Book vs Adaptation: Murder on the Orient Express

For me MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and its several adaptations offer a fine example of the spectrum of approaches that adaptors take when choosing to tell a story that has already been told. On one end of that spectrum is the faithful recreation of all a book’s main plot and character elements and on the other end is something which takes only a couple of elements from the source material – a key character or a setting – but takes the story in new directions, sometimes almost unrecognisable from that source..

The book

Vying for status as Christie’s best known novel, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was released in 1934 to fairly wide acclaim. It’s a kind of mobile country house mystery really, telling the relatively simple tale of a luxury train journey across Europe during which a man is killed during the night. The suspect pool consists of a single train carriage’s staff and passengers. Working out whodunnit falls to Hercule Poirot and his first real clue is that the murdered man was not who he claimed to be. In a series of interviews and observations Poirot builds up a solid case against a culprit which I can remember astonished me when I first read the book many years ago. While the denouement might might be considered obvious these days I think that really is only because the intriguing plot has had many imitators over the years. And in addition to its clever plot the book explores the very notion of justice, a concept that is, or should be, at the heart of all crime fiction.

The adaptations

One For many the 1974 adaptation of the book, with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and an all-star ensemble cast, is the definitive adaptation of this story and indeed Agatha Christie’s novels in general, achieving both popular acclaim and critical success in the form of an Academy Award win for Lauren Bacall (as Mrs Hubbard) and another 5 nominations in other categories. While it must leave out some material due to length considerations it is almost slavishly faithful to its source material in terms of significant plot developments, characters and dialogue (though a few names and minor details are altered for reasons that I’ve never quite understood).But if you have read the book when you see the train and its passengers for the first time they are almost familiar.

For me though there’s one giant gap in this faithfulness in the form of the depiction of Poirot. I’m not sure if the fault lies with Finney or Sidney Lumet (the film’s much-feted Director) but the Belgian detective comes across here with a near-slapstick sensibility – more akin to an Inspector Clueseau-style caricature than anything resembling Christie’s original creation. Even his moustaches are all wrong. I’ve no problem with someone making a Pink Panther version of the story but in such an instance I’d expect to see a whole comedic movie not a lone comic character amidst a dramatic cast as was the case here. Personally I think the rest of the cast all overact a bit too but I suppose that’s what happens when everyone’s a star in their own right.

Two: One of the familiar ways to add a twist to an adaptation is to set an old story in a modern setting. Enter a 2001 made-for-TV movie called AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS starring Alfred Molina as Poirot. This version opens with Poirot at the end of a denouement for an unrelated case in an Istanbul nightclub owned by a his love-interest (a beautiful;l jewel thief) who he then proceeds to moon over from afar for the rest of the film. If that hasn’t made all the Christie afficionados groan in horror I’m sure the rest of the story would do.

I am actually quite partial to modernisations but it is not nearly as easy as it might appear to do the job well. It’s not, as the makers of this debacle seemed to assume, enough to change the date on a calendar in the background and shove a few bits of modern technology into the characters’ hands (especially not when your budget is so low that an ab roller constitutes cutting edge new millennium technology). When modernising a classic a lot of thought must be given to how to make allowances for things that would have been perfectly understandable in the original setting but do not translate to the modern environment. It is perfectly understandable for example that people on a train stuck in remote Yugoslavia in the middle of a blizzard in the 1930’s would not be able to contact the authorities but that scenario is far less credible when a train is stopped by six papier-mache ‘rocks’ and a few sticks of firewood on a balmy evening in 2001. Lots of original details appear to have been changed for no reason, though perhaps reducing the suspect pool from its original (and numerically significant 12 people) had something to do with budgetary constraints.

Three: The long-running Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series featuring David Suchet as Poirot waited until season 12 to tackle MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Although set at the correct time period, starring the man almost universally acknowledged as the definitive Poirot and incorporating the main plot points of the original this version of the story does depart significantly from the source material in a way that is controversial amongst Christie’s fans.

The opening itself is quite different from the book’s as Poirot’s evidence against a soldier leads to the man’s suicide and Poirot then witnesses a woman’s stoning on the streets of Istanbul before making his way to the train. From there the original plot is loosely followed but the focus in this version is less on the mechanics of who dropped the hanky and other vital clues and more on the reasons for people’s behaviour. Probably the most controversial aspect of this adaptation is that Poirot is shown struggling emotionally, even turning to his Catholicism to help him decide what action to take once he has determined who the murderer is.

