We love mystery!

Adaptations (part 1)

Mystery is one of the most popular genres of screen adaptations, with Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle providing the source material for many of them. However, there are many other adaptations to enjoy, and in this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss the different formats that mystery adaptations can take.

Correction: Brook refers to Matthew Pritchard as Agatha Christie’s son, but he was her grandson.

Discussed in order

The Death of Nancy Sykes (1897)

Baffled (1900)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) Agatha Christie

“The Coming of Mr. Quinn” (1928) Agatha Christie

The Passing of Mr. Quinn (1928) Leslie S. Hiscott and Julius Hagen

Alibi (1931) Leslie S. Hiscott

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Kenneth Branagh

Death on the Nile (2022) Kenneth Branagh

Death on the Nile (1937) Agatha Christie

The Halloween Party (1969) Agatha Christie

A Haunting in Venice (TBD) Kenneth Branagh

The Mousetrap (1952) Agatha Christie

Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchock

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973) Louise Duncan

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) Columbia Pictures

The Shadow (1937, 1954)

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939-1950)

Perry Mason (1943-1955)

The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951)

The Red House Mystery (1922) A.A. Milne

The Moonstone (1868) Wilkie Collins

Pretty Little Liars (2010-2017) Warner Bros.

Pretty Little Liars (2006) Sara Shepard

Big Little Lies (2014) Leann Moriarity

Big Little Lies (2017-2019) HBO

House of Cards (1989) Michael Dobbs

House of Cards (2010-2018) Netflix

House of Cards (1990) BBC

The Alienist (1994) Caleb Carr

The Alienist (2018) HBO

Shardlake Series (2003-2023) C.J. Sansom

Shardlake (2012-2021) BBC 15-minute Drama on BBC

Magpie Murders (2016) Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders (2022) PBS Masterpiece

