Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It's Curtains for Poirot! I Wept, But Not for the Reasons You Might Think

**Spoiler alert! This post is about how the TV version of Agatha Christie's Curtains, Poirot's Last Case, was ruined for me by the insertion of gratuitous rosary clutching, and by other generally inept muddling of the original plot.**

Poirot Has Taken Up the Rosary in the TV Series
I read all of the Hercule Poirot mysteries my mother frequently brought home from the library when I was young, mostly because I read everything that came into the house. Full of adolescent intellectual pretensions and dreams of becoming a "famous writer," I binge-read Agatha Christie's books without much enthusiasm, holding my nose in the air because everyone knew the stories weren't great literature.

As I speed read through the books, I  felt manipulated by the way Christie presented the clues, because I resented that I could never guess the ending. Like the novels, the shows in the TV series never give you all the information you need to solve the mystery yourself. First one person seems to be the killer, then another, then a third. It always ends up that everyone is potentially equally guilty until Poirot takes center stage and proudly makes the dramatic revelation of the real killer at the end.

Agatha Christie knew what she was doing with this phenomenally successful formula. She was probably laughing at her critics who called her lowbrow, all the way to the bank. Her books are said to be the third ranking most popular best sellers of all time, just below the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

The formula doesn't bother me when I watch the TV shows. A great part of the Poirot shows' appeal for me is from the locales in which they are shot and from the mores and manners of the idle rich good looking people in their 30s attire. Dear Poirot, who was played deftly by David Suchet, was always a gentleman and a charming reminder of distressingly lost manners and morals.

I binge watched the first seasons of the Poirot shows that were online when I first got Netflix, and I was quite content to watch dandy and dapper little Poirot have his light and whimsical interactions with Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon and watch the clues pile up in all their superfluity—until Poirot would sort out the relevant from the irrelevant and tell us who did it.
David Suchet as Poirot in the first TV episode, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook
Then there were none left to watch. I marveled at David Suchet's surprisingly villainous Augustus Melmotte in the 2001 British four-part adaptation of the Anthony Trollope novel, The Way We Live Now. Then I was happy to learn from an Youtube interview with Suchet that he would be appearing in a final season of Poirot, after a many-year hiatus.

I finally got to watch the last season over this last month. and when I got to end of the final show, Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, a few days ago, I wept.
Why Did They Do It?

I didn't cry for the sentimental reasons that one might expect, not because I was saying goodbye to mon cher ami, Poirot, the character who had amused me for so much of my life. Not that at all. I cried from disappointment and frustration with how the writer, the producer, and the director muddied the plot with many uncalled for changes, and I cried with resentment about how they ruined the character of Poirot for me, with what seem to me to be not too subtle digs at his and my Catholic faith.

How Agatha Christie Did It

I didn't remember the original novel, so I read it again after I saw the final show. In the book, Agatha Christie showed Poirot as obsessed by knowing that there was a killer at work behind at least five murders that had been splashed all over the papers, a killer whom the law would never be able to touch. The book starts when the widower Hastings is on a train to Styles, which had been the scene of their first sleuthing collaboration in the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Styles is now a run-down guest house. Poirot has summoned Hastings to help him. Judith, one of Hasting's four children who are all living on their own, has come to the guest house there also, assisting a scientist who is lodging there for the summer with his invalid wife and performing experiments in an outbuilding.

Poirot is feigning being paralyzed as part of his plan. In the book, Poirot tells Hastings that he knows who the killer is who has been the guiding hand behind all five of the murders and that the killer is one of the group gathered at Styles. He won't tell Hastings the killer's name, he says, because he is convinced that Hastings will give the game away with his "speaking countenance."  Poirot calls the killer "X."
The Group Gathered at Styles
Significantly, Shakespeare's Iago comes up in the conversation of the people at the guest house after dinner one night.  Similar to how Iago goaded Othello into killing his wife Desdemona by making Othello think his wife was unfaithful, X deftly manipulates people who would not otherwise kill into committing murders, by making them think things that aren't true or distorting things that are true, shaming them or making them fearful or otherwise manipulating their emotions with words and innuendos planted always at the most effective moment.
Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago
X's manipulations been responsible for at least five killings before the story  begins. Since all the murders X is responsible for were carried out by others, X can never be convicted in a court of law. Poirot also neglects to tell Hastings that he has moved into the Styles guest house and enlisted Hastings' help because he has decided to execute X himself. He is feigning being paralyzed as part of his plan.

