Murder on the Adaptation Express

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Right, so, this was somehow only the second Agatha Christie book I’ve read? I’ve since read Death on the Nile, but yeah. My first was Murder in Mesopotamia, which I read in grade school and loved and always intended to read more of her but just never really got around to it? I also skimmed And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Aykroyd when I was supposed to read them in junior high and college respectively.

Pretty much every time I’m compelled to read a mystery book or watch a mystery movie, I’m reminded that, dang! I actually really like mystery stories, and should probably deliberately seek them out more often. And then I proceed to literally never do that because I’m very smart like that.

I had actually already seen two film adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express prior to reading it, which may have detracted from the experience somewhat? But yeah, I still liked it a heck of a lot! I really like Agatha Christie’s writing style. I like how grounded and verisimilitudinous everything feels.

I was also bracing myself for quite a bit more racism given the title and time this was written. But there really isn’t a whole lot besides the basic racism endemic in the entire notion of white people doing interesting things in other people’s countries and absolutely 0% questioning imperialism. Some of the adaptations more than compensate for this by adding extra racism (for flavor!) that wasn’t there before. Though I have learned through Death on the Nile that Christie herself includes plenty of racism (for flavor!) elsewhere.

I’m a little hamstrung here because I feel like I need to read more mystery novels in general and Christie specifically to have many fully formed opinions, so you’re kind of going to be seeing my education on this subject in realtime. But I really liked the methodical pace of this one and how Poirot is basically the POV character but the way it’s written still has him noticing things that the reader either notices on their own or misses. We only really get the thoughts he expresses out loud in the form of dialogue. This also makes the book practically tailor-made for adaptation into film, so of course every single adaptation I’m about to talk about made a whole lot of unnecessary changes.

I also think even once I’ve gotten a bit more experience reading mystery novels, the big reveal where Poirot explains the two possible solutions to the case and everyone collectively chooses one is going to go down as one of my favorites of these kinds of scenes. And really, the big scene where the detective explains what happened and is a huge showoff in the process has always been one of my favorite bits of traditional mystery stories.

But, yeah! Let’s see how the movie versions did.

(A-Rank)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

This was one of the two adaptations I had already seen prior to reading the book. Apparently it’s one of the most well-regarded Christie adaptations, but quite frankly I don’t particularly care for it. The soundtrack is distractingly bad, there’s a lot of extra racism (for flavor!), and the mood frequently just feels… off. Overly cheerful, maybe? Until the ending which read as fairly triumphant and conspiratorial in the book, but came off more like a somber funeral in the movie. Just… strange.

Starting the movie with a long, plodding montage of the Armstrong kidnapping was an extremely strange choice. The book doesn’t have the kidnapping come up until it becomes relevant to the case, which a lot of other adaptations preserve and that honestly makes a lot more sense to me.

The biggest bright spot that jumps out at me is Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham. She took a character that kinda blended in on the page and really made her stand out for me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have to say I just didn’t particularly care for Albert Finney’s Poirot.

(C-Rank)

Murder on the Orient Express (2001)

This adaptation has much less lofty goals than the 1974 Hollywood production, and for my money it accomplishes them better, which if you run the numbers probably makes them about a wash. I get that the older version is a more polished and impressive film, but if forced to choose between a charmingly bad TV movie and a mediocre big budget movie I’d rather the former.

Amusingly despite being a modern AU with a smaller cast there are one or two spots where this is actually a more faithful adaptation. These aren’t consequential in the least, just kinda amusing considering the circumstances.

I can’t say Alfred Molina’s Poirot is particularly faithful, but it’s also Alfred Molina. I’m kind of just never gonna be unhappy to see Alfred Molina in a movie. Less welcome was the compulsory heterosexual love story they crammed in there for no real reason.

(C-Rank)

Murder on the Orient Express (2010)

This is the worst one. By like, a lot. I was not expecting that at all? I figured out basically immediately what they were doing with it, and I immediately hated it, and it just kept getting worse and worse.

They basically Sherlockified everything. Everything is very dramatic and very prestige television. It’s like Chris Nolan directed this. It’s just constantly bludgeoning you over the head and yelling DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA! I just… completely hate it.

There are plenty of awful choices on top of awful choices in this category, but I think probably the most hilariously bad one was having Poirot just shouting at everyone when he was presenting the solution to the crime, and having it very nearly break out into a violent fight, and then having the movie just kind of… awkwardly continue past the ending while he wrung his hands over whether to condemn them to the police. It’s just… it’s just so bad.

On top of that, there were so many strange, inconsequential details changed that after a while it started to feel kinda mean-spirited? Like, we’re talking incidental details here. And all of these changes added absolutely nothing, oftentimes made considerably less sense than the source material, and didn’t even serve to advance the movie’s aforementioned misguided goals to make everything as dramatic as possible? There’s just no clear motivation for why nearly every small detail of the case was changed in some way or another.

There was also a ton of kinda bizarre heavy-handed religious stuff? We see Poirot praying, which has never been a major part of his character as far as I know. People make all kinds of weird, out of place Biblical references. It’s just… strange.

Worst of all this actually manages to outstrip the 1974 version with added racism (for flavor!). The worst example being a woman being publicly stoned to death for adultery in the streets of Istalnbul. Stoning has never been a form of execution practiced in the Republic of Turkey, which is also noteworthy for having been a fairly secular country in the 1930s. They literally Ctrl+C/Ctrl+Ved some edgy Islamaphobia from elsewhere and called it a day.

(D-Rank)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

This was actually chugging along just fine, a really smooth ride. Nice and steady. And then it hit a snowbank and went off the rails.

You know. Metaphorically.

This was the other of the two adaptations I had seen prior to reading the book, and my recollection of it was pretty favorable. And it’s easy to see why. It’s stylish, star-studded, engaging. Just extremely competently made. I still mostly enjoyed the experience of watching it? It did get a bit tiresome that they were constantly leaving the train so they could get shots of Poirot with the train behind him in the snow for the trailer, but that felt nitpicky. And then we hit the third act and there are two completely unnecessary action scenes thrown in and everything just gets more and more dramatic.

Everyone is threatening each other with guns. Poriot literally gets shot in the arm. Instead of finding a knife in her purse Mrs. Hubbard finds it in her back. Where she was stabbed with it. And like, yeah that kind made sense by this point because with how the tension got ratcheted up and coming on the heels of a chase scene, her finding it in her bag and losing her shit wasn’t nearly dramatic enough, but that’s just it. This is the definition of an unforced error.

As already mentioned I’m not even that experienced with these stories, but I already know one of the things that’s so damn appealing about them is that they take place in a confined setting with a group of colorful characters penned in together. So just keep them on the damn train and let Poirot do his thing! I swear, this book in particular is so easy to adapt but everyone is just hell bent on hammering it into the shape they want it to be instead.

It’s not all bad by any means. The cast is freaking amazing, and Johnny Depp gets stabbed 12 times. The early parts of the movie where all the characters are being introduced and all the pieces are being moved into place was actually phenomenal? Like I said, it just went off the rails after that. (You know. Metaphorically.)

This is honestly a good movie! It’s just so frustrating because it’s so close to being both a faithful adaptation and a great movie in its own right.

(B-Rank)


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