This is the first in a series of posts about adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels. I’m an enormous fan of her books but also love tracking down various film, TV and audio book versions of her work. Hopefully, in these blogposts I’ll lead you to discover a few hidden gems but also look at the really iconic versions too. I think I had to start with the book that has the most number of notable adaptations – Murder on the Orient Express. There has been a resurgence of the ‘whodunnit’ particularly with films such as Knives Out. 2017 saw Kenneth Branagh take on Hercule Poirot and here I’m going to look at that version alongside some of the other notable films of the book. It was first serialised in 1933 in the US as Murder on the Calais Coach, and published in England as Murder on the Orient Express on New Years Day in 1934. It was to be the tenth outing for Hercule Poirot in full length book form (there had been four short stories as well) and would become the Agatha Christie novel most portrayed on screen.
The story was inspired by the real life abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s child who even after the ransom was paid, was sadly never returned. When Murder on the Orient Express was published the crime was still unsolved. Agatha Christie was also enormously influenced by her journeys on the famous train. She first travelled on the Orient Express in 1928, where she analysed all her fellow passengers and the interiors of the train in her usual forensic detail. The train was stranded in snow for six days in 1929 and she herself was stuck on-board in 1931 after the tracks were washed away in a flood.
Since it first hit the shelves, Murder on the Orient Express has seen numerous adaptations including three major films. There have been stage versions, TV productions and audio books. The BBC Radio 4 full dramatisation is available as a wonderful audio version (2004 recording) with John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot and, as with most versions, part of its allure is the fantastic cast, including Joss Ackland as Ratchett, Sylvia Sims as Mrs Hubbard, Sian Phillips as the Princess and Francesca Annis as Mary Debenham. A more recent radio version came out in 2017 on Audible (and is still available) with Tom Conti as Poirot and Sophie Okonedo as Miss Debenham this time. Art Malik is an excellent narrator. There is also a David Suchet version from 2006 in which he narrates the book but without using his ‘Poirot voice.’ Alongside these productions, there were many more including a 1966 Soviet radio version. In 2007, there was a graphic novel in French by Francois Riviere. There are also anime and manga interpretations – there being a rather large Agatha Christie following in Japan. And there is now even a computer game (released in 2006) based on the book and does, in fact, have David Suchet himself doing the Poirot voice-over. I also came across a very unusual travelogue from 1991 with Peter Ustinov who played Poirot on six occasions, but this is entitled Peter Ustinov on the Orient Express and features characters such as Mata Hari, Ernest Hemingway and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Poirot is not onboard. But it is the three major films that are the most prominent adaptations of the book and the ones I’m going to focus on. (There are other versions, some of which aren’t particularly very good, including one in 2001 starring Alfred Molina but many of the main characters have been cut, there are lots of plot changes and it was unfortunately not well received.)
The first major screen adaptation was in 1974 starring Albert Finney as Poirot alongside an impossibly star-studded cast. For decades, this was the gold standard in productions of Murder on the Orient Express and for many, still remains their favourite. It is fairly faithful to the plot involving Poirot boarding the eponymous train to London alongside a Russian Princess, an American widow, a gangster and numerous other characters who are thrown together for longer than they expected when the train becomes stuck in the snow. Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ are called upon when one of the passengers is brutally murdered by being stabbed twelve times. To say any more about the plot would be to ruin one of the most ingenious denouements of all time. However, this 1974 Sidney Lumet version was almost universally applauded. It received six Oscar nominations, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Greta Ohlsson, the seemingly committed missionary with a shadowy past. The rest of the cast reads as a Who’s Who of Hollywood – Sir John Gielgud who won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the long suffering butler to Richard Widmark’s ill-mannered gangster; Sean Connery is Colonel Arbuthnot; Lauren Bacall a fantastic Mrs Hubbard; Vanessa Redgrave plays Mary Debenham; and the inimitable Wendy Hiller is the epitome of a Russian Princess. Other cast members include Michael York, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset. At the age of eighty four, it was to be Agatha Christie’s last public appearance when she attended the premier. No adaptation came close to this until 2010.