Before Poirot can carry out his planned execution, X is able to provoke the guest house owner to shoot (but fortunately not fatally injure) his nagging wife, and X has helped precipitate another woman's attempt to poison her husband, which only went wrong when Hastings inadvertently turned the table on which the cups were placed, which caused the woman to drink a poisoned cup of coffee she had prepared for her spouse.

To show how powerfully compelling X's manipulation can be, even the good Hastings is only narrowly prevented by Poirot from poisoning a man. Hastings had been manipulated by X into believing the man is going to hurt his daughter. A major theme of this book seems to be that anyone can be a killer.

Anyone Includes Even Poirot

Poirot believes that he must act before any of the other murderous seeds that X has planted in the minds of any of the others at the guest house bear fruit in any more killings.  He asks Hastings to invite X to his room. After Hastings leaves, Poirot tells X what he knows, tells him he is going to execute him, shoots him, and arranges everything to make it look like a suicide.

Poirot asks Gods' forgiveness; he believes the murder is justified because it will remove the killer and protect innocent lives, but he admits he is not sure that what he did is forgivable.  After he writes a letter to be delivered to Hastings four months later — which explains everything — Poirot has the last in a series of heart attacks that were shown throughout the episode.

Poirot chooses not to take the amyl nitrate that helped him survive the earlier attacks, and he dies. The formerly good Poirot joins the ranks of killers whom he has pursued his whole career.
"Yes, my friend, it is odd — and laughable — and terrible! I, who do not approve of murder — I, who value human life — have ended my career by committing murder." — from Poirot's letter to Hastings delivered four months after Poirot's death (from the novel)
The Saddest Thing of All

The saddest thing of all for me about the way the book was written is to think that Poirot's act of killing would have quite probably damned Poirot to hell.  Also of concern is the fact that is not clear whether Poirot's not taking the medicine that was keeping him alive was a suicide or not. The way Christie wrote the story, Poirot asked God to forgive him before he died, but how God will judge Poirot is not  clear.

The dreadful thought of Poirot being not only dead but in eternal hellfire hangs portentous in my mind, even though he was only a fictional character. The biggest thing I always am concerned about when I hear about a death is whether the person in a state of grace. All of us must die, but as the saints have told us, much more important than the facts of anyone's death is where that person will spend eternity.

How They Went Wrong

The creators of the TV series went way off track in their visually and morally bleak version of Curtain, which they set in winter instead of summer with lots of British gloom and thunderstorms. They turned Poirot into an angry man who rages inexcusably cruelly at his friend, Hastings. There is some of that in the book, but the things Poirot says to Hastings and the way he treats his friend in the final show is hateful and distasteful.

They muddled the plot immensely by hiding from Hastings the fact that Poirot knows who the potential killer is, and by omitting the plot device from the book in which Poirot calls the killer "X."  If Poirot doesn't know either who the victim will be or who the killer is, his actions don't make sense. And what is Hastings supposed to do? He thinks he is supposed to help stop a murder.  But really he is supposed to help Poirot commit one.

One thing is for sure, in Poirot's mind, Hastings can't do anything right. The guest house owner's wife is shot, a woman is poisoned, the hapless Hastings almost poisons a man, and Hastings is left just as clueless as he was at the start. It's not his fault the way the story has been ineptly re-written.

Poirot is constantly railing at Hastings how he doesn't have any grey cells, that he has lard for brains. "I say, that's a bit rough," replies poor Hastings to the last sharp jibe.

Christie was brilliant at the art of creating complex plot details that dovetailed together. So it is inexcusably clumsy that when the makers of the TV version took out some plot elements and added others, they didn't rebalance everything about the story. As one wag wrote about changes made by producers and directors to another of Christie's stories: "If they think they can do better, they should write their own novels. They could then muck those up to their hearts' content."

