Sunday, 6 June 2010

Agatha Christie: Five Little Pigs (TV adaptation)

'Five Little Pigs' is a Poirot novel and spoilers abound here, so if you haven't read or seen it yet and you want to be surprised, turn away from this post now.

I haven't read the source novel for this, but have seen the 2003 TV adaptation, directed by Paul Unwin as part of the Agatha Christie's Poirot series. This is one of the later episodes, which tend to stray further from the plot of the novel than the 1990s episodes did, not just adding or subtracting characters but changing motivations and, most often, altering various suspects' sexuality (homosexuality is not entirely absent from Agatha Christie's works - if you haven't seen the more faithful 1985 Joan Hickson adapation of A Murder is Announced, do, Paola Dionisotti's performance is heart-breaking - but it's more subtle, since it was illegal at the time).

As far as I know, however, the method of the murder, which is the bit that's of particular interest to classicists, is the same as that in the book. This mystery is one of the 'cold case' ones, in which a young woman asks Poirot to establish whether or not her mother committed the murder she was executed for, and Poirot hears five different versions of the murder from the five main witnesses.

The method of murder is signposted early on, as, at young Angela's urging, Plato's account of the death of Socrates is read out. Socrates was executed by being ordered to swallow hemlock, a poison which kills relatively quickly, but slowly enough that the victim can sense what is happening. Until I did Classics, I only knew of the death of Socrates from the Horrible Histories; The Groovy Greeks, which has a rather good translation/retelling of the passage. Hemlock makes you go slowly numb from the feet upwards, until it reaches your heart and kills you. I've always thought there was something rather creepy about it. Socrates knew full well what was happening, but of course, that's what's creepy about it, the way Plato records him having a perfectly lucid conversation while his body slowly fails from the ground up. (Among his last words, according to Plato were 'I owe a cock to Asclepius' - whether this is ironic, since Asclepius is god of healing, or put in by Plato to demonstrate that Socrates, executed for corrupting the youth and turning them against the gods, was in fact a religious man, I'm not sure. Probably a bit of both).

Anyway, in Poirot, it's doubly creepy, as Amyas the artist only realises what is happening to him as his body slowly goes numb. The TV adaptation features a recurring shot - appearing in several of the flashback sequences that relate what happened that day - of Amyas turning towards the camera, clinging to his easel for support and looking distressed - drunk, as the others thought at the time. In fact, as Poirot realises, he had already been poisoned and was clinging to his easel because his legs had already gone numb, and the poison (derived from hemlock) had also had enough effect to prevent him from crying out. It's absolutely the stuff of nightmares - Amyas knows he's dying, but can neither move nor cry out, while his friends look on from a distance and his murderer watches and smiles.

The whole thing is beautifully shot and particularly creepy, suffused with a warm yellow-orange light for the flashback sequences, and the cameraman appears to have borrowed the Vaseline from the cameramen from orignal series Star Trek (you know, the Vaseline they used to smear all over the camera whenever a beautiful woman got a shot to herself). The production values are excellent and the cumulative effect adds to the incredible creepiness of Amyas' death and tragedy of his wife's.

The girl, Angela, who was so interested in Socrates grows up to be an archaeologist, specialising in the archaeology of the ancient Near East, by the look of the part of the British Museum she's in when she gives a lecture in the TV version. Agatha Christie herself accompanied her second husband on digs in Mesopotamia - hence she wrote Murder in Mesopotamia - so it is unsurprising that she gave this career to a character interested in ancient history (a character permanently scarred by an earlier incident - but it's probably best not to try to psychoanalyse Agatha Christie on the basis of a novel).

Hemlock, by the way, is also the method of murder-or-mercy-killing-I-can't-quite-decide-which/suicide in Robin and Marion, a very good film that happened to be on telly the other week, Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn at their best.

The reading of the death of Socrates acts as a combination of foreshadowing and clue, and heightens the sense of tragedy around Amyas' (and Caroline's) death - since we feel for Socrates and his undeserved death, we feel for them too. A sense of tragedy is something that's often missing from Agatha Christie, and it's refreshing and really interesting to see it employed here, in this case that revolves around a wrongful execution.

(By the way, did everyone see Doctor Who this week - 'Vincent and the Doctor'? Very good, I wept buckets...)


  1. I've probably read this... but I get them (the Poirot cases) so muddled together I can't remember!

    My memory of Socrates is the famous "Je ne sais qu'une chose, et c'est que je ne sais rien." ("I only know that I know nothing"? I studied in French so I don't know the English translation...

    On a side-note... did you see my latest post on World Oceans Day? Care to participate in the Blog-A-Thon? It would be interesting to have a "classical" view on the oceans...


  2. OK, confession time... I do know that Socrates said 'All I know is that I know nothing' (or words to that effect - in Greek!) but, er, I know that because they said so in Bill and Ted's Excelent Adventure. Ahem. My Socrates knowledge is not what it should be. But I think they were right! (All we are is dust in the wind dude...)

    World Oceans blog post hasn't shown up in my Google Reader yet, will check it out tomorrow! Will have a think - depends if I can find something suitable (and how much time I have between waitressing and conference papers)

  3. I haven't seen any of these in years, but David Suchet is an absolutely brilliant Poirot. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his Poirot is the equivalent of Jeremy Brett's Holmes. They always played a little fast and loose with the source material, though, keeping Hastings around and eventually letting Miss Lemon get much more involved in cases.

    I'm not sure about the exact wording of Socrates' claim, but I do know that it was connected with the Delphic oracle's statement that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. This was proof of his wisdom. The cock for Asklepios could have been an outstanding debt or he may have vowed it if his death was painless. Or it might be connected in some way with the fact that the person being executed had to pay for the hemlock himself (the alternative being a rather nasty combination of crucifixion and strangulation). Socrates was lucky that he had rich friends who could afford it; the stuff wasn't cheap.

  4. I've always thought this is one of the best Christie books. That image of the dying painter seen by his friends but unable to call out is repeated in the book, through the various witness accounts. This is emphasised by his continuing to paint until the last moments, and the fact that he not only knew he was dying but knew who had poisoned him. This reverberates even stronger in the descriptions of the vibrancy of the painting and its subject. I think Socrates was added on by the production, though.
    The sense of tragedy is strongly felt there in the book, and in the other cold case type book she has: Elephants Can Remember. Maybe she felt she could focus on that aspect only given enough perspective and distance from the events. That's another recommended book, by the way, although not as strong as Five Little Pigs.

  5. I must read the book, I haven't read many but I do like her writing! I'm very fond of Sleeping Murder, the last Marple and also a cold case book - in that case I think I prefer the book to both TV adaptations as well!

  6. Oh, Sleeping Murder is another of my favorites. Absolutely. I must have seen some production as a child, because when I read it I had the weirdest sense of deja vu with her rediscovering the house, especially the wallpaper. And in that book that has a weird amplifying effect.
    I've read most if not all Christie books, and I usually find the books better than the adaptations.


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