Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked, and gosh don’t the months go by quickly? On the other hand, this is the third instalment of this series, which means I’ve actually stuck to it for far longer than I have basically anything else except Hugh Grant. Go me.
Anyway, here’s stuff I liked in December.
The Holiday Period
I’m not really a massive fan of huge public celebrations. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the general air of harmless and directionless cheerfulness that attends the holiday season. It’s just kind of nice to have pretty lights everywhere when it’s otherwise just cold and dark and miserable. Also I’m a big fan of long periods of time off work. And there’s something about this particular long period of time off work that feels doubly permissive. I’m usually the sort of person who spends at least half my holiday fretting about all the stuff I need to be getting done before I once again have zero time, but the thing about Christmas is that you have complete licence to say “well, it’s Christmas” when you’re deciding to do your taxes later, put off the cleaning, or buy an extra box of Ferrero Rocher.
So, least controversial opinion I’ve probably ever had. Christmas is good. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday period too.
I wrote in my planner that I should write about my planner in the Things I Liked article that I also wrote down that I had to write in my planner. Then I wrote a whole article about my planner that was on a different list in a different part of my planner. Point is, I really love my planner and you can read all my about it here.
An Article by Heather Alexandra
A couple of days ago one of Kotaku’s staff writers published this piece about going back to the Star Wars MMO after years of absence. It’s a kind of melancholy, hopeful article about MMOs as both digital and emotional spaces, and it got me right in the feels because it touches on exactly the sort of ideas that led me to write Looking For Group. And now I feel really awkward because I’m worried that it looks like I’m using somebody else’s work to plug my back catalogue (available on iTunes). But mostly for me it was that thing that Alan Bennett talks about The History Boys when you read something that somebody else has written and it articulates so perfectly an experience you thought was private to you. Again, I don’t want to be talking too much about myself here—although, y’know what, screw it, it’s my blog—but while LFG has never been one of my most popular books it’s the one that seems to have inspired that Alan Bennett reaction in other people. I think because it’s about something so specific that’s very strongly recognisable to those who have invested in it, but seldom gets talked about. So, in a weird way, reading Heather’s article closed that loop for me because it said to me what I hope LFG says to other people.
I don’t even know if you have these in America, and if you do they’re probably called something like Jed’s Crunchy Nutballs. But they’re kind of chocolates with delusions of grandeur—famously advertised in the 80s as the kind of thing you would literally serve at an Embassy Ball, specifically, with the line “the Ambassador’s receptions are noted in society for their host’s exquisite taste, which captivates his guests”. And this is something you can buy from Sainsbury’s for a fiver.
They are, in all honesty, quite nice – being a hazelnut, in squidgy chocolate, surrounded by wafer (in the 80s, nothing was classier than wafer), coated in less squidgy chocolate, with nuts in. But they look rubbish, since they’re knobbly balls wrapped in gold foil, and you would in no way serve them to foreign dignitaries. And, if you did, they would certainly not reply “Monsieur, with zis rocher you are really spoiling us.”
But for some reason I really enjoy them at Christmas, which is the only time of year I ever get them.
Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christies for the BBC
For the past four years, which basically makes it a beloved and eternal tradition, every Christmas the BBC has commissioned a writer called Sarah Phelps to produce a modern adaption of a classic Agatha Christie story. So far, two of them have been quite obscure (Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence), one has been an iconic standalone (And Then There Were None), and the most recent is both iconic and an actual Poirot (The ABC Murders). What they have in common, beyond their source, is that they’re kind of edgy, moody adaptations that are all about post-war anxiety and its very real parallels with modern social problems around which an Agatha Christie is stitched very, very loosely.
