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Murdering the Orient Express

Some twenty-ish years ago, the BBC (and by extension on this side of the pond, PBS) began running a TV series based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, starring David Suchet as the quirky little detective.

And it was brilliant. David Suchet perfectly captured the strange mixture of warm, insightful playfulness and cold calculation that made Poirot so formidable a detective, not to mention nicely embodying Poirot’s long list of idiosyncrasies without becoming quite the grotesque that other actors had tended to turn him into in the past. Hardcore Christie purists might grumble about the way Col. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon were crammed into every story with a crowbar because they were “part of the regular cast,” and there may have been moments when the series veered a bit towards being a situation comedy that just happened to have detective stories in it. But on the whole, it was brilliant. And many people, myself included, said of this series, “Man, I wish they’d do Murder On the Orient Express!”

But that was twenty years ago. Poirot had a great run in the U.K. and over here, but eventually was cancelled as all good shows must someday be. Like so many other great TV detectives, David Suchet’s Poirot moved on to the occasional “movie special” instead of the regular weekly offering, allowing them to take on Christie’s longer works without abridging the heck out of them. Unfortunately, something changed along the way. Hercule Poirot, the quirky and offbeat Belgian detective who winked and chuckled at English society, became POIROT, ZEALOUS DEFENDER OF LAW AND ORDER! And his cases went from being charming parlour games, to GRIM CRIME DRAMA.

And thus, twenty years later, we are finally presented with David Suchet as Poirot in Murder On the Orient Express … and the series that used to portray Poirot so perfectly, instead gets it all wrong.

We start on a sour note with Poirot solving a case which results in a young and promising military officer blowing his brains out, spattering gore all over Poirot’s face. This scene, while unpleasant, at least has a hint of a precedent in the actual book; the scene that follows, in which Col. Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham happen upon a woman being viciously stoned to death for adultery, not only didn’t appear in the book but is completely contradictory to the deliberately-pedestrian way in which the the book starts. Things keep going from grim to grimmer as Poirot boards the train, meets Ratchett and turns down his job offer, and various characters begin throwing religion at each other and praying all over the place. (Do what now?) And Poirot finds himself telling Mary Debenham that the woman who was stoned to death “knew the rules of her culture” and that by breaking them she invited being brutally stoned to death in the street.

Wait, what?

The train may stay on the rails, but this script sure didn’t. 0.o The screenwriter (or director, or whoever it was making these decisions) was so intent on making a Big Damn Point about “justice” vs. “law” — whatever that point was, I never could quite figure it out — that they were perfectly happy to twist Poirot from a likable ex-cop who did amateur sleuthing as a mental diversion into a cold zealot who cares only about The Law (in capital letters) and believes that the slightest slip leads instantly to anarchy and barbarism. On top of this, all of the charm, all of the pleasant “conversationality” of Christie’s writing is thrown completely away, leaving only a bleak landscape where what little humor there is seems like a bitter jab instead of a friendly nudge. This Murder On the Orient Express has Poirot scowling and barely able to stomach the presence of Ratchett during the job offer and essentially refusing even to speak to him, instead of the book’s lighthearted exchange of, “At the risk of being personal, I don’t like your face.” By the end, both Poirot and the suspects are all nearly frozen to death, croaking at each other in grim darkness, and the presentation of the “right” solution to the Yugoslavian police is an angsty dark night of the soul for Poirot, instead of gently handing the decision to M. Bouc, the director of the line, and “retiring from the case.”

SPOILER ALERT: In one of the most egregious twists of character, even if it is a supporting character, Col. Arbuthnot, the steadfast British officer who was so upset that Ratchett was murdered instead of being sentenced to death by a jury of twelve, “the civilized way,” pulls out a gun with the intent to murder Poirot in order to prevent him from telling the police what actually happened — thus not only perverting the character, but also the whole damn point of the story. This, to me, falls under the heading of the screenwriter (or director, or whomever), putting themselves and their own desires above the work, which is something I always resent in any adaptation.

I don’t know the motivation behind turning Poirot from light whodunnit into bleak melodrama, and honestly I don’t care. But one idea that occurred to me was that they may have done it deliberately to distance themselves from the 1970s Albert Finney version of Murder On the Orient Express. That version is a grand symphony, a tribute not only to Agatha Christie but to the glories of old Hollywood and pre-war Europe, with the Orient Express itself all but waltzing across the screen in its own exuberance. What better way to be different from its exalted elegance than to be harsh and grim, right?

Unfortunately, for all of Albert Finney’s chewing the scenery in the 1970s film, he is at least chewing the scenery in ways compatible with what Agatha Christie actually wrote. The 1970s Murder On the Orient Express is an extremely faithful adaptation; one that even Dame Agatha herself was pleased with, after a lifetime of seeing her works hacked up and generally mucked around with. (And crying all the way to the bank, it’s true.) Admittedly, that leaves the makers of the Suchet version in a tough spot: how do you make a faithful adaptation of such a famous work, without simply doing again the extremely faithful adaptation that’s already been made? The key there I would think would be in letting it ride on David Suchet, with his subtle, nuanced, warm and humorous Poirot taking the stage instead of the eccentric, french-horn-laughing, wild-eyed Poirot of Albert Finney. Twenty years ago, when I was wishing for the David Suchet Murder On the Orient Express, that was what I was wishing for. The 1970s version had everything right except Poirot himself — the new version seems to get everything wrong including Poirot himself.

