Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Mourning Locomotive

"My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world."
"Murder on the Orient Express

A lot of the media we consume nowadays is an adaptation of some other work. I myself don't consider that a problem by the way. It has happened often that I read/watch/listen to an adaptation of a work I might not have consumed otherwise. It might be very difficult to procure the original work for example, or perhaps the format of the adaptation is much better accessible (for example, one film of two hours as opposed to having to read a six-hour novel). And sometimes, your initial interest in an adaptation was only piqued because of a certain name involved with the project, for example an actor. And while I certainly don't deny there are err... less optimal adaptations out there, I do think that the change in medium and format can often add new, surprising dimensions to a work. I don't often watch the Detective Conan animated TV series for example, because I prefer the pacing and artwork of the original comic, but some scenes definitely become much more engaging with the awesome voice-acting of the series.

The first time I ever experienced Agatha Christie's famous mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was with the 1974 theatrical adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet. I don't remember how old I was (I was quite young), but the film was on the television on a holiday afternoon, and I think I only started watching halfway through, but it really got me. I was already aware of Christie's egg-shaped detective Poirot through the TV series starring David Suchet, and it took some time for me to realize that the character Albert Finney was in fact the same Poirot, but by the time the denouement had started, I felt the the same wonder of surprise I felt when watching the Poirot TV series. I absolutely loved the whole setting, from its wonderfully diverse cast to the romantic, yet claustrophobic setting of a luxury train stranded in the snow and of course a classic Christie solution. Yes, the solution might be a bit too well known these days, but the way the story slowly plays with reader expectations as it moves towards the conclusion and the way the various characters play foil to each other is fantastic.

I have afterwards also read the original book, but have always kept a weak spot for the 1974 film as it really visualizes the grandeur of the setting really well and I love the denouement scene, which in my opinion has more drive, more energy than the original novel as Poirot reveals truth upon truth. Murder on the Orient Express might also be the work I've consumed the most adaptations of. The BBC Radio audio drama adaptation for example is a fantastic adaptation that is quite faithful to the original novel. I was quite disappointed in the adaptation for the Poirot TV series in 2010. While it definitely managed to set itself apart from the 1974 adaptation by focusing on Poirot's internal turmoil on the issue if murderering the victim, a ruthless child murderer, was a sinful crime or not, but it went way too far into the darkness for my taste. The Japanese 2015 adaptation for TV directed by Mitani Kouki consisted of two episodes. The first episode was entertaining, but far too close to the 1974 film. The second episode however did something that had not been done before: it was an inverted mystery story, which told how the murder on the Orient Express was planned and eventually executed. This second episode suited Mitani's style much better, as he mostly specializes in comedies about "backstage" settings (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald for example is about the antics going on during the live performance of a certain radio drama, while The Uchoten Hotel is about the most chaotic night ever at a hotel). This adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was not perfect perhaps, but definitely worth a watch and an exciting adaptation that truly added something new.

To be honest, I was not very enthusiastic when I first heard that 2017 would bring us a new theatrical adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. Recent adaptations of Agatha Christie's work were a bit of a hit or miss for me (And Then There Were None was a hit, Partners in Crime a miss) and I had already consumed so many adaptations of this story, could this new film directed by Kenneth Branagh actually bring something new to the table? In any case, there was a star-stud cast on board (of which Judi Dench definitely interested me the most), and it appeared to be a fairly faithful adaptation, in the sense that it would actually take place in the past, and not in contemporary times or the future. So I decided to bite the bullet, and watch it. For those not familiar with the story in any form (why have you have read until this point?): the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling back from Istanbul to Calais with the luxury train the Orient Express. On the second night one of his fellow passengers on the Calais Coach, a Mr. Ratchett, is horribly stabbed to death. It just so happens that the train stranded in the snow that same night and because all the coaches are kept locked in the night, the murderer must still be present in the Calais Coach, and Mr. Bouc, a director of the Wagon Lit and friend of Poirot, implores Poirot to figure out who of the remaining passengers on the Calais Coach is the murderer before the train is rescued and the police arrives.

As I said, my expectations were not very high, but I have to admit, I enjoyed this film more than I had expected. The first and most important thought on my mind was of course, can this adaptation bring something new, or at least something to set it apart from the other adaptations? And I think it does. First of all, it manages to find itself a nice spot right between the at times far too glamorous and lighthearted 1974 adaptation, and the into-the-depths-of-my-soul darkness of the 2010 Suchet TV adaptation. While I love the comedy of the 1974 film, and I think it also fits the atmosphere of the tale because many characters in the cast play off well against each other, I think the 2017 film manages to bring more gravitas to the story, without going overboard like the 2010 TV edition. The victim Ratchett is soon revealed as a horrible murderer himself, and while the 1974 film ends with basically a dinner party celebrating the man's death, the 2010 TV edition focuses extremely on Poirot's internal struggle on whether he himself should condemn the person who killed someone who is perhaps better of dead. The 2017 film focuses more on the effects the evil deeds of Ratchett had upon others, and it allows this film to actually address similar issues like the 2010 TV adaptation did, but without sounding too high-handed.