The Terminal List (2018) Jack Carr

The Terminal List (2022) Amazon Prime Video

For more information

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook!
BrookHi Sarah! Clued in Mystery just turned one year old.
SarahI know! I had a little cookie to celebrate.
BrookOh that’s awesome. Yeah, it’s such ah cool milestone.
SarahYeah it’s hard to believe that it’s been a year, but it’s been so fun to put together episodes and talk to you every week.
BrookAbsolutely. I had the same feeling. I thought it both feels like it went really quick but at the same time I feel like this is something we’ve just done forever. I can’t imagine my life without it now. So ah that I that guess that’s a good thing.
SarahAgreed. So today, Brook we’re going to talk about adaptations and I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
BrookYes, me too. This is going to be fun.   Well in researching the mini adaptations of mystery novels this week I was reminded of that old saying you can count the number of seeds in an apple but you can’t count the number of apples in a seed.
BrookEvery novel truly is a seed and authors may license their stories for adaptations on radio or podcasts, television, movie, stage, animation, and all the foreign language editions of all of those above. So considering the number of mysteries and all the ways that they can be adapted with or without permission, the results are honestly a bit overwhelming but I’ll attempt an overview on the beginnings and high points of mystery adaptations.   The invention of the movie camera, known as the kinetograph, was accomplished in 1892. Right from the beginning, books were the inspiration for many short films. The first kinetograph project that I would classify as a crime the first kinetograph project that I would classify as crime fiction was made in 1897 with a short entitled The Death of Nancy Sykes. This was an adaptation of Oliver Twist but focused on the villain’s story, an evil thief who murders his girlfriend to prevent the kidnapping of Oliver Twist. In 1900, the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation on film emerged. It was entitled Baffled and directed by Arthur Marvin. It portrayed Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth happening upon a burglary. While it only ran for 30 seconds and had to be hand cranked on a mutoscope machine, it is considered the first detective movie ever.
BrookAgatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. But it wasn’t until 1928, when she’d published seven other books and become wildly popular that the first movie adaptation of her work was produced. Surprisingly, the sleuth featured in the film is Dr Alec Portal from the story “The Coming of Mr. Quinn,” not Poirot, as one might assume. In fact, the first Poirot film Alibi was not made until 1931. It’s based on Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as well as well as an earlier stage adaptation of that book.   It is said that the queen of crime was never fond of film adaptations of her work. However, in 1937 she did write one television script of her Poirot mystery The Wasps Nest. But whether she enjoyed them or not her work has been adapted for the screen more than any other mystery author aside from Arthur Conan Doyle and it’s not stopping anytime soon in 2017 Kenneth Branagh directed co-produced and starred in a new movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express followed by Death on the Nile in 2022 Branagh’s next Christie adaptation A Haunting in Venice is set to open in September 2023 and is based on The Halloween Party though. So far Branagh has focused on Poirot stories. He is reportedly interested in producing Miss Marple movies for the big screen as well. I’m wondering if he’ll take the starring role in these 2 playing the elderly busybody sleuth himself. Only time will tell.
BrookNot a movie, but unequivocally the most successful mystery adaptation ever is Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. This stage production began life as a short radio play written by Christie as a birthday present for Queen Mary. It was broadcast on May 30, 1947, under the name Three Blind Mice. The story draws from the real-life case of Dennis O’Neill the play adaptation opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March of 2020 when performances were temporarily discontinued due to Covid-19 restrictions. It reopened in mate of 2021. As of today, it has been performed over 29,000 times and seen by more than 10,000,000 people.
BrookThree famous mystery movies you might not know are adapted from books are Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It was written by crime writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac Primal Fear starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton is based on a book written by Gregory Hoblit and YA cult classic I Know What You Did Last Summer was originally a novel published in 1973 by Louise Duncan, a true pioneer in young adult suspense. Moving on to radio adaptations, this medium peaked in popularity in the 1930s to 1950s. The Shadow, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason are a few examples one that I enjoyed listening to while learning about hardboiled detective fiction is The Adventures of Sam Spade loosely based on Dashiel Hammet’s character. It played in the mid 1940 s and again in the early 50s but the allure of radio mysteries continued much later than one might think even after television took over as the primary method of family entertainment CBS radio mystery theater broadcast from 1974 to 1982 and later in the early two thousand s was replayed by NPR now podcasts have taken over the mystery adaptation scene for those who like to listen to stories.
