Here’s a copy of the article I wrote for Red Herrrings that was originally published by https://thecwa.co.uk. Surprisingly, it’s all about my love of the Golden Age of fiction and Agatha Christie! I hope you enjoy it and have a lovely day.
Welcome to the second instalment of my blog series on adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and today I’m going to be looking at And Then There Were None. As you’ll see from my photographs here, this was based on Burgh Island off the Devon coast and very close to where I am. The causeway floods with the tide meaning you cannot walk on or off the island at certain times and Agatha Christie was inspired by this place to write And Then There Were None. Sadly, it wouldn’t really have proved adequate isolation for the purposes of this book as it isn’t flooded for very long so the guests could have walked off and, unlike in the novel where the island is said to be a mile off the coast, it is very easy to swim from the island back to the mainland. There’s even a water taxi which is an elevated platform raised up on a tractor that can take you to and fro when the tide is in and a very excellent pub, The Pilchard, where you can wait for the tractor or stay there and have a drink until the tide goes out. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place and I go there very often, not just to The Pilchard. It provided inspiration for this novel and Evil Under the Sun. Agatha Christie even had her own writing place there and bedrooms at the Burgh Island Hotel celebrate the author. It is all very evocative of the era. There is an excellent book all about the hotel and Burgh Island called The Great White Palace by Tony Porter, a previous owner who was responsible for bringing it back to all its art deco glory.
This is possibly Agatha Christie’s most famous book and is the greatest selling mystery novel of all time. It’s no surprise then that it is the novel with the most adaptations of it. However, I mentioned in my last post, which was noted by an eagle-eyed reader, that Murder on the Orient Express has the most ‘notable’ adaptations. There have certainly been more adaptations of And Then There Were None but sadly many of these are very far from notable. To include them all here would make this a very long post indeed and would involve a considerable number of unusual and not terribly good productions. So, I’m going to focus on the most notable and interesting adaptations of this book but do please let me know of any obscure ones or well-loved ones. After the last post, I had some wonderful messages telling me about French re-workings, spin-offs and gorgeous books all related to the original. I’m hoping to be sent many more!
I’d also like to add that, as a murder mystery writer myself, one of my least favourite things is of course spoilers. Sometimes unfortunately these are inevitable and I’m afraid this has been one of those occasions. I’ve found that the various interpretations of plotting, particularly approaches to the ending, have meant that it really is impossible to talk about this book and how it’s been filmed or staged over the years without mentioning key aspects of the plot and spoilers. I did think though that not many people would read a post about this book without having read it or at least having seen one of the adaptations. If you haven’t, I would advise you to stop reading now as it is one of, if not the most, ingenious endings of all time. Please read it. You won’t be disappointed!
At the very end of the novel in an epilogue that never sees the light of day other than in the book, Judge Wargrave writes the denouement in a message in a bottle that is later discovered after the police cannot solve the crimes. In that he says, ‘It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.’ And that is exactly right. This is the ultimate murder mystery and yet there is no detective, everyone dies and it is entirely ambiguous as to who the ‘bad’ guy really is. It is not just a ‘whodunnit’ but an examination of the nature of justice itself, an examination of the darker sides of humanity. It is the story of a man who lures various people to an island and kills them one by one. They have all done bad deeds that have led to the deaths of others. In the last post, I discussed Poirot’s motivations and his inner conflict which is portrayed in very different ways in the various adaptations. Justice and whether it is seen to be done is a strong theme here too, particularly that moral, higher form of justice that often stands outside the law, which is sometimes untouchable by our legal systems. The judge himself tells us in his message in a bottle ‘confession’ that he began secretly collecting victims who had all committed some form of deliberate act that led to death but were ‘all quite untouchable by the law.’ In some respects, Judge Wargrave is the crusading moral avenger but this book is a much darker analysis of his motivations than that. Just as Poirot has been interpreted as being torn by the need to observe the law yet admit that the law can sometimes fail, the Judge appoints himself as the court, jury and executioner of these people who sit in the grey area of culpability. However, unlike Poirot, this judge relishes the role. As a judge he enjoyed watching people slowly approach their doom ‘suffering the tortures of the damned.’ He tells us, ‘I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death.’ And there is a sadistic pleasure he takes from this new cat and mouse game. If not, then why the game at all? It is entirely within his gift once they are on the island, to simply kill each person one by one without the need for poems and elaborate deaths that fit the wording of each line. He tells us, ‘I have wanted – let me admit it frankly – to commit a murder myself.’ He is torn, just as Poirot is, but in an entirely different way. He is hampered by his ‘strong sense of justice’ too but only that ‘The innocent must not suffer.’ In the book, we are even told that each death forms part of a detailed hierarchy of guilt. ‘Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first.’ This is a careful structure that observes every detail. One aspect of which is often avoided. The judge himself, under his new warped moral system of guilt, is in fact an innocent as far as Edward Seton is concerned. If we believe that Seton was as guilty of heinous crimes as the judge tells us, that the judge influenced the jury for the reason that this man should be punished for his crimes, just as those on the island should, then the judge cannot be the tenth victim and his scheme is flawed. There must be ten victims. The book deals with this in that Isaac Morris is killed. This shady character is often excluded from adaptations and is not on the island. He in fact organises the secret purchase of the island and the administrative matters. He meets with Lombard to pay him to go. He is a drug dealer and was responsible for inducing a daughter of the judge’s friends to take drugs which led to her suicide. Again, a death for which this man could not be prosecuted but the judge hunts him down and kills him. Even Lombard says it in the book, ‘There are crimes that cannot be brought home to their perpetrators.’ The focus on the judge and his enactment of a justice that our system does not allow for is the very centre of this book but is so rarely at the core of the adaptations.
