Script versus novel
Opinion is particularly divided on this episode. That is hardly surprising. We are, after all, talking about Christie’s most famous Poirot novel, which just happened to be adapted into an Oscar-winning big screen movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, in 1974. Not to mention the fact that this was one of the most intensely anticipated episodes of the ITV series. With this in mind, Stewart Harcourt faced a near impossible challenge when adapting this novel. How do you adapt one of the most famous crime novels in crime fiction history and avoid comparison with the successful 1974 film? And how do you make exciting television, when most people already know the solution?
I’m not an expert on scriptwriting and the adaptation process. But it seems to me that anyone adapting a famous, universally acclaimed masterpiece is faced with two options for, or approaches to, the source material. They can (a) decide to write a plot-centred adaptation, focusing on Christie’s famous ‘puzzle’, or (b) explore the broader themes of the text and emphasise the characters in relation to those themes. Both approaches can be seen in adaptations of a number of famous novels and plays. Anything by Shakespeare is the prime example. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, Harcourt was faced with some constraints – but also some considerable advantages – that probably had an impact on the choice between these two approaches. I’ll look into these before I come back to Harcourt’s script.
Let’s look at the disadvantages first. A new version would inevitably be facing time constraints. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is, after all, a television series. It has to fit into the broadcaster’s strict schedules. ITV have scaled down the length of these adaptations over the years (presumably to make room for more ad breaks within the two-hour time slot). The first ‘feature length’ episodes lasted about 100 minutes. This was cut down to 93 minutes in the later years. The most recent series of episode (the one we are eagerly awaiting) has an average adaptation length of 89 minutes. Anyway, the point is that this version of the novel had about 90 minutes to play with. In comparison, the 1974 film had 128 minutes. Secondly, the small screen version could never match the ‘all-star cast’ of the big screen version. Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, John Gielgud (I could go on forever, really). Nor could it match its budget. Hollywood and British TV are two completely different things.
So what advantages did this new version have? First, the team had the opportunity to make a more authentic version. By that I mean they could largely go for less known (but highly skilled) actors, some of whom actually shared the nationality of their characters. Second, they had some money (this version cost about £3 million), but more importantly, they also had the latest special effects technology, and a highly skilled production team who had been working on these period dramas for more than two decades. Third, and most importantly, they had David Suchet. The Definitive Poirot. An actor who, by this point in time, had had 64 episodes to research, explore, develop and portray every nuance of Christie’s character. That was always going to be the big selling point of this version. And I think that’s why they decided to explore themes and characters.
The crime fiction plot – the ‘puzzle’ – had been wonderfully brought to life in the two-hour 1974 film. Most people know (or know of) the solution because of that. What this version could bring to the table was an exploration of characters, themes and motivations. Most importantly, it could explore the mind of Hercule Poirot, a character the viewers had become so familiar with over the last two decades that there really was no need just to explore his eccentricities (like the film, and the novel, to a certain extent, do). In the article ‘Love, Crime, and Agatha Christie’, Mark Aldridge explains:
The power of [this adaptation’s denouement] lies in its further context, specifically the fact that Suchet has played the part since the program began in 1989, portraying Poirot as a reserved character, precise and unemotional. The sudden fury therefore becomes a shock to the audience, indicating the extent to which this one case has affected him. [...] His emotional response can only have real resonance in the television series, where the audience has had over twenty years with the character and actor and are fully aware of the importance of the truth to him whatever the implications.Scriptwriter Harcourt decided to emphasise the themes of justice and morality in the novel. In an article he wrote for the Daily Mail, Harcourt outlines the themes of the adaptation (and, in turn, the novel):
When I was writing it, I found myself thinking about the McCanns. What would happen if they knew who had taken Madeleine and that person was cleared of the crime? What happens to people when they feel justice has been denied? How far is it legitimate to go? Here are 12 good people who have lived blameless lives until they find themselves in the middle of nowhere to take vengeance. A child's life has been taken away and these people, who have put their faith in justice, have been let down.
They are incapable of going on with their lives until they achieve closure. For the fastidious Poirot, this puts him in a quandary. Should he turn them over to the police, or has justice been done?The changes
With this context in mind, it’s time to look at the changes Harcourt has made to the plot. He adds an opening scene, in which Poirot witnesses (or indeed causes) the suicide of a soldier. This is actually mentioned in the novel (‘A very distinguished officer had committed suicide’), but in a different context. As “therebelprince” over at The Agatha Christie Reader puts it, this scene ‘allows us to drop any pretence of Poirot simply being a ‘white knight’, as he is asked to question his own intractable belief that the truth, and a narrow view of justice, is all that matters’. Next, there’s a conversation between Poirot and another soldier, who escorts him to Istanbul (not at the train platform, like in the novel, but on a ferry). The soldier thinks the suicide was unjust, but Poirot objects that it was the dead man’s own choice to lie. This further emphasises Poirot’s sense of right and wrong, which will be challenged later on. He trusts his own sense and right and wrong. Moreover, Harcourt adds a stoning scene in the streets of Istanbul. This has been heavily criticised. I can agree with that criticism, to a certain extent. This isn’t typical Christie. It adds a serious aspect to the story that wasn't there in the first place. However, I’m inclined to support the addition. It highlights the dilemma that Poirot will later be facing, and it brings the questions of the law and the jury system to the fore. Who are the 'savages in the street' and who are 'twelve good men and true', and what differentiates the two senses of justice?