BrookMany exist that dramatize mystery classics such as A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and of course Sherlock Holmes ‘ tales.
BrookAnother twenty first century way to adapt mystery stories is by way of video games players can interact in the worlds of James Bond, Nancy Drew, Poirot, The Hardy Boys and many more. Although I have not experienced any of these yet I’m eager to try them out.   Okay, Sarah that was a lot of information and it barely scratches the surface. We definitely have our work cut out for us today.
SarahOh, Brook that was such a great summary and yeah I Love all of the different kinds of adaptations that you talked about and we could probably do entire episodes devoted to each of them. Um. But one of the points that kind of struck me. You know you were talking about movie adaptations and I know there’s some popular television shows that were kind of loosely based on books or originally let’s say originally based on books I’m thinking of um, pretty little Liars ah that I’m certain was was originally books. Um and I didn’t I you know I haven’t read any of them. But I I watched the show. Um. And I wonder when you’re doing like a television show if there’s enough source material to support I don’t know there was 5 seasons I think of that maybe even more? Um, so there’s obviously going to be a departure. So this a really long-winded way of me saying that I think there’s when you’re watching an adaptation of something that was originally a book, I think there’s a bit of a spectrum of things that are you know, very close to the original source material and then things that they adaptation has taken a lot of liberties whether it’s changing the location changing the changing the time period. So we see that a lot with Sherlock, right? Where there might be a present day version of Sherlock Holmes which obviously is inspired by the stories that were written in the late nineteenth century and set in the late nineteenth century. Like I know as a viewer there’s sometimes this disappointment if this source material if it feels like the source material hasn’t been honored right? If they’ve taken some real leaps in that that screen.
BrookYeah, and you’re right? It is a spectrum and I don’t think that I I really reflected that in the in the intro but we have everything from the verbatim story which you see a lot in I would say Agatha Christie adaptations at least the early ones.
BrookI’m not sure if the Kenneth Branagh ones are that identical but clear up to just inspired because we talked a lot in the Sherlock Holmes episodes we did that those characters have been um, used and reused and put in all sorts of different situations. And I I always think about how interesting it would be to be the author of that I mean obviously Conan Doyle is is gone and so he’s not interacting and seeing this but um, for instance, if you were ah writing a novel today and as you say it’s made into a TV. Ah, you so you sell your rights and they begin making TV ah episodes and then maybe 4 or 5 seasons later. It’s taken your story and your characters in a completely different direction that would be it would be an interesting experience. I think.
SarahYeah I agree and I know authors have kind of different um different levels of involvement in Production. So Sometimes they might actually write the screenplay and I think sometimes they just sell the rights and and allow the screen production team to do whatever it is that that that they want to do and you know yeah I don’t I don’t know. Um it must be really interesting to see something you’ve written produced on.
BrookYou mentioned, um, Pretty Little Liars and um I not just because the titles are similar but it reminded me of Big Little Lies which is by Leann Moriarty and I looked into that one a little bit because of course the original ah part of that story is based on her book big same title big little lies but then I learned that some of the later ah seasons she had written some novellas and so it. It is still based on some of the storylines that she created. But it’s what you say depending on the contract that an author signs there. They could be very involved such as Moriarty was there or or sign the rights and the company takes over from there. So a huge spectrum in a lot of different ways.
SarahYeah, and I haven’t looked deeply into see if there’s any kind of correlation between how involved the author is and how much I’ve enjoyed an adaptation of something that I’ve read right? Because. Like I said like there can just be a little bit of disappointment if you feel like man the book was way better than what I just watched um and so I like I used to watch I used to love watching something that I’d Read. I think I just had too many disappointing experiences and I don’t do it so often. I am more likely to watch something that I haven’t read because I don’t want to feel that um that disappointment. Ah what about you, Brook?
BrookIt’s such an interesting situation as somebody who enjoys reading to put yourself in that position because you’re equally excited like you you know whatever the title is it’s coming out as a movie or or as a. Series of episodes. Um, but then you’re right? It can be really disappointing and um, but I will say that I’m interested. You know I mentioned in the intro that when they first started making films these little tiny short snippets. They were based on books which makes a lot of sense because. The idea of a screenwriter didn’t even exist right? somebody who was hired to actually write films or is was not a thing so it was seemed obvious that they would use these popular stories but I am struck by how books are still. Kind of the most popular thing to convert into ah into visual medium I think it’s so interesting that um movie producers will still like see what the hot read was of the year and then want to adapt it. Um, so I thought that that was actually also hopeful for the world of books.