This is partly due to the fact that there are two forms of the story, both of which were written by Agatha Christie. The first is, of course, the book with it’s many layers of the nature of justice and guilt. The second is the stage play. When she was approached by people who wanted to adapt it, Agatha Christie insisted on writing it herself and took two years to do so. What she decided upon, however, was to change the ending and allow Vera Claythorne and Phillip Lombard to escape together and fall in love. She, and those staging the play, didn’t think audiences would be very attracted to a play that is so dark and in which every character dies. So we have two versions of this story and hence a multitude of adaptations springing from those.
The play version she wrote was first staged in 1943 and was noted for having a scary atmosphere, particularly with the storm raging around it. This was perhaps added to by the fact that the theatre it was staged in, St James’s, was bombed and it had to be moved. This play about isolation which heavily references the army and war was staged during the second world war with all the fear, isolation and suspicion of others that dominated England. An inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp wrote to Agatha Christie after the war to say they staged the play whilst in the camp and it ‘sustained them.’ The book itself was published at the outset of the war (1939) and remains a very strong theme throughout. Almost all the characters have some link to the military theme. The Judge himself is Justice Wargrave; Lombard is a Captain, of sorts; General Macarthur is an army man and, indeed his crime is to send a man out to death in battle; Emily Brent’s father was a colonel of the old school who knew Macarthur; Blore even considers being a colonel as his alternate persona; Mr U.N. Owen is referred to as ‘The Unknown Soldier’ in the book. These are characters who have been through one war and are being thrown into another. This is a world where death has been commonplace and so many lives have been lost that individual deaths have fallen through the cracks. Judge Wargrave is attempting to redress that. He is in some ways an avenging angel or demon. When Vera and Lombard are talking towards the end of the book, Vera says, ‘I read a story once – about two judges that came to a small American town – from the Supreme Court. They administered justice – Absolute justice. Because – they didn’t come from this world at all…’ Lombard replies to her, ‘Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.’ Judge Wargrave would agree. When Emily Brent says Mrs Rogers’ death could be an Act of God, he replies, ‘Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals.’
The most recent high profile stage adaptation of the novel was the Kevin Elyot version directed by Steven Pimlott in 2005 at the Gielgud Theatre, London and I was fortunate enough to see it. This version restored the book ending in which no one escapes and also decided that audiences could take a much higher degree of gore alongside that. Tara Fitzgerald was notably an excellent Vera, both glamorous and flawed. It was also a very classic stage set echoing the era. Sadly, it did not have a long run.
