Richie Narvaez, author of upcoming novel Hipster Death Rattle, takes a close look at the new Amazon Prime Original mini-series The ABC Murders.
You know the real reason we can’t have nice things? Because someone will remake, reboot, or re-envision them. In this corporate-dominant age in which everyone and his lawyer is trying to launch a streaming service and is therefore on the lookout out to recycle intellectual property, nothing is safe.
Amazon’s The ABC Murders serves up Agatha Christie’s ur serial killer novel using the sunset-of-the-hero trope — the great Hercule Poirot is now unrespected, forgotten, and his hair dye is not working — with a large side of gritty realism. Think Unforgiven Poirot or The Dark Poirot Rises.
Here our perpetually retired Belgian amateur sleuth now seems to be really, really retired. Gone is the glint in the eye, the fastidious manner, and the elaborate facial hair (he sports a palatable goatee, which beats the terrier that Kenneth Branagh wore on his face for Murder on the Orient Express). The accent doesn’t make much of an appearance either. All this as part of an effort to make the story of a citizen solving an elaborate murder case more real.
You know the real reason we can’t have nice things? Because someone will remake, reboot, or re-envision them.
Poirot is played here by a marketable American — Has Poirot ever been played by a Belgian? — who is at least not Tony Randall. (I love the Randall, but the less said about 1965’s The Alphabet Murders the better.) John Malkovich is sympathetic in this role, playing the once-famous man as tired and vulnerable. Eh bien, but he is not Poirot.
Which is the issue with the entire production. Poirot fans adore Poirot, his perspicacity, his condescension, his dandyness. Will this melancholy, muted vision bring in any new fans? In seeking to reboot the brand and broaden his appeal — to use the corporate-speak that has leaked into our lingo — this production strips away much of what made him appealing and adds something straight from Modern Hollywood Screenwriting 101: The Back Story.
A pet phrase cannot just be a pet phrase, it needs an origin and resonance. Our protagonist can’t just be an exceptional individual who is passionate about justice. Nom d’un nom d’un nom! He has to have zee tragic past from which he himself must be redeemed.
In this miniseries, as in the novel, Poirot’s nemesis is an epistolary-inclined abecedarian serial killer, but this version veers widely from the original plot. Inspector Japp is knocked off in the first few minutes, and Captain Hastings is nowhere to be found. This isolates Poirot (thus americanizing him some more — we do things on our own, we do, darn tootin’).
Also included for the revisionism are more graphic murders and BDSM. Thank you, cable! The CGI scenery is CGI (so many train scenes, so many) but the costumes and sets are lovely.
Traditional whodunnits and cozies are by design pure escapism, a surcease from reality, and the characters are meant to be two-dimensional. The plot is the thing. This version attempts to comment on the genre’s bloodless, casual attitude toward death by goring up the murders, and it attempts to forestall criticism of its revisionism when Poirot states, “Such vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new.”
This version also panders to modern sensibilities by making Poirot the victim of xenophobia and anti-immigration. But all of these attempts arrive as weakened tea.
This is not all to say that one shouldn’t burn sacred cows, and that reboots, remakes, and reimaginings cannot be artful. The Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat Sherlock series was exhilarating (until it got a little too precious and completely ditched plot). The eternal Internet troll comment in this case rings true: “Why not reboot something that sucks, instead of something good?”
That is not to say Amazon’s The ABC Murders is not watchable. It is. It’s just not Poirot. For that, the David Suchet series remains the definitive version.