Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 1: The Murder at the Vicarage

I used to read Agatha Christie mysteries for comfort/light reading; I liked the formulaic aspects of them and watching the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I ran across this 2004 adaptation on Netflix, featuring Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, and decided to rent it. The first volume was The Murder at the Vicarage, which was the first Miss Marple mystery. Unfortunately, I have already sent it back, and am writing from memory. I’ve never really watched any adaptations of Christie’s books, though I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there.

The plot is a standard murder mystery: Colonel Protheroe is an obnoxious, self-righteous, hard-headed, merciless resident of St. Mary Mead; after loudly and publicly announcing his intention to meet with the vicar to discuss possible misappropriation of church funds (and implying the vicar is responsible), he is murdered in the vicar’s study. Due to Col. Protheroe’s character, there are many suspects. There are the usual twists and turns: planted evidence, overlooked evidence, minor incidents turning out to be important, people who aren’t what they seem to be, people lying for various reasons, etc., leading up to (for me, at least) a somewhat unexpected resolution. I must have read this at some point, but did not really remember it.

I don’t have any problems with the show itself as a murder mystery (except for those caused by not giving it 100% of my attention; I was well into it before I realized that the vicar and the curate were two different people; I also kept confusing the plot with that of The Body in the Library.) There was nothing in the acting or costuming or sets that threw me out of the story (admittedly, it would take appalling acting or blatant anachronisms to do that), but there was one piece of casting that bothered me: Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. I enjoyed her character, but it was not Miss Marple; she did not seem old enough (though is apparently in her seventies), and did not look the part; Miss Marple is supposed to be an elderly, fluffy, white-haired, seemingly scatterbrained lady who knits and gardens, while Ms. McEwan’s character was grey-haired, active, older (somewhere between middle-aged and elderly) woman.

After watching this, I found a copy of the book and re-read it; there were a few points in the movie that did not seem Christie-ish. The novel itself was the first Miss Marple mystery, written in 1930, and her tenth published novel. It is told from the point of view of the vicar, which means that most of the action takes place off-screen. The book consists of people coming to the vicarage to consult with the vicar or gossip with his wife, the vicar visiting others for various reasons, the vicar accompanying the police on their inquiries, and occasionally the vicar doing a little investigation of his own. Miss Marple is more of a background character, and some of her quirks don’t really show up here, though she is instrumental in solving the mystery.

There are any number of changes between the book and its adaptation; the largest is the structure; it is no longer told from the vicar’s point of view, and many events are shown as they happen instead of being described later, which is necessary for a visual adaptation. Miss Marple has a larger part in the story; many of the people consulting with the vicar are consulting with Miss Marple instead.

Many of the background characters had their stories and/or characters changed, from minor name changes (Lester vs. LeStrange) and minor characterization differences (the vicar’s nephew and Protheroe’s daughter) to major differences in background and characterization (the archaeologist and his assistant); some of these changes bothered me, but none had much of an effect on the story as a whole. Some of the events were altered, added, or removed, but the overall plot and the major character’s motivations in the movie were the same as in the novel.

The novel was written in 1930, though I don’t think there was ever any indication of a specific date for the action; there were a few vague references to the war, but nothing that spoke of a particular time (to me, at least; someone more knowledgeable about that period might think differently). The movie was explicitly set in August 1951, which makes some sense; the other books adapted in Series 1 were published in 1942, 1950, and 1957, so having a shorter time period between them is useful. There was nothing in either that really indicated a specific time to me beyond ‘the past’; the adaptation actually felt vaguely 70s-ish, though I don’t know why.

The main problems I had with this were Miss Marple’s casting/characterization (though had no problems with the actress and did like the character); Miss Marple’s random backstory that was relevant to one of the character’s current conditions (with flashbacks to December 1915), which annoyed me and seemed unnecessary, and the ending. The novels generally end with the arrest and an epilogue of tying up loose ends; this ended with the execution (barely off-screen), which I really did not want to see or hear.

For the most part, I did enjoy this one and will probably watch the next one, which is The Body in the Library, with Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Bantry (supposedly). It’s one of Five Complete Miss Marple Mysteries which I’ve owned forever and enjoyed, though I haven’t read it in years.

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