The first film version is also very evocative of a stage set, the interiors of the house having a distinct Mousetrap feel to them. This 1945 Rene Clair film used the play version with its alternative, rather more upbeat ending. The Dudley Nichols screenplay is overall a much more playful version of the story than the novel. Rather than being frightening or dark, this film is somewhat tongue in cheek at times. There is no real search for perfect human justice or the analysis of that. In fact, at times it has almost an element of farce to it, with the country house setting and the comedic fluting music. Rogers, the butler, gives a bizarre turn when he decides to get drunk and stumbles around serving dinner to the bemused guests before announcing he’s going to sleep in the woodshed. The cast is a good one with the wonderful Judith Anderson (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) playing Emily Brent but even she has to deliver lines such as, ‘Very silly to kill the only servant. Now we don’t even know where the marmalade is.’ In this version it is her nephew who has died after she orchestrated him being sent to a reform school where he hanged himself. Barry Fitzgerald is a very soft, homely Judge Francis J. Quinncannon who dies with the words ‘Never trust a woman’. And Walter Huston is a stiff Dr Edward G. Armstrong. General Macarthur is renamed as he was for the original play, given that there was in fact a very famous namesake in America at the time, and is now called General Mandrake (played by C. Aubrey Smith). There are a multitude of deviations from the plot, including a secret ballot, snooker used as a metaphor and Blore being killed by a falling bit of the house. Perhaps the most astounding character is Prince Nikita who replaces the role of Marston. He is played by the Russian actor Mischa Auer who puts in a remarkable performance that borders on music hall. He staggers around shouting and dramatically plays the piano before he collapses dead. I personally find this film, even allowing for the fact that it was made towards the end of the war on a tight budget, very far from the book and a bit of a bizarre version. However, for many it is iconic. Reading through reviews, many say how wonderful it is, that it evokes an old school Hollywood glamour of yesteryear and it is many people’s favourite movie. One review I read said it was heaven and changed his life! I suppose there is a version of And Then There Were None for everyone out there.
There have certainly been a huge number of TV, film and audio adaptations that have taken the story in all manner of directions since that first film. The most recent audio version is a full dramatization in which Cyril (the dead boy who drowns as a result of Vera) introduces a number of the characters from beyond the grave. Geoffrey Whitehead is the stand-out character in this, playing the retired judge with just the right amount of gravitas and cruelty (not his first outing as a retired judge having played a wonderful one in The Worst Week of My Life.)
There have been a multitude of films made in different locations that not only play with setting but the storyline as well. Harry Alan Towers oversaw the production of three different versions in 1965, 1974 and finally in 1989. The first, in 1965 which was directed by George Pollock saw Shirley Eaton and Leo Genn amongst the cast marooned on a snowy mountain with the voice of Christopher Lee telling them of their fates.
The second outing in 1974, Towers set in the deserts of Iran at an abandoned hotel. This had an all-star cast including Oliver Reed as Lombard who supposedly killed a young woman pregnant with his child; Richard Attenborough as Judge Cannon; Elke Sommer as Vera; and Herbert Lom as the doctor. Charles Aznavour is Michel Raven an entertainer who was responsible for killing people when he was drink driving.
The final setting for these Towers’ films is a safari version in 1989 which saw Herbert Lom star again but this time as General Romensky. This film also follows the play version with the two escaping. Donald Pleasance makes an excellent judge in this version.
Over the years, there have been so many adaptations in all sorts of locations and all manner of new characters and plot twists. There have been video games, a wii version and graphic novels. Interestingly, the first film adaptation to keep the novel’s ending was a Russian version as late as 1987. However, the most notable adaptation of recent years has, of course, been the 2015 mini-series written by Sarah Phelps. This was not without its controversy.
It was shown over three separate episodes to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth and gained six million viewers. This version followed the book’s ending up to the point of all the characters being killed but it did not show the epilogue of the book with the police officers going through the dead people’s diaries and notebooks trying to work it out and the later finding of the message in the bottle from Judge Wargrave explaining what he’d done and how he’d gathered the victims. Instead, the judge sets it all out to Vera as she stands with her head in the noose.
Charles Dance gives a magnificent portrayal of Judge Wargrave with the perfect mixture of authority, dignity and threat. He has the ‘reptilian smile’ Agatha Christie gave him in the book. He is that ‘playful beast’ of the book, patiently watching and analysing their fear, ‘quite passionless and inhuman.’ ‘God Almighty’ as Lombard calls him. He sits in judgement and the room becomes his court room, just as it does in the book. He has, as Agatha Christie says, ‘the dispassionate stare of a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance.’ (Something that resonates for me and that I have seen many times as a criminal barrister.) Incidentally, when interviewed Charles Dance said he rarely reads the book before appearing in an adaptation as it’s very unhelpful and counter-productive when an actor comes on set with his well-thumbed copy of the book and all his ideas of what the adaptation’s character should look like.
It is a stellar cast for this production. Toby Stephens is a magnificent Dr Armstrong, with his erratic, nervous energy and guilt-ridden dreams. He is as Agatha Christie describes him in the book, ‘in a pitiable condition of nerves. He twitched and his hands shook.’ Also, ‘Every now and then he broke out into a torrent of nervous speech.’
