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Goodnight, Miss Marple—Agatha Christie Is Taking a Dark Turn

LONDON—One character has his throat slit at a blood-spattered family reunion, another drinks hydrochloric acid served in a water glass and a girl poisons her grandfather because he won’t pay for ballet lessons.

On paper, Agatha Christie staged some of the world's grimmest homicides, springing from greed, rage and unrequited love. On screen, though, adaptations of her stories have largely been bloodless, orderly, English drawing-room puzzles. Some call the murder mysteries “cozy crime.”

“One of my least favorite words is ‘cozy,’” says James Prichard, Ms. Christie’s great-grandson. “It just feels wrong. You can’t have ‘cozy’ crime.”

In 2015, Mr. Prichard took over from his father the chairmanship of the author’s estate, Agatha Christie Ltd., and with that authority has steered the latest TV adaptations in a darker, more menacing direction.

A married couple sits silently over dinner in a recent BBC production of Ms. Christie’s 1925 short story “The Witness for the Prosecution.” Then the wife slowly drives a sewing needle into her thumb. Neither man nor wife flinches.

In this latest version, the murder victim, described in the original story as a “rich old lady,” is reimagined as a sultry widow and played by “Sex and the City” actress Kim Cattrall. In one scene, Ms. Cattrall sits on the edge of a bathtub and feeds her lover strips of meat.

“None of that is Agatha Christie, all the sex and violence and blood,” says Dublin-basedJohn Curran. He previously edited the Official Agatha Christie Newsletter and wrote two books on the author’s work.

“I’m a purist when it comes to Agatha Christie,” Mr. Curran says. “Everybody knows if you cut your throat there’s going to be a lot of blood, so you don’t really need to see it, do you?”

The 2015 adaptation of Ms. Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None,” a tale that begins with a group of people summoned to an isolated island haunt, shows nervous breakdowns and explicit killings by pipe, knife and ax.

Author Agatha Christie in the 1950s. PHOTO: ADVERTISING ARCHIVE/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

Ms. Christie, the author of 66 detective novels and 14 short-story collections, is the best-selling fiction writer of all time, according to Guinness World Records. Since her death in 1976, Ms. Christie also has reigned as the queen of family TV in the U.K., her stories largely cast as cerebral dramas.

Fans debate the merits of various screen adaptations, often aired around Christmas, when they gather at Christie festivals, including the annual affair in the author’s hometown of Torquay, Devon. Many say the older TV versions, often centered on the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot or the grandmotherly Jane Marple, deliver the essence of Ms. Christie’s storytelling.

People are killed, of course. But the murders are reliably solved by Miss Marple, between knitting and bird-watching. She lives in the fictional village of St. Mary Mead, in a cottage surrounded by roses, and chips away at the mysteries while dressed in no-nonsense shawls.

Dick Fiddy, TV archivist at the British Film Institute, said some of the earlier adaptations were nostalgic, “like a travelogue for a lost England.”

The Christie estate had a motive for its violent turn. By 2013, it had adapted nearly every one of the Marple and Poirot detective novels for TV. “We were kind of staring down the barrel of ‘What do we do now?’” says Mr. Prichard, the chairman.

The estate turned its attention toward Ms. Christie’s single-title works, those without detectives, and pushed for a literary update in the vein of the edgy hit TV series “Sherlock.”

“People have got very used to Agatha Christie,” Mr. Prichard says. “When something becomes part of the furniture, people don’t look at it properly.”

He found new blood in screenwriter Sarah Phelps. She had never read a Christie mystery and said she grew up thinking they were all “village greens and spinsters on bicycles and twitching curtains.”

Ms. Phelps was asked by a TV production company to read “And Then There Were None.” In the book’s gallows humor and nasty wit, she says, she found Ms. Christie had “a real sense of the English proclivity for savagery.”

The first episode of Ms. Phelps’s BBC adaptation drew 9.5 million viewers in the U.K. when it aired in late 2015. A year later, her remake of “Witness” had more than eight million viewers. (U.S. viewers can see both on Acorn TV, a streaming service.)

The estate has since signed off on seven new BBC adaptations for the next four years. In November, 20th Century Fox plans to release a film version of “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Mr. Prichard, 46 years old, fends off critics by arguing the new productions capture the spirit of his great-grandmother’s original work. “This has always been there, in the books,” he says. “There’s a definite darkness there.”

The older TV adaptations cleaned up the mysteries to “turn them into gentle puzzles,” says Middlesex University’s Jamie Bernthal, who is co-organizing a summer conference, “Agatha Christie: A Reappraisal. “The newer ones are quite willing to shock us, which Christie also did.”

Though some longtime fans aren’t fully on board, Mr. Bernthal says both arguments have merit.

“These are stories in which people die,” he notes. “It’s easy to forget that.”