The 2017 film also does a good job at presenting the viewer with diversity to the eye. An often heard critique on the original story is that most of it consists of dry interviews by Poirot with the many, many suspects, so you get a long line of scenes of people telling their stories inside a small train. The 2017 film at least attempts to bring more variety, by changing up the background scenery of the scenes (one of the interviews is done outside the train for example) evey time, and through the streamlining of some of the interview scenes (the jumping might perhaps make the story slightly harder to grasp for someone not familiar with the original though). Poirot also makes some wild accusations at his suspects to rile them up, leading to a few early confrontation scenes that are not present in the original story, again to make the long middle part more exciting to watch. The effect of this is debatable: I actually think the denouement of this 2017 adaptation misses a bit of the energy the 1974 film had, because the revelations were more end-loaded there, resulting in a more impressive denouement scene, whereas in the 2017 film, it's fairly short and depends less on the mystery-solving, but other elements like visual allusions. This film is also interestingly not particularly gory or yelling bloody murder. In fact, you don't even get a good look at the body when it is first discovered, and even in the denouement scene, you don't really get a good look at how the actual stabbing of the victim is done. Despite the word murder in the title, the actual death of Ratchett is really not the focal point of the story, but into the effect he had on other people while in life.

Those who have seen the trailer, might also have noticed a few scenes that might appear like *gasp* action scenes. Poirot is certainly not a fighting Sherlock Holmes like Robert Downey Jr. portrayed the great detective, and the scenes in this film that actually involve people running or doing even something remotely strenous amount to perhaps to three, four minutes in total, but still it's weird to see Poirot in action scenes. Poirot is not portrayed even remotely as an action hero, mind you, but even the little things he does here feel a bit weird. Ah well, perhaps this is a slightly younger Poirot who still has some of the old policeman in him. And obviously, these "action scenes" are again to shake things up a bit in the middle part. Poirot himself works really well on the screen by the way, he's the compassionate seeker of truth and champion of justice you know from the books and other adaptations, and also has the streak of mischief and eccentricity that belongs to him.

I have no principal objections against changes when adapting a work, and you really have to go against what I think is the spirit of the original work before you hear me really complain. The Japanese 2015 adaptation was set in Japan for example, but still worked as the characters were still loyal to their original counterparts. That the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson is changed to a Latina missionary because she's played by Penélope Cruz in this film doesn't really bother me for example, especially not because her new name is actually borrowed from another Poirot story. A few new red herrings work out quite well too. Other changes are less troublesome, I think though. The characters of Doctor Constantine and Colonel Arbuthnot are merged in this film for example, but that doesn't work for me: Doctor Constantine was needed in the original story to give independent insight into the time of murder, because he could not have committed the murder. In the 2017 film, it's Dr. Arbuthnot who examines Ratchett even though he himself is one of the suspects, so that affects the strength of his testimony. The biggest problem however occurs during the denouement, when the murderer confesses to the crime and explains how it was commited from their point of view. I might've missed a line of dialogue somewhere, or perhaps the editing was not optimal, but the presentation at the very least made it seem like the order of certain events had been swapped in this film, which however renders most of the actions taken by the murderer quite meaningless! They were done for a certain reason in the original story, and all the other adaptations I know stuck to that, but by changing that detail, the reason for doing all those actions disappears, so it makes you wonder why those actions were taken anyway in this film. Perhaps I just missed a line though, and it's all my mistake (which I hope, as it'd be a rather big mistake in the plot).

Spoilers for Murder on the Orient Express (original novel and 2017 film) (Select to read):
In the 2017 film, it appeared like Linda Arden called for Michel and spoke French to him from Ratchett's compartment after they had killed him. In the original story however, that line was only spoken to fool Poirot into thinking Ratchett had already been dead by that time (as Ratchett couldn't speak French), which was during a period when everyone in the Calais Coach had an alibi. In truth Ratchett was murdered long after that line was spoken, when nobody had an alibi. In the 2017 film however, it appears the crime was committed in the wrong time period.
End Spoilers

Oh, and something on Poirot's mustache in this film. It looks ridiculous, almost grotesque, but it's surprisingly not really distracting or even that present once the film gets going. What bothered me was the inconsistency in how they treated in the film however. Why would Poirot put on a mustache-cover when he sleeps one night, but not the other?

Some final thoughts. I think this 2017 adaptation works despite, or perhaps because of some of its idiosyncrasies. It feels unique enough an adaptation of a work that has been adapted many times and I think it will also be an entertaining view for people not familiar with the original story, or even Poirot himself. The film ends with a reference to another famous Poirot novel, that might or might not be adapted at some time I guess, though my personal recommendation would be The Big Four. Oh man, a straight adaptation of The Big Four would be a hoot, and also have enough action, plot twist and charismatic characters to suit a theatrical release, and I think this Poirot, as played by Kenneth Branagh, would actually be able to fit that story.


  1. at least we have "crooked house" to look forward to in 2018 (iirc).

    i am just tired of the remakes of the same christie stories. there are so many underrated gems in her huge collection. i just feel like this particular adaptation of orient express was unnecessary.

    oh well.

    1. It's obvious why they go for the big titles of course (and they do often rank among the best of Christie's output for related reasons), but yeah, it would be nice to see some the non-usual suspects. I wouldn't go as far as deem the new Murder on the Orient Express unneccesary, but I sure would have been more exited going in if I had been my The Big Four film :P Though I have to admit, I don't think all of Christie's work would benefit from a theatrical release, some stories, due to scale, just fit better for the smaller screen I think (in case of a video adaptation).

  2. Personally,I liked this Film.The movie was shot very well.It had a artistic feel to it which is uncommon in mystery genre(where most scenes are dark & gloomy ).Death On the Nile has got the thumbs up.Expected to release in 2019.As for the Big Four ,The Tv series made a mess of it.So a film adaptation would be nice.I want hollywood to adapt And Then There Were None with an ensemble cast & be true to the story.Not like the BBC version.