SarahYeah, that’s a really good point. I think it’s probably you know if you’re a movie producer, you look like you say, “Okay, what was really popular for people to read and can we make that into something that people will watch” and you probably expect that you’ve got a bit of ah a built-in audience because I think there’s lots of people who like you said, get really excited when they hear that there’s going to be a screen adaptation. You know you’ve created these characters in your heads and you want to see what do they look like on screen or you know how are they going to do this particular scene. Yeah, and it’s probably easier I don’t know to come up with to just to use something that’s already been that you know has been tested and popular with audiences. Um, it may be easier to get the to find the money to pay for that production.
BrookYeah that’s a really good point. It’s already kind of been through an audience test so to speak and I also found it interesting that you know sometimes it takes a while. House of Cards is a political thriller series. It was originally a book written by Michael Dobbs and he wrote that book in 1989 and then another one that is very popular is The Alienist, which I really wish I had HBO because I want to see that show so bad. But um, it was written in 1994 by Caleb Carr so um, yes, I think sometimes it’s something that’s quite immediate within a year or two, but you know also some of these things that have been around for 20, 30 years are created and brought back to life so that’s that’s exciting too.
SarahWell and like we’re seeing that with Kenneth Branagh adapting Agatha Christie works and I don’t know I think I think um, his films have been pretty polarizing in terms of how they’ve been received by Agatha Christie fans and I am going to reserve judgment on um The Haunting of Venice because I have read The Halloween Party and I don’t know how that is going to be adapted into something set in Venice. So I’m really curious to see what that what that ends up looking like.
BrookAgreed I mean you mentioned the spectrum, Sarah and it to me I feel like ah the other two films while they were not ah verbatim of this the two stories that he’s adapted. This one seems like he’s really gone ah to a different end of the spectrum of just using the seed of the story perhaps because there’s a lot of things just from the trailer that you can tell well um, that’s not The Halloween Party that I remember.
SarahYeah, I had to go back and say like “am I thinking of the right book?” when I read that this is what he was adapting or that that it was based on. So yeah, we’ll see and I I think there’s probably a lot of people who feel similarly.
BrookAnd you’re right though that set of movies has been quite polarizing. Um it brings up a lot of topics that adaptations ah can be criticized for as far as um, you know backstory of characters. Um, portrayal of characters like you say we get this image in our mind of who someone is, and I think for really the world David Suchet has been such a Poirot character for all of us that that’s been difficult for audiences to maneuver to the Branagh Poirot. And then also because it is a very commercial endeavor. I think there have been some thoughts about how much of a moneymaking machine this is and um, so all just not even specifically talk about that project or those projects, but all of those things can be issues when you’re talking about adapting um an author’s work. So I think that it’s funny to be able to look at that in in such a encapsulated way. With what’s going on with those movies at this point.
SarahI like what you what you said in the introduction about the podcasts. I have listened to a couple of podcasts that were based on books. And there’s something—I think maybe this is why like audio books so much. There’s really something about kind of hearing a book and hearing the characters and not having that visual portrayal of it. So BBC did adaptations of C.J. Sansom’s series Shardlike series. And so this is historical mystery set in Tudor times. And I’ve really enjoyed listening to those I think I’ve listened to the first couple of books that were adopted. Um and I found someone had—I don’t know how they do this but um, created the created the episodes I’m not sure that what I listened to was the BBC version because you hear kind of the the first minute of whatever program was originally playing on BBC before the Shardlake series played. So you kind of hear whatever daytime radio show was what’s um, but I think on the BBC website I think they have the actual um, cleaned up version of the of the recording. But I enjoyed that um and those are books that I enjoyed reading as well.
BrookYeah, you’ve mentioned that to me and that’s something that I I kind of have on my to listen to list because I’m I’m like you I love listening to books and um, you know there’s. Different ways that those can be done. Sometimes they’re just literally read like if someone is reading you a book. But then the ones that are mildly I would say dramatized are kind of my favorite where you get um you know, correct accents and um, just a little bit of theatrics. It really helps bring this story alive and I think I find that um some of these podcast versions do a lot of that it harkens back to me to like the radio days where I was talking about. Um the Sam Spade shows or the shadow or whatever. Um, so that’s really great that we continue to have either audiobooks or podcasts if you’d like to listen to um to mysteries.
