27/11/2022

Rufus Sewell is a suitably shifty lead in one of Christie’s more supernatural tales, all Don Draper suits and askance glances

The latest of the Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps tackles The Pale Horse, one of the writers more supernatural tales. The new versions have had plenty of style to go with their horror. Phelps looseness with the source texts has mainly wound up the right people, which is to say people who think what the TV world needs is another to-the-letter version of Poirot. 
The Pale Horse of the title is an ominously named old pub in a village called Much Deeping, in a version of Surrey that looks suspiciously like the Cotswolds. (It was in fact shot near Stroud, with Bristol unconvincingly doubling up for Sixties Soho). Here, a coven of three witches practise fortune-telling. One of their clients is Delphine Easterbrook (Georgina Campbell). Eager to please her new husband, Mark (Rufus Sewell), she drops by to ask the witches whether she will make him happy. She is found dead soon afterwards, in mysterious circumstances.  
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1/26
2/26 Dune (1984)
Dune was never going to be an easy book to turn into a two-hour action movie and David Lynchs attempt is proof that it should be best left alone. The director’s adaptation is a nonsensical, deeply convoluted disaster that wastes an enjoyably oddball cast. It’s the only one of Lynch’s films the director has publicly disowned. Still, hopes are high that next years version from Arrival director Denis Villeneuve, starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, will somehow be better.
3/26 The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Fresh off the success of bestselling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Warner Bros bought the rights from Tom Wolfe for a staggering $750,000. Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffiths were both (mis)cast in the lead roles after director Brian De Palma’s preferred choices turned him down. The filmmaker himself struggled to spin the 1990 production’s many plates amid reports of rising on-set troubles that were all witnessed and documented in Julie Salmon’s follow-up book, The Devil’s Candy.
4/26 Billy Bathgate (1991)
1991 gangster film Billy Bathgate, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman, did no justice to EL Doctorow’s beloved 1989 novel. With the efforts of Oscar-winning Kramer vs Kramer director Robert Benton and a script by Tom Stoppard, the film had all the ingredients to become as good as The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas. Instead, it was a hollow adaptation, largely because all the magic was lost with the absence of the central character’s narration a huge reason behind the novel’s success.
5/26 The Scarlet Letter (1995)
The Scarlet Letter (1995) is ranked as one of the worst book adaptations ever made and for good reason. Described by DH Lawrence as a perfect work of the American imagination,” the book was handed a Hollywood makeover that found itself the brunt of ridicule after flopping at the box office. Director Roland Joffé strayed so far from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pages that what should have been an enticing romance became an extremely throwaway erotic drama.
6/26 Battlefield Earth (2000)
To be fair, few would be able to turn L Ron Hubbards allegedly Scientology-inspired Battlefield Earth (2000) into something decent. This John Travolta-with-dreadlocks epic has since gone down in Worst Movies Ever infamy, effectively ending Travoltas mainstream movie career and destroying Barry Peppers before it even started.
7/26 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
Louis de Bernières’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was one of the biggest literary successes of the 1990s, but the 2001 film version from the same British company that made Notting Hill lost all traces of the novel’s heart and soul. The dialogue is disastrous and lead stars Nicolas Cage (Captain Corelli) and Penélope Cruz (Pelagia) lack any chemistry. It may look pretty, but this adaptation was a complete mistake.
8/26 The Time Machine (2002)
The beauty of HG Wellss 1895 science fiction novella The Time Machine was lost amid all the CGI in this insipid 2002 adaptation, which was directed by Wells’s great-grandson, Simon. Everything featured, including Guy Pearce’s lead performance, is wooden apart from the copper time travel contraption at the heart of the story.
9/26 Dreamcatcher (2003)
There have been just as many disappointing Stephen King adaptations as there have been successful ones, but Dreamcatcher sits at the bottom of that list. The talent was present (Damian Lewis! Morgan Freeman! Timothy Olyphant!), but the end product never once correlates to anything at all decent. The film’s late-stage swerve into monster movie territory is nothing short of dreadful.
10/26 Enduring Love (2004)
Before he took on the role of 007, Daniel Craig starred in this adaptation of Ian McEwans novel about people whose lives become entangled after witnessing a deadly accident. While Craigs performance as college lecturer Joe, along with Rhys Ifans as Jed the man who becomes obsessed with him are convincing, the film allows little time for character development and suffers because of it.