I said that these adaptations were becoming a beloved Christmas tradition when it might more accurate to say that it’s becoming a beloved Christmas tradition for the BBC to put out a new Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel and for the internet to lose its fucking shit. The thing is that A Crizzle was very much a mystery writer in the classic puzzle box mould. Your only duty when reading an Agatha Christie is to work out which of the details that she deliberately put into the book are clues and thereby determine which of the often cipher-like characters you are being told committed the murder. The classic mystery novel is almost like a cryptic crossword: it has its own set of rules and principles, wholly divorced from anything else, and fans engage with it as a purely intellectual exercise. The other thing is, that Sarah Phelps has zero interest in that kind of story and, instead, wants to make a TV drama with characters and themes.
And, to an extent, you can do both, because the clue stuff has already been done, and there isn’t much work for an adaptor to do there, so putting your time and effort into telling an actual story that’s relevant to a modern audience is probably a good call. But, of course, there is another perspective which TV tropes helpfully summarises as “they changed it, and now it sucks.” If I was feeling self-servingly high-minded I’d say that which side of the fence you come on is primarily a factor of your personal philosophy of adaptation, and whether you believe that translating a work to a new medium should be an inherently conservative or an inherently transformative process. If I’m being honesty with myself, I suspect it has at least as much to do with how much you like the original.
Last year’s production (Ordeal by Innocence) was especially controversial because Phelps didn’t just add a bunch of themes that weren’t in the book, she completely changed who the murderer was. And while on an abstract level I could understand that changing who the killer is in a genre where that’s literally the whole point should probably be kind of taboo (it strays perilously close to those 19th century versions of Shakespeare where people don’t die in the tragedies) I thought it worked fine as a drama and, when I Wikipedia-ed the original ending, I was really glad they hadn’t gone with it as it was kind of shit.
This year’s mystery is the ABC Murders but because it’s kind of what this series does they’ve added a whole bunch of slightly odd commentary about immigration. It’s a Poirot and Poirot’s backstory has always been that he’s a Belgian policeman who came to live in England after the war (which from Christie’s perspective and, I strongly suspect from the perspective of 1920s England, was super not a big deal) and the story seems to want to be as much about Poirot’s experience as a refugee as about the murders. And this is where I have to accept that my highfalutin belief in the transformative nature of adaptation butts up against the fact that I kind of like Poirot.
I mean, I’m incredibly here for John Malkovitch’s performance as slightly past-it, somewhat tormented Hercule Poirot and I actually think alternative interpretations of iconic detectives can be quite powerful (after all, people have been doing what they like with Sherlock Holmes since Conan Doyle gave them explicit permission to do so in exactly those words). And I even think that the fact that Poirot is an immigrant (who, as we know from Hamilton, get the job done) is an interesting element of his character that I’ve never seen explored before. It’s just that, particularly given where we are right now, it seems to be really, really, really pointedly about Brexit. Like to the extent I’m beginning to find it distracting. And while all the other adaptations have had slightly specious themes in them that weren’t from the original book, they also didn’t seem quite so ripped from the headlines or tacked on. Because, y’know, I’m upset about Brexit too. And I can actually recognise the value of trying to tell a story the re-appropriates the War (which is often used to prop up quite parochialist, quite little-Englandist ideas about Britain standing alone against the world) as a story about the importance of international cooperation and strong ties to Europe. I just don’t think it fits with Poirot. And I suppose if I’m being objective that’s kind of what all of the other complaints have been about as well. It’s just here, because I know the source material better, and because I have such strong sense that it is supposed to be a baffling mystery about a serial killer, not a searing indictment of a culture that grows increasingly hostile to foreigners, that it feels really jarring to me.
Um. I appreciate that this is supposed to be the things I’m enjoying article, and I do actually love the Sarah Phelps Christies, and not only am I enjoying the ABC Murders so much that I watched it live (I know, what is this, 1874?) but I also intend to re-binge the last three as well, and John Malkovitch is great as sad, old Poirot, it’s just this one, for me, works less well than the others. And apparently whether I think something is working or not has less impact than I’d have thought it would about whether or not I enjoy it.
And that’s it for December. As ever, I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. If you’d enjoy telling me. If not, then don’t.