C’est la vie!

-The Gneech

CORRECTION: I should mention here that Agatha Christie’s Poirot is made by ITV, not the BBC; my apologies. It’s all “British television” to me. :)

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
pengolodh_sc
Jul. 12th, 2010 03:53 pm (UTC)
Darn it. I was hoping it was going to be good, but I did worry, considering some of the things ITV (BBC doesn't have anything to do with the series) has done before, such as Cards On the Table and their Miss Marple series.
the_gneech
Jul. 12th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
Are you referring to the older Miss Marple with Joan Hickson, or the current one with Geraldine McEwan? If so, what was your objection? (I've not watched much of either, myself; Miss Marple has never really clicked with me. But I'm curious to hear about it.)

-TG
pengolodh_sc
Jul. 12th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
The older Miss Marple is a BBC production, and very faithful to the Miss Marple novels. The newer series is, like the Poirot series with David Suchet, produced by ITV (Britain's oldest commercial TV-network). They have a certain tendency in some episodes, like Body In the Library, to throw in homosexual subplots also when there isn't that much subtext in the first place, just as they did in the Poirot episode Cards on the Table. I'll grant that in some cases - like A Murder Is Announced - the subtext is bright and clear, or the addition doesn't really affect the plot much, but in Body In the Library or in Cards On the Table, they change who the murderer is (or whether there even is a murder), who co-conspirator(s) is/are, etc., for the sake of fitting in a homosexual sub-plot that seems to only be there for titillation.
the_gneech
Jul. 12th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I wonder if Russel T. Davies worked on those. ;)

-The Gneech
pengolodh_sc
Jul. 12th, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
It should be added I have watched little of ITV's Marple, sticking to BBC's Miss Marple with Joan Hickson - it has superior theme music, too.
carlhh
Jul. 12th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
I was channel flipping once, and stumbled on the version of "orient Express" with Stacy Keach as Poirot.

When partaking of something that is part of an established franchise, you have certain expectations. For me and the Poirot franchise it wasn't Poirot being played by and actor who would normally be standing head-and-shoulders above 3/4 of the suspects! (Provided Keach would have allowed to stand up straight and not be hunched over all the time.)
dhlawrence
Jul. 12th, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC)
Arbuthnot's outburst I didn't mind as much; think about it: in the book it was three against twelve, and you'd think at least one of them would have taken a shot at him.

My main dislikes were: the murderer Dr. Constantine, a 'fitful' Countess Andreyni, the opening material, repentent Ratchett, dropping Mr. Hardman (among others). I also didn't like the fast pace; they should have made it a full two hours instead of 90 minutes.

And for a show trying to distance itself from the film, they sure borrowed a lot from it: the Pullman lounge car (Pullmans were never in the Orient Express proper, and Wagon-Lit cars were blue all the way to the top, not blue and white), Colonel Arbuthnot getting a divorce from his wife, the terse letters as opposed to the verbose ones, and "aisy Arms" (in the book the note said "-member little Daisy Armstrong"), and the Mafia connection.

I did like the way that some of the characters were portrayed, especially the Princess Dragomiroff. It's not hard to see them keeping him alert so that they could kill him. I also liked Mrs. Hubbard's 'unveiling' towards the end. The shroud of darkness towards the end was unnecessary, but forgivable. I wish they had had more dialogue and less action, though.

In all, 7 out of 10. Finney gets 9 out of 10 and Alfred Molina gets 1 out of 10.
(Deleted comment)
Rick Desper
Jan. 10th, 2012 02:26 am (UTC)
it's a different story
If you want the Albert Finney version, it's out there already. I don't see any point to refilm a story in exactly the same fashion as it's already been done.
I liked the contrast between the Suchet version and the Finney version. For one thing, the ITV version isn't overwhelmed by the stardom of the cast. Hey, it's Sean Connery! Hey, it's Lauren Bacall! Hey, it's Anthony Perkins! The relative anonymity of the supporting cast lets us see the characters instead of the actors.
I also felt that the (admittedly major) changes to the script yields a more realistic plot (to the extent that this particular story could every have a realistic plot).

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
The original resolution of the Finney version simply doesn't make much sense. Or rather, it's much too easy. What is Poirot's motivation "Well, it's OK if _all_ of you share the guilt, because he's a bad man. If that's the case, you can all go free." For a man who takes pride in justice (as Poirot usually does), this abandonment of duty comes rather easily. I'm pleased to see this version present a Poirot that is actually troubled by the moral and ethical considerations. To that end, the new preface to the story helps provide a framework by putting the question of "justice" in human terms as something that occasionally has differing interpretations.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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