11/26 The Perfect Catch (2005)
Nick Hornby adaptations dont inherently need to be set in the UK (the John Cusack-starring High Fidelity, if you like that sort of thing, is something of a classic, after all), but they do need to translate the fussy, infuriating male neuroses of his novels. The Perfect Catch is the 2005 US adaptation of Hornbys Fever Pitch, released a decade after Colin Firth starred in his own British adaptation, and transforms the source material into a more throwaway and uninteresting big-city romcom. Drew Barrymore, in a ‘girlfriend role significantly beefed up in comparison to Hornbys novel, is great, but watching her try and source chemistry with a shrill and unappealing Jimmy Fallon (in one of his rare, pre-talk show acting roles) is harrowing.
12/26 The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Da Vinci Code is a stinker of the highest order. Its sequels, Angels & Demons (2009) and Inferno (2016), are also awful films, but the reason the initial Dan Brown adaptation ranks as the worst is because the others wouldn’t have existed had this one not been so successful.
13/26 Eragon (2006)
20th Century Fox clearly wanted Eragon to be their answer to Harry Potter, but the terrible reviews stopped that plan dead in its tracks. Eragon is the worst kind of fantasy adaptation one where all of the source materials’ sense of fantastical vibrancy disappears during its translation to the big screen.
14/26 Running with Scissors (2006)
Augusten Burroughss Running with Scissors consistently walks a dangerous tightrope between manic farce and adolescent horror tale. Ryan Murphys adaptation, released in 2006, collapses beneath such a task. You can see why Murphy, for his feature film debut, would be attracted to a tale of neurotic family dysfunction and sexual awakening as they are themes that crop up in many of his TV shows (Glee, American Horror Story, etc). But this adaptation is a tonal misfire from start to finish, despite the best efforts of an all-star cast that includes Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood and Brian Cox. Its no wonder this sunk without a trace.
15/26 The Golden Compass (2007)
In another case of Hollywood throwing money at something in the belief that will be enough, Philip Pullmans superb His Dark Materials trilogy or rather, the first book Northern Lights was condensed into an agonising mess of CGI and hammy acting in 2007’s The Golden Compass. Much of the blame went to the fact that Hollywood, where God is thanked above anyone else at the Oscars, would likely be uncomfortable handling material that was so critical of the Catholic church. It also suffered by trying to condense an overwhelming amount of information into the opening few scenes. A forthcoming BBC adaptation starring James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda looks far more promising.
16/26 The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)
Where to start with this disaster of a film? Audrey Niffeneggers The Time Traveller’s Wife is beautifully and convincingly written, but there’s nothing convincing about its adaptation. Producers thought casting two major Hollywood stars was a good idea, but Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana had zero chemistry.
17/26 Cloud Atlas (2012)
Cloud Atlas (2012) is by no means a disaster, but it’s meandering plot lines, sketchy pacing and often questionable acting (Hanks has never been dodgier) do David Mitchell’s sprawling, inventive novel a disservice. Still, it’s an enjoyable Wachowskis romp that features Hugh Grant as a cannibal tribesman, so it has that going for it.
18/26 The Hobbit (2012-2014)
Fans of The Hobbit did not expect the novel, so short and sweet and set in such a familiar and adored world, to be messed up by The Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson but thats exactly what happened. While the trilogy of Hobbit films were a box-office success, they came under fire from critics for stretching the book’s material too thin. Third outing, The Battle of Five Armies, was the worst received of all three.
19/26 The Book Thief (2013)
The film adaptation of the profoundly moving and dark tale The Book Thief, which follows a young girl in Nazi Germany, is tonally off from the first scene. The glossy cinematography and excessively sentimental score jar with its grim subject matter and the performances verge on caricature. It doesn’t help that all of the English dialogue is spoken with a German accent.
20/26 The Great Gatsby (2013)
No adaptation of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgeralds most famous work, has managed to capture the excess, glamour and underlying sleaze of the roaring Twenties. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version was fun and arguably the best at revealing the insecurities of (a brilliant) Leonardo DiCaprios Gatsby. However, the flashiness of the production stripped away all of Fitzgeralds delicate story-telling.
21/26 The Giver (2014)
Disgraced producer Harvey Weinsteins fingerprints are all over this messy adaptation of Young Adult novel The Giver (2014), which attempts to fuse a sincere, thoughtful allegory with a Twilight-style love story backed up by action fresh from The Hunger Games and a Taylor Swift cameo. By attempting to appeal to every single teenager all at once, though, The Giver loses sight of its fascinating dystopian premise and gives its eccentric cast (among them Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) very little to do.