Miranda Richardson is wonderful as the sanctimonious, religious Emily Brent and ‘thinks she’s God’s instrument.’ Her scene with Mrs Rogers, played wonderfully by Anna Maxwell Martin, is so painfully excruciating and awkward it echoes her vicious dealings with the girl whose death she caused. Again, as a character she is very quick to point out the reason for the girl’s death was ‘her own sin.’ This sticks fairly faithfully to the book. The girl drowns herself in the book rather than being hit by a train. It is undoubtedly Emily Brent’s fault but could she be prosecuted and found guilty? No. This fits the template for Wargrave’s actions in the book. However, that is not the case for all the characters.
Herein lies the problem with a number of characters in Sarah Phelps’s version. There crimes have been somewhat changed. For instance, the excellent Sam Neill takes on the part of General Macarthur (his name restored to the original). He plays it wonderfully and with the detached resignation that they will never get off the island. However, rather than send his wife’s lover to certain death in battle, he shoots him in the head. This is obviously a direct action for which he could be tried by a court and, at that time, hanged. This does not fit with the idea of the book that there are some crimes which lead to death and go unpunished because they are too much in a grey area or beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps it could not be proved but that is a stretch. In the book, the Judge finds out about the incident from two old military men in his Club. It was known about.
It is not just that character whose crimes are pushed up a level and therefore may not fit with the Judge’s scheme. Mr and Mrs Rogers in the book negligently don’t give medicine to the sick lady in their care because they stand to inherit some money from her. Mr Rogers goes for the doctor but it is too late. It is this doctor who puts the seed of the idea in Judge Wargrave’s head by casually mentioning the case of the old lady where he was convinced the restorative drug had been withheld but that it must happen often that ‘murder must be committed which the law was unable to touch.’ In the Sarah Phelps’s version there is the distressing scene of Mr Rogers smothering the old lady with a pillow and a great deal of vicious force. This is murder, pure and simple. There is no grey area for Justice Wargrave to mop up. They could very easily be prosecuted for her murder.
Blore’s crime in this version is perhaps the most vile. As a police officer, he viciously attacks and beats a young man who is gay until the man is dead in a custody cell. Blore at one point breaks down admitting that he turned the boy’s head to pulp by stamping on it. The viewer, for these purposes is the jury in Wargrave’s court or at least the public gallery and it is presented to us vividly. In the book, Blore commits an act of perjury which leads to Landor being sent to Dartmouth Prison where he later dies. It is undoubtedly, morally Blore’s fault but no jury in the land could convict him of the man’s murder. That is why Wargrave acts. Again, perhaps we can almost give the benefit of the doubt. In those days, would an officer have been able to get away with beating a man to death in the cells? That’s what we’re being asked but perhaps we are asked too many times with too many characters to stretch that thought – that these people would never be able to be punished in the normal manner. Blore’s punishment is to be killed by the polar bear rug, presumably covering the killer, instead of a clock falling on his head which is shaped like a bear.
Finally, there is of course Aidan Turner playing Lombard. In the book, he left people to die who undoubtedly starved to death. However, in this version he is seen prowling a village covered in blood having slaughtered them all. Again, we are asked to think this man indirectly committed a base act that the law does not provide for. Perhaps, given that he is a mercenary this would have been difficult to prosecute him for, but again it stretches our idea of what is ambiguous for the law.
Clearly, this is a much darker version than any that have gone before. The most controversial scene is the party scene in which Lombard, Vera, Dr Armstrong and Blore decide to get very drunk and take Marston’s cocaine. It’s a drug fuelled dance shot in a disorientating manner that sees them morph into laughing, vile caricatures. This was the BBC Christmas Christie showing close ups of the drugs being inhaled and a lot of people said it was very out of character for an Agatha Christie adaptation. In an interview, Sarah Phelps did note some points of disquiet that the BBC had where she had to back down, in particular one executive said a certain word was too far even for this dark version saying, ‘You cannot have c**t at Christmas.’
