Filling Miss Marple's Shoes
by Phil Clymer
With so many different adaptations of the Miss Marple books made for television and cinema over the past five decades (just twelve novels have fed 20 film versions even before the baton passed to Geraldine McEwan), anyone attempting to adapt them for television today is inevitably going to face unenviable comparisons. On the one hand, there is the reverent approach adopted for the wonderfully realized (and greatly admired) Joan Hickson films made by the BBC in the 1980s; at another extreme, there are the British feature films of the 1950s starring Margaret Rutherford which continue to be enormously popular around the world. Some of these bear no relation to anything Agatha wrote herself -- indeed, it's fairly well documented that she did not find these black and white films to her taste at all.
While Margaret Rutherford is still considered by some to be the quintessential Miss Marple (for example in Germany, where the films have become cult classics), and for many others Joan Hickson can never be superseded, a whole generation of American viewers confusingly believe 'Jessica Fletcher' to be Miss Marple. Of course, Jessica Fletcher was played by Angela Lansbury who played Miss Marple in the film The Mirror Crack'd (1980). Lansbury's series about an amateur lady sleuth was called Murder She Wrote -- uncannily similar to Murder She Said (1961), the American title of the 4.50 From Paddington movie. Coincidence? It doesn't take Miss Marple to work out why people are confused!
Our creative approach to the films made with Geraldine McEwan is to recognize the continuing demand, both in Britain and around the world, for new films to be made; to make no apologies for remaking the stories again; and to try and reinvent them in such a way that they work for the world of 21st century television and -- we hope -- bring a whole army of new readers to the books. The reinvention, however, requires recognition that people's attitudes towards and expectations of television have changed greatly in the past 20 years.
One of the most demanding challenges in adapting Agatha Christie's works today is to find ways of transferring and enhancing the reader's experience in such a way that the story continues to feel fresh and exciting, while being faithful to the spirit and intent of the original novel. With Sleeping Murder, the decision was taken quite early in the script development process to introduce a new element and new characters who do not appear in the book, as a way of creating a context and background for the story within the world we have established for the Marple series. Once that decision had been made, the 'backstory' of Gwenda and her family began to take shape in a new and intriguing way. This reinvention of the story for television also gave us the opportunity to bring the character of Gwenda much more to the fore. By keeping her unmarried, we were able to build up a stronger and more compelling narrative with her as an isolated woman in unknown territory. Whereas in the novel she and her new husband are at the centre of events, the television film delays the arrival of her husband in order to build up a sense of greater independence as she attempts to wrestle with the mystery without his support.
Ultimately, whether or not in years to come people will consider these most recent Marples to have stood the test of time, I believe that the strength of Miss Marple as a character and Agatha Christie as a writer mean that these books are capable of surviving almost any interpretation, and that people will continue to read them for many years to come.
If Agatha Christie and the Miss Marple character are two of the cornerstones in the success of the new series, then Geraldine McEwan is undoubtedly the third. To my (admittedly biased) mind, she offers the best and most human -- and, more to the point, humane -- interpretation of the role ever seen. She has also been instrumental in attracting an extraordinary list of guest stars to the television films. Geraldine is not just a good actress -- she is recognized by her peers as being a great actress. We know that a number of actors at the top of their profession have been influenced to join Marple in favor of other work solely by their desire to work with Geraldine. They each join the guest cast for a single film, while Geraldine takes up the punishing schedule of being the central character in four films a year with more relish and sparkle than anyone could have reasonably expected. Those of us working on the films owe much to Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Joan Hickson and the others, but for us there can be no contest -- Geraldine McEwan is Miss Marple.
So far MYSTERY's Miss Marple series with Geraldine McEwan in the title role has achieved the following award nominations:
Emmy Awards 2005 - Outstanding Special Class Program
Satellite Awards 2005 - Outstanding Miniseries
- Outstanding Actress: Geraldine McEwan
New York Critic's Circle Awards 2006 - TV Movie/Drama Special
Phil Clymer is an Executive Producer for Chorion, majority owner of Agatha Christie Limited, which owns the majority of the literary and dramatic works of Agatha Christie.
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