The TV version of Curtain breaks the rules of dramatic unity by moving away from Hastings' point of view three times to show Poirot alone with his thoughts and his rosary. The use of the rosary seems to be part of a pattern in the shows created after 2003, when the series producers started stressing Poirot's Catholicism in a way the author never did. Poirot's previously uncrackable self-assurance about the rules he lived by is shown to be cracking, which it never does in the novels.

For another example of similar changes in another episode, the end of Murder on the Orient Express in the TV series has first raging at the murderers who have taken the law into their own hands to execute a criminal who had escaped justice, and then they show Poirot in tears about his wrenching decision to allow the murders to get off, while he is clutching a rosary. The raging, the tears, the wrenching decision, and the rosary, none of these are in the book.

Most shocking to me about one of added scenes in Curtain is that they showed Poirot holding his rosary beads tightly at the same time he mutters he will damn the killer's soul to hell. This uncalled-for insertion smacks of anti-Catholicism. At the very least it shows an incorrect understanding of Catholic beliefs, and it paints Poirot as deeply evil.  His high-mindedness has turned into a vicious desire for revenge.
To me, a rosary-praying Catholic would be likely to have the kind of faith that would lead to trust in God (Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord). Instead Poirot comes across as a twisted egotistic religious crackpot, and the rosary is made to seem part of Poirot's evil religiosity.

One of the most popular canards of our era is that religion is the blighting source in the human soul of self-righteous judgmentalism and violence, and the BBC promoted that canard in the final Poirot mystery with a very heavy hand.

While God's judgment against Poirot was not certain for the murder he committed in the book, the balance was tipped against Poirot in the TV version, in which the crime of taking the law into his own hands and breaking the sixth commandment was compounded by the writers' additions.  When Poirot spits out his desire to send the killer to eternal damnation, the series final Curtain has been transformed from a formulaic murder mystery into a revenge tragedy, either by choice or inadvertently.

When It is Not Enough to Kill Somebody

As you may know, revenge tragedies were a favorite form of  tragedy during the Elizabethan and post-Restoration periods of English drama. English revenge tragedies of those times were modeled after ancient dramas, but they included a new element in the Christian era, because everyone was aware of the judgment that awaits every soul after death.  The avenger no longer would be satisfied by killing; the avenger would only be satisfied if he could make sure the person he kills is in a state of mortal sin, so that person will go to hell.
And Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."Matthew 10:28.
Shakespeare's Hamlet is the best example of the revenge genre. Prince Hamlet, as we all know, was goaded by an apparition of his father to kill his uncle, Claudius, because Claudius had gained the throne of Denmark and his father's wife by the murder.  In Act 3, Scene 3 of the play, Hamlet comes upon his uncle on his knees praying, and he thinks, what good would it do to kill Claudius at that point? It could result in sending the uncle to heaven, whereas perfect revenge would require him to be sent to hell.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. if he am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes."
It's a stroke of ironic plotting on Shakespeare's part that Hamlet doesn't realize that his uncle is on his knees because he is trying unsuccessfully to repent.  In his soliloquy, unknown to Hamlet, Claudius comes to realize that he cannot sincerely ask for forgiveness because he still enjoys the kingship and the queen that he gained from his crime.  Claudius' prayers rise to heaven, but his thoughts stay on earth, so he knows he will still be damned because he is blocked from the grace of final repentance.
Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart as Hamlet and Claudius
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
The Big Questions

The question often raised in revenge tragedies is this:  Are the protagonists who are enacting private revenge  heroes or villains? The book version of Curtain leaves us with the same good question.  Is Poirot, who kills for what he thinks are good reasons, a villain or a hero? Hasn't Poirot become no better than the murderers he has brought to justice all those years? And how will his plea to God for forgiveness be answered? Poirot does seem to have same lack of true repentance as Claudius did.

The way the TV series ends raises even more troubling questions. Hasn't Poirot's desire not only to kill but to damn X, which is uttered while he is clutching rosary beads, made him even more of a hypocritical villain and damned him even more certainly? And at the moment of his last heart attack, when Poirot grabs for his rosary instead of his amyl nitrate popper that would save his life, what are we to make of that?
Poirot reaches for his rosary instead of the amyl nitrate that will help him survive
Now can you see why I cried?

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