But does it go to far? That’s the question. I think not. It is all there in the book and this is a very dark book indeed. No one starts out as an innocent. No one survives. Agatha Christie very carefully sends them spiralling down into instinctive, selfish creatures with each fresh horror. Again and again they are referred to as animals. She says, ‘They were reverting to more bestial types.’ There is no shortage of alcohol swilling around, at least two of the crimes have been committed directly as a result of drunkenness. Drugs are openly referred to as leading to the death of more than one character (Isaac Morris and the daughter of the judge’s friends). At one point in the book when death is all around, Vera says, ‘We’re the zoo… Last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the zoo…’
Indeed, many of the characters are in fact referred to as being animalistic in nature. Lombard in particular is more than once referred to as wolf-like with his long teeth. At the end, Vera says he has a wolf’s face with those terrible teeth. Previously, he is referred to as being like a panther. Aidan Turner plays it perfectly, that mixture of a laid back, laconic man who is ready to attack at any moment and won’t hesitate to kill. Again, his character’s relationship with Vera has been criticised but let’s not forget that Agatha Christie re-wrote the original book to be staged in a version where they fell in love and got away together. It is definitely an aspect of the book, as is the much talked about towel scene where they all strip down to have their rooms searched. Many viewers found this too gratuitous but it is most definitely there in the book. The men all strip in the book and their rooms are systematically searched. Vera is also required to wear only her red bathing suit whilst her room is searched.
Although there are some obvious deviations from the book, this is a meticulously put together version. The sets are beautifully designed and echo not only the time but the foreboding and isolation. For instance, the paintings hanging in the rooms are Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where we only see the skull at a certain angle and which heavily influenced the colour scheme for the library, and Merry-Go-Round by Gertler, showing the unnerving game of it all. The poems in each of the rooms are designed with a Whistler style edging that references the characters in the house. Each of the marvellous small, green figurines, reminiscent of Matisse, was commissioned and sculpted to represent each of the characters, so Marston is vanity, Wargrave’s is judgemental. Sadly, it wasn’t filmed on Burgh Island but then they would just have been able to swim to shore. It is set in Cornwall (Poldark country of course) and Harefield House in Hillingdon where beautiful art deco features such as the clock where made especially for the filming.
But primarily, in spite of some of the plot changes, I believe, it is faithful to the underlying feel of the book more than any other version. It is the only adaptation I have ever seen that is frightening and disorientating in the way the book achieves that feeling of desperation and isolation. As with the book, you are drawn into their prison like world and you are scared. Just like them, you feel that sense of nervous claustrophobia. Even if you know what’s coming next, it still shocks. You delve down to the bottom of these people’s moral condition, the kind of people who admit to these terrible, cruel crimes. But most of all you know that when the General says no one is getting off this island, he is right. That abandonment with nothing but death all around you, no heroes and no way out is very beautifully and perfectly captured.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the adaptations of And Then There Were None. I’d love to know what you think. I very much enjoyed the various discussions last week and it’s fantastic to know everyone else’s opinion on the adaptations. So far, we’ve had a Poirot and a standalone, so I thought next week we really must visit St Mary Mead for one of my very favourite Miss Marple books – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. You can subscribe to an email alert from me when each one arrives by using the button on the front of my website if you would like to. Have a lovely week and thank you for reading.
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.
I hope you are all keeping well, safe and sane in these dark and difficult times. I hope you are managing to stay in some form of contact with your loved ones, family and friends. I hope you are still finding some joy in your lives or at least some comfort.
If you need a bit of something to fill a hole in the day or just to switch off to and let the words flood over you as you gently drift off to sleep, here is me reading the first chapter of my book. I won’t be having the traditional form of book launch or touring around reading extracts from my book. But what that does mean is you can nod off without feeling guilty because I can’t see you.
With thanks to the sound dept. (Mr. K. J. Dowd) without whom I’d still be talking into my website on the iPad wondering why it wasn’t appearing.
Enjoy. Stay safe, happy and well.
I’m absolutely thrilled to have a mention in the New Members’ section of Red Herrings, the Crime Writers’ Association magazine. What a lovely piece and such a great organisation. Roll on the gala dinner!
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a member of the Crime Writers’ Association. It has been going since 1953 and is only open to authors with a traditional publishing contract for a crime novel. They have members all over the world and are famous for awarding the incredibly prestigious Daggers. So today, to be made a member means the world to me. It was a real moment to be sent the members’ logo to use and be given access to the secret on-line areas open only to Crime Writers. They are such a wonderful group of people and everyone has been so lovely. The best thing about it all is I almost feel like I can call myself a crime writer… almost.