22/26 Kill Your Friends (2015)
John Niven’s Kill Your Friends is a blistering, debauched exploration into the life of a cocaine-sniffing record label agent. It passes by in the blink of an eye, which can’t be said for its adaptation. The film, released in 2015, tries so hard to nail what Niven achieves so fluidly and it shows the result is nothing short of embarrassing with the clean-cut Nicholas Hoult failing to convince as the sociopathic Steven Stelfox.
23/26 The Girl on the Train (2016)
Although it will always exist in the shadow of Gillian Flynns ingenious thriller Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is an undeniably pacy and intelligent novel. But it was completely let down by this US film adaptation. The 2016 release, starring Emily Blunt, is cheesy and lacking in nuance and criminally takes the story away from its original gritty London setting, plonking the characters down in glossy New York for no apparent reason.
24/26 Me Before You (2016)
The 2016 adaptation of Me Before You, starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, was brutally panned by critics for being emotionally manipulative. Its bad acting and problematic premise didn’t help, either. Clarke’s performance as the paid companion to Claflins quadriplegic was in particular criticised for being offensively exaggerated.
25/26 The Dark Tower (2017)
While not the same calibre of flop as Dreamcatcher, The Dark Tower is a fine example of a botched attempt at adapting one of Stephen King’s finest works. With Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the lead roles as the heroic and villainous characters caught in a fated tussle, it should have soared but a rush job such as Nikolaj Arcel’s 2017 film is no way to treat such an expansive piece of work.
26/26 On Chesil Beach (2017)
Despite magnetic performances from Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was weighed down by a turgid script and clumsy old-age make-up. The finished product is worlds away from the McEwan adaptation that Ronan previously starred in  the Oscar-winning drama Atonement (2007).
1/26
2/26 Dune (1984)
Dune was never going to be an easy book to turn into a two-hour action movie and David Lynchs attempt is proof that it should be best left alone. The director’s adaptation is a nonsensical, deeply convoluted disaster that wastes an enjoyably oddball cast. It’s the only one of Lynch’s films the director has publicly disowned. Still, hopes are high that next years version from Arrival director Denis Villeneuve, starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, will somehow be better.
3/26 The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Fresh off the success of bestselling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Warner Bros bought the rights from Tom Wolfe for a staggering $750,000. Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffiths were both (mis)cast in the lead roles after director Brian De Palma’s preferred choices turned him down. The filmmaker himself struggled to spin the 1990 production’s many plates amid reports of rising on-set troubles that were all witnessed and documented in Julie Salmon’s follow-up book, The Devil’s Candy.
4/26 Billy Bathgate (1991)
1991 gangster film Billy Bathgate, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman, did no justice to EL Doctorow’s beloved 1989 novel. With the efforts of Oscar-winning Kramer vs Kramer director Robert Benton and a script by Tom Stoppard, the film had all the ingredients to become as good as The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas. Instead, it was a hollow adaptation, largely because all the magic was lost with the absence of the central character’s narration a huge reason behind the novel’s success.
5/26 The Scarlet Letter (1995)
The Scarlet Letter (1995) is ranked as one of the worst book adaptations ever made and for good reason. Described by DH Lawrence as a perfect work of the American imagination,” the book was handed a Hollywood makeover that found itself the brunt of ridicule after flopping at the box office. Director Roland Joffé strayed so far from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pages that what should have been an enticing romance became an extremely throwaway erotic drama.
6/26 Battlefield Earth (2000)
To be fair, few would be able to turn L Ron Hubbards allegedly Scientology-inspired Battlefield Earth (2000) into something decent. This John Travolta-with-dreadlocks epic has since gone down in Worst Movies Ever infamy, effectively ending Travoltas mainstream movie career and destroying Barry Peppers before it even started.
7/26 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
Louis de Bernières’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was one of the biggest literary successes of the 1990s, but the 2001 film version from the same British company that made Notting Hill lost all traces of the novel’s heart and soul. The dialogue is disastrous and lead stars Nicolas Cage (Captain Corelli) and Penélope Cruz (Pelagia) lack any chemistry. It may look pretty, but this adaptation was a complete mistake.