As Poirot arrives at the hotel in Istanbul, he doesn’t immediately recognise M. Bouc. In the novel, they are old friends, but here he’s just another acquaintance who Poirot barely remembers. The following restaurant scene (and Poirot’s first encounter with MacQueen and Ratchett) is removed. Instead, we get some scenes that show the threatening letters discovered in Ratchett’s hotel room. The Taurus Express (that was removed from the opening scenes) is mentioned by Miss Ohlsson, who has just arrived by that train. As the passengers board the train, we learn that Mary Debenham has a limp arm (we later learn that this was caused by the important events in the past). Later, a conversation between Miss Debenham and Poirot on justice (in light of the stoning) is added. Once again, this highlights the central questions of justice and morality that Harcourt has decided to explore.
Moreover, Dr. Constantine, the Greek doctor, has become a Greek obstetrician living in America. We later discover he has also been made a culprit to the crime; he replaces Mr. Hardman, who has been deleted. The change and deletion of the character is perfectly understandable. Harcourt reduces the number of characters because of the limited screen time. Also, it’s in keeping with other Christie plots to have one of Poirot’s ‘helpers’ become a culprit in the crime (see, for instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The ABC Murders).
The famous line, ‘Forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face’ has been removed. However, it’s very clear from the exchange of looks between Poirot and Ratchett that the essence has been kept. Moreover, Ratchett is seeking penance. He has turned to God for protection (“an extra gun”). This was certainly not in the novel, but I think it works here, because it increases the dilemma Poirot is eventually faced with; does it make a difference if the guilty party is repentant? Also, later in the film, we see Poirot with his rosary, praying. Even Ratchett prays. Again, opinion has been divided on these changes. Many viewers dislike the addition of religion to Poirot’s character, but that should hardly be news. He proclaims himself a bon catholique throughout the novels, and in the series there have been references to his faith in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Taken at the Flood, Appointment With Death and Third Girl. This is the same man who proclaims to Hastings in Peril at End House, ‘I will not sit back and say ‘le bon Dieu has arranged everything, I will not interfere.’ Because I am convinced that le bon Dieu created Hercule Poirot for the express purpose of interfering’. It is my métier’. As mentioned, I also think the change to Ratchett’s character, making him a repentant criminal, adds an important aspect to Poirot’s subsequent dilemma.
Once the murder has occurred, Poirot is somewhat reluctant to take the case on. Some viewers might find this surprising. In the past, Poirot has always jumped at the opportunity of solving an interesting case, and this can certainly be said to be interesting. Again, I think this change makes sense in light of the experiences he has had before he gets on the train; the suicide and the stoning. Also, we are watching a more world-weary Poirot. This is, after all, set in the later years of his career. Both these aspects explain why Poirot is more reluctant than usual. He is disturbed by the recent events and disillusioned by the persistence of crime and murder despite his efforts to ‘rid the world of crime’. His overall irritated state should also be attributed to the environment he finds himself in. As Chris Chan points out, Poirot strongly dislikes cold, damp environments, and he can get very grumpy if he is forced to endure them. See, for instance, the adaptation of ‘The Mystery at Hunter’s Lodge’ or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Suchet’s acting is perfectly in keeping with the earlier episodes on that point.
Generally speaking, all the interviews are shortened down. Significantly. As earlier mentioned, this is mainly because the length of this adaptation was restricted (like most of the feature length adaptations) to about 90 minutes. It’s understandable, but it would have been nice to see some more of the actual investigation. Still, the 1974 film is fairly faithful to that part of the story, so fans could always watch that one if this is a particularly crucial loss. Some viewers, especially Americans, have complained that the adaptation as a whole feels particularly rushed. I can share some of that frustration, but I think the main reason behind it is that PBS, the channel that airs Poirot in the US, cut several important scenes from the adaptation, including the red kimono clue, Poirot’s arrival on the train and bits and pieces of all the interviews. No wonder it felt rushed. But of course the time constraints I have already mentioned contributed, too.
There are several minor changes as well, e.g. combining some of the interviews, the lack of water/heating/electricity I mentioned earlier, and Helena Goldenberg becomes Wasserstein (Waterstone in English – the 1974 film chose Grünwald, Greenwood). Also, Miss Ohlsson is more religious than in the novel (she has strong opinions about Catholic penance and forgiveness as opposed to Protestantism), but then she did have a faith in the novel, too (‘That there are in the world such evil men. It tries one’s faith’). But let’s turn our attention to the denouement.
