Nick Dear has rewritten Cards on the Table as an anti-gay cautionary tale. The plot has been unforgivably mangled and the homophobia leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
The book itself is incredibly deft, setting up the central conceit – four detectives and four murderers who evaded justice brought together for dinner and bridge – with great verve and style. Mr Shaitana, a queer, foreign gentleman who is soon to be murdered by one of the murderers he’s uncovered, is wickedly well-drawn, and yes, a modern telling of this tale could easily draw out the gay subtext of his character. Unfortunately, the TV show does so in the poorest possible way.
The first mistake – and it’s a huge one – is to make two of the four murderers related. The idea of four respectable people having gotten away with murder is in itself sufficiently incredible without stretching credulity so far as to make Mrs Lorrimer, bridge fiend, the long-lost mother of Anne Meredith, a shy, pretty, penniless girl.
The second mistake is to change the character of Mrs Lorrimer from an elderly grande dame to a middle-aged tartar, and to change the character of Dr Roberts from bluff, hearty, and salt-of-the-earth to young, flashy and cheap. Even Anne Meredith is rewritten to make her sympathetic, when the entire point of her character is to play on people’s sympathies to get away with murder.
The only character who remains well-drawn is the fourth murderer, Major Despard, but the screenplay soon takes so many liberties with the plot that the elegant intricacies of Agatha Christie’s masterful whodunit are lost amidst shameful caricatures of gay lives.
Here are the problems in full:
1. Mrs Lorrimer and Anne Meredith should NOT be related as this stretches credibility too far.
2. The love story between Anne Meredith’s flatmate Rhoda and Major Despard is the crux on which the second half of the story turns, and, in typical Agatha Christie style, leads us up the garden path and away from the true solution. To throw this away for a ridiculous twist in which Rhoda is a murderous lesbian is insulting to everyone’s intelligence, and makes a mess of the plot.
3. To extrapolate that a doctor is gay based on the fact that he doesn’t sexually harass his secretary is irredeemably stupid and utterly unworthy of Poirot.
4. Not content with a wanton gay character (Roberts), a mad gay character (Shaitana), and a bad gay character (Rhoda), Nick Dear treats us to a sad gay character in the shape of the fourth detective, here transformed from the wooden character of the book into a professional family man turned astray by the wicked fleshpots of gay Soho. Oh, fuck off. Go write leaflets for Christian Fundamentalist Churches instead.
Messing about with plot or character in Agatha Christie rarely pays off, and certainly not in her best work, amongst which Cards on the Table ranks. There are some clever touches that would have worked if the plot had been otherwise left intact – was Shaitana inviting death? Could the person who discovered the body have stabbed him? – but changing three of the four murderers’ characters and plots is too ambitious for a writer of mediocre talent, and it fails.
“You can do this if you want, but I don’t think it suits you,” sniffs Poirot, about the sad gay character’s sexual experimentation. Please. Save the judgments for the sad mess you’ve made of a great book.
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