Hercule Poirot is a flexible little fellow. He can be dapper and twinkling, as David Suchet played him for 24 years on television. He can be vigorously obsessive-compulsive, as Kenneth Branagh played him in “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2017.
And as it turns out, he can also be a depressed, guilt-ridden loner, as John Malkovich is forced to play him in “The ABC Murders,” a three-part mini-series now available on Amazon Prime Video.
The British screenwriter Sarah Phelps has been taking liberties with Agatha Christie’s mystery tales, on behalf of the Christie estate and the BBC, for a while now — “ABC Murders,” based on the 1936 novel of the same name, is the fourth mini-series she’s adapted from the books. Her method is extreme makeover, redoing Christie’s plots and reshaping her sensibility in a lurid and ominous fashion that, combined with top-flight casts, produced entertaining results with “And Then There Were None” and “Ordeal by Innocence.”
“The ABC Murders” is Phelps’s most thorough teardown yet, and this time she’s so suffocatingly revisionist that what’s left isn’t really Christie at all. The insistence on making everything grimmer and grosser is almost comically complete.
Most of the characters, and the broad outline of Christie’s mystery, are still there. Poirot, the peerless Belgian detective now living in London, receives letters signed “ABC.” They announce the dates on which murders will take place and the towns where they will occur; as the murders duly transpire, the alphabetical motif becomes clear: Mrs. Asher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, and so on.
In the book the focus is, as always, on detection, with Poirot’s inquiries paralleling and eventually outpacing those of Scotland Yard, represented by the supercilious Inspector Crome. For Phelps, detective work is a necessary evil, condensed to the point that it’s barely intelligible.
What she’s after are psychology — a tool for Christie, an end-all for Phelps — and relevance. In the service of the first, Phelps amplifies minor plot points and passing comments in the book and casts Poirot as past his prime, fearful of decrepitude and insignificance.
She isolates Poirot by eliminating his colleague Hastings (who narrates the novel) and makes him a figurative and literal stand-in for the murderer (an idea that’s an incidental red herring in the book). And he is, indeed, riven with remorse, courtesy of a new bit of back story that’s likely to enrage the Christie faithful.
The show’s view of 1930s Britain is correspondingly gloomy. Anti-immigrant outbursts, and posters decrying an “alien tide” buttress the theme of Poirot as an outsider whose identity, as a detective and a British subject, is under attack. The general moral and physical rot are visually conveyed by skittering rats, giant pustules, frequent vomiting and a murder at a urinal. (The squalor and foreboding are handsomely presented by the director Alex Gabassi and the cinematographer Joel Devlin.)
The decadence of the “aristos” is understood to be the source of the malignance behind the killings, and Poirot is implicated there, too — in one of Phelps’s more extreme inventions, he’s shown happily hosting a murder-mystery party for a rich woman’s birthday.
And it’s not just Poirot whose character has been stretched like taffy. Nearly every figure has been pushed toward one extreme or another. To cite the most egregious example, poor Mrs. Marbury (Shirley Henderson), the inoffensive and gullible rooming-house proprietor, is now a neurotic xenophobe who pimps out her daughter Lily (Anya Chalotra) to the boarders, charging “a shilling for the regular.”
Malkovich performs valiantly, showing admirable restraint and subtlety and making credible the scenes in which Poirot demonstrates un-Christie-like resentment and anger. It’s a downer of a role, though, stripped of all its humor (partly through the removal of Hastings, Poirot’s square-jawed Watson).
With the basic joys of superior sleuthing mostly stripped out, the remaining pleasure you expect from a Christie adaptation is the opportunity afforded to a talented cast by its congregation of suspects and victims. “The ABC Murders” disappoints here, too. Phelps is so focused on her combination of chic malaise and sensationalism that she doesn’t give the actors anything human to play, or anything witty to play with. Sharp performers like Henderson and Tara Fitzgerald, as the invalid Lady Clarke (wife of the “C” victim), are far from their top form.
There’s certainly no reason, nearly a century down the road, not to play around with the formulas and assumptions of Christie’s novels. But “The ABC Murders” rips them apart so thoroughly that the mystery becomes, why bother adapting an Agatha Christie novel at all?