image: ITV Pictures/Masterpiece

Adapting ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s most well-known and ingenious books, so it makes sense that Murder on the Orient Express has seen multiple adaptations. It has all the elements for a good adaptation: interesting characters, a gripping plot, a brilliant solution with an interesting moral dilemma. So, it’s no surprise it has appeared on screen, stage, video games and in book form since its publication in 1934. Here’s a look at some of the best adaptations, and how they’ve juggled with the source material.

The story, in case you’re unfamiliar, is this (there will be spoilers, but I think the story is so famous that you probably know them): Poirot is called back to London on a case and, with the help of an old friend, he secures a berth on the unusually full Orient Express. He is approached by a passenger, Samuel Ratchett, who fears an attempt may be made on his life. After a storm, the train is halted in the middle of nowhere, and Ratchett’s body is discovered – he has been stabbed to death, with twelve wounds on the body and a swarm of evidence.

This is quite a warm adaptation full of colour and a beautiful score, and it boasts a star-studded cast

Due to the storm, Poirot realises that one of the other passengers on the train must be the killer, and he quizzes the suspects. The detective learns that Ratchett was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, Daisy Armstrong – he fled the country after escaping justice on a technicality. Poirot keeps connecting the suspects to the Armstrong household, and eventually realises that this must be by design. Every one of the suspects is complicit in the crime, with each of them responsible for one of the 12 stab wounds. The detective presents two solutions to the case, and allows his friend M. Bouc to choose. In the end, they agree to offer the solution of a mystery outsider to the police.

Murder on the Orient Express has received two big-screen adaptations, and the first was Sidney Lumet’s 1974 effort. This is quite a warm adaptation full of colour and a beautiful score, and it boasts a star-studded cast: Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman (in an Oscar-winning performance), Martin Balsam, John Gielgud and Sean Connery are among the suspects. Albert Finney plays Poirot, in a serious turn with a lot more anger than the book Poirot and some nice comic touches. But on the whole, the adaptation is very similar to the original. The only real change is an opening sequence that explores the Armstrong murder, a nice touch of exposition that is only really possible onscreen.

Branagh is certainly a different Poirot, too – he’s essentially an action hero

Fidelity is not really the word for the 2017 version, featuring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. It generally follows the same plot beats, although it does alter some of the suspects – Greta Ohlsson becomes Pilar Estravados in order to fit the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, while Colonel Arbuthnot and Dr Constantine are folded into one character, Dr Arbuthnot. Branagh is certainly a different Poirot, too – he’s essentially an action hero, as demonstrated in an opening scene where he solves a Middle Eastern mystery and incapacitates his suspect with his cane. It suspends the train on a bridge to add a bit more jeopardy, and it breaks up the interviews with two action sequences: one in which Poirot chases Ratchett’s secretary McQueen, and later on, he fights a knife-wielding Arbuthnot.

This emphasis on action does feel distinctly different and I don’t know if it always works, but there’s a lot to like here, whether these changes appeal or not. The casting is significantly more diverse, and it creates the sense of an ethnic melting point that the book sometimes struggles to convey. There’s some commentary on racism and nationality, particularly in the revised character of Professor Hardman, with a twist I shan’t spoil. The film also looks beautiful – Branagh directs, and he succeeds in composing some beautiful shots, including a Last Supper tableau at the denouement. This version also builds on the rather abrupt book ending, with Poirot goading the suspects to murder him as a test to see whether they are criminals or simply suffering souls.

David Suchet is the definitive Poirot, and the TV version is a significantly colder, more claustrophobic affair

The ending is one of the big differences in the TV adaptation. To my mind, it is the most interesting of these screen versions, which remains mostly true to the book with certain changes (it again expands the doctor character, for instance). David Suchet is the definitive Poirot, and the TV version is a significantly colder, more claustrophobic affair – it’s full of muted colour palettes, and it lacks the sense of fun other episodes boast. Suchet made a point not to smile at all, because the motivation for the crime is deeply tragic and this episode pushes Poirot to the limit of his beliefs. 

We begin with an original sequence, where Poirot sees a soldier commit suicide in front of him, and then refuses to intervene as an adulteress is stoned to death. It’s a harsh set-up, but it creates a sense of a Poirot who is rigidly on the side of the law, and thus prompts the inevitable conflict: what should he do when the murderers are motivated by a largely sympathetic reason and have already been failed by the law? Can they be allowed to break it themselves? By presenting this as a true religious and moral struggle, and by reducing the sympathy we have towards the killers (Arbuthnot is openly willing to murder Poirot if it protects him and his conspirators), his eventual decision carries a lot of weight.

Murder on the Orient Express has benefitted from some incredible adaptations because it’s a phenomenal story. The screen versions make slight changes that improve the tale, digging into the moral issues that Christie only hints at. If you watch all three of these adaptations, you’ll come away with an increased appreciation for how brilliant Christie’s original truly is.

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