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September 24, 2019

Agatha Christie Novels Adapted for the Stage


Nearly all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries have a life outside of their existence as books.  The dramatic potential of many of her crime stories are well known by the Queen of Crime herself and by other playwrights.  While some of Christie’s plays are based on short stories or original ideas, over the course of her career, Christie dramatized several of her own novels for the stage. 

And Then There Were None (US/UK), Christie’s tale of strangers who are invited to an isolated island, accused of murder, and slain one by one, is perhaps Christie’s most famous and most frequently performed adaptation of her own novels.

Christie adapted four of her own Poirot novels to the stage: Appointment With Death (US/UK), Go Back for Murder (US/UK) (based on Five Little Pigs), The Hollow (US/UK), and Murder on the Nile (US/UK) (based on Death on the Nile).  In each case, Christie deleted Poirot from the narrative because she believed his character overwhelmed the production (for more on these changes, please see my article “Waiting for Poirot.”)

Recently, two more of Christie’s own adaptations of her novels were made available for production. The Secret of Chimneys (US/UK) is her missing story of murder, international espionage, and a long-lost heir to a central European throne. Towards Zero (US/UK) takes the premise of that all murder stories get the narrative wrong– that the murder shouldn’t take place at the beginning, but rather at the end.  Murders are the culmination of strings of events that lead to violence.  In this story, a wealthy woman is murdered, and the prime suspect appears to have been framed.  A love pentagon, including a recently remarried sports star, his current wife, his ex-wife, and two men with feelings for the women add fuel to the fire.  Gerald Verner co-wrote one adaptation of Towards Zero with Christie which has been available for decades.  Another adaptation, written solely by Christie and set outside on a terrace rather than inside the mansion, has just been rediscovered and released.  Christie’s adaptation differs from the more famous predecessor with different fates for some characters, alternate characters, and changed subplots.

Christie also drew upon her short stories when crafting plays, including her classic courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution (US/UK).  “Philomel Cottage,” the story of a honeymoon where at least one half of the couple is a serial killer, was adapted solely by Christie in The Stranger (US/UK) and dramatized by Frank Vosper in Love from a Stranger.  The Wasp’s Nest (US/UK) and Yellow Iris (US/UK) are based on the Poirot short stories of the same titles.  In both cases, Poirot must prevent a murder involving twisted relationships and cyanide.  Finally, Christie’s long-running play The Mousetrap (UK), based on “Three Blind Mice,” features a murderer out for revenge for past injustices, with potential victims trapped in a snowbound inn.

Christie is not the only author to dramatize her novels. Leslie Darbon adapted A Murder is Announced (US/UK) and Cards on the Table in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  A Murder is Announced is the post-WWII-set tale of a small village turned upside down when the local newspaper advertises a murder that will take place at one resident’s home that evening.  Everybody thinks it’s all just a simple party game… until real bullets are fired.  Several of the suspects from the novel are omitted, as is one of the murders.  At the moment, this is the only Christie-based play widely available for license starring Miss Marple.  Comparably, in the vein of Christie’s own adaptations, Darbon cut Poirot from his adaptation of Cards on the Table, as well as the character Colonel Race.  Cards on the Table is the story of a macabre bridge party, where the mysterious host invites both detectives and people who have gotten away with murder to his house, before being stabbed to death himself.  It’s up to the detectives to figure out who killed the host, and the solution may lie in the murders committed in the past.

Two recent adaptations by contemporary authors are Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express (US) and Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari’s The Secret Adversary (US).  Both take some significant liberties with the original source material.  Murder on the Orient Express deletes about a third of the suspects to retell Christie’s classic whodunit about a stabbing on the world’s most luxurious train, with suspects from all nationalities and walks of life.  The Secret Adversary retells Christie’s tale of a pair of young adventurers who start out by looking for a job, and end by forestalling a revolution.  In the vein of the popular stage adaptation of The 39 Steps (US/UK), the numerous supporting roles are played by performers taking on multiple roles.  Six actors, three men, three women, play all of the smaller parts, while the lead actor and actress play Tommy and Tuppence.  (There are other Christie novels adapted for the stage by other authors, but at the moment those not mentioned here are not available for licensing.)

The page-to-stage process was reversed at the end of the twentieth century, when Charles Osbourne novelized three original Christie plays.  Black Coffee (US/UK), the first to receive this treatment, is the only Poirot mystery created originally for the stage.  In it, Poirot, Hastings, and Japp investigate the mysterious poisoning of a prominent scientist, and his stolen secrets may have serious international repercussions if his research is sold to a foreign power.  The Unexpected Guest (US/UK) is the story of a man who believes that he has walked into a room where a woman who has just shot her abusive husband, and on a whim he decides to take steps to shield her, only to find out there may be more to the killing than previously suspected.  Finally, Spider’s Web is a comedic tale of a woman determined to protect her stepdaughter from being arrested for murder.

The plays give audiences a chance to see their favorite Christie novels on the stage, and who knows what other Christie novels will be adapted for audiences in the future?

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Photo: The cast of And Then There Were None (Tristram Kenton)