8/26 The Time Machine (2002)
The beauty of HG Wellss 1895 science fiction novella The Time Machine was lost amid all the CGI in this insipid 2002 adaptation, which was directed by Wells’s great-grandson, Simon. Everything featured, including Guy Pearce’s lead performance, is wooden apart from the copper time travel contraption at the heart of the story.
9/26 Dreamcatcher (2003)
There have been just as many disappointing Stephen King adaptations as there have been successful ones, but Dreamcatcher sits at the bottom of that list. The talent was present (Damian Lewis! Morgan Freeman! Timothy Olyphant!), but the end product never once correlates to anything at all decent. The film’s late-stage swerve into monster movie territory is nothing short of dreadful.
10/26 Enduring Love (2004)
Before he took on the role of 007, Daniel Craig starred in this adaptation of Ian McEwans novel about people whose lives become entangled after witnessing a deadly accident. While Craigs performance as college lecturer Joe, along with Rhys Ifans as Jed the man who becomes obsessed with him are convincing, the film allows little time for character development and suffers because of it.
11/26 The Perfect Catch (2005)
Nick Hornby adaptations dont inherently need to be set in the UK (the John Cusack-starring High Fidelity, if you like that sort of thing, is something of a classic, after all), but they do need to translate the fussy, infuriating male neuroses of his novels. The Perfect Catch is the 2005 US adaptation of Hornbys Fever Pitch, released a decade after Colin Firth starred in his own British adaptation, and transforms the source material into a more throwaway and uninteresting big-city romcom. Drew Barrymore, in a ‘girlfriend role significantly beefed up in comparison to Hornbys novel, is great, but watching her try and source chemistry with a shrill and unappealing Jimmy Fallon (in one of his rare, pre-talk show acting roles) is harrowing.
12/26 The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Da Vinci Code is a stinker of the highest order. Its sequels, Angels & Demons (2009) and Inferno (2016), are also awful films, but the reason the initial Dan Brown adaptation ranks as the worst is because the others wouldn’t have existed had this one not been so successful.
13/26 Eragon (2006)
20th Century Fox clearly wanted Eragon to be their answer to Harry Potter, but the terrible reviews stopped that plan dead in its tracks. Eragon is the worst kind of fantasy adaptation one where all of the source materials’ sense of fantastical vibrancy disappears during its translation to the big screen.
14/26 Running with Scissors (2006)
Augusten Burroughss Running with Scissors consistently walks a dangerous tightrope between manic farce and adolescent horror tale. Ryan Murphys adaptation, released in 2006, collapses beneath such a task. You can see why Murphy, for his feature film debut, would be attracted to a tale of neurotic family dysfunction and sexual awakening as they are themes that crop up in many of his TV shows (Glee, American Horror Story, etc). But this adaptation is a tonal misfire from start to finish, despite the best efforts of an all-star cast that includes Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood and Brian Cox. Its no wonder this sunk without a trace.
15/26 The Golden Compass (2007)
In another case of Hollywood throwing money at something in the belief that will be enough, Philip Pullmans superb His Dark Materials trilogy or rather, the first book Northern Lights was condensed into an agonising mess of CGI and hammy acting in 2007’s The Golden Compass. Much of the blame went to the fact that Hollywood, where God is thanked above anyone else at the Oscars, would likely be uncomfortable handling material that was so critical of the Catholic church. It also suffered by trying to condense an overwhelming amount of information into the opening few scenes. A forthcoming BBC adaptation starring James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda looks far more promising.
16/26 The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)
Where to start with this disaster of a film? Audrey Niffeneggers The Time Traveller’s Wife is beautifully and convincingly written, but there’s nothing convincing about its adaptation. Producers thought casting two major Hollywood stars was a good idea, but Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana had zero chemistry.
17/26 Cloud Atlas (2012)
Cloud Atlas (2012) is by no means a disaster, but it’s meandering plot lines, sketchy pacing and often questionable acting (Hanks has never been dodgier) do David Mitchell’s sprawling, inventive novel a disservice. Still, it’s an enjoyable Wachowskis romp that features Hugh Grant as a cannibal tribesman, so it has that going for it.
18/26 The Hobbit (2012-2014)
Fans of The Hobbit did not expect the novel, so short and sweet and set in such a familiar and adored world, to be messed up by The Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson but thats exactly what happened. While the trilogy of Hobbit films were a box-office success, they came under fire from critics for stretching the book’s material too thin. Third outing, The Battle of Five Armies, was the worst received of all three.
