Disney has a long history of turning classic stories into mass-market products. Walt himself drew the teeth out of dark folktales, and gave us “happily ever after” in place of tradition, meaning, and complexity. So it should come as no surprise that Disney has recently announced a “reboot” of Agatha Christie’s classic sleuth, Miss Marple. In the new Disney version, Miss Marple will be given a “young spin” by Jennifer Garner.
So what? Why does this matter? To answer those questions, let’s take a step back and look at Miss Marple – the original Marple conceived of by Agatha Christie. For those who aren’t mystery readers she probably occupies a vague spot in the cultural consciousness with the words elderly, spinster, and detective somehow coming together to form a picture of an old busy body, hunched over her knitting, popping up occasionally to solve a convoluted crime. And that vague impression is what Disney hopes to counter with Jennifer Garner. But Miss Marple should be a more important figure for women than that caricature suggests.
Agatha Christie began writing Miss Marple stories in 1927 and continued to do so regularly until 1971. Jane Marple was indeed a spinster who loved gardening and knitting, but more importantly she was an iconoclast. Jane Marple was a woman who defied both convention and expectation. Any woman of advanced middle age in mid 20th century England (or America for that matter) would have been seen as someone to be indulged, condescended to, dismissed, but never as a person capable of challenging the authority of men.
Jane Marple subverted the social structure by using those expectations against the very people she was trying to catch. She lured suspects into divulging secrets, feigned innocent concern when digging for information, and on many occasions used the camouflage of the old, pottering, spinster to uncover vital information. Her chief weapon against the schemes of brutal murderers was her keen intellect so cunningly disguised.
The murderers she helped to catch disrupted the social order with the chaos of their crimes. They upset the comfortable civility that living in a common society allows us. Jane Marple helped repair the order by finding the truth and bringing justice, but what makes her such a brilliant character is that in the end we are left with Agatha Christie’s unsettling subtext — if that social order was true and right, then a woman like Jane Marple shouldn’t be possible. Through Jane Marple, Agatha Christie questioned society’s restrictions on what women were capable of.
By “re-imagining” the older Jane Marple as a young Jennifer Garner, Disney negates much of Agatha Christie’s powerful message by promoting the all too common Hollywood message that a woman’s worth is judged first and foremost by her physical appearance. Jane Marple will no longer stand as an example of the many different ways women can be masterful and powerful. Instead she will become just another example of how the media driven cult of beauty marginalizes the beautiful minds and spirits of all women. Scheming, ruthless murderers couldn’t stop Jane Marple, but Disney has casually cut the heart out of an enduring feminist role model.