If You Take Away All the Defining Characteristics of a Character, Can It Still Be the Same…

By  · Published on March 29th, 2011

If You Take Away All the Defining Characteristics of a Character, Can It Still Be the Same Character?

This is the poorly-worded question on my mind ever since reading that Jennifer Garner wants to produce and star in a movie that sees Agatha Christie’s famously elderly detective Miss Marple aged down by half.

For most characters, that’s an interesting prospect (think Young Indiana Jones), but Miss Marple is a character defined mainly by her age. She’s old, feeble-looking, and people take for granted that the can solve a murder before sundown. Changing her age changes her most striking surface-level characteristic.

So is it even Miss Marple anymore? Or is it just some young private investigator with a knack for success who’s wearing Miss Marple’s name tag?

Here’s the deal. Just like all other mystery novel heroes, Miss Marple has no other distinguishing characteristics except her age (and the wisdom and quirks that come with it). The points of her personality come directly from the fact that she’s an older woman. Sure, she has a keen mind and solves murders by noticing tiny details, but that’s essentially all iconic detectives. She just does it while knitting. And being old.

“It’s Miss Marple, but she’s young and sexy,” is like saying, “It’s Indiana Jones, but he’s not a daring adventurer with a knack for being an asshole,” or “It’s The Terminator, but instead of a robot from the future, he’s a dragon who loves ice skating.”

This isn’t a rant, exactly. It’s encouraging that someone out there sees a need for a “female Sherlock Holmes” to hit the scene, and while sexism has triumphed by defeating agism, it doesn’t seem like that’s much to really lose sleep over. At least not in this case.

However, there’s a true existential crisis here, and it’s all because of branding. Disney (like all other studios) cannot fathom creating a new character. It’s beyond their realm of thinking. However, that’s just what they’ll be doing here. They’re creating a brand new, young, female detective (who might even have a British accent) and simply calling her Miss Marple. To create a brand new, young, female detective and not slap a famous name on her scares them to death.

They no doubt want to create a franchise here, and as we all know, audiences will never, ever, ever latch onto a new character whose name they don’t recognize.

The funny thing here is that people who know Miss Marple will head to theaters and say, “Who the hell is that?” while those who don’t know the name will head to theaters and think, “What a stupid name.”

So who is this really serving again? Does Miss Marple really have the kind of name recognition that makes people go crazy for movie tickets?

You’ll notice I’m speaking purely in terms of box office potential, but that’s where the decisions get made these days. Garner could have easily wanted to play a female detective, or she may have been angling for Miss Marple this whole time because of the acting opportunity, but the thing is moving forward at Disney because someone sees dollar signs.

There’s the story possibility as well, though. Slapping Miss Marple’s name on this opens up the franchise to a ton of pre-written material to be adapted. They won’t even have to get someone to write original plots. Miss Marple can go on adventure after adventure right off the shelf.

Which actually excites me. I’ve written before about the need for more Agatha Christie adaptations. I just wish that we’d actually get to see Miss Marple instead of a young woman who randomly happens to share her name.

What say you?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.