Crime writers who bring flamboyant characters and complex stories to life often find their stories born again in another medium. Agatha Christie who published her first novel in 1920 became one of the most famed authors in history with billions of copies of her work sold to avid readers. Christie was also a playwright and romance writer. Her play, The Mousetrap, is the world’s longest running play—opening on April 12, 1958—having its Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and is still on the boards today. She also penned the plays The Hollow, and Verdict plus Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile—both adapted into films. Writing over 70 detective novels earned her the title “Queen of Mystery.” Included in her repertoire were short fiction, and romantic narratives. Christie was made a dame in 1971 and we all know, “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”
Among the first mystery novels is Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White published in 1859 and appearing in serial form in Charles Dickens “All Year Round Magazine” and in the United States in “Harper’s Weekly”. It was staged as a melodrama in 1975 and titled Egad, The Woman in White, became a stage play in 2005 and a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Zippel in 2004. Silent films of Wilkie’s play were made in America in 1912 and 1917 and in Great Britain in 1929 and in America in 1940, and 1948 and Russia in 1982. Two TV Miniseries produced by the BBC and one in Germany and a computer game created in 2010 titled Victorian Mysteries: Woman in White.
A British Horror film titled The Woman in Black was adapted from a novel by Susan Hill in 1983 and became a play in 1987. I remember seeing the play on a visit to London, clutching my husband and screaming. A first for me—fortunately I wasn’t the only one in the audience who had the shudders.
Attracted to ghost stories, Henry James wrote the The Turn of the Screw. Published in 1898 the story has had multiple interpretations—made into an opera, television play, motion picture, and radio and theatre productions.
William Gillette, the actor, playwright and inventor began a correspondence with Arthur Conan Doyle in 1898. At their first meeting he arrived at Doyle’s home wearing a long, gray cape and wearing a deerstalker cap. Sherlock Holmes incarnate—he appeared to have stepped out of the pages of Doyle’s book. He gave the breath of life to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes extensively rewriting a five-act play that Doyle had written, then cabled Doyle asking to “Marry Holmes.” Sir Arthur replied that he could marry Holmes or murder him or do anything he liked with him.” Gillette wrote two plays—“Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes,” and earned over three million dollars, a hefty amount in those days, with his portrayal of the great detective. Doyle said he was “charmed both with the play, the acting and the pecuniary result.”
W. Somerset Maugham wrote a short story, in 1926, that was included in his collection titled The Casuarina Tree. Based on a true story about a murder that occurred in 1911 when the wife of a headmaster was tried and convicted of murder after shooting a male friend. Maugham turned his story into a play that ran in London, toured the provinces and opened on Broadway with Katherine Cornell. The play has been revived, and made into films in America, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy and three television anthologies, a made for television movie, a musical titled The Bloomers and an opera produced by The Santa Fe Opera.
In 1984, William March wrote a novel titled The Bad Seed adapted for the stage by Maxwell Anderson. The play opened on Broadway less than a year after its publication. The book was the last of March’s published works because of his untimely death. Both a critical and commercial success, the book was nominated for the 1955 National book Award for Fiction. The premise of the book and the play—which starred Nancy Kelly who won the Tony Award for her performance—was “nature vs. nurture” in explaining deviant behavior. Patty McCormack, the child actress played Rhoda—The Bad Seed. A film was made in 1956 and a television movie in 1985.
Bram Stoker worked at the Lyceum Theatre—headed by the actor-manager Henry Irving—between 1878 and 1898. His novel Dracula bore many other titles until shortly before publication including The Dead Un-Dead and was not commercially successful at first despite the praise of critics. Stoker modeled Dracula on Sir Henry’s dramatic characteristics and gentlemanly comportment and hoped he would play Dracula in the stage version. Sir Henry never played the part but in 1928 the part was played by Bela Lugosi. It was adapted for the stage by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston in 1977 with the charming and sexy count played by Frank Langella and again made an appearance in 2004 as a musical.
Chicago is based on a play by a reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins who covered the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gartner for the Chicago Tribune. In the twenties, there were many homicides which involved women killing their husbands or lovers. Annan became the starting point for Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly is basis for Gaertner. Watkins pieces were extremely successful with the Tribune’s readers and became the heart of her play. The play appeared on Broadway in 1926 and a silent film version was produced by Cecil b. DeMille in 1927 and remade as Roxie Hart in 1942 starring Ginger Rogers but Ginger was accused of murder but never convicted. Gwen Verdon read the play in the 1960s and asked her husband Bob Fosse about adapting it as a musical. Fosse tried to buy the rights but Watkins had become a born-again Christian and believed her work glorified decadence and rejected his offer. After her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to the producer Richard Fryer, Fosse and Verdon. The musical opened in 1975 and played 926-performances. Opened on the West End in 1979 and ran for 600 performances then was revived on Broadway in 1996 and is still playing today. Revived on the West End—it is the longest running American musical in history. The musical has played all over the world and won numerous prizes including the Tony. It also became a film starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones and won the Academy Award for that year.
Do you dream of the play, the musical, television or the motion picture?Sometimes crime pays.