I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Agatha Christie’s cleverest books, so I was interested to see how it has been translated onto the TV screen in the latest film version, starring David Suchet as Poirot. Unfortunately I can only give it five out of ten.
I can only explain my misgivings by revealing the plot, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now. However even if you do know who done it –by watching the TV version, or seeing it here – I think the book is still a pleasure to read because the plot is so cunningly handled.
As is typical of all Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, there is a murder and a group of suspects, all of whom have something to hide and some motive for killing the victim. Poirot, by noticing more than the police, and by drawing inferences no one else has thought of, succeeds in identifying the true criminal.
In this book, however, there is a departure from the norm in that it is related in the first person by Dr Sheppard, a friend of Ackroyd’s. He takes the place of Poirot’s usual rather obtuse foil Hastings, in that he accompanies him during the investigation and is privy to all that Poirot discovers about the motives and opportunity of all the suspects. Sheppard seems to be a typical country doctor, bluff and well-meaning, and has no apparent motive for killing Ackroyd. The reader trusts him, and the information he conveys – or at least I did. But this is Christie at her cleverest, using the trick of the ‘least likely person’. Poirot works out just how and why Sheppard did it, and confronts him. The first person account turns out to be a confession. Much of the narrative takes on a new meaning when read from the perspective of Sheppard’s guilt.
So how did the TV series manage this piece of masterly misdirection? Well, it didn’t really. Sheppard is just another character, albeit one who has the ear of Poirot, and unlike others, no apparent motive for the crime. There is a written confession, but it only shows the unnamed murderer to be malicious and vengeful, quite unlike Dr Sheppard in the book. And it doesn’t say what happened. That is left to Sheppard at the end. He is accused by Poirot, and then explains how he did it. This is the opposite of the book, where Poirot explains to Sheppard how the murderer must have done it, and that only one person – the doctor – fits the bill. His triumph is much lessened in the TV series. Dr Sheppard is still the least likely person to be the murderer, but the ‘it can’t be him, he’s telling the story’ factor is completely lost. The misdirection is less complete.
There are some other changes, such as characters left out, which reduces the complexity of the plot, and characters added, as in the person of the series policeman, Inspector Japp. Being TV, there also has to be more action, so there is another murder – quite unnecessary to the plot in my view – and a rather contrived shoot-out at the end.
Having said all this, David Suchet makes an excellent Poirot and the TV version is still beautifully done in terms of period and setting. It makes pleasant watching on a Sunday evening.
It is hard to see how the book could be translated into film in a way that is completely faithful to the book, particularly given the constraint that this is an episode in a series. And it’s true that the experience of reading a book and watching TV are different, and require evaluation on their own terms. I might have scored it higher as a program if it had not been based on a book I like. But I can’t help making the comparison, and coming down in favour of reading the book.