Script versus short story collection
This adaptation was a Herculean task (to borrow the pun). Fans - me included - have been discussing for years how the team behind Poirot would ever be able to adapt this collection. Essentially, this is a series of thematically interconnected stories. They are linked together by Poirot's decision to do only a selected number of cases before he retires, and all the cases are to resemble the labours of Hercules in some way or other. Now, in the earlier years of the series, this could almost certainly have been expanded into a series of 50 minute episodes, and a part of me is disappointed that this didn't happen. But for those of us who know a bit about the history of the television series, that would probably never have happened. As a matter of fact, it's remarkable that they even got to make all the other short stories in the early years, before the series was effectively cancelled in 1994/1995.(That is not to say that I wouldn't have loved to see these as a series of episodes!). Considering that the final series nearly didn't happen - and the fact that this collection was one of the candidates to be dropped - I think we've been lucky to see an adaptation of it at all.
The scriptwriter chosen for this difficult task was Guy Andrews. Just to remind you: he also scripted The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Flood and Appointment with Death. That's one weak, one slightly unbelievable, and one terrible adaptation (in very crude terms). As you will know if you've read my episode-by-episode look at Appointment with Death, that's a very clear candidate for my least favourite episode of Poirot. It's saved by the beautiful cinematography, music, production design and acting. I was more than a little nervous when I heard that he had been commissioned for The Labours of Hercules. At the same time, this adaptation called for changes. Radical changes. And I was perfectly prepared to accept loads of them if he - against all odds - managed to make it work.
I think he did. It's not perfect and it's not 'complete', since all the stories aren't included. But it actually works as a full-length episode. Andrews' crucial decision was to create a new story using elements from several of the short stories. The prominent short stories here are 'The Arcadian Deer', 'The Erymanthian Boar', 'The Augenean Stables', 'The Stymphalean Birds', 'The Girdle of Hippolyta' and 'The Capture of Cerberus'. 'Boar' is definitely the central one, though. We get a political scandal ('The Augenean Stables'), an art theft ('The Girdle of Hippolyta'), a murdered girl, Lucinda LeMesurier (a reference to the only unfilmed short story, The LeMesurier Inheritance), a heart-broken chauffeur (mechanic in the story, 'The Arcadian Deer') reunited at the end of the episode with his Nita (aka the ballet dancer Katrina Samoushenka), two con-artists and an easily fooled Foreign Office secretary ('The Stymphalean Birds'), the marvellous Countess Vera Rossakoff, her daughter (daughter-in-law in the story), a dog and a doctor (from 'The Capture of Cerberus'). Nearly all of these characters are gathered in one location, the Hotel Olympus in the Swiss Alps ('The Erymathian Boar'), joined by a dodgy hotel manager (partly inspired by 'The Stymphalean Birds'), a shifty waiter, a parlor-game enthusiast and a mysterious master criminal called Marrascaud ('The Erymanthian Boar).
This means that six of the short stories have been more or less properly adapted. The remaining six have not been adapted, but there are some elements of the adaptation that might be linked to them, if you look hard enough. (You can skip this paragraph if you disagree). Elements of 'The Cretan Bull' are in the relationship between Katrina Samoushenka and Dr Lutz. He is playing with her mind, convincing her that she is mad, much like Hugh Chandler is manipulated in the short story. Dr Lutz might also share a passing resemblance with Dr Andersen from 'The Flock of Geryon'. Lutz might be working on Katrina in order to have her money (assuming she has some, since she's a world famous ballerina). Also, in a conversation with Poirot, he is most anxious to underline that he is 'not a Nazi'. This could be seen as a reference either to Lutzmann in Christie's first version of 'The Capture of Cerberus', or a reference to Dr Andersen in 'The Flock of Geryon', who was expelled from university in Nazi-Germany for being a Jew. Moreover, Alice is charismatic, just like Dr Andersen; she persuades Katrina into hiding the diamond necklace for her, and makes Gustave do her 'dirty work' for her. Binky, Alice's dog, whom Poirot refers to as Cerberus, could also be a reference to 'The Nemean Lion', as could Alice herself (the central criminal of the adaptation, much like Amy Carnaby in the short story collection, and Dr Lutz, who might be Binksy's true owner, since the dog recognised him so instantly (cf Sir Joseph Hoggin). The scapegoating of Katrina could also be seen as a link to Tony Hawker in 'The Horses of Diomedes'. The false rumours surrounding Harold Waring (who has taken the blame for the Foreign Secretary) can be considered a reference to 'The Lernean Hydra'). The diamond necklace is possibly a reference to 'The Apples of Hesperides'. Poirot says he 'knows the story of these stones' (though, in context, this seems to refer to the story of how Katrina has been hiding them). Tom, a reader of the blog, suggested that the diamonds might be called 'apples', similar to Ruth Kettering's 'heart of fire' from The Mystery of the Blue Train. This would tie in well with the goblet from the short story, which also has a long history behind it. Finally, the character Countess Rossakoff recognises from a night club in Brindisi could be a reference to the drugs ring in 'The Horses of Diomedes'. Admittedly, these connections are very far-fetched, but they underline the fact that The Labours of Hercules could be considered more or less adapted.
