Of the three Sarah Phelps adaptations of Christie’s work thus far, this one is by far the most radical. In the others, she kept much of Christie’s plotting intact, and instead added her own modern touches and atmospherics to make them grittier for modern audiences. Here, interestingly, she uses the original plot as but a mere outline, and fills it out with a determined sense of imaginative license. The solution is different, of course, but so are the characters themselves: all of them broken, insecure individuals who enjoy being spiteful and duplicitous, without anyone emerging as healthy or well-adjusted. Even the most sympathetic character, Dr. Calgary, is a shell of the man he once was, guilt-ridden and haunted as he is by his involvement with the nuclear bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This take on Calgary is actually one of the changes that works really well, because it complicates the credibility he too-easily gains in the book, and makes us really question his validity as a witness.
However, the title of this work is Ordeal by Innocence. It refers to the psychological toll that is taken when you are suspected of a crime you didn’t commit, and in the book, the Argyles do suffer when their “preferred” solution ends up being the wrong one. Their suspicion eats them up and turns them against each other, and in the process, we are able to take pity on their suffering (especially when the killer’s true identity is revealed). But this crucial aspect of Christie’s work is strangely absent here, and I’m guessing it’s because the timelines are greatly contracted. Dr. Calgary shows up one day, and during the next the solution is revealed. There is no time for any ordeal of any kind to take place, and because of this, we have no one to pity. There is a point where we are close to pitying the innocent, but then Rachel’s and Jack’s deaths are promptly avenged, and that’s that. End of story.
What this needed a bit more of is character building, especially on Rachel’s end. Why is she this merciless harridan? What were the impulses that led her to adopt so many children, and then treat them so badly? So much of the psychological thrust of this work lies in her character, and while we see Rachel in action, we don’t know why she’s acting. There are brief hints that she is not the villain everyone thinks she is, but these are never fleshed out. Nor is the theme of nuclear annihilation that lies in the background, other than in Dr. Calgary’s mental breakdown and the fallout shelter. It feels like an extraneous detail added to underscore the ‘50s setting, and this in contrast to The Witness for the Prosecution, which Phelps set in the ‘20s and had a purpose for doing so.
I don’t mind the changed solution so much, as it gives this version a nice element of surprise. It has a nice feminist feel to it, too, with the victim of sexual predation being allowed to inflict her own brand of vengeance upon her hated enemy. In the novel, sexual predation is basically the entire reason for the murder in the first place, predicated on the idea that older women will simply fall at the feet of any young man who looks at them twice. Phelps wisely renovates things to make the conclusion more empowering, and while the motive is made slightly more conventional, it doesn’t seem too off the mark from what Christie might’ve contemplated.
No, this is not where the adaptation stumbles. It’s because of Phelps’ penchant for making every personality acrid, and thus nearly unredeemable, that Ordeal by Innocence flies into some trouble. I can understand why she does it for And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, as the characters in those works really are unworthy of our sympathies, but here a bit of compassion is needed.
I’m still looking forward to seeing what she does with The ABC Murders, which is Christie’s own take on serial killing. I’m expecting it to be dark, but I hope she does not overdo it like she does here.