How Hollywood Is Getting Back in the Agatha Christie Business

Agatha Christie Inset - H - 2016

The heirs of the iconic mystery writer have inked multiple new film and TV deals as they vow to protect the "DNA" of her work, not seen on the big screen since 1985.

It has been almost 100 years since Agatha Christie put pen to paper for her very first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Over her career, the iconic British writer published more than 80 novels and short stories and widely is considered the best-selling author of all time, with more than 1 billion English-language copies and another billion in 44 foreign languages sold worldwide.

While the work of the "Queen of Crime" has been made into dozens of film, TV and stage adaptations, there hasn't been a major theatrical feature in the past 30 years since the lackluster 1985 film Ordeal by Innocence, starring Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer.

But now, Christie's work is seeing a resurgence thanks to a renewed effort from her estate to introduce her stories to a new generation — and reintroduce Christie as the vibrant, adventurous woman she was. "There's this perception of her as this slightly quiet, slightly meek kind of Miss Marple-ish character, but she was far from that," says Christie's great-grandson James Prichard, who is the chairman of the estate Agatha Christie Limited, citing one of Christie's top two snoops (the other is Inspector Hercule Poirot). "She was a woman who basically defined her own destiny."

Indeed, the most well-known images of Christie, who died in 1976 at age 85, are as a gray-haired older woman, but she wrote her first novel at age 30 and lived an adventurous life traveling the world (her trips inspired the exotic locations in works such as Murder on the Orient Express). She also was one of the first British women to surf, as captured in photos from Australia, South Africa and Hawaii with her first husband in 1922. "She was a single mom [of one daughter], and her husband left her for another woman, which is a very modern story," says Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Limited. "She had this incredible sense of adventure, and I think that's why her work has survived."

In 2012, when content distribution company RLJ Entertainment bought 64 percent of the estate from media management company Chorion (which also handled Raymond Chandler's work and such children's characters as Paddington Bear), the family (which owns the remaining 36 percent) reclaimed more control of her literary estate (which continues to sell more than 3 million books a year worldwide) by hiring Strong, who has a background in TV development, to shepherd TV and film projects. Strong now works with Prichard, who took over the company for his father, Mathew, in 2014; in 2013, they hired WME to help them set up deals with Hollywood studios.

To bring Christie's stories back to the big screen, the estate, which employs around 14 people at its London-based office, inked a trio of deals with 20th Century Fox: a star-studded adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be helmed by and star Kenneth Branagh; an adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution that will be directed by and star Ben Affleck; and an adaptation of And Then There Were None with The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum. Plus, the BBC has made a deal to adapt seven of Christie's works for new shows to air over the next four years, in addition to a two-part adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution, which is filming.

"One of the criticisms that I keep getting levied at me is that [the previous film adaptations] were so amazing. 'How can you remake Murder on the Orient Express?' " says Strong of the 1974 film, which was nominated for six Oscars. "They're iconic films, but they are of their time, and there is a new cinema audience that won't watch films that were made in 1957 or 1974, and we want them to hear her stories."

Prichard and Strong don't just license Christie's work to production companies, they also remain involved in the development process as producers. They weigh in on scripts and castings for most of the projects, including Branagh's upcoming ensemble film, in order to make sure any adaptation retains what they describe as "the Agatha Christie DNA.' "

"To be an Agatha Christie story, it doesn't have to be period, it doesn't have to be set in 1930," says Strong. "It has to have really strong plot and really interesting characters. It has to have a fantastic twist or two or three as you go along. And it needs humor; it needs to have fun."

Branagh says his adaptation, which is expected to put together an all-star cast (he was interested in Angelina Jolie but a deal never came together; other names of interest but not officially attached include Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer), will bring to the screen her depth of character and story rather than any cliched "kind of parlor game."

"She has a real sense of psychological insight and perception," says Branagh. "I think audiences are looking for and maybe ready to let that part of her work emerge a little more deeply — and differently from the sort of 'period drama' that some might associate with the work."

While there are many Christie adaptations on the horizon, don't expect the estate to sanction a biopic anytime soon. "It's not something we'd ever consider, to be honest," says Prichard. "She was a very private person, and we look at her work as the expression of her rather than her life."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.