After a few false turns, including the subplots from 'The Stymphalean Birds' and 'The Arcadian Deer', Poirot reveals the culrpit Marrascaud to be Alice Cunningham, Rossakoff's daughter. She stole the jewels and hid a series of paintings (collectively titled 'The Labours of Hercules' - a clever way to include the title) in the hotel. Poirot restores order, and reunites 'Nita' with the chauffeur.
Certain elements of this adaptation don't seem to work. For instance, I was not too pleased about the Mexican stand-off in the denouement scene, and I am still not convinced that bringing together all these different people with different accents was an entirely good idea. It's more over-the-top than we've been used to with Poirot.
Having said that, I think the decision to focus on Poirot's inner journey (as a sort of sequel to the turmoil he was facing at the end of The Murder on the Orient Express) was an incredibly wise one. This is the penultimate episode of the series. Not only is there a need to continue challenging Poirot's ideas of justice and morality; it's also appropriate to give him a chance to recollect his thoughts on his career and his choices in life. Tom, the chauffeur, is a reminder of what he has missed out on in life. As Dr Burton puts it, Poirot has had a remarkable career 'at the expense of having a family'. In my opinion, Andrews manages to combine these two threads of Poirot's character in the reappearance of Countess Rossakoff and her daughter. He is challenged by Rice and Clayton, who suggest; 'The Countess Rossakoff is a criminal, monsieur, and you have done nothing to promote her arrest. You could do the same for us'. Poirot declines the threat, stating that 'Poirot, he will not be pressed'. However, when he reveals the culprit to be Countess Rossakoff's daughter, and Rossakoff tries to convince him to let her go, he is more explicit:
'I am not the law, Countess'
'Hercule. Spare my daughter. Spare her as years ago you spared me. Please, dorogoy.'
'No Countess. Poirot, he is not your love. He is Poirot'
'Then I shall accompany my daughter. A love like ours could have burnt down a city. Such a waste.'
Re-introducing Rossakoff is important, because Poirot is able to confront both his sense of justice (where is the line between an 'acceptable' and an 'unacceptable' crime, and how far can he stretch his role as judge, jury and executioner?), and his loneliness. In the end, Poirot draws the line at allowing Marrascaud aka Alice to escape justice, and he realises that he made the decision about 'family life' several years ago. The final scene, in which he looks down on a pair of cufflinks he was given by the Countess, seems to suggest that he has reconciled himself with the decision to leave the Countess behind.
Poirot's inner journey of self-discovery and redemption is also emphasised in his scenes with Alice. She suggests a link to the episode title that I am a lot more intrigued by:
'The Labours of Hercules. That is how you unconsciously conceive your career. You are the modern incarnation of Hercules.'
'How resourceful of me.'
'Dr Lutz should name a condition after you: the Hercules complex; the compulsion to conquer all obstacles however forbidding. It is why you are driven to chase Marrascaud. You simply have to.'
To me, this is what truly elevates this adaptation to the level of a character study. Andrews links the mythological figure to the fictional detective by emphasising their common purpose. Poirot is convinced that his raison d'etre in life is to rid the world of crime, as he says to Hastings in Peril at End House (the novel). Faced with failure, he has once again plunged into an investigation of a missing maid (cf The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), and by chance been given the possibility of catching the criminal who killed the girl he had promised to protect. His aim, of sorts, is redemption. But has he redeemed himself? Alice Cunningham suggests that he hasn't.