There’s a very lovely piece in the Barnes Bugle about the wonderful world of Barnes Bookshop. This is a truly great, independent bookshop with the lovely Venetia Vyvyan and her team who are all so knowledgeable about books of all different genres. It’s one of those amazing little kingdoms where you can quite happily spend the best part of the afternoon browsing the books and chatting about all things from books to local intrigues. This is a fantastic article that shows how precious our independent bookshops are and also, if you read down far enough, mentions local authors, even the ‘new young talent.’ Thank you lovely Venetia and Sarah Arthur at the Barnes Bugle.
On Saturday I was very honoured and surprised to be awarded the Gothic Short Story award for 2019. It was a wonderful day hosted by some amazing people, including Vanni Cook who is organising the Go Gothic festival which is utterly fantastic and features some brilliant authors. It was judged in two rounds by various academics and writers, including Professor Nick Groom who is Professor of Gothic literature at Exeter University and goes by the very wonderful title Prof of Goth! He has just written the Oxford University Press Guide to Gothic and has edited the new edition of Frankenstein by Oxford University Press. So I was very privileged to have my work read by him and to meet him at the presentation.
It was an international short story award with entries from many countries but I chose to set my story closer to home, in Tavistock, Devon. It’s based around the legend of Lady Howard who is said to haunt the area around her old home. She is often cast in tales as a ‘wicked lady’ style of character as she outlived her four husbands. However, I looked behind the myth at the real woman, who lived a torrid life as the daughter of a violent man, who was sold as a young woman and ended up married to a very unpleasant husband who was violent and spent much of her fortune. This inspired me to reimagine the legend of this woman. Probably the most thrilling aspect of her legend though is that she is said to ride out in a carriage made from the bones of her husbands with one of their skulls on each corner. It is one of the many wonderful tales that have ancient origins around the incredibly atmospheric Dartmoor. She is often portrayed as having a black hound (or whisht hound) with her that has red eyes. If that sounds familiar, it was the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I’ve attached a copy of my story, Vengeance and the Doctor. I hope you like it.
This rather lovely literary arts magazine which is out bi-annually has published one of my short stories. I’m absolutely thrilled, not least because it is a beautiful publication with some wonderful, talented writers, but also, this piece, entitled Rule Britannia, is very close to my heart. It was inspired by one of my favourite authors, Daphne du Maurier, and a book she wrote in 1972 entitled Rule Britannia. Her book is set in an imagined near future where the UK’s recent withdrawal from the EEC brings the country to the brink of bankruptcy and leads to an American warship being stationed in a bay in Cornwall and marines marching over England’s fields.
Obviously, although written so long ago, this book is incredibly relevant to now. There is civil confusion and fear, economic and military failures on the continent have resulted in the UK and USA joining together as a single nation USUK; there are speeches by the Prime Minister speaking about ‘unknown agents hostile to USUK’; streams of American helicopters dominating the English skies and a general fear that leads the people of Cornwall to defend their land. It is, in many respects, so relevant to the here and now that it can be read as a very bleak and frightening novel. However, there is still a wonderful air of satire in the desperation, particularly amongst the perfectly named Mad and her large house in Cornwall with its many occupants.
For my piece, I set the large house in Devon, for obvious reasons for those who know me. I wanted to create not just the air of desperation but hope. In the near future of the lawless country that has dissolved into chaos and violence, I could imagine this place would always provide sanctuary. No matter what winds of change would come, this ancient house would withstand yet another threat and although under attack by roaming gangs, a society ungoverned and streets in the midst of civil violence, there is a sense that this will pass. It’s what attracts me to works by people such as Margaret Atwood, to great stories such as Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later. It could so easily be tomorrow but however desperate the world is, there has to be a shred of hope for us to carry on with the story. The light lingers in the background with the idea that it might just all be all alright in the end. Let’s hope it is.
You can feel flush and buy a copy in either full colour or black and white or, I believe there is a very generous option to read it free online. I will not check your bookcases.
With Spring definitely in the air, what better moment to share the news that I have had a dark and creepy tale published? It’s an absolutely gorgeous literary and arts annual with some amazing work and beautiful art. There’s also my piece which is at the more shadowy end of the spectrum. So if the blue sky and bird song has you rushing for your Gothic tales and M.R.James, then perhaps take a look. I believe it’s available at independent and good bookshops, and Waterstones and Amazon – although they may still be stocking the previous edition and not quite have this new one in yet. Maybe buy both and really get yourself in the Spring spirit with death and the macabre. Here’s a link to the publisher’s website. betweentheseshoresbooks.com