There’s a group of people gathered in a room. Exchanging suspicious glances, all wondering why they are there. They are in an old country house, a large estate, a theatre, a boat on the river, a train stopped in its tracks. A figure appears, they know what’s happened and they are about to reveal exactly who is the murderer.
The final reveal is a familiar staple in any murder mystery where there are multiple suspects. They all have a stake in the outcome or they are connected some how to the recently deceased. A detective, professional or amateur, in the form of a wise old lady, an adventurous couple or certain Belgium chap, who claims himself to be the greatest in the world. These are all inventions and tropes used and created by one of the most famous crime writers, Agatha Christie.
Her work has been adapted countless times and she remains today the best selling author of all time. Known for her 66 novel, 14 short stories and the longest running play in the West End, The Mouse Trap, adaptations of her work have been making a ‘come back’. With the BBC acquiring the rights to her work a few years ago, this, of course was a prime opportunity for her stories to once again grace our small screens. With a new murder mystery shown each year, watching an Agatha Christie adaptation at New Year is becoming a tradition. Having adapted her most famous novel ‘And Then There Were None’ into a mini series, it was only a matter of time before her second most famous novel was brought to life, again.
With only 4 years since David Suchet, having played the Belgian Detective since 1989, literally called it curtains, its seems too soon to have Poirot come back to life. But where there is a chance to bring the story to a new audience a theatrical showman such as Kenneth Branagh couldn’t resist. Playing Hercule himself as well as directing a star cast, Murder on the Orient Express shuttled onto the big screen this month.
The most notable adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is the 1974 version where Albert Finney was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Poirot. Even then it was practice to have an star cast (of the time) play the suspects in the mystery. A device probably used to distract audiences as well as entice them to the cinema. Despite when it was made, the film still stands the test time, as murder mysteries usually do, a puzzle that needs to be solves doesn’t age, unless you already know the ending. Unlike the later adaptations, the original characters are all included.
Almost polar opposite to the 1974 version is the 2010 TV series adaptation where characters are excluded, plot is rearranged and the murder itself is darker and more violent. There is mystery and intrigue, questioning of faith and what justice really means. With characters having slightly more depth and an air of desperation about them, the suspects, except a couple, are given the chance to define who they are rather than just a group of well known actors thrown together on the train. The more sinister tone of the TV episode captures the pain of everyone, even Poirot who says more with an expression then words can.
Last but not least, there is Branagh’s homage to crime, Christie and going the extra mile when it comes to cinematic moments. The cast, again, are all well known and are given a small chance to perform their characters but unfortunately Poirot has the most to say and it almost ruins the flow of the story. Branagh tries to bring his own Poirot to the forefront, with over the top speeches that at times are too theatrical, especially with that over compensating moustache. Branagh can’t seem to let his Shakespeare roots go, hindering his own film.
It is not the act of murder that is fascinating in Christie’s story, it is how and who. Each adaptation is defined by how Poirot conducts his case rather than the visuals that accompany it. While Albert Finney, David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh all bring their eccentricities to their performances, each new adaptation that arrives has the same core element, Christies touch of violence, intrigue and climatic ending. Christie was an author who knew what an audience wanted read, even though she claimed otherwise. Her stories keep everyone guessing until the end, and no matter how the story is presented, it is always with a dramatic flare and a big reveal.