There is a strange alchemy that happens when we read a good novel. Something fantastic happens when we combine some ink scratches on paper with our imagination. Whole worlds are formed as if out of nothing, populated with multitudes. Characters that didn’t exist moments before, oddly dear to us.
When I read a Poirot novel, I have a precise yet strangely fuzzy picture in my mind of what Agatha Christie’s sleuth looks like. Everything from his mustache to the twinkle in his eye. My imagination captures a rather exact balance between persnickety arrogance, intellect, OCD, and compassion. I did not create this character on my own, to be sure. He emerged in relation to that which is described in the text. Yet, the figure in my imagination is not fully in the text. Nothing is really “in the text!” It is only when text meets mind that something comes forth. Hercule Poirot lives in my mind – in my imagination. It is Christie’s character, but it is also mine. I become co-conspirator with Christie in the creation of this great sleuth. The sum of the parts exceeds the parts.
None of the actors I have ever seen play Poirot capture the exact combination of characteristics that I have of this character in my imagination. Some are too sarcastic, others insufficiently smug. Frankly, I prefer “my” Poirot! How conceited, I know! But there you are.
I know that I am not the only one who has ever read a Poirot mystery. No – there have been countless others who have become fans of this idiosyncratic figure. And each of these fans has created for himself or herself their own image of this character. There are thousands, if not millions of Poirots existing in various virtual worlds today. For those who are fans of this Belgian detective, I would suspect that each reader prefers “their” Poirot to anyone else’s. The differences between the various Poirots are likely often minutiae – yet it is the micro-expressions we intuit and in the inner dynamics we imagine that makes this character come to life.
Poirot has been played by Austin Trevor, John Moffatt, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina, Kenneth Branagh, John Malkovich and more. One of the problems with cinematic productions is that they end up replacing the millions of Poirots existing in the many imaginations of the many readers with a more monolithic version. After watching David Suchet for so many years, I can hardly remember what “my” Poirot looked like, even though I distinctly remember preferring “my” Poirot over Suchet’s, the first time I saw Suchet. And, the more my imagination of Poirot takes the forms of Suchet, the more it begins to resemble the imagination of others whose image of Poirot has been informed by Suchet. Our collective variety of imaginations has been overcome by the physical representation. It is difficult to maintain a nebulous yet vivid imaginary character alive when presented with an absolute and determined physical version. This is one difference between reading a narrative and watching one. Your role as co-creator is greatly reduced when you watch a movie. You need not employ you imagination to form an image of what a character looks like when you have an actor doing it for you.
Now, I don’t mind Suchet’s Poirot (even though it is inferior to “my Poirot”), but I do not like Peter Ustinov’s Poirot. Suchet at least tries to capture Christie’s character, while it seems to me that Ustinov feels fine simply creating his own character, which is only tangentially related to the novels.
Is it important that “my” Poirot and “your” Poirot be the same? Can’t we just be friends? Now I grant that one’s image of Poirot is hardly consequential in the real world, but what if it was important? What if we were part of a community that patterned our collective existence on the life and teachings of Poirot? Then it would matter, wouldn’t it? How would we defend our respective imaginations?
One crucial element of our debate would have to be Agatha Christie’s books, wouldn’t it? It would be difficult to defend “my” Poirot if I was severed from the texts that brought forth the strange alchemy in the first place. So, we’d have to explore carefully novels in which Poirot appears.
What about the movies and T.V. shows – what part would they have to play in our debates? Seeing as they are secondary, they would not play an important role, if they had any place at all!
Now, imagine a world where, for some reason, all the books by Agatha Christie were lost, and all we had was the cinematic versions. Well, then we would have to look at the T.V. shows and the movies to try and recreate Agatha’s character. The movies and TV shows would be an important source for our own reconstruction, even though we would also treat them with suspicion.
Fortunately, I can remember reading Christie’s novel, and so memory would help. We could build upon the collective memory of many others who also recall. But what if many decades had passed since the inexplicable disappearance of every Christie novel from the face of the earth – what if we had no living memory upon which to rely? Well, then the movies and TV shows would become more important to us still – as sources for reconstructing what was lost.
Inevitably – human beings being what they are – someone is going to come along and start saying that the movies and the TV shows are the true representation. Some would probably say that David Suchet really was Poirot. Others would say that this is wrong, and that Peter Ustinov is actually Poirot. This would bring about a schism within the community, with those on the Suchet side saying that those on the Ustinov side were heretics. (Of course, they’d be right, wouldn’t they?) Many years would go by, and the divisions would grow and grow between the Suchet group and the Ustinov group. The Suchet group would conquer new lands in the name of their Poirot, and the Ustinov group would conquer new lands in the name of their Poirot. They would end up war, fighting in the name of Poirot. Many would die. Chaos threatens human existence.
Imagine someone – let’s call him “Bob” – found a single copy of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” It would be a revolution, wouldn’t it? It could change everything – it could bring peace on earth and good will towards humans. Ahh, but wait – it wouldn’t be quit that easy. First, Bob would have to persuade the Suchet group and Ustinov group that they were both wrong. Getting large imperialistic colonial powers to admit error is no easy task. Some would hold on to their “old” ways and would resist this “new” book and all it represents. Some would probably say that the book was based upon the movies. Peace on earth might have to be deferred for a time.
While some will resist change – something of a calling card for humanity – others will explore this strange new book. They will see that some aspects of their Poirotology correspond to what is in the book, and other aspects do not. Many will continue to understand the book according to the movies. However, some will be so entranced by the book that they will relish its every word and try to get as close to its Poirot as possible. Even among these, differences in Poirotology will persist. Hopefully the better angels of our collective natures will guide some to realize that in the land of imagination, not everything has to be equal. We don’t need to understand the book in exactly the same way.