'Do you feel redeemed, monsieur? Does this atone for the death of Lucinda? Because that was a bit of a mess, wasn't it. I heard you say the words Poirot promising to protect her. You poor man's Hercules. So vain, so ineffably smug, and you failed... Don't turn your back on me. I shall find you.'
'I shall not hide.'
Although the adaptation ends with the reuniting of the lovers from 'The Arcadian Deer' and Poirot seems to reconcile himself with his decision to 'travel alone' in life, I think this scene is left ambiguous for a reason. Poirot has solved the case, but he has not remained unchanged after years of murder and horror. This is important, because it helps set the scene for the final Curtain.
Poirot's journey (...) is a rather brilliant classic hero's tale. Poirot is at a low ebb, is given a mission, takes up the call to action, receives help and hindrance from various shades of his life and past and arriving at a physically cleansed and renewed position where he no longer has to "hide" himself and his doubt.
(Andy Wilson, director)
I realise now that this has evolved into a discussion of Poirot's character and Suchet's interpretation, instead of a straight-forward look at Andrews' adaptation. However, I think it's necessary to include this, because I am convinced this is why the adaptation works for me. Yes, the premise is silly. Yes, it's not perfect. Yes, we didn't get all the short stories. Yes, some of the characters are caricature. But this is an elaborate character study of the man we have become so familiar with. It's a point to reassemble Poirot's thoughts on himself and our thoughts on Poirot. In the words of Goethe (and Poirot): 'the threshold is the place to pause'. We are at the threshold, just about to enter the base, the finale of Curtain. What better place to reassemble the loose ends (loneliness, professional life, love life etc) and prepare to enter?
Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Andy Wilson's direction is perfection itself in this episode. Some viewers have complained that it's too dark, but his note in the episode press pack gives the reason for this:
'After a bright and garishly coloured opening sequence, when Poirot visits his doctor and in the journey through the hotel, colours will be drained and subdued, at the hotel almost monochrome. The snow ad landscape and the pale interior of the hotel itself lending weight to the monochromatic state of Poirot's feelings; the world for him has become colourless as he cannot find the energy to engage his little grey cells in proper employment. The film should have a slightly psychotic tone.'
His directing choices are interesting and not distracting. Several of the scenes have been beautifully shot. I particularly enjoyed the evening scenes at the hotel, as Poirot, Rossakoff and Alice play 'snap'. There's also a brilliant shift of location from the entrance hall to Poirot's hotel room, as Suchet turns around (rather like the recent Sherlock series).
Jeff Tessler's production design is as good as ever. Despite the heavy use of CGI, the team almost manage to convince us that this is a snow-bound hotel, when in fact the episode was shot mainly on location at RAF Halton House, Aylesbury.There's a glimpse of Whitehaven Mansions, too, through the window of Poirot's car, but I can't tell if that's footage from a previous episode. It probably is. Read the interview with him in the press pack if you are interested in the production team's process. Other locations used include The Funicular, Saint Hilaire du Touvet, in France (yes, the funicular was actually shot on location, but the inside was re-built as a set at Pinewood Studios), and the pavilions at Syon House, Brentford (the chauffeur sequences).
Christian Henson's soundtrack is particularly good in this episode. Such a shame that it isn't released on the new soundtrack album. There's a touch of the old theme tune (see, for instance, the moment when Poirot considers taking on the chauffeur's case), and a general sense of nostalgia mixed with psychological thrillers. Excellent.
Characters and actors
This really is the David Suchet Show. Honestly, this is an acting masterclass. We get some hints of Poirot's eccentricities, like him carefully unpacking his 'toiletteries' and his tendency to speak in the third person ('It helps Poirot administer a healthy distance from his genius'). There's also his loneliness and disillusionment (the scenes after the first murder), and his sense of regret (all scenes with Rossakoff). To crown the performance, we have Poirot's matchmaking trait at the end, reminiscent of several previous episodes. (By the way, the little box containing the cufflinks is such a nice homage to 'The Chocolate Box' and Virginie Mesnard's lapel pin vase. Now Poirot wears momenta from both of the women in his life; Countess Rossakoff and Virginie Mesnard.)
Of the guest cast, Orla Brady (taking over the part from Kika Markham) and Simon Callow are the standouts, but all the characters are wonderfully fleshed-out, perhaps because of their short story origins. Brady actually manages to create some sense of continuity from Markham's portrayal, although she's slightly more vivacious and humorous (in keeping with the short story). Callow and Suchet simply interact well together, and they create some classic moments.