When David Suchet stepped aboard the Orient Express, he was already well-known and loved as the Belgium detective in the long running TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (about which there will be much more in this blog series!) Again, this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is quite faithful to the book. There is an additional scene at the beginning involving the court martial of an army officer who takes his own life in front of Poirot, which isn’t in the book and presumably has been added to reinforce the emphasis on themes of justice and, most importantly, a higher, more moral justice. The ending also is slightly tinkered with as Poirot makes the decision as to which version of events should be told to the police rather than in the book the decision being left to the director of the line. There is, of course, a wonderful cast of stars in this version. Toby Jones is a wonderfully creepy Ratchett, Jessica Chastain takes on the Mary Debenham role and David Morrisey is Colonel Arbuthnot. Other great performances come from Barbara Hershey as a more retiring Mrs Hubbard than her predecessor; Hugh Bonneville plays the butler this time rather than the lord; and the wonderful Eileen Atkins is a fierce Countess Dragomiroff. It is a much more finely nuanced version than the 1974 film. Although there is the glamour of the journey and its passengers, there is less joie de vivre surrounding the brutal murder. There is no celebratory moment of clinking champagne glasses at the denouement as there was in the Finney version. Instead it ends on a much more sombre note with Poirot choking back his tears and doubting if he has done the right thing.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Poirot sheds no such tears. The frivolity is back to some degree, having the fastidious detective purposefully step in horse manure in the opening scenes to ensure both feet are equally covered. Again, the all-star cast is stronger than ever. Johnny Depp is a marvellously unhinged gangster; Michelle Pfeiffer a glamorous Mrs Hubbard; Sir Derek Jacobi is the butler; Daisy Ridley is the beautiful Miss Debenham this time; her love interest, Dr Arbuthnot, is wonderfully played by Leslie Odom Jr; Josh Gad is a very excellent Mr McQueen whose role is much more enhanced than in previous versions; Judy Dench is perfect as the Princess Dragomiroff, with Olivia Coleman giving an excellent performance as her ladies maid Hildegard Schmidt; and Willem Dafoe plays a slightly unconventional version of Gerhard Hardman. Interestingly, one of the more powerful performances is by Sergei Polunin as a very balletic and magnetic Count Andreyni. Tom Bateman’s character adaptation of the owner of the line has also been updated to make him the rather more sleazy nephew of the owner whom we first meet with a prostitute. Penelope Cruz takes on the role for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar, that of the emotionally damaged nanny, but in this production she is no longer Scandinavian and is now called Pilar Estravados (a name which incidentally comes from another Agatha Christie book, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.)
That’s not the only departure from the book in this movie. Again, the opening scene is changed to involve Poirot in a situation involving a theft by either a priest, a rabbi or an imam. This film’s slightly more playful nature is revealed from the very beginning when Branagh’s Poirot says this sounds like the start of a joke. But then there are some much more fundamental changes to the story which veer away from the original book. Other characters are changed too. Antonio Foscarelli is now Cuban not Italian; Dr Arbuthnot is a conflation of two characters – Dr Constantine and Colonel Arbuthnot. However, one of the most important changes which dramatically affects the flavour of the book is the nature of the train being stranded. There is a very Hollywood disaster with lightning hitting a snow-covered mountain and rather than simply being snowed in, the train is derailed. This allows for a major departure from the book – the people can get out and walk around. They are no longer suspended completely in this incredibly claustrophobic environment of the train but there are interviews conducted outside such as with Miss Debenham; there is a chase sequence between Poirot and Mr McQueen over the bridge supports; and the denouement is conducted in a train tunnel rather than in a train carriage. Although I’m not wholly in favour of losing that sense of claustrophobia it does admittedly lead to one of the most powerful images of this movie in the final sequence in which the suspects are aligned behind a long trestle table in a scene very much reminiscent of the painting of the last supper, adding again to this theme of judgement and betrayal. Without doubt, the visuals of this version are quite striking. This whole last sequence is dramatically different in flavour to previous adaptations and the book. It involves Poirot, wounded by a gun shot, inviting the guests to shoot him and one of them deciding to attempt to do so themselves. This is in place of the methodical setting out of the two possible scenarios and allowing the owner of the line to choose between them.
It is, however, Poirot himself and everything surrounding him that is in many ways a very new imagining of the character in this latest version. He has a whole new back story, having been asked to intervene in the original child kidnapping by the child’s father and being too late to assist – thus giving him a motivation to solve the case beyond his being a detective and a inviting a sense of guilt for Poirot. I’m not sure this is entirely necessary with Poirot. He doesn’t shy away from involving himself in murder cases and doesn’t really need a manufactured reason that Agatha Christie never felt the need to give him. Again, to enhance the character, Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot has a lost love called Katherine. This is entirely invented and I’m not sure this is necessary. There is very little mention of Poirot’s love life in the books except for Countess Vera Rossakoff who is a jewel thief and not mentioned in Murder on the Orient Express. We assume the lady in Kenneth Branagh’s photograph is dead (some critics have said it is a picture of Emma Thompson in her early years but that hasn’t been confirmed) but perhaps she’s just the one that got away and will feature in later films. (A version of Death on the Nile is planned for 2020.) I suppose it is all part of the humanising of Poirot that occurs in this film but has jarred with many purists.