If the interview sections were shortened down, the denouement and its aftermath is given more prominence than both the previous film and the novel. Poirot and the culprits enter into a lengthy discussion on justice and the rule of law, linked in part with religion. While this was never present in the original story, I think it’s a natural extension of the themes of the novel. This is a story about justice, about doing ‘the right thing’, and about the grey areas of right and wrong. Is Ratchett any worse than the others? If he is, then what is it that makes us so sure of that fact? What is the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ kind of justice?
Harcourt adds a crucial scene in which Colonel Arbuthnot is about to kill Poirot and Bouc, but he is stopped by Mary Debenham and the others. Some say this is completely out of character. In a way, I suppose it is. But the scene is added, I think, to prove a point. This might be what tips the scale for Poirot. Miss Debenham says that if he kills them, ‘he’s no better than Casetti’, and she urges him to remember that ‘we don’t do what is wrong’. The difference between Ratchett/Casetti and the 'jurors' is that they accept the course of justice once Poirot has revealed the truth. They wanted justice for Daisy, but they are unlikely to repeat the act, because that would make them as bad as Ratchett.
Of course, this is a difficult decision to make, and Poirot doesn’t let them go light-heartedly. Some fans have objected that he is too troubled by the decision in light of other cases in which he has let the guilty party get away with the crime (e.g. The Double Clue, The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, The Chocolate Box). There are two important points to be made here. In the two first cases, we are not dealing with murder, and the culprits return what they have taken/stolen. In the third case, the culprit is deadly ill, and Poirot is merely postponing the truth. Second, in all three cases, there’s only one culprit. Here, Poirot is faced with more culprits than in any other story. And it’s murder. So there’s a noticeable difference between the situation he is faced with in Murder on the Orient Express and the ones he faced in these short stories. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Poirot is a more world-weary man here. He returned to the ‘ghosts’ he tried to escape in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and recent events prove that the world hasn’t become a better place, even with him present to ‘interfere’. By this point in his career, he might very possibly be facing serious doubts about his raison d’etre, especially when faced with a case unlike any other.
In summary, scriptwriter Stewart Harcourt has remained true to the essentials of the story (all the characters bar one are there, the interviews are there, the solution is the same etc), but he has also added several scenes to emphasise and further explore the themes of the novel (justice, morality, and by extension religion). He has emphasised character complexity over plot, which is an option that was open to him because of the two decades of adaptations. The team, Harcourt, and David Suchet, had the confidence that the audience would know the character inside out. All in all, I think this is a successful attempt at reinterpreting a classic. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close at it can get.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Philip Martin was a good choice as director for this adaptation. In collaboration with cinematographer Alan Almond (who should be given credit here!), he manages to convey the sense of confinement the train has to offer. Camera angles, lighting and colours all create a specific atmosphere. The use of close-ups increases the tension, and I particularly enjoy the way certain shots convey the exchange of looks between the culprits throughout. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team should be given due credit as well. The recreation of the Orient Express is absolutely perfect and completely believable. Some of the CGI shots feel slightly artificial, but that can hardly be blamed on anyone in the crew (that’s a money issue, more than anything else). The actual locations used, apart from the train set at Pinewood Studios, include Black Park Country Park (the scene in the woods), Nene Valley Railway (?, the train exterior), St. Ursula Street in Valetta, Malta (the streets of Istanbul), and the Freemason Hall (Tokatlian Hotel reception). Christian Henson’s soundtrack for this film is absolutely outstanding, echoing the rhythm of the train and story and culminating in a particularly poignant end scene (“Redemption).
Characters and actors
Many fans have argued that Suchet’s portrayal is inconsistent in this adaptation. They refer to his anger, his mood, his religious attitudes and the lack of his eccentricities. As I have tried to outline in the script section, I’m not of that opinion. His anger and irritation is perfectly natural given the situation he is put in (the moral dilemma, the challenge to his raison d’etre, the unwelcoming, cold and uncomfortable environment). The religious element is in keeping with Christie’s character, but it has been played up in recent years as a way for Suchet to explore new territories with the character. His eccentricities are still there (the eggs of the same size, the moustache wax, his vanity etc), but they are naturally overshadowed by other themes. [See my analysis of David Suchet’s achievement for more details].
As to the guest cast, there’s not much to say. Most are perfectly suited to their characters (e.g. Eileen Atkins, Toby Jones, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey). I particularly like the fact that they have tried to use actors who are actually German and French for actual German and French roles – with important exceptions (even though both actors are good and work well for the adaptation, Briton Joseph Mawle doesn’t really come across as Italian, and Canadian Marie-Josée Croze isn’t entirely convincing as Swedish). It’s difficult to pick a favourite here, but I think Chastain proves why she has gone on to achieve greater fame since this adaptation was made.