19/26 The Book Thief (2013)
The film adaptation of the profoundly moving and dark tale The Book Thief, which follows a young girl in Nazi Germany, is tonally off from the first scene. The glossy cinematography and excessively sentimental score jar with its grim subject matter and the performances verge on caricature. It doesn’t help that all of the English dialogue is spoken with a German accent.
20/26 The Great Gatsby (2013)
No adaptation of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgeralds most famous work, has managed to capture the excess, glamour and underlying sleaze of the roaring Twenties. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version was fun and arguably the best at revealing the insecurities of (a brilliant) Leonardo DiCaprios Gatsby. However, the flashiness of the production stripped away all of Fitzgeralds delicate story-telling.
21/26 The Giver (2014)
Disgraced producer Harvey Weinsteins fingerprints are all over this messy adaptation of Young Adult novel The Giver (2014), which attempts to fuse a sincere, thoughtful allegory with a Twilight-style love story backed up by action fresh from The Hunger Games and a Taylor Swift cameo. By attempting to appeal to every single teenager all at once, though, The Giver loses sight of its fascinating dystopian premise and gives its eccentric cast (among them Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) very little to do.
22/26 Kill Your Friends (2015)
John Niven’s Kill Your Friends is a blistering, debauched exploration into the life of a cocaine-sniffing record label agent. It passes by in the blink of an eye, which can’t be said for its adaptation. The film, released in 2015, tries so hard to nail what Niven achieves so fluidly and it shows the result is nothing short of embarrassing with the clean-cut Nicholas Hoult failing to convince as the sociopathic Steven Stelfox.
23/26 The Girl on the Train (2016)
Although it will always exist in the shadow of Gillian Flynns ingenious thriller Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is an undeniably pacy and intelligent novel. But it was completely let down by this US film adaptation. The 2016 release, starring Emily Blunt, is cheesy and lacking in nuance and criminally takes the story away from its original gritty London setting, plonking the characters down in glossy New York for no apparent reason.
24/26 Me Before You (2016)
The 2016 adaptation of Me Before You, starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, was brutally panned by critics for being emotionally manipulative. Its bad acting and problematic premise didn’t help, either. Clarke’s performance as the paid companion to Claflins quadriplegic was in particular criticised for being offensively exaggerated.
25/26 The Dark Tower (2017)
While not the same calibre of flop as Dreamcatcher, The Dark Tower is a fine example of a botched attempt at adapting one of Stephen King’s finest works. With Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the lead roles as the heroic and villainous characters caught in a fated tussle, it should have soared but a rush job such as Nikolaj Arcel’s 2017 film is no way to treat such an expansive piece of work.
26/26 On Chesil Beach (2017)
Despite magnetic performances from Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was weighed down by a turgid script and clumsy old-age make-up. The finished product is worlds away from the McEwan adaptation that Ronan previously starred in  the Oscar-winning drama Atonement (2007).
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In general, it proves, a familiarity with Mark Easterbook is a bad sign for ones life expectancy. He is a wealthy playboy in swinging Sixties London, with a square jaw and an elastic idea of marital fidelity. His name is found in a dead womans shoe, along with the names of several others, including eccentric engineer Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel). Detective Inspector Stanley Lejeune (Sean Pertwee) quickly starts putting the pieces together, while Easterbook tries to find out whats going on without his new wife Hermia (Kaya Scodelario) catching on to his philandering. On a trip to Much Deeping, they run into an occult festival. In prime-time weekend television, there are few omens as bad as villagers in costume. Do you ever feel that somethings coming, something bad? Mark asks Zachariah. Yes, yes we do. 
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The cast is stronger on paper than it turns out on screen. The witches have fun, but whats easier than playing a witch? Sewell is a suitably shifty lead, all Don Draper suits and askance glances. Its obvious why you would want to marry him but also obvious why it would be a very bad idea. Pertwee gives his somewhat underwritten detective instant gravitas. With a hunch, a silly voice and crooked false teeth, Carvel plays Osborne like a missing League of Gentleman character. And its hardly her fault, but viewers with happy memories of Skins might have trouble taking Scodelario seriously as a put-upon housewife uttering clipped accusations over the lamb.  
This is the fifth of Phelpss Christie adaptations, and she has said it could be the last. It might be time. A Pale Horse is as polished as the other pieces, showing a folksy horror beneath elegant surfaces, but the energy no longer feels fresh. Her quintet has covered half a century of murderous British history, and it has mainly been bloody good fun.