However, there is much more of a departure with Poirot than changing a little of the backstory. This is the little Belgian detective re-imagined as a Hollywood action hero. He isn’t fat or, indeed, little. Hastings describes him as five foot four in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He does not have the ‘egg-shaped head’ Agatha Christie gave him. And he clearly does not use ‘Revivit’ to darken his grey hair, perhaps believing this might make him look slightly ridiculous to modern audiences. It is also not just the little grey cells he employs. He physically fights characters such as Mr McQueen. He is even shot. His walking stick is not for any difficulty with walking but is employed as a weapon. He is far more physically dynamic than Agatha Christie wrote him or any other actor has played him. There is nothing particularly wrong with such a departure only that at times it is so different that it is hard to imagine this isn’t simply Kenneth Branagh playing a hero rather than a small Belgian detective.
And then, of course, there is the moustache which Agatha Christie refers to very often in all its ‘tortured splendour’. It is a symbol of his extreme fastidious nature and, at times, his slightly ridiculous persona. Branagh’s moustache was nine months in research and development, going through all manner of examples ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Errol Flynn and even Kurt Russell. Finally, the ‘elaborate moustaches’ were constructed and held in place with rulers and strings. It is almost a character on its own and has definitely split opinion. Some have even said it resembles the man on a can of Pringles! Is it so important? I think it probably is. It is hard to get past it in every scene. It does bring a more fun, eccentric element to the character but does it tip too far into circus ringmaster? Perhaps. However, it’s worth remembering that it is referred to often in the books and in Murder on the Orient Express he is described as ‘a little man with enormous moustaches.’ As Poirot evolves through the novels and becomes more successful, his moustache does seem to grow in nature. It is arguable that by this novel it would be close to Mr Branagh’s version.
It was the one thing Agatha Christie found ‘a little bit disappointing’ about Albert Finney’s portrayal, that the moustache was not elaborate enough. And, let’s face it, anyone portraying Hercule Poirot does not want the word ‘disappointing’ to come from Agatha Christie herself. For myself, I think even though the movie is iconic, Finney is my least favourite portrayal of Poirot and not because of a lack of facial hair. He is an angrier, more aggressive version of the detective which does not at all ring true for me. His hair and look as a whole is more pitiful and strange, as though he might even be one of the more ambiguous characters himself.
David Suchet is a softer, more sympathetic Poirot generally and in the earlier episodes of the series there are some beautiful and sometimes comedic episodes involving himself and Hastings and Miss Lemon. However, in Murder on the Orient Express he too demonstrates a little of his tortured soul. But for this Poirot it is religion and specifically Catholicism that weighs heavily on him. His rosary is on his bedside table, not a photograph of a woman. He must implement God’s justice not just the human interpretation of it. We see him praying at the same time as Ratchett prays for protection from God, after Poirot has refused to watch over him. That is the night of the murder. The following morning Poirot on inspecting the body refers to him as a devil. Poirot cries at the end when the decision is made to follow the eye-for-an-eye solution, as if he has in some way violated God’s laws. This is the darker Poirot that comes in the end few films David Suchet made. He has more layers, regrets and doubts. He is almost priest-like in his conflicted devotion.
I think Kenneth Branagh also attempted to inject this element into the character but in a less religious manner. His is a belief in justice, that the scales of justice must have absolute balance. Any imbalance is as offensive to his eye as mismatched shoes, crooked ties or a pair of uneven eggs. This is an unshakeable dedication to the rule of law. Its perfection can only be maintained by strict adherence to its constructs. There can be no deviation. This version focuses on the Catch 22 question of what do you do when the law fails, when justice has not been done and, more importantly, when it has not been seen to be done. What do you do when a murderer walks away? Does that allow for more killing and if so can he then let a killer walk away as well?
Ultimately, they are three very different interpretations of Hercule Poirot and we will all have our favourites for a number of very personal reasons. For myself, although I fell in love with the glamour of the 1974 version and although I’m incredibly excited that Hollywood has rebooted the murder mystery with Kenneth Branagh, for me, David Suchet is Poirot. Every nuance and look is as though he has stepped out from the pages Agatha Christie wrote. Perhaps this comes from the familiarity of having watched him play the role for so many years. Perhaps from the fact that he has meticulously observed every description she gives of the great detective. That said, I’m still incredibly excited to see Kenneth Branagh’s next outing as Poirot in Death on the Nile. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too many Poirots!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, I’ve had have enormous fun writing it. Join me next time when I look at more adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work and how And Then There Were None has made the leap to the screen. If you don’t want to miss the next installment please feel free to click the subscribe button on the welcome page of this website. And if you’ve got any comments, suggestions or recommendations of adaptations, let me know.