Movie adaptations of literary works have received popularity since the invention of cinematography. Many directors tried to expand the well-known stories, explore characters’ personalities or give redeeming plot arches for antagonists, evolving their motivations and experiences. The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short detective story The Witness for the Prosecution opened many new opportunities for movie creators to reveal minor characters as active participants in the plot. The lawyer, Mr. Mayherne, named Mr. Mayhew in the film, became the central and most contradicting figure in the BBC adaptation of Christie’s story.
Many prominent or insignificant changes can be seen in Jarrold’s plot interpretation. The film expands the story capacity since the original book contains only 15 pages, and the cinematic adaptation was divided into two-part series, the duration of each being one hour. It allows the director to experiment with secondary subplots, such as the acting career of Romaine Heilger, the home life of Mr. Mayhew, and the presence of supporting characters, such as Mayhew’s wife or Emily French’s cat. Adaptation utilizes these methods to reveal the visual sequence of the events to the viewer, which must stimulate the direct perception typical for films (Davies, 15). The BBC series follows the main plot, strengthening the dramatic effect of the climactic events through changes in additional points. Hence, the film differs from the original story, maintaining the central situation but creating new sub-plots.
One of the significant changes in the film is the characters’ personalities and roles in the plot. Specifically, the lawyer, Mr. John Mayhew, played by Toby Jones, underwent not only inner changes as a character but also adaptation altered his interactions with other participants of the story. Before the beginning of Mr. Mayhew’s analysis, it should mention that one of the essential alterations was made in terms of viewer and reader perception of the events. Reading the book, a person indirectly recreates the story based on the facts the lawyer heard, meaning that he and the reader know the same amount of information and build theories simultaneously. Additionally, the film uses the technic of restricting imagination (Davies, 16) by providing more details about the case, even before the crime was committed. Hence, it makes the viewer observant of the story, not the participant.
Additionally, the director explores the character of Mr. Mayhew; the film reveals his inner trauma, disease, and relationship with his wife. The viewers see the lawyer as a vulnerable man, looking for justice and ways to save innocent lives. The adaptation creates new parallels between the characters. The director uses the technic of modulation shift to emphasize narration about emotional connections among the characters before the climax (Abdolahi and Mehrnoosh, 69). Mayhew sees his late son in the young man Mr. Vole, who says, “I learned engines in the army, I’m good with it” (The Witness, 35:30), and Mayhew replies, “My boy loved engines” (The Witness, 35:45). This parallel creates a strong motivation for Mayhew to safe Vole because he could not save his son.
At the same time, the film forms a significant difference in Mayhew’s perception of Mr. Vole’s wife, Romaine Heilger. Meeting her in the book, he thinks, “An extraordinary woman. A very dangerous woman…I don’t believe this woman” (Christie, 16). But in the adaptation, he sees a parallel between Romaine and his wife; he attends several Heilger’s performances and tries to improve his relationship at home. Consequently, these sub-plots created for the film deepen the emotional perception of the climax when the lawyer understands that he defended the murderer.
The story’s climax, when Mr. Mayherne learns the truth about the crime, deserves separate analysis because it directly influences his understanding and role in the plot. The BBC adaptation uses mutation shift towards the final reveal, including the reaction of the lawyer to the truth (Abdolahi and Mehrnoosh, 71). The book ends with Ms. Heilger’s words that her husband is guilty, and she knows it, while the film adds an even deeper exploration of the guilt in the character of Mr. Mayhew. After the reveal, there is more than regret for the justification of the murderer; Mayhew suffers from accusing innocent maid Janet Mackenzie, inability to forgive himself for his son’s death, and guilt for his wife’s unhappiness. Hence, there is a broader specter of meanings intertwined in the adaptation.
The film’s end is also the last parallel between the pairs of Mayhew and his wife and Vole and Romaine. Mr. Vole is a murderer, but his wife is devoted to and loves him despite the darkest events. At the same time, Mr. Mayhew is not guilty of his son’s death, but his wife cannot forgive him; no matter how hard he tries, she will not love him. These comparisons create an additional modification shift to the story (Abdolahi and Mehrnoosh, 70). They make viewers think about how the murder and trial affected the characters and how personal guilt may poison the life of an innocent person.
The film adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution, using different film technics, explores the central theme of guilt and innocence more universally and intensely than in the book. The viewer receives a direct visual story and still has to uncover the depth of the character’s motivations. The director shifts the perspectives by making the character of Mr. Mayhew more complex than Christie’s Mayherne and, at the same time, by questioning the contradicting concept of personal feelings through his personality.
Abdolahi, Mahsa, and Mehrnoosh Fakharzadeh. “Adaptation strategies in intersemiotic translation of suspense elements in detective novels.” Journal of Translation and Technical Communication Research, vol. 15 no. 1, 2022, pp. 63-79.
Christie, Agatha. The Witness for the Prosecution. Collins, 2017, ISSUU.
Davies, Andrew. “Adaptation: From Novel to Film.” WGBH Educational Foundation, 2011, pp. 15-21.
The Witness for the Prosecution, directed by Julian Jarrold, BBC, 2016.