Adaptations on the Nile

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

This one grew on me the longer I read it as the case became more and more complicated. It was an uphill battle, but it got there. I know getting into mystery novels is going to involve putting up with some pretty juvenile notions of what justice is, which is why Murder on the Orient Express was such a pleasant surprise for its comparative lack of those. Death on the Nile was, regrettably, not nearly so obliging.

It’s some patently awful opinions expressed by Poirot and supported by the narrative that get me. Early in the book, Linnet confides in Poirot that she’s being stalked by her husband’s ex and he not only tells her there is no legal remedy (which was probably true at the time), but even goes on to suggest that it’s her fault, so that’s lovely. And after solving the case he, knowing full well that Jackie has a second pistol, stands by and does nothing as she shoots both Simon and herself. Because murder is wrong, but murder-suicide is fine, I guess.

There’s also a ton of racism (for flavor!). I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of it in Murder on the Orient Express and rolled my eyes when it was added in most of the film adaptations, but here we don’t have to wait for the adaptations!

One of our colorful cast of potential suspects is someone I’d like to call a straw socialist, but there certainly are some people who totally miss the point of socialism and call themselves socialists. But, yeah. Please do not take stock in this idiot’s using a perverted understanding of socialism to excuse his misanthropy and misogyny, both of which are wholly incompatible with genuine socialist ideas and practices.

I did love the structure of the end of the case, where they run through like three obvious suspects in a row and it seems like it’s going to be them but Poirot instead dramatically reveals that they were guilty of something completely different that he’s going to ignore on account of all the murders that need solving. One of my favorite bits of the novel that I don’t think any of the adaptations did justice to was Poirot covering up the theft of the necklace and clearing the way for Tim Allerton and Rosalie Otterbourne to be married. Poirot begged indulgence from his co-investigators, “It is irregular–I know it is irregular, yes–but I have a high regard for human happiness.” Dude has a lot of bad opinions in this, but this almost makes up for it. This also leads to probably my favorite exchange in the book, when they’re interrogating Cordelia:

Race sighed. “That’s all right,” he said. “This is Hush Hush House.”
“I beg your pardon, Colonel Race?”
“What I was endeavoring to say was that anything short of murder is being hushed up.”

Oh and last of all, I was super fond of the ridiculously subby girl Cordelia. I know it wasn’t meant this way, but I giggled a little every time she was explicitly described as submissive and obedient, especially when Jackie was bullying her. More overt sub representation in fiction, dang it!

(A-Rank)

Death on the Nile (1978)

This took way more liberties with the text than the studio’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, and oftentimes the small changes made actually made less sense. It was also missing some of my favorite parts of the book both in the form of wholly omitted characters (justice for subby girl Cordelia!) and the twists and turns of the case were largely smoothed over which is just a strange choice in my opinion.

One thing I actually liked a lot better in the movie version, though, is that Poirot doesn’t know Jackie is planning on doing a murder/suicide at the end, and actually tries to stop it. I found his actions in the book indefensible, so I much preferred this turn of events.

I am much less high on the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation than most seem to be, so I think I liked them about the same. This at least lacked the overbearing score undermining everything. There were also some patently hilarious choices, like whenever Jackie popped up unexpectedly she started reciting facts about whatever historical landmark they were near like some kind of deranged tour guide. It was a pretty terrible choice if it was meant to be taken seriously, but I got a good laugh about it so I’m gonna call it a net win.

Despite the book having plenty of overt racism (for flavor!), the movie actually decided to ditch most of what the book brought to the table in that department and concentrate all its racism in a single character. One of those “comic relief” characters where the entire joke is just that they aren’t white. So, that was fun.

But what really stands out as the film’s worst feature is its Hercule Poirot. I actually found Finney’s portrayal in Murder on the Orient Express quite a bit more annoying, but Ustinov’s portrayal is just kind of… nothing? And “annoying” is quite a bit closer to the mark when it comes to the famously fussy detective than basically being a nonentity.

He was also just written horribly here? Instead of the subtle detective constantly goading people into underestimating him and giving all their secrets away, we get this angry oaf straightforwardly accusing literally everyone of the murder with no grace or art whatsoever. It’s just bizarre.

(C-Rank)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: “Death on the Nile” (2004)

It’s hard to believe this is the same series as the 2010 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, but I guess that’s bound to happen when a series is on the air from 1989 to 2013.

The difference really is quite jarring, though! This adaptation is extremely book loyal in basically every respect, and it’s also just quite good. There kind of isn’t even anything else to say? After the experience I’ve had watching all these other adaptations, I wasn’t really prepared for one of them to just be straightforwardly good and a good adaptation. What a pleasant surprise.

Even this one is missing my favorite scene from the book, though, instead having Tim gently let Rosalie down by telling her she’s “barking up the wrong tree,” heavily implying either that he is gay or that he’s too hot for mommy to love another girl. Not the worst change in a vacuum, but obviously given how I felt about that plot point in the novel I was a bit disappointed.

(B-Rank)

Death on the Nile (2022)

If you delete the first scene and the last scene I actually kind of love this!

This one actually changes a lot more tangible details than Branagh’s previous stab (sorry) at a Christie adaptation, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Nevertheless, I think it’s actually a more faithful adaptation on the whole. That is, with one major exception, it’s more true to the spirit of the novel’s story regardless of the details it changes.

When I saw the trailers I thought I was going to hate that instead of the Karnak’s passengers being a group of strangers they were going to be Linnet’s wedding party. But I actually think that worked quite well in this version of the story!

