Stunning and gut-wrenching at the same time. I am in awe of what this man has achieved in 25 years. He has made a cardboard cut-out a living, breathing human being that we actually care about. Given the previous incarnations of Poirot on stage and screen, that is quite an achievement. David Suchet, I salute you.
Au revoir, Poirot. (I can't say 'adieu' just yet).