SarahI listened to a lot of radio plays when I was growing up. And so I think that’s where my I think that’s why I enjoy listening to them so much is the. Um, it just reminds me of reminds me of that. But yeah I Love it same thing like I I Really enjoy an audio book that has kind of a full cast production in a different narrator for each. Um, each point of view. Um, Ah yeah I Enjoy that.
SarahOne adaptation that I thought we might talk about Brook is um Anthony Horowitz, who I think he comes up almost every episode, and the recent adaptation of Magpie Murders and they just recently announced that there will be a second season of that, adapting Moonflower Murders and I thought that adaptation of Magpie Murders was done really, really well. This is an example of one that I had read the book and really enjoyed the book and the um, the screen adaptation was every bit as good in my opinion. So I’m really looking forward to to the to the next series.
BrookAnd that would be an example of an adaptation with a lot of influence from the author if I’m correct I believe that Horowitz was really involved in that is that right? Yeah, um.
SarahI think you’re right? And he and he got his start I think in writing for television So Foyle’s War and I think he also wrote a lot of Midsummer Murders. So, he would have a really good grounding in how to write for for screen.
BrookInteresting yes and because the screen version of that is actually quite different than the book. It’s told in a way that works for television and so that’s super interesting that he already had that background and he knew I’m going to have to do this differently than I did on the page and um it was. It was very successful I thought it was great and some cute little. Um. Additions that he did by having characters play ah excuse me having actors play some of the same characters in the story I Thought that was just genius .I loved it.
SarahYeah I will admit that I wasn’t sure how the adaptation was going to work because of the way that the book is structured. But yeah, he did he did it. He did it really well and and actually um. I Listened to an interview with him where he kind of talks about how that evolved and and and that decision to use actors in multiple roles.
BrookThat’s great, but that brings up a really good point, Sarah. There are definitely books that lend themselves to adaptations more than others or styles of books I guess you would say um I think that even certain points of view. Um. Work and don’t work or rather they would have to really be massaged and changed in order to make it work on the screen and you know my brain doesn’t work that way I think about like how would you do this? How would you portray this, especially if you have something that needs a lot of internal monologue. You know you’re kind of in your character’s heads. Um, but you know that’s that’s for a different kind of artist to figure out and many times they do but but to me as a reader I was thinking how would you do this.
SarahUm, yeah, exactly.
SarahUm I think in our um episode the episode that we recently released about other spies, I talked about Jack Carr’s book The Terminal List. And in the introduction to that book, he talks about how when he was writing it. He wrote it thinking about the screen adaptation and thinking about who he wanted to play in the screen adaptation. Which, yeah I thought was I thought was really interesting to kind of have that vision from the time you start putting words down on the page and then seeing that through is is pretty impressive
BrookYeah, yeah, that intention that you expect or you um envision this to go in that direction down the road. I’m thinking that there are some of the golden age stories that authors also did the same thing knowing that they were going to eventually have it be a play. We talked about somebody that did that and now I can’t think of who that was almost to their demise because their fiction started being so like.
BrookI have some other interesting details about The Mousetrap which is by far the most famous adaptation ever. When Christie wrote The Mousetrap, she gave the rights of it to her son Matthew Pritchard as a birthday present and part of the rules is that in the UK, only one production of the play in addition to the show running at the West End production can be performed annually and under the contract terms of the play, no film adaptation can be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months and that didn’t include what happened um during Covid because actually it hadn’t closed. They were just on suspension. So it looks like we won’t be seeing a movie version of ah The Mousetrap for some time.
SarahThat’s really interesting. I didn’t know that, Brook. Ah but I recently watched See How They Run and The Mousetrap features in that film. But it’s not an adaptation of the play.
BrookOh, that’s very neat. That sounds great. Yeah that I definitely plan to see that one.
BrookAnother interesting tidbit I found um about The Mousetrap the radio bulletin recording that plays during the play is still the same voice the same recording since opening night. So Derek Guyler is still in the play has been all 70 years and one prop has also survived ah the set changes and and all ah of the productions and that’s the clock that sits on the mantel.
SarahFascinating. So I haven’t seen it.
BrookI know we need to go someday. Sarah.
SarahYeah I agree I agree let’s do it.
SarahBrook, this has been so much fun to talk about adaptations and I’m sure this is something that we will revisit at some point because there are just so many examples that we could talk about.
BrookAbsolutely I look forward to it, Sarah. But for today, thank you all for joining us on Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.