The other big change I mostly approved of were several alterations made to the suspects and their relationships. The Otterbournes are changed from a secretly alcoholic romance novelist and her longsuffering daughter to a sultry blues singer and her badass manager daughter. We’re introduced to Rosalie telling off a club owner and she later gets to tell off Poirot himself, and what’s more the narrative largely vindicates her even in the latter case. I also highly approve of how flustered Poirot gets when Salome flirts with him.

I also emphatically approved of this film deleting the character of Mr. Ferguson and sliding his outspoken communism over to Marie Van Schuler and and and having Miss (curiously “Mrs.” in this version?) Bowers’ role as her nurse companion serving as a cover for her real role as Marie’s lesbian lover. Although there would’ve been a more natural fit for this change (we’ll circle back to that later) and Poirot does have one annoying line about Marie’s economic beliefs being a fairy tale or something like that, the narrative has adequately demonstrated that Poirot is far from infallible and regardless Marie is a far less outwardly awful representation of a socialist than Ferguson’s misanthropic, misogynistic ass ever could be.

And despite their prevalence in real life, how fucking often do you get communist lesbians in mainstream entertainment?

It is certainly regrettable that this also deleted very good subby girl Cordelia, but we can’t win ‘em all. Poor thing, though. She gets deleted in two of the three adaptations! She’s so subby she just gets bullied out of existence, I guess.

Before we get into what I didn’t like, I have to add that I really am enjoying these films’ patterns of (inadvertently, I assume) casting deeply problematic actors as their murder victims. And there’s an extra layer of irony on this one since Gal Gadot clearly didn’t even think a little bit about the optics of an outspokenly pro-apartheid former IDF soldier playing a character whose entire deal in this movie aside from getting murdered is just being a Westerner flaunting her wealth in British-occupied Egypt. I mean, damn.

… it is unintentional, right?

Lastly in the positives column, the cinematography is once again just gorgeous, but this time it’s set loose on the incredible intrinsic beauty of the pyramids, the Sahara Desert, the Nile River… just breathtaking stuff.

Alright so here’s all the stuff I had to ignore to mostly enjoy this (and mostly enjoy it I did).

In the nitpicky department, while Marie is a much better representation of socialism than Ferguson was, the fact that we didn’t hear a peep out of her about the blatant imperialism on display throughout this trip and instead confined her complaints to Linnet being, uh, rich was symptomatic of the same lack of understanding of what socialism actually… is. Imperialism is capitalism at its most deplorable excess, and it is the first and most essential duty of any socialist living in an imperialist power to do what we can to call out and fight that imperialism to the extent we’re able to. To ignore that while literally on a luxurious trip through British-colonized Egypt while loudly complaining about superficial displays of wealth just ain’t it.

No, she isn’t wrong. Yes, the wealth Linnet and those surrounding her are flaunting is absolutely a product of various forms of exploitation including imperialism. But failing to address that when you’re literally in an occupied country, and even huffing sanctimoniously about human rights violations in that occupied country’s distant historical past makes her either a bad socialist or a poorly-written one, and much like Ferguson in Christie’s original text I’m betting on the latter.

Honestly while I love having a lesbian socialist in theory, if you really wanted to rehabilitate this aspect of the story you would’ve hot potatoed the socialism over to Dr. Bessner who was given like half of Mr. Ferguson’s story anyway (the ex-noble thing), and who was using his resources and training to provide aid to people in exploited nations which is kind of exactly the thing you would expect a socialist with his resources to do?

In the less-nitpicky department, I am still extremely over these two adaptations pulling out all the stops to inject as much extra drama as they can. In this case, though, it didn’t cause the entire second and third acts to genre jump into less of a cozy mystery and more of a thriller, so in comparison I’ll certainly take it. In this one, that shift doesn’t quite happen until Bouc is given the death scene that the novel gave Salome Otterbourne.

But honestly, given the choice, I’m glad Bouc is the one who ate the bullet? How often do you see a white guy fridged so a black woman can be sad about it? (And yeah, also so another white guy can be sad and angry about it, but y’know.) Like… if this was the direction we had to go, he was definitely the best character to off here. While it would’ve gotten Rosalie to more or less the same emotional place, I don’t especially enjoy the idea of the race-swapped Salome Otterbourne being the last of Jackie and Simon’s victims as she would have if we had stuck more closely to the original plot.

But, like, this brings the grand total of adaptations that did justice to that moment I loved in the novel where Poirot clears the way for Tim and Rosaline to be married up to a grand total of none of them, and I’m salty about it, dang it!

And of course the real reason they had to kidnap Bouc from the previous movie and have him eat a bullet is because Poirot cared about him and they wanted to give the whole ending more emotional stakes. And just… sometimes the emotional stakes can just be that murder is bad, guys! Poirot felt plenty of things (some of them even good) in the novel. We didn’t need to import additional stakes. We didn’t need him to be violently angry because his friend died. Not everything needs to be turned up to 11 at all times!

But, again, at least this time this misadventure of Faster And More Intense was limited to the very home stretch of the movie. Well, that and the aforementioned prologue and epilogue scenes, which do so many bad things at once. I hate it when things that thoroughly do not need an origin story get the Han Solo’s last name in Solo: A Star Wars Story treatment, and I really, really didn’t need Poirot’s trademark mustache to have a fucking tragic backstory??? Nor did I need Poirot to spend two movies pining for a tragically lost lover that these adaptations made up wholecloth for no reason.

It’s weird, because I think this is an aspect of these movies that Branagh & co clearly think is very important, and I think it’s just pretty hecking stupid? But I’ll still line up to see as many of these as they end up making, because at the end of the day they’re pretty entertaining movies even when I deeply disagree with a lot of the choices they make.

(B-Rank)

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