The winner?

I’m not convinced that any of the adaptations of Christie’s classic tale are better than her book but, for me, the last one comes closest. It is certainly my favourite of the three films though there is a difference between something being a good film and it being a good adaptation. But Christie liked to play with new techniques of storytelling and she did adapt her style over her many years of writing to keep up with the trends that audiences were interested in. These days crime fiction audiences are interested in why a thing was done as well as in who done it. This adaptation delves into why the crime was committed and also how a person with such a strong tradition of following the law as Poirot has might come to grips with what is a pretty major ripping up of his rule book. I can’t help but think if Christie were writing today she’d have adapted her style to the modern interest in the inner lives of characters and a more emotion-driven form of storytelling.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Book vs Adaptation is an irregular series of posts stemming from the fact that sometimes I’m too tired to read and so turn to DVDs and downloads (all legal I assure you, I am far too terrified of prison to turn to channel bittorrent). If there’s an adaptation you think I should look out for do let me know. All my posts in this series are available on their own page.

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10 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: Murder on the Orient Express

  1. Maxine says:

    Interesting! The ending of this book surprised me, too, when I read it – but I also felt it was a total cheat. I have only seen the Albert Finney adaptation, and completely agree with you about Finney, he just is not Poirot (though I’d forgotten the comedic impression), though I do remember the film as having gorgeous production values, etc.

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    • I know that feeling of being cheated by an ending but I don’t recall feeling it in the case of this book – then again it’s a long time since I first read it so perhaps my mind has re-written history.

      I’m really not a huge fan of the 74 version – too over the top for me – it also feels more American than it should (though I may not have thought that originally – recently watched it again as I did all the others)

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  2. Bernadette – What a great discussion of this novel and its adaptations. And right you are about the solution of the novel. It was quite groundbreaking at the time although as you say, it’s been done since (but never better if you ask me. But you didn’t, did you? Right 😉 ). Of the film versions I suppose I’d have to go with the Albert Finney version although like you, I did not believe Finney as Poirot. And I’ve never understood either why the changed characters’ names and other details. Why, oh why for instance does the Mrs. Hubbard as played by Bacall go on and on about her second husband in the film, but in the novel it’s her daughter and she’s quite a bit frumpier – for a good reason – in the novel. But other than that I do like the film. Such a beautiful evocation of the era.

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  3. Sarah says:

    Without wishing to add another adaptation to your list, there are a series of Hercule Poirot adaptations done by the BBC for radio starring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot. They are regularly played on BBC Radio 4 Extra (available worldwide) and I would highly recommend them. I thought the Orient Express one particularly good. It’s not my favourite book but I think it a nice idea.

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  4. janebbooks says:

    Thank you, Bernadette…a very interesting piece. I’ve enjoyed all the “book vs.adaptation” pieces you have done. The Albert Finney was my favorite..and I’ve seen it several times. Suchet is a great Poirot…did you see the dvd? If so, you missed the hour long documentary on PBS about the making of…….which was outstanding.

    By the way, I’d like to see you take on Val McDermid’s WiRE IN THE BLOOD novel and British TV series starring Robson Green. I just finished the latest Hill/Jordan installment THE RETRIBUTION…and am as upset as when Green killed off Jordan after the second season of the British tv series.

    Jane

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    • Thanks so much for the kind words Jane. I’d love to see that making of documentary – nothing like that on the DVDs I saw and we certainly didn’t see anything like that on air when the episode aired here.

      Funnily enough I have just acquired the box set of Wire in the blood so that may be making an appearance in my series some day soon – I actually found the books very violent and stopped reading them but I think I will have to have a go again.

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  5. I like your book vs. adaptation series! I haven’t watched any of these adaptations yet, but I’ve just started watching the Poirot series and have been enjoying it so far. The series definitely does have more character development then the Christie novels, but I think you’re right – if Christie had been writing today, she would have adapted her writing style.

    I just finished watching the Marple series, and enjoyed them immensely – and I actually enjoyed the changes in the plot! Since I listen to the Christie novels in audio a lot, I tend to remember the whodunnit and why aspects. So I appreciated the surprise element